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Advice on how to have difficult conversations (essay)

Avoiding conflict almost always backfires. Aisha Langford offers guidance on how to approach tough discussions.

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AAUP session discusses off-list reference checks

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Should faculty members be concerned if administrators check references who were not supplied by job candidates?

The grant targets for faculty members at British universities

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Suicide of a researcher leads to more discussion of financial expectations on professors at British universities.

Essay on how to talk about assessment in faculty job interviews

At many interviews for faculty jobs these days, you'll be asked about assessment. Melissa Dennihy offers some ideas on how to answer.

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Essay rejects the hype over fear of liberal or diverse students

I’m a liberal white faculty member, and I have a confession: I have no idea why other liberal white faculty members claim to be so afraid of their liberal students. In the past few months, anonymous (and sometimes not) white professors have started airing these fears, or re-airing them, as they are reminiscent of old complaints. The campus culture, they claim, has grown toxic, with faculty members carefully paring their syllabi to avoid any potentially uncomfortable material. A specter, they will tell you, is haunting universities -- the specter of political correctness, or radical liberalism, or identity politics.

The latest of these accounts, published recently in Vox under the pseudonym Edward Schlosser, is particularly unconvincing. Schlosser, an ostensibly liberal professor, conflates real problems -- the shifting of higher education toward a consumer experience (explained and deflated well here by Rebecca Schuman) and the absence of job protection for contingent faculty -- with ghosts conjured by paranoia. The generality of Schlosser’s writing doesn’t pass the sniff test; for example, he claims, “Personal experience and feelings aren't just a salient touchstone of contemporary identity politics; they are the entirety of these politics.”

That sentence doesn’t stack the deck so much as it replaces it entirely. And the oddly random anecdotes of feelings-driven radical liberalism don’t add up; as in many invocations of the dangers of student liberalism, Twitter is a central go-to demon. The fundamental irony of Schlosser’s essay is that he criticizes overreliance on emotional responses that students have, but the fear he describes ultimately seems like an overreliance on an emotional response by some white faculty members. Criticism from students -- whether it’s over the reading choices, the assignments, the in-class dynamic -- isn’t new, even if it develops out of students’ political perspectives or not. Instructors have to learn to meet that criticism and engage it respectfully.

Finally, people of color are starkly underrepresented among full-time faculty members and face authority challenges in the classroom that white male faculty do not, so the growing concern about what the white professoriate can and cannot say seems laughable to me. Plus, for what it’s worth, I’m a white male instructor unprotected by the tenure track, but I don’t feel the fear Schlosser describes, and my academic friends and colleagues, both tenured and not, at a wide variety of institutions, either don’t feel this fear or don’t confess it to me.

All that said, I do think Schlosser’s concern comes from meaningful, important questions: How do faculty members teach controversial material in an open, respectful forum where students can learn? And how can white male instructors approach issues of race, gender and sexual orientation with sensitivity? I teach first-year writing, creative writing and the personal essay, so each semester I regularly teach (and encounter in student writing) controversial material. If a student has raised a complaint about my handling of that material, it hasn’t been mentioned to me. I don’t assume to know every experience that might arise in the humanities classroom; I also can’t claim I’m the exemplar of how to encounter controversial issues in the classroom. Based on my experience, though, I have suggestions below on how Schlosser and other fearful faculty can teach controversial material.

Know, and admit, the limits of your authority. All instructors try to prepare as comprehensively as possible, but we all enter the classroom with our blind spots, our little (and sometimes big) ignorance. If you help students understand both the background of knowledge you bring as well as the uncertainties and questions you ask of a subject, they likely will understand your perspective more fully and engage with the questions you want them to consider. You won’t lose authority; rather, they’ll grow to see, via your model, how they can enter into complex problems and develop their own authority. They’ll also recognize the limits of their own knowledge, and that knowledge is fluid and limited.

Know, and admit, the extent of your authority. Faculty members are overwhelmingly, disproportionately white; department chairs more so. That’s the main reason I can’t take seriously this anonymous fear of retribution from liberal students: even at colleges with less diverse student populations, students still find more diversity among their peers than on the faculty. The resistance some white faculty members feel from students is, among other things, likely resistance to discovering the university as an ostensibly open environment that is still a sometimes unwelcome one for students of color. Even if we’re trying to be welcoming, white faculty members, myself included, are part of the problem, whether we like it or not. (NB: We should not.) Acknowledging that disparity as part of the process of teaching difficult material can help students discuss that material openly.

Know your place -- or, rather, know the place you’re in. While earning my Ph.D., I taught at an urban campus in the Midwest. In one first-year writing course, a student argued that affirmative action has given unfair opportunities to African-American students. In the course of the conversation, I asked the students what percentage of the student body they thought was African-American. One student, from a rural area, guessed 50 percent; no student guessed less than 25 percent. When I told them the percentage was actually under 10, well under the demographics of the city, state and nation the university was home to, they refused to believe me. (Had they looked around the room, they would have seen a single African-American student among the 18 of them.) When I showed them the university’s website, the look of confused resistance that spread on their faces appalled me; one student continued disagreeing, saying there must be some mistake with the website -- an administrator had told him it was 25 percent.

Had I been more aware of the place I was in, I would have understood their reactions better. A colleague reminded me later that the university was bordered on two sides by predominantly African-American neighborhoods; the custodial staff and service workers on campus were also largely African-American. Many of the students came from predominantly white neighborhoods and rural areas; they’d never seen so many African-Americans, so their imaginations likely multiplied those numbers.

Wherever we are, we should remember that academe is a shorthand for extraordinarily diverse kinds of universities. That’s why many of us resist when longtime tenured faculty from elite universities describe their experience as universal, a useful reminder that advanced age and advanced degrees don’t necessarily confer wisdom. Knowing your own college or university culture more intimately will help you work more directly with your students, whether the subject matter is controversial or not.

Recognize your own emotional reactions. Fear has a way of magnifying itself. Just because you’re afraid doesn’t mean the thing you’re afraid of is real. Along those lines, I’m skeptical of those who posit a split between the intellectual and emotional. Too many of the essays about fear of liberal students (especially Schlosser’s in Vox) posit the fearful faculty as reasonable and the student body as unreasonably emotional. Not only does the fear some white faculty members describe seem like an emotional embellishment, conceiving of emotion and reason as disconnected opposites does a tremendous disservice to both. Yes, reason and logic can be dispassionate, even at times disconnected from our emotional responses, but to pretend that they must be ever thus in the humanities classroom ignores basic human experience. If you pretend as Wendy Kaminer does that the utterance of the n-word by a white person has a negligible emotional charge, you’re committing an intellectual sin.

Explore your own bias, and never treat it as solved. I’m a white man born and raised in Arkansas. I’ve spent years working to understand the legacy of racism in my home state, and I’ve come to understand that, no matter how fully I try, I’ll probably never filter from myself the last dregs of that legacy. Exploring that bias -- via Harvard University’s Implicit Bias test, for example -- and acknowledging it to students can be a useful path to helping instructors and students recognize their own biases and develop a more complex understanding of their own emotional and intellectual responses.

When we discuss race in my classes, I tell my students of my background and acknowledge that, as careful as I try to be in thinking and speaking about race, I almost surely bring biases and emotional reactions I don’t yet recognize. In my experience, that engages them with their own experience and the intellectual material we discuss. Along those lines, instructors can benefit from presenting themselves as learners. Both the best and the most frustrating students have an inherent mistrust of authority, I think. As an instructor, I do, too. My greatest pleasure in teaching is being surprised and enlightened by my students’ work, especially their productive, constructive challenges to authority. And when they realize they’ve taught the instructor something, the students gain a useful confidence and foundation for the development of more complex ideas.

Teach difficult, controversial texts, paying particular attention to intellectual and cultural diversity. The avoidance of difficult material that Schlosser describes would be enormously counterproductive, of course, and faculty need to reconsider their syllabi in light of ongoing change. For example, I had long been proud to have a diverse list of poets and fiction writers in my creative-writing class. But when I reconsidered the syllabus last summer, I discovered that the poetry readings were less diverse and less focused on issues of race and gender than I had thought. So I adjusted the readings, adding in poems like June Jordan’s “Poem About My Rights” and short stories like Percival Everett’s “The Appropriation of Cultures,” excellent writing that drew the students’ attention to complex issues. Just as we discussed sound and sonnet structure in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “God’s Grandeur,” and image and figure in Marianne Moore’s “Poetry,” we discussed line breaks, anaphora, tone and race in Jordan’s poem.

As sometimes happens, I encountered student fatigue with discussions of race (in this case in a discussion of Jordan’s poem), only to discover what I think is often the source of that fatigue: many students see the beginning and end point of such discussions as “racism is bad.” When reluctant students saw how the issues were more complicated and required more inquiry, they became more engaged and moved to more compelling insights about the poem and about race.

Make clear the potential discomforts and challenges of the course material. To many, that might sound like a trigger warning, but it actually isn’t. On the first day of my classes, I mention that our reading (and possibly their writing, in creative-writing and personal-essay courses) will make us think in complicated, sometimes uncomfortable ways, about sexuality, race, gender and age, among other subjects. That isn’t a trigger warning; it’s simple politeness. Each class approaches its subject matter differently, and guiding students to your pedagogical approach helps them build the class dynamic more constructively. Trigger warnings, on the other hand, explicitly inform students about subject material that might trigger memories of trauma for those who’ve suffered that trauma. Though I don’t include trigger warnings, it’s frustrating that so many critics of trigger warnings conflate discomfort and trauma, ultimately misrepresenting the idea and design of trigger warnings.

If a student accuses you of hurting her/his feelings in a meaningful way, assume you’re in the wrong before you assume you’re in the right. This runs counter to the idea of “innocent until proven guilty,” but it’s a useful guide to self-awareness. (Bear in mind that I’m not arguing that departments should assume their faculty are in the wrong.) In academic and nonacademic contexts, I’ve seen plenty of people react immediately with a sharp defensiveness to all kinds of accusations, only to calcify that defense over time. (Full disclosure: I’ve been that person before and likely will be again.) Moving past the initial defensiveness, or converting the initial impulse into self-inquiry, can be useful in helping instructors consider their biases and emotional responses. Even if you and your colleagues decide you weren’t in the wrong, avoiding the defensive impulse will make you a more perceptive teacher.

What I’ve written above isn’t a comprehensive guide for scared white faculty; I’ve based it on my experience, so it’s necessarily limited. I’m trying to keep myself malleable in the hope of becoming a better teacher. Students will change over time; decrying the loss of some golden age while warning of some encroaching PC liberalism screaming across the sky does the students no good.

Charles Green teaches writing at Cornell University. He hopes that his bosses at the Politically Correct Policepersons Union will accept this essay in lieu of dues this month.

 

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Essay urges people to applaud Harvard's fund-raising success

For many institutions, a significant gift that advances the mission is an aspirational achievement, one that can impact many lives for the good, both on the campus and far beyond.

And in today’s high-stakes higher education funding model, advancement professionals are expected to find and secure these substantial and transformational gifts, working in partnership with their academic colleagues, institutional leadership and potential donors to help our institutions fulfill their missions, at least, and change the world, at best.

In 2009, the number of institutions in the United States with active fund-raising campaigns of $1 billion or more was 38. That number increased to 45 by 2015, with an additional 4 outside the U.S. To achieve these outcomes, institutions will need to secure more and more gifts of at least $1 million. In 2013 alone, 531 donations of at least $1 million and 147 contributions equal to or greater than $10 million were given to American colleges and universities, which means that yesteryear’s $1 million gift is tomorrow’s $400 million donation.

There is nothing wrong with institutions -- even those that are well endowed -- seeking the resources they need to provide world-class educations and experiences to their students today and well into the future. And now the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences is a significant step closer to achieving that goal based on John A. Paulson’s remarkable $400 million gift.

That success should be celebrated alongside the fund-raising successes of many institutions across the country. But I’ve read critiques that state Paulson should have given his gift elsewhere -- somewhere more “worthy” or more “needy.” But the reality is that donors support the causes for which they are passionate. And in that way, all gifts are worthy.

This criticism, if left unanswered, could create an environment in which donors are more reticent with their philanthropic investments or prefer to make anonymous gifts. Were that to be the case, our institutions would be the poorer -- impacting students and life-changing research.

Most major gifts are tied to a long and carefully built relationship where the donor’s vision and institution’s priorities overlap in areas in which they can, together, make a transformational impact. And I believe Paulson’s gift to the engineering college is such an investment. A successful hedge fund manager, he clearly has a strong business acumen and the ability to invest smartly.

Harvard successfully made the case for the impact his gift can make for future students and for American innovation writ large. Paulson affirmed his appreciation for his alma mater by saying, “There is no question that the support and education I received at Harvard was critical in helping me achieve success in my career. Now I feel it is important for me to do something impactful and meaningful for Harvard.”

That type of enthusiasm for advancing education should unite, not divide us. Donors are often motivated by gratitude combined with a passion for philanthropy and investing in education -- whether they be five-dollar annual contributors or alumni with greater means.

Higher education and the general public’s celebration of a $400 million gift (the ninth largest to higher education) would seem to me appropriate because we know that the impact, visibility and scale of a gift of this significance has the ability to inspire further philanthropy to academe, including at many of the institutions that have more modest endowments or level of private support. Harvard’s success does not impede the ability of other institutions to approach their alumni and potential supporters for similarly transformational gifts. In fact, it encourages it.

I challenge all of us to laud Paulson’s record-breaking contribution and then get back out there, make the case for our institutions’ experience and outcomes and ask for others to be similarly inspired to make a profound difference.

Sue Cunningham is president of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.

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Essay criticizes the $400 million gift to Harvard

I have been a college president for over a decade now. During my career I’ve not shied away from using the bully pulpit to address a number of issues. This includes questioning obscene gifts wealthy individuals have given to obscenely wealthy universities that primarily serve an obscenely wealthy student body.

If you don’t believe me, ask Dr. Dre, whom I took to task when he donated (along with Jimmy Iovine) $70 million to the University of Southern California. In 2007, I wrestled with the celebration of John Kluge, who gave Columbia $400 million, at the time the fourth-largest single gift ever to a university. I argued that this gift was simply the perpetuation of privilege.

Eight years later, Harvard University is in the news as alumnus John Paulson donated $400 million, the largest single gift to the oldest university in the United States and richest university on the planet.

But something is different today. A chorus of people from diverse backgrounds publicly expressed consternation about this gift. Some argued that gifts to the wealthy are not charity. Some lamented that the taxpayers pay for the tax breaks for the wealthy. Others still, notably Malcolm Gladwell, highlighted pressing issues we see across the globe and questioned how anyone could make this kind of gift today.

This is good. Diverse voices are now beginning to think critically about issues of equality and wealth. Whenever I’ve raised the issues, predictable criticisms come in. They tell me I’m just a hater because my institution is a poor performer (as they compare underresourced colleges against overly resourced ones as if they are equal).

This is just like saying Slovenia performed poorly in the 2014 Winter Olympics since the U.S. won 28 medals to its 8. Yet in medals per capita they were 4th (we were 21st), and in medals per GDP they were 2nd (we were 23rd). Slovenia did more with less (just like historically black colleges).

Others ask their favorite version of the “why do we need black colleges” question in this era of resegregated K-12 schools and overwhelmingly segregated neighborhoods, where all of our taxes support public, historically black elementary, middle and high schools. And yet these same folks were silent when black Harvard students through the I Too Am Harvard campaign complained about the racism they experience daily.

Hedge fund managers defended Paulson, arguing that giving resources to the brightest Americans will have a multiplier effect for the nation. The recent survey of the Harvard graduating class of 2015 indicated that a third of them are going into their top two career choices: finance and consulting. If multiplier means personal wealth, that defense of the gift is correct.

Some praised the gift because it will support research and innovation that can benefit humanity. Of course this is true, but if we don’t address key issues like K-12 education and job prospects for all, only the wealthy will benefit from these great advances.

Other argued that the gift would also be for scholarships and financial aid. In fact, when the pushback began both Paulson and Harvard reiterated this point, noting that low-income students could attend for free. It is on this point where I realize that we have much more work to do.

Here are the facts. Harvard’s total cost annually is $62,000. Yes, that’s just the sticker price, but when more than 40 percent of your student body receives no aid at all, we’re not talking about a needy population. Just 17 percent of the student body receives Pell Grants. At my institution, Dillard University, 98 percent of my students receive some form of aid, including 80 percent receiving the Pell Grant.

The Harvard Crimson reported that in the recent freshman class, the average student comes from a family with between $125,000 and $250,000 in annual income, and 14 percent have household income above $500,000, placing them among the wealthiest in America. The median family income in New Orleans, where I work, is $35,000, and for my students is $31,000. The writers for The Crimson said it best in describing the class of 2017: “In Harvard Yard, 14 percent are the 1 percent.”

This gift increases Harvard’s endowment by a little over 1 percent. For me? It would increase it by over 500 percent. In fact, with a $400 million gift, I could use a 5 percent spending rate and pay the tuition and fees for all 1,200 Dillard students -- with money left over.

And that’s where we have to mature as a nation. Mega-gifts to the mega-rich can best be described as trendy. Everyone likes a winner and to be associated with a great brand. Harvard is so good they don’t need a tagline or branding campaign. If they did I imagine Dave Chappelle yelling, “Harvard. We’re rich, (rhyming bad word)!”

In fact, the key defense for these trendy gifts is always, “It’s his money.” I agree 100 percent. Paulson and Harvard only need to say that Harvard is his university, nurtured him, and he is blessed to do whatever he can for something he loves like family. They could simply drop the mic and move on.

This is in fact the best, most succinct and sincere answer they can and should give. Anything else is crap.

But when do the Paulsons of the nation transform the lives of people they may never meet? I tell donors when they support a Dillard student, they aren’t just supporting that student or changing their trajectory -- they have transformed generations of a family. It means a student on full scholarship doesn’t have to work two or three jobs to continue to support the family back home. It means a student can accept an unpaid Washington internship rather than cobble together summer jobs to pay tuition that is a fraction of Harvard’s.

The discussion around this new gift is encouraging. A new level of consciousness is growing. Hopefully we’ll have a new level of courage among ultrawealthy individuals, a level that allows them to share their resources with those who might not look like them or share their background or experiences.

People who, with the right investment, produce a generational multiplier effect that a gift to Harvard could never produce. This requires a transformational love, a love for those we do not know and will never meet.

Walter M. Kimbrough is the president of Dillard University.

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Essay on how to build a life and career in the humanities

Greg Colón Semenza and Garrett A. Sullivan Jr. share some of the reflections in their new book about careers in academe -- notwithstanding all the negative stories.

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Two-year transfers are finding not all of their credits go with them

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In many states, community colleges and four-year institutions renew efforts to promote seamless transfer.

Move to undermine tenure in Wisconsin has national implications (essay)

What happens in Wisconsin will not stay in Wisconsin. Lawmakers here are moving quickly to hollow out the definition of tenure and strip away due process rights for faculty members and academic staff. For legislators in other states who want to dismantle public higher education, they might look here to find new plays for their playbooks.

It is not uncommon for legislators to threaten tenure or criticize public education -- many do it for sport. But what’s unique in Wisconsin is that the proposed tenure changes are not coming from a fringe coalition: they are coming from the Joint Finance Committee, the most powerful body in the Legislature.

I am a tenure-track faculty member in the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and have been in the state for only two years. I have a lot to learn and am naively optimistic that cooler heads will prevail and the tenure threats will wash over in time. But I cannot bring myself to a place of comfort; I am truly worried. And I am not just worried for Wisconsin, but for other states that will follow suit if this change actually happens.

Wisconsin is unique in that we are the only state (to my knowledge) to have enshrined tenure into state law. Moving this law from state statute to the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents policy would not be entirely uncommon in the national context. What is uncommon is how political our board is compared to other states -- the governor appoints 16 of the 18 members and colleges don’t have their own campus boards to interact with the system.

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But even less common -- and far much more egregious -- is Section 39 of the Joint Finance Committee’s omnibus motion. It allows the Board to “terminate any faculty or academic staff appointment… due to a budget or program decision…” So instead of using widely accepted processes, faculty and staff can be terminated for “…program discontinuance, curtailment, modification or redirection, instead of when a financial emergency exists under current law.”

This undermines the core principles of shared governance, strips away due process rights and is an obvious assault on academic freedom. The board says its members will “adopt policies that reflect existing statutory language” and ensure faculty and staff will retain the same due process protections currently under state law.

If Section 39 of the budget bill redefines tenure, then the board must comply with the new state law.

This new definition extends far beyond the standard financial exigency criteria for termination of appointments and is out of line with the American Association of University Professors’ academic freedom guidelines. And the proposed change is happening without consulting the very stakeholders the law was designed to protect -- university faculty and staff members.

I know these tensions aren’t new; we are constantly justifying our existence and under financial stress. I get that. But this is a bridge too far. It doesn’t matter if the regents use existing statutory language, because this omnibus motion would kill it all. It trumps regents policy.

If this policy change happens, it will set a precedent for other states to follow, so watch Wisconsin closely. Keeping Section 39 could set in motion a series of events that will threaten the university’s ability to recruit and retain faculty, generate revenue, and even threaten our accreditation status.

As much as I wish this were all political theater or a simple misunderstanding, it is not. It is a very real threat and one that has been years in the making.

Instituting the $250 million budget cut will create the conditions where the Board of Regents can exercise their new authority to fire at will. The long-term academic and financial costs will far outweigh the short-term political benefits, and I hope our elected officials have the ability to see that far down the road.

Nicholas Hillman is an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy analysis at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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