Classics professor stresses betterment of UA education

By Michelle Roberts

Arizona Daily Wildcat

Professor Jon Solomon's interest in classics did not begin in the hallowed halls of a hushed library or in a dark, stuffy museum.

It began in a movie theater over buttered popcorn.

Solomon says his interest began in junior high when he saw the 1959 movie "Ben-Hur."

"I thought the ancient world was 'really neat,' in the words of a 13-year-old."

Solomon grew up in suburban Philadelphia as the youngest of three boys and went to the same high school as baseball great Reggie Jackson. He began studying Latin when he was 13 and Greek when he was 16.

Solomon's interest in classics didn't end with "Ben-Hur," though. He earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Chicago and graduate degree from the University of North Carolina in classics and has taught at the University of Arizona for 12 years.

He taught at the University of Colorado and the University of Minnesota before moving to Arizona.

"(I left Minnesota) partly because of the weather, and it's going to sound funny coming from me, but I didn't like the bureaucracy at the University of Minnesota," Solomon said.

The reason it might "sound funny" is that he is most recently famous for his interview on the CBS news magazine "60 Minutes," in which he criticized the way universities are run.

During the segment, the UA and other major universities came under fire for having tenured professors who do not teach.

The segment closed with Soloman said, "I'm waiting for some powerful parent to sue a university for consumer fraud. You're paying this money, trying to get a product, and you're not getting it."

Following the 60 Minutes interview Solomon said he received about 100 letters and e-mail messages from faculty and alumni. He was also called in for a meeting by Provost Paul Sypherd.

He says not one message disagreed with him and that they all said they thought it was courageous of him to speak to "60 Minutes."

"This has not been a comfortable semester. I felt I was on fire. The university doesn't want internal criticism publicized," Solomon said.

He says the interview polarized his colleagues. "There are those who think of me as a spokesperson and those who want to avoid me because I'm trouble.

"I really don't see myself as a troublemaker. I'm not a revolutionary. I'm not a leader," Solomon said. "I just talk to a lot of students. I'm just conveying their concerns."

He said he thinks the survey courses should be a great experience for students. "The first course ought to be awfully inspiring."

Mark Maggiacoma, a classics senior, has taken four classes from Solomon so far.

"(He's) the best teacher I've had in my entire career here. He's one of the greatest humanists I've ever met. He's a great person and always willing to do things for other people," Maggiacoma said.

Classics Department head Marilyn Skinner said, "He is recognized as one of the best teachers in our department. His commitment to undergraduate education is superb."

When asked about what she thinks of him as a person, Skinner said, "He makes my life interesting. I'll just leave it at that."

Tom Tolley, Solomon's teaching assistant, said, "He's my friend. It's not a word I throw around. I appreciate his humor, intellect and teaching style."

If he could change one thing about the university, Solomon said he would virtually eliminate the administration and let students and faculty make decisions.

Solomon also said lecture halls should be better equipped. He cited Social Sciences 100 as an example. He said teaching humanities means that he needs working slide projectors and cassette players.

"I'm not talking about atom colliders or neutron smashers here. When students are paying tuition, they should have lecture halls that are well-equipped."

He said research professors are the ones favored by the university, and are the ones that get the perks.

"High profile research is easier to brag about. They bring money into the university. Those left teaching undergraduates are literally left, making less money. The only thing that keeps us going is love of teaching and students," Solomon said.

He said he does not think that the university will progress the way it has been. He said however painful the "60 Minutes" experience was, he thinks the university has a better sense of priorities.

"The most important thing about him is he looks at everything like Pandora's jar," Tolley said. "He's not always happy, but he always has hope."

"I'm not going anywhere else. It's (the problems) are at all schools. They're run by the same administrators, moving back and forth, sharing the same lousy ideas," Solomon said. "I've been here 12 years, and I intend to be here for 25 years more. I just think the university can be better. I'm not disloyal.

"It's been an exhausting semester, but I still believe in what I said."

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