Sunday, June 04, 2006

Oh, Those Awful Professors!

Thanks to Penn State Professor Aldon Lynn Nielsen’s blog HeatStrings, I learned about The American Council of Trustees and Alumni and its new “study” entitled “How Many Ward Churchills?” that appeared last month.

The Foreword, over the name Ann D. Neal, President, says:

Is there really only one Ward Churchill? Or are there many? Do professors in their classrooms ensure a robust exchange of ideas designed to help students to think for themselves? Or do they use their classrooms as platforms for propaganda, sites of sensitivity training, and launching pads for political activism? Do our college and university professors foster intellectual diversity or must students toe the party line?
To answer these questions, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni went to publicly available resources—college and university websites, electronic syllabi, and faculty web pages.

And what we found is profoundly troubling. Ward Churchill is not only not alone—he is quite common. (ii)

The title of the first chapter is “Ward Churchill is Everywhere” (according to the table of Contents. The actual chapter is headed “How Many Ward Churchills?”—so much for copyediting). Yet this is a study of a limited number of institutions, all of the top rank. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, there are over 4000 accredited institutions of higher education in the United States. This “study” glances at 48 of them, a little over 1%--and it completely ignores all 2-year institutions. In fact, it ignores all but the top 12 private universities (as rated by US News and World Reports), the top 13 liberal arts colleges, the Big Ten schools (there are eleven, these days), and the Big Twelve schools. The types of places where I teach (public institutions, but not at all showcases), probably the mainstays of contemporary American higher education, are also ignored completely. To draw any conclusion about “everywhere,” one would certainly have to conduct a study covering a much wider range.

Not only is the “study” not comprehensive, but its title whipping boy is really something of an anomaly in higher education. The study, which pays inordinate attention to Churchill’s specific case, even admits that he is not a standard-issue college professor—before backtracking:
Recruited into a tenured position with only a master’s degree in communication, Churchill has followed an exceptional path to academic prominence; even so, he is not at all unusual, and as an example of academe’s increasingly unapologetic ideological tilt, he is far from alone. (1)
But they never can show that “he is not at all unusual.” Or, at least, they don’t in this study. All they do is go on to cite one of their own studies which, if as sloppy as this one, deserves as little respect as a source.

The “study” itself is rather poorly structured. According to the report itself:

we examined publicly available department websites, on-line course descriptions, electronic course syllabi, and faculty home pages in a wide range of liberal arts disciplines. (2)
In a day when a great deal more information is readily available, none was used. This is a sign of quick and sloppy “research” aimed to prove a belief rather than of real research. There is no real methodology here, either, just nebulous “examination.”
In course after course, department after department, and institution after institution, indoctrination is replacing education. Encouraging students to think independently has been too often supplanted by the impulse to tell them what to think about some of the most pressing issues of our day. (2)
Yet how many courses did they look at? 4, a Penn State, out of the thousands offered.

What follows is nothing more than a listing of classes and institutional procedures that the study’s authors object to. There is no quantitative analysis backing up any of the claims made. In other words, there is no “study” here at all, simply selected courses that, for one reason or another, aren’t in keeping with the authors’ idea of what should be offered.

Though the study never establishes that there is a problem of indoctrination in American universities—merely that there’s an extremely wide range of courses offered (especially if one remembers that this is a look at a wee percentage, at best), it includes a section “What Is To Be Done?”—as though a broken system had been proven. Ah, but wait! Do they even have suggestions?
All Americans—whether on the left, right, or in the center—should be outraged by the onesided, doctrinaire perspective that, too often, today defines the college experience. While the work of correcting the current situation rests first of all with faculty and administrators, governing boards have the ultimate responsibility for maintaining an intellectually vibrant atmosphere on campus. Trustees—many of them public officials who have a legal obligation to ensure that their institutions of higher learning are dedicated to valid educational ends—must take steps to guarantee a proper balance between students’ academic freedom to learn and professors’ academic freedom to teach, research, and publish. Post-tenure review—with appropriate rewards and sanctions—is one means by which institutions should make sure that professors are doing their jobs with integrity. (22)
Guess not. Well, they do come up with a few generalities:
Colleges and universities should also consider conducting a self-study to assess the atmosphere in their classrooms. They should review hiring and promotion practices to ensure that scholarship and teaching—not ideological litmus tests—are the foundation for lifelong job security. They should insist that faculty members be hired only after their scholarship is reviewed for accuracy, impartiality, and probity. They should use visiting professors to enhance intellectual diversity. They should reward departments for improving disciplinary and viewpoint diversity. (22)
But guess what? That’s pretty much what goes on now.

The Foreword says that, as:
we contend in the following pages, the solution is not to fire professors who express extreme views, but to expose them, to compel them to defend their positions, invite them to debate ideas, and, above all, to insist that they do their job of teaching students well and empowering them to make up their own minds. (ii)
As everything the “study” talks about is already publicly exposed (remember, this is a study showing precious little research), even that can’t really be seen as a “solution”—even if there were a problem.

What, then, is the point of this “study”?

I can think of one only: intimidation. This “study” is part of a movement by the American right to whip up mindless fear over what is going on in American institutions of higher learning so that they can be forced to toe a conservative line rather than, as they do today, encouraging a wider range of thought and exploration than can be found anywhere else in the world.

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