The soul of any educational enterprise resides in the community of teachers, students, and administrators that make it work. It primarily occurs in that moment when a well-prepared student (or simply a highly motivated one, like Bradley Rutledge) meets a well-prepared teacher in a classroom or office and subjects his or her skill level, understanding, or ideas to elaboration and testing. That flash-point is specifically where the soul of the university lives. Of course, it occurs among the students of a classroom as well, and in the best classes I’ve taught or taken, students energized each other.
This is not just true for the best students. The joys of teaching at Fresno State often come from watching the great progress students can make in even a short time. Last semester I had a Hmong student from a gang-ridden neighborhood, who had no idea that the United States had come together from thirteen British colonies. (He made this discovery when we were studying a poem by Tennyson about the British Empire--where Plymouth Rock and George Washington had disappeared in his education between first grade and high school graduation is anyone's guess.) We were reading the poetry of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Keats, and for him, it was like hitting an impenetrable wall. But he persisted. He came to almost every single office hour for the first half of the course, fell in love with poetry, and finished with the second highest grade in class. He was remarkable, but I have taught others very much like him, and I'd bet that every professor at Fresno State has similar stories.
This year, that happened at Fresno State to a degree which was unprecedented. First, it came through the threat of dismantling the College of Sciences and Mathematics and the merger of the School of Arts and Humanities with that of Social Science. This would have destroyed the two biggest communities at Fresno State where learning takes place.
The second and more insidious threat is the slow but sure transfer of responsibility for curriculum and instruction from departments to the provost; this has occurred through (1) cohort hiring and the provost’s new 50 /50 funding model; (2) the creation of special faculty positions directly under the direction of the provost; (3) a move to take the writing program out of the English department and put it under the provost; (4) side-stepping faculty senate committees by the creation of task forces on budget and rebranding; (5) stifling and controlling the flow of information to faculty, again with regard to the budget and rebranding. These administrative tactics may seem far removed from the “flash-point” between students and teachers, but they are not. The more faculty become mere employees, utilized to achieve objectives not their own and with which they do not agree, the less passion there will be in teaching, and the fewer meaningful points of contact between students and teachers.