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Where Women Gather, Trouble Follows: Letting Off Steam At The University Of Toledo

September 26, 2010, 2:42 am

When you were flying over Ohio last week, did you see a big cloud over Toledo?  That was a bunch of steamed up faculty!  The Toledo Blade reports a wholesale restructuring of the University of Toledo that has comrades at that school in a state of distress.  According to Blade reporter Christopher Kirkpatrick,”President Lloyd Jacobs plans to break up the century-old College of Arts and Sciences and create three new colleges in its place.”  These colleges will be “discipline-driven,” and the humanities and social sciences have been promised an equal seat at the table with the professional schools and the sciences. Humanities and social science faculty are skeptical of this, and everything else about their future in the new university.  Jacobs was hired in 2006, promising the board of trustees that he would “create a UT academic experience more relevant to everyday life, and to ultimately remake the university into one of the best in the world.”  Indeed, relevant can be a worrisome word.  This is not because being relevant is bad, but because an unspecific use of this word implies very strongly that the liberal arts model that the vast majority of faculty have committed their careers to is irrelevant – and that they are, therefore, replaceable.  It was after Bennington President Elizabeth Coleman started using the word “relevant” in 1994 that she started firing faculty.  Bennington remains on the AAUP censure list to this day.

The published reports are pretty vague, so it is hard for an outsider to say whether the restructuring at UT, in and of itself, is an innovative idea or a way to turn the humanities and social sciences into service departments staffed by adjuncts.  The subtext of the faculty’s discontent does seem to hint at the possibility of becoming vassals to a science-driven university.  This the president, and the committee that prepared the plan, denies.  ”The move to break up arts and sciences,” Kirkpatrick writes, “is an outgrowth of the near-carte blanche the board of trustees has given the president to increase the academic quality of its programs, students, and ultimately, its reputation. That in turn drives more research dollars and donations to the school.”

There is very little real information in any of these news stories, so it remains a he said/they said kind of situation.  An unscientific poll by the UT student newspaper, The Independent Collegian, shows that, as of today, 71% of those voting in the poll do not feel fully informed or consulted by the strategic planning committee (14% do feel fully informed and 14% — of which I am one, since you can’t see the poll unless you vote — don’t know.  This is what I mean by unscientific.)  What is interesting to me is the article lists a series of criticisms of the Jacobs plan that are all too familiar.  These criticisms appear in practically the same language every time a university president anywhere tries to do either something bold and interesting, something evil and destructive, or just something.  The criticisms (areas where you could fill in the blank to reflect criticisms being articulated at your university are marked out in red) are as follows:

That President Jacobs is a surgeon and doesn’t know enough about academic institutions to create a good restructuring plan;

That Jacobs is unacceptably autocratic and fails to consult fully with the faculty;

That Jacobs favors the sciences;

That the committee responsible for the plan was mostly made up of administrators and was entirely female (one critic wasn’t sure that an all-female committee was necessarily a bad thing, but insisted that it was “strange” and “suspect.”  We know faculty don’t trust administrators, but are we admitting that male faculty don’t trust women too?  This is worth the price of admission, if you ask me.)

That the report was released in the summer when the faculty were not there.

Changing anything at a university, no matter how small, always means kicking some a$$:  take it from someone who knows. I remember when some academics I know were outraged that they were being “forced” to learn to use computers. But kicking a$$ is something that trustees always want presidents to do on principle, just to show who is the boss.  It doesn’t necessarily require a bold new plan. However, stay tuned:  the UT faculty may be on to something. Jacobs may indeed want to bust tenure, since he has indicated that a higher reliance on casual labor is an inevitable transformation that will occur in higher ed.

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