faculty

Effects of Female Mentors on Women in Engineering

Nilanjana Dasgupta, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, made headlines in 2105 for her study suggesting that female undergraduates in engineering were much more likely to participate in problem-solving group activities when they made up more than half the group. Dasgupta and Tara Dennehy, a graduate student in social psychology UMass-Amherst, have new study out this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that could help engineering programs further support women.

For the paper, “Female Peer Mentors Early in College Increase Women's Positive Academic experiences and Retention in Engineering,” the authors had 150 female engineering students meet with peer female or male mentors, or no mentors at all, once a month for a year. Students’ experiences were surveyed three times in the first year and once again a year later. Survey responses and retention data showed that female mentors positively influenced mentees’ retention, as well as their feelings of confidence, motivation and belonging and desire to continue in engineering as a career. Male mentors had no such effect. 

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Philosophy professors at St. Thomas in Houston, their contracts late, fear for their jobs

St. Thomas in Houston has held back reappointment notices for philosophy professors -- even those with tenure -- amid debates over budget and the curriculum.

How to make job contacts want to help you (essay)

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You should always focus on making your networking contacts feel good -- and make sure your interaction is a positive experience for them, advises Joseph Barber.

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Thursday, May 25, 2017
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A Networking Rule to Live By

‘Fear and Oppressiveness’ at Nashville State CC

A report commissioned by the Tennessee Board of Regents has found "a climate of fear and oppressiveness" at Nashville State Community College, The Tennessean reported, based on a leaked copy of the report. The report was based on interviews and surveys with faculty members at the college, who were critical of President George Van Allen. In an interview with the newspaper, Van Allen defended his record and blamed "a strong minority" of professors for the criticisms.

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Tufts Grad Students Form Union

Tufts University graduate students in the School of Arts and Sciences voted to form a union affiliated with Service Employees International Union, they announced Thursday. Turnout was high, at 82 percent, and the tally was 129 in favor and 84 opposed, with eight challenged ballots. The university said in a statement it’s "disappointed in the outcome" and "concerned unionization will fundamentally change the relationship between graduate students and faculty." Yet it recognizes the union's right to exist and is committed to collective bargaining in the coming months, it said. Non-tenure-track instructors at Tufts, both full-time and part-time, already are represented by SEIU. Brandeis University graduate students voted to form a union with SEIU earlier this month, and that institution committed to beginning contract negotiations, as well -- unlike other campuses that have continued to bring legal challenges to new unions. A hunger strike at Yale University over delayed negotiations there is ongoing, for example.

Also on Thursday, a regional NLRB office said that graduate students at Boston College, a Roman Catholic institution, were free to hold a union election -- except those students studying theology and ministry and mission and ministry, respectively. Similar to recent NLRB decisions on proposed adjunct unions at religious institutions, the office said that most Boston College graduate students, save those studying theology, did not perform the kinds of specific religious functions that would exempt them from NLRB oversight. The proposed Boston College unit is organizing with United Auto Workers.

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A professor revisits his relationship with a teenage, college and grad school acquaintance (essay)

I was scrolling through my email one morning last March when a message catapulted me back to an earlier time of baseball cards, bell bottoms and biology homework. One of my college roommates sent a link to a morning headline -- "Hedge Fund Manager Dead in Apparent Suicide." The man had jumped from the 24th floor of a Manhattan hotel. My roommate’s note was terse: "It's Chuck Murphy."

Charlie Murphy and I met in Ms. Puccio's homeroom class in 1974, when we were 13 years old. We were entering sophomores at Stuyvesant High School, a public New York City high school that specializes in math and science. Charlie was a nice guy, friendly and soft-spoken. Also very tall -- with inches yet to grow.

We had all the same classes our first semester, and we ran with the same pack of friends for a while. Though Charlie and I didn’t really become friends ourselves, we stayed abreast of each other -- not least because we saw each other every morning in homeroom.

Stuyvesant was -- and is -- a crucible of high-pressured academic competition. I did well there, and discovered an interest in tournament chess. Charlie also did well. We both wound up at Columbia University, where we began school together once more.

At Columbia, Charlie exercised the prerogative of many a college student: he reinvented himself. He started calling himself Chuck, and he joined the preppy fraternity. He dressed the part, too -- I saw him in black tie on more than one weekend.

Charlie also went out for crew. As a senior, he captained the crew team. That same year, I became captain of the chess team. We would say hello when our paths crossed, but they didn't cross often.

Still, Charlie's personal transformation stuck in my mind. After a while, I figured out why. He chose to shed his skin, to efface his past. But that skin he was shedding -- well, it was the skin I still wore. That past he was erasing was the past we shared.

I remember running into Charlie at commencement, where we shook hands in our gowns and congratulated each other. By then, whenever I saw him, I was mostly reminded of the differences between us.

***

Our paths may have diverged, but our geography remained ironically parallel. Both of us landed at Harvard University in the early 1980s. Charlie (I never got used to calling him Chuck) went to Harvard Law School, and I started the long road to a Ph.D. in English.

I had once thought about going to law school myself, and did legal work for a couple of summers during college. But I liked literature better. After vowing on numerous occasions that I would never go to graduate school -- I can still hear myself saying that -- I learned enough about myself to change my mind. So I dug in and tried for a professorship.

Charlie and I ran into each other in Harvard Yard sometimes. We always greeted each other warmly, as old familiars, but neither of us asked much about what the other was doing.

I heard that Charlie went to Europe after his 1985 graduation to work in banking and finance. I never saw him again. He never wrote to the alumni class notes, either, so his story never advanced for me. He became encased in the amber of memory.

But after my roommate’s email, I heard a lot about him. The financial papers descended upon Charlie with prurient zeal. There were stories in The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Fortune, Barron’s. The Daily Mail weighed in with a heavily illustrated, gossipy account.

From these accounts, I learned that Charlie had lived in London for over 20 years before coming back to New York in 2007. Upon his return, he paid $33 million for a townhouse with 11 fireplaces, in the same part of Manhattan where he grew up.

Charlie had been a highflier, working first for Morgan Stanley, then for start-ups and hedge funds. His work, I realized, lay behind stories I’ve read in the business pages of the newspapers. One of his last deals aimed at the breakup of AIG, the insurance giant whose failure contributed to the 2008 financial crash.

Charlie made some good bets over the years -- the Journal estimated his worth in the tens of millions of dollars. He also made some bad ones: the hedge fund he joined upon his return to the United States had invested heavily in Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. At the time of his death, Charlie was a partner at a different firm, and his home was for sale for $42.5 million.

Charlie had been known in his profession as Charles. His name had changed yet again, but so had something else. The financier described in his obituaries wasn’t remotely like the Charlie Murphy I remembered: Charles Murphy was "rigid" and "confrontational." "Conversations with Mr. Murphy," reported The Wall Street Journal, "amounted to lectures." A 30-minute phone call with him meant "29 minutes of Charles talking."

***

Call me an English professor (because I became one), but these accounts initially recalled for me Theodore Dreiser's fictionalized portrayal of the tall, handsome, daring financier Frank Cowperwood in three novels published between 1912 and 1947. One of the words Dreiser often attaches to Cowperwood is "force." The mystery Dreiser sets up but does not solve over the course of more than a thousand pages is what makes Cowperwood always want more: more money, more women, more art for his collection. "I satisfy myself," Cowperwood often says. But he's never satisfied.

My thoughts eventually fixed on Edwin Arlington Robinson's 1897 poem "Richard Cory." The title character is "a gentleman from sole to crown, / Clean favored and imperially slim." Cory is "richer than a king" and "admirably schooled in every grace."

In 1965, Paul Simon made a song out of Robinson's poem. It appears on Simon and Garfunkel's Sounds of Silence album. Many people of a certain age, including me, first encountered Richard Cory through the song, not the poem. I heard it for the first time a few years before I met Charlie Murphy. The song's out-of-left-field ending (which echoes the poem's) has never left me:

My mind was filled with wonder when the evening headlines read:
"Richard Cory went home last night and put a bullet through his head."

I knew Charlie Murphy once. The man his colleagues knew as Charles Murphy I knew not at all. Yet his death haunts me. No one else shared high school, college and graduate school with me.

Charlie and I tracked together from our young teens until our midtwenties -- the years when we were choosing our professions. I first read Dreiser and Robinson during those years, and now I see myself turning to the tools of my job to try to make sense of my classmate's suicide.

Which I can't, of course -- I hadn’t seen him in more than 30 years. His death is a tragedy for those close to him. For me, it's also a story that vexes me because my emotional connection to it is so hard to understand.

The Simon and Garfunkel song conveys a strange sort of self-righteous triumph when Simon sings the "put a bullet through his head" line. Simon’s narrator is an unhappy worker in one of Richard Cory’s factories. The singer’s admiration of Richard Cory is matched by his own misery: “I curse the life I’m living/And I curse my poverty.”

What lies behind the singer’s defiant tone when he delivers that last line? I’ve devoted my career to questions like that -- and to arguing for why they matter. Does the singer display a poor man's schadenfreude? The smugness of youth? Or the simple joy of someone who sees that he’s still alive?

The question has no clear answer -- and that’s one of the reasons we’re still reading and listening to “Richard Cory” after more than 50 years. And it’s one of the reasons I can’t stop thinking about Charlie Murphy.

Leonard Cassuto is a professor of English and American studies at Fordham University. His most recent book is The Graduate School Mess: What Caused It and How We Can Fix It (Harvard University Press, 2015).

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Thursday, May 25, 2017
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The Financier and the Professor

Department leaders shouldn't look the other way when professors harass junior faculty members or students (essay)

Academic departments normalize sexual violence when they look the other way as faculty members abuse their power in harassing or assaulting junior faculty and/or students, argues Donovan A. Steinberg.

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Caltech Students Protest Known Harasser's Return

California Institute of Technology students are protesting the return of a professor of theoretical astrophysics, Christian Ott, following his suspension for harassing two female graduate students, BuzzFeed News reported. A 2015 campus investigation found that Ott violated Caltech’s sexual harassment policies by engaging in “discriminatory and harassing behavior.” He allegedly became infatuated with one of the students, whom he then fired, and repeatedly expressed his romantic feelings to the other. Ott was originally suspended for nine months, but his leave was later extended through August of this year, and no public explanation has been given for the change, according to BuzzFeed.

Ott was preliminarily allowed back on campus last week to observe a thesis presentation by a graduate student, reportedly at the student’s request. In response, several dozen students staged a sit-in demonstration in the astronomy department Tuesday, displaying a sign saying, “To support a safe working and living environment for all members of the Caltech community. We support you. You are not alone.” Undergraduates also sent a letter to the university's president, Thomas Rosenbaum, saying that to “continue delaying but not outright banning Ott’s return to campus puts all students at Caltech, but especially female graduate students, in a state of uncertainty and fear for the future.”

Ott did not respond to a request for comment. A university spokesperson said Caltech respects the right of all campus members to express their views and is “committed to keeping the community informed as this process moves forward.” Whether Ott returns to teaching has yet to be decided, she said. A committee will assess Ott’s “behavior and progress” during his suspension, Fiona Harrison, division chair for physics, math and astronomy, reportedly said in an email to faculty members this week.

“Top priority will be given to the welfare of our campus community,” Harrison wrote. “We also believe in the potential for rehabilitation and the idea that individuals have the right to demonstrate positive, persistent change in behavior.”

The protests at Caltech are similar in nature to those staged against the return of an alleged serial harasser of graduate students to the University of California, Los Angeles, earlier this year. Gabriel Piterberg, professor of history, was allowed to return to teaching but faced protesters inside and outside his classes at the beginning of the semester (earlier protests sought in vain to keep him from returning at all). Piterberg denied the misconduct but agreed to take a one-quarter suspension as part of a settlement that halted a campus investigation into one student’s claims. The university also settled with Piterberg’s two accusers, who sued the university for responding insufficiently to their claims of harassment. Piterberg upon his return canceled several class sessions as a result of the protests, and the university eventually said that he’d continue to teach but that videotaped lectures would be available to students who chose not to attend class.

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Texas A&M Softens Tone Toward Professor

Michael K. Young, president of Texas A&M University, softened his public stance Tuesday toward a professor receiving death threats as a result of years-old, recently resurfaced comments about race. “For those of you who considered my comments disparaging to certain types of scholarly work or in any way impinging upon the centrality of academic freedom at this university, I regret any contributions that I may have made to misunderstandings in this case, including to those whose work is contextualized by understanding the historical perspectives of events that have often been ignored,” Young said in a statement.

Last week, Young affirmed his campus’s commitment to academic freedom while taking a harsh tone toward Tommy Curry, an associate professor of philosophy and a critical race theorist who was recently partially quoted by a conservative publication saying that “some whites might have to die.” Curry made the comment as part of a much longer podcast interview response to a question about the violent Quentin Tarantino film Django Unchained, and Curry has since said he was not advocating violence. Many called for his termination or resignation after The American Conservative published a blog post about Curry's remarks. Some also sent the professor, who is black, racist messages and physical threats.

Young in his original statement called Curry’s comments “disturbing” and standing “in stark contrast to Aggie core values -- most notably those of respect, excellence, leadership and integrity -- values that we hold true toward all of humanity.” The president has since faced backlash from some in Curry’s department, students and outside philosophers, for not explicitly expressing support for the professor.

Last week’s statement affirmed Texas A&M’s commitment to free speech even while implicitly criticizing Curry (who was not named directly), but Young’s updated message seems focuses more on academic freedom, saying that “Scholars have a responsibility to engage in deep dialogue and ask questions within their areas of expertise; however, through sound bites or social media headlines, profound issues can be oversimplified and distorted.”

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Data show small improvements in accessibility of course materials

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Data from 700,000 classes show digital course materials have gotten only slightly more accessible to students with disabilities over the last five years.

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