About Critical Mass [dot] Writing [dot] Reviews [dot] Contact
April 29, 2008 [feather]
Dartmouth's spin doctors

It's alumni election season again at Dartmouth--which means the ongoing tension between the establishment and free-thinkers, between those who want to preserve the Dartmouth status quo and those who want to see positive change--is surfacing again. And it is surfacing with a vengeance.

If you read this blog or ACTA Online regularly, you will have read lots of posts on Dartmouth's trustee elections. The story goes back a few years, and has its origins in the four independent, reform-minded petition candidates who have recently run for the board and won. While Dartmouth allows such candidates to do just that, it clearly wasn't expecting it to happen in such numbers, nor was it expecting those elections to carry with them such a strong, unequivocal mandate for change. And Dartmouth has not responded well.

Last summer, the College commenced a restructuring of the board to minimize the effect "dark horse" trustees could have on governance. Historically, Dartmouth's board has been a model of inclusion--of its sixteen members, eight are elected by alumni. Alumni thus have traditionally had a very strong voice in Dartmouth governance, and have been real and substantial participants in Dartmouth's strikingly democratic fiduciary process. But as of last summer, Dartmouth moved to change all that by expanding the board to 24 members, and by ensuring that the eight extra members would be appointed rather than elected. It was a clear effort to reorient power, to enable Dartmouth insiders to stack the board with like-minded folks, and to marginalize the influence of alumni-elected trustees. And it drew a lawsuit from Dartmouth's duly outraged Association of Alumni.

And so we come to the present moment. Yesterday, some--but not all--members of the Dartmouth board sent out this letter to all alumni. Printed on Dartmouth letterhead and posted on Dartmouth's website, it reads:

Dear fellow Dartmouth alumni,

Last month, the Trustees launched a search for the next president of Dartmouth--a search that is critically important to maintaining the unique character of Dartmouth and ensuring that our students continue to receive an outstanding education. As we embark on that search, the College has become ensnarled in yet another divisive campaign--this time around the Association of Alumni (AoA) election. As Trustees of the College, we were reluctant to enter this debate, but we feel an obligation to respond to a recent letter by four trustees to alumni containing inaccurate claims and endorsing like-minded petition candidates for the AoA.

This group has wrapped itself in the rhetoric of "democracy at Dartmouth" but they are working with national groups that have a clear ideological agenda for the College. The Upper Valley's local newspaper, the Valley News, wrote in a recent editorial that this group wants to "turn back the clock" at the College. They believe they can manipulate Dartmouth's unique process of electing alumni nominees for the Board of Trustees and are now waging an aggressive campaign to maintain control of the AoA, which administers those elections.

A Well-Organized, Well-Funded Group's Campaign Against the College

Critics of the College--long championed by The Dartmouth Review and supported by outside groups like the Hanover Institute--are well organized and well funded. They have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on full-page newspaper ads, glossy mailings, and web sites to elect their allies to the Board and now the AoA. They are supporting a costly lawsuit against the College. This will force Dartmouth to divert some $2 million away from critical priorities like financial aid and faculty in order to protect the independence of the College that Daniel Webster so ably defended in 1819. The plaintiffs have repeatedly refused to reveal who is really paying for their suit or their campaign, although an ideological special interest group--The Center for Excellence in Higher Education--with no connection to Dartmouth is raising money to support their lawsuit.

They have politicized Dartmouth elections and have brought Washington-style politics to trusteeship. And, this week, The Dartmouth Review launched a reprehensible and baseless personal attack on Chair of the Board Ed Haldeman--unabashedly timed to coincide with the AoA elections. Members of this group even encouraged their political allies in the New Hampshire Legislature to promote a bill that would allow the Legislature to insert itself into the affairs of the College--a misguided effort that failed by an overwhelming majority.

What Is This Group's Real Agenda?

Amidst the many emails and letters you've received, we're sure you have asked yourself--what is this group's real agenda? Trustee Todd Zywicki provided an unintended glimpse of that agenda in a speech last October where he attacked Dartmouth and its peer schools, saying those "who control the university today[,] they don't believe in God and they don't believe in country.” He discouraged people from contributing money to support the College and told his supporters that it would be a "long and vicious trench warfare I think if we are serious about taking the academy back."

This group's political agenda is also at the heart of their opposition to the expansion of the College's Board of Trustees. We recognize that alumni have many different views on the governance issue, but after a thorough review of Dartmouth's needs, a majority of the Board determined that it was in the College's best interests to add eight new members who could bring additional skills and talent to the College--leaders who could help ensure Dartmouth remains a world-class institution. Four of our trustee colleagues filed an amicus brief against the College to try to achieve through the courts what they could not achieve in the boardroom through normal Board processes.

We sent a copy of the report explaining this decision to all alumni. We also voted for a more open election process to ensure the winning candidate received a majority of votes. This group opposed the changes because they reduced their ability to game the system. They want you to believe that the Board is looking to "marginalize" alumni. The fact is that every member of the Board (except the Governor and the President) is a Dartmouth alum. Alumni will continue to nominate a higher percentage of trustees than at virtually any other institution in the country and will remain central to the College's governance.

What Is At Stake For Dartmouth and Its Students?

This group has publicly vilified the leadership of the College in newspaper interviews and letters. And, while the College is in the midst of a critical capital campaign--the largest in its history--they have done little to advance it and, in some cases, actively urged alumni to divert resources from Dartmouth to institutions that are more ideologically in tune with their own agenda. They have lost sight of Dartmouth's purpose. The College exists to provide a superb education to its students, not to advance the personal politics of its alumni. And now they are putting Dartmouth's future in jeopardy.

They would push the College far outside the mainstream of higher education. As The Dartmouth wrote in a recent editorial aimed at this faction of alumni, "If you truly love it, you should be able to cherish the College without controlling it."

What Does All This Mean For You, Our Fellow Alumni?

By every significant measure, Dartmouth has become a stronger institution over the past decade. That progress has come despite the harmful efforts of this group--not because of them, as they have claimed. As Dartmouth looks to build on that strength, we want to encourage all of you to stay engaged with the College--and to read the election materials carefully and to let your voice be heard in the upcoming AoA elections.

We need individuals representing Dartmouth alumni who bring no political agenda to the table--except what is in the best interests of Dartmouth. We need individuals who can fairly and effectively represent the views of all alumni and work with the leadership of the College to carry forward the business of Dartmouth. And we need individuals capable of unifying the College's alumni to help Dartmouth remain the finest College in the world.

Please join us in putting Dartmouth's interests first.

Trustees of Dartmouth
Jose Fernandez '77
Karen Francis '84
Ed Haldeman '70, Chair
Pam Joyner '79
Steve Mandel '78
Al Mulley '70
Leon Black '73
Christine Bucklin '84
Russ Carson '65
Michael Chu '68
John Donahoe '82
Brad Evans '64

Thus do twelve members of the board use institutional resources to vilify the other four--and to try to sway the vote in their favor. It's not very savory, and represents a new low in Dartmouth's ongoing refusal to comport itself with propriety, principle, and grace when it comes to alumni elections.

Todd Zywicki responds here, with links to other commentary. See also this response by Dartmouth alum Doug Anderson, which reads in part: "This letter exemplifies why I (and I suspect many others) have voted for petition trustees in Dartmouth trustee elections. It is not that I find terrible fault with the direction of the College or believe big changes should be made (other than making it less expensive for my children of course). I do believe, however, that Dartmouth could use some fresh perspectives in its governance. A group of trustees that is so myopic as to believe that this letter actually does their cause some good needs to cede more power to independent Trustees not have the power of such Trustees diluted."

Erin O'Connor, 3:55 PM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

April 28, 2008 [feather]
Activist accreditors

Accreditors ought to be in the business of quality control--not agenda-driving. But the line between the two can be foggy, especially if you have a blinkered tendency to believe that your way is the only right way. It's bad enough when people operate like that. It's disastrous when educational institutions do. And it's scandalous when the gatekeepers do.

But that is just what the American Bar Association is doing. A cautionary tale, from this morning's Wall Street Journal:

If you have ever wondered why colleges and universities seem to march in lockstep on controversial issues like affirmative action, here is one reason: Overly politicized accrediting agencies often demand it.

Given that federal funding hinges on accreditation, schools are not in a position to argue. That is precisely why the U.S. Department of Education, which gives accreditors their authority, must sometimes take corrective action. George Mason University's law school in northern Virginia is an example of why corrective action is needed now.

GMU's problems began in early 2000, when the American Bar Association visited the law school, which has a somewhat conservative reputation, for its routine reaccreditation inspection. The site evaluation team was unhappy that only 6.5% of entering students were minorities.

Outreach was not the problem; even the site evaluation report (obtained as a result of Freedom of Information Act requests) conceded that GMU had a "very active effort to recruit minorities." But the school, the report noted, had been "unwilling to engage in any significant preferential affirmative action admissions program." Since most law schools were willing to admit minority students with dramatically lower entering academic credentials, GMU was at a recruitment disadvantage. The site evaluation report noted its "serious concerns" with the school's policy.

Over the next few years, the ABA repeatedly refused to renew GMU's accreditation, citing its lack of a "significant preferential affirmative action program" and supposed lack of diversity. The school stepped up its already-extensive recruitment efforts, but was forced to back away from its opposition to significant preferential treatment. It was thus able to raise the proportion of minorities in its entering class to 10.98% in 2001 and 16.16% in 2002.

Not good enough. In 2003, the ABA summoned the university's president and law school dean to appear before it personally, threatening to revoke the institution's accreditation.

GMU responded by further lowering minority admissions standards. It also increased spending on outreach, appointed an assistant dean to serve as minority coordinator, and established an outside "Minority Recruitment Council." As a result, 17.3% of its entering students were minority members in 2003 and 19% in 2004.

Not good enough. "Of the 99 minority students in 2003," the ABA complained, "only 23 were African American; of 111 minority students in 2004, the number of African Americans held at 23." It didn't seem to matter that 63 African Americans had been offered admission, or that many students admitted with lower academic credentials would end up incurring heavy debt but never graduate and pass the bar.

GMU's case is not unique. In a study conducted several years ago, 31% of law school respondents admitted to political scientists Susan Welch and John Gruhl that they "felt pressure" "to take race into account in making admissions decisions" from "accreditation agencies." Several schools, like GMU, have been put through the diversity wringer.

The GMU law school was finally notified of its reaccreditation in 2006, after six long and unnecessary years of abuse – just in time for the next round in the seven-year reaccreditation process. Even then, the ABA could not resist an ominous warning that it would pay "particular attention" to GMU's diversity efforts in the upcoming cycle.

Perhaps the ABA believes that the Supreme Court's 2003 decision in Grutter v. Bollinger allows it to force law schools into affirmative action orthodoxy. If so, it is mistaken. In Grutter, a razor-thin majority held that the Constitution permitted the University of Michigan Law School to discriminate against whites and Asians to obtain a racially diverse class.

That decision, however, was rooted in the notion that "universities occupy a special niche in our constitutional tradition." In the majority's view, universities are not subject to the same equal-protection standards as other governmental entities; they are instead entitled to deference in their academic judgments. As Justice Sandra Day O'Connor put it, "'[t]he freedom of a university to make its own judgments . . . includes the selection of its student body.'"

Whatever the merit of this reasoning, the ABA is not a university, and its Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar is not entitled to academic deference.

As the Education Department's designated law school accreditor, the council decides whether a law school's students will be eligible for federal loans. As state accreditor, it decides which schools' graduates may sit for the bar examination. It is thus part of the governing bureaucracy – the kind of institution academic freedom is supposed to protect universities from.

That's why the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights recommended that the ABA leave issues of diversity to individual law schools. If academic freedom confers upon law schools the right to discriminate, it must also confer a right not to discriminate. Unfortunately, the ABA has instead put into effect more stringent diversity standards.

So now it is up to the Education Department to bring the ABA to heel. In 2006, when the ABA's status as accreditor was itself up for renewal, opposition came from many quarters on many grounds. Surprised, the Education Department put the ABA on a short leash, giving it only 18 months before its next renewal, and requiring it to submit its official correspondence for inspection.

It is now time to find permanent solutions to the problems of ABA abuse. Foremost on the Education Department's list should be to get the ABA out of the diversity business. It is one thing for a law school to adopt its own discriminatory admissions policies; it is quite another to force it to do so on pain of losing federal funding.

Accreditation tends to be one of those areas of the education debate that makes people's eyes glaze over. It's so much sexier and scintillating to complain about the perennial courses on comic books and Barbie dolls. But bureaucracy is where the action is. It's a spectacular way of institutionalizing ideology as standard procedure. And accreditors deserve a lot more attention from people who are concerned about education, and who wants to understand where, why, and how things go wrong.

Erin O'Connor, 8:03 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

April 23, 2008 [feather]

"The most likely scenario," said Dr. Edward Funai, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology and chief of obstetrics at Yale-New Haven Hospital, "is that all Shvarts was seeing every month was her own menstrual blood. Half of the Yale community sees art of similar quality when taking care of their monthly hygiene."

Read the whole article, which features several medical experts at Yale. Among other things, they think through Shvarts' project with a clarity that she did not--and identify gaps, errors, and general ignorance in her thinking about her own project.

Erin O'Connor, 12:54 PM | Permalink | Comments (21) | TrackBack (0)

April 22, 2008 [feather]
Shvarts epilogue

Yale art student Aliza Shvarts could be showing her abortionesque senior project today--if only she had followed the Yale administration's stipulation that she issue a statement saying that she never inseminated herself, never induced menstruation (and possible miscarriage), and will not incorporate human blood into her installation. I thought Yale was playing with fire there, that the requirement was an open invitation to Shvarts to lie. After all, there was no basis for thinking the truth could be elicited from Shvarts at this point, and every basis for thinking that Shvarts would see Yale's requirement as an opportunity to further the annoying fuckwittage that she is mistakenly calling art. But Shvarts has kept quiet. She has not issued the statement Yale demanded. And so she will not be displaying her work. I find it hard to believe that Shvarts suddenly decided that honesty should be her modus operandi, and I do wonder what's coming next. But for the moment, the show will not go on.

As the dust settles a bit, it's worth considering what happens to "shock art" when it nestles in the hallowed halls of an elite Ivy League university. Here is Laurie Fendrich, a Hofstra fine arts professor and working painter:

For those of us in the contemporary art business, the Yale squabble isn't all that interesting. Ms Shvarts' undergraduate project sounds so, well, so undergraduate. Contrary to what a lot of people may think, her project wouldn't make it into a serious contemporary gallery and, if it did, it wouldn't get much traction with the press or the public. Ms. Shvarts's project is getting attention mostly because it's at an elite university, where it has students, professors, administrators and college flacks running to the free-speech and culture-wars barricades. Almost everyone in the art world has been there and done that, a long time ago.

The real stuff--e.g., performance works by such artists as Carolee Schneeman, Ana Mendieta, Karen Finley, Chris Burden or Annie Sprinkle in the '60s, '70s and '80s--was bitter, shocking, risky, and always on the line. It took place in funky, rented venues, and not the cushioned halls of ivy. Sometimes it was stupid, but sometimes it was powerful and moving.

The dispiriting part about Shvarts's tempestuous teapot isn't really the art--whether it's morally offensive, or not, or good or bad--but the fact that putatively edgy art projects are really guided to completion by faculty advisers who inexorably turn what was once upon a time a fierce counter-voice to culture into soft risk-free, pseudo-avant-garde exercises in calculated offensiveness.

There are some things academe simply cannot house. Set aside the liability issues and any reservations you have about whether what Shvarts did can be called art, and think strictly about the concept of transgression. Fendrich's point is that genuinely edgy art cannot, by definition, come from within institutionally sanctioning space. That's a contradiction in terms, and attempts to sidestep this fact only lead to absurdities.

We should not forget, for example, that Shvarts undertook her project for a grade, in order to graduate. As she herself has stressed, she had approval for it, and she took the approval of one or two individuals to be synonymous with the university's sanction. One wonders who will assign Shvarts' grade, now that the advisor has been disciplined for allowing it to go forward. And one also wonders what that grade will be, now that the dean has publicly said the project ought never to have been allowed, and now that she is failing to fulfill the expectation that she display her work in the show. Such mundane academic considerations--which are founded on conformity to a set of strict hierarchical norms of instruction, authority, and judgment-- ought never to be the defining parameters for art that seeks to provoke by violating the social contract.

Erin O'Connor, 8:20 AM | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack (0)

April 21, 2008 [feather]
Yale admits error

On Thursday, Yale defended Aliza Shvarts' senior art project as a "creative fiction." That was wrong--and by Friday, some Yale administrators had rethought that position.

Here's a statement from the dean of the Yale School of Art, Robert Storr:

The Dean of the Yale School of Art Robert Storr stated, "If I had known about this, I would not have permitted it to go forward. This is not an acceptable project in a community where the consequences go beyond the individual who initiates the project and may even endanger that individual. Yale has a profound commitment to freedom of expression, and I personally am committed to a women's right to choose. That said, Yale does not encourage or condone projects that would involve unknown health risks to the student. Nor does it believe that open discourse and inquiry can exist in an educational and creative community when an individual exercises these rights but evades full intellectual accountability for the strong response he or she may provoke."

Hey, that sounds a lot like stuff I said here last week!

Anyway, here's an additional statement from Yale College dean Peter Salovney:

The Dean of Yale College Peter Salovey stated, "I am appalled. This piece of performance art as reported in the press bears no relation to what I consider appropriate for an undergraduate senior project. The Dean of the School of Art and I are reassessing what constitutes an appropriate senior art project and the manner in which those projects are mentored."

As they should.

UPDATE: More, from the Yale Daily News:

The University will not allow Aliza Shvarts ’08 to display her controversial senior art project at its scheduled opening Tuesday unless she confesses in writing that the exhibition is a work of fiction, Yale officials said Sunday.

The University, meanwhile, acknowledged that it has disciplined two faculty members for their role in allowing Shvarts to proceed with a project that she claimed included nine months of repeated artificial inseminations followed by self-induced miscarriages.


Salovey said in the Friday statement that he and Storr would reassess what constitutes an “appropriate” senior project and the process through which such projects are overseen by faculty.

Two days later, Salovey and Storr announced that an investigation had found “serious errors in judgement” on the part of two unnamed individuals — ostensibly her thesis adviser, School of Art lecturer Pia Lindman, and School of Art Director of Undergraduate Studies Henk van Assen — who had been involved in her project before it incited mass condemnation across campus and across the country and that “appropriate action” had been taken against them.

“In one case, the instructor responsible for the senior project should not have allowed it to go forward,” Salovey said. “In the other, an adviser should have interceded and consulted others when first given information about the project.”

In interviews last week, Shvarts said that Lindman and van Assen had both supported her project before it became the object of public dismay. The Davenport College senior defended her project as “University-sanctioned” because it had received their approval.

“I started out with the University on board with what I was doing, and because of the media frenzy they’ve been trying to dissociate with me,” she said at the time. “Ultimately, I want to get back to a point where they renew their support, because ultimately this was something they supported.”

Van Assen declined requests for comment last week, and Lindman did not respond to repeated attempts to contact her. Other officials in the School of Art have repeatedly referred requests for comment to the Office of Public Affairs.

In his statement Sunday night, Salovey called on Shvarts to produce a written confession admitting that her project did not actually include the graphic acts that she had first described. He added that Shvarts will not be allowed to install her project unless she admits she did not try to inseminate herself and induce miscarriages and promises that no human blood will be displayed in her exhibit.

While showing diagrams of the exhibit to reporters from the News on Thursday, Shvarts said she planned to construct a four-foot-wide cube made from PVC pipe that would hang suspended from the ceiling of the gallery, wrapped in hundreds of feet of plastic sheeting. Between the layers of this sheeting would be thick coatings of Vaseline, which she plans to use as an “extender” for the display of her bodily fluids.

Shvarts’ plans also include the projection of videos of her possible miscarriages onto the plastic sheeting. These videos show Shvarts, wearing headphones and in a bathroom tub, removing blood from her body and collecting it in disposable cups.

Shvarts said Thursday that if the University does not allow her to exhibit her senior art project at Green Hall on Tuesday, she has no plans for an alternative venue to showcase her work.

If the exhibition does go ahead, it will likely require heavy security. A Yale official said last week that the incident has drawn more press inquiries to the University than any episode since the controversy over the admission of former Taliban diplomat Rahmatullah Hashemi in 2006.

I think the bit about requiring a written confession is off-base. Don't these guys realize that this just gives Shvarts another chance to enlarge and complicate her "performance"?

Erin O'Connor, 7:54 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

April 19, 2008 [feather]
I've said it before

... and I will say it begin. You have to read the gossip sites if you want to know what's going on.

This morning Perez Hilton offers some scintillating historical context for Aliza Shvarts' "abortion as art" senior project at Yale:

Back in 2000, Jonathan Yegge was a student at the San Francisco Art Institute who did a public performance art piece that got the whole school, the local community and the entire worldwide internet talking.

Let's revisit his little "performance piece," shall we?

Yegge asked for a volunteer from his art class, got one, and then had voluntarily sign a makeshift contract stating that the volunteer was agreeing to participate in a performance piece containing acts "including and up to a sexual or violent nature."

Yegge led the volunteer out into a campus public area and then, let him explain in his words what he did.

"He was tied up. He had a blindfold and a gag, but he could see and talk through it. He had freedom of movement of his pelvis. I engaged in oral sex with him and he engaged in oral sex with me. I had given him an enema, and I had taken a shit and stuffed it in his ass. That goes on, he shits all over me, I shit in him. There was a security guard present. There was an instructor from the school present. It was videoed, and the piece was over."

Hilton links to a San Francisco Weekly article that details what happened next:

Not long after the piece was finished, the volunteer developed misgivings about what had happened to him.

"He was pissed off, as he should be," says Ryan Castaneda, a friend of the volunteer (whose name SF Weekly is not printing for obvious reasons). "He felt he was being violated. He just didn't think this was cool."

The volunteer complained. The school administration called Yegge in, put him on academic probation, and instituted the Yegge-specific no public sex on campus rule.

Administration officials held lengthy meetings with Yegge's instructor, Labat. Discussions focused on the dangerous nature of exchanging bodily fluids for art's sake. Implicit was the litigiously dangerous nature of allowing this to go on in a supervised classroom.

The volunteer's mother was rumored to be a judge, and it was feared the student might sue. The volunteer, contacted through friends, did not want to comment for this story. But students at the Art Institute, the Academy of Art College, and in the rest of the tightknit San Francisco artistic community were riveted by the incident. One student enrolled in Labat's class was said to be going so far as to plan her own performance piece protesting Yegge's piece.

"She was pretty upset by it," said a friend of Labat's student who witnessed the piece.

The Art Institute, meanwhile, seemed to scurry into a damage-control posture.

"None of us know anything about it," said a flush-faced employee at the school's cafe in response to a reporter's question.

And after hours of closed-door meetings with the Institute's administration, even Labat attempted to distance himself from the piece.

"It was plain bad art," says Labat. "This was irresponsible in any context. It made me wonder why anyone would want to do a story about it. Why would anyone be interested in anything as basic as that? Nobody should be interested in that." But Yegge says Labat did nothing to stop the piece while it was taking place. Yegge also says he ran the general premise of the piece by Labat before performing it. Labat declined to discuss the performance in detail.

Yale has not acknowledged--publicly, anyway--that Shvarts' project raises major issues with academic oversight and institutional responsibility. But it does, as Yegge's story makes clear.

Interestingly, Yegge, like Shvarts, thought he was making some sort of totally hip and smart post-structuralist commentary on controversial contemporary issues centered on embodiment and choice: "It's about Heidegger, Derrida -- all this stuff," he said. "It's about pushing the notion of gay sex, pushing the notion of consent, pushing the notion of what's legal. We are living in the era of AIDS. This is about his responsibility, my responsibility."

But in actuality, his irresponsibility--and that of his professor-- touched off massive liability problems for his school. "The fix the Art Institute finds itself in -- it conceivably stands to be sued into oblivion by a distressed student -- is entirely of its own making," the Weekly noted. Yale isn't getting sued--but that's because Yale is lucky. It is easy enough to imagine the many litigiously provocative things that could have gone wrong with Shvarts' undertaking. Yale became responsible for every last one of them when it approved the project as coursework that could be undertaken for a grade.

Erin O'Connor, 8:32 AM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

April 18, 2008 [feather]
Short course in ethics

Predictably, the AAUP is declaring that Aliza Shvarts was expressing her academic freedom when she inseminated herself and then induced menstruation (and possible miscarriage) all for the purposes of a naive, self-absorbed, intensely warped "art" project.

Here is Cary Nelson, newly re-elected AAUP president: "Academic freedom for faculty and intellectual freedom for students give them the right to speech that shocks and challenges."

Amid all the verbiage, Nelson appears to have lost track of the fact that Shvarts was doing a hell of a lot more than engaging in shocking and challenging "speech." She was performing acts on herself--and, potentially, on her unborn children--that I strongly suspect ought to have been run by Yale's Institutional Review Board, a body that decides whether faculty and student projects involving research on human subjects should be allowed to proceed. I also strongly suspect that the IRB would not have approved Shvarts' venture.

IRBs exist for good reason--they work to ensure that academic undertakings involving people (especially involving their bodies) are ethically sound. Yale quite properly requires students and faculty across the university to get prior approval for any project that could be construed as research conducted on a human subject. Did Shvarts do that? It sure doesn't sound like it.

Nelson ought to know all about IRBs, and he ought also to understand that IRBs are compatible with academic freedom. The AAUP has said as much, after all. And while the AAUP argues that IRBs have gotten a bit overly intrusive about the kinds of projects they want to oversee (sometimes, for example, extending their prerogatives to cover innocuous surveys and the like), the AAUP does not argue with the foundational goal of the IRB, which is to ensure that research projects involving human subjects do not put those subjects at unreasonable risk.

Academic freedom does not cover reckless, unethical, unsupervised experimentation on one's own body for the purposes of completing coursework and getting a good grade. Nor, I would imagine, does it cover the creation of embryos for the purpose of destroying and then displaying them.

Erin O'Connor, 4:04 PM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

More on Shvarts

Let's look at two quotes.

The first is Yale's statement on Shvarts' abortive senior art project:

Ms. Shvarts is engaged in performance art. Her art project includes visual representations, a press release and other narrative materials. She stated to three senior Yale University officials today, including two deans, that she did not impregnate herself and that she did not induce any miscarriages. The entire project is an art piece, a creative fiction designed to draw attention to the ambiguity surrounding form and function of a woman’s body.

She is an artist and has the right to express herself through performance art.

Had these acts been real, they would have violated basic ethical standards and raised serious mental and physical health concerns.

That's from Helaine Klasky, Yale's spokesperson.

The second quote is from Shvarts' comments on the commentary she has provoked, published this morning in the Yale Daily News:

For me, the most poignant aspect of this representation--the part most meaningful in terms of its political agenda (and, incidentally, the aspect that has not been discussed thus far)--is the impossibility of accurately identifying the resulting blood. Because the miscarriages coincide with the expected date of menstruation (the 28th day of my cycle), it remains ambiguous whether the there was ever a fertilized ovum or not. The reality of the pregnancy, both for myself and for the audience, is a matter of reading.

Of course, it's possible that Shvarts is continuing to yank everybody's chain and that when Yale calls the entire enterprise a "creative fiction," it means to say that Shvarts never really did any of the things she described doing. Or, it's possible that Shvarts absolutely did those things--but just never took a pregnancy test to determine whether she had conceived, and to know whether, indeed, she was aborting anything when she took her abortifacients.

Certainly both her op-ed and Yale's statement, which is quite hedgily worded, and which does not say she never inseminated herself, only that she never impregnated herself, supports the second reading. And if this is the case, then Yale is now complicit with a gruesomely unethical undertaking, in ways that raise major ethical and legal questions for the university.

Consider, if the latter scenario is true: the failure of academic oversight, and the massive liability, involved when advisors and apparently deans signed off on Shvarts' project, which could have landed her in a hospital or worse, and which involved a horribly negligent attitude toward human life. Consider the massive ethical and legal issues currently surrounding fertility clinics' disposal of unused embryos and even unfertilized eggs.

Consider, too, that Shvarts is at once wrong and right when she speaks of "the impossibility of accurately identifying the resulting blood" and concludes that "the reality of pregnancy ... is a matter of reading." She is wrong when she suggests that the status of the blood she collected is unknowable because she personally does not know it; right when she says it is a matter of reading. There are tests that can be done on that blood, and there are plenty of scientific and medical professionals employed by Yale who could "read" the results.

Yale will be honoring Shvarts at a reception on April 25.

Erin O'Connor, 11:11 AM | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack (0)

April 17, 2008 [feather]
Move over, Damien Hirst

From the Yale Daily News:

Art major Aliza Shvarts '08 wants to make a statement.

Beginning next Tuesday, Shvarts will be displaying her senior art project, a documentation of a nine-month process during which she artificially inseminated herself "as often as possible" while periodically taking abortifacient drugs to induce miscarriages. Her exhibition will feature video recordings of these forced miscarriages as well as preserved collections of the blood from the process.

The goal in creating the art exhibition, Shvarts said, was to spark conversation and debate on the relationship between art and the human body. But her project has already provoked more than just debate, inciting, for instance, outcry at a forum for fellow senior art majors held last week. And when told about Shvarts' project, students on both ends of the abortion debate have expressed shock . saying the project does everything from violate moral code to trivialize abortion.

But Shvarts insists her concept was not designed for "shock value."

"I hope it inspires some sort of discourse," Shvarts said. "Sure, some people will be upset with the message and will not agree with it, but it's not the intention of the piece to scandalize anyone."

The "fabricators," or donors, of the sperm were not paid for their services, but Shvarts required them to periodically take tests for sexually transmitted diseases. She said she was not concerned about any medical effects the forced miscarriages may have had on her body. The abortifacient drugs she took were legal and herbal, she said, and she did not feel the need to consult a doctor about her repeated miscarriages.

Shvarts declined to specify the number of sperm donors she used, as well as the number of times she inseminated herself.

Art major Juan Castillo '08 said that although he was intrigued by the creativity and beauty of her senior project, not everyone was as thrilled as he was by the concept and the means by which she attained the result.

"I really loved the idea of this project, but a lot other people didn't," Castillo said. "I think that most people were very resistant to thinking about what the project was really about. [The senior-art-project forum] stopped being a conversation on the work itself."

Although Shvarts said she does not remember the class being quite as hostile as Castillo described, she said she believes it is the nature of her piece to "provoke inquiry."

"I believe strongly that art should be a medium for politics and ideologies, not just a commodity," Shvarts said. "I think that I'm creating a project that lives up to the standard of what art is supposed to be."

The display of Schvarts' project will feature a large cube suspended from the ceiling of a room in the gallery of Green Hall. Schvarts will wrap hundreds of feet of plastic sheeting around this cube; lined between layers of the sheeting will be the blood from Schvarts' self-induced miscarriages mixed with Vaseline in order to prevent the blood from drying and to extend the blood throughout the plastic sheeting.

Schvarts will then project recorded videos onto the four sides of the cube. These videos, captured on a VHS camcorder, will show her experiencing miscarriages in her bathrooom tub, she said. Similar videos will be projected onto the walls of the room.

School of Art lecturer Pia Lindman, Schvarts' senior-project advisor, could not be reached for comment Wednesday night.

Few people outside of Yale's undergraduate art department have heard about Shvarts' exhibition. Members of two campus abortion-activist groups . Choose Life at Yale, a pro-life group, and the Reproductive Rights Action League of Yale, a pro-choice group . said they were not previously aware of Schvarts' project.

Alice Buttrick '10, an officer of RALY, said the group was in no way involved with the art exhibition and had no official opinion on the matter.

Sara Rahman '09 said, in her opinion, Shvarts is abusing her constitutional right to do what she chooses with her body.

"[Shvarts' exhibit] turns what is a serious decision for women into an absurdism," Rahman said. "It discounts the gravity of the situation that is abortion."

CLAY member Jonathan Serrato '09 said he does not think CLAY has an official response to Schvarts' exhibition. But personally, Serrato said he found the concept of the senior art project "surprising" and unethical.

"I feel that she's manipulating life for the benefit of her art, and I definitely don't support it," Serrato said. "I think it's morally wrong."

Shvarts emphasized that she is not ashamed of her exhibition, and she has become increasingly comfortable discussing her miscarriage experiences with her peers.

"It was a private and personal endeavor, but also a transparent one for the most part," Shvarts said. "This isn't something I've been hiding."

The official reception for the Undergraduate Senior Art Show will be from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on April 25. The exhibition will be on public display from April 22 to May 1. The art exhibition is set to premiere alongside the projects of other art seniors this Tuesday, April 22 at the gallery of Holcombe T. Green Jr. Hall on Chapel Street.

Despite what Shvarts says, this is shock art (or an attempt at it). I don't like this sort of thing much myself. But even on its own terms, the project can't work because Shvarts is not in control of the tone she is setting. This installation was guaranteed to scandalize and shock. If she really didn't get that, then she is unbelievably naive and she has failed. And if she gets it just fine but just doesn't want to admit that she knew what sort of impact her work would have, then that's a betrayal of her own work, and that's a failure, too. If Shvarts wants her work to have any conceptual value, and if she wants to use installations such as this one as "a medium for politics and ideology," then she needs to take responsibility for the affective responses she solicits.

Shock art is always about setting a new standard for transgression. It's quite a thought experiment to wonder what Shvarts will take up next.

UPDATE/PUNCHLINE: Now Schvarts says it was all performance art (i.e., a hoax).

Erin O'Connor, 9:26 AM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Wedgwood in camera

History buffs know that one of the earliest inventors of photography was William Henry Fox Talbot, an Englishman who figured out how to make images appear on light-sensitive paper during the 1830s. Talbot tends to be a little bit of a forgotten figure--when he patented his technique, he erected barriers to its wide adoption and helped ensure the success of Louis Daguerre's considerably more cumbersome mechanism of image-making. But one of Talbot's earliest images, an 1839 leaf delicately imprinted on paper, is very well known, and is widely considered to be one of the very first photographs.

It's a great story. Except, it might not actually be true. The history of photography may have just gotten much longer, and much more interesting:

The phone call was routine, the kind often made before big auctions. Sotheby's was preparing to sell a striking rust-brown image of a leaf on paper, long thought to have been made by William Henry Fox Talbot, one of the inventors of photography. So the auction house contacted a Baltimore historian considered to be the world's leading Talbot expert and asked if he could grace the sale's catalog with any interesting scholarly details about the print--known as a photogenic drawing, a crude precursor to the photograph.

"I got back to them and said, 'Well, the first thing I would say is that this was not made by Talbot,'" the historian, Larry J. Schaaf, recalled in a recent interview.

"That was not what they were expecting to hear, to say the least."

In the weeks since Dr. Schaaf's surprising pronouncement was made public, "The Leaf, originally thought to have been made around 1839 or later, has become the talk of the photo-historical world. The speculation about its origins became so intense that Sotheby's and the print's owners decided earlier this month to postpone its auction, so that researchers could begin delving into whether the image may be, in fact, one of the oldest photographic images in existence, dating to the 1790s.

This week the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, which own similar photogenic drawings that once belonged to the same album as "The Leaf," said that they planned to perform scientific analysis and further research on their images as well.

With these decisions, suddenly, a group of antique images known to the academic and auction worlds at least since 1984--when Sotheby's first sold them, fetching only $776 for the leaf print--have become the subjects of a high-profile detective story that could lead back to the earliest, murky years of the birth of photo technology and that could help to fill in crucial historical blanks.

Dr. Schaaf, who said he was not paid by Sotheby's or by the owner of "The Leaf" print, said that he had been aware of the images--also known as photograms, cameraless prints made by placing objects on photosensitive paper exposed to light--for many years. He had seen five of the six prints that were once compiled in an album by Henry Bright, a Briton whose family was part of a group of scientists and tinkerers active around Bristol in the late 18th century.

But as with so many other early photographic images, Dr. Schaaf said, there was so little information about these that he never gave much thought to their origins. "In most cases we just don't have any place even to get started," he said.

It was when Sotheby's inquiry reminded him that the images came from the Henry Bright family that he began to think about them again and to connect the dots with research that he had been doing for years into a group of photographic experimenters who had long predated Talbot and Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre, the other acknowledged inventor of photography.

Probably in the 1790s, according to accounts written shortly afterward, Thomas Wedgwood, a son of the Wedgwood china family, began experimenting with what he called solar pictures, making images on paper coated with a silver nitrate solution. A friend of his, James Watt, wrote in a 1799 letter that he intended to try similar experiments and in 1802 another friend, Humphry Davy, wrote an account of Wedgwood's experiments in an article for a scientific-society journal, titling it "An Account of a Method of Copying Paintings upon Glass, and of Making Profiles, by the Agency of Light Upon Nitrate of Silver."

Like the lost plays of Aeschylus that were written about but did not survive themselves, no known examples of the work of Wedgwood and his circle have ever been found. But Dr. Schaaf, in looking deeper into the leaf image, realized that these legendary lost images had something else in common: their creators were all part of the close social circle of the family of Henry Bright.

"The reason that I got so excited about this was that it was the most solid, indicative collection I've seen," he said. "I'm fully prepared for 'The Leaf' to have been made by Henry Bright, or by his father, after the 1790s. But I've never seen a story that fits together so neatly."

He added, with the resolve that comes from more than 30 years of research into early photography and Talbot, "Someone could obviously come along and say that these images are all in fact Talbots, but they would be wrong."

Jill Quasha is the photo dealer and expert who bought "The Leaf" in 1989 as she was building the Quillan Collection, a group of world-renowned photographs that Sotheby's sold (without the leaf print) for almost $9 million on April 7. She said that it was still too early to say exactly what type of research would be conducted on the image. Tests could include those to determine the age of the paper and to identify the chemical makeup of any substances on the paper.

"I think it has to be done quickly and efficiently and with the least amount of damage to the photograph," said Ms. Quasha, who added that she hoped the research could be completed within six months so that the print could be put up for auction again with a more iron-clad, and perhaps stunning, provenance. (As a Talbot, it was estimated to sell for $100,000 to $150,000; if it is determined to be older, it could bring substantially more.)

But Dr. Schaaf cautioned that even when the all scientific evidence is in--along with what might be found by deep sleuthing in the archives of the families of Bright, Wedgwood, Watt and Davy--the best that experts might be able to say about it being among the oldest photographic images is "maybe."


Erin O'Connor, 8:10 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

April 15, 2008 [feather]
Don't mess with the sacred cows

Academia is unkind to those who question its norms--and it also tends to deny the truth of this observation. It's one of academia's classic bait-and-switches to say that what academics do is challenge repressive norms beyond the academy, and that they are thus immune to the charge that they are not themselves always entirely respectful of free inquiry or academic freedom. We see it all the time. And the consequences, for ideas and for individuals, can be severe.

One example may be found in retired Wellesley classics professor Mary Lefkowitz. In the early 1990s, Lefkowitz made the mistake of challenging some of the more factually dubious aspects of Afrocentric thought--and paid for it very dearly. She writes about her experiences on the wrong side of the politically correct academic cabal in her new book, History Lesson, summarized this morning in a WSJ review by John Leo:

In 1994, Home Box Office and Pepsico celebrated Black History Month by producing a poster that was intended to show black achievement: It featured a large picture of the pyramids and many smaller images, including one of the Sphinx. Worse, the companies sent 20,000 copies of the poster to predominantly black schools. Honest teachers in those schools had to explain why a corporate seal of approval had been given to a historical claim that just isn't true.

This "celebration" marked the high-water mark of Afrocentrism, a movement that had begun in the academy in the 1980s and gained astonishing momentum with the publication of Martin Bernal's "Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization" (1989). According to various Afrocentric books and popular assertions, ancient Egypt invaded ancient Greece, Plato and Herodotus somehow picked up their ideas in travels along the Nile, and Aristotle stole his philosophy from the library at Alexandria. Though the arguments were contradictory and scattered, the point was that Western civilization had been founded on materials and discoveries borrowed or stolen from black Egyptians.

During this whirlwind of dubious scholarship, the academic world mostly remained mum, hiding behind the curtain of academic freedom and withholding its criticism lest a statement of simple truth be branded "racist." For a 1991 column in U.S. News & World Report, I phoned seven Egyptologists and asked whether the ancient Egyptian population had been "black." Of course not, they all responded, but not for attribution, since, as one said, "this subject is just too hot."

The scholar who did the most to break this silence was Mary Lefkowitz, a mild-mannered classicist at Wellesley College. Without fully understanding the abuse she would invite by speaking out against Afrocentrism, she accepted an assignment in the fall of 1991 to write a long review of the second volume of Martin Bernal's "Black Athena" for the New Republic magazine. She was shocked to discover that the Bernal volume, and a stack of other nearly fact-free books on Afrocentrism, had made headway in the schools and even in the universities.

She concluded that the Afrocentric authors regarded history as a form of advocacy: Like other postmodernists, they believed that truth is impossible to know -- that all "narratives" are socially constructed and thus possess an equal claim to legitimacy. At the time, traditional scholarship was generally under assault, but the classics were particularly vulnerable, because they purported to study the foundational texts of the West. Attacking the classics as a complex system of lies was emotionally important to those who wanted to take Western culture down a peg. Feelings and politics mattered, not scholarship. As Ms. Lefkowitz puts it: "[Bernal] seemed to be saying that the most persuasive narrative was the one with the most desirable result. In effect, he was preaching a kind of affirmative action program for the rewriting of history."

"History Lesson" is Ms. Lefkowitz's personal account of what she experienced as a result of questioning the veracity of Afrocentrism and the motives of its advocates. She has advanced the intellectual case against Afrocentrism before, in "Not Out of Africa" (1997); here she takes a more personal approach, at one point mentioning the strain of the controversy as she battled breast cancer.

Outraged by the nonscholarly approach of Afrocentric writers, she somewhat naively imagined that facts would put their extreme theories to rest. She noted, for instance, that Socrates couldn't have been black, as alleged, because his parents were Athenian citizens and blacks, in classical Athens, were not eligible for citizenship. She noted, as well, that Aristotle would have had a tough time stealing his philosophy from the library at Alexandria, since he died before the library was built. Such arguments went nowhere, Ms. Lefkowitz writes, with those who saw Greek philosophy "as yet another case of a colonialist European plundering of Africa."

While Ms. Lefkowitz was being targeted by Afrocentrists nationally, she fell into a war on her own campus with Anthony Martin, a vituperative and litigious tenured professor of "Africana studies." It was an odd battle. Ms. Lefkowitz kept trying to make it a debate about evidence and truth. Mr. Martin made it personal and added a large helping of anti-Semitism. Eventually he turned out a book titled "The Jewish Onslaught," endorsed the crackpot theory that Jews had dominated the slave trade and demanded Jewish reparations to blacks.

When Mr. Martin sued Ms. Lefkowitz for libel -- claiming that she had misreported an incident involving him -- the dean of the college, Nancy Kolodny, declined to indemnify her. "It's your problem, she said to Ms. Lefkowitz. "The college can't help you." Some turned on Ms. Lefkowitz for dividing the campus. Others shrank from criticizing a black professor or were simply intimidated by the explosive Mr. Martin. Nan Keohane, Wellesley's president (soon to become the president of Duke University), offered little help. She urged one pro-Lefkowitz group to consider Mr. Martin's feelings and introduced an extreme Afrocentrist speaker as "a distinguished Egyptologist."

In the end, Wellesley behaved well. The history department refused to give credit toward a history major for courses in the Africana Studies Department, and Mr. Martin was denied a salary increase. The Anti-Defamation League found a law firm willing to defend Ms. Lefkowitz. After six years of legal wrangling, she won the case. Both Ms. Lefkowitz and Mr. Martin are now retired.

Though much of academia is still lost in postmodern theory and relativism, Ms. Lefkowitz insists on what we might call a counternarrative: Teachers owe it to themselves and their students to get as close as possible to the truth. The academy has still not firmly answered the central question of "History Lesson": What should the university do when a professor insists on teaching demonstrable untruths? No prattle about academic freedom, please.

That last question is a huge one. We have become such relativists when it comes to truth that we can't even begin to tackle the question in a meaningful way. "Academic freedom" has become synonymous with "freedom to say, do, and advocate whatever you want," as long as you are on the right side, and particularly if you are tenured. But the credibility problems academia presently labors under will not begin to be resolved until such questions can be meaningfully answered.

On a more individual level, we need more personal accounts of what happens to scholars who question academia's ideological norms. Most people who go through the sort of wringer Lefkowitz did don't want to relive it by writing about it. And it's hard to write about such immensely personal things without looking self-pitying or incurring dismissive responses. Still, this is a side of academic culture that we need to be able to see. It's vital information in the ongoing debate about how such concepts as academic freedom, intellectual diversity, and tolerance really operate within academe, and it has the power to help ground arguments that otherwise risk getting lost in abstract theorizing about what is and what should be.

Erin O'Connor, 9:22 AM | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack (0)

April 14, 2008 [feather]
The bully within

We tend to think of bullying as a school-age phenomenon. But that's naive. If you've ever been bullied at work, you know that. But if you haven't--well, you might be the bully yourself, or you might be a bystander who looks the other way and while trying to rationalize your silence, or you might just be oblivious. But odds are, when you go to work, there are bullies in your midst. And odds are, no one is doing anything about it.

Researchers at SUNY New Paltz and Wayne State recently devised this Workplace Aggression Research Questionnaire:

In the past six months have you regularly:

--Been glared at in a hostile manner?
--Been excluded from work-related social gatherings?
--Had others storm out of the work area when you entered?
--Had others consistently arrive late for meetings that you called?
--Been given the “silent treatment”?
--Not been given the praise for which you felt entitled?
--Been treated in a rude or disrespectful manner?
--Had others refuse your requests for assistance?
--Had others fail to deny false rumors about you?
--Been given little or no feedback about your performance?
--Had others delay action on matters that were important to you?
--Been yelled at or shouted at in a hostile manner?
--Been subjected to negative comments about your intelligence or competence?
--Had others consistently fail to return your telephone calls or respond to your memos or e-mail?
--Had your contributions ignored by others?
--Had someone interfere with your work activities?
--Been subjected to mean pranks?
--Been lied to?
--Had others fail to give you information that you really needed?
--Been denied a raise or promotion without being given a valid reason?
--Been subjected to derogatory name calling?
--Been the target of rumors or gossip?
--Shown little empathy or sympathy when you were having a tough time?
--Had co-workers fail to defend your plans or ideas to others?
--Been given unreasonable workloads or deadlines--more than others?
--Had others destroy or needlessly take resources that you needed to do your job?
--Been accused of deliberately making an error?
--Been subjected to temper tantrums when disagreeing with someone?
--Been prevented from expressing yourself (for example, interrupted when speaking)?
--Had attempts made to turn other employees against you?
--Had someone flaunt his or her status or treat you in a condescending manner?
--Had someone else take credit for your work or ideas?
--Been reprimanded or "put down" in front of others?

To this I would add, "Have you ever watched someone be treated this way?" and "If so, what, if anything, did you do about it?" The comments to the NYT thread are interesting indeed, and for the purposes of this blog I would particularly recommend looking at comments 2, 17, 25, 30, 44, 55, 64, 70, 86, 96, 230.

The cynic may say, "Well, we're all victims according to these criteria! This is just a description of the modern workplace!" But that's a sign of ignorance on the part of the cynic. The person who has been there knows very well that being on the receiving end of workplace bullying, particularly when the experience is prolonged, institutionally sustained, and irremediable, is a life-altering experience.

Academic bullying--or mobbing, as University of Waterloo sociologist Kenneth Westhues prefers, with good reason, to call it, since bullies tend to attract followers and since institutional policy and procedure are often major forces in academe's special sort of scapegoating--has not gotten the attention it deserves. Cases tend to be treated as just that: isolated cases. And often the bullying or mobbing component is obscured by an analysis of the political dimensions of the case: FIRE's work, read through another lens, amounts to an amazing archive of academic bullying and mobbing, complete with meticulous documentation of how the personal animus of the bullies (often "accusers") gets routinely transformed into the bland, bureaucratic proceduralism of administrators who believe they are simply implementing policy to protect victims (who are often actually aggressors masquerading as victims).

Power flows in intriguing ways in such cases. Brandeis has recently supplied us with a classic instance of students bullying a professor--and administrators rushing in to escalate the bullying into full-on institutional mobbing. Then there is the case of Steve Hinkle, the Cal Poly student who was nearly expelled for posting a flyer featuring the title of a book by an upcoming speaker. Students started the ball rolling against Hinkle--but it was administrators who really did the attacking. And they did it all in the name of neutral application of policy.

It's remarkable to realize that when bureaucratized, bullying can take place in the absence of a clear bully. Under the guise of implementing policy, administrators are exonerated, cleansed, made blandly blameless for their considerable cruelty. Hannah Arendt described this sort of thing as the "banality of evil."

For more on academic bullying, check out this dedicated blog.

Erin O'Connor, 8:32 AM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

April 8, 2008 [feather]
Money well spent?

Here's a piece from the University of Pennsylvania's student paper on the high cost of participating in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), a certification system aimed at establishing standards for sustainable building:

As the University marches toward a sustainable future, Penn continues to make LEED certification a major initiative in its newly constructed buildings. But while institutions continue to strive for this goal, they are realizing that in order to build green, they must shell out some green in the process.

LEED, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a rating system established in 2000. In order to become LEED certified, a building must meet a checklist of sustainability features both in the construction and operation of the structure.

The cost of LEED certification, which may range between $30,000-$100,000, arises mainly from the bureaucracy in the certification process. The registration fee is less than $1,000, but the cost of keeping track of every aspect of construction accumulates.

"You have to have the contractor document everything," said University Architect David Hollenberg. That includes "where everything in the construction goes, where do they throw out the drywall. You have to pay them for the time they spend filling out these documents."

According to the LEED system, a building gets a point for sustainable initiatives, such as efficient stormwater management and renewable-energy use, up to a maximum of 69 points.

Buildings are then awarded silver, gold and platinum status according to how many points they acquire, with platinum status being granted to buildings with more than 53 points.

Hollenberg said the cost of LEED certification is dependent on the size of the project and the system in place for documentation but that it is usually in the tens of thousands of dollars for a University-scale project.

Penn officials said the cost hasn't deterred them from seeking LEED certification, but some institutions have considered alternatives to LEED, while others have avoided the process altogether.

According to Bob Francis, vice president of facilities at Drexel University, most colleges "pay attention to the principles of sustainability, whether we go for LEED or not."

Drexel hasn't decided yet whether it will seek LEED certification for a number of its sustainable campus-expansion projects.

While the benefits of LEED-certified buildings, such as energy and cost efficiency, are obvious, some have questioned the need for a certification system that merely recognizes projects for their sustainable design. But Penn officials still say LEED is worthwhile.

"It's the difference between taking a class pass/fail or for a grade," said Daniel Garofalo, Penn's senior facilities planner and the Delaware Valley Green Building Council chairman. "You learn more when you strive for an A."

Hollenberg said many institutions submit to LEED because it is the standard third-party reviewer for sustainable design.

"In the end, it is just a plaque on the wall, but you can't lead if you're not a part of a group," he said.

There are few alternatives for those who wish to avoid the costs of LEED.

The Green Building Initiative launched the Green Globes environmental assessment in 2004 as an alternative to LEED. This assessment is generally regarded to be more lenient than LEED in verifying the figures behind the building's construction, and thus the cost of certification is much lower.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, more than 1500 college projects are involved with LEED, "which is often a visible symbol of a college's commitment" to sustainability. The article also notes that LEED's point system and standards for sustainability are not beyond debating--and notes that the money spent to get certified is money that is not being spent on enhancing a building's sustainability per se.

So. How much should a college or university pay for this "visible symbol," especially in an era when money is tight and costs need to be kept down? Is LEED money well spent? Money squandered? Please discuss.

Erin O'Connor, 8:12 AM | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)

April 7, 2008 [feather]
Quote for the day

From Victor Davis Hanson:

One can collate all the various reasons that have embarrassed the current university--the politically correct curriculum, the relaxation of standards, the political imbalance, the intolerance for diversity of thought, etc. But the one charge that proves the most lethal is this same charge of hypocrisy, or the notion that well-paid tenured professors, with life-time assurances of employment of being on the job only 30 weeks a year, and usually accountable for only 6-12 hours of teaching a week on campus, harangue cash-strapped, working students with sizable loans, about the unfairness of society.

I have never quite encountered an intrinsically less fair institution than the university, at least in liberal terms of egalitarianism and respect for the underclass. A full professor may damn Wal-Mart, but Wal-Mart would never get away with the two-tier system that the university in built upon: the PhD part-timer has no job security, sometimes no benefits, no privileges, and earns usually about 25% of the compensation that is paid to the full professor to teach the identical class.

When one factors in the use of graduate assistants not merely to TA courses, but to teach them in their entirety, then you can appreciate the level of exploitation that the university is built on. And add to the notion that tuition has climbed higher than the annual rate of inflation, and the picture is complete of an institution that is entirely immune from public scrutiny.

I have a modest prediction--just as the bloggers, talk-radio, and cable news began to make irrelevant the grandees at the New York Times and the likes of Dan Rather at CBS, so too online colleges, web-based data archives, and junior colleges are starting to question the notion that one pays $40-50 thousand a year for university training--and often gets biased professors, part-timers and TAs, and a curriculum imbued with popular culture and politically-driven therapeutic courses. Learning and the university are not any longer synonymous, and the divide is ever widening.

The arguments are familiar. But what I want to note here is the combination of arguments about the university that are typically--and unhelpfully--divided up and classified as either "liberal" or "conservative." It's a good "liberal" argument to lament the exploitative employment structure or the excessive tuition rates common to higher ed. It's a standard "conservative" argument to lament the decay of the curriculum. But the classification of such points as either liberal or conservative is dismissive and destructive--partly because they are all part of the same problem (broadly characterizable as lack of accountability), and partly because they polarize people who care about higher education, and who should be making common cause. I look forward to the day when the irrelevant and divisive labeling that is so common to discussions about academe (and which so often amounts to little more than name-calling) can be recognized for the status quo-preserving red herring that it is.

Erin O'Connor, 2:54 PM | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)

From the inbox: Open letter to Drew Faust

Dear Ms. Drew Faust, President of Harvard:

A few weeks ago, I received the wonderful news that I have been accepted to study at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government (KSG), but my initial euphoria was soon stamped out as a second KSG email arrived announcing that I would only be offered loans as financial "aid." KSG suggests that I take out more than $130,000 in loans to pay for my two-year Master's program. $130,000? I want to attend KSG to get the best possible preparation to enter the public sector. How am I supposed to work in the public sector strapped with $130,000+ of education debt? Being accepted to KSG has turned out to be a pyrrhic achievement indeed. So, I write this letter to bring attention to my dilemma in the hopes that future KSG acceptees do not have to face the choices currently before me.

At first, I thought KSG must have made a mistake in calculating my aid, considering my limited financial resources (I have spent the last two years as a volunteer in a developing country) and considering Harvard's much publicized push to increase financial aid, even to upper-middle-class undergrads. But no - KSG considers my financial need "met," by offering loans only. The KSG Financial Aid website says, "Financial assistance is a partnership." I have kept my end of the bargain - I live frugally, I do not have much consumer debt, and I applied (in vain) to a number of external funding sources. I do not feel like much of a partner in this relationship, however, as KSG is not offering me a single penny of assistance.

From what I understand, up to three-fourths of KSG students are caught in this quandary. I assume that most KSG acceptees want to attend KSG for the same reasons I do - because we feel a passionate commitment to serving in the public and non-profit sectors, because we want the best possible preparation to enter those fields, and because we want to make the world a better place instead of racking up as much individual wealth as possible. We are the ones seeking to live out JFK's iconic call: "ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country." I find it rather hypocritical for the KSG dean to say, "At the heart of our school lies an abiding commitment to advancing the public interest by training leaders," and then to force students into a financial situation where public service is not a financially viable option for us after we graduate because we have exorbitant loans to repay. $130,000 in debt, even at a relatively favorable 8% interest rate, means paying back almost $200,000 over the course of ten years, or almost $350,000 over thirty years. This is not just "significant borrowing," which the admissions website warns applicants to expect. For many of us, this amount is patently unreasonable.

KSG is asking its students (assuming that most applicants are not independently wealthy) to choose between our career goals, the education that would enable us to fulfill these goals, and starting a family. How could anyone manage all three with more than $130,000 of debt to repay? In spite of KSG's stated commitment to public service, the lack of financial aid available to applicants means that KSG is, in practice, forcing three-quarters of its applicants to take private sector jobs after graduation, which is in express violation of applicants' career goals and of the school's stated mission. KSG is failing to live up to its own principles.

I am sure that it is too late for me and my fellow acceptees this year, and we will simply have to do some serious soul-searching about whether we want to put off starting a family or violate our principles and career goals to be able to attend KSG. I hope that future generations of KSG applicants are not forced to make these terrible choices.

I therefore implore you, KSG, and Harvard University to increase financial aid to KSG students - through fundraising, through a capital campaign, through bake-sales, or however - so that future students are indeed able to enter public and non-profit service after their education at KSG instead of having to sell themselves as private sector consultants in order to be able to pay back their loans. Otherwise, KSG is guilty of making this country and this world worse, by pushing those who are most able and motivated to serve in the public and non-profit sectors into the private sector. Crass financial calculations are not sufficient justifications for this.

As for me, I have another week or so to decide whether I am prepared to violate my principles and abandon my career goals in order to, rather ironically, attend the best school to help me attain my career goals. KSG is without a doubt where I feel I should attend (or felt, prior to receiving my financial "aid" package), but now I must choose between going to school, being able to enter public service, and starting a family. I cannot see these choices as anything except unjust, unfair, and considering KSG's mission, hypocritical and imprudent.

Respectfully Yours,

A Disillusioned Harvard KSG Acceptee

David Ellwood, Dean of the Kennedy School of Government
John Haigh, Executive Dean of the Kennedy School of Government
The Harvard News Office
Kennedy School of Government Admissions and Financial Aid
The New York Times
The Boston Globe
The Boston Herald
The Huffington Post
The Economist
The Crimson
The Harvard Independent
U.S. News & World Report
CollegeJournal - WSJ
The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation
Chicago Maroon
Philly News
Educated Nation
Codependent Collegian
The Quick and the Ed
The Sam Jackson College Experience
The Anti 9-to-5 Guide
Higher Ed Watch
Employee Evolution
That College Kid
The Education Wonks
Critical Mass
Education Intelligence Agency
Education Watch International
Inside Higher Ed
Remote Access
Teaching in the 408
This Week in Education
University Diaries
Harvard Extended
Harvard University Blog
The On Harvard Time Blog
The Guy By the Door
College Planning Advice
Scholarships.com Blog
Great College Advice Blog
The Beantown Bloggery
The Dough Roller
Top Tier Insider
Dunash Blog
My Dollar Plan
National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators
The Financial Aid Podcast
Poverty Law Prof Blog
Learning to Lead an Urban School Blog
Accepted to College
Admissions Advice Blog
College Admissions Counseling Blog
The Center for College Affordability and Productivity

Erin O'Connor, 8:12 AM | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack (0)

April 4, 2008 [feather]
Daniel Webster at Dartmouth

If you've been around a campus lately, you know that with rare exceptions (Columbia, Notre Dame, Yale's Directed Studies program), the curriculum is awfully watered down. Colleges and universities pay all kinds of lip service to the value of core knowledge, stressing that education is not complete without solid grounding in key fields and skills, and underscoring, as well, that such grounding is needed to prepare young adults for life and work beyond the academy. But in practice, they don't tend to live up to their rhetoric.

Look at the general requirements at just about any college or university, and you will see a predictable sort of breakdown -- in order to graduate, students have to take so many units of humanities courses, so many units of social science, so many of math and science. They may also have to take a writing course and some sort of cultural diversity course, and they probably have to prove competency in a foreign language. But when you look at what students can actually take to fulfill some of these requirements, they are exposed for the sham they are.

The humanities and social science requirements are the real culprits--students can take just about anything that nominally fits in those fields to satisfy their requirement. At the University of Maryland at College Park--to take just one representative instance--students in the college of arts and sciences can satisfy their humanities core requirement with "Popular Culture in America" or "Television Reality" or "The Everyday and the American 'Built' Environment." They can also take broader, more foundational courses such as "The Rise of the West" and "Introduction to the Study of World Religions"--but they don't have to, and such courses are comparatively rare on the long list of options. Likewise, students can fulfill their social science requirement with such courses as "Advertising in America," "First Ladies and the Media," and "History of Sport in America." There are broader introductory courses on the list of options, but they are in no way distinguished from the trendy niche courses of the sort I've noted here. And while I'm sure these niche courses are all interesting and valuable in their way, it's questionable what purpose they serve as metonyms for "social science" within a core curriculum--all indisputably belong to the broad categories that define them, but they are unlikely to offer students strong introductory grounding in a discipline or to supply them with a survey of the great works and ideas within that discipline.

Maryland, by the way, is currently working on revising its core curriculum--administrators want to make it even more flexible. "We teach almost everything," says the dean of undergraduate studies, "and now almost everything can be included in the general education framework."

A grab bag, anything goes mentality defines general education requirements at many, many schools. And there is a lot of resistance to changing that. Students like the freedom to shop around; many even feel entitled to it. Professors like being able to teach niche courses on their special interests--these tend to be smaller, easier, and more fun, and involve less heavy lifting than broad introductory courses. Administrators balk at the prospective complexity and cost of doing things any other way. And so it all goes along, and students often don't realize until after they have graduated that the courses they took in lieu of a core could and should have been much more carefully defined, comprehensively arranged, and coherently connected.

But every now and then, someone decides change is needed. Harvard students pressed and pressed and pressed and finally got the faculty to revise the curriculum along more meaningful lines. And now a government professor at Dartmouth is calling for changes that would give students the option of a more solid, traditional, classical core:

Advocating a curriculum that focuses more extensively on classical knowledge, Dartmouth government professor James Murphy recently founded the Daniel Webster Program, in an effort to shed light on the current social relevance of classical learning by bringing classical scholars to speak on campus and by offering an optional core curriculum at the College based on the "great books" of the liberal arts.

The Daniel Webster Program calls for two major changes to Dartmouth's curriculum on its web site this week. The first change would add a number of two-term courses for freshmen, which would build upon the study of authors like Plato, St. Augustine and Nietzsche. The curriculum would require freshmen to complete a total of six classes, consisting of two-course sequences in each of the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences fields, according to the site.

The second part of the proposal suggests that a "touchstone minor" be offered, comprised of seven interdisciplinary courses linked by a common foundation in classical literature. In an interview with The Dartmouth, Murphy noted courses such as "Political Ideas" and "Religion of China," as examples of courses that would be eligible for the minor. Students would select their courses around a particular core area of study, for example, "The Abrahamic Faith" or "Eastern and Western Ethics in Comparison." Through this program, Murphy hopes to broaden students’ exposure to classical literature.

"I don't want classical knowledge and learning to be 'ghetto-ized' into the classics department," he said. "I want to bring learning out of the classics department and bring it into larger issues and debates."

The Daniel Webster Program's curriculum would not focus solely on the work of white males, a common criticism of other institutions' classical instruction, Murphy said. The program's website lists a number of books by non-Western authors, including the Quran and the Upanishads, a Hindu holy scripture.

Murphy recently began talking to administrators about implementing these changes, but said the process would likely take a number of years.

"I'm in this for the long term and am going to persevere," he said.

Murphy said seniors in a Political Ideas course he taught a few years ago expressed "buyers remorse" about their course selections and admitted selecting the course because they realized they had not read the "greatest books." The students' response inspired Murphy to institute the Daniel Webster Program.

A survey conducted by the Committee on Instruction during Murphy's tenure as committee member in the late 1990s confirmed Murphy's belief that classical literature was underrepresented in most students' curricula.

"We found a very scattered randomness in course selection," he said. "Very little visible or evident or coherent theme in general education. Students are groping without much forethought or plan."

What do you guys think--about general education on campus, and about programs such as this one?

Erin O'Connor, 8:21 AM | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack (0)

April 3, 2008 [feather]
If you have eight minutes

... expand your sense of wonder.

More on painting elephants here.

Erin O'Connor, 8:51 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

The new femininity

This article from Robin Wilson is so charming that I will not summarize it. You need to read it in full:

Oklahoma City University has a long history as an educator of beauty queens. Twenty-six of its students have captured the Miss Oklahoma banner, and three of those have gone on to be crowned Miss America. Larger-than-life bronze statues of them stand in a fountain at the entrance to the university.

But a mile from there, just off the campus, 20 other young women practice a talent that's never been on display in a Miss America pageant. They sweat and swear in shorts and T-shirts as they drill their takedowns on a blue-and-white wrestling mat. "Watch out!" one of them warns a visitor who is standing next to a plastic container during practice. "That's the spit can."

The female wrestling team is brand-new this year at Oklahoma City, one of only six American college teams for women. But the sport's visibility has been on the rise since 2004, when female freestyle wrestling became an Olympic event.

Archie Randall, who is 56 and stout, with a graying buzz cut, was hired to start a men's wrestling team here in 2006. He was the winningest high-school coach in the history of Oklahoma, a state where wrestling is king. He knew that 6,500 young women wrestle in high schools nationwide, most of them against boys on predominantly male teams, and he wanted to give some of the best competitors another opportunity to wrestle in college. But he knew that the way to sell a new team was to talk about money. "I can get you 30 girls, and you're gonna get a half a million dollars" in tuition, he told Oklahoma City's athletic director, James Abbott.

Mr. Abbott has taken some ribbing since he signed off on the women's team: "I've had a few folks saying, Is it going to be mud wrestling?" But after watching a few matches, he's hooked. "They are no different than soccer players, rowers, baseball players, or any other athlete," he says. "They are just as serious and work extraordinarily hard."

When Mr. Randall started the women's program, last summer, he signed up 33 young women in six weeks. The university gives the team eight scholarships, for a total of $214,320 a year, the same as for the men's team. This season his wrestlers, the Stars, beat the top-ranked women's program, at the University of the Cumberlands, in Kentucky, although Cumberlands beat the Stars at two other matches. The Stars have also competed in California, Missouri, Arizona, and Michigan. And Mr. Randall played host last month to one of the largest tournaments ever for female wrestlers, drawing nearly 400 girls, from elementary school through college, to Oklahoma City's campus.

As his team's first season winds to a close, Mr. Randall is down to just 20 young women. Some left because the practice schedule was too hard. "I don't care what time of the month it is," he tells them, "you still have to practice, and you have to lift" weights.

What Mr. Randall has learned, though, is that the young women can be just as tough as the men. "They kick and cuss," he says, "same as the boys."

The male and female wrestlers share a cramped and dank practice facility off-campus, in what was once a church. The makeshift locker rooms have wooden cubbyholes, and a stair machine and a treadmill sit in a small entryway, where the wrestlers work off last-minute ounces before weigh-ins.

Winding through the narrow hallway that connects the locker rooms and the practice room, it's not unusual to see a guy standing naked on a scale. Maybe because they are always weighing themselves, it isn't strange for wrestlers to strip down almost anywhere.

Mr. Randall was surprised that female wrestlers were just as immodest as the men. "I am always shouting: 'Girls, get your clothes on!'" he says.

Some of the female wrestlers here date guys on the men's team. And some of the young women, says Mr. Randall, date one another. The rules are the same for both kinds of relationships: "No holding hands, no affection in the practice room or at any public places."

Mr. Randall knows some people believe there is no place for women in the rough sport of wrestling. But he wants to show that his competitors can be feminine and be wrestlers at the same time. That's why he insists that they be neat and well groomed, and that they fix their hair and paint their nails before each meet. None of the young women seem to mind. When one of them walks by his office before practice one day, he yells: "Erica, what are we when we're off the mat?" "Ladies," answers Erica Lee Torres, a Californian who is wearing a bright-red hoodie, red suede boots, and black nail polish.

Ms. Torres is a freshman in the 112-pound weight class. She started wrestling in the fourth grade and was the only girl on her high-school team. She was a tomboy who played football with the boys at recess. This is the first time in her life that she has been surrounded by women. "The girls here have shown me 'girl world,'" she says. "They've been teaching me about hair and makeup. I was like, So, this is what girls are like."

Some of the young women here were passed over for varsity spots in high school even though they could beat male wrestlers. And male competitors usually weren't glad to see them on the mat. Some boys refused to wrestle the girls, preferring to lose by forfeit. "I've heard stuff like, 'I don't know where to grab her,' and 'It's against my religion to wrestle a girl,'" says Sheila McCabe, a 138-pounder. Other guys, she says, "would pull our hair, punch us, and run us into the ground."

The young women here who were used to wrestling boys in high school have had to adjust their style. Boys typically dominate girls in strength but are much less flexible and not always as quick. Nicole Woody, a 105-pound freshman, was used to waiting for boys to shoot in to grab her legs and then using her flexibility to sprawl away from a takedown. "I counter, I wait," she says. "But girls don't ever take a shot, so my style clashes with what girls do." She has a 10-8 record here.

At nearly 25 years old, Ashley Sword is the team's most experienced wrestler and an Olympic hopeful. She spent five years after high school wrestling at the U.S. Olympic Training Center, in Colorado Springs. She's the only woman here with cauliflower ear, a condition in which the ear has been banged and twisted so much that it fills with fluid. Ms. Sword has also had three knee surgeries, fractured a vertebra, torn ligaments in both elbows, and broken her nose three times — the last time so badly that it pushed her front teeth back.

But "when I'm laying in bed," she says, "and I look up and see the award that says national champion, which I won two times, it's so worth it."

Freedom when it is really lived encourages eccentricity and idiosyncracy--which in turn can expand our collective sense of what is possible, acceptable, normal, and even good. I'd say the Oklahoma City University women's wrestling team is a lovely little experiment in lived freedom. I also think it's going to make a great movie.

Erin O'Connor, 8:19 AM | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack (0)