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Was this professor really fired for being too tough?

November 2, 2011, 7:30 am

From Utah, here’s a story about business prof Stephen Maranville who was denied tenure at Utah Valley University, apparently based on student complaints about his use of the Socratic Method. I won’t quote from the article because it’s short — read the whole thing — and because it sounds a lot like other cases where profs have found themselves on the wrong side of student and administrative graces because of grades or pedagogy or both.

Here are my thoughts on this.

1. It can’t be as simple as the meme of: Professor is tough -> Students complain -> Administration caves to student demands -> Prof gets fired. What actually happened in Maranville’s classes? Do we know? There are profs using the Socratic Method all the time, being tough and holding high standards with students not that different from UVU students, who don’t get complaints on this scale or lose tenure. Some of them are well-liked by students. Conversely there are profs who hold low standards who get complaints from students like this. So there’s got to be more to it than the tired notion that Kids These Days Want Everything Spoon-Fed to Them.

2. One of the biggest contributors to this predicament is the extremely unwise decision to give Maranville a scant one-year pre-tenure probationary period. (UVU was unwise to offer it and Maranville unwise to accept it.) The decision to give someone tenure and make them a more-or-less permanent fixture of your university is potentially a multi-million dollar investment in a faculty member, and that faculty member will make a significant impact on the very nature of the institution. And the faculty member is committing his career to the institution. You want to enter into such a relationship very carefully and deliberately. The typical pre-tenure period for university faculty is six or seven years, because it seriously takes this long to make a good decision. Awarding tenure after one year — really it’s only one semester, since the tenure materials are usually submitted and the decision made around the holidays — is like marrying someone after one date. It usually doesn’t work out so well.

Consider how this situation might have turned out if Maranville had a reasonable pre-tenure period for someone coming from a tenured position (which Maranville did), say four years. Let’s say that the first year turns out the way it actually did, with a lot of students up in arms about his teaching and bombarding the administration with complaints. If you have three more years until tenure, there is time to get things done — to receive professional development, to receive critical feedback from the promotion/tenure committee, to get acclimated to the UVU culture and get used to the students, and just basically to adjust, improve, and move forward. After four years, the P&T committee would have enough evidence to see whether this is a guy who is moving toward the standards for tenure or not moving toward them, and the decision is as rational and fair as can be expected.

But if you only have one year, there’s no time for any of that, and you have to make what amounts to a snap decision. Having more time pre-tenure wouldn’t have made Prof. Maranville’s students right now any happier, but it would have allowed him and UVU to get used to each other and perhaps really achieve a great educational environment in the near future. But that’s not possible if you’re making snap tenure decisions.

3. Much is being made of Maranville’s use of the Socratic Method in the capstone course. But what other teaching techniques did he use? Specifically, what did he do when it became clear that students weren’t learning (for whatever reason)? I’m not suggesting that he should have ditched the Socratic Method. But good teaching is not the same as using interesting teaching techniques. Effective teaching requires listening to students, assessing them frequently on what they know and don’t know, and devising a combination of learning experiences that best reaches them. Did this happen? Or was it just all Socratic Method, all the time? There’s an important pedagogical takeaway here about becoming married to a particular teaching technique — and not considering altering it, adding to it, dropping it outright, or at least helping students adjust to it — that we need to get. (Attention, inverted classroom people.)

4(a). If all this went down as described in the news items, then I should hope that UVU students would have the common professional courtesy to bring their concerns in a polite and constructive manner to Prof. Maranville first before running straight to the dean. If they didn’t, then shame on them for not acting like adults.

4(b). And double shame on the UVU administration if they in any way enabled this kind of behavior. The administration can best serve in this situation as a mediator, helping to create a positive dialogue between the students and the professor. At the very least, the administration can tell students that they need to take their problems to the source first before running to the dean. But if they opened the door for students to complain about professors and have those complaints acted upon without any kind of student-professor dialogue, then UVU has a  dysfunctional administration — and academic climate — and they are getting what they deserve. So I hope that’s not the case. Otherwise it betrays an underbelly of distrust among students, faculty, and administrators that really indicates a dying university.

I’m ready for some stories about profs who come in and do great things with Kids These Days, aren’t you?

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