Politics from the Palouse to Puget Sound

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

I don't know why people think liberal arts faculty are out of touch elitists

As most of you are doubtless aware, the University of Idaho recently undertook a review of its graduate programs. Some interesting conclusions were reached and as usual, anything sensible was attacked by left wing elements of the faculty. While the report its self is interesting (http://www.provost.uidaho.edu/documents/Yardley%20Draft%20Summary.pdf&pid=104637&doc=1), the responses posted to the local paper and on left wing blogs is even more revealing and tend to confirm the findings within the report. The enclosed link is to the draft report summary. The full text is available for download at the UI Provost's site.

Enjoy these responses in Moscow Pullman Daily News' online forum and contrast them with the report

dale wrote on 12/31/2007 2:03 pm:
I understand that the report is rife with factual errors.
And not just spin, but untrue facts are presented, then critiqued. There will be much more about this report in the near future.

nickgier wrote on 1/1/2008 2:54 pm:

Nick Gier, Professor Emeritus, University of Idaho
President, Higher Education Council, Idaho Federation of Teachers

See draft report at wwww.provost.uidaho.edu/yardley

The University of Idaho has paid the Yardley Research Group $130, 383 to evaluate our graduate programs. Provost Doug Baker is already backing away from the report, saying that it is a "little harsh," and that the consultants did not have the most recent data. The obvious question is: Why weren't they supplied with it?

The Yardley report does contain some good observations and advice, but we in the former College of Letters and Science already knew that it was a terrible mistake to establish a separate College of Science.

The Yardley team also rightly praises the "vibrant arts culture" on campus, pointing to the Jazz Festival and theater arts and creative writing faculty with national reputations.

We also agree with the consultants that there is a "culture of numbers" that prevents the UI administration from implementing a broader and more humane vision for the university. Recently the faculty voted down some productivity metrics that UI statisticians thought was totally flawed.

The Yardley team is also right to criticize graduate programs staffed by too few professors and enrolling too few students. Some UI departments are indeed trying to cover too many sub-disciplines with thinly spread faculty.

These are good critiques, but did we have to pay all this money to learn what most of us already knew about our weaknesses?

The good advise from the Yardley team is far outweighed by what could only be described as insults, such as the charge that "destructive aspects faculty of faculty culture are so strong that they have already absorbed [sic] some of the University's new leadership."

The consultants propose that these "destructive elements" be offered early retirement. But what if these disruptive faculty, amoeba-like in their ability to absorb evil administrators, are tenured and at the beginnings of their careers?

The Yardley report comes close to libel when it claims that UI faculty have engaged in "myriad unprofessional behaviors," including criticizing the administration and making students privy to campus misdeeds. Dictionary.com defines "myriad" as "an indefinitely great number," and yet they do not name a single one.

An especially egregious example of blaming the faculty is the consultants' unsympathetic view of the recent trauma experienced by the fine arts faculty. The former liberal arts dean, a potter himself, proposed to eliminate the department, but consultants' response is to complain that the faculty keep returning to the events "again and again, as though licking—and reopening—an old wound."

There were sufficient grounds to fire this dean even before he made this decision—over 200 faculty signed a petition protesting the dean's firing of an exceptional ceramicist— so there was no reason for the injury in the first place.

The Yardley report claims that one negative aspect of this faculty culture is the criterion of "fitting in" that is used to evaluate new hires. I was surprised that no one explained to the consultants the reason for this criterion.

Over the years my department experienced unnecessary turn-over because a tight job market allowed us to hire top candidates, who in several instances used the UI as an interim launch site for a career elsewhere.

This is the origin of the "fitting in" criterion, which I used as follows: when choosing among equally qualified candidates, I would choose the one who would appreciate Moscow's small town atmosphere and rich recreational opportunities.

The Yardley team is really confused about UI faculty governance. They claim that one faculty member told them that the "faculty run the University. The administrators do what we tell them to do."

It is inconceivable that a firm with over a hundred years working on America's campuses would state this as a fact. The Yardley team should know about the survey conducted by the American Association of University Professors in late 1970s, which demonstrated that U. S. faculty members rated their power as "below consultation."

When the consultants criticize UI Faculty Council for "exercising their power over trivia," they should have known that, in governance system in which administrators have veto power at every step, setting the academic calendar and approving new courses is the only "power" they have.

If the consultants believe that UI administration must centralize its decision-making power in order to make the tough decisions, they should be glad that the faculty is relatively powerless.

The consultants contend that UI faculty hold "counter-cultural values," and identifies one of these values as "a vivid [sic!] sense of entitlement to state funds that support higher education." What could possibly be "counter-cultural" to the idea that state funded institutions should be supported by state funds?

Perhaps this howler is explained by the fact that Yardley also believes that departments should be more self-supporting rather than insisting, as some of us do, that the state reverse the decline of spending on higher education from 20 percent to 12 percent of the budget.

The consultants also charge that our counter-cultural faculty has a view of academic freedom that is too free. They believe that faculty think they can do research on any topic they want, regardless of what the state of Idaho needs, thus failing to match their demand for state funding with "a corresponding sense of service obligation to the state."

I devote much of my time researching the negative effects of religious fundamentalism world-wide, but I'm sure that many Idaho legislators and citizens would not view that favorably. I don't think any faculty member would want to be subjected to such whims, especially when the State Board of Education chose to eliminate a research grant program over a controversy about its refusal to accept a highly rated grant proposal to study Idaho's gays and lesbians.

The Yardley team attributes the loss of our best faculty to this "destructive" faculty culture, but I think they are dead wrong. I have compiled a list (at www.class.uidaho.edu/ngier/greener.htm) of those who have left since 1996, and most of 39 professors left for higher salaries not because of some corrosive faculty culture. For example, Biological Sciences reports that many of their attempts to fill vacancies fail because of they cannot offer enough money. Tellingly, the Yardley report mentions, in its 435 pages, competitive salaries only twice.

The UI does indeed find itself at a crossroads. President Tim White declares that the UI should become the residential liberal arts college of choice in the West, but it cannot do this if it accepts the Yardley team's incredible proposal to use part-time faculty for undergraduate instruction and grant tenure only to research professors who compete at a national level.

The UI has outstanding teachers, and over the years departments have been encouraged to adjust job descriptions so as to reflect faculty members' relative strengths in teaching and research.

While I established a respectable research record, my most rewarding time at the UI was teaching in the core curriculum and the honors program, both of which have received national praise. UI core classes are some of the most exciting courses that I know on any campus.

The Yardley report acknowledges that UI funding is enrollment driven, so offering quality undergraduate instruction by tenured professors is the only way to attract and retain students. As long as the UI brings in $80-100 million a year in research funds, this does not mean, as the consultants claim, that Idaho's flagship research university now "functions as a liberal arts college."

The Yardley vision of the UI, one with centralized authority, with less academic freedom, and a two-tiered faculty is not one that I recommend either to prospective students or faculty.

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