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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Where politics has no business

The past weekend was one of  celebration.  My daughter Leslie is graduating from Metropolitan  State College of Denver and presented her senior recital Sunday afternoon.   On Thursday night we heard her perform in a music bar, Old Curtis, with a band which draws on a mix of musical genres.  (The band instrumentation is amplified ukulele, keyboard, electric bass, drums,  violin, viola, two cellos, trumpet, and tuba.)  Then Friday night was the Metropolitan State music department's Christmas concert at which Leslie played in the wind ensemble and the brass ensemble.  Great performance.  Full house for Friday and Saturday nights.

The creative excitement and accomplishment I witnessed over the weekend reminded me of why I became a professor.  But Metropolitan State has something going on that reminded me of why I hesitate to advise talented young people to become professors.  It is the educational bureaucracy which seems more focused on suppressing and destroying talent than in developing and promoting it.

The quality of a higher education institution is determined largely by how campus politics are managed.  Colleges and departments are in competition for funding and acknowledgment.  Good institutions pay meticulous attention to seeing that its academic units and personnel are given equitable treatment.  It takes superior people to maintain equitable standards.  Poor institutions, on the other hand, encourage rivalries among departments and personnel, and those rivalries produce factions and divisions among the faculty.  Faculty caught up in factional disputes are dysfunctional.  Consequently, the institutions in which such divides exist are dysfunctional. Their students are denied the experience of how people of diverse and differing viewpoints conciliate to produce a cohesive and inspiring academic experience.

In recent years, partisan politics have become an issue on campuses.  In my time as a professor, we may have been aware of the political stances of some of our colleagues, but partisan politics were never permitted to intrude into academic business.  That is no longer so.  In the lesser institutions, partisan politics have become just another dimension of faculty divisiveness.

I am a firm believer that faculty who violate any rules of academic integrity should be stringently disciplined.  That means that any faculty who plagiarizes  or fabricates or misrepresents evidence should be fired.  I have sat on review panels in which such firings were upheld.  Academic incompetence, slovenliness, and dishonesty, I think, must be dealt with decisively.

Recently,  my son had a conversation with a music professor where I last taught.  The professor told my son he could never agree with my politics.  I have never had a conversation about politics with this professor.  I have no idea why my political party or convictions would be relevant to any conversation about academic business, but party politics has become a malignancy on some campuses that saps the intellectual vitality out of the collegiate environment.

In campuses where the culture has degraded into personal rivalries and resentments among faculty, the politics of the malformed egos are enough to contend with.  Professors in such places find that they have to remain aloof from the campus milieu if they are to do their teaching, scholarship, and service with any effect.  Shortly after I retired, I started writing a newspaper column.  Some colleagues and students told me that doing so had raised resentment  and ire among some former colleagues in that I did not deserve recognition for doing something they thought they could do better.  Even though I am retired, I am still engaged in academic work, both in terms of scholarship and faculty issues.  As a former officer on both the state and local level of faculty organizations, I am often asked to review cases where faculty have gotten into difficulty to see if there are violations of academic freedom involved and if the organizations might wish to intervene.  Sometimes faculty are at fault; sometimes administrations are at fault.  But in most cases, ego-driven rivalries and resentments inflate the issues into major problems, problems that would not become so if true intelligence were exercised and if collegial purpose was pursued as the driving force in the institutions.  But I must say, the most admirable and accomplished people I have known were professors.  But so were some of the vilest people I have known.  Jealousy and resentment and a belief in their superiority is the first mark of a faculty member striving for vileness.  They serve their egos, not their discipline or their profession, and they are the most threatening pestilence in academic life.

Leslie began college at Northern State University.  She played in the brass ensemble for the graduation ceremony at which my retirement was acknowledged.  She credited  her studies there in the program for her senior recital.  However, shortly after I retired, Leslie decided she needed a change.  She did not play her tuba, or any of the other instruments she plays, for about three years. I do not know the specific reasons for her loss of interest, but those faculty politics I mention are not well managed at NSU and I have seen all too many promising students lose interest and get discouraged.

As an officer in faculty organizations, I was often involved in dealing with grievances and issues of integrity and fair play with faculty members.  There were people at the university who did superb scholarship and provided students with knowledge and find examples of academic purpose.  There were others who were devoted to personal resentments, bitching, and backbiting.   In the 1980s, a change in administration operated by fanning those resentments and rivalries as a means to divide and conquer the faculty.  In this context, programs and course offerings were cut, and cost-accounting rather than academic leadership and building and maintaining strong programs became the rule.  The fact that Northern is the only state institution to experience declines in enrollments in recent years has much to do with how the university is managed and the kind of academic experience students find there.  Under the cosmetics of slogans and claims are seething blotches of intellectual failure. 

When Leslie moved to Denver and enrolled at Metropolitan State, I was pleased.  I was more so when she resumed her musicianship and responded to new opportunities and a challenging and rewarding environment.  Over the years, I have visited the Metro campus and met some of her professors, and have been impressed with the environment and the sense of direction provided students.  Metro has an enrollment of about 22,000 and shares the Auraria Campus in downtown Denver with Denver Community College and the University of Colorado at Denver.  A walk on the  campus is invigorating, as students bustle about their business with energy and purpose.  Metro feels like a campus should.

Leslie has met success and achieved a goal, and plans to keep moving forward.  Metro supplied the opportunity and the atmosphere for accomplishment that one hopes every student will find when they enter college.

But Metro has those problems of faculty politics, too.  It fired a professor of 20 years of unblemished tenure in an instance that emits the strong reek of faculty rivalries and resentment.  According to an account first published in the student newspaper, the professor was undergoing her annual performance review and listed a publication which had not, in fact, been published. She presented the paper at a professional conference and paid a fee required by the organization for it to be published in its journal.  She had contacted the journal's editor and says she was told it was being published.  The Metro administration and board said she had deliberately lied about the publication, and it fired her for academic dishonesty.

As I stated, I believe that professors who plagiarized, manufacture evidence, or misrepresent materials that they cite should be fired.  But unlike the case with Ward Churchill, who was fired from the University of Colorado, no question about the integrity of the information in the paper was raised.  The paper was written and scheduled for publication,.  The professor made a mistake in not having the publication on hand before listing it.  In light of the professor's 20-year record at Metro, firing seems like an extreme measure.  Charges of racism have been raised, and the professor had testified in behalf of another professor who was terminated, but then was awarded $300,000 in compensation for a hostile work environment.  The firing under the circumstances seems terribly vindictive and vengeful.

I have been impressed with Metro.  I hope it is not headed into that state of dysfunction that faculty politics can result in  when they are not intelligently and effectively dealt with.  And I hope Leslie's experience, not that of fired professors, is what will define Metro State. 


Erin said...

You are too gentle about NSU. Leslie made a very good decision when she left. I wish I had followed her. NSU is a very sad place.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States