Playing the numbers game

For several years the UA administration has lived by the sword of dubious statistics and three weeks ago on prime-time television, the administration was cut by that sword.

Since the Feb. 26 "60 Minutes" report, the campus debates over graduate teaching assistants vs. professors, teaching vs. research and faculty vs. administration have all heated up.

Was the "60 Minutes" report fair? Anyone who has watched "60 Minutes" over the past 25 years can tell you that the reporters generally practice white hat-black hat journalism. There is usually a good guy against the oppressive bureaucracy and little middle ground in between. When "60 Minutes" comes knocking on your door, you generally know what to expect.

The report raised many valid points about the University of Arizona's emphasis on research over teaching and the lack of contact students have with ranked faculty. Dr. Jon Solomon of the Classics Department voiced the complaints of many UA students and some faculty members. By the same token, the "60 Minutes" team used some dubious statistics including the figure that 87 percent of all classes are taught by teaching assistants.

For the most part, departments use graduate teaching assistants for introductory courses like English 101, Math 117 and introductory labs. It is simply not feasible to have ranked faculty teaching these courses. Usually as one progresses through a department, there is ranked faculty teaching the upper-division courses. The 87 percent figure cited lumps all sections of both lower and upper division courses together. For example, there could be 87 English 101 sections taught by graduate teaching assistants and 13 different English 200, 300 and 400 courses taught by ranked faculty. Rather than differentiate between introductory and upper-division classes, the "60 Minutes" report created the illusion that if you take a class, the odds are that 87 percent of the time you will end up with a teaching assistant.

Of course, that statistic is not fair. Then again the UA administration has similarly manipulated such figures in the past to make the university look good. Last year, the administration said that 64 percent of all undergraduate classes have 29 or fewer students enrolled in them. Talk to most students on campus, especially students in popular majors like political science, and you would be hard-pressed to find any student who can match the 64 percent figure. Again, it is easy to take the introductory English and math classes with capped enrollments, mix them in with the other courses on campus and arrive at the 64 percent figure.

Figures can always be distorted to fit one side of an argument or another. The administration justly cried foul when "60 Minutes" gave the 87 percent figure, but "60 Minutes" was only using the same statistic gathering techniques the administration has used to paint a rosy picture of the university. The truth lies somewhere in the middle.

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