Assuring Civility or Curbing Criticism?

Higher ed research group calls off panel that would have focused on controversial issue of its journal that featured articles questioning student engagement surveys.
October 7, 2011

At next month's meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education, the session that may well get the most buzz is the session that's not taking place.

Linda Hagedorn, president of the association and a professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Iowa State University, called off a special panel discussion that was to have taken place on matters raised by an issue of The Review of Higher Education, the association's journal, published by the Johns Hopkins University Press. The articles that would have been discussed were generally critical of surveys of student engagement, and the association was also hoping to include in the discussion a representative from the National Survey of Student Engagement, the best-known such survey.

News that Hagedorn had called off the session led a group of past presidents of the association to write her to urge a reversal of her decision -- something she declined to do. The past presidents said that calling off the session -- and doing so in part because of concerns about the journal's introduction to the papers -- raised questions of academic freedom.

And in an interview Wednesday, Hagedorn said that her academic freedom -- including her right not to organize a session -- was being challenged by the controversy. "It's my academic freedom to go in a different route," she said. "I don't understand what the hullabaloo is all about."

What the hullabaloo is about appears to be a debate about both engagement surveys and the nature of scholarly debate. Surveys such as NSSE (pronounced "Nessie") and the Community College Survey of Student Engagement (known as CCSSE and pronounced "Sessie") have become increasingly popular in higher education in recent years. Many college educators praise the surveys for helping institutions identify weaknesses in everything from orientation programs to academic advising to the relationships between faculty members and administrators. After identifying these weaknesses, colleges can work on them, increase levels of student engagement, and (supporters say) improve retention rates and graduation rates.

While NSSE and CCSSE have been widely praised, the past 18 months have seen a series of presentations at education research meetings that have questioned the validity either of specific surveys or of the reliability of student surveys in general. Some of this scholarship appears in the issue of The Review of Higher Education. The current leaders of NSSE and CCSSE recently wrote an essay published in Inside Higher Ed defending the validity of their surveys -- and arguing that their critics don't entirely understand the purpose behind engagement surveys.

When a hot debate breaks out shortly before a scholarly meeting, some disciplinary associations try to schedule special sessions to feature the issues in play. And Hagedorn initially moved to do so on the topic of engagement surveys. In her e-mail to the association members, she wrote that she started to hear complaints that the way the journal issue was set up may have violated the association's code of ethical conduct, which states that "ASHE members should maintain professional respect and civility in their relationships and interactions with others."

Hagedorn wrote that she became particularly concerned about "the perceived tone of the preface that some described as too personal." So she said she consulted with various parties and then exercised her right as president to call off the session.

The author of the preface is Michael A. Olivas, who is director of the Institute of Higher Education Law and Governance at the University of Houston. The preface goes through the various criticisms of the papers in the journal and then concludes by urging NSSE and other surveys of student engagement to pay attention to the critiques being offered, and not to be thin-skinned.

Olivas, who writes pithy op-eds in addition to scholarly journal articles, adopts some of the style of the former in the latter. In the preface, he ends by writing, "If the assessment movement is to become more than voodoo economics, especially with all the minority and first-generation students entering our colleges, the one size cannot fit all."

Earlier in the piece, he criticized George Kuh, the (retired) founder of NSSE, for publishing papers showing NSSE validity when those papers cite in their footnotes numerous past works by Kuh and colleagues, and cite "virtually no work" by black or Latino scholars. Olivas addresses Kuh as "George" in the piece and gives the preface a subtitle of "An Open Letter to George Kuh, with Love and Respect." The somewhat irreverent tone (combined with detailed analysis of education policy) is typical of Olivas, and not unique to his commentary on engagement surveys.

Olivas and Kuh both declined to comment for this article. Olivas was to have moderated the special session, but several of those involved in the controversy said that he offered to withdraw so that the larger discussion could take place.

Hagedorn, pressed in the interview about where she thought Olivas had crossed a line, noted that Kuh is retired and that Alexander C. McCormick has led NSSE for several years. She said that "many members felt uncomfortable with the tone," and felt it was a personal attack on Kuh, not a critique of NSSE or of engagement surveys. She acknowledged, however, that "what's appropriate and fair" in scholarly essays is "in the eye of the beholder."

The letter to Hagedorn by six past presidents of ASHE said that calling off a session in part based on the tone of a preface was a dangerous thing to do. (One of them is Gary Rhoades, professor of higher education at the University of Arizona and former executive director of the American Association of University Professors.)

"[U]nderlying our request is the fundamental significance of the core principle of academic freedom in academe. Canceling a presidential session perhaps because some people in the field may have complained about the tone or balance of the academic work at hand (or about the preface to the special issue of the Review, on which the session is largely based) is more than a slippery slope when it comes to free and open exchange of ideas," the letter said. "It cuts to the heart of what academic freedom is about. Though we know it was not your intention, to cancel the session seems to censor some ideas and scholarship in favor of others. As individual scholars, our work should be aired and judged according to its merits, not by whether it offends someone, is controversial, or whether it accords equal time to opposing points of view."

Further, the letter said that "we believe that our professional association would be best served by a willingness to openly address important, controversial topics, including in pointed ways, rather than by an effort, however well intentioned, to avoid controversy."

That letter, along with Hagedorn's e-mail to association members, has prompted considerable speculation about who urged her to call off the session and why. Both McCormick, the current NSSE director, and Kay McClenney, the director of CCSSE, said that they did not seek to have the session nixed.

"The answer to that is, emphatically, no," said McClenney. "We had no role, no voice and no wish to have a voice in that decision." She said that she and McCormick have worked on a response that will appear in the next issue of the Review, and have focused their attention on that, not the panel at the ASHE meeting.

McCormick agreed, but said that he thought it was "wise" to cancel the decision. "I don't see that it would have been constructive to have had four papers critiquing a particular project, two of which have previously been presented at ASHE, all of which have been published," he said. "It's not an effective use of precious conference time." He added that it was "sort of a set-up situation," in which he would have lacked the time to respond to each paper. "It was not a situation that's going to lead to constructive dialogue."

At the same time, the debate about what happened seems to back up one of the statements made by the former ASHE presidents in their letter to Hagedorn: "To cancel a presidential session is, in our view, almost certain to ensure significant controversy about that decision. As is so often the case in academic freedom situations addressed by the American Association of University Professors, the cancellation of talks often brings greater attention and controversy to the speakers and issues involved than having gone ahead with an event as originally planned."


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