Blaise Pascal, PenseĆ© 347: “Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapor, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this. All our dignity consists, then, in thought. By it we must elevate ourselves, and not by space and time which we cannot fill. Let us endeavor, then, to think well; this is the principle of morality.”

Sunday, February 19, 2012

A Reply to John Welty: Why I Signed "A Letter from the Fresno State Faculty"

Craig Bernthal

At the Provost's Forum on Thursday, February 16, not long after I had taken a seat, John Welty got up from his, came over to me, and asked, in so many words, the following questions: Why did you sign that statement in the Bee? What did you hope to accomplish that would be constructive? Don't you understand that it will just make it harder for me to raise funds?

Those are serious questions, and I've been thinking about them ever since, especially since my off-the-cuff reply could have been more coherent. Dr. Welty, here is my better answer:

1. You haven't leveled with us. 

My first blog entry claimed, "the information that the faculty needs to participate in a discussion about the budget crisis has been so slow in coming, so deliberately slow in being supplied, so sketchy, so opaque, that now, in the eleventh hour of decision making, we [the faculty] have really been denied a voice."

I hold to that. In forum after forum, we have asked questions and been given the most minimal answers. Budget information is divulged only under the pressure of a direct and exact question, and as we keep asking questions, we keep getting surprises, and sometimes big ones.

For instance, at the February 16 Provost's Forum, we were informed that over 6 million dollars was available in carry-forward funds to plug this year's budget gap. Who knew this last November?

We are said to have a 10.1 million dollar budget gap looming for next year, if Governor Brown's tax initiatives don't pass. Do we have the reserves to close that gap? Is there money in central funding available for that? From other sources? I suspect the answer is yes, but we haven't been told. (And by the way, please give us a public and definitive answer to those questions.) 

In November, at the last Provost's Forum of the semester, when I asked for the the budget information for Academic Affairs that had been supplied to the Budget Task Force, Michael Caldwell said we wouldn't find any "smoking guns." Let's just call $16 million in reserves a nice surprise.

2. You haven't consulted with us.

I have blogged about this ad tedium. Once more unto the breach.

Creating a Task Force was an end run around the only consultative body elected by the faculty, the University Budget Committee, which since the dawn of time has represented the faculty on budgetary issues. The UBC was completely cut out of the loop. Please do not tell me that John Constable was responsible for passing information from the Task Force to the UBC, and that this solves the consultation problem. No one told him that was his responsibility. He did not pass any information along, and had that been his duty, Dennis Nef, who sat on both the UBC and the Task Force, would have seen he was not doing his job and told him to do it. The UBC was out of budget consultation all the way.

3. You haven't listened to our cries of alarm.

Many attempts were made to convey the breadth and depth of faculty alarm before 141 faculty members signed "The Letter."

After the Budget Task Force recommendations were published in October, the cry from the College of Science and Mathematics and from the College of Arts & Humanities must have been loud enough to reach the fourth floor of the library. CSM countered with a motion in the Academic Senate. A&H formed an ad hoc committee, which sent a formal reply. The faculty of these two schools were stunned, and this certainly must have registered at the last Provost's Forum of the fall semester.

In November, I was wondering what I could possibly do to add to the wake up call. The night that the provost announced he was thinking of taking the faculty responses to the Budget Task Force, which had been emailed to the Senate, off-line, and then did briefly take them off-line, I began to seriously consider that academic freedom was under attack at Fresno State. I did two things in response. I taught two classes in the Free Speech area during the first week of the semester, discussing issues of free speech and faculty consultation in the context of John Milton's Areopagitica. And, I started this blog.

Meanwhile, a faculty emeriti group composed of Joyce Aiken, Linnea Alexander, Phyllis Irwin, Jerry McMenamin, and former Fresno State provost and university president Judith Kuipers was meeting with you, trying to get budget information--not getting much--and trying to convey the breadth and depth of faculty alarm over lack of consultation and other issues. I'm afraid they achieved nothing.

So what does all of this amount to? We lost our forum on campus. We lacked a zealous Senate Chair as an advocate. In former years, with men like Lyman Heine or Bob Fasse, things might have gone differently. We had no choice but to go to the public--no one on this campus was listening.

4. Non-essential parts of the university have been retained while essentials have been cut.

We have had several years of budget crisis. Our classes get bigger. Sections are cut. I do not have to list to you all the ways this university is under pressure.

Under these circumstances, CSALT's very existence was an insult. The creation of a new associate VP last semester, to people who are teaching GE courses with writing components to 300 students is, frankly, an insult that sinks deeply into the faculty. Spending money on a new faculty assessment package from IDEA, one which performs its task less well and more expensively than what was in place, has been an occasion for faculty derision. In short, I am mystified by the spending choices the university is making, as are 140 of my colleagues, people you have worked with closely and who you respect, like Joe Penberra and Jim Highsmith. Doesn't this have to be taken seriously?

5. A pernicious School of Education model of instruction is being imposed on us, of which CSALT, aspects of TILT, Red Balloon, the Idea faculty assessment instrument, student outcomes assessment, and the RTP process give evidence.

Here we probably just have philosophical differences. Where I see a bureaucratization of teaching that I'm afraid will kill good teaching, you may see conformity to a set of responsible guidelines. I think the faculty is being diverted from its two main tasks of teaching and research into committee work and community work, and workshop work, which is in most instances a waste of time and a distraction. I see new tenure track faculty being socialized into a system that forces them to spend immense amounts of their most productive years on trivia. I see all of this couched in a language of educationese, which I and my mentor, George Orwell, find appalling and damaging. Let's take some of the air out of the language. Faculty research is research--we don't have to call it "faculty transformative research" to make it important.

6. Concentration of power in the provost displaces the expertise of departments and schools in creating curricula. See my blog entry on that issue, "No Confidence in Fresno State Administration, Part 4: The Provost Creates His Own Faculty."

I will just finish with one last thought. I always have believed that you had the welfare of Fresno State at heart and cared deeply about the students here and the quality of their education. You have done a lot of good during your years as our president. But what has happened over the last several years has created a deep divide between the faculty, you, and the rest of your administration. If there is anything, during the rest of this semester, that you need it address in constructive ways, it is that rift. You cannot leave that job to the provost--you are the only one who can do something about it.

1 comment:

  1. This is more of a side issue, but I think the IDEA system for student evaluations is a vast improvement over the garbage we had in the Linguistics department, and generally it is a good thing to have a uniform scheme for students to rate the quality of instruction. I'm not saying it's perfect, but at least we can rely on the ratings for something, as opposed to nothing.

    -Sean Fulop, Assoc. Prof. of Linguistics