Giving thanks -- and taking stock
Duke lacrosse redux?
November 23, 2009
Screening for politics
When defenders of the academic status quo hear criticisms about the lack of intellectual and political diversity among professors, they scoff. They argue that the reason there are so few libertarians or conservatives in academia is that they self-select for other professions (here there is often a snide comment about how money-grubbing and materialistic such people are, and how they don't find academic salaries acceptable); particularly snide scoffing might also include a comment about the relative intelligence of liberals versus conservatives. What is categorically denied is that there is ever a moment--at grad admissions or at the hiring stage--when a candidate's politics are known, let alone factored into the decision about whether to admit or hire them.
I thought about this while reading this comment from an Inside Higher Ed reader; the occasion is a story about how the American Philosophical Association is flagging schools that don't hire gays:
Here is the "Personal Statement" required to be filled out by all applicants to graduate study at the University of California at Berkeley. This is not a hoax. The required "Personal Statement" appears on p. 29 of the UC graduate school application pdf, following the more traditional "Statement of Purpose" on p. 28, and the usual basic information required on p. 27.
"Please describe how your personal background informs your decision to pursue a graduate degree. Please include information on how you have overcome barriers to access in higher education, evidence of how you have come to understand the barriers faced by others, evidence of your academic service to advance equitable access to higher education for women, racial minorities, and individuals from other groups that have been historically underrepresented in higher education, evidence of your research focusing on underserved populations or related issues of inequality, or evidence of your leadership among such groups."
This amounts to a political pre-purging of applicants to graduate study and hence of the next generation of faculty.
Who, one wonders, will be accepted at Berkeley (my alma mater) who writes, for instance, the following in response to the required question: "I'm a politically conservative white male who has suffered no discrimination, and I think people ought to fend for themselves, and depend on their own responsibility and talents to get ahead. No one needs, or should want, a helping hand from government to get into graduate school."
The nature of the required "Personal Statement" was pointed out to me by a very bright Iranian-American undergraduate Honors student, who wears a hijab--and who was outraged.
I wasn't asked to spend my personal statement pledging my commitment to diversity when I applied to grad school at Berkeley back in 1989. I think I wrote about the rise of the novel, my fascination with narrative, and my objections to the inaccessible character of so much academic criticism. And yet, I got in. Things appear to have changed. Defenders of the academic status quo should take note. They either need to come up with a better story -- or reform the system to accord with the standards and practices they claim are in place.
Reeducation in Minnesota
Teacher training is becoming sensitivity training in Minnesota:
Do you believe in the American dream -- the idea that in this country, hardworking people of every race, color and creed can get ahead on their own merits? If so, that belief may soon bar you from getting a license to teach in Minnesota public schools -- at least if you plan to get your teaching degree at the University of Minnesota's Twin Cities campus.
In a report compiled last summer, the Race, Culture, Class and Gender Task Group at the U's College of Education and Human Development recommended that aspiring teachers there must repudiate the notion of "the American Dream" in order to obtain the recommendation for licensure required by the Minnesota Board of Teaching. Instead, teacher candidates must embrace -- and be prepared to teach our state's kids -- the task force's own vision of America as an oppressive hellhole: racist, sexist and homophobic.
The task group is part of the Teacher Education Redesign Initiative, a multiyear project to change the way future teachers are trained at the U's flagship campus. The initiative is premised, in part, on the conviction that Minnesota teachers' lack of "cultural competence" contributes to the poor academic performance of the state's minority students. Last spring, it charged the task group with coming up with recommendations to change this. In January, planners will review the recommendations and decide how to proceed.
The report advocates making race, class and gender politics the "overarching framework" for all teaching courses at the U. It calls for evaluating future teachers in both coursework and practice teaching based on their willingness to fall into ideological lockstep.
The first step toward "cultural competence," says the task group, is for future teachers to recognize -- and confess -- their own bigotry. Anyone familiar with the reeducation camps of China's Cultural Revolution will recognize the modus operandi.
The task group recommends, for example, that prospective teachers be required to prepare an "autoethnography" report. They must describe their own prejudices and stereotypes, question their "cultural" motives for wishing to become teachers, and take a "cultural intelligence" assessment designed to ferret out their latent racism, classism and other "isms." They "earn points" for "demonstrating the ability to be self-critical."
The task group opens its report with a model for officially approved confessional statements: "As an Anglo teacher, I struggle to quiet voices from my own farm family, echoing as always from some unstated standard. ... How can we untangle our own deeply entrenched assumptions?"
The goal of these exercises, in the task group's words, is to ensure that "future teachers will be able to discuss their own histories and current thinking drawing on notions of white privilege, hegemonic masculinity, heteronormativity, and internalized oppression."
Future teachers must also recognize and denounce the fundamental injustices at the heart of American society, says the task group. From a historical perspective, they must "understand that ... many groups are typically not included" within America's "celebrated cultural identity," and that "such exclusion is frequently a result of dissimilarities in power and influence." In particular, aspiring teachers must be able "to explain how institutional racism works in schools."
After indoctrination of this kind, who wouldn't conclude that the American Dream of equality for all is a cruel hoax? But just to make sure, the task force recommends requiring "our future teachers" to "articulate a sophisticated and nuanced critical analysis" of this view of the American promise. In the process, they must incorporate the "myth of meritocracy in the United States," the "history of demands for assimilation to white, middle-class, Christian meanings and values, [and] history of white racism, with special focus on current colorblind ideology."
What if some aspiring teachers resist this effort at thought control and object to parroting back an ideological line as a condition of future employment? The task group has Orwellian plans for such rebels: The U, it says, must "develop clear steps and procedures for working with non-performing students, including a remediation plan."
And what if students' ideological purity is tainted once they begin to do practice teaching in the public schools? The task group frames the danger this way: "How can we be sure that teaching supervisors are themselves developed and equipped in cultural competence outcomes in order to supervise beginning teachers around issues of race, class, culture, and gender?"
Its answer? "Requir[e] training/workshop for all supervisors. Perhaps a training session disguised as a thank you/recognition ceremony/reception at the beginning of the year?"
When teacher training requires a "disguise," you know something sinister is going on.
Someone should tell the folks in Minnesota that we've been over this. Back in 2005, both ed schools and schools of social work had accumulated a number of lawsuits from students who had been disciplined or expelled because they would not conform their personal beliefs to the political agenda required by their schools' application of "dispositions theory." At the time, both the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) and the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) required accredited schools of education and social work to evaluate students according to their social and political "dispositions." Cases of schools punitively imposing ideological litmus tests on students at Le Moyne College, Brooklyn College, Washington State University, and others were making headlines -- ACTA, FIRE, and others took on the fight. NCATE responded to the pressure by deciding to remove all mention of social justice from its dispositions standards. But here's the rub: even as NCATE scrubbed its language, it also empowered individual schools to keep or create their own (presumably politicized) dispositions requirements. Minnesota seems to be trying to do just that.
Amid all the training they seem to want to be implementing out there in Minnesota, someone should make sure that the folks in the ed schools understand what the legal consequences are likely to be if they go forward with their plan to compel prospective teachers to declare their loyalty to a highly partisan view of the United States. They wouldn't want to end up like, say, the School of Social Work at Missouri State University.
November 20, 2009
The "science" behind anthropogenic global warming?
Faked. Academia at its finest.
The nanny campus
Lincoln University, a historically black institution in Pennsylvania, doesn't have much in the way of a core curriculum. To graduate, you can take one year of foreign language or two courses in computer science ("Computers for Health Education" counts). They do make you take some intro survey sorts of courses in the humanities, but the science requirement is baggy and the math requirement for liberal arts majors is weak. But there is one area where the people at Lincoln won't compromise: body mass index.
Lincoln's core requirements includes "health & wellness." Everyone takes a course called "Dimensions of Wellness." And, according to the website, "freshmen will be tested for BMI & fitness; those who do not meet criteria take HPR 103." HPR 103 is an exercise course. And for a number of seniors, it's the one thing standing between them and graduation this spring.
More than two dozen seniors at Lincoln University, in Oxford, Pa., are in danger of not being able to graduate this spring -- not because they're under disciplinary probation or haven't fulfilled the requirements of their majors, but because they were obese as freshmen.
All had body mass index (BMI) scores above 30 -- the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' threshold for obesity -- when they arrived on campus in the fall of 2006, but none have taken college-sanctioned steps to show they've lost weight or at least tried. They're in the historically black university's first graduating class required to either have a BMI below 30 or to take "Fitness for Life," a one semester class that mixes exercise, nutritional instruction and discussion of the risks of obesity.
It might sound like a joke, or a violation of individual rights, but James L. DeBoy, chair of Lincoln's health, physical education and recreation department, said he sees it as his "professional responsibility to be honest and tell students they're not healthy."
Ninety-two students, 19 percent of the freshman class of 484 that entered three years ago, had BMIs of 30 or greater. While most of those students took the class or demonstrated to DeBoy's department that they had lost weight, about 25 have neither proven they've lost weight nor signed up for the class. DeBoy began notifying the students about their unfulfilled requirement earlier this month, spurring an article Wednesday in The Lincolnian, the university's weekly student newspaper.
Students interviewed for the story seemed upset by the requirement and, perhaps, a bit blindsided by it. "It's not up to Lincoln to tell me how much my BMI should be. I came here to get a degree and that's what the administration should be concerned with," said Lousie Kaddie, a sophomore.
Kaddie is right. This is a huge over-reach, one that signals intrusiveness and confusion on the part of Lincoln administrators. Deboy says that "No student should ever be able to leave Lincoln and not know the risks of obesity"--and while he may be correct, there is a big difference between graduating informed students and forcing kids to surrender personal health information, sentencing them to the academic equivalent of fat camp, and then making graduation conditional upon students' completion of this humiliating and invasive process.
Plus, the logic is totally faulty. BMI isn't a reliable index of health--if you are exceptionally fit, and you carry lots of muscle, you may test as overweight. And if you are underweight--perhaps even eating disordered--Lincoln's requirements do nothing for you. Then there is the question of the semester-long fitness course. American College Health Association president and director of student health at UVa James Turner says he's "never heard of something like this before" and that he doesn't know of any studies suggesting that a semester-long exercise class is "effective to help someone lose weight in the long term."
I'm a huge fitness nut. I exercise every day, and believe it's vital to everything from mood to sleep patterns to energy level to mental acuity to managing chronic pain to just being healthy. But I don't think colleges and universities should be in the business of creating phys ed requirements--particularly when that involves singling people out as Lincoln has done. Shouldn't it be enough to do some basic education about healthy lifestyle choices as part of the res life program, to back that up with healthy menu options in on-campus cafeterias, to support student-led clubs centered on sports and fitness--and then to get on with the business of education?
UPDATE 12/7: Lincoln has dropped the requirement.
November 18, 2009
What's governance got to do with it?
Yesterday, the American Enterprise Institute held a forum on increasing accountability in higher education. Participants delivered remarks and appeared on panels, as is usual for such things; panelists also submitted drafts of longer, chapter-length essays for circulation. ACTA president Anne Neal took part in the events, building on an essay about academic governance co-authored with me and Maurice Black.
Here are the opening paragraphs of "What's Governance Got to Do With It?":
Once upon a time, just over a century ago, there was an outspoken economics professor named Edward Ross. Ross had some very particular views on the western railroads' use of Chinese immigrant labor--and did not hesitate to make them known. As it happened, his employer was none other than Stanford University--which was founded in 1885 by the railroad magnate Leland Stanford and his wife Jane. Mr. Stanford thought nothing about Ross' opinions, for he had passed away several months before Ross arrived in Palo Alto. But his wife, then the University's sole trustee, took exception to Ross's views--and insisted that he be relieved of his professorship.
Mrs. Stanford's actions ignited a local firestorm. Seven other professors--among them philosopher Arthur O. Lovejoy--resigned in protest. A national debate about free expression on campus ensued, fueled through the years by similar episodes at other universities. By 1915, the nation's professors had decided to organize. Lovejoy and Columbia philosopher John Dewey founded the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) with the express intention of establishing academic freedom--then a new concept in America--as a foundational professional principle.
The story of how American academics secured their autonomy through a steady and principled defense of academic freedom and tenure is a familiar one. It occupies a prime position in the AAUP's account of its origins and also figures in histories of academic freedom and the university in the United States. Mrs. Stanford's punitive pursuit of Professor Ross is an old chestnut, a foundational fable that unites academics (and often administrators) through a shared commitment to principled professionalism--and to defending that professionalism against the inappropriate intrusions of lay trustees. As such, it's a tale that cuts two ways: it provides American academics with a sustaining "myth of origin," but also urges them to understand themselves as perpetually--even inevitably--under siege.
This essay explores the origins and evolution of American academia's double-edged biography, tracing how clashes between academics and trustees have shaped their mutual perceptions (and misperceptions). Paying particular attention to how those perceptions have affected both groups' understanding of what academic governance is and ought to be, it locates the dysfunction in higher education governance as a byproduct of interpreting trustees' role as one of unquestioning deference and delegation. It also examines how, over the last decade, policy changes, calls for reform, and rising public awareness have enabled trustees to reconfigure their roles to meet their legal and fiduciary responsibilities toward the colleges and universities they oversee.
Read the whole thing.
November 17, 2009
Quotations side by side
From the New York Daily News:
More city kids are graduating from high school, but that doesn't mean they can do college math.
During their first math class at one of CUNY's four-year colleges, 90% of 200 students tested couldn't solve a simple algebra problem, the report by the CUNY Council of Math Chairs found. Only a third could convert a fraction into a decimal.
The lack of math skills means the CUNY students - nearly 70% of which come from city schools - could struggle to keep up with peers, fail classes or even drop out, the professors charged.
From University of Arkansas education professor Sandra Stotsky:
As part of his education-reform plan, President Obama wants to "make math and science education a top priority" and ensure that children have access to strong math and science curricula "at all grade levels." But the president's worthy aims won't be reached so long as assessment experts, technology salesmen, and math educators--the professors, usually with education degrees, who teach prospective teachers of math from K-12--dominate the development of the content of school curricula and determine the pedagogy used, into which they've brought theories lacking any evidence of success and that emphasize political and social ends, not mastery of mathematics.
Stotsky explains in detail how this has happened, and concludes by noting that "the math wars, which started in debates about pedagogy, may end in questions about the long-term prospects for American prosperity."
November 13, 2009
Jon Stewart on UCSC's Dead position
|The Daily Show With Jon Stewart||Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c|
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In other news, this is what this year's academic job list looks like for English: In the entire country, there are openings for 9 medievalists, 14 Renaissance scholars, 7 eighteenth-century scholars, 6 Romanticists, 7 nineteenth-century scholars, and 12 twentieth-century scholars. Odds are that each opening will receive well over 500 applications--that's how it goes even in better times.
UPDATE 11/18: John Leo contrasts the Dead position to two other news items:
Santa Cruz, Ca.--As California works to plug an epic budget shortfall, severe budget cuts are threatening the twin qualities -- excellence and access -- that have defined the University of California as the world's leading public research university. At UC Santa Cruz, faculty, students, and staff worry about the impact the state's financial meltdown is having on the campus, and will have on the social and economic health of the state..." The repercussions of California's $26.3 billion budget gap are being felt campuswide. For example, the University Library has reduced hours and staffing and is canceling almost $800,000 worth of serial subscriptions, among other measures, according to University Librarian Ginny Steel. "We're down to core services at this point," Steel said....
Santa Cruz, Ca. -- UC Santa Cruz's Academic Senate voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to condemn a major student fee hike and furloughs for full-time employees whose annual salary is $40,000 or less... A 13 percent state funding cut to the UC system during the past two years has translated into $50 million in slashing at UCSC. The campus has seen staff and instructor layoffs, course cuts and the elimination of more than 50 unfilled faculty positions...
It's all a question of priorities.
November 9, 2009
Boxes of rain
When times are tight and hiring is frozen, you have to set your priorities. You have to do less with more. You can only afford to retain absolutely essential staff--and when you hire, you must do so with an eye to bringing in people whose skills and experience are utterly vital to your organization's ability to sustain itself and fulfill its mission. At UC Santa Cruz, they've done the hard thinking, and they've made the tough decisions. And so they are hiring the person without whom they cannot go forward:
Grateful Dead Archivist
The University Library of the University of California, Santa Cruz, seeks an enterprising, creative, and service-oriented archivist to join the staff of Special Collections & Archives (SC&A) as Archivist for the Grateful Dead Archive. This is a potential career status position. The Archivist will be part of a dynamic, collegial, and highly motivated department dedicated to building, preserving, promoting, and providing maximum access both physically and virtually to one of the Library's most exciting and unique collections, The Grateful Dead Archive (GDA). The UCSC University Library utilizes innovative approaches to allow the discovery, use, management, and sharing of information in support of research, teaching, and learning.
Under the general direction of the Head of Special Collections and Archives, the GDA Archivist will provide managerial and curatorial oversight of the Grateful Dead Archive, plan for and oversee the physical and digital processing of Archives related material, and promote the GDA to the public and facilitate its use by scholars, fans, and students.
If that's you, find out more here. Pay range is $52,860-$68,892, and is commensurate with qualifications and experience.
Squib from Inside Higher Ed:
Many students at Northwestern University are upset over the blackface Halloween costumes of some white students, NBC Chicago reported. Morton O. Schapiro, Northwestern's president, sent an e-mail to students saying: “While I fully support the principles of free expression, at the same time I am deeply disappointed to see any example of insensitivity that demeans a segment of our community." A forum on the incident Thursday night attracted many students. The Daily Northwestern ran a live blog on the forum, attracting many comments. Northwestern is far from the first campus at which blackface or racially stereotyped Halloween costumes have created racial tensions.
Notice what's not here: no mention of disciplining the offending students. It used to be that the annual Halloween blackface episodes on campus--and they are annual occurrences--led to formal "investigations," which led to everything from harassment charges to mandatory sensitivity training to forced public apologies to threats of suspension and expulsion. I've blogged about a number of such cases on this site since I launched it in 2002. But FIRE and others have made the point: while dressing up in blackface for Halloween might be stupid, callow, and insensitive, it's not against the law, and it's certainly something that it falls within one's expressive rights to do.
The proper response to offensive speech is not censorship and punishment, but, as FIRE has said many times, "more and better speech." That's what Northwestern is doing. The president is drawing a distinction between the content of the expression--which he deplores--and the students' right to express. The forum and blog, likewise, lets people who care (and many don't, and that's their right, too) have their say, and talk things out. It's voluntary and self-selecting. It's open, transparent, and within the parameters of what our campuses ought to be doing--creating opportunities for vigorous debate, no matter where it might lead.
Sometimes it seems like the situation with speech on campus is just endlessly sad and stalled. And that has a lot to do with administrators who don't adapt, and who continue to make the same old censorious mistakes, even though that is so 1998. It's good to see little stories like this. They say a lot.
Aside: On a recent episode of America's Next Top Model (yes, I confess that it is a guilty pleasure), Tyra Banks dressed up the mostly white contestants in variations of ethnic dress. Every white girl in the competition was in blackface, as was the one Asian girl. They looked beautiful and exotic--which was the idea. But it made me wonder--for people who get upset about "blackface" incidents on campus, what would something like this mean? At Northwestern, the present fracas was set off by two Halloween costumes -- one student dressed as Bob Marley, and another as a black tennis player, presumably a Williams sister. What, if anything, differentiates the kind of expression involved in a Halloween costume worn on a politically correct campus and a make-up job worn for a high fashion photo shoot? Anything? Nothing? How important is context? Does it matter that the costumes could be associated with mockery--while the photo shoot was about creating layers of exoticism that added up to beauty? Does it matter that Banks is black--and that she was the photographer on the shoot? Where are the lines? Where are the differences? What matters and what doesn't?
November 6, 2009
--Rhoda Janzen's new memoir, Mennonite in a Little Black Dress. Offered by publisher, accepted because I'm related to some lovely Mennonites in little black dresses.
--Michael Cox's The Meaning of Night. Never read any Cox. Part of my search for reincarnations of Wilkie Collins.
--Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca. See above, with hopes for some Le Fanu-ish, Uncle Silas-like traits as well.
Excited about them all--but first must finish The Nebuly Coat.
Outside the box
Clear, strong thinking about what higher ed needs to do now, from Cal State chancellor Charles B. Reed and ASU president Michael M. Crow:
"Dumb public policies," like mandatory-sentencing laws that drive up states' costs for prisons and leave less for education, may be part of the reason colleges are in such financial straits, the leader of the California State University system said at a forum here on Thursday, but that's just a piece of the problem.
The bigger issue is that most colleges are too concerned with trying to compete for prestige rather than serve their students and their communities, said Cal State's chancellor, Charles B. Reed. He and Arizona State University's president, Michael M. Crow, spoke on a panel at the "Smart Leadership in Difficult Times" forum, sponsored by the TIAA-CREF Institute.
"Public higher education has done it to itself with generic state institutions" that all try to do the same thing, Mr. Crow told the gathering of 130-plus college presidents and other leaders. The duplication of expenses among so many colleges that are "insufficiently differentiated" adds to states' costs and leaves legislators and other potential supporters with little inspiration to support colleges when they come looking for money, said Mr. Crow. "People fall asleep," he said.
Mr. Reed noted that the racial and economic diversity of the Cal State system's 440,000 students reflects a wave of changing student demographics across the country. Rather than worry about how they rank against their peers, he said, "public universities need to get off their campuses" and into local schools--"way down to the fifth and sixth grade"--to help ensure that young people prepare for college before it's too late and they drop out.
The two leaders' comments came during a panel called "What's the New Normal?" Both Mr. Reed and Mr. Crow offered their typically blunt assessments.
"The sky is not falling. We just have less money," said Mr. Crow.
"We're never going to go back to the way it's been for the last 20 years," said Mr. Reed.
Mr. Reed said he had been criticized by faculty members for not lobbying harder in the state capital for money. "Well, you know what? There isn't any money in Sacramento," he said.
Instead, Cal State and the State of California will have to find money by becoming more entrepreneurial, more creative, and more efficient, he said. For example, "if people taught one more class a semester, the efficiency of that is tremendous."
Another idea, Mr. Reed said, is to eliminate 12th grade--"the biggest waste of time" for many students--and reallocate those resources for schools and colleges. "We need a different model," he said.
The resistance such thinking is likely to meet is exemplified in the comments, where a Cal State professor absolutely loses his or her mind about Reed. But the article does quote presidents who note that for any meaningful redirection to happen, administrations cannot act alone -- they have to enlist the faculty's involvement, creativity, effort, and support. It does not surprise that this might not be possible in the terribly broken state of California. But that doesn't mean it can't work elsewhere.
November 5, 2009
Prayer in school
Eleven more videos of school kids performing songs and chants in praise of Barack Obama have surfaced.
Transcript of the one above:
Barack Obama there is none higher
Other politicians should call me sire
To burn my kingdom you must use fire
I create change till I retire!
Democratic Party come correct
Our cuts are on time our rhymes connect
Got the right to vote and will elect
Others can't feel us but give us respect
Now I walked through crowds, shook many hands
Spent my time saying YES WE CAN!
I stood on many stages, held many mics
Took airplane flights at great heights
PA and Jersey, I won that fight
Chicago Illinois was so hype
Moving so strong
Biden joined the fight
Now we are a team and we ignite!
Now I crash through walls,
Cut through floors,
Burst through ceilings
Knock down doors.
He is George
And I'm Turan
We're never far behind
In class we shine
For every living person
With dreams and plans
Keep hope alive--
Think "Yes We Can"
We're the baddest of the bad
The cool of the cool
I rock and rule.
I'm Joe. I rock and rule.
It's not a trick or treat or April fools,
It's all brand new
With a little old school.
We've got the music and the message
For all my friends.
Check us out on the internet,
Load and send.
Music ain't nothing
but a peoples jam.
It's President Obama
Rockin' with the band!
I really do not understand teachers who think it's okay to do this sort of thing with kids. How is this teaching them to think for themselves? How is this honoring the difference between belief and affiliation (supposedly worked out at home, within the family) and education (which should be politically neutral)? There is such contempt here--for the kids as emerging but fragile individuals, for their parents' wishes and prerogatives, for the marketplace of ideas, and for the educational enterprise itself. So much for teaching tolerance!
When I see videos like this, I want to start my own charter school and get all my fair-minded acquaintances and friends to start one, too. My school would be run the way I used to run my classroom--my political beliefs aren't anywhere in the room, I'm not telling anyone what to think, left or right, I'm not working an angle on students, whether they are left, right, center, or totally formless, and all I care about is that I do my little, literary bit to make sure that each student in my charge acquires the knowledge, skill, discipline, and discernment to decide for him- or herself what to think about life, the world, the past, the future. Special emphasis on being able to express those thoughts in language that is precise, careful, well-spelled, and properly punctuated.
November 4, 2009
Can you define academic freedom?
Odds are--no disrespect--you can't. Most people in academia are in that boat. They know the term colloquially, as it floats around in casual conversation and in the occasional episode of righteous faculty outrage against the usual suspects--administrators, trustees, state legislators, watchdog groups. But being able to sling around a phrase that sounds great is not the same as knowing what it means--and it's very far from understanding how it has historically been configured and why it matters that it has been configured (and, in recent years, strategically reconfigured) as it has.
Case in point: University of Chicago president Robert Zimmer recently participated in a conference on academic freedom at Columbia University. He delivered a talk called "What Is Academic Freedom For?" And what that talk revealed is that he doesn't really know. He sort of knows some things about it--but he also either doesn't know about, or doesn't want to discuss, other parts of it.
That kind of thing is problematic when it involves a president of a major university. To see just how problematic, check out the forum at the Manhattan Institute's Minding the Campus site. Maurice Black and I contributed to it thus:
In "What Is Academic Freedom For?," University of Chicago president Robert Zimmer says some things that need to be said--but is also silent on some things that should not have been ignored. Zimmer is right that academic freedom is poorly understood. He's right that to safeguard academic freedom, the university should take no political stance. (That should not be a controversial point, but when faculties are pushing to take consequential positions on "don't ask, don't tell," the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Iraq, it becomes one.) He's right that sometimes, academics threaten academic freedom. ACTA and FIRE draw critical attention to academia's problems with speech codes, biased hiring and promotion practices, and doctrinaire teaching.
But Zimmer's explanation is incomplete.
First: the gap between Zimmer's idealized University of Chicago and the real one. Chicago has a history of principled statements defending free inquiry, but it also enjoys FIRE's "red light rating: for speech codes. In recent years, Chicago has investigated a student for posting a cartoon and has compelled another to delete a Facebook page. Just last month, Zimmer was doing campus-wide damage control after hecklers nearly prevented former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert from completing an invited speech. Zimmer talks the talk--but Chicago needs to walk the walk.
Second: Zimmer defines academic freedom as faculty members' freedom from political pressure. But that's a partial and skewed definition. Academic freedom is, in fact, a form of professionalism grounded in what the AAUP calls "duties correlative with rights." Chief among those duties is to be a self-policing profession with peer review practices that justify considerable autonomy. Behaving ethically is a prerequisite for the rights associated with academic freedom--including professors' right to be free from political pressure when pursuing the truth. Today's professoriate is not meeting its ethical obligations--a fact Zimmer ignores.
Writing about academia's "crisis of ethic proportion," University of St. Thomas professor Neil Hamilton notes that today's academics see academic freedom as a set of inalienable rights, and lack a sense of concurrent responsibility. Professorial misconduct is common; accountability is rare. Graduate education should include professional ethics, but does not. As a concept, "academic freedom" has lost the responsibilities that justify it: professional self-regulation and a commitment to serve first not oneself, not one's institution, but the public good. "The academic profession's defense of the social contract has focused on rights and job security," Hamilton observes; this "anemic defense," combined with institutions' failure to "undertake responsibility for assuring the quality of their members' work," does more harm than good.
Academic freedom cannot be justified--or sensibly defended--without two explicit recognitions: 1) academic freedom requires professors to ensure their ethical behavior; and 2) academics are not living up to that responsibility. In sidestepping these truths, Zimmer's talk might best be understood as another "anemic defense," one that misses a real opportunity to build public trust.
Apologies for compression and brevity -- originally it was twice that length, but they needed us to pare it down. But you get the idea. Peter Sacks, FIRE's Adam Kissel, John K. Wilson, and and Candace de Russy also had some things to say.
UPDATE: Thanks to Peter Wood for this: "O'Connor and Black spot the Big Silence in Zimmer's account of academic freedom: he says nothing about the duties that faculty members must shoulder if they assume the 'right' to academic freedom. High on that list of duties is the need for disciplines to enforce tough professional ethics. Because these days, that enforcement has withered, and academic freedom in the true sense is pretty much a dead letter---just another rationale for privileged people to do whatever the hell they want."
November 3, 2009
The higher ed accountability movement has been dismissed by many academic insiders as a right-wing Trojan horse--a way of eroding academic freedom, ending tenure, and putting power in the hands of politically driven nonacademics. But that's the defensive posture of an academy that is very resistant to change--and, ironically, very slow to learn that the era of responsible transparency is here to stay.
Proof: the left-wing Center for American Progress is now lending its voice to the call:
The Center for American Progress has impeccable credentials for the Obama era. In the same way that the right-leaning Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute had the attention of the Bush administration, the Center for American Progress, headed by the former Clinton confidante John Podesta, is the think tank for the current White House. Time magazine called the center "Obama's idea factory" after his election last year.
Which makes the center's new white paper on higher education all the more interesting -- and, perhaps, all the more concerning to some college leaders.
The document, "Putting the Customer First in College," calls on the U.S. Education Department to create an Office of Consumer Protection in Higher Education that would (1) pressure colleges to produce significantly better data on how well they serve students, (2) develop a system for making that data available for students to use in choosing a college, and (3) direct students unhappy with their colleges' educational practices to federal, state, or accrediting officials who can help them resolve their complaints.
"In most sectors of our economy, customer focus is paramount, as it should be in education, too," the author, Louis Soares, writes in the paper. "Customer focus could yield a more student-centric system through the development and dissemination of user-friendly 'truth-in-education' information that helps students make 'best-fit' choices regarding which education provider to select based on customer preferences such as: academic quality, price, convenience, learning style, beginning education level and the anticipated return on their investment in education."
He adds: "The Office of Consumer Protection in Higher Education can be a powerful agent for righting [an] imbalance of knowledge and helping students succeed in college and save money to boot."
If that language sounds vaguely familiar, it should -- it echoes ideas inherent in Margaret Spellings' Commission on the Future of Higher Education, which similarly bemoaned the lack of available data to help families and parents decide which institutions would best suit and serve them.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Charles Miller, who headed the Spellings panel, largely embraced the paper by Soares, saying (via e-mail) that it "could be a game changer" because of its "focus on the student as a consumer in a regulatory scheme."
"If the academy and its leaders in the associations and institutions react in a hostile way to this idea, or even with their usual delay and obfuscation, it will be a serious and tragic mistake," Miller wrote. "Similar to what happened in the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, the academy will end up getting pressure for more reports and stricter regulation instead of being active participants in planning and implementing an effective data system."
CFP is sounding an awful lot like ACTA, the Center for College Affordability, and many others who have been calling for similar measures for some years. CFP's emphasis on finding ways to measure and report learning outcomes is especially resonant.
An aside: I expect to see knee jerk reactions CFP's consumer protection rhetoric. Defenders of the academic status quo have long objected to what they see as a "corporate" mentality infecting higher ed governance, one that devalues the educational enterprise by positioning students as consumers who expect to be served and pleased rather than challenged and educated. And while they have a point--if you've ever taught college, you know the frustrations of dealing with entitled students who think their parents' tuition payments mean that they are your boss and that their A's are pre-paid--they are wrong to use those frustrations to stonewall necessary change. The goal is to empower students to choose their schools wisely and to compel schools to be more student-centered while also enhancing higher ed's educational quality. it's not either/or: it's both/and.
November 1, 2009
--The Nebuly Coat (1903), by the forgotten but fascinating John Meade Falkner. I ran across the name recently when reading around about Charles' Palliser's The Unburied, which is no Quincunx, but which was a pretty fun murder mystery set in a late Victorian cathedral town. One reviewer noted that Palliser is indebted to Falkner's The Nebuly Coat--and I said, "the nebuly what?" Turns out he's one of those great Victorian-Edwardian novelists that no one remembers anymore, a turn-of-the-century thriller-writer who owed a lot to Collins and Trollope, and gave Hardy, Stevenson, and Le Fanu a run for their money. Even more fun: the novel-writing got done in the margins; Falkner's day job was as chief of Britain's biggest munitions factory. Fun fact: one day in 1915, Lady Violet Bonham Carter took a tour of the factory, and engaged its head executive in conversation about books. She urged him to read one book in particular: "I cannot tell you why, because its quality is indescribable," she is said to have said. "It is called The Nebuly Coat." To which he answered, "I wrote it."
--Michael Slater's massive new biography of Dickens. I've read a bunch of Dickens biographies, and am a huge fan of Peter Ackroyd's doorstop, Dickens. But there are always new things to say -- plus Slater has access to new material. You can never know too much and one of the best ways to get to know someone who is long gone is to get to know the many ways their stories have been told.
--Tim Robinson, Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage. If you are obsessed with the Irish landscape, and have walked it obsessively with minute attention to ordnance maps past and present, and have traced the morphing of place names, Brian Friel-style, from Gaelic to bowdlerized English and, sometimes, back again, and have pulled old accumulated turf up off ruined chapel floors to read the gravestone paving buried below, and have trespassed on farmers' fields because you simply must examine the abandoned stone cottage sitting amid acres of sheep shite, then this is a book for you. Robinson is a cartographer-historian-geographer who has made a minute examination of the landscape of Arainn, the largest of the Aran Islands just off the coast of Galway. Most of my obsessive wanderings and trespassings have taken place in east Donegal--but I spent a perfectly amazing day on Arainn a few years ago, just walking. It's the narrowest, rockiest, unlikeliest little spit of a thing, and it's just amazing how much human history it has. Robinson brings it to life, inch by inch, crag by crag.