Saturday, September 25, 2010

Where Women Gather, Trouble Follows: Letting Off Steam At The University Of Toledo

When you were flying over Ohio last week, did you see a big cloud over Toledo?  That was a bunch of steamed up faculty!  The Toledo Blade reports a wholesale restructuring of the University of Toledo that has comrades at that school in a state of distress.  According to Blade reporter Christopher Kirkpatrick,"President Lloyd Jacobs plans to break up the century-old College of Arts and Sciences and create three new colleges in its place."  These colleges will be "discipline-driven," and the humanities and social sciences have been promised an equal seat at the table with the professional schools and the sciences. Humanities and social science faculty are skeptical of this, and everything else about their future in the new university.  Jacobs was hired in 2006, promising the board of trustees that he would "create a UT academic experience more relevant to everyday life, and to ultimately remake the university into one of the best in the world."  Indeed, relevant can be a worrisome word.  This is not because being relevant is bad, but because an unspecific use of this word implies very strongly that the liberal arts model that the vast majority of faculty have committed their careers to is irrelevant -- and that they are, therefore, replaceable.  It was after Bennington President Elizabeth Coleman started using the word "relevant" in 1994 that she started firing faculty.  Bennington remains on the AAUP censure list to this day.

The published reports are pretty vague, so it is hard for an outsider to say whether the restructuring at UT, in and of itself, is an innovative idea or a way to turn the humanities and social sciences into service departments staffed by adjuncts.  The subtext of the faculty's discontent does seem to hint at the possibility of becoming vassals to a science-driven university.  This the president, and the committee that prepared the plan, denies.  "The move to break up arts and sciences," Kirkpatrick writes, "is an outgrowth of the near-carte blanche the board of trustees has given the president to increase the academic quality of its programs, students, and ultimately, its reputation. That in turn drives more research dollars and donations to the school."

There is very little real information in any of these news stories, so it remains a he said/they said kind of situation.  An unscientific poll by the UT student newspaper, The Independent Collegian, shows that, as of today, 71% of those voting in the poll do not feel fully informed or consulted by the strategic planning committee (14% do feel fully informed and 14% -- of which I am one, since you can't see the poll unless you vote -- don't know.  This is what I mean by unscientific.)  What is interesting to me is the article lists a series of criticisms of the Jacobs plan that are all too familiar.  These criticisms appear in practically the same language every time a university president anywhere tries to do either something bold and interesting, something evil and destructive, or just something.  The criticisms (areas where you could fill in the blank to reflect criticisms being articulated at your university are marked out in red) are as follows:

That President Jacobs is a surgeon and doesn't know enough about academic institutions to create a good restructuring plan;

That Jacobs is unacceptably autocratic and fails to consult fully with the faculty;

That Jacobs favors the sciences;

That the committee responsible for the plan was mostly made up of administrators and was entirely female (one critic wasn't sure that an all-female committee was necessarily a bad thing, but insisted that it was "strange" and "suspect."  We know faculty don't trust administrators, but are we admitting that male faculty don't trust women too?  This is worth the price of admission, if you ask me.)

That the report was released in the summer when the faculty were not there.

Changing anything at a university, no matter how small, always means kicking some a$$:  take it from someone who knows. I remember when some academics I know were outraged that they were being "forced" to learn to use computers. But kicking a$$ is something that trustees always want presidents to do on principle, just to show who is the boss.  It doesn't necessarily require a bold new plan. However, stay tuned:  the UT faculty may be on to something. Jacobs may indeed want to bust tenure, since he has indicated that a higher reliance on casual labor is an inevitable transformation that will occur in higher ed.


Needlelover said...

71% of those voting in the poll do not feel fully informed or consulted by the strategic planning committee

Thanks for the article - the tone of caution and alarm sounds familiar and justified. There's a difference between 'informed' and 'consulted' - at my institution we get a lot of 'information' (too much to wade through) but not enough where it counts; we are not, in any real sense, 'consulted'. One might call every strategic plan 'Operation Fait Accompli'. I (lowly junior faculty member) accepted an invitation to one strategic planning session where the only real information I gleaned was who in the administration was getting promoted to what position (before the event) and what they had already decided would be the academic and budgetary priorities for the next ten years. I foolishly suggested we think about things not on their top ten list (languages exc. Chinese, the pre-modern world) and was appropriately humoured. How many humanities profs in the upper echelons, you ask? None.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

If you want someone to ignore what anyone else thinks and just do what he thinks is the right thing to do--for better or worse--you couldn't pick anyone better than a fucken surgeon. Surgeons are used to being the fucken KING or QUEEN of the operating room, which is an absolute complete unquestioning autocracy. If this dude treats the university like an operating room, there is likely gonna be blood all over the fucken place.

HistoryMaven said...

This is part of a statewide crisis in higher education. Ohio's state university system is quite the mess. In the 1990s, the conservative Board of Regents eliminated subventions for graduate education in several of the humanities. At one time there was discussion that undergraduates travel to or take online courses at other Ohio public universities, thus eliminating the duplication of certain (always humanities) departments. (One of the examples was having one Philosophy department between Cleveland State, Kent State, Youngstown State, and the University of Akron.) The current chancellor, a newly created position held by a Democrat, has been concentrating on the elimination of duplicate programs (through a "centers of excellence" strategy) and on developing the community college system.

I find it interesting that this is the same plan Kent State University's former president, Carol Cartwright, initiated after a no-confidence vote and during difficulty faculty contract negotiations. Of course the College of Arts and Sciences at Kent is one of the largest and has, proportionately, the largest number of union members. The planned restructuring failed. Toledo's administration and faculty union have had a similar poor relationship, exacerbated by the state's economic woes and too much "Hail Mary" thinking by administrators.

Science Lurker said...

A Surgeon, indeed. It's not just that they are KING or QUEEN. They are all REPUBLICANS. This pointed out by a friend suffering through political baiting as well as low-knife-on-the-totem-pole hazing during a surgical rotation at a hospital near your very own Zenith. Think of it. Who cares about prevention, underlying causes, whether it will return, and the overall well being of the individual? Just find those diseased parts and slice em out. Done.

Historiann said...

UT has been roiled by one President or powerful set of deans or another for years. As History Maven said, it's all a part of the mess that Ohio has been making of its public unis for decades now.

As a former Toledoan, I wish I had more insight to offer. I can only say that anecdotally, anyone who has the opportunity to leave UT has been doing so. Unfortunately for Toledo, this means they've lost some important feminist scholars.

CPP and Science Lurker are right to note that the President's background and training is surgery, and that this is dangerous for a number of reasons. He's also (if I remember correctly) from MCO, which only recently merged with UT, which probably contributes to the alienation and imposter syndrome that may hamper his leadership with the main campus faculty.

Oddly, my word verification is "cleste," which is awfully close to Richard Celeste, the former Ohio Governor who's been President of Colorado College for a number of years. Dick Celeste was right to get the hell out of Ohio, it seems, if his dream was to lead a college or a uni.

Jonathan Rees said...

I believe this precise thing at the University of Northern Colorado maybe eight years ago and just undid it because it worked really, really badly there.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Just to be clear, I have many friends who are surgeons, and they have many great qualities. But you do not want to put them in charge of anyfuckingthing other than an operating room. I'd love to see stats on the fraction of hospital presidents/CEOs who are surgeons, but I bet it's substantially smaller than the fraction of all physicians who are surgeons.

Anonymous said...

A dear friend knew a medical student who chose surgery as his discipline because he found out in medical school that "he didn't like being around sick people." He is a very successful orthopedic surgeon today.

Anonymous said...

The comments here on "surgeons" are a pretty good illustration of the meaning of stereotyping.


Liz in Ypsilanti said...

I was acquainted with Dr. Jacobs two decades ago (I was secretary to a surgeon friend of his, and his secretary and I became quite good friends as well); while waiting for my boss to return to the office, he would sit and chat with me about books and ideas. I thought he was a kind and decent man and a fine administrator. He was given a "Mack the Knife" sort of position at the University of Michigan Medical Center at about the time I was making my escape to the University's main campus. I remember thinking at the time that at least a fair and compassionate person was in that yucky position. I'm offering these comments as counterweight to the suppositions and stereotypes.