A bill considered by the Education Committee of the Iowa State Senate riled faculty members this week, after it was shared on the American Association of University Professors’ Academe blog. The bill -- which Rudy Fichtenbaum, professor of economics at Wright State University and AAUP president, called “the most outrageous proposal I have heard from a legislator anywhere” -- would have required that any professor at a public institution teach at least one course per semester and be rated by student evaluations such that if “a professor fails to attain a minimum threshold of performance based on the student evaluations used to assess the professor’s teaching effectiveness, in accordance with the criteria and rating system adopted by the board, the institution shall terminate the professor’s employment regardless of tenure status or contract.”
Additionally, the bill said, “The names of the five professors who rank lowest on their institution’s evaluation for the semester, but who scored above the minimum threshold of performance, shall be published on the institution’s Internet site and the student body shall be offered an opportunity to vote on the question of whether any of the five professors will be retained as employees of the institution.” The professor with the fewest votes would have been subject to termination, regardless of tenure status.
After receiving a substantial number of emails from outraged faculty members, Inside Higher Ed determined that the bill had died in committee -- six weeks ago.
Herman Quirmbach, a Democrat who is chair of the Iowa State Senate Education Committee and a professor of economics at Iowa State University, said via email that the bill “demonstrates little understanding of higher education and even less caring.” Fortunately, he added, “cooler heads have prevailed.”
Senator Mark Chelgren, a Republican who was the bill’s sponsor, did not immediately return a request for comment.
John McNay, chair of the history department at the University of Cincinnati’s Blue Ash campus and president of the Ohio conference of the American Association of University Professors, said via email that he and other faculty members are “very pleased that the House Finance Committee listened to our concerns.”
“We want the Ohio legislature to begin to look at the real problems that are increasing costs for our students,” such as escalating spending on noninstructional services and salaries, McNay said. “We are not the problem. We can be part of the solution if they will work with us.”
Most of my encounters with students who, like you, are intercollegiate athletes, have been pleasant. Joking aside, the term “student-athlete” is not an oxymoron -- i.e., a self-contradiction. When it seems to be, it’s only what I like to call a fauxymoron -- like “jumbo shrimp”: its terms are not contradictory by definition. It’s just that the two roles can conflict.
For the most part, then, I have enjoyed having students who are athletes. Concerned with protecting their eligibility, they tend to come to class and do the work honestly to the best of their ability. Living with the demands of training and traveling, most have learned to manage their time effectively.
But I have also had a couple of student-athletes who were trouble because they were athletes rather than students. Most of these individuals, not surprisingly, were male, and they were engaged in high-profile sports, such as football and basketball. Such programs seem to encourage a sense of entitlement on the part of their clients, who may receive academic assistance that goes beyond what is appropriate.
That’s where you come in.
When you showed up in my Introduction to American Studies course, your arrival wasn’t a surprise; I’d been alerted by your coach. In fact, he told me he’d be at the first class to introduce you. I was not pleased by this, for two reasons. First, it suggested that he wanted to impress on me your status (and stature) as a varsity athlete; while it may be well-meaning, this action signals that athletes deserve special consideration. Second, it placed him between you and me and thus characterized you as needing his intervention -- not a good start to our professor/student relationship.
I could have overlooked this had you done the assigned work. But it was pretty clear from the get-go that you were not a serious student. You may have been the only student who never participated in discussion (which is encouraged but not required). That would not have been a problem if you seemed to be following the discussion. But that would depend on your doing the assigned reading. Which you didn’t seem to be doing. You rarely brought the text to class. When you did, it didn’t show any signs of having been read, much less underlined.
Professors really like their students to do the reading on schedule. It enables discussion and facilitates learning. A fringe benefit: it makes class more enjoyable for students. Indeed, I can imagine few things more boring than having to listen to others discuss reading I hadn’t done. And our classes were 85 minutes long!
What torture that must have been for you. In a large class, I wouldn’t have cared so much; you could have faded into the woodwork or dozed off, as even normally attentive students sometimes do. But in a small class, you were a real distraction -- a drag by your very presence. Your body language and facial expressions conveyed your discomfort and boredom.
I knew that there would be a reckoning when the first paper came in. And yours was obviously bogus. The first sign was that it was off topic. My assigned topics build on study questions and class discussion. Your paper was in no way responsive to the prompt. And a quick Internet search revealed that it was in large part copied from online sources. Had you properly cited these sources, you would have revealed that there wasn’t enough original content for you to claim the paper as your own. But in not acknowledging them, you committed outright plagiarism, so the penalty was failure for the course.
It occurred to me that perhaps you hadn’t done the cutting and pasting yourself. Maybe you purchased the paper online; more likely, it was provided to you by a “tutor” or “academic adviser.” You may have been unaware of what bogus goods you were handing over. But you couldn’t have thought it was legitimate to submit it.
With a grade of F, you stopped coming to class, and the atmosphere was the better for your absence.
That wasn’t the end of the story, though. From a coach’s email to all your profs, I knew your academic schedule, and I was curious about your performance in other courses. I recognized one as a notorious gut course in art history; I was unfamiliar with the others. Of course, I could not inform your other professors that I had failed you for plagiarism and warn them to watch for it. That would have violated your confidentiality. But I solicited their impressions of you as a student. None responded, so I assumed you were not regarded as a problem in their courses.
Not long after I gave your paper back, however, I did hear from another faculty member. He identified himself as the university’s faculty liaison for athletes (and I learned that he represented the university on an intercollegiate committee of colleagues). He offered to help resolve my problem with you -- a service not available to non-athletes. I responded that the problem had been resolved, and I never heard from him again.
I was sufficiently interested in your fate to Google you. I discovered that you’d transferred in from a junior college. And at the end of the year, you transferred out.
You never had a professional career in basketball. So I wonder what you got out of your college career. You were able to play your sport competitively after high school; that must have been gratifying. And in such a high-profile sport, you had a degree of celebrity on campus. One of the female students in the class seemed impressed by that.
But while you may have been accruing college credits (in your other courses, at least), you clearly were not getting an education. I don’t know which makes me feel worse: that you were wasting your time on a sham or that the college was wasting scholarship money on you.
But here’s the most insidious part of the phenomenon that you represent. In effect, the athletic program infantilized you. Others figured out what you should major in, arranged your schedule, interceded with your professors and chose your courses. (They didn’t even do that competently, or they’d never have placed you in one of my classes.)
So I would say that the athletic program did you no favor. Quite the contrary -- it deprived you of an opportunity for a genuine education, not just intellectual but personal development: taking responsibility for your actions, growing up. Rather than advancing your true interests and preparing you for life after college, I would say the program set you back.
I wish you luck making up for lost time.
G. Thomas Couser
G. Thomas Couser is a professor emeritus of English at Hofstra University.
Academic labor conference panel discussion focuses on contract provisions for adjuncts that go beyond better pay. Data suggest larger gains for part-timers in bargaining units that are separate from full-time faculty.
Professors were among the winners of the arts and letters categories in the 2015 Pulitzer Prizes, which were announced Monday:
In biography, the winner was The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe (Random House), by David I. Kertzer. Kertzer is the Paul Dupee University Professor of Social Science and professor of anthropology and Italian studies at Brown University.
In history, the winner was Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People (Hill and Wang), by Elizabeth A. Fenn. Fenn is the Walter S. and Lucienne Driskill Chair in Western American History at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
In music, the winner was "Anthracite Fields," by Julia Wolfe, who is on the composition faculty at New York University's Steinhardt School.
In poetry, the winner was the collection Digest (Four Way Books), by Gregory Pardlo, who is a teaching fellow in undergraduate writing at Columbia University.
What happens to academic libraries as they slide sideways into a new world of superabundant information? What happens to their colleges and universities?
The process of change is not easy. Inside Higher Ed has described recent campus conflicts regarding the future of academic libraries. Carl Straumsheim ("Clash in the Stacks") reported that several library directors at liberal arts institutions have lost their jobs. However, tensions about changing libraries are not restricted to one type of institution.
Academic libraries are undergoing a public, challenging and frequently contested transformation. The change and obsolescence of academic libraries as we know them represents an event of unprecedented magnitude in higher education. Rarely has a core institutional activity faced such formidable prospects for change.
At the same time, librarians will be unsuccessful in planning for the future on their own. They possess much expertise about libraries, but less about trends in research and curriculum. Moving forward, the process of recreating the library must be one that involves many people in many roles on campus.
The library as a collection of print books and journals is an idea that has left the building. The library -- if that is even the appropriate name for what seems to be emerging -- is no longer focused exclusively on organizing and providing access to information. The library is fast becoming a multifaceted center designed to support a wide variety student learning and faculty research activities.
Many libraries in institutions focused on undergraduate education now include spaces where students find a one-stop learning environment that incorporates writing assistance, tutoring and multimedia production, as well as institutionally unique centers focused on civic engagement, multicultural dialogue or service learning.
Many libraries in research institutions provide expertise and specialized technologies to support the work of faculty. Areas of emphasis might include data management and visualization, scholarly communication and institutional repositories, the mining of humanities texts, and geographic information systems, to name a few.
By default, much of the responsibility for adapting to a changing information environment seems to fall to library directors who forge ahead at their own risk. Straumsheim quotes Bryn I. Geffert, college librarian at Amherst, as saying that directors need a high degree of “social smarts” to navigate the rapids of change.
To my way of thinking, three smarts stand out. The first involves understanding the complex and ambiguous decision-making processes of higher education. It is no surprise that decision making in colleges and universities is frequently characterized as organized chaos. Recognizing invested stakeholders is not as easy as it would seem. This is not a top-down environment. And every institution is somewhat different.
Second, working with complexity: after 20 years of experience and research, I have come to appreciate that university processes succeed best when leaders promote interactions that permit the academic community to learn its way forward to a common understanding of what can and should happen. Complexity theory suggests that effective leaders do not predetermine the outcomes of change initiatives; they create the conditions whereby the community can engage them and take steps forward.
Third, library directors must approach library change with humility. In their efforts to create conditions for campus engagement, they are the stewards of the process, not its owners. As stewards and facilitators of the process, they don’t have the answers; they offer possibilities. While they may be experts in academic library trends, librarians and directors are not necessarily experts in how those trends fit into the institutional community, curriculum and culture.
One of the hazards of organizational change is presuming that it should take place in a certain way. The future is a collective production based on many factors. Colleges and universities are communities of people with various commitments, interests and activities that intersect with libraries and information services. What we can do is open up opportunities for discussion, collective dreaming and actions.
However, the issue of library change goes far beyond the personal attributes of library directors. Our institutions will not succeed if large-scale change relies on individuals. Sure, someone needs to lead the charge, but meaningful change doesn’t occur because of one person; it requires widespread engagement, not merely acquiescence. College and university administrators and faculty -- across disciplines -- must recognize their own interests in this change.
This leads to my central point. It will take a university community to shape a future library that meets the specific needs of learning and research at that institution. This transition is not just about libraries. It is about how colleges and universities come together to solve a collective challenge. Libraries cannot puzzle out their future alone.
The library is only as effective as its ability to understand and support the emerging information needs of its campus. Beyond organizing and providing access to information, academic libraries are now incorporating a variety of nontraditional resources, services and expertise. But what exactly will change, and how fast, is a campus conversation.
I am reminded of Harold Howe’s statement: “What a school thinks about its library is a measure of what it feels about education.” The two are connected. Libraries are changing. Education is changing. How academe responds to the transformation of libraries says a lot, not only about its view of libraries and education, but also about its capacity to address institutional change. The university’s engagement in library change might be considered a barometer of its ability to respond to other change as well.
But how can we, and our institutions, establish strategies that promote strategic responses to changes in the social and economic conditions that surround us? How can we work collaboratively and intentionally, bringing our expertise to bear, taking risks in order to do what higher education is called to do: to lead social and culture change that makes a positive difference in the world?
I’ve come to believe that the issues we face in our current institution are the same ones that we face wherever we go. Greener grass is not the issue. Working with the grass that we have is. Wendell Berry reminds us that meaningful work and life results from our commitment to place, to nurturing our communities.
At a very basic level, we must care about the institution, about the people we work with and about the library. The future of libraries, and academe generally, requires us to learn our way forward together as a community. There are no easy answers, only our commitments, our skills and patience with each other as we find our way into the future.
The future of our libraries is our own future. Higher education is at a turning point, with libraries as one of the most visible signs of change. How we choose to recreate libraries may be a reflection of how we adapt to changing and critical social, political, economic and environmental issues throughout the world.
Dane Ward is dean of Milner Library at Illinois State University.