faculty

U. of Hawaii Faculty Union vs. the NEA

The faculty union at the University of Hawaii System on Friday issued a letter denouncing the National Education Association, with which it was until recently affiliated. The letter -- "To NEA: Thank you for trying to destroy our union" -- says that since the leaders of the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly voted to end its affiliation with the NEA, the national union has "bombarded" the local union with visits, seeking to cast doubt on the decision. The Hawaii union also says that the NEA has been threatening to encourage a "decertification" vote, which would end the local union's collective bargaining rights.

The letter is unusually critical for a public statement by one union against another. "We realize you need our $686,649 in annual dues because your membership is dropping. NEA has been reorganizing and laying off staff. Your clout must be slipping. President Obama sent Joe Biden, his Vice President, to your annual meeting last year.  I guess if you want to see Obama, you’ll have to come out here to Hawaii and wait in line with him for shave ice (it’s a local thing). With a strong six-year contract in place, we tend to forget that UHPA leaders negotiated the contract without NEA help, and that 89 percent of our members stood up to the university administration when it thought we would cave in to a weak offer."

A statement from the NEA states that it wants to see all members of the Hawaii union vote on disaffiliation, rather than just leaders of the union. The statement says that many University of Hawaii faculty members want to remain affiliated with the NEA, but haven't had an opportunity to participate in the decision about affiliation. A spokesman for the NEA denied that there is any effort to decertify the local union.

On Saturday, the board of the Hawaii union voted to sustain its earlier decision and to end the NEA affiliation.

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Washington U. in St. Louis Will Stop Using Cats in Medical Training

Washington University in St. Louis has agreed to stop using cats in medical training, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported. The university has used cats to teach medical students how to place a tube in an infant's throat. Animal-rights groups have been focusing on Washington University, saying that most other medical schools have replaced the use of cats with mannequins. The former television host Bob Barker, a longtime animal rights advocate, in April said he would pay for the mannequins if the university would stop using cats.

Academic Minute: Humidity and Cold Drinks

In today’s Academic Minute, Dale Durran of the University of Washington explains why it’s more difficult to keep your drink cold on a humid day. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.

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Stanford Sees Progress Recruiting Minority Professors

Stanford University reported this week that it has made progress in diversifying its faculty. Between 2008 and 2013, the number of underrepresented minority faculty members (black, Latino and American Indian/Alaska Native) increased by 43 percent, to 146. During the same period, the overall growth in the Stanford faculty was only 9 percent. At the same time, the university said that a study based on interviews with 52 of the minority faculty members found areas that need improvement. Many minority faculty members, the university found, report feelings of research isolation, diminished peer recognition and "lesser collegiality."

 

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Essay of advice for the newly tenured

Eric Goldman has 10 suggestions for newly tenured professors.

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Academic Minute: Embryonic Development and Organ Placement

In today’s Academic Minute, Michael Levin of Tufts University explains the process that determines organ placement as an embryo develops. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.

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Essay on whether academic freedom protects teaching of 'junk science'

Ball State University is embroiled in controversy over a course offered by its physics and astronomy department, called "The Boundaries of Science." The Freedom From Religion Foundation has complained that the course isn’t science but religious indoctrination, and that because Ball State is a public university, offering the course violates the church-state separation required by the First Amendment. Others say it’s an exercise in academic freedom. In fact, it is probably neither.

Academic freedom protects professors’ scholarship and teaching — within limits. It certainly protects the ability to broach controversial ideas in class. But it isn’t an absolute right. Professors have to teach the subjects assigned, and can’t engage in racial or sexual harassment, to mention just a few limits. There is also the matter of professional competence. A Holocaust denier may be competent to teach math or Spanish, but is unqualified to teach European history. A believer in "creation science" may be competent to teach medieval literature, but not biology. If the course is junk science, the professor has no academic-freedom right to teach it, and his department should have enough professional integrity to remove it from the catalog.

But what if the department decides not to? Does teaching the course at a public university violate the constitutional mandate prohibiting an "establishment of religion," as it indisputably would if offered at a public high school? There’s little case law on this question — probably because there aren’t many public universities that offer courses proselytizing religion under the guise of science.

The traditional formula for deciding whether a government program violates the Establishment Clause is the so-called "Lemon test," derived from a 1971 Supreme Court case, and asking three questions: whether the program has a secular purpose; whether its primary effect is to advance or inhibit religion; and whether it results in excessive government entanglement with religion. More recently, the Supreme Court has used two other tests: whether the program amounts to government endorsement of religion, and whether it is coercive. The coercion inquiry is particularly relevant to prayers and religion courses in public schools: where a prayer is mandatory, it forces students to recite beliefs they don’t necessarily hold, and where a course is mandatory, it subjects them to unwanted indoctrination.

In 1972, a federal court of appeals struck down a chapel-attendance mandate at a collegiate military academy, even though no one was required to attend the academy (unlike a public school) and even though cadets could be excused from the chapel requirement (Anderson v. Laird). In two later cases, on the other hand, courts allowed graduation prayers at public universities on the theory that there was no coercion, there was a secular purpose (to "solemnize public occasions"), there was no primarily religious effect because "an audience of college-educated adults" — unlike school children — was not likely to be unduly influenced, and there was no excessive entanglement with religion (Tanford v. Brand and Chaudhuri v. Tennessee). But in a 2003 case, another court ruled that a supper prayer at the Virginia Military Institute did violate the Establishment Clause because the students were "plainly coerced into participating in a religious exercise" (Mellen v. Bunting).

Then there was the strange case of a group in Nassau County, New York, which challenged a "Human Sexuality" course at the local community college because, they claimed, it "proselytizes against the Judeo-Christian sexual ethic and advocates an anti-religious sexual ethic to replace it." The judge found no endorsement of religion, a secular purpose, and nothing implicating any other prong of the Lemon test (Gheta v. Nassau County Community College).

How might these somewhat inconsistent precedents apply to "The Boundaries of Science"? There is no coercion because nobody has to attend Ball State or enroll in the course. There’s little likelihood that reasonable observers would think the administration endorses the professor’s religious message. On the contrary, a basic tenet of academic freedom is that professors don’t necessarily speak for the university — indeed, they should be free to speak out against its policies. There’s little chance of entanglement with religion, and although it might be difficult to discern a secular purpose, and the primary effect might be religious, on balance, the courts would probably not find this dubious course to violate the Establishment Clause.

Academic freedom, as a matter of First Amendment right at public universities, protects both the institution and the individual professor. The Supreme Court has noted the potential for conflict between the two. In the case of Ball State, though, the question is one of professional competence, and the institution, through its faculty committees, gets to decide whether "The Boundaries of Science" meets this standard.  If it is religion masquerading as science, it clearly doesn’t, regardless of whether it violates the Establishment Clause.

A case from the University of Alabama in 1991 supports this conclusion. Students complained that a professor of physiology was engaging in religious proselytizing in class. The university told him to stop; the professor claimed a violation of his academic freedom. The federal court of appeals acknowledged that, as the Supreme Court had recognized years before, teachers’ academic freedom is a "special concern of the First Amendment," but in the end ruled that the university was within its rights in restricting the professor’s classroom speech. The court did not reach the question of whether religious proselytizing in a public university class violates the Establishment Clause (Bishop v. Aronov).

In the case of "The Boundaries of Science," the right of the Ball State administration to decide on the course’s overall scientific validity is even stronger than the University of Alabama’s claim of authority to restrict a professor’s occasional in-class proselytizing. The point is that these are educational decisions for the university to make, and absent a violation of the Establishment Clause, outside political interference is dangerous, no matter how well-intentioned.

Marjorie Heins is the author of Priests of Our Democracy: The Supreme Court, Academic Freedom, and the Anti-Communist Purge (New York University Press).

 

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Kalamazoo College Makes It More Difficult to Earn a 4.0

Kalamazoo College has changed the way it calculates grade-point averages so that only an A, not an A- as has been the case, is worth a 4.0, MLive reported. An A- will be worth only 3.67.  In another change, there will be separate vales for grades of B+, B and B- (3.33, 3.0 and 2.67, respectively). Previously, all three B grades were worth 3.0. Officials said that the college made the change not out of concerns about grade inflation, but to help students applying to graduate schools. Some graduate schools were recalculating Kalamazoo G.P.A.s because its prior system is not widely used.

 

Study finds students don't learn more from charismatic lecturers

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Study finds that students learn little more from great lectures than bad ones.

Academic Minute: Cancer-Fighting Protein

In today’s Academic Minute, Judith Ochrietor of the University of North Florida explains how a dangerous protein can also be dangerous for cancer. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.

 

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