The Plot against America

“There’s a plot afoot all right, and I’ll gladly name the forces propelling—hysteria, ignorance, malice, stupidity, hatred and fear. What a repugnant spectacle our country has become! Falsehood, cruelty, and madness everywhere, and brute force in the wings waiting to finish us off. . . . To have captured the mind of the world’s greatest nation without uttering a single word of truth! Oh, the pleasure we must be affording the most malevolent man on earth!”

from Philip Roth’s 2004 novel The Plot against Americaplot

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Homage à Brian Evenson

I’ve just read Brian’s little book called Reports.

reports

It has inspired me to write a report of my own, which follows:

 

A Report on a Fickle Ficus

 

It is not really the ficus that is fickle, but referring to our neighbors who are giving up the ficus as fickle or to our neighbors who are adopting the ficus as fickle loses the alliterative advantage.

 

I recently experienced a similar problem while translating Goethe’s poem about contemplating his friend Schiller’s skull twenty-one years after Schiller’s death. It was not really Schiller’s skull, recent DNA analysis has revealed, but that Goethe believed it was his Weimar neighbor’s skull was enough to inspire a poem dense with terza rima rhymes. I had to choose between terza rima and meaning and opted for meaning. In this report I will opt for alliteration.

 

It is slightly embarrassing to admit that I had to look up the spelling of ficus. Learning a second and third language is life altering, true, but it also, at least in my case, has altered my ability to spell correctly, proof that the president of the Mormon university where I used to teach was right when he warned in his partially plagiarized inauguration address aimed at the dangers of moral relativism that current trends in philosophy would lead inevitably to approximate spelling.

 

An approximate German spelling, Feikus, would match the pronunciation. Ph or F? Ck or K? A French spelling would certainly add a dozen silent vowels and consonants. So I looked it up. The Wikipedia article says that Ficus (a simple spelling) is a genus of about 850 species collectively known as fig trees. The Britannica article (splitter to the Wikipedia lumper) claims about 900 species.

 

People also ask, Google tells me, whether ficus plants are poisonous to cats? whether all figs have wasps in them? and whether a ficus tree can survive a freeze. I’ll return to the last question shortly. First let me point out that the first three hits in the search claim that ficus plants are finicky, that if you look at one cross-eyed it will drop its leaves, and that ficus are fickle yet popular. So fickle is apropos after all.

 

And now the question about a ficus surviving a freeze. It is mid-March. It is snowing lightly today as it has for a week. We and our two sets of neighbors who are exchanging the fickle ficus live on a mountainside where the winter’s snow lingers. For weeks L., my second wife, has been trying to organize the transfer. Evening after evening she has arranged for the eight-foot tree in a tub as large as a beer keg to be transferred from the neighbors who are moving out of the house they have sold to the neighbors who will adopt the ficus. Each time there has been a problem. Either the moving neighbors’ trailer is stuck in a snowdrift or the adopting neighbors cannot move the tree because of a playdate for little Airich (not to be confused with his father Erik) or the moving neighbors are dealing with a crisis in one of their businesses (pool covers, home health and hospice) or the adopting neighbors are not at home when they promised to be home or the moving neighbors are in Illinois or the adopting neighbors are sick or . . . well, you get the picture.

 

Did I mention that between them, the moving and adopting neighbors speak 6 languages and own 17 guns? Maybe not exactly 17 guns, but the number feels substantial, and thus correct. Because I have held it in my hands, I know one of them is a replica Henry rifle, fully functional. And I know there are shotguns, hunting rifles, assault rifles, and handguns.

 

It is possible that I have overstated the number of languages by one.

 

For some reason, L. feels responsible for the transfer. She has arranged and rearranged. It is possible that both sets of neighbors have decided they don’t care what happens to the ficus.

 

The moving neighbors and the adopting neighbors don’t know each other. L. is the middlewoman. And on this snowy day she is at a breaking point. The moving neighbors call and say the ficus is the last remaining item in their house. The adopting neighbors are not home. L. races up the hill to ask the 7 Brothers Moving Company if they can bring the ficus to our house. They agree, load the tree in their truck, and deliver it on a dolly to our garage.

 

There it stands this evening. I hope the garage doesn’t drop below the 40-degree threshold the website that answered the freezing question claimed would be too much. Too little.

 

The question of the fickle ficus leads me back to my only partially successful translation of Goethe’s poem, the last four lines of which aver that

 

In a lifetime, what more can one achieve

Than that God-Nature reveals itself?

How it allows solid to trickle away to spirit,

How it solidly preserves what the spirit engenders.

 

And here I’ve been worried about a goddamned ficus.

 

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My Lucky Day

A letter from Germany’s most important literary publisher!

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It’s from their royalty department! I’ll be able to pay off my credit card, or maybe my mortgage.

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My contribution to the volume, 2.5 pages, gives me a share of the sales of 22 books last year which adds up to a total of 0.11 Euros due to me.

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Unfortunately, they don’t have my bank account number and so will be paying me 0.00 Euros. Too bad. It was a good essay nestled between essays by the other travelers who made the trip up the Drina River between the wars: Thomas Deichmann, I, Peter Handke, and Zarko Radakovic.

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Later that day, however, while walking, I found this $20 bill.

Granted, a fifth of it is missing, so it’s probably only worth $16. And there’s the slight problem of the Russian CYBEHNP and the COPY stamp and the CRUGER name.

Otherwise, it was a most lucky day.

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Selling Academic Indulgences

Just over 500 years ago, Martin Luther, professor at the University of Wittenberg, tacked up his 95 theses to announce a forthcoming debate. In dispute was the practice of selling indulgences by which the buyer received forgiveness for sins committed and the Catholic Church received money to complete St. Peter’s Cathedral. No need for actual repentance or character development.

800px-Luther_95_Thesen

 

Universities in the Utah System of Higher Education are issuing what amount to indulgences as they sell certificates of graduation without compelling students to complete meaningful courses of study.

Utah Valley University, Utah State University, Southern Utah University, and Dixie State University have recently developed General Studies degrees for the purpose of increasing “student success.” Student success means graduation. The General Studies degrees were designed “for students who cannot complete or pass final requirements.” Why would a university sell certificates of graduation to incapable students?

USU is now proposing a back-up degree for students who can’t finish their General Studies degree but who have “accumulated large numbers of credits” in various fields. Graduates will “enjoy the economic benefits associated” with “an undergraduate degree from an accredited university.” Don’t economic (and other) benefits follow from increased ability rather than from a degree meant to facilitate graduation?

Our state universities are obsessed with graduation rates. As an open-enrollment university, many of UVU’s beginning students are unprepared for college. We are reducing standards to raise the percentage of students who graduate, but shouldn’t we reserve graduation for students whose dedication and perseverance and ability lead them to the skills and knowledge that a college degree should certify?

UVU, defined in the state system as a “teaching university,” is in the process of raising class sizes and increasing teaching loads and discouraging research by its professors and denying sabbatical leaves and reducing requirements for introductory courses in order to increase the quality of teaching so students will graduate with more skills and knowledge. Wait, I got off track there somewhere. How could I forget that “student success” is achieved by paying tuition for a certificate?

Luther promises eternal condemnation for buyers and sellers of indulgences and predicts that the corrupt practice will destroy reputations:

#32 They will be condemned eternally, together with their teachers, who believe themselves sure of their salvation because they have letters of pardon.

#81 This unbridled preaching of pardons makes it no easy matter, even for learned men, to rescue the reverence due to the pope [and university administrators] from slander, or even from the shrewd question of the laity.

Scott Abbott

Professor of Integrated Studies, Philosophy and Humanities, Utah Valley University

 

 

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Angels in America

angels

Last night, in the small but ambitious “An Other Theater” in Provo, Utah, we saw Part One of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. Our friend and colleague and wonderful actor Kim Abunuwara played Hannah (and, as Kushner suggests, she also played Roy Cohn’s doctor, Ethyl Rosenberg, and the rabbi whose monologue opens the play).  The performance moved me as deeply as did the 1992 performance of the play in London at the Royal National Theater’s Cottesloe Theater.

I was in London less than a year after my brother John died of AIDS-related causes.

My notes from that day and evening in London include a description of the cheap, noisy, and not especially clean Celtic Hotel where I spent the night, a scene in a park where a couple embraced while their young boy tried to catch their attention, thoughts about an essay on the standing stones I had been exploring for two weeks from Lands End to the Orkney Islands, observations in the Hayward Gallery’s wonderful exhibit of works by Magritte (“I think he hated women! The voice of a woman in her 60’s. She had just seen the breasts and genitals of a woman on a woman’s face”), and thoughts from Derek Jarman’s Modern Nature. Here a couple of pages:

notes

 

A transcription:

26 May 1992, London

5:30 p.m., Trafalgar Square

I’ve been reading Derek Jarman’s Modern Nature, a journal written in 1989 and 1990 after the filmmaker discovered he was HIV positive. The passage in which Jarman describes boarding-school officials catching him in bed with a boy named Johnny echoes my anger during John’s funeral: “‘Christ! What are you doing?’ ‘You’ll go blind!’ Then the blows rained down, millennia of frustrated Christian hatred behind the cane. . . . We were shoved into the wilderness they had created, and commanded to punish ourselves for all time. So that at last we would be able to enter their heaven truly dead in spirit.”

7:30 p.m., The Royal National Theatre

Angels in America, a new play by Tony Kushner, an American writer I’ve not heard of. Under the heading “Real-Life Characters in the Play,” the program features pictures of Roy Cohn and Ethel Rosenberg. I turn the page and stare at a portrait of Joseph Smith. The program quotes Kushner: “I wanted to write about three things: Roy Cohn, who had just died; AIDS; and Mormons. I had no idea what Mormons might have to do with Roy Cohn or AIDS, but I wanted to find out.” The play’s primary angel is described as the angel Joseph Smith incorrectly identified as Moroni.

What have I stumbled into?

During the intermission I stand among women and men with whom I have just shared the brutality and humor of the first act. The play is about Louis, a gay Jew, and his drag-queen lover who is dying of AIDS. Joe, an ambitious Mormon lawyer who protests when Cohn takes the Lord’s name in vain and whose neglected wife compensates with Valium, fights to kill his homosexual urges. Joe’s wife tells the drag queen that “my church doesn’t believe in homosexuals.” “My church doesn’t believe in Mormons,” the drag queen replies. Louis explains the Jewish view of the next life to his dying lover.

Did John have any chance or inclination for such conversation?

End of act 2. The Mormon admits he is queer. The philosophic Jew leaves his dying lover. Roy Cohn has AIDS, is about to be disbarred, and needs the Mormon to cover for him in the Reagan Justice Department. There is violence. Self-destruction. Blood dripping from the dying man’s ass. Betrayal. Self-loathing. Beauty.

Act 3. One of the characters speaks of “the monolith of White America. White Straight Male America. Which is not unimpressive, even among monoliths.” Joe makes several moral choices: he tells Roy Cohn he can’t be dishonest, he won’t take the Washington job, and he decides to spend the night with Louis and go to Mormon hell.

I’m brimming with compassion, burning with ideas as I come out (I’d better say–as I leave the theater). I wish I could have seen the play with John. Did he even like plays?

And here the notes as they ended up in my Immortal for Quite Some Time.

 

immort

I was intensely curious about what it had meant for John to be gay and was newly curious about what it meant for me to be straight. So I read, watched the play, traveled, watched other people, thought through things on the pages of my notebook—kept at it for over 20 years until the book was published in 2016.

Last night I realized I was still thinking through all the issues Kushner’s provocative play raises. And will, I suppose, until I die.

John, you died too soon.

[lots of photos of John and our family HERE]

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The Plot against America

Then the Republicans nominated ___ and everything changed.

. . . and so his nomination by the Republicans . . . assaulted, as nothing ever had before, that huge endowment of personal security that I had taken for granted as an American child of American parents in an American school in an American city in an America at peace with the world.

…then the Democrat:

We listened . . . to his acceptance speech, delivered with the confidently intoned upper-class enunciation that . . . had inspired millions of ordinary families like ours to remain hopeful in the midst of hardship. There was something about the inherent decorum of the delivery that, alien though it was, not only calmed our anxiety but bestowed on our family a historical significance, authoritatively merging our lives with his as well as with what of the entire nation when he addressed us in our living room as his “fellow citizens.”

 

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Books and Book Sites

As my books slip away from consciousness, time for a reminder and links to pages with lots of information and photos about each one. Beginning with the most recent:

The Perfect Fence: Untangling the Meanings of Barbed Wire (with Lyn Bennett, Texas A&M University Press, 2017)

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Immortal for Quite Some Time (University of Utah Press, 2016)

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Wild Rides and Wildflowers: Philosophy and Botany with Bikes (with Sam Rushforth, Torrey House Press, 2014)

Wild Rides and Wildflowers NEW

Vampires & A Reasonable Dictionary (with Zarko Radakovic, punctum books, 2014)

and Repetitions (with Zarko Radakovic, punctum books, 2013)

vamprep

 

 

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The All-Administrative University

In the Fall of 2014, the Utah Valley University Faculty Senate, of which I was a member, passed this resolution . . .

On the Value of Teaching and Research in the Context of Existing Salary Structures and Hiring Decisions

Whereas there is a sharp disparity between the declaration in the UVU Mission Statement of what we value (UVU builds on a foundation of substantive scholarly and creative work to foster engaged learning) and the following facts:

  1. of the top 50 salaries at the university, virtually all are paid to administrators or to people who have been administrators,
  2. our best scholars and teachers are absent from this list,
  3. salaries for administrators have increased by about 30% over the past five years while salaries for faculty have increased only by several 1% increments during the same period,
  4. for every full-time member of the faculty, there are 1.9 support people on salary,
  5. almost half of all classes at UVU are taught by adjunct faculty who are exploited in ways that make substantive scholarly and creative work impossible,

Be it resolved that action be taken on multiple fronts and by multiple bodies to replace this system antithetical to the values of a good university with a system that truly values teaching and research.

 

. . . The resolution had no effect on the practices of our university.

Now this cogent argument that gets at several of the issues we were addressing:

https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/whose-university-is-it-anyway/#!

 

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40 Years / 50 Years: I Am Ahab

bud

Wrapped Buddha, by Frank McEntire

 

“Oh, Starbuck! . . . On such a day . . . I struck my first whale — a boy-harpooner of eighteen! Forty — forty — forty years ago! — ago! Forty years of continual whaling! forty years of privation, and peril, and storm-time! forty years on the pitiless sea! for forty years has Ahab forsaken the peaceful land, for forty years to make war on the horrors of the deep! Aye and yes, Starbuck, out of those forty years I have not spent three ashore. When I think of this life I have led. . . .”

Reading Ahab’s lament late in Melville’s novel, reading it in the dark of night with the temperature dropping and the snow beginning to slide out of the enveloping cloud, I thought of the life I have led, not forty years since I was a boy-student in my first year of college, but fifty years.

“– aye, eye! what a forty years’ fool — fool — old fool, has old Ahab been! Why this strife of the chase? why weary, and palsy the arm at the oar, and the iron, and the lance? how the richer or better is Ahab now? . . . But do I look very old, so very, very old, Starbuck? I feel deadly faint, bowed, and humped, as though I were Adam, staggering beneath the piled centuries since Paradise. . . . What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst no so much as dare?”

Fifty years ago I was eighteen. Forty years ago I was a graduate student at Princeton, my life focused, intently focused, not on whaling but on German literature.

I am Ahab. I have children and grandchildren. I have a second wife. I have friends and I have had lovers. I have sailed at night on brilliantly lit drilling rigs akin to Ahab’s vessels. I know the pull of ropes and the heavy hardness of steel. Like Melville, I know the Bible. He mined the far-flung documents of whaling lore for his books. For my books I have combed archives for accounts of German Freemasonry and Yugoslav nationalisms, for philosophical and botanical references, for the secrets of homo- and heterosexuality, for the revelations of barbed wire advertising, for the phallic standing metaphor. I am an obsessive scholar and my white whale has been the blind impulse to know and to write.

Sex, yes. Love, yes. Shared lives, yes. Children, yes. Family, yes. Family endures. But ideas are my white whale. When I was silent at dinner last night, I was planning an essay. Late to breakfast yesterday, I was writing an essay. When I called out in my sleep three nights ago, I was protecting my sister from an image I had called up in my writing.

I am Ahab. And I know how the story ends.

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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.

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