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April 27, 2009 [feather]
Six steps to a better higher ed

Columbia religion professor Mark Taylor has long been an innovative and inspiring thinker when it comes to the subject of complexity. Today, in a long but compact op-ed in the New York Times, he takes on that singularly complex institution, higher ed. Focussing specifically on the unconscionable structure of graduate education, Taylor lays out the problem in no uncertain terms:


Graduate education is the Detroit of higher learning. Most graduate programs in American universities produce a product for which there is no market (candidates for teaching positions that do not exist) and develop skills for which there is diminishing demand (research in subfields within subfields and publication in journals read by no one other than a few like-minded colleagues), all at a rapidly rising cost (sometimes well over $100,000 in student loans).

Widespread hiring freezes and layoffs have brought these problems into sharp relief now. But our graduate system has been in crisis for decades, and the seeds of this crisis go as far back as the formation of modern universities. Kant, in his 1798 work "The Conflict of the Faculties," wrote that universities should "handle the entire content of learning by mass production, so to speak, by a division of labor, so that for every branch of the sciences there would be a public teacher or professor appointed as its trustee."

Unfortunately this mass-production university model has led to separation where there ought to be collaboration and to ever-increasing specialization. In my own religion department, for example, we have 10 faculty members, working in eight subfields, with little overlap. And as departments fragment, research and publication become more and more about less and less. Each academic becomes the trustee not of a branch of the sciences, but of limited knowledge that all too often is irrelevant for genuinely important problems. A colleague recently boasted to me that his best student was doing his dissertation on how the medieval theologian Duns Scotus used citations.

The emphasis on narrow scholarship also encourages an educational system that has become a process of cloning. Faculty members cultivate those students whose futures they envision as identical to their own pasts, even though their tenures will stand in the way of these students having futures as full professors.

The dirty secret of higher education is that without underpaid graduate students to help in laboratories and with teaching, universities couldn’t conduct research or even instruct their growing undergraduate populations. That's one of the main reasons we still encourage people to enroll in doctoral programs. It is simply cheaper to provide graduate students with modest stipends and adjuncts with as little as $5,000 a course--with no benefits--than it is to hire full-time professors.

In other words, young people enroll in graduate programs, work hard for subsistence pay and assume huge debt burdens, all because of the illusory promise of faculty appointments. But their economical presence, coupled with the intransigence of tenure, ensures that there will always be too many candidates for too few openings.

The other obstacle to change is that colleges and universities are self-regulating or, in academic parlance, governed by peer review. While trustees and administrations theoretically have some oversight responsibility, in practice, departments operate independently. To complicate matters further, once a faculty member has been granted tenure he is functionally autonomous. Many academics who cry out for the regulation of financial markets vehemently oppose it in their own departments.


It's nice to see that sort of honesty emanating from within academia; the truths Taylor lays out for the world to see this morning are the sort that academics will talk openly about among themselves, particularly when they are among the less institutionally privileged (the more privilege you get, the more invested you get in the system, and it's very hard for tenured people to admit that maybe they don't deserve the perk they have, and that maybe they enjoy that perk because of how it facilitates the exploitation of others). Still, it's not news that excessive numbers of ultimately unemployable grad students make the lives of the tenured easier, and that this is more important than, say, ethics. It's not news that in many fields, hyper-specialization has become so ridiculous that you can't make jokes about it because it is already its own parody. It's also not news that self-governance tends to be a synonym for institutional fragmentation, redundancy, and intransigence. Want to get nothing done but have lots of meetings anyway? Be an academic.

What's great about this op-ed, though, is that Taylor is going public with this stuff. He won't make any friends by doing it, and there will be dismissive squawking from the usual quarters. It's unseemly to air dirty linen like that--particularly when it is accompanied by such threatening proposals for change.


If American higher education is to thrive in the 21st century, colleges and universities, like Wall Street and Detroit, must be rigorously regulated and completely restructured. The long process to make higher learning more agile, adaptive and imaginative can begin with six major steps:

1. Restructure the curriculum, beginning with graduate programs and proceeding as quickly as possible to undergraduate programs. The division-of-labor model of separate departments is obsolete and must be replaced with a curriculum structured like a web or complex adaptive network. Responsible teaching and scholarship must become cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural.

Just a few weeks ago, I attended a meeting of political scientists who had gathered to discuss why international relations theory had never considered the role of religion in society. Given the state of the world today, this is a significant oversight. There can be no adequate understanding of the most important issues we face when disciplines are cloistered from one another and operate on their own premises.

It would be far more effective to bring together people working on questions of religion, politics, history, economics, anthropology, sociology, literature, art, religion and philosophy to engage in comparative analysis of common problems. As the curriculum is restructured, fields of inquiry and methods of investigation will be transformed.

2. Abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem-focused programs. These constantly evolving programs would have sunset clauses, and every seven years each one should be evaluated and either abolished, continued or significantly changed. It is possible to imagine a broad range of topics around which such zones of inquiry could be organized: Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life and Water.

Consider, for example, a Water program. In the coming decades, water will become a more pressing problem than oil, and the quantity, quality and distribution of water will pose significant scientific, technological and ecological difficulties as well as serious political and economic challenges. These vexing practical problems cannot be adequately addressed without also considering important philosophical, religious and ethical issues. After all, beliefs shape practices as much as practices shape beliefs.

A Water program would bring together people in the humanities, arts, social and natural sciences with representatives from professional schools like medicine, law, business, engineering, social work, theology and architecture. Through the intersection of multiple perspectives and approaches, new theoretical insights will develop and unexpected practical solutions will emerge.

3. Increase collaboration among institutions. All institutions do not need to do all things and technology makes it possible for schools to form partnerships to share students and faculty. Institutions will be able to expand while contracting. Let one college have a strong department in French, for example, and the other a strong department in German; through teleconferencing and the Internet both subjects can be taught at both places with half the staff. With these tools, I have already team-taught semester-long seminars in real time at the Universities of Helsinki and Melbourne.

4. Transform the traditional dissertation. In the arts and humanities, where looming cutbacks will be most devastating, there is no longer a market for books modeled on the medieval dissertation, with more footnotes than text. As financial pressures on university presses continue to mount, publication of dissertations, and with it scholarly certification, is almost impossible. (The average university press print run of a dissertation that has been converted into a book is less than 500, and sales are usually considerably lower.) For many years, I have taught undergraduate courses in which students do not write traditional papers but develop analytic treatments in formats from hypertext and Web sites to films and video games. Graduate students should likewise be encouraged to produce “theses” in alternative formats.

5. Expand the range of professional options for graduate students. Most graduate students will never hold the kind of job for which they are being trained. It is, therefore, necessary to help them prepare for work in fields other than higher education. The exposure to new approaches and different cultures and the consideration of real-life issues will prepare students for jobs at businesses and nonprofit organizations. Moreover, the knowledge and skills they will cultivate in the new universities will enable them to adapt to a constantly changing world.

6. Impose mandatory retirement and abolish tenure. Initially intended to protect academic freedom, tenure has resulted in institutions with little turnover and professors impervious to change. After all, once tenure has been granted, there is no leverage to encourage a professor to continue to develop professionally or to require him or her to assume responsibilities like administration and student advising. Tenure should be replaced with seven-year contracts, which, like the programs in which faculty teach, can be terminated or renewed. This policy would enable colleges and universities to reward researchers, scholars and teachers who continue to evolve and remain productive while also making room for young people with new ideas and skills.

For many years, I have told students, "Do not do what I do; rather, take whatever I have to offer and do with it what I could never imagine doing and then come back and tell me about it." My hope is that colleges and universities will be shaken out of their complacency and will open academia to a future we cannot conceive.


I like his thinking about how abolishing departments can create more flexible, fluid, collaborative, and lively academic units. And if you've read this blog with any regularity, you know I like his thinking about tenure.

I know it's hard for the folks who have tenure--or who hope to have tenure--to wrap their minds around the utterly vestigial character of an institution that has outlasted whatever limited purpose it might once have served to protect academic freedom in a different era, under different circumstances. But the time has really come for the people who are invested in tenure to conduct the thought experiment proposed by Taylor and others. If they can do that, they will have a fighting chance of preserving academic freedom and self-governance by other means -- and potentially of being part of a long overdue revitalization of the academy. If they don't, they will continue to be a shrinking, defensive, increasingly indefensible group with diminishing claims to authority, respect, autonomy, and, yes, academic freedom.

Erin O'Connor, 7:22 AM | Permalink | Comments (24) | TrackBack (0)




April 22, 2009 [feather]
Tip of the iceberg

So Virginia Tech has dropped its wrongheaded proposal to require tenure candidates to demonstrate their commitment to diversity. That's all to the good, and as it should be.

But that's not the end of the story. The problem of imposing ideological litmus tests on faculty is not confined to Virginia Tech, nor is it confined to the tenure track. A reader describes how they do things at the University of Arizona:


A few days ago you posted FIRE's response to Virginia Tech's rescinding of "diversity" requirements for tenure-track faculty members. Here is a similar requirement, only it affects non-tenured workers at the University of Arizona.

Annually, we have to fill out a form titled "Performance Appraisal Review (Factors and Standards Format)." One's supervisor also fills out a section of the form after reviewing what the employee has written about his or her own job performance (e.g. I'm great and you're lucky to have me!). After a little back and forth, the supervisor will rate the employee's performance as either Unsatisfactory, Meets Expectations, Exceeds them, or Excellent. Very few people get rated in the lowest two designations.

Anyway, a "Key Performance Factor" for those who supervise others reads as follows:

"Assigns work to maximize group strengths; involves employees in the identification and solution of work-related problems; demonstrates a commitment to diversity in recruitment, hiring and management of people; welcomes, values and engages people of heterogeneous backgrounds, perspectives and experiences, is committed to building a departmental/collegial community in which people feel included, understood, and appreciated; promotes teamwork and cooperation, exercises discipline and resolves conflict fairly and constructively, trains, coaches and develops subordinates, delegates responsibility and authority."

I realize that this is not as weighty an issue as the one at Virginia Tech, but still, this pleasant sounding PC blabber could be used to unfairly fire or intimidate an employee on something along the lines of his being insufficiently "engaging" or "welcoming," etc.

I would guess that diversity benchmarks related to the evaluation of employee job performance are very widely embedded in many institutions of higher education.

I would guess so, too. Isn't it interesting to see how the academic love for diversity rhetoric--even when it's overbroad and outrageous--can become a tool for weakening the already negligible employment protections and academic freedom of non-tenure track faculty?

Erin O'Connor, 9:01 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)




April 18, 2009 [feather]
Fukuyama on tenure

Francis Fukuyama, in the Washington Post:


I'm a tenured professor. But I'd get rid of tenure.

Tenure was created to protect academic freedom after a series of 19th-century cases when university donors or legislators tried to remove professors whose views they disliked. One famous instance in the late 1800s involved progressive movement leader Richard Ely, whose critics accused him of socialism and tried to remove him as an economics professor at the University of Wisconsin.

The rationale for tenure is still valid. But the system has turned the academy into one of the most conservative and costly institutions in the country. Yes, conservative: Economists joke that their discipline advances one funeral at a time, but many fields must wait for wholesale generational turnover before new approaches take hold.

The system also hamstrings younger untenured professors, making them fearful of taking intellectual risks and causing them to write in jargon aimed only at those in their narrow subdiscipline: Thus in economics, people have "utility functions" instead of needs and wants.

These problems are made worse by a federal employment law that bars universities from instituting mandatory retirement. Deans and provosts can't remove elderly professors who take up slots that could fund two or three younger colleagues. Two developments are about to exacerbate this problem: a decline in university enrollments as the baby echo generation passes through college, reducing overall demand for professors; and the financial crisis, which has decimated professors' retirement savings, giving them incentive to hold on to their sinecures even longer.

Things don't have to be this way. Academic freedom can thrive in think tanks and research institutes. U.S.-style tenure doesn't exist in Britain or Australia. Japan grants tenure but forces professors to retire at a relatively early age (60 at Tokyo University).

The freedom guaranteed by tenure is precious. But it's time to abolish this institution before it becomes too costly, both financially and intellectually.


Fukuyama is a professor of political economy at Johns Hopkins.

Quick thoughts, as I have a beehive to build today (long story, perhaps shall write about it here at a future date).

Fukuyama is right about many things here--tenure locks institutions in structurally, intellectually, and economically in ways that grow less and less workable over time. Colleges and universities need to be able to respond flexibly to shifting needs as well as to market conditions; while tenure may be able to more or less insulate individual professors from market conditions, it makes institutions exceptionally vulnerable to them because it interferes with their ability to adjust to them. Faculties really need to wake up about that before the game is entirely up. They need to stop incentivizing the adjunctification of academic labor and show a willingness to talk more honestly and frankly about making tenure work--from an educational quality standpoint, a research productivity standpoint, a governance standpoint, a free inquiry standpoint, an economic standpoint. And that means they have to start taking accountability seriously--and stop hiding behind the magical, distorting mantra of "academic freedom," which is not synonymous with "free pass," "immunity," "anything goes," "protect me and mine no matter what," "exemption," or "transcendence."

Revisiting the retirement issue would be a place to start, though it is by no means all that is needed. Increased teaching loads at the 2-2 schools, particularly in the humanities, would also be important. So would more rigorous post-tenure review, with carrots for the good performers and sticks for the bad--though the Ward Churchill case tells us pretty much all we need to know about the rubberstampery that passes for post-tenure review across the country. If you don't believe me, check out this article, and look for the places where it talks about how pro forma and inconsequential post-tenure review is in most places.

I really have to go build that beehive now. Comments welcome.

UPDATE 4/20: Thanks to Lexington's Notebook at The Economist for linking to my post. And welcome to folks who have found their way here by way of there. Please feel free to look around and to leave a comment.

Erin O'Connor, 9:53 AM | Permalink | Comments (30) | TrackBack (0)




April 17, 2009 [feather]
Fantasies of merit

I will confess: I am slightly addicted to reality TV. Not all of it--just the shows that put people in quasi-professional situations and require them to demonstrate their creativity, coolness, skill, and craft under adverse and unusual conditions. Project Runway is my favorite, with Top Chef a close second. The people who compete in those shows are remarkable artists, and that makes them fun to watch.

But I am convinced that this is not the only reason why we watch shows like these. I know that part of why I am attracted to them is that they stage for me--in admittedly contrived form--a value and a standard that has lost favor in our society. They stage for me the ideal of meritocracy--the ideal of a working world without excuses, without special dispensations, without double standards, blind to race and sex and class but alive to the imperatives of fair play, where the bottom line is the quality of the work you do. Love it, love it, love it. I even love it when it's Tyra Banks delivering the message.

These shows know what they are tapping into--just look at the prizes they offer. If you win Top Chef, you get enough money to start your own restaurant--and the winners do just that, and sink or swim on the strength of what they do with that chance. If you win Project Runway, you get similarly hooked into the design world--and you sink or swim on the strength of what you do with that chance. The winners of Make Me a Supermodel and America's Next Top Model get signed with major modeling agencies--and then sink or swim. In other words--the prize is an earned opportunity (not an automatic outcome) within closely guarded and hugely cutthroat professional worlds. The crafting of those opportunities varies, of course, from show to show. American Idol is an excellent example of how you don't have to win the competition to get the exposure you need to launch your singing career--just look at Jennifer Hudson.

Digressions aside, I was quite taken by Thomas Hart Benton's current Chronicle of Higher Ed column. It seems I am not alone in connecting the profession-oriented reality shows to widely held but socially starved fantasies about a world in which an insistence on merit--and all that merit implies--once again defines key aspects of our culture. Here is Benton on FOX's version of Top Chef, Hell's Kitchen:


One thing about being an English professor is that you tend to consider almost everything in light of your profession. So while watching Hell's Kitchen, my conversation with my spouse inevitably turns to Chef Ramsay's virtues as a teacher, how he's able to extract so much from his "students" without turning them against him.

The essence of his teaching method seems to be placing the quality of the food and service above all other considerations, including the feelings of the contestants, some of whom are humiliated on a weekly basis before an audience of millions. He is a figure of indisputable authority, and he doesn't wrap criticism in a warm fuzzy blanket of reassurance. If someone serves a sloppy meal, he'll call that person "a dirty pig" in a way that everyone will hear, remember, and, most important, learn from.

That is completely different from the way most faculty members in the last couple of generations have been trained to respond to students' work. We fear hurting their feelings, alienating them, or provoking them into complaining to some higher authority. So instead of calling a student out, we respond with something like this:

"The absence of conventional spelling and punctuation in your paper --while something we shall want to address at some point--certainly shows an abundance of creativity. Self-reliance is a good thing to have, but you may want to use some sources next time, too. Overall, your essay demonstrates considerable promise for even greater success in the future. Good job! I'm so glad I had the chance to read your work. B+"

Surely that is not the way to produce more capable scholars. Instead of keeping our focus on the work--maintaining high standards as a categorical imperative--we contemplate the consequences: Do we really want to deal with being told that we're "mean" and "unfair"? And then have to spend the next two months troubled by a brooding presence in the back of the room?

So our students learn only a fraction of what they might have learned if we had demanded perfection from the start instead of perpetually straining to praise the mediocre.

Ramsay sets high expectations from the beginning. In the first show of the season, the competitors are asked to prepare what they regard as their best dish. He tastes each one as the others look on: "Your scallops au gratin a la Abilene is disgusting. Bleeeech." A moment later, after a reaction shot from the contestant, Ramsay might say, in his British accent, "Oh, God. I'm going to vomit." He spews into a nearby trash can and wipes his mouth angrily, glaring, as the contestant--who had privately bragged that he was the best chef in Kansas--skulks back to the line.

An important lesson is being taught: The teacher is no fool, and he doesn't work for you. He doesn't want you to like him; you need to earn his respect. One might say that Chef Ramsay--like other fearsome reality-TV judges--is a warrior in the battle against snowflake culture.

If you're unfamiliar with the term "snowflake," then you probably haven't been inside a classroom in the last couple of decades. Snowflakes are the products of educational and child-rearing practices aimed at convincing every child that he or she is "special," as "unique and beautiful" as every flake of snow that falls from the winter sky.

Snowflakes seem to believe teachers exist to learn from them. We often hear that, too, in the rhetoric of teaching today; at the end of a semester, an eminent professor might say to her class, "I am so pleased to have had the opportunity to learn from all of you." Snowflakes are trained to believe that they are doing their teachers a favor by just showing up. After all, everyone works for them: Their professors are no different from their hairstylists.

They will actually say, "I deserve an 'A' because I am paying your salary," without any sense of having to hold up their end of the bargain. They do not regard their teachers as accomplished people; snowflakes have already achieved more. Everyone has told them so.

The snowflake has become so ubiquitous in academic life that there is even a blog (http://rateyourstudents.blogspot.com) dedicated primarily to smacking them down, if only in anonymous fantasies, like letters to the Penthouse Forum.

Hell's Kitchen includes a few snowflakes in every team; I suppose they are hard to avoid. In the current season, a contestant named Lacey fits the bill. She describes herself, without irony, as having had to overcome being a "pretty face" so that people would take her cooking seriously. In the initial rounds, under the pressures of the kitchen, she walked out and took to her bed while her fellow team members worked, causing them to turn against her. Ramsay moved her to the men's team, and she seems to have changed once it became clear that nobody was going to accept her excuses. In addition to firmness, teamwork seems to melt snowflake behavior because peers are not bound by the ethic of dishonest flattery of the young.

Like tone-deaf wannabes on American Idol, the contestants on Hell's Kitchen are forced to see themselves as others see them, and that can be like a painful conversion experience. They break down. They cry themselves to sleep. There is nowhere to hide; cameras are everywhere. They talk about quitting. Sometimes they lose their will to continue, and, if they don't snap out of it, they are kicked off the program. It happens to seasoned cooks.

But sometimes there are contestants who are completely out of their league, yet they survive through many rounds because they learn quickly and refuse to give up. Hell's Kitchen appears to show, on some level, that snowflakes know that their sensitivity is a pose.

Deep down, there is a stronger self that can be realized if only there is someone--and a set of circumstances--to force them, against their own inertia, to realize their full capabilities.

For teachers in higher education, Hell's Kitchen is a fantasy about having the authority and personal strength to bring out the best in our students. It is, of course, not something that we can live in reality. ("Turn in a pathetic essay like that again and I'll throw you out of here, you brainless sheep. Now piss off!")

We cannot hold our students captive in a panopticon of 24/7 video surveillance, exposing their moments of weakness for criticism. We cannot kick them out of our classes for failing to live up to our highest expectations. We cannot punish students by making them gut squid or reward them with a trip to Le Cirque. We cannot promise them fame and fortune. We can't even promise them a job. Moreover, our task is not to identify the "best" performer, but to improve the performance of everyone in the class.

The artificial conditions of Hell's Kitchen provide Ramsay with a portfolio of motivational tools unavailable to most teachers. But his program does offer a much-needed shot of confidence in the ability of teachers to transform snowflakes into serious students by believing in the value of our disciplines and worrying less about what our students think of us.

It's often said that the toughest teachers receive the highest evaluations. Hell's Kitchen may not correspond precisely to the classroom, but Chef Ramsay's approach--judiciously modified--might encourage some of us to take that leap of faith toward a style of teaching that demands excellence and that our students, beneath the surface, actually want more than inflated praise, permissiveness, and mediocrity.

Not that I recommend using the F-word as a pedagogical tool.


I have to admit that I find Hell's Kitchen to be unwatchable. In my TV-mediated meritocratic fantasies, you can hold people to high standards without abusing them (the other shows I've mentioned do that). More practically, you have no choice but to find ways to do that if you are teaching. Still, I have sympathy for Benton's essential point--that in a peculiar way, we have much to learn about what real life can and should be from that most mocked of entertainment genres, reality TV.

That said, allow me to introduce you to two people you really must meet, if you have not already. The first is Adam Lambert, a star who is being born on the current season of Idol. The second is Susan Boyle, a Scottish spinster whose voice is a reminder that excellence happens in the most unlikely places--and that, as jaded and judgmental and shallow as we collectively are--we still possess the capacity to see that.

Erin O'Connor, 8:03 AM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)




April 14, 2009 [feather]
Virginia Tech does the right thing

From FIRE:


BLACKSBURG, Va., April 14, 2009--The president of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) has announced that proposed new guidelines for faculty assessment, which would have mandated reporting of "diversity" activities in violation of academic freedom and freedom of conscience, are no longer under consideration. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) had called on President Charles W. Steger to rescind the proposed guidelines after a tenure-track faculty member came to FIRE for help.

"By shelving mandatory 'diversity' requirements for tenure and promotion candidates, President Steger has taken an important first step towards preserving faculty rights," FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. "Political litmus tests have no place in higher education, and FIRE calls on Virginia Tech and its Board of Visitors to withdraw all other such infringements on individual conscience and academic freedom."

Over the past three years, Virginia Tech's provost, Mark McNamee, has increasingly demanded ideological conformity in the form of "diversity accomplishments" from the school's faculty. Last year, in a memo to all department heads and promotion and tenure committees, he insisted that candidates for promotion or tenure "do a better job of participating in and documenting their involvement in diversity initiatives," noting that such participation is "especially important for candidates seeking promotion to full professor."

In March, Virginia Tech's College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences (CLAHS) concluded voting on new rules for faculty merit raises, promotion, and tenure that would require faculty to demonstrate fealty to a highly politicized definition of diversity in their research, teaching, and personal enrichment activities. The results of the vote have not been made public.

In an e-mail today, however, Steger wrote that this proposal is "no longer under consideration." A Virginia Tech spokesman confirmed that "the provost has asked the college to rework its proposed guidelines. The fundamental problem was a requirement to produce materials in support of diversity."

CLAHS defines "diversity" as "the desirability and value of many kinds of individual differences while at the same time acknowledging and respecting that socially constructed differences based on certain characteristics exist within systems of power that create and sustain inequality, hierarchy, and privilege." The list of "diverse" characteristics ranges from race and gender to "body size and condition." Accordingly, CLAHS has pledged "to eliminate these forms of inequality, hierarchy, and privilege in our programs and practices."

"Even without that definition, and even prior to the proposed changes, Virginia Tech was telling faculty members across the university that they had to conform to the university's political agenda or else put at risk their promotion, tenure, and merit raises," Adam Kissel, Director of FIRE's Individual Rights Defense Program, said. "FIRE will pursue this issue until no faculty member is pressured to adhere to the university's political orthodoxy."

FIRE wrote Steger on March 25 about the ideological litmus test in CLAHS's promotion and tenure reviews and demanded that the school's policies be revised to accord with faculty members' First Amendment right to freedom of conscience. After the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) wrote the school's entire Board of Visitors, including FIRE's letter and requesting a full review, the Board's Rector, John R. Lawson, II, notified ACTA on April 1 that the Board would fully review Virginia Tech's diversity and tenure policies university-wide. Although Virginia Tech later denied that such a review would occur, ACTA published an account of the conversation that shows Lawson's intent to review these policies.

"Whether the review of existing policies is performed by the Visitors or by the President, it must be completed promptly," Lukianoff said. "Imagine telling faculty members that 'patriotic accomplishments' or 'spiritual accomplishments' were especially important for faculty members to demonstrate in order to be considered for career advancement. The proponents of Virginia Tech's 'diversity' policy likely would quickly understand the essentiality of academic freedom if the university attempted to impose different ideological requirements. Mandatory points of view in higher education short-circuit the scholarly process by ordaining dogmatic 'correct' answers to the deepest questions of nature, society, and existence. FIRE hopes that institutions will start to understand that required ideologies stifle and corrode the open-ended search for truth and are utterly at odds with the freedom of conscience that the First Amendment steadfastly protects."

Erin O'Connor, 2:03 PM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)




April 13, 2009 [feather]
More on Churchill

I've suggested that the Ward Churchill verdict has strong negative implications for the (already shaky) future of tenure--and I've also wondered whether it may mark a watershed moment in diversity hiring and promotion initiatives. I was reminded of those thoughts by Gary Kamiya's recent essay at Salon.com, "Ward Churchill's Win Is Scholarship's Loss."

Just a few paragraphs from an essay well worth reading in its entirety:


It should not have taken a public outcry to make the university look into Churchill's dubious scholarship. Beyond that, the portrait of Churchill that emerges from the report raises serious questions about why he was hired in the first place.

Churchill's academic background is unorthodox. He holds a B.A. in technological communications and an M.A. in communications theory from Sangamon State University. According to Wikipedia, he began working as an affirmative action officer at the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1978. In 1990, despite the fact that he did not hold a doctorate, C.U. hired him as an associate professor, and granted him tenure in the communications department in 1991. He moved to the new ethnic studies department in 1996, was made a full professor in 1997, and became chairman of the department in 2002. He received these promotions despite having no formal graduate training in the fields he works in. (Churchill was awarded an honorary doctorate in 1992 by Alfred University after giving a speech there.)

Churchill's self-described ethnic identity played an important, perhaps crucial, role in his academic career. He has stated that he is of Indian ancestry, and was granted tenure in a "special opportunity position," later described as a program to"recruit and hire a more diverse faculty." However, an exhaustive investigation by the Rocky Mountain News found no evidence that he had Indian ancestry. The Denver Post confirmed the same finding. (Churchill was awarded honorary associate membership in the United Keetowah Band in 1994, as were Bill Clinton and others, but such membership does not indicate Indian ancestry.)

C.U.'s failure to do due diligence on Churchill, both before it hired him and later, reflects the peculiar relationship between college administrations and the various identity-based programs -- ethnic studies, gender studies, queer studies -- that sprang up in the 1970s and 1980s. These are legitimate academic fields. But by their nature they are tinged, and often more than tinged, with advocacy. This sets them apart from other academic disciplines and can have problematic consequences. Many students enroll in these programs not just to learn about a subject but to affirm their identity as a member of a "subaltern" group. And some professors in these fields were hired less because of their scholarship or qualifications than of their identity and their passionate advocacy on behalf of that identity. Under these circumstances, it's not surprising that some hires were not always held to the highest academic standards.

If C.U. had been paying attention, or had wanted to pay attention, it would have looked into Churchill's record long before his controversial essay. Serious questions about his research had been raised as far back as 1996 by John LaVelle, now a professor of law at the University of New Mexico Law School. But C.U. failed to look into LaVelle's allegations that Churchill was slanting and fabricating evidence about Native American history.


Following a detailed elaboration of Churchill's research misconduct, the essay concludes by taking a step back to suggest that Churchill's case has much to tell us about how a devastating structural flaw has become embedded in certain academic disciplines.

... the Churchill case reveals the problematic nature of advocacy scholarship. Passionate advocacy has a place in academia, but not if it leads to falsifications. The rise of advocacy scholarship was understandable and has generated much legitimate research and worthy polemics. But it also opened the door to hacks and ideologues. Ethnic studies and gender studies departments are always in danger of falling into breast-beating advocacy and identity-group solidarity. It is the responsibility of universities to make sure they don't.

In the conclusion of their report, the authors write, "If there is one crucial pattern that most affects our assessment ... it is a pattern of failure to understand the difference between scholarship and polemic, or at least of behaving as though that difference does not matter."

The ultimate lesson of the Churchill case is that no cause, however just, benefits from being taken up by a propagandist. Scholarship must be sacrosanct. Rules of evidence must be followed. You can't assert things that you want to believe are true, no matter how morally right or practically beneficial those assertions may be, and then distort or make up evidence to support them.


All true. The problem, though, is that there is now a considerable scholarly rationale for producing "research" that has more in common with fiction than fact, particularly when dispensing with the concept of truth serves the ends of people who have been historically marginalized. Add to that the fact that scholarship often has a necessarily subjective dimension (even facts have to be interpreted)-- and you've got a cat that is not going to go gently back into the bag.

The solution, though, is not for academics to dismiss the Churchill verdict as much ado about ivory tower business as usual. The solution--as Colorado itself urged in a 2006 review of its tenure-related policies--is for faculties to take seriously how deeply they compromise themselves, their institutions, their autonomy, and the principle of academic freedom when they fail to self-police at moments of hiring, promotion, and post-tenure review. We should see faculty senates across the country voluntarily convening to assess whether their policies and procedures governing those moments are properly rigorous, whether rigorous policies are being properly carried out, and, in cases where there is an issue with one or the other, acting decisively to remedy the problem. These self-assessments and subsequent measures should be conducted openly and transparently (as Colorado did), with recognition that academic freedom is, in its most essential sense, a compact with the public to serve the greater good. I will venture to say that anything less shows that the academy still doesn't get it--that the self-generated corrosion of credibility reflected in the Churchill case will only continue, and that the consequences down the road for all academics will be that much more severe.

Erin O'Connor, 8:28 AM | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)




No you can't

Staff editorial from Saturday's Washington Post:


EDUCATION SECRETARY Arne Duncan has decided not to admit any new students to the D.C. voucher program, which allows low-income children to attend private schools. The abrupt decision -- made a week after 200 families had been told that their children were being awarded scholarships for the coming fall -- comes despite a new study showing some initial good results for students in the program and before the Senate has had a chance to hold promised hearings. For all the talk about putting children first, it's clear that the special interests that have long opposed vouchers are getting their way.

Officials who manage the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program sent letters this week to parents notifying them that the scholarships of up to $7,500, were being rescinded because of the decision by the Education Department. Citing the political uncertainty surrounding vouchers, a spokesperson for Mr. Duncan told us that it is not in the best interest of students and their parents to enroll them in a program that may end a year from now. Congress conditioned funding beyond the 2009-10 school year on reauthorization by Congress and approval by the D.C. Council. By presuming the program dead -- and make no mistake, that's the insidious effect of his bar on new enrollment -- Mr. Duncan makes it even more difficult for the program to get the fair hearing it deserves.

That's not to mention the impact of the last-minute decision on these families. Many of the public charter schools already have cut off enrollments for the upcoming school year; the deadline for out-of-boundary transfers for the public schools has passed. No doubt Mr. Duncan is right about possible disruption for new students if the program were to end. But scholarship officials have been upfront with parents about the risks, and the decision really should be theirs. Let them decide whether they want to chance at least one year in a high-quality private school versus the crapshoot of D.C. public schools.

That, after all, is what this program is about: giving poor families the choice that others, with higher salaries and more resources, take for granted. It's a choice President Obama made when he enrolled his two children in the elite Sidwell Friends School. It's a choice Mr. Duncan had when, after looking at the D.C. schools, he ended up buying a house in Arlington, where good schools are assumed. And it's a choice taken away this week from LaTasha Bennett, a single mother who had planned to start her daughter in the same private school that her son attends and where he is excelling. Her desperation is heartbreaking as she talks about her daughter not getting the same opportunities her son has and of the hardship of having to shuttle between two schools.

It's clear, though, from how the destruction of the program is being orchestrated, that issues such as parents' needs, student performance and program effectiveness don't matter next to the political demands of teachers' unions. Congressional Democrats who receive ample campaign contributions from the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers laid the trap with budget language that placed the program on the block. And now comes Mr. Duncan with the sword.


So much for "Yes we can." Unless, of course, you belong to a teachers union.

Erin O'Connor, 8:03 AM | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack (0)




April 9, 2009 [feather]
AAUP backs Churchill

The AAUP is calling for Ward Churchill to be reinstated in his job--which is no surprise. Given the verdict, it is what has to be done. But the larger issue, for university administrations, would seem to be one of pragmatic approaches to the future. If you are an administrator, a president, or a trustee, you are already aware of the high cost of tenure to your institution--not just in terms of dollars, but in terms of lost flexibility. Tenured people can't move around (or be moved around) easily, either within or across institutions. You can't rework their job descriptions or their work load very readily. And, as Ward Churchill reminds us, they are really tough to get rid of.

Lots of people have weighed in, one way or another, on what the Churchill verdict means for academic freedom. Some say it's a victory, and others say it's a defeat. But I think that's really a secondary issue. The main issue is what the verdict means for tenure. I noted last week that the Ward Churchill verdict was a very bad day for tenure. And this morning, a commenter at Inside Higher Ed echoes my thoughts. Calling the Churchill case "a reason to employ adjuncts," Jack Olson asks:


Would the University of Colorado have found it easier to dismiss Ward Churchill had he been an adjunct? Undoubtedly. Instead of convening a panel to consider charges against him of academic misconduct, and even then being sued and losing a token judgement for wrongful termination, the university could simply have declined to renew his contract.

Hence, his case illustrates a good reason for universities to rely on adjuncts as much as possible and tenured faculty as little as possible. When one of the former embarasses the university by slandering victims of mass murder, you can easily dispense with him. Yet, when one of the former does it, you have come to grips with the Tar Baby. A judge or jury may force you to continue to employ him even after an academic panel has substantiated his academic misconduct. Since the AAUP appears indifferent to the academic misconduct Churchill committed, I assume they are equally oblivious that he represents a good reason why university administrators would want to abolish tenure.


That Tar Baby reference is unpleasantly evocative in the context of a case that is as wrapped up as this one is in questions of ethnicity, authenticity, and integrity. But, leaving it aside, my reaction to the overall comment is a simple "yup."

UPDATE 4/10: Inside Higher Ed reports that Colorado will "vigorously challenge" any attempt to return Churchill to his job:


While the announcement was not a surprise, it was the first formal indication of how the university will respond to last week's verdict by a state jury that Churchill was fired inappropriately for his political views. The university has maintained that he was fired for repeated instances of scholarly misconduct. The judge in the case has the discretion to order Churchill reinstated or to instead order other compensation, such as a cash payment, but Churchill has said repeatedly that he wants his job back. Churchill's lawyers have suggested that he could simply return to campus and start teaching again, but the university spokesman called that a "spurious" premise and noted that the findings of misconduct were not discredited by the verdict. "The notion he can just settle back into his teaching duties is questionable," the spokesman said. A lawyer for Churchill called the university's position "offensive," adding that "a jury of their peers has convicted them of being constitutional violators."

Would love to hear more from the lawyers who read this site!

Erin O'Connor, 6:51 AM | Permalink | Comments (17) | TrackBack (0)




April 6, 2009 [feather]
Virginia Tech gets it right

Two weeks ago, FIRE, ACTA, and the NAS all came down hard on Virginia Tech for introducing into its tenure process a problematic requirement that candidates demonstrate a commitment to diversity in their teaching, research, and service. I wrote about that here, noting that the AAUP was, much to its discredit, nowhere to be found--despite AAUP president Cary Nelson's bold promise to ACTA's Anne Neal last January to join in the fight against speech codes. (If the train of thought there is confusing to you, read FIRE's parsing of why Virginia Tech's requirement would have amounted to a speech code for faculty.)

So, anyway, the good news is that on April 1, John R. Lawson II, the head of Virginia Tech's Board of Visitors, called Anne Neal to personally assure her that he and the board were in receipt of ACTA's March 27 letter urging the board to undertake a comprehensive review of all policies relating to tenure, promotion, and diversity at Virginia Tech--and to tell her that the Board would be taking ACTA's advice.

Neal's response, issued in a press release today: "The board is to be commended for recognizing its fiduciary responsibility to safeguard academic freedom and intellectual pluralism on campus. We strongly urge it to perform the review in an open and transparent manner, making the results public." Read her letter responding to Lawson's call here.

Kudos to ACTA, FIRE, the NAS--and to the Virginia Tech board for responding promptly and well to a reasonable and urgent call to defend the First Amendment rights and the academic freedom of the faculty.

The AAUP missed the boat on this one. And it says something that it wasn't necessary for the AAUP to weigh in one way or the other in order to convince Virginia Tech's board to take responsible action. The AAUP has for the better part of a century cast itself as the definitive watchdog group when it comes to defending academic freedom. But is a watchdog group still a watchdog group if it falls asleep on the job? And do you really need that watchdog when others are doing its job with more clarity, more promptness, and more principle?

Erin O'Connor, 1:14 PM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)




April 3, 2009 [feather]
A dollar for your verdict

I have to say I was not surprised by the verdict in the Ward Churchill trial. I thought there were good odds that Colorado would find itself hoist on the petard created by the fact that it only got motivated to look into repeated complaints about Churchill's professional integrity after the "little Eichmanns" scandal blew--and after a number of really misguided people (state legislators, the governor, bloodthirsty pundits--but not, as Churchill's lawyer falsely claimed, ACTA or David Horowitz) called for Churchill to be fired for his speech.

(Aside: I used to think a "petard" was a kind of sword--and that hoisting oneself on one's petard was an abdominal, chivalrous variant of stabbing oneself in the foot. But I learned recently, much to my delight, that the phrase is more about one's efforts exploding in one's face, and that "petard" is French for fart. All the better.)

Anyhow, in reading around, I've run across some good comments on the troubling implications of the Churchill verdict for academic accountability. Here's NAS chairman Stephen Balch: "the decision for Churchill will only further attenuate an already fraying relationship between the protections of academic freedom and their corollary obligations. Churchill is the poster boy for academic irresponsibility in both substance and style. That he wins today in court, helped somehow by his very notoriety, can only fortify the sense that anything goes. ... if there is a lesson here it is that universities must be proactive in the enforcement of standards. Waiting for a public scandal with all its attendant complications is hardly the policy of choice. Universities must build a culture of responsibility that affects every aspect of institutional operation, but especially scholarship and teaching" And here's ACTA's Anne Neal: "This sends the harmful message to students that plagiarism and fabrication are acceptable if you cry First Amendment loud enough in your defense."

As I noted in an earlier post, the real problem here is the timing of Colorado's decision to investigate. There's a wonderful parsing of both sides of that decision over at Margaret Soltan's blog. Soltan writes:


The underlying issue for me is one of fairness. Churchill's massive academic misconduct was easily discovered; and yet he was chair of a dept. at Colorado. No one cared.

The principle has to be equal treatment. If your university typically overlooks plagiarism among your professors, you don't get to randomly brutalize one plagiarizing professor because he said something that pissed off people.

The Churchill story, by the way, makes clear why it's so important for universities to act with integrity and swiftness when someone acts truly badly. Because Southern Illinois did nothing about its plagiarizing president, it's not only a laughingstock; it's an institution that’s going to have a lot of trouble punishing any subsequent scholarly misbehavior. The president has set the example.

A counterexample would be the admirable swiftness and sureness with which the University of Mary Washington dismissed a president for multiple drunken driving arrests. This took guts, since the president threatened to sue, and the university could have lost a lot of money. But universities that have a strong sense of institutional identity are not so easily trifled with or corrupted, and they reap the rewards.


Reader Dave Stone responds:

We might just have to agree to disagree on this one.

As I understand the sequence of events, after Churchill made himself notorious, evidence of his academic fraud became public and was presented to the university. Past problems aside, it seems to me that the university has little choice but to investigate the plagiarism, which is exactly what it did.

As a thought experiment, let's presume two folders full of evidence of academic fraud come through the Colorado provost’s transom on the same day. One is Ward Churchill's, the other is a molecular biologist no one’s ever heard of. It seems to me that the argument presented here is that it's fine to go after the molecular biologist, but not Churchill. In effect, he's shielded from penalty for wrongdoing by the fact that he previously said obnoxious things.


Reader TAKFAU writes:

I think the better analogy would be to a police officer who pulls over a car because she doesn’t like the political views expressed in the driver's bumper sticker, and then arrests the driver after finding a baggie of marijuana under the passenger's seat. Although hard to prove, this would obviously be a First Amendment violation. Actually, given Colorado's tolerance for gross misconduct on the gridiron, perhaps we should add to the analogy that this same police officer previously allowed other drivers to go free even after discovering a smoking gun, a bloody knife, and a dead body.

And Stone answers:

I promise–my last word on this subject. I think TAFKAU's analogy isn't quite right. Joe is walking down the street and sees a political bumper sticker he doesn't like. He looks in the car and notices a bag of marajuana on the seat. He then flags down Officer Joe and reports this to him. Officer Joe then arrests Jim, the pot-smoking, political-bumper-sticker-sporting perpetrator.

I don't see a First Amendment issue here.


I like the parsing here--though I wonder whether some of it isn't beside the point. Shortly before the jury began its deliberations, the judge threw out Churchill's claim that the investigation was undertaken in retaliation for his speech, and ordered the jury only to consider whether the firing was. The suggestion is that Colorado was well within its rights to investigate Churchill in the wake of the scandal about his speech--or at least that the question of whether it was in its rights could not be responsibly determined by the jury. Also not at issue was the fact of Churchill's malfeasance. The only thing adjudicated was the extremity of Colorado's sanctions for same.

Churchill was awarded one dollar in damages from a jury that asked if it could award nothing at all. It has yet to be decided whether Churchill will be reinstated in his job.

Most of the commentary I've read from higher ed figures focuses on what the verdict means for academic freedom and accountability. It's definitely bad for both. But I'd also say that yesterday was a very bad day for tenure. The disincentive to universities to retain and honor the tenure system--which is already strong, from an economic standpoint, and which currently translates into well over half of all college courses being taught by contingent teachers--just got a hell of a lot stronger.

UPDATE: John Leo translates AAUP president Cary Nelson's comment that the Churchill verdict is fair because "Colorado knew what it was getting when they hired him." Leo's reading is that Nelson is really saying, "If you hire, purely for diversity reasons, an unprepared, erratic, ideologue with no sense of fairness and no academic credentials except a BA in communications, you should not be surprised by what you get." One might also add that if you tenure that person, you are effectively saying you will never fire them for cause, when cause has to do with issues of academic integrity. Could it also be that in addition to harming tenure, the Churchill verdict harms diversity-related hiring initiatives? I'm thinking that the trial has painted a big yellow line between faculty and administration--with presidents and trustees getting a very strong message that there are certain aspects of university life that can no longer be allowed to fall under the headings of "academic freedom" and "self-governance."

UPDATE UPDATE: Andrew Cohen sees things the same way over at CBS News:


It's an odious result; a startling example of the law of unintended consequences. Free speech rights trump competence and accuracy and integrity even in an area of our world--scholarship--where such things ought to matter most.

The University is surely to blame for the mess it finds itself in. There is no excuse for the lack of due diligence it performed upon Churchill before it granted him tenure. If school officials had investigated him as fully before they gave him the job they almost surely would have walked away from a deal. But the jury's verdict means that it's now too late to do so. Unless Churchill commits murder, or is found to be a drug kingpin, or completely stops showing up to class, CU seems stuck with him until he decides he wants to leave.

So what's the lesson for CU and other schools? Don't offer tenure. Or at least don't offer tenure until an extraordinary level of due diligence has been performed upon the candidate. Will good candidates stand for such a review? Will they be willing to be vetted like presidential nominees? Will they be willing to sign a form of "pre-nuptial" that allows the university to do what it tried to do to Churchill? It's hard to overstate the potential impact the Churchill case may have upon the intersection of law and academia. And it's hard to fathom how a professor with such a bad history of poor scholarship can find succor under the law.

Erin O'Connor, 9:12 AM | Permalink | Comments (22) | TrackBack (0)