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Recent Happenings In Higher Education
A view from 35,000 feet
[Note to Subscribers: On Monday, I’m trying one of those Q&A threads about Christian Higher Education. Be ready to submit questions regarding past, present, or future issues. I’ll have the link up Monday morning so check back throughout the day to see the discussion.]
About three weeks ago, one of the subscribers to this newsletter wrote me an email to ask my response to the proposed program cuts at West Virginia University. I told him that I’d be writing on it that week but it didn’t happen.
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In some ways, that’s a good thing. Rather than reacting to the initial news, it’s sometimes worth waiting to see how things shake out. For those who don’t follow higher ed closely, the administration at WVU had proposed some draconian program cuts. Most notably was the elimination of the world languages department (the administration said that there were programs like Duolingo that could suffice!). They would also be reducing positions in English and Humanities.
Why was this necessary? They gave the standard responses: financial challenges and an approaching demographic cliff. WVU had recently been elevated to R1 status (designation from Carnegie on the importance of research) and is a flagship state university.
The uproar shared by my friend echoed across the country. How could a university justify such cuts to core programs? Where was the faculty input? How would this even work? Were the financial challenges enrollment related or just another example of the spendthrift ways of President Gordon Gee (who has a history of lavish spending)?
This week, the WVU faculty assembly passed a no confidence vote about President Gee. The margin was 797 for and 100 opposed (89% - 11%). By an even larger margin (although with fewer total votes), they voted 747-79 (90% - 10%) for a pause on the Academic Transformation project. The administration had already said that perhaps the World Languages thing wasn’t a good idea.
The trustees issued a statement supporting the president following the vote. That’s not unusual and points to the challenges of no-confidence votes. They tend to put the board in a defensive mode. But the trustees will also hate the negative national publicity.
Suffice it to say that we haven’t heard the end of the WVU saga. And while things will get worse before they get better, there are signs of pushback against extreme positions.
Meanwhile, classes started at New College of Florida. While the conservative trustees appointed by Governor DeSantis were excited about their new experiment in turning NCF into the Hillsdale of the South, they have faced challenges. As of mid-August, NCF had lost forty faculty members (before the takeover and the pandemic, NCF’s IPEDS report listed 100 faculty members). Classes were proving difficult to schedule and students were having to substitute to meet requirements.
Enrollment is up due to an infusion of athletes and conservative students (while other students transferred to a school similar to what NCF used to be). Chris Rufo and friends added a new freshman course on the Odyssey, but are now looking for faculty to teach the course.
By the way, the idea that colleges are not teaching about Western Civilization because they have developed Third World Lit classes or Gender Studies classes is just wrong. I know far too many folks who are teaching those classical courses. They are just looking for the balance provided by other voices.
At the University of Florida, Ben Sasse has begun his new job as president. As I had written when he was named, he does have prior experience in a small college setting in Nebraska before running for the Senate. His task at UF will be challenging, especially in light of new laws DeSantis got passed. While it’s possible that he’ll resist the political pressures and be a champion for faculty, this quote from yesterday’s New York Times wasn’t encouraging.
In response to a question about his perceived invisibility on campus, he veered off into something about the future of pedagogy. “And that requires us to unbundle cohorting, community and synchronicity from co-localities,” he said. Later, he added, “What will today’s generic term ‘professor’ mean when you disaggregate syllabus designer, sage-on-the-stage lecturer, seminar leader, instructional technologist, grader, assessor, etc.?”
I’m not sure what all of that means. But if I were a “generic professor”, I’d worry a lot.
Which is what’s happening. Faculty are worried and wondering where they belong and if there is even a future for them in higher education. Yesterday, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported on an AAUP survey documenting the impact recent legislative moves in Florida, Georgia, Texas, and North Carolina have had on faculty.
Nearly a third of faculty overall, and nearly half of Florida faculty, reported that they were looking to move out of state as soon as possible. If the attacks on academic freedom and tenure continue, a third of faculty members would consider leaving higher education altogether.
I have served as a faculty member and as an academic administrator. I understand how hard change is. But faculty oversight of curriculum and protections of academic freedom are not just quaint ideas from the past. They are the very means required to develop the outcomes that conservative critics say that universities should be achieving.
These issues of faculty governance on curriculum and academic freedom are also required components of institutional accreditation. Florida is looking to switch from the Southern Association to the Higher Learning Commission. As an HLC evaluator, I’d love for a chance to visit NCF. But I don’t think they’d like it.