Award-winning professor takes on administration

Editor's Note: Professor Solomon was interviewed for the recent "60 Minutes" segment on UA undergraduate education

After CBS aired the "60 Minutes" segment, I received dozens of supportive calls, but I also received a call from the Provost's office requested a meeting.

Having lost spin control, their rosy propaganda contradicted, the administration was going to pin the blame on me.

Although some 15 to 20 percent of UA undergraduates have taken courses from me, the provost seemed not to know that, nor that I had written a book on education in American public universities even though I had hand-delivered a signed copy to him last September in response to core curriculum revision.

He introduced himself and the vice-provost. They wanted me to watch the "60 Minutes" segment with them.

The tape began. He asked me to comment on how the Legislature would respond to this and suggested the appropriations committee would now cut our budget. I thought he was taking his television watching too seriously.

Ironically, the next morning, I was called by a legislator who told me of widespread legislative dissatisfaction with the university administration, and, sure enough, that budgetary considerations were way beyond the influence of a simple television piece. So much for that accusation.

There was more tape-viewing and commenting. When the provost finally asked me my recommendations for improving undergraduate education, I suggested hiring a round of proven teacher/scholars, recognizing superior teachers, establishing a reward system to make each member of the teaching faculty feel institutionally appreciated and challenged to excel in their teaching, making sure engaging teachers teach every introductory survey lecture course and establishing the but I realized that he wasn't writing anything down.

When I paused, he explained how most of this was in place already. I said, "Then you have a perception problem because there are a lot of dissatisfied students and faculty out there."

He countered my inaccurate "anecdotal information" with well-rehearsed statistics: 80 percent of all graduates say in exit polls that their education here was "good." I told him, "Somewhere between my anecdotal information and your statistics is the truth." All of you reading this can judge for yourselves, but don't forget to factor in the 50 percent drop-out rate.

I had worried about the meeting for two solid days before it took place and now I had been made to feel like the dog who ate the Thanksgiving turkey. The meeting was cordial and professional, of course, but even two days later I felt as if I had been thoroughly humiliated.

We do need real change here at the university not establishing more committees, not funding more $4,000 retreats to discuss "how students learn," and not rewarding only "teaching innovation." We need widespread, inspirational, effective teaching. The administration must recognize the hundreds and hundreds of faculty who already do a great job every day in balancing teaching and research, and the university must hire more people like them. We need to offer scintillating survey and introductory courses. And we need to train all our graduate teaching assistants to be the excellent teachers of the future. Then and only then will students walk across the Mall discussing what they learned in their last class rather than how boring it was or how unconcerned they are that they skipped it.

Since I am the author/editor of nine books and 40 journal articles, I am hardly arguing for any diminution whatsoever in research. Research IS essential at a university. But clearly the perception around campus, around the nation, is that there is an imbalance. Perks, promotions, tenure and big salaries always go to those paying more attention to research (and administration) and because university administrations consistently reward research, faculty naturally concentrate on their research and deemphasize their teaching. That is what I said in the book, that is what I said on camera, I said it to the provost and I still say it here.

When the provost denied the truth of my statement that teaching is not important in promotion and tenure decisions, without saying anything I pointed to myself: I have been an associate professor here 12 years, taught more than 10,000 students, won eight teaching awards, developed high-tech course materials and wrote a book about public university education. For all of that and my other 50 publications, my promotion and two appeals were denied. When I appealed to the president, in essence challenging him to promote me on the basis of my teaching record, his reply was "after you write another book ." This message here is the reality: teaching does not count.

And when a faculty member says that on television, that faculty member should not have to suffer an intimidating inquisition and brainwashing. Thousands of people on this campus know how pervasive the deemphasis of teaching is here, and millions more know it on a national scale. They know exactly what I am talking about and I should be allowed to say it without fear of administrative summons.

Academic freedom in this institution is allowed only insofar as one does not disagree with the administration. Their intimidation already prevents faculty from addressing the problems of the university or holding administrators accountable or creating more problems. Last fall we learned we could no longer initiate even curriculum revision, and now we no longer have the right to discuss university problems in public. Those of us who do speak out win the booby prize spending a gloomy afternoon watching television with the provost.

Jon Solomon is an associate professor in the UA Classics Department. He is the author of Up the University: Re-creating Higher Education in America

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