faculty

Unauthorized searches of professors' email create rift at Rochester

University of Rochester professors found out their emails were reviewed and shared, raising questions of how much privacy faculty members should be assured.

Holy Cross defends professor under attack for his writings on Jesus and sexuality

Scholar's suggestion that Jesus be read as a "drag king" leads to calls for his resignation and to local bishop criticizing response of college, which cited academic freedom.

Why the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point plans to eliminate certain traditional liberal arts majors (opinion)

How can you be a university without a major in history?

We field this kind of question frequently at the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point. In March, we released curricular recommendations designed to repair our budget and stabilize enrollment. The proposal, Point Forward, called for the elimination of numerous majors in the traditional liberal arts, a greater emphasis on career-focused programs and the reimagining of our core liberal arts curriculum.

Since then, we have received a flood of messages from students, faculty members, alumni and scholarly organizations across the country. Some of them ask about process, wondering why we made recommendations suddenly and without stakeholder input. In fact, we discussed these issues for years. Others suggest there must be alternatives to eliminating underenrolled majors. I wish there were; we have tried nearly everything else. A small but growing number of people express sympathy with our dilemma, placing responsibility on the decades-long erosion of public investment in higher education. They are correct.

Set aside such issues for the moment. More interesting are the numerous messages wondering how we can be a university without majors in the traditional liberal arts. Are we not becoming a trade school, abandoning enrichment of the mind in favor of training in workplace skills?

These perceptions result from misunderstanding. Far from eliminating liberal arts disciplines, our proposal aims only at full majors. In fact, we are fighting to preserve as much as 80 percent of our faculty and curriculum in these areas -- and not just through general education but in refocused majors and minors with upper-level courses offering genuine opportunities for deep engagement in the liberal arts. Equally important, our baccalaureate degrees in natural resources, health, business, education and the performing arts -- the majority of degrees we offer -- are hardly narrow or technical.

But set this aside, too. Implied in the claim that “abandoning the liberal arts” means we “cannot be a university” are assumptions worth examining. Most students at UW Stevens Point do not choose to major in the traditional liberal arts disciplines. In fact, many universities already do not offer some of these programs. Within the University of Wisconsin System alone, four universities lack full majors in philosophy, three in sociology and four in Spanish. One of the founding tenets of the UW System was the idea that each campus would have a distinct program array defined by its select mission. If our current proposal takes this concept seriously, do we really cease to be a university?

Reading these comments as an environmental historian, I’m reminded of American attitudes toward wilderness. Few people choose to live in the wild, and most visit only rarely. True wilderness is uncomfortable and the Wi-Fi is terrible. Instead, most Americans seem content just knowing that wilderness is there, a notion that celebrates a romanticized frontier that never existed. Similarly, the implicit message from some of our critics is: it’s OK if your students major in finance, health science, and resource management; we just need to know that a philosophy major is there. This feeling, too, derives from false nostalgia -- specifically, for the idea that regional public universities can be smaller versions of research institutions. During the 1950s and 1960s, an aberrational moment in higher education when students and funding were plentiful, institutions like UW Stevens Point could afford to launch majors in the traditional liberal arts. Today, everything is different.

The inability to acknowledge this reality is deeply rooted in academic culture. Take the numerous condemnations we received from scholarly organizations asserting that without majors in their respective liberal arts disciplines, our university will lack something fundamental. “Elimination of the history program,” reads the letter from the Organization of American Historians, “means the elimination of a university’s capacity to teach … critical life skills.” Really? No one would dispute that every graduate should have meaningful courses in history. As the letter noted, “History is the discipline dedicated to studying the past … [and is] essential to navigating rapid economic transformation, international crises, epidemic disease, political gridlock and myriad other modern challenges.” I agree. I want every student in our College of Natural Resources to have a course in environmental history. But to conflate this with needing to preserve a history major seems disingenuous.

Here we encounter the elephant in the room in our current dialogue about the liberal arts and the meaning of a university. If the majority of students in universities today encounter these traditional disciplines, not as majors but only through general-education programs, should we not direct our attention there? The need for new approaches to general education has long been evident, and many institutions have sought meaningful change. Yet many such efforts, including ours, have run aground due to structural impediments rooted in our conflation of the narrow role of liberal arts majors with the much broader and more vital role of these same disciplines, a dynamic that stifles curricular innovation.

Too many general-education programs rely on courses that are introductions to liberal arts majors, even as they enroll primarily nonmajors. This double duty leaves the majority of students wondering why they must take such classes and hoping only to “get them out of the way.” Too many general education programs spark battles over department “turf,” elevating the protection of student credit hours, budgets and faculty positions above thoughtful consideration of student needs in shaping curricula. As a result, too many general education programs have little purposeful cohesion and little relevance to the majority of students. Given that most universities assign one-third of the courses required to complete a baccalaureate degree to these core curricula -- and given the tuition we charge -- is it any wonder that students resent the cost of higher education?

Our aim at UW Stevens Point is to fix this problem, to look beyond a set of majors that serve roughly 6 percent of our students and ask how the disciplines of the liberal arts can better educate everyone. Do we lose something in this equation? Absolutely. The loss is real and should be debated in the context of urging greater public investment in higher education. Will we cease to be a university? Of course not. In fact, if we succeed in making the liberal arts more relevant and available to the majority of students who never major in these disciplines, we will be a stronger university indeed.

Greg Summers is provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point.

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The importance of being a scholar-activist (opinion)

While traditional or mainstream scholars refuse to fully recognize our research-action efforts, writes Alvaro Huerta, activists criticize us for operating in the so-called ivory tower.

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Tuesday, April 3, 2018
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American and British researchers less likely than others to share data, study finds

American, British and Canadian researchers are less likely than others to share data behind their research projects, study finds.

Data suggest modest gains in faculty salaries in 2018

Pay is up 1.7 percent, CUPA-HR study finds, with slightly larger increases for those off the tenure track -- who tend to earn much less.

The growing movement to divest from gun manufacturers (opinion)

TIAA-CREF, the largest provider of retirement funds for employees of academic institutions, often emphasizes its good works to appeal to its socially conscious customers. The investment firm’s Facebook page and other materials are filled with accolades such as “Best Overall Large Fund Company” and “named one of the World’s Most Ethical Companies.” TIAA has long promoted its Social Choice investment option, which I chose for my own retirement savings. Customers can invest in green bonds devoted to “environmentally beneficial projects or activities” and in emissions reduction. TIAA also touts its investments in affordable housing in its Social Impact Investing Portfolio.

But despite TIAA’s evident interest in providing socially conscious investment products, the firm has not responded to their many customers now urging them to divest from gun and ammunition manufacturers. Customers first pressured TIAA to divest in 2012, the year of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, where a lone gunman killed 20 small children and six adults with an AR-15. At that time, University of Miami English professor John Funchion circulated a petition requesting that TIAA divest from the manufacturers of semiautomatics, and it was signed by 2,112 TIAA-CREF clients. Funchion wrote, “Imagine my shock and dismay … when I realized that my own retirement funds were being invested in Smith & Wesson and in Sturm, Ruger, two companies that manufacture versions of the same AR-15 semiautomatic rifle used to take so many lives in Newtown -- and used, also, in the massacre in Aurora, Colorado. We are calling on TIAA-CREF to ‘do right’ in this post-Newtown moment.”

Many in academe are taking part in the growing movement demanding legislation to prevent mass shootings such as the most recent in Parkland, Fla., where 14 students, a geography teacher, the school’s athletic director and a coach were shot dead. Academic activists have been inspired by the eloquent young survivors, some of whom are just months away from enrolling in college.

Academic activists have also spoken out against gun manufacturers’ lobbyists, particularly the National Rifle Association, which has drawn stark battle lines between its members and educators. In a 2017 video available on YouTube and broadcast on NRA-TV, spokeswoman Dana Loesch uses a tone of militancy and disgust to denounce an unspecified “they” who use schools to indoctrinate young people. Loesch then encourages the NRA’s five million gun-owning members to raise “the clenched fist of truth” as an answer to this outrage.

Since the mass shooting at the high school in Parkland, activists and concerned citizens have pressured companies offering NRA discounts to cut their ties with the organization blocking meaningful gun reform. Many have done so. But despite recent victories for activists, semiautomatic weapons, bump stocks and high-capacity magazines remain easily attainable in many states.

Faculty members, who interact regularly with 18- to 22-year-olds in unlocked classrooms and offices and who encourage vigorous discussions, are finding themselves on the front line of the battle over gun rights. Mass shooters have repeatedly targeted educational settings, and in a number of recent instances, teachers and students have been gunned down side by side. While elementary and secondary school teachers are upset that their job description now includes being “ripped apart by a spray of bullets,” in the words of one K-12 art history teacher, college faculty also worry that their students, under intense deadline and grade pressure and often suffering from depression or other mental health disorders, might bring a deadly weapon to class.

The sheer number of shootings taking place on campuses or resulting in mass casualties has a numbing effect. Many of us working in academe downplay the alarming patterns and continue to be accessible to our students despite our fears. At the same time, we can’t forget the student who in 2015 brought three guns to his community college classroom in rural Oregon, where he murdered his 67-year-old English instructor along with eight of his classmates before turning the gun on himself.

We also remember the graduate engineering student who killed first his wife and then his dissertation adviser in 2016 while the professor was working in his office at the University of California, Los Angeles. Another professor on the gunman’s kill list escaped death only by being away from campus at the time of the shooting. I find the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech particularly disturbing not only because so many died -- 32 faculty and students were shot and killed in a residence hall and in classrooms -- but also because I teach at a STEM-focused institution and take seriously my institution’s mission to provide “individual attention and support” to students. That supportive relationship with students -- evident in Rose-Hulman’s open office doors, small classes and approachable faculty -- has become difficult to maintain in an era of active-shooter drills and campus lockdowns.

Remarkably, these horrific events in educational settings have led gun-rights advocates to argue that students and teachers should be armed. Following heavy lobbying by the NRA, legislatures in 10 states have passed laws to allow concealed weapons on public university campuses. The indiscriminate mass and targeted killings will apparently be allowed to continue, but with “good guys” wielding weapons as well. Gun-rights advocates have created the perfect conditions for Wild West-style gunfights in college classrooms, yet with more deadly, organ-lacerating and bone-splintering weapons thrown into the mix.

Given the potentially deadly working conditions at colleges and universities, it is unsurprising that many academics are demanding that their retirement funds be “gun free.” Tim Watson, another English professor at Miami, who co-administers a members-only group on Facebook called “Tell TIAA-CREF: Stop Investing in Assault Weapons,” recently explained that he bombarded TIAA’s social media accounts with messages urging divestment following Sandy Hook, but to no avail. After the February school shooting in Florida, Watson wrote to the divestment group’s 1,444 members to inform us that TIAA is still invested in semiautomatic weapons manufacturers. Watson again posted a comment on TIAA’s Facebook page urging divestment and reported that it was swiftly deleted.

Soon after reading Watson’s post-Parkland update, I offered to write a new petition urging TIAA to divest. The 2018 version includes a list of the most prominent mass shootings since Sandy Hook, including the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., where 49 died in 2016; the 58 shot dead on the Las Vegas strip in 2017; and the 17 killed at the high school in Parkland this year. I mentioned as well TIAA’s mission and distinct customer base, which includes educators who wish our work and investment money to have a positive social impact and who do not want our retirement portfolio swelling with gun manufacturers’ blood-soaked profits. So far, over 4,000 people have signed the new petition, and many have written comments including warnings to TIAA that they will transfer all their holdings to a gun-free fund elsewhere if nothing is done.

Divestment was highly effective during the movement against South Africa’s apartheid in the 1970s and ’80s. That iconic struggle’s success has inspired new activist groups to seek political change by divesting from ethically tainted institutions, industries and products -- even though in some cases the gesture is symbolic rather than financially significant. Divestment is one of the three strategies of the controversial boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, which calls on academic institutions and organizations and their members to divest from Israeli companies as long as the occupation of Palestinian land continues. Divestment also has been an effective strategy to combat climate change, pushing academic institutions to end their reliance on oil, gas and coal company profits. In 2016, after students conducted sit-ins at Harvard University and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, UMass became the first major public university to divest. And in 2017, Harvard agreed to “pause” their direct investments in polluting energy sources.

Divestment is not enough, of course. Many people working in academe want gun-free campuses, affordable medical and mental health care for their students, and adequate public funding for higher education to relieve financial pressures such as ballooning student loan debt. While we continue to work toward those larger, elusive goals, we should  at the very least be able to control where our own retirement money is going.

Divesting from gun manufacturers would send a strong message. Yet TIAA is ignoring customers’ clear demand -- expressed again and again since at least 2012 -- to end investment in products or services causing suffering and death. The companies producing the weapons of choice of mass shooters surely fit into that category. I welcome other customers of TIAA-CREF to sign and share the petition linked above, and I urge once again, along with the other signatories, TIAA’s complete divestment from gun manufacturers.

Rebecca Dyer is an English professor at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. Her research examines how works of fiction (both texts and films) intervene in political controversies.

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The importance of fostering goodwill on campuses (opinion)

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Can fostering goodwill on campuses make a difference? Maria Shine Stewart reflects on the topic.

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Cornell College of Arts and Sciences considers new general-education program

Will proposal for streamlined general-education program at Cornell's College of Arts and Sciences give the curriculum new life? Can new approaches to language and diversity engage students who might otherwise lose interest?

OER gains momentum with federal push in 2018 budget

Congress has set aside $5 million for an open educational resources pilot program -- the most significant federal push for alternative textbooks. Advocates are encouraged.

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