Bollinger doesn't get it
Or maybe he does -- and he just doesn't care. Here he is on the subject of Columbia ROTC:
In 2005, the University Senate voted overwhelmingly against formally inviting ROTC onto campus. Senate members may have had a variety of reasons for their votes, but the record and official reports make it reasonably clear that the predominant reason was one of adhering to a core principle of the University: that we will not have programs on the campus that discriminate against students on the basis of such categories as race, gender, military veteran status, or sexual orientation. Under the current "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy of the Defense Department, openly gay and lesbian students could or would be excluded from participating in ROTC activities. That is inconsistent with the fundamental values of the University. A number of our peer institutions have taken a similar position.
That's from an email he sent out to the whole campus yesterday; it's his response to the fact that at a recent campus forum on service, both presidential candidates expressed their opinion that Columbia is wrong to continue banning ROTC from campus. The statements of Senators Obama and McCain drew widespread media attention, and even led to staff editorials at the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal echoing their position that it's really time to stop using students as pawns in campus-based protests against DADT.
The Columbia community was energized by all of this. Today the University Senate meets to discuss ROTC, and students are meeting to decide whether they should seek to restore naval ROTC to campus.
Bollinger's email looks like a pre-emptive strike against any such effort. He argues against ROTC--and he bends the truth to do it when he describes DADT as a "policy of the Defense Department." I've said it before and I will say it again: DADT is the creation of Congress, not the military; students, faculty, and administrators should feel free to protest it, but they ought to aim their protests in the right direction. It is time to end DADT; the majority of Americans want to see it repealed; even major military figures are speaking out about it now. It's wrong--and quite possibly a problem, vis a vis the Solomon Amendment, which, in the fine print, covers ROTC as well as military recruiters--for Bollinger to announce that Columbia is barring ROTC from campus for political reasons.
Is Bollinger ignorant? Is he wilfully obfuscating? Whatever he's doing, he's not being principled. Still, it's instructive to see such an explicit statement of how much more institutional political posturing matters than students' rights to choose their activities, their service, their career paths, and their beliefs for themselves. Leopards, spots.
More at PowerLine.
September 25, 2008
Campaigning for credit
Peter Wood uncovers some dirty dealing, and asks some necessary questions:
On Monday morning, I posted an article, "College Credit for Campaign Volunteers," on the NAS website, which brought quick results. Before the end of the day, the University of Massachusetts-Amhest pulled the plug on the scheme whereby students could earn college credit for doing volunteer work for the Obama campaign in New Hampshire. The Associated Press picked up the story (and told it in a manner that strongly implied the intrepid work of AP reporters brought the university to heel).
Yesterday, I posted a follow-up, "About Face in Amherst," with more details about the university's panicked reaction to the revelations of its (probably illegal) involvement in partisan politics. The story, however, doesn't end there. Today the UMass student newspaper, The Daily Collegian, reports that an anonymous donor was ready to pay for the students' two-credit courses. This is curious and potentially explosive. As one UMass student wrote to me, any UMass students taking a full course load (12 credits) could have taken the extra two credits for free. Only a student taking fewer than 12 credits would have had to pay. The tuition rate would have been $71.50 for Massachusetts state residents and $414 for out-of-state students, and 'pro-rated fees of about twice that on top.'
That's to say, someone was willing to put up what might have amounted to several thousand dollars to get these UMass students up to the Obama campaign in New Hampshire.
As I pointed out in my first article, this attempt to get college credit for Obama volunteers is not just a UMass deviancy. The Obama campaign at the national level is encouraging college students across the country to seek college credit for volunteering, and many of the state affiliates of the Obama campaign have echoed the message. A spot check of half a dozen colleges and universities showed that many are complying. And a separate organization, Swing Semester, is offering college students help in arranging academic credit for volunteering on 'progressive' campaigns.
There may be some students for McCain who have wrangled similar deals, but I haven't found them yet and the McCain campaign has no parallel project.
College credit for campaign volunteering is wrong for several reasons. Top of the list: It gives academic credit for experience that is, at most, tenuously related to academic work. Readers who want a fuller account can go back to my first article. Right now I want to focus on the 'anonymous volunteer' willing to pay for the UMass Amherst credits. What does this mean?
Are there similar anonymous volunteers at other colleges and universities that are giving academic credit for Obama volunteering? Are they possibly the same person or part of a coordinated group? Is the Obama campaign itself behind this? Will the mainstream media ask these questions?
The most worrisome scenario is that we have a presidential campaign channeling money into an effort to divert students from their studies, to tempt colleges to engage in electioneering, and to erode the distinction between academic preparation and political participation.
This is another example of what happens when colleges and universities don't make a point of educating faculty and staff about what they can and cannot do. Academic freedom seems to function sometimes as this magical, open sesame sort of concept--its very wording suggests that for professors anything goes, and that to suggest otherwise is to somehow interfere with their rights. But it doesn't mean these things. It's not a system of rights, but, rather, a word for a system of interlocking duties and privileges. And in order to earn the privileges, academics really need to make a point of grasping what the duties are. This, in turn, requires knowing what you really cannot do, in the classroom and out of it, to and with students. Bribing them with credit to stump for your candidate is not among the things you get to do.
UMass seems to be profoundly puzzled on these points. In addition to the little electioneering snafu Wood uncovers, there is the issue of its intrusive and quite possibly illegal guidelines for how to perform political litmus tests on prospective hires, not to mention its little problem with speech codes.
September 19, 2008
Politics in the classroom
Metro State College is investigating a professor who asked students to write an essay critical of Republican vice presidential candidate Gov. Sarah Palin. One student said the instructor singled out Republican students in the class and allowed others to ridicule them.
The adjunct professor, Andrew Hallam, stayed silent Thursday as he took his class on a field trip to an art museum. Hallam said he would issue a statement Thursday, but none came.
The college said Hallam will continue working during the investigation.
"I was shocked, I was holy cow, this is just an open door for him to discuss politics with us," Jana Barber first told CBS4 Wednesday, a student in the class.
Barber shared the class' first assignment with CBS4 Wednesday. Hallam asked students to write an essay to contradict what he called the 'fairy tale image of Palin' presented at the Republican National Convention.
Barber filed an official complaint with the college which triggered the investigation.
"What the faculty's responsibility is to provide opportunity for critical thinking and civic engagement so bringing something of relevancy into the classroom was the faculty's goal," said Cathy Lucas Wednesday, spokeswoman for Metro State. "Should he have broadened it and included all the political figures, yes."
Metro State officials are investigating claims of bias, harassment and bullying.
Barber and another student appeared on KOA's Mike Rosen talk show Thursday to discuss the issue.
"I said something to him like, 'well, there may be five of us, but we're ready to debate this and he cussed us out," student Ben Faurer said Thursday. "He's trying to avoid all this, go along like nothing is happening."
"The F-you should definitely not be said to them," fellow student Alyson Brooks said Thursday.
Brooks said Hallam is a great teacher and the controversy overblown.
"He definitely makes it known he's a Democrat and prefers that and wishes everyone else would, but he knows there's Republicans in class and lets them speak out and have their opinion and doesn't put them down or discriminate against that," she said.
Metro State College Professor Norm Provizer said Thursday the issue has moved well behind whether or not the assignment was appropriate. Provizer calls it a political firestorm now.
"So it isn't just a straight question, well is this a biased assignment?" he said. "It also has all of these political implications and it'll be used for that."
The chair of Metro State's English Department is not taking sides yet. He sat in on Thursday night's class by Hallam to provide students an opportunity to express their opinions.
There is one formal complain about Hallam, who is in his first semester at Metro State.
A former student of Hallam's emailed CBS4 Thursday and said he or she could understand how the professor's style could be misunderstood. Hallam often picked a topic for students and asked them to write a specific viewpoint as an exercise in critical thinking, the student's email said.
Hallam has revised the assignment.
Students may now write about any of the candidates.
Hallam has already been endlessly excoriated on blogs and in the media. So instead of piling it on, I'd like to suggest that it's worth thinking about exactly how pedagogical decisions of the sort he made here actually get made.
Is this the clumsy pedagogy of an inexperienced but well-meaning teacher? Is it a flat-out attempt to use the classroom to impose political opinion? Neither? Both? Does it matter? Could we ever even tell? From the article, it sounds like there is a considerable case to be made for both Hallam not knowing / respecting the boundaries of his job, as well as for students not really grasping the "devil's advocate" position many professors legitimately take with regard to controversial issues.
It's certainly true that the college classroom is a total set-up for bad faith and ignorance on both sides. We are well aware of the confusions that students have about what classrooms are for, about what it means when professors challenge their views or require them to read material that makes them uncomfortable. It's also true, though, that many college teachers are operating from a profoundly uninformed position as well; they may know their subject matter, but they have had minimal, if any, real training in the ways and means of pedagogical practice. Combine that with the ambient expectation that professors ought to be in the business of awakening students to issues of social justice, teaching them to be change agents, and so on, and you have a recipe for very real, if, in many cases, genuinely accidental, malfeasance.
Best case scenario: Hallam thought he was being daring, challenging, and current; he never imagined that his students would see him as an ideological autocrat trying to dictate their point of view. Worst case scenario: Hallam yielded to the high political emotions of the current moment, and succumbed to the pedagogic equivalent of poor impulse control. Either way, as FIRE's Robert Shibley notes, Hallam does have the right not only to assign students to write on controversial topics, but even, for the sake of intellectual exercise, to require them to take certain positions on those topics--just as long as he isn't also using those assignments to require students to publicly lobby for or advocate certain positions. (He also notes that the bit about haranguing Republicans in class is a different issue entirely.)
Whatever happened, I do think the assignment was so narrowly conceived and telegraphic as to be extremely ill-advised, particularly in this political moment. But I note, too, that Hallam is an adjunct--which means he does not have the academic freedom that could see his career through a rough patch. And as any teacher will freely admit--it's the mistakes you make in the classroom that help you learn to be better at a delicate and difficult job. Regardless of his intentions, regardless of his talent, regardless of whether he learns a valuable lesson and becomes a better teacher for it -- he's probably done.
September 18, 2008
How are you on post-tenure review?
The new issue of the AAUP's magazine, Academe is out, and in it is a forum on tenure and its discontents. It's an interesting forum, not least because it begins with two strongly worded cautionary paragraphs from NYU professor Andrew Ross:
Speaking recently on a New York University panel about academic labor, I took a question from a respected, tenured colleague who suggested it might be time to reconsider tenure. We shouldn't be afraid to acknowledge the stultifying impact it can have on intellectual and institutional life, she observed, and we should debate whether, on balance, it is worth preserving. A surge of AAUP fundamentalism coursed through my body, and I had to fight to stem it. I'd be happy to have that conversation, I replied politely, just as long as there were no senior administrators in the room. Later that day, during a different NYU conference about academic freedom, former AAUP general secretary Roger Bowen observed, with regret, that tenure probably had no future in this country, and he suggested that the best way of preserving academic freedom in the long run might be to "decouple" it from tenure and make it a legal, or constitutional, right. Three days before, Inside Higher Ed had run a story about how some "tenured radicals" (among them Brown University's Claire Potter, another respected colleague [sic--Potter teaches at Wesleyan]) were publicly calling for the reassessment of tenure as gold standard. The article quoted AAUP president Cary Nelson's retort that this position was "insane."
One might be forgiven for concluding that someone had put something in the academic watercooler that week. In reality, however, it is not rare these days to hear this kind of open, semipublic questioning of tenure coming from progressive quarters. Nor is it uncommon to hear incredulous rearguard responses. With the tenured ranks shrinking daily, there is no ducking this kind of dialogue. Nor, if truth be told, should we be afraid of administrators listening in; they probably do need to hear the whole discussion. In that respect, this issue of Academe is especially timely.
Ross is right. The conversation really does need to happen--though I've seen for myself on this very blog how resistant tenured academics are to having that conversation. They aren't doing themselves any favors, though, and if they won't listen to me, maybe they'll listen to one of their own. Among other things, Ross points out that the purpose of tenure is not primarily to secure lifetime employment, as many assume, but to secure academic freedom--and he raises vital questions about whether tenure can really do that in a market where the tenured ride on the work and the exploitation of a growing mass of untenured, contingent college teachers. He is also quite smart on the way academics' fondness for their "siege mentality" has hindered their capacity to understand tenure and academic freedom in the larger context of the knowledge economy.
His conclusion resonates with points I have made here many times:
.. we cannot abstract academic freedom--the fruit of tenure--from the social conditions under which it is exercised and which make it possible. That would be the thinnest kind of laissez-faire thinking--what, in other circumstances, we might be tempted to describe as rights without responsibilities. In saying this, I am not suggesting that we attach conditions to the exercise of academic freedom--I am, as much as anyone, a fundamentalist when it comes to upholding these rights. But such beliefs should impel us to reflect on the cost, to others, by which these rights are maintained. A workplace in which the rights of a shrinking minority are secured by the precarious labor of disenfranchised parttimers, deprofessionalized graduate teachers, and a panoply of subcontracted service workers--blue collar, pink collar, white collar, and no collar--is not a morally sustainable environment.
Also of particular note in this forum is ACTA president Anne Neal's contribution on post-tenure review. Here's an excerpt:
During the 1990s, a great many schools implemented post-tenure review hurriedly, without clearly defined goals, workable procedures, or mechanisms for review. Those policies were asked to accomplish tremendous--and potentially conflicting--goals having to do with faculty enhancement and development, on the one hand, and individual and institutional accountability, on the other. In a very real sense, the future of higher education as we know it--certainly the future of tenure--depends on the success of post-tenure review. And yet, with rare exceptions, schools are not doing the essential work of studying how their policies are implemented; of determining whether, and on what terms, they are effective; and of revising both their policies and their procedures when and as needed. They should be doing all these things as a matter of course; their failure to do so shows how problematic accountability actually is.
The little information we do have about post-tenure review suggests that the system quite readily and regularly suffers in terms of conceptualization and implementation. Take Virginia. State law requires all public colleges and universities to conduct post-tenure review. And yet a 2004 evaluation at Virginia's sixteen public campuses found that two institutions had not conducted a single post-tenure review during the previous five years, a finding that raised questions about whether these institutions were in compliance with the law and with their own policies. Then there is Colorado, which found in the wake of the Ward Churchill affair that its post-tenure review policy, which had been in effect since 1997, had utterly failed to achieve both its developmental and its consequential goals. As then-president Hank Brown wrote, post-tenure review "was particularly problematic. Accountability for faculty performance was lacking, documentation of individual faculty strengths and weaknesses was insufficient, and there was no meaningful system of incentives and sanctions." Colorado has since committed to regularly assessing its post-tenure review policy and practice.
A 1997 study of post-tenure review at the University of Hawaii at Manoa found similar problems with a policy that had been in effect--and had gone unexamined--since 1987. Adopted to "head off legislative interest in university personnel issues pertaining to tenured faculty," Hawaii's policy was poorly written and badly implemented. The study found that post-tenure review neither revitalized faculty nor removed those who were irremediable; it offered no rewards and imposed no sanctions; and while it succeeded in keeping legislators appeased, it did not actually help improve either individual careers or institutional functioning. "The lessons learned from this study of the University of Hawaii at Manoa not only serve as a wake-up call to the campus to improve the process," the authors concluded, "but also provide evidence to other institutions that post-tenure review policies and procedures require periodic reevaluation by both faculty and central administration in order to ensure that faculty enjoy fulfilling lifetime careers while sustaining their institutions' vitality and public accountability."
Taken together, the findings in Virginia, Colorado, and Hawaii suggest that compliance and consistency are perennial issues, and that failure to institute systematic outcomes assessment for post-tenure review has quite predictably resulted in the institutionalization of problems. These studies provide a telling context for an astonishing fact: according to a 1999 poll conducted by the National Opinion Research Center, less than 6 percent of faculty members strongly agree that "post-tenure review has impacted faculty performance."
The findings also suggest that post-tenure review has been relatively ineffective as either an incentive system or a disciplinary tool. Without adequate resources and support, post-tenure review cannot offer meaningful rewards to outstanding faculty; without strongly framed provisions for handling persistently underperforming faculty, and without equally strong disciplinary and dismissal policies to support those provisions, post-tenure review cannot realize its role as a mechanism of accountability. All it can be under such conditions is a ritualistic exercise in rubberstamping, what the Hawaii study calls "virtual" review. And while a largely inconsequential process may result from what the AAUP recommends, it is not what faculty members want. As the Hawaii study found, faculty were eager for their "toothless" post-tenure review process to incorporate both "carrots" and "sticks."
Existing information about posttenure review suggests that the academy has responded to public calls for accountability largely with form, rather than substance. For a time, perhaps, the cosmetic adoption of a pro forma post-tenure review process worked. Legislators were satisfied, and ominous discussions about abolishing tenure were kept at bay. But today, as the AAUP and others have discovered, public faith in tenure is strikingly low. Post-tenure review has not been taken seriously by those charged with implementing it, and as a result, the policies that were hastily put into place years ago have for the most part been allowed to languish unexamined, unsupported, and unimproved. Post-tenure review has not restored public confidence in academic accountability. And while that fact should be no surprise, it should be cause for concern.
It is time to review post-tenure review. Institutions need to set clear, consistent criteria for what post-tenure review ought to do and measure whether colleges and universities live up to those criteria. From state to state, from college to university, from public institution to private, it is time to find out what schools are doing in the name of post-tenure review, and to identify--through real experience--what does and does not work. How helpful it would be for institutions to share how policy translates into practice. And how vital it is to know whether schools are successfully balancing the prerogatives of development and accountability. Only then will it be possible to say that the tenure system has begun to honor the AAUP’s foundational definition of academic freedom as a set of "duties correlative with rights."
Read the whole thing. (Full disclosure--I had a role in putting this piece together.)
September 17, 2008
In the wake of John McCain and Barack Obama's recent comments about Columbia's failure to allow ROTC on campus, the issue is heating up -- Columbia students may hold another referendum on the subject, and new voices are lending their support for ROTC's return.
The Washington Post, for example, opined that "'Don't ask, don't tell' is a misguided policy. For the time being, though, it is the law of the land, and we see no sign that the Ivies' protest is having any impact on it. Meanwhile, the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines defend all Americans, gay or straight. ROTC-free Ivy League institutions accept the financial aid that students earn for participating in ROTC elsewhere. ... among other benefits, the restoration of ROTC at the Ivies might help reconnect two important American subcultures--elite academia and the military officer corps--that have grown apart."
Here's to a constructive debate on an issue that has long gotten short shrift. And it's worth noting that one reason this is possible is that organizations such as the student and alumni-led Advocates for ROTC and ACTA have kept the issue alive, and have long maintained a clear perspective on the issues at hand.
September 15, 2008
It's not often I get to use pilates terminology on this blog. But there it is. Always a pleasure to advocate core strength (major for reducing back pain). And always a pleasure also to advocate for strong core curricula.
The occasion is Brown University's decision to devote quite a bit of effort to creating a meaningful structure and system of guidance for its famous no-requirements curriculum. At Brown, you do have to complete a major and demonstrate writing competence--but you are free of all those pesky distribution requirements that plague students at most colleges and universities. The resulting academic slackness--and the abdication of responsibility vis a vis helping students make wise and balanced educational choices--are now matters of concern at Brown. And it's about time.
Brown is not creating new requirements for students--perhaps wisely anticipating that this would induce a counterproductive resistance. But it is creating requirements for faculty--they must articulate the meaning and purpose of liberal education, and distribute the results to students; departments must produce written rationales for their majors and programs and must also explain how the courses of study they offer contribute to a broad liberal education; new advising mechanisms will be created to ensure that students get the guidance they need; and, in the name of transparency and accountability, e-portfolios of student work will allow Brown to track the progress of individual students over time as well as to get a better sense of what a Brown education means for students in the aggregate.
All good. And interesting to see a university that has for decades been at the extreme end of the "hollow core" syndrome affecting our higher ed system voluntarily setting a standard that could benefit many other schools. Here's how Inside Higher Ed puts it:
... some experts on the curriculum say that Brown's recent history with giving students freedom is simply a more explicit version of what plenty of colleges do -- but has forced the university to be more thoughtful about how to encourage the most educationally sound choices by students.
"The fact of the matter is that even at institutions that require students to complete general education, almost every college and university offers enormous freedom and very few have required sequences," said Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. "The curriculum really means a menu and the operative principle is a maximum degree of choice for students."
In this sense, Brown is more open about embracing student choice than are most colleges, but not as unusual as commonly believed in the extent of freedom given to students. Where Schneider said Brown is "providing exciting leadership," and going beyond many colleges that have many more apparent requirements on their books, is in "moving to provide an explicit statement and in plain English of what liberal education can be for their students."
When she meets with academic leaders considering their colleges' curricular plans, Schneider said, she frequently asks if they have ever written them down in a way that could be communicated to students--and is stunned by how rarely this happens. While not all students will pay attention, colleges can't expect students to embrace a curricular vision that has never been articulated.
Schneider also said Brown was potentially playing a key role in the way it is calling on every department to consider its general education role and not just its role in training majors. There has been a false dichotomy in too many discussions of curricular reform, Schneider said, between changes in major requirements and changes in general education requirements. Even at institutions with more requirements than Brown has, she said, the major needs to be considered as part of the general education goals, not separate from it.
Schneider is laying out some vital truths about two pervasive interlocking problems in higher ed: the failure of the general education curriculum to meaningfully approximate or even define liberal education and the failure of individual departments to conceptualize the major in a way that meaningfully connects to the broader principles of liberal education. And in doing so, she echoes observations and recommendations that groups such as ACTA have been making for years (see ACTA's reports, The Hollow Core, The Vanishing Shakespeare, Becoming an Educated Person, and Restoring America's Legacy).
Schools billing themselves as providers of liberal education really ought to be laying out what that means and making sure that students know how to make choices that are consonant with that meaning. So simple, so uncontroversial, so necessary, so overdue. Good for Brown.
September 12, 2008
Serendipity and ROTC
Yesterday morning, I had some sharp words for Columbia University about the way it selectively defines service learning for students. Columbia wants students to be socially and globally aware, and it wants them to combine their learning with giving. But only if that accords with institutional politics--military service doesn't fit Columbia's list of acceptable ways for students to serve. And so ROTC remains banned, despite a 2005 student referendum overwhelmingly expressing support for restoring it to campus--and the reason is explicitly political. The powers that be at Columbia dislike DADT. And they are taking that dislike out on ROTC--and on the futures of young men and women who wish to serve.
As luck would have it, at a service forum at Columbia yesterday both presidential candidates were asked about Columbia's ROTC policy. And both agreed the ban was a mistake.
Here's McCain: "Frankly, we're here in a wonderful institution. I'm proud that my daughter graduated from this school. But do you know that this school will not allow ROTC on this campus? I don't think thats right. ... Shouldn't the students here be exposed to the attractiveness of serving in the military, particularly as an officer ... I would hope that these universities would re-examine that policy of not even allowing people who come here to represent the military and other Ivy League schools and then maybe they will be able to attract some more."
And here's Obama--less direct, more circuitous, but ultimately saying the same thing: "I recognize that there are students here who have differences in terms of military policy. But the notion that young people here at Columbia or anywhere, in any university, aren't offered the choice, the option of participating in military service, I think is a mistake. ... That does not mean we disregard any potential differences in various issues that are raised by the students here, but it does mean that we should have an honest debate while still offering opportunities for everybody to serve, and that's something that I'm pretty clear about."
Joe Biden concurred, when asked his opinion after the forum: "I think that there should be ROTC on campus. No one has to show up and sign up. Just as I defended this University's right to invite Ahmadinejad, regardless of how bad that judgment may have been, how can you say that there should not be an ROTC group here?"
So there you have it. This is really not controversial to anybody but the campus protesters who have grossly misunderstood just how far protest should go. McCain and Obama have quite different stances on DADT--but both can agree that ROTC should be on campus for any student who wishes to serve.
Columbia--and all the other schools that preserve an antiquated ban on ROTC--need to revisit their stance and do the right thing. And the people who don't like it can protest--peacefully, within the scope of law, and they can ensure that we have a lively debate. They could start by lobbying Congress to do what the majority of Americans already want it to do. And they could leave the young men and women who wish to spend their college years training for military service alone. They could also bear in mind that for many of them, ROTC scholarships are what make it possible to go to college in the first place. If they want to fight the good fight, they shouldn't do it on the backs of people who need their ROTC scholarships in order to get a college education.
Columbia has an opportunity here to lead. There are a number of elite private universities that are hanging onto their Vietnam-era ROTC bans as if their lives depended on it. But they are very much in the wrong, and, as I noted in the comments to my post yesterday, the place to protest DADT, which the majority of us can easily see is misguided and wrong, is not ROTC. It would be a great, great thing to see Columbia decide to re-open the ROTC question, not only out of respect for all kinds of service, not only out of respect for Columbia students' desire to see ROTC return, but also out of respect for students' intelligence and freedom of choice. The young men and women who attend Columbia are smart. Surely they should be allowed to decide for themselves where to put their time and their effort?
September 11, 2008
I've taken a lot of flak over the years for insisting the the academic hiring process is eminently abusable--and often politicized. Usually that flak is from academics who like their circumstances just fine, and don't want to deal with reality. When confronted with anecdotal evidence, they dismiss it as anomalous, as lack of proof of pattern--even when the anecdotes add up over time. Maybe, in a best case scenario, they have truly never seen anything problematic first hand. Or maybe, in a geekish scenario, they have truly had their heads so deep in the intellectual sand that they have failed to register what's going on right in front of them. Or maybe there is some good old-fashioned denial at work. I read the blogs of some academics who I think are smart, and observant, and more fair than most, and more willing than most to acknowledge institutional problems within academia--but who just won't touch this one. It runs too deep, I think, and is too threatening. So it must be bullshit.
Obliviousness, denial, and sundry similar coping mechanisms can only get you so far, though. And it should be hard to ignore or rationalize or explain away the manner in which the University of Massachusetts at Amherst has openly institutionalized--and validated--politicized hiring practices.
Daphne Patai, who teaches at UMass-Amherst, has uncovered an intriguing set of hiring guidelines published online by her university's Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity. Check it out:
At the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where I teach, a document both sublime and ridiculous advises us how to go about determining if applicants have what it takes to work here. Along with the usual lists of questions that may or may not be asked, the Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity provides some crucial guidelines in a document titled Supplemental Search Instructions. I reproduce the final section of this document below:
IT'S ALL IN WHAT YOU ASK: SOME QUESTIONS SEARCH COMMITTEES MIGHT WANT TO USE
Search committees often have difficulty determining if a candidate is aware of and responsive to minority and women's issues and to issues involving the disabled and other groups requiring sensitive treatment. When prospective employees are asked, "Are you concerned about and supportive of these issues?", they will invariably give an affirmative reply. Unfortunately, that gives little indication of their level of concern or commitment. Asking some of the questions listed below may help you gain a better understanding of a candidate's position on these issues. Many of the questions suggested below do not have a "right" or a "wrong" answer. These questions should be asked by both men and women on the search committee because having only women or minority persons ask questions about these issues may give a candidate the impression that equity issues are not important to the institution as a whole. Many candidates will not have prepared answers to these questions in advance. These questions will, therefore, be useful in drawing out the candidate's opinions rather than the "correct answer".
Parentheses are used to indicate that one or more of the following words are missing: Minorities, Blacks, Hispanics, Native-American; Women; economically disadvantaged persons; disabled persons; veterans or disabled veterans; homosexuals, gays, lesbians; protected groups; affirmative action groups, etc.
How have you demonstrated your commitment to (____) issues in your current position?
Which of your achievements in the area of equity for (____) gives you the most satisfaction?
How would you demonstrate your concern for equity for (____) if you were hired?
In your opinion, what are the three major problems for (____) on your campus?
How are general issues in higher education related to (____) issues? What is the link?
Describe activities--include articles, interviews, and speeches--in which you have taken part that demonstrate a public commitment to equity.
In your current position, have you ever seen a (____ ) treated unfairly? How would/did you handle it?
In your current position, what is your relationship to the affirmative action officer? Have you ever sought his or her help in recruiting?
How many of the top people at your current or previous institution are (____ )? What did you do to encourage hiring more (____ )?
Which committee at your current institution would you consider the most powerful? How many (____) are on it? How many (____ ) have you appointed to it?
How did/would you deal with faculty members or employees who say disparaging things about (____)?
What scholarship about (____) have you read lately?
Have any students ever complained to you about sexual harassment or discrimination in any work with professors or staff? If so, how did you respond?
* Adapted from It's All in What You Ask, Association of American Colleges Project on the Status and Education of Women. Bernice R. Sandler, Project Director.
Patai goes on to explain who Bernice Sandler is--and she should know, as Sandler figures largely in Patai's masterful Heterophobia. She notes that a document once centered wholly on women has been adapted to include the full roster of contemporary victim groups. She also notes how closely this line of suggested questioning resembles ed schools' legally untenable attempts to assess students' "dispositions" through political litmus tests: "Potential faculty are thus being pressured to adopt and embrace -- or merely pretend to do so -- the requisite "attitude" toward minorities, political activism, and social issues, and to provide evidence that they have acted on these supposed commitments. And, scarier still, these questions by implication are presented as legitimate requirements for employment, though they have nothing to do with either education or intellectual and scholarly accomplishments. And, even worse, the questions are designed to weed out the merely formal assenters from authentic true believers."
Only some kinds of service
Service learning is all the rage in higher ed these days, and Columbia University is part of the national trend toward making it mandatory. You might say that takes the "volunteer" out of "volunteer work." But there you have it. And good things do come of it when it's done right.
This morning's New York Times features an article about Columbia's engineering program, which has for the past six years made service learning part of the curriculum. Engineering majors do all kinds of hands-on work in Harlem--they have built wheelchair-accessible swings, they have helped build a wind-powered greenhouse at a local high school, they have helped invent trash cans designed for the disabled. And so on. The students get good applied experience, and the community gets good benefits. Other Columbia departments are taking note, and considering following suit.
The push for service learning requirements has been especially intense in the wake of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. Not surprisingly, the New York-based Columbia and the New Orleans-based Tulane are leading the way. This fall, Tulane became the first university to require every students to complete a service learning requirement before graduation.
So what's not to love? The details. That's where the devil always is.
First, consider this quote from Jack McGourty, associate dean of Columbia's engineering school. "We obviously want to create engineers and applied scientists who are technically adept, but also effective in this global society," said he told the Times. "We want to create students who are socially aware."
Second, consider this fact. In 2005, Columbia's students passed a referendum overwhelmingly in favor of restoring ROTC, which had been banned during the Vietnam era, to campus--but the University Senate, which is composed of faculty, alumni, administrators, and some student representatives, rejected the referendum on political grounds, citing opposition to DADT. Despite a strong majority of students who want to see ROTC return to Columbia as part of a larger roster of civic-minded opportunities for students, ideology carried the day. The Senate members' wish to make Columbia policy reflect their personal anti-military sentiment was more important than a student-driven initiative to facilitate student service. And the trustees, who had the final say but did not, apparently, have spines, let the Senate recommendation stand.
Add the McGourty quote to this interesting fact, and you get a double standard that rises to the level of institutional hypocrisy. Columbia can be justly proud of the innovative service component of its engineering program. But the university should be ashamed at how selective and politically loaded its definition of service is.
If Columbia is really serious about integrating service learning into the undergraduate experience, it can bring back ROTC, and offer it alongside a wide range of other opportunities for students to give to community and country.
September 10, 2008
Horrors of the half-read book
Writing at the Chronicle of Higher Education, novelist and literature Ph.D. William McMillen discusses the dubious pleasures of putting books down when you are half way through them. Making a virtue of settled fact--he now only finishes about half the books he starts--he writes with good humor and a rueful appreciation for the difficulty of sustaining attention in the modern age. Citing everything from the Internet to Books on Tape to bookstore coffee shops as factors in his readerly fickleness, he lays most of the blame squarely on doctoral training itself:
... if you were to force me to accept responsibility for having given up on reading books to the end, I would trace my habit back to finishing my doctorate in contemporary literature years ago. I realized then that except for books that I might teach or write about, I never had to finish another book unless I wanted to. I wasn't going to be tested on any book for the rest of my life. I was no longer competing to finish self-imposed reading lists with fellow graduate students. And I already had read more books by the age of 29 than most people read in a lifetime.
I do understand the way doctoral training can blight one's ability to read for pleasure, as well as how it can so thoroughly train people to read in a partial, trawling way--looking not for the whole story or analysis, but for bits and pieces that can be used in one's dissertation--that reading is reduced to a hollow, even narcissistic, ritual of self-contemplation. I finished my degree in 1995, and it was years before I could even contemplate reading for pleasure. All reading was work. Even the books on the bedside table had to be read with pencil in hand. It was exhausting, and profoundly dysphoric, and utterly cliched, and it happened to everyone I knew.
Still, that doesn't seem to be what McMillen is talking about. He seems to be talking about the naughty pleasure involved in simply dropping a book that is not holding one's attention. There is an honesty to that, and a freedom, and even a propriety, if we accept the premise that reading is a form of engagement, of imaginative connection, and that the moment a book becomes a chore--the moment leisure reading becomes slogging--there's no point anymore. He's right, of course.
An aside: That's one reason why teaching English is such a vexed enterprise. The whole business short circuits the student's ability to develop the habit of reading purposefully, imaginatively, and thoughtfully on his or her own. Of course it's still necessary, and of course it can model lively intellectual engagement, and of course when it works, students become lifelong readers who carve out their own meaningful canons. But it's vexed all the same. That's a topic for other posts at other times, though.
Among the books McMillen has put down lately: Pynchon's Vineland, Tom Brokaw's Boom!, Rob Gifford's China Road, Philip Roth's The Plot Against America, and Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian.
Among the books he's finished: Against the Day, also by Thomas Pynchon; Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin; The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, by Mark Haddon; The Thief at the End of the World, by Joe Jackson; and Protect and Defend, by Vince Flynn.
There is no real rule to it, McMillen notes. Pynchon appears on both lists. Length is not a factor in whether he finishes a book or not, nor is genre. Nor is there really any waste. Even the abandoned books were worthwhile; when they ceased to be, McMillen put them down.
I take his points. But I still really hate to quit on a book I've begun. I do feel guilt about putting a book down, and perhaps for that reason I have always been almost obsessive about choosing what I am going to read next. I want the book to be a good match for my interests and mood of the moment--and I don't want to have to put it down.
Right now, Thomas Flanagan's doorstop about the Irish Civil War, The End of the Hunt, is weighing down my bedside table and my conscience. I'm about half way through it. It's good. I love Flanagan's other novels. But I seem to have gotten sidetracked. Somewhere in there, I read Ian McEwan's The Cement Garden (now that is a creepy, creepy book), and then I got onto some Ivy Compton-Burnett (also not the right mood), and some John Banville (very much the right mood) ... and I don't seem to have picked the Flanagan up in weeks. Of course, now I'm done for. His work is so dense that you can't put it aside for any length of time and return to it. But I still have not declared it to be Put Down. I may not for awhile. It may gather dust for months, while I learn to look past it entirely.
So I'm not as free as McMillen. What gets in my way is a sense of obligation to the writer. Flanagan deserves better from me than I have given. And while I take McMillen's point, I'm not sure that's all bad.
September 9, 2008
What academic freedom really means
It doesn't mean anything goes. It doesn't mean professors can do whatever they want in the classroom. It's not a system of absolute rights, and it doesn't mean that colleges and universities aren't accountable to their students or to the public. What it does mean is that institutions of higher education should be free to figure out for themselves how to fulfill their missions, and how to solve their problems. Of course, when they refuse to do that--when they make problems, or won't acknowledge that problems exist, then trouble arises. You get things like the ABOR, and all the fallout, anger, incomprehension and bad faith that attended all sides of that enterprise.
But the ideals of self-governance and institutional autonomy--which lie at the heart of academic freedom--speak directly to the manner in which the educational enterprise and the scholarly pursuit of truth require freedom from meddlesome external interference, even as they also require colleges and universities to be transparently responsible to the public they serve. That recognition seemed to be at the forefront of yesterday's roundtable discussion of rising tuition costs and bloated endowments:
Two dozen college presidents and policy experts defended the rising costs of tuition on Monday and argued against forcing colleges to spend more of their endowments.
But Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, and Representative Peter Welch, Democrat of Vermont, who convened a round-table discussion on the subject, indicated that they would continue their effort to push universities to justify their tax exemptions by spending more of their endowment money.
"Tuition has risen at twice the rate of per capita income," Mr. Welch said, "and this year it will cost just under $50,000 to attend the average private college. If the cost of milk had risen as fast as the cost of college since 1980, a gallon would be $15."
Mr. Grassley said it was only fair to ask whether universities were doing enough for society, given that the value of their tax exemption, in the 2007 fiscal year, was more than $17 billion. He cited a survey finding that in that year, universities earned an average return of 17.2 percent on their assets but spent only 4.6 percent.
The two richest universities, Harvard and Yale, together have about $60 billion in endowments.
"If an institution could educate all of its undergraduate students, regardless of need, free of charge, with a payout of just 1 percent of its assets, is its endowment an unreasonable accumulation of taxpayer-subsidized funds?" Mr. Grassley asked.
Although Mr. Grassley has repeatedly suggested that he would like to mandate that the richest universities spend 5 percent of their endowments each year, as private foundations must, there was no hint on Monday that any specific legislation was on the horizon.
In fact, Mr. Grassley's closing remarks gave some comfort to university leaders, who oppose such legislation. He described his earlier experience looking into problems with nonprofits, saying his initial assessment was that it would take "a massive amount of legislation" to correct the problems. But after discussions with nonprofit groups, he told the educators, "a lot of the things that needed to be corrected were self-corrected," He added, "We'd like to encourage you folks to look inward and correct what can be corrected."
Grassley's inquiries may well feel threatening to academics and administrators. They are being challenged, after all, to explain themselves, and that's often threatening, especially if you don't really have good answers for why you do what you do. But it's fair and reasonable, it's done in the public interest, and it is done, too, in a manner that does give academic insiders a chance to defend their practices, explain what they are doing to keep costs down, outline exactly how much it costs to deliver four years of undergraduate education to each student, and, crucially, decide for themselves what, if anything, they are going to do about the problem. If they do nothing ... then, as former University of Colorado president noted about the problems with hiring and tenure, then they will face the deeply unpleasant prospect of having their problems solved for them -- an outcome Brown openly acknowledged none of us should want.
At the very least, we are getting a good airing of the issues, a necessary discussion is being launched, and colleges and universities are feeling the constructive pressure of a public that has gone just about as far as it can go with hypertrophic tuition bills. Now if only we all had the economics knowledge needed to actually conduct this discussion at an appropriately informed level.
Have I mentioned here that among all the many distribution requirements colleges and universities typically maintain--foreign language, math, science, composition, maybe some literature or history or social science--economics never seems to be among them? That's something ACTA pointed out in their 2004 study of the "hollow" core curriculum, and it's an observation whose poignance deepens with time.
September 6, 2008
Edgar Allan Poe is buried in Baltimore, where he did a lot of writing and where he died. But a Philadelphia-based Poe scholar is arguing that Poe's resting place is more rightly the inaptly named City of Brotherly Love:
...last year Edward Pettit, a Poe scholar in Philadelphia, began arguing that Poe's remains belong in Philadelphia. Poe wrote many of his most noteworthy works there and, according to Mr. Pettit, that city's rampant crime and violence in the mid-19th century framed Poe's sinister outlook and inspired his creation of the detective fiction genre.
"So, Philadelphians, let's hop in our cars, drive down I-95 and appropriate a body from a certain Baltimore cemetery," Mr. Pettit wrote in an article for the Philadelphia City Paper in October. "I'll bring the shovel."
So far, no one has taken up Mr. Pettit's call for Philadelphia's best grave robbers to bring home the city's prodigal son before the bicentennial of Poe's birth in January 2009. But the ghoulish argument between the cities over the body and legacy of the master of the macabre has continued in blogs and newspapers, and on Jan. 13 Mr. Pettit is to square off with an opponent from Baltimore to settle the matter in a debate at the Philadelphia Free Library.
"Philadelphia can keep its broken bell and its cheese steak, but Poe's body isn't going anywhere," said Jeff Jerome, the curator of the Poe House in Baltimore and Mr. Pettit's opponent in the debate.
"If they want a body, they can have John Wilkes Booth," Mr. Jerome added, referring to Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, who is also buried in Baltimore.
'The Fall of the House of Usher,' 'The Murders in the Rue Morgue,' 'The Masque of the Red Death,' 'The Tell-Tale Heart,' 'The Black Cat,' and 'The Gold-Bug,'" Mr. Pettit said breathlessly, listing the works written by Poe while he lived in Philadelphia. "That's why we deserve him."
The Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site in Philadelphia, in one of the houses where Poe lived, gets about 15,000 visitors a year, compared with about 5,000 a year that go to the Baltimore Poe House, Mr. Pettit said.
When Poe died in Baltimore, only a handful of people showed up at his funeral. He was buried in a grave that had no headstone for more than two decades.
"Is that really the mark of a city that loves Poe?" Mr. Pettit said.
I love the idea that Philadelphia should get the credit for shaping Poe's imagination--and should thus get custody of what's left of Poe--because it's such a horribly violent place to live. That resonates. I lived there from 1995 through the first half of 2007. I lived in an apartment in a nice area just off Rittenhouse Square. And during that time, there were two murders on the street directly below my second-floor window, and another just three blocks to the west. In the fall of 1995, a lady jogger out for a morning run was found dead at the bottom of a stairwell on Pine Street. In the fall of 1997, I was awakened one night by shots outside my window: it was a muggee dispatching the mugger. One afternoon in the spring of 2004, I was working in my living room when I heard shots--again, right outside my window. A car had been stopped at a red light at the corner--which had afforded an armed pedestrian the opportunity to point, shoot, and succeed. The dying driver managed somehow to inch his car down another block before expiring from the wound to his head. This was the nice part of town, and these were just the murders that I knew about, and felt personally connected to by virtue of their proximity to my home. My point here is that there was absolutely nothing special or shocking about my experience. There's about a murder a day in Philly, and the city is often described as the nation's murder capital. So ... it's both amusing and chilling to see Pettit trying to own that fact, and that history, in the name of art.
On the subject of Poe's remains: Poe has already been exhumed and moved once. Twenty-six years after his death, he was dug up and moved to a more prominent part of his cemetery. And during his removal, it was observed that his brain had hardened into a lump, and was visible within his skull. Of course, brains don't harden into lumps, and they do disappear after a quarter century of interment. But tumors can calcify--and can thus last.
Poe's death, which featured raving dementia, has long been a mystery--some have said he died of rabies, or drink, or consumption (TB), or tertiary syphilis. But the truth may lie in that little calcified lump that the sexton saw when he moved the writer's remains decades after his death.
If you don't already know the story about how novelist Matthew Pearl put all of this together--and so brought a new dimension to the longstanding literary-historical question of Poe's demise--check this out.
September 5, 2008
Fractions of accountability
New York is having trouble making good on the mayor's pledge to shake up the leadership at failing schools. Last fall, report cards were issued to the city's schools--and 52 flunked. Since then, new principals have been installed at 14 of them, five have been closed, and another is slated for closing. So: 14+5+1=20 schools where something substantive has been done (though I do wonder whether closing a school can be called substantive--and whether it's not in itself a profound if necessary kind of failure). Twenty is a far cry from 52, and the number of schools marking major changes really ought to be 52.
From the New York Times:
Whether the principals who left 'did it of their own volition, or were encouraged to make that decision or if some of them saw the writing on the wall, we don't actually know,' said Chris Cerf, the deputy chancellor who oversees personnel issues. 'The fact is that there were real-world consequences in almost half of these schools.'
"Nearly half" is an accurate characterization if you consider 38 percent to be nearly half. It's a substantial rounding up, in any case. And I really don't think that it's a figure Cerf or the city should be proud of. After all, it means that 62 percent of schools are being run just as they were a year ago, when they were identified as utterly inadequate. And while the schools may be the same, the kids are a year older--and a year deeper in the hole.
In the fine print, the Times notes that there are a few cases of schools that had installed new principals just as the report cards came out--so it makes sense to give those new leaders a chance to actually lead. And it's certainly true that simply firing principals is not going to fix broken schools--and especially when, as has happened here, ineffective principals simply go off and become administrators at other schools. And of course there is the perennial question--not my focus today--of whether assessing effectiveness in terms of test scores is a fair way to go.
Still, it does give one pause to learn that "most of the principals at the 52 failing schools--including several who have since departed--were rated 'proficient.' Seven of them earned 'well developed,' the highest mark on the review." If their excellence doesn't translate into an effective school, is it really excellent? If a tree falls in the woods ... ?
It also gives one pause to think about what seems to have counted as follow-through for a number of failing schools: "Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein met with roughly half of the principals whose schools received an 'F' and consulted community superintendents and other mid-level administrators to decide what should be done at individual schools." Conversation as cure? It doesn't work in psychoanalysis and it's sure not going to work with the school system. It would be helpful to know what kinds of accountability measures are in place to ensure that conversation leads to swift, decisive, and demonstrably effective action.
And, finally, there is this: "Of those principals who left their schools since June 2007, four are working as administrators in other city schools; 13 no longer work in the school system; and one is considered an 'excessed' administrator: still on the payroll but without a permanent position in the department, officials said, earning a total of about $19 million a year."
Can that possibly be right? A single benched ex-principal making $19 million on the taxpayers' dime?
September 4, 2008
Vetting and recommending
Newsmax is running this story as part of the larger effort under way in certain corners of the media to prove that Barack Obama has serious and undisclosed ties to Islam. I don't have a dog in that race and won't take it up here--beyond saying that a) I think all candidates in this election ought to be thoroughly vetted; b) the vetting should be centered on facts, not slurs, lies, and innuendo, particularly when it comes to private lives; and c) media and blogly partisans on both sides have engaged in more than enough slurs, lies, and innuendo to last us all a lifetime.
My reason for linking to the piece: It is, unintentionally, a remarkably revealing snapshot of the corruption governing the "letters of rec" system that plays such a central part of admission to elite institutions, particularly at the post-graduate level. Check it out:
New evidence has emerged that Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama was closely associated as early as age 25 to a key adviser to a Saudi billionaire who had mentored the founding members of the Black Panthers.
In a videotaped interview this year on New York's all news cable channel NY1, a prominent African-American businessman and political figure made the curious disclosures about Obama.
Percy Sutton, the former borough president of Manhattan, off-handedly revealed the unusual circumstances about his first encounter with the young Obama.
"I was introduced to (Obama) by a friend who was raising money for him," Sutton told NY1 city hall reporter Dominic Carter.
"The friend's name is Dr. Khalid al-Mansour, from Texas," Sutton said. "He is the principal adviser to one of the world's richest men. He told me about Obama."
Sutton, the founder of Inner City Broadcasting, said al-Mansour contacted him to ask a favor: Would Sutton write a letter in support of Obama's application to Harvard Law School?
"He wrote to me about him," Sutton recalled. "And his introduction was there is a young man that has applied to Harvard. I know that you have a few friends up there because you used to go up there to speak. Would you please write a letter in support of him?"
Sutton said he acted on his friend al-Mansour's advice.
"I wrote a letter of support of him to my friends at Harvard, saying to them I thought there was a genius that was going to be available and I certainly hoped they would treat him kindly," Sutton told NY1.
Sutton did not say why al-Mansour was helping Obama, how he discovered him, or from whom he was raising money on Obama's behalf.
Letters of recommendation are supposed to be from people who can speak to the quality and caliber of an applicant's work, intellect, and character. They are not supposed to be from people one has never met, and should never be solicited--or executed--in such a patently manipulative way. If this account is accurate, Sutton recommended Obama on the basis of a mutual associate's good word--and request for a favor. And, if the account is accurate, Sutton recommended Obama to the Harvard admissions people in a manner that falsely suggested that he had personally assessed Obama's intellect and character. Check out the video above yourself, and see what you think about accuracy.
Can you vouch for the genius of someone you have never met--and never even heard of? No. Can you game the system if you and your surrogates will lie for you? Absolutely.