We have had a bounty of submissions this year to VOX and we hope that it continues. It is important for all of us to be actively involved in dialogue about issues of relevance to the U of S.
While at times it takes courage to put our views in writing, we have a responsibility to participate in the exchange of ideas, not merely for the theatrical lines, and involving more than two people. VOX is simply one forum through which USFA members, and sometimes others, can speak out.
Of course, the issue dominating dialogue right now is TransformUS and this issue of VOX contains the second part of a submission from Franz-Viktor Kuhlmann, a Professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics. In this two part article, he writes about TransformUS and how, in his opinion, it typifies the relationship between the senior administration and Academia. The title of part two has changed as a clarification: that it was written for ALL faculty, students, staff, and the community.
We invite you to chime in on the issue of TransformUS or other issues of relevance to U of S faculty. You’ll find information at the end of this publication on where to direct submissions.
STOP THE ADMINISTRATIVE AND POLITICAL INTRUSION INTO ACADEMIA! (Part Two)
Professor Franz-Viktor Kuhlmann
Department of Mathematics & Statistics
University of Saskatchewan
Absolutely damaging for universities, science and society is the tendency of administrators to take the review of programs and scientific or artistic accomplishments into their own hands. For centuries, the arts and sciences have been judged by peer review. While this instrument certainly has flaws (as everything connected with humans), it has proved to be the only instrument that can do the job. But administrators almost never are peers; they are not experts in the area which they are trying to judge. This has led in the past years to an ever growing employment of crude and distorting ways of measurement. As a source well known to me, one of the giants in my research area has written: “Bibliometry” is the title of the first chapter in a book called “Excellence for Morons”. Many professional societies all over the world have warned against the use of such crude metrics. However, TransformUS was all but a peer review. This leads to comparing apples and oranges. A paper in one department is by no means equivalent to a paper in another. Bringing up a PhD student in one department may cost much more time and effort than in another. In some sciences, the PhD students do the research for you, while you just provide the ideas and guidance (and, for instance, the money and the lab), while in other sciences you do the research with the student. It is unclear, and will also not be disclosed in detail, what sort of “research metrics” the Task Force has used for such nuances.
Universities and the sciences are complex organisms that for centuries have improved through self-evaluation from within this organism, plus external peer evaluation. An abundance of examples are known of the attempt to influence a complex system from the outside by crude measures and how it inevitably generates chaos, almost never leading to the intended optimization but instead is usually counterproductive. In business, lots of big companies with a long tradition were thrown into serious problems and even went bankrupt after such attempts. The same has been observed in the education system. Development and change are necessary at every university, but they are best initiated by faculty – and judged by peer review. Brave new world in which this is being changed, to the disadvantage of society.
Higher administrators in many universities around the globe now increasingly act like the proverbial elephants in the china shop, systematically breaking valuable structures which have been nurtured over a long time and provided a relatively high level of efficiency (and humanity in the workplace). They believe they know what’s best (and the consultants they hire for lots of money pretend that they know but often have no experience with the inner workings of those organisms). But the newly introduced structures without a background of a long time-trial and development usually only make things worse and in the end lose a lot of money and lower morale. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! Again, see the already mentioned letter of the U of Michigan faculty.
Where is the quality control for what our administrators do? They expect our performance to be subjected to various forms of quality control. But for administrators, politicians, CEOs, bankers, etc., quality control of their own work seems to be a matter of the past. For example, the Office of Research Services has been strongly and justly criticized for being “an impediment to conducting research at the U of S” (see the USFA communication http://www.usaskfaculty.ca/2012/11/16/reflections-on-my-discussions-with-new-faculty of November 16, 2012). Have we seen any consequences? Further, why did the firing of a secretary four months before her retirement not have any consequences for the administrators who were responsible? Why are administrators, who are known for bullying their employees (we lost some good people this way) retained and pampered by ever new positions? Why has nobody so far come up with a web site “Ratemyadministrator.com”? A computer guy answered this question as follows: there is no server in this world that could handle the massive number of complaints.
In the place of quality control for administrators we now see abuse of existing systems of rewarding people for good work. The main building of the university has been named (by whom?) after the last president (while he was still in office!), although only very few people on campus would have supported this (not counting the administrators). A vice president whose office has been heavily criticized for its dysfunctionality has been named one of the 100 most powerful Canadian women. I have seen many people on campus shake their heads about such “rewards” and react with sarcasm.
We are treated all the time to surveys like the “Employee Opinion Survey” that are designed in a way that meaningful answers cannot be provided (some of them do not even have any space for comments). One of the first questions in the said survey was whether I have the feeling that my efforts are acknowledged. I could not answer it because there was no way to differentiate as follows: by my department head: absolutely!; by the highest administration: not at all! The discontent of many of us with such stupidly (or not?) formulated surveys was probably the reason for a low answer rate that led to the deadline being extended and administrators sending emails telling us how important such surveys are and prompting us to comply.
One of the most ill-conceived surveys I have seen was the one on the mentorship program of the College of Arts and Science which violated the principles of privacy as it made it easy to identify single faculty who were criticized by someone. Therefore this survey was rejected by two faculty members (of high reputation) in an open email to the faculty of the College. Nevertheless, it was pushed through by the Dean.
Speaking of the mentorship program, here is an important point I have to make. When I came to this university, I was mentored by my colleagues in wonderful ways. I did not have a single mentor: all of them, plus a bunch of great and unforgotten secretaries, were my mentors. It was all there! It does not take a mentorship program organized by administrators, with resources for another administrator position and lots of meetings with free food and drinks. This is only one of the smaller symptoms among hundreds, of the tendency to take things out of the hands of faculty.
Another small symptom that I got particularly upset about is that the selection of exchange students who are allowed to go to partner universities is (or hopefully, has been in the past) made by administrators without any consultation with any of the following: the professors in the program the students come from; the members of the university who are natives of the countries the students intend to go to; the professors teaching the languages of those countries. I know of the case of a student who wanted to go to Germany in order to learn German, and an administrator who tried to divert the student to Denmark! Yes, many non-experts in North America believe that German is the official language in all of the countries surrounding Germany…
Another small symptom (yet not so small when you think about it more): department heads now have to sign off the course outlines for all graduate courses. As if we, the professors, are dummies who do not know how to do their job! I feel personally insulted by this rule. And why do administrators have to burden our department heads with ever more paperwork?
Our administrators also seem to believe that professors don’t know how to teach. We are now getting told how to do it by people who have never taught a single class in our discipline. There is endless talk of innovation, but there cannot be endless innovation. Methods of teaching have been developed over centuries and there is no need to cast them aside. I am (still) teaching with blackboard and chalk, and my students love it, as it automatically adjusts me to a speed they can easily handle. Do the innovative teaching “experts” ever ask the students what they want? Will I be kicked out for not being “innovative”?
By the way, I hate whiteboards as they make my handwriting deteriorate, and I have to inhale the fumes of the markers and then throw the empty ones into the garbage, harming the environment. Nevertheless, one day in the middle of my course I came to my classroom and found the blackboard replaced by a whiteboard, without any prior warning. My department was never consulted about this change. Whiteboards are an innovation which in many cases could be replaced by traditional technology that does not have the bad side effects.
“Flipped teaching” is nothing new to professors on this campus. Attempts to go into this direction failed already many years ago since the resources that are needed (in particular for more labs) have not been given to us. By the way, a workshop on “flipped teaching” was announced recently under the title “Over easy”, as if students were like eggs in our frying pan. How embarrassing. More seriously, students are misled to believe that there are easy ways to learn hard science, without much effort. Science becomes fast food. We are facing the McDonaldization of our society and our education system (see reference below).
“Innovation” is a buzzword abused by our administrators. Research results by definition contribute to innovation. You don’t have to force innovation on us. And leave it to us to find the best ways to do research and to teach science, as we know better than those who are alien to the discipline. Administrators now talk about “outsourcing of teaching”. Is this simply a call to get rid of those professors who ask critical questions ? Fine, get rid of these professors who are only a pain in the neck. (Thereafter, get rid of the students, then you can do with the university what you want.) But who is going to control the quality of those external teaching resources? There is a lot of rubbish out there, in particular on the internet. Is that what our students pay high tuition for? Is that “increasing the student experience”? Don’t we all know that the direct contact of a student with his or her professor, an expert in the area of his studies, is one of the most powerful tools of education, the first step in mentorship?
Planning cycles, curriculum renewal, TransformUS etc. are now referred to as “exercises”, and some already say that the TransformUS exercise was very good and should be repeated every three years. So administrators seem to think that they have to give these lazy professors exercises to improve their performance. The truth is that all of these “exercises” cost a lot, they distract professors from their real duties: teaching their students and doing research. For the preparation of the TransformUS templates (and also for evaluating them), many top researchers of the U of S have spent hours and hours instead of doing their research or meeting with their graduate students. And valuable staff time is also wasted in such “exercises”. Mathematicians on campus would be glad to give our administrators exercises, in logic and statistics, and I bet that historians, philosophers, psychologists and many more would also love to provide them with exercises.
The costs of TransformUS are high, the results highly questionable. The data that has been collected is distorted, for various reasons. It was unclear how templates have to be filled, and while only the raw data should have mattered, we find indications in the TaskForce reports that it benefited the program when a template was “well written”. It can be proven that there is a clear statistical correlation between programs in quintile 1 and the number of representatives of these programs who were on the TaskForce. Templates were designed in a way that they could not catch all relevant data, and when this was brought to the attention of the TaskForce, those who had to fill the templates were explicitly advised to report data in an inaccurate (if not fraudulent) way. One of the big problems was that there was no template for service teaching. No wonder: it is not in Dickeson’s book. The often repeated statement that the TaskForce did a commendable job in adapting the Dickeson model to the U of S is not true, as they failed to integrate such an important part of the education at our university. Now tainted results are being made the base for decisions that will influence the education of our students and the workplace and positions of many professors. Pushing forward on the grounds of such a data base is irresponsible and an indication of a (not very well) hidden agenda. Note that the first implementation of the Dickeson model at a university in Colorado resulted in a blunt attack on the tenure system.
The TaskForce recommendations are often incoherent and absurd. Programs with low headcounts in some areas are rated high while low headcounts in others led to the recommendation of deletion, with no discerning arguments given. (Holy cow!) While student counselling on campus receives a good rating, the program which trains such counsellors is recommended for “reduced resources”. I recommend that faculty build a central data base in which we collect all kinds of incoherent and distorted data . In addition, the recommendations of the TaskForce should be contrasted with the reports of recent program reviews by external peer reviewers. Such a comparison would certainly generate a very clear message that TransformUS is not only incoherent but totally illogical.
As to curriculum renewal, many good departments have always tried to do that; it needs no external pressure. I have myself fought for a stream of courses that every good university (in particular U15 members) has. The answer has always been: sorry, no resources! For example, I have managed to teach cryptography a couple of times, the first and the last time at the U of S. Many computer science students want to take it, and if you realize that cryptography is governing almost all of our internet communications and you need it to safely send your credit card number, then you will understand that this course must be offered to computer science students (UBC has several cryptography courses of various levels every year). With “reduced resources”, this course will never come back. Reduced resources will put our university at shame.
What we need much more than TransformUS is a comprehensive report on what effect administrative intrusion has had in the past years, how it has lost the university money, made programs less efficient and put unnecessary stress and increased work on the shoulders of the faculty. As a Polish citizen recently put it to the European Union bureaucrats, who earn a multiple of his salary: “Can’t you just be content with your large salaries and leave us alone with all your new rules and laws? Can’t you just let us earn in peace the money that is needed to pay your salaries?”
In Poland, young people do not want to become teachers anymore because teachers are now burdened with lots of paperwork, writing reports and detailed contents lists for every single class – although there has to be flexibility in order to adjust to the needs of the students and to give teachers the opportunity to develop true interaction with and motivation of students. The teachers are now more in contact with the forms and reports than with the students. In Britain the nurses protest because they have to do so much paperwork that it reduces significantly their contact time with patients, the people they were hired to care for. I have heard of hospitals that now have more administrators than nurses and doctors combined.
Oh, I see, they need the administrators to read all the paperwork; paperwork that does not improve anything and is mostly not taken seriously in the end. (Even the peer reports of external reviewers of our departments at this university have often been without any consequences.) A committee of the European Union recently wrote in a report that a big and formerly successful research institute now has problems attracting researchers because of its excessive administration. Bureaucracy suffocates.
I call out to those of my younger colleagues who have chosen to remain silent. Have you been lulled by our modern society with its overdose of useless information and brain-numbing advertisements? I call out to the “winners” of the TransformUS process, who now start to sever their ties with the losers. One day you may yourself be a loser, when you are identified with a program that administrators want to terminate and when you are, god forbid, escorted away from your office and off campus because administrators fear your revenge. Then you may look around yourself for solidarity and compassion. Moreover, do you really want to support the “divide and conquer” strategy of the administration? And, by the way, I recommend Orwell’s “Animal Farm” for the Dean’s book club.
I call out to all who are as concerned as I am: do not give up! There are many out there who are equally concerned. What we have to do now is: connect, on campus, nationally and internationally.
I apologize to those administrators and others I may have hurt in this article. But be aware that you also hurt me, who came to this university many years ago, full of enthusiasm and willing to work hard for its reputation , the students and my science. Sorry that I did not come up with a huge centre or a research grant of half a million dollars. Sorry that I only managed, together with a few colleagues, to put this university on the map in my research area internationally. Sorry that I apparently give you the feeling that all this is too little to be celebrated or even just cared about.
I recommend the following books and online articles:
- Benjamin Ginsberg, The Fall of the Faculty (Oxford University Press)
- George Ritzer, The McDonaldization of Society (Pine Forge Press)
- Howard Woodhouse, Selling Out: Academic Freedom and the Corporate Market (McGill-Queen’s University Press )
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