Our Battle for Quality over Quantity at Utah Valley University

I spent the past couple of weeks writing these letters and gathering signatures. Inside Higher Ed published a short piece on this today and the Provo Daily Herald and the UVU Review both published pieces about it. Publicity is our only lever as we are shut out of what should be shared governance.

5 February 2018

Dear President Holland and SVPAA Olson,

The attached letter, signed by 60 members of the UVU faculty, is an exercise in shared governance. The public nature of the letter reflects our dissatisfaction with actions by UVU administrators that have, over the course of the last few years, systematically changed a university to which we have devoted decades of our lives. That the changes have been made by administrative fiat rather than through a robust form of shared governance in which the Faculty Senate is more than a recommending body, is especially troubling to us.

Signatories include faculty members from across the disciplines, officers of the UVU chapters of the AAUP and AFT, former, current, and incoming department chairs, former and current program directors, former and current deans, and a former vice president.

Sincerely,

Sixty Members of the UVU Faculty

 

An Open Letter to Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Jeffrey Olson and President Matthew Holland

5 February 2018

As members of the faculty of Utah Valley University, we write to express our concerns about ways your administration is changing the identity of a university we cherish. In particular, recent denial of sabbatical leave for eligible members of the faculty undermines values we believe are at the core of an institution we have jointly developed over decades.

On January 17, 2018, five out of eight sabbatical applications from the College of Humanities and Social Sciences were emphatically rejected: “The request is NOT approved because resource constraints and increase in enrollment restrict sabbatical approvals to one from each department.” This sudden change in practice has engendered outrage and dismay among UVU faculty.

You decided to limit sabbaticals to one from each department. After awarding sabbaticals to the outgoing chair of English and to the outgoing coordinator of Humanities, your rejection of two applications from Philosophy/Humanities and three English sabbatical applications means that one of 20 and one of 45 in the respective departments will have sabbaticals in the coming year. On this model, English faculty can expect to have a sabbatical every 45 years. On this model, regardless of the quality of the research proposed, outgoing administrators will be preferred for sabbaticals (your third sabbatical award went to an Associate Vice President stepping down from his position). On this model, faculty in a small department like Integrated Studies can expect sabbaticals every 5 years.

UVU policy states that “Sabbatical leave is an opportunity offered to qualified faculty to engage in scholarly and creative activities that will enhance their capacity to contribute to the University.” Each of the five applicants you turned down would have returned from their sabbatical with greatly enhanced capacities. We teach from positions of strength when our classes are based on our scholarly work.

“The basic eligibility criteria are tenure and six years of academic service in a full-time faculty position at UVU,” criteria all five applicants fulfilled. These criteria suggest, as does the word “sabbatical,” that faculty might reasonably expect and plan for a regular sabbatical. For decades, sabbaticals have not only been granted but encouraged at UVSC and UVU. We have hired excellent colleagues in part because of the expectation of support for research. We are better teachers because of our sabbaticals.

Sabbatical leaves are “subject to availability of funds and suitable instructional replacements” and “applying for a sabbatical leave is a competitive process, since sabbatical funding is limited.” Given these constraints, policy requires that “The college/school and department shall work together to fund the sabbatical leave and the costs of instructional replacement during the absence of the faculty member.” Each of the five applications you denied included statements by the department and the college detailing how these costs would be covered and suitable instructional replacements found. Nonetheless, you cite “resource constraints” as a reason to deny these sabbatical applications. If there are legitimate funding issues at UVU, you would have done well to announce them at the beginning of the academic year in order to save the professors of English and Philosophy the considerable trouble of writing their sabbatical applications.

Because your decision was made unilaterally, because it contradicts department and college recommendations and expectations, and because it makes little sense to us, we are left to wonder if you are working with unstated assumptions and toward goals you have failed to subject to the discussion required by shared governance. At best we work together to improve our university. At worst, changes are imposed by the administration.

Actions taken over the last few years may fit into a pattern that might explain your decision on sabbaticals. We say “may” and “might” because we are left to speculate in the absence of discussion.

  • You have in some cases required departments to hire lecturers rather than the tenure-track professors they requested. Lecturers teach more students than professors on tenure track and consequently are less able to pay attention to individual students.
  • The new Classroom Building was constructed with large classrooms in anticipation of increasingly large numbers of students per class. Large classes reduce the ability of professors to interact meaningfully with individual students.
  • Although they represent a decline in quality instruction, you have touted large online courses as both desirous and inevitable.
  • You are arguing for an increase in the size of English 1010 and 2010 sections, a change that will undermine the quality of those courses.
  • You sent an email to faculty suggesting that as we make hiring decisions we should avoid hiring colleagues with ambitious research programs.
  • We are a teaching university, messages from your administration remind us regularly, declarations that implicitly pit teaching against research and that affect the quality of our teaching.

How can one explain these shifts from UVU’s traditional emphasis on quality instruction, a shift that, as we noted, now includes denial of sabbatical requests for research purposes?

One of several possible answers may lay in an event in our recent past.

In 2014, Clayton Christensen, a professor at the Harvard Business School, lectured in UVU’s Ragan Theater. Christensen is famous for his theory of “disruption” and, applying his business theory to education, he asked how universities can avoid being disrupted by cheaper private universities like the University of Phoenix. The answer, he said, is to quit focusing on quality.

Students don’t want quality from universities, Christiansen argued. And because quality is not important, universities should make extensive use of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and should cease sponsoring research by their faculty unless the research focuses on teaching methods. There is so much knowledge already available, he claimed, that we can’t possibly teach it anyway and so we should not waste our money on research by professors.

Disrupting traditional practices that support good research in the service of good teaching is difficult, Christiansen said. And because professors will insist on quality, the necessary changes will have to be imposed by administrators. Vice President Olson and President Holland, you both have a history of involvement with these ideas.
In 2011, Clayton Christensen and Henry Eyring published a book titled The Innovative University, Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out. The book features BYU-Idaho as a case study of a university with a mission that contrasts with Harvard’s. Among those who “generously read and commented on the manuscript” are “Matt Holland” and “Jeffrey Olson.” Several ideas from the book parallel and perhaps explain your decisions. Two quotations seem especially apropos:

“Most universities cannot afford to offer so many subjects to such diverse types of students or to require their professors to compete in a world of research scholarship that is becoming increasingly expensive and conceptually narrow” (xxvii).

“Scholarly activities [at BYU-Idaho] were focused on the scholarship of teaching and learning rather than traditional discovery research” (27).

Is it possible, we ask, that you have been systematically transforming our university according to these disruptive theories? And that you have been doing so without consulting the faculty of UVU?

While we are speculating, speculating because your decisions have been made without the open discussions that real shared governance requires, doesn’t it seem likely that your precipitous announcement that UVU would thoroughly revise its undergraduate experience before a new president begins work is the last gambit in this game?

Alternately, might one explain the direction you are taking the university as a response to forces inside and outside the university that are hostile to the very idea of sabbatical leave, to stakeholders who believe faculty are paid to teach and that a sabbatical means only that they are not teaching? If that is the case, might we not reasonably expect you to educate them about the value of sabbaticals, of research in general, of professional development, of the intrinsic connections between scholarship and good teaching?

Or, perhaps your decisions are a response to waiting lists for some of our required classes. If this is the case, we have a suggestion: find ways to let us hire more tenure-track professors. As our student numbers increase, the number of faculty who are in the best position to offer quality instruction must also increase.

While raising these questions about what feels like a precipitous and unfortunate change of course for our university, movement away from the claim in our mission statement that “UVU builds on a foundation of substantive scholarly and creative work to foster engaged learning,” we acknowledge that your administration has supported our work in various ways. The recent state-of-the-university address emphasized that your work has led to positive outcomes. To build on that support and on those outcomes, we would do well to discuss the issues in question here. Absent an open discussion, without real shared governance, we are left to speculate and to respond heatedly and to suspect that you don’t understand or respect the qualities of the university that has been our project for decades. We need to talk.

Postscript: Vice President Olson has, reportedly, reversed his decision on one of the sabbatical applications he denied. We applaud that reversal. At the same time, we reiterate our argument that the original decision establishing research and teaching as opponents in a zero-sum game is part of an ongoing pattern that lessens the quality of teaching at UVU.

Members of the Faculty of UVU

Scott Abbott, Integrated Studies, Philosophy/Humanities, Vice President—UVU AAUP Chapter

Chris Weigel, Philosophy

Daniel Horns, Earth Science

Alex Simon, Sociology, President of the UVU Chapter of the AFT

Wioleta Fedeczko, English

 

Jim Harris, Botany

Keith Snedegar, History

Lydia Kerr, English

Alan Clarke, Integrated Studies

Kelli Potter, Philosophy

 

Lyn Bennett, History

Rob Carney, English

Heath Ogden, Biology

Shannon Mussett, Philosophy

David Knowlton, Anthropology and President of the UVU Chapter of the AAUP

 

Matthew Draper, Psychology

Robert Cousins, English

Robert Robbins, Biology

Nathan Gorelick, English

Rick McDonald, English and Secretary of the UVU Chapter of the AAUP

 

Virginia Bayer, Biology

Mike Bunds, Earth Science

Kate McPherson, English

Jorgen Hansen, Philosophy

Nathan Gale, English

 

Jerry Petersen, English

Jeff Packer, Languages

John Hunt, History

Christa Albrecht-Crane, English

Pierre Lamarche, Philosophy

 

Michael Goode, History

Brian Whaley, English

Dan Stephen, Earth Science

Douglas Jensen, Languages

Don Faurot, Mathematics

 

Mark Pepper, English

Joel Bradford, Earth Science

Grant Moss, English

Leslie Simon, Philosophy/Humanities

Matt Horn, Chemistry

 

Debora Ferreira, Languages

Calvin Bond, Chemistry

Michaela Giesenkirchen Sawyer, Philosophy/Humanities

Karin Anderson, English

Steven Bule, Art History

 

Kim Abunuwara, Integrated Studies and Philosophy/Humanities

Alan Parry, Mathematics

Mark Crane, English

Renee Van Buren, Biology

Greg Briscoe, Languages

 

Michael Minch, Philosophy

Vivienne Faurot, Mathematics

Mark Lenz, History

Ethan Sproat, English

Karen Mizell, Philosophy

 

Macheil Van Frankenhuijsen, Mathematics

Laura Guerrero, Philosophy

Wayne Whaley, Zoology

Philip Gordon, Communication

Julie Nichols, English

 

13 February 2018

On Friday, 9 February 2018, Vice President Olson responded as follows to our Open Letter of February 5th:

Dear Colleagues,

I am writing to confirm receipt of your open letter dated February 5, 2018.  First and foremost, I welcome your input and value your contributions to help our students succeed. I often hear compliments about the work many of you do.

There has been a misunderstanding regarding sabbaticals.  The University has been and continues to be supportive of sabbaticals, including more than one per department where appropriate. There is no new policy or plan to change the existing sabbatical policy.  The University follows the same process for decisions on sabbaticals as most other universities: the faculty member applies and the Department Chair, College Dean, Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs, and University President make recommendations to the Board of Trustees. The Trustees will be making the final decisions later this month.

My comment of one sabbatical per department to faculty members whose sabbaticals I did not recommend was not meant as a policy statement. For these departments, challenges had arisen due to the increasing number of students who were unable to enroll in required courses.  The point was to recommend that these departments would receive one sabbatical despite these constraints. Consistent with policy, with the goal of helping students successfully progress towards graduation, we need to balance the student, faculty, and department needs. I am currently and will continue to work with deans and chairs to find solutions to these multifaceted issues.

As an example, last week one department found a way to address increasing enrollments in a required course and, as a result, my recommendation about a faculty member’s sabbatical request was reversed and the faculty member is now being recommended for a sabbatical. Another department is currently seeking a similar solution.  If successful, this will enable an additional sabbatical request to be recommended.

I would also note that I will raise all the issues discussed in your letter with the Faculty Senate Executive Committee, chairs and deans.

Sincerely,

Jeffery E. Olson

Senior Vice President, Academic Affairs

Utah Valley University

 

Our reply to SVPAA Olson’s letter:

13 February 2018

Dear SVPAA Olson,

Thank you for responding to one of the issues in our letter.

We understand that there has been no change in policy and that “the University has been and continues to be supportive of sabbaticals.” But with initial denials of all sabbaticals in our College except for the three awarded to persons rolling off their administrative assignments, and with the initial limit of one sabbatical per department because of “the increasing number of students who were unable to enroll in required courses,” current practice undermines a key aspect of university life. Rapid growth has required us to do more with less at UVSC and UVU for decades. Because sabbatical leaves are such important threads in the complex fabric of a university, good applications have routinely been approved despite challenging growth. We have traditionally done more with less; we are reluctant to do less with less.

You write that “with the goal of helping students successfully progress towards graduation, we need to balance the student, faculty, and department needs.” And with that we get to the broader purpose of our original letter.

How do we define student success?

Our answer to this question lies at the heart of what we do as educators. When our students graduate with knowledge and skills they have acquired by following a rigorous and professionally crafted curriculum, they are successful graduates of a good university.

Administrative decisions made over the last few years (see the bullet points in our original letter) reveal a definition of student success that emphasizes quantity over quality in the service of higher graduation rates. The quality of education at UVU has been undermined by raising class sizes and by placing teaching and research in opposition in a zero-sum game. On this model, a successful student is one who graduates and who graduates as quickly as possible.

You write that “Another department is currently seeking a similar solution. . . . this will enable an additional sabbatical request to be recommended.” Members of that department report that the “solution” involves raising class sizes, making it easier for students to pass an introductory course, and diluting requirements for enrolling in that course. To what end? To make it easier for students to graduate as quickly as possible. In this context, the additional sabbatical feels like a bribe.

Our open letter was catalyzed by denied sabbaticals, sabbaticals you seem to see as benefiting professors and thus needing to be balanced by what benefits students. But the issue of quantity versus quality is broader than sabbaticals. Withholding meaningful support for faculty strikes us as part of a larger market-based plan to disrupt the quality of our students’ education. That these decisions are being made unilaterally by administrators rather than through the shared governance critical to a healthy university further raises the level of our concern.

Our current situation reminds us of the T-shirts teachers in the Alpine School District (northern Utah Valley) wore years ago in protest of relentless increases in class size: WE STACK ‘EM DEEP AND TEACH ‘EM CHEAP.

In short: current practices disrupt the quality of our teaching, undermine our students’ substantive success, and harm our reputation as a university worthy of the name.

About Scott Abbott

I received my Ph.D. in German Literature from Princeton University in 1979. Then I taught at Vanderbilt University, BYU, and Utah Valley State College. At Utah Valley University, I directed the Program in Integrated Studies for its initial 13 years and was also Chair of the Department of Humanities and Philosophy for three years. My publications include a book on Freemasonry and the German Novel, two co-authored books with Zarko Radakovic (REPETITIONS and VAMPIRES & A REASONABLE DICTIONARY, published in Serbo-Croatian in Belgrade and in English with Punctum Books), a book with Sam Rushforth (WILD RIDES AND WILDFLOWERS, Torrey House Press), a "fraternal meditation" called IMMORTAL FOR QUITE SOME TIME (University of Utah Press), and translations of three books by Austrian author Peter Handke, of an exhibition catalogue called "The German Army and Genocide," and, with Dan Fairbanks, of Gregor Mendel's important paper on hybridity in peas. More famously, my children are in the process of creating good lives for themselves: as a model and dance/yoga studio manager, as a teacher of Chinese language, as an ecologist and science writer, as a jazz musician, as a parole officer, as a contractor, as a seasonal worker (Alaska and Park City, Utah), and as parents. I share my life with UVU historian Lyn Bennett, with whom I have written a cultural history of barbed wire -- THE PERFECT FENCE (Texas A&M University Press). Some publications at http://works.bepress.com/scott_abbott/
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