Monthly Archives: September 2014

Brains!

These conversations almost always seem to focus on the NFL. But now that we know pretty definitively* that football breaks players’ brains, maybe it’s time to consider whether colleges should be fielding semi-professional teams — especially considering that student athletes don’t receive what might be considered hazard pay for incurring such extraordinary risks.

* I’m not a neurologist, so the usual caveats apply.

Standards.

Movement conservatives on the Jefferson County, Colorado (just south of Denver) school board have called for a review of the district’s AP US history curriculum. The board members in question want history teachers to “promote citizenship,” emphasize the “benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority, [NB: I added that comma.] and respect for individual rights,” as well as “positive aspects of the United States and its heritage.” The proposal can be found here (pdf). This call, which is part of a national effort to reshape the way US history is taught, has prompted a series of student protests in the Denver suburbs.

David Neiwert, observing this latest fight over history and memory, wonders if Sand Creek will no longer be part of the curriculum in Jefferson County. That seems like a fair question.

Don’t mess.

It’s worth taking a moment to read what William Powers, the departing president of the University of Texas, has to say about the future of his institution, which, I suspect, is the future of higher education writ large. Actually, I think, as he notes explicitly, this is the present of higher education. It’s just that, perhaps because Powers is on his way out the door, he’s willing to do what few other senior university administrators are: say so publicly.

Here are some key paragraphs with bold text added for emphasis:

The institution of tenure has served American universities for a long time. It certainly is a necessary tool for individual schools to compete for the best faculty. But we need to be realistic by recognizing that it also has costs. It’s a form of institutional leverage, just like debt or any long-term contract, that locks an institution into a long-term arrangement that might be out of kilter with the needs of a changing student body and changing research needs. Coupled with the federal law that we can’t have a mandatory retirement age, it can present a barrier for young aspiring scholars to embark on teaching careers.

Rather than debate these issues as an all-or-nothing matter, we should implement our system in a way that looks to the purposes tenure serves. In fact, we already do that. American higher education, including UT, has been using an increasing share of non-tenured faculty. In this sense, American higher education has been de-tenuring itself, that is, unleveraging itself, for the last 20 years. My point here is that we need to do this in a purposeful way that is aligned with our large-scale teaching and research goals in ever more detailed ways. We need to use tenure when it is most needed: where competition is the keenest and where research is more central to the enterprise. It is less necessary where those two features aren’t present. Again, my point here is not that I have the answer. My point is that we can’t shy away from an issue even as sacred as how we use tenure. We need to lead the way by implementing everything we do in light of the purposes we claim it promotes.

There are a host of other issues we face in designing our academic programs. Which graduate programs are more critical to our teaching mission, and which are more critical to our research mission? Which programs are more critical to our mission of teaching undergraduates, and which are more important at the graduate level? We will always need a campus conversation to sort out these issues. But we won’t sort them out in a way that makes us better — makes us more productive — if we focus our aspirations and goals only at the broadest and most abstract level.

Welcome to the winner-take-all university.

An unholy combination of a Fortune 500 company and a Silicon Valley startup.

I’m not always the hugest fan of Rebecca Schuman, but this column is very strong stuff. I’m particularly impressed/horrified by this:

Contemporary “wisdom” is that the best way to run a university is as an unholy combination of a Fortune 500 company and a Silicon Valley startup. Just combine the pay disparity and precarious labor conditions of the former and the ludicrous, unsustainable perks of the latter. Following this model, every state school in the U.S. will soon surely be a pyramid-like structure with six-figure executives on top, tens of thousands of full-tuition paying vacationers below them, and, on the bottom, an unwashed army of minimum-wage plebs doing the irrelevant work of keeping the facilities running and teaching the classes.

The whole thing is to despair.

An AHA moment

This letter, about the Salaita case, is very good stuff from the AHA. Over on facebook (spit when you say it), Steve Kantrowitz highlighted this passage in particular:

“The First Amendment protects speech, both civil and uncivil. It does so for good reason. The United States made a wager that democracy can flourish only with a robustly open public sphere where conflicting opinions can vigorously engage one another. Such a public sphere rests on the recognition that speech on matters of public concern is often emotional and that it employs a variety of idioms and styles. Hence American law protects not only polite discourse but also vulgarity, not only sweet rationality but also impassioned denunciation.”

And of course the boundaries of academic freedom should be more rather than less capacious than those laid out by the First Amendment.

Civility.

This back-and-forth between Cary Nelson and Feisal Mohamed about the Salaita case is pretty weird, mostly because Nelson initially seems to be trying to backpedal but then doesn’t make much progress. But I thought this part, from Mohamed, was quite well put:

“‘Civility’ has always been a convenient pretext for excluding certain people and ideas from the academy, which I imagine is why the national AAUP voiced reservations about it. There is some irony, first of all, that such terms as ‘civility’ and ‘collegiality’ were often used in the postwar years to justify the exclusion of Jewish faculty. That is just one instance when a threat to civility has really meant ‘too ethnic for our comfort’—though it could also mean ‘too leftist’ or ‘too feminist.’ It is especially troubling, then, that the university has used the term to trump the internal decision-making of an ethnic-studies program—and a program of American Indian studies, no less, as though the natives were not capable of civil conduct if left to their own devices.”

There is indeed “some irony” there.