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Guest Commentary: Times did not profile the UA I know

By Paul G. Allvin
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday, April 28, 2005
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Sunday's New York Times article about life at The University of Arizona certainly came as a big surprise to me. The Arizona Daily Wildcat said the Times got it right, but I disagree.

In the article, the UA was painted as indifferent to the treatment of its student body. Students are portrayed as lost souls who are shuffled anonymously through classrooms of 500 students and endure an entire degree program without ever getting to know a professor.

What could have been a deft look at life in American higher education became instead a cliché portrayal of the UA as a college wasteland of anonymous, binge-drinking students. The author cherry-picked facts, interviews and images to create this cartoonish image.

The author begins the article with an absolutely Dickensian portrayal of students "who sit in numbing lecture halls with 500 classmates." Now, can a reporter come to the UA and find lecture halls with 500 students? Sure - there are exactly two of them.

In fact, the average class size at the UA stands at 29, and 94 percent of all course sections offered enroll fewer than 100 students.

The article makes repeated references to students struggling anonymously through their lower division courses. The author nearly makes a fair point - my freshman class actually was larger than my hometown of Sahuarita, and the culture shock was substantial.

But I did not suffer in silent anonymity. Instructors, both faculty and teaching assistants, challenged me to dive into my studies and find a place for myself within the campus community. I did so, and by the end of my freshman year I had found my place here.

Years later, I learned that finding one's passion, challenging oneself, connecting with faculty and generally "plugging in" to the UA community are keys to academic success. This university recognizes these truths and is organizing itself accordingly, especially for lower division students.

We offer extensive orientation and counseling, and 24-hour access to the Manuel T. Pacheco Integrated Learning Center, which was designed to meet the needs of freshmen and sophomores.

We work to keep freshman class sizes small. By mandate, all first-year English course sections are capped at 25 students, and first-year math and foreign language courses are capped at 35.

We work to increase student interaction with faculty. While many lower-division courses are taught by teaching assistants, many are also are taught by faculty, as are nearly all upper-division courses. Given this, the Times article left me scratching my head when it asserted that "the only instructor (students) may ever know is a teaching assistant."

Try telling that to the Dean of Students Office, which runs the Faculty Fellows program and the Student/Faculty Interaction program.

The Faculty Fellows program places faculty members in residence halls, in some greek houses, in intercollegiate athletics and in minority cultural resource centers to aid students in their studies.

The Student/Faculty Interaction program places students and faculty together in social environments to reduce the feeling of intimidation or awkwardness students may feel toward UA faculty.

The rule of thumb at work in the Dean of Students Office is simple: The more direct interaction students have with faculty, the better they succeed academically.

And while this is a campus of 37,000 students, it is a campus that is becoming increasingly residential, as Residence Life pays more attention to creating mini-communities on campus through new and innovative housing plans.

Living arrangements are increasingly organized around academic affinity groups, such as women in science and engineering, honors students, and even undeclared majors.

And finally, the Times distorts the reality that some students drink to excess, by omitting the reality that UA students use less alcohol, tobacco and illegal drugs than college students nationwide.

Results of a 2004 online student survey at the UA, Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University campus health services bear this out. Sixty-five percent of UA students surveyed say they drink moderately if they choose to drink at all.

Clearly, the Times missed its opportunity to publish an insightful piece about life in a modern American university. But a thoughtful story might not have been nearly as entertaining as that which was published.

Hopefully the author will offer a more balanced and accurate portrayal in his PBS documentary this summer. The topic - and the UA - are worthy of better.

Paul G. Allvin is the UA associate vice president for communications and a 1993 journalism graduate of the UA.

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