As faculty we help people who are young (whether measured in years or spirit) prepare to engage their futures - and ours. We do this by teaching them the traits and temperaments of serious scholars: Question authority and challenge assumptions. Imagine what lurks beyond your senses, then plan how to find out. Understand whence you've come. Take ownership for where you go. Observe all that is around you, not selectively in order to support opinions but passionately in order to test beliefs. Embrace diverse thought. Have the courage to use it to improve your own.
What a shame when we don't practice what we preach.
Earlier this summer, my comments of concern gained fleeting national circulation as I noted the Dream Act's likely impact on our flagship's mission to promote excellence. The Faculty Voice kindly invited me to elaborate, and with their indulgence I will hijack the opportunity in order to address the institutional issues that begged my lamentation in the first place. Maryland's Dream Act will surely fill many news cycles in the coming year, and I'll touch on it presently, but the flagship's greatest challenges stem from what has not attracted media attention: the diminished role of scholars in running our campus.
"College Park lost shared commitment to excellence." That should be the headline above an article that inventories ways we faculty increasingly moderate our actions in order to suit the needs of bureaucrats. Sidebar would quote faculty who reflect on how it was not always so. It would sound like this, perhaps. August marks my 25th year at College Park, which means I was recruited in the days of Johnny Toll and our rapid rise to prominence. I chose UM from a brace of offers because of advice from my dissertation adviser: Don't join a team that is number one today - join a team that can be number one tomorrow, and get it there. This is something I now tell my own students.
It was an exciting time! We could collaborate freely, ask the hard questions, vet ideas for advancing the shared mission, risk big and - sometimes - win big. We could not afford mediocre efforts, so as we sowed widely, we weeded ruthlessly. Complacency? That was for the other team.
But then, just as can happen with maturing businesses, something happened in a handoff from the 'growth leadership team' to a 'management team.' As the value of our stock rose - as our prominence on the national scene increased - entrepreneurs became eager to take charge of our capital. We attracted managers who were more interested in investing scholarly excellence as if a commodity than in the gritty work of nurturing intellectual growth. The problem is, not everything they invest in helps the mission that brought us here, and in some cases they work against our shared goals, bringing value only to the entrepreneur. Worse, how leaders enforce their decisions diminishes faculty even more.
I hope this note will cause you to reflect on your experiences, and regain perspective on our responsibilities as individual faculty members. You will reach your own conclusions on our institutional fidelity to scholarly practices, and their effect, but here are experiences that led me to mine.
I served as Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education in my college for not quite two years, and as Chair of the undergraduate program in my home department (Computer Science) for many years before that. In another universe, having a person in such roles who knows data mining and analysis would have been cause for hope. Someone with both access to information and an ability to tease insights from it? What an opportunity to learn more about making successful outcomes for our students!
Unfortunately I quickly learned that our leadership used data the way a drunk uses a light pole - for support, not illumination. Officials both in my college and over in Main Admin controlled policy by keeping an iron grip on data sources. Nobody wanted to risk having inconveniently contrary facts surface to slow implementation of a pet idea. The Office of Institutional, Research, Planning and Assessment (IRPA) was a tool for effecting the provost's will, not informing it. Even when IRPA was exposed as having gotten it wrong (which was rare, due to the defensive tactic of delivering only conclusions, not the input sufficient for scholars to scientifically reproduce a result) errors were buried, not fixed. I once returned a back-of-the-envelope computation that pointed out how a simple GPA comparison between colleges could not be numerically possible. It didn't add up. A provost's memo justified by this bogus IRPA analysis nevertheless rolled forth to deans. The Emperor did too have new clothes, and they look just splendid!
That example was trivial, but I witnessed far worse acts against enlightenment. As it turns out, for example, we know a lot about where our students go for education after leaving UM, whether by graduating or dropping out. I know. Initially, I processed these data that were available to IRPA (but which they lacked capability to process) so I could use it in my college. It was tremendously revealing! Perhaps too revealing. After I gave the first briefing about what I was learning about pathways to successful student outcomes, I was ordered to destroy the data and reports. You see, data able to show what campus curricula carry graduates to advanced degrees are also data able to show which advising practices fail to carry students to a degree anywhere. Worse, these data expose campus policies that do not hold up well in sunlight.
I hope you agree that destruction of data is not an act tolerated by scholars.The list of ways I saw administrators promote willful ignorance grew as long as the years. I saw a review of living-learning communities shake up College Park Scholars through an outcome that was administratively decreed to us behind the scenes before the committee formed, using a metric not previously told to the programs but one that was nevertheless convenient to empire builders in Admissions. (Can we agree that real scholars don't sign Made As Instructed reports handed down from the provost?) I saw reappointments made at the dean's level without a trace of independent review as senate rules require. (At the time we all understood why: questions you don't want an answer to are best not asked. A serious review would not have been a pretty sight.) There was much more.
This informational vacuum contrasts starkly with the picture of openness and assessment that is painted by our strategic plan. But no wonder. The plan itself is another invention handed down from above after a frenetic drafting and approval process that only involved enough people outside of Main Admin to give an illusion of consensus. Likely all of us - at least those who actually read the plan, which may be an exclusive club - know many fundamental ways that today's campus practices are at odds with it. So why create a plan that even its own author would ignore? Change for its own sake. Many on the inside saw it was part of what Provost Farvardin, in unguarded comments, referred to as his "president's package" - an apparent reference to his eagerness to hasten the creation of ostensible achievements as justification for him to succeed Dan Mote. We got the change, and at the same time, a collection of aphorisms that leadership disregards, which is to say, advertising slogans that engender contempt among those who take words seriously.
We all saw the breakneck pace at which a new Gen Ed program came out of nothingness from above. What terrible flaw in our old CORE warranted its frantic replacement out of text drafted one week over a winter break and rolled out to us in an immediate action drill to make it so? While anyone in the trenches could have suggested improvements, most on the inside knew CORE was just in the wrong place at the wrong time: The Admissions director's interest in refactoring curricula to suit her advertising needs bonded with the provost's interest to make change now. (There's that darned president's package again.)
Scholars did politely get involved - thankfully! - to slow down the Gen Ed proposal and backfill serious gaps as best they could. What was decreed to be done in months took at least two do-overs and a few years to reach what it is today, but flaws tracing to its non-scholarly origins remain. I-series, for example, originated as an advertising term in a letter once sent by Honors. After it tickled leaders' fancy and was adopted, they decreed go ye forth to find content. Today it is a teaching example of unsustainable business models and chases content that is ephemeral - not enduring. Good luck forging bonds between generations of Terps who now have that much less in common with one another.
In the haste to make change for its own sake we forgot important stuff. Like computers, for example. Computational thinking plays an increasing role in outcomes at peer institutions, where people know young scholars need more than an ability to use a word processor. Computation is a lens through which scholars see all fields with new clarity. Except perhaps at UM, where the most our Gen Ed outcomes can warrant is that all bachelor degree recipients can use a word processor. I suspect the consequences of our not truly handling this change like scholars will be long term. What else did we forget?
I watched in frustration as administrative reporting needs trumped the interests of our students. Before they raised the barrier to its use even higher, data I studied showed that most students entering my college (then CMPS) came from a fraction of the state's 280 high schools, while in the five year window I had data for we'd received none from any of several Maryland counties. Why? Are students in those counties poorly prepared? Do they apply but not get in? Had they not heard of College Park?
It seemed to me that the flagship - and my college in particular - should play a leading role in overcoming barriers to opportunity in the sciences, especially at a time when STEM degree production is flagged as a state priority. After I earnestly raised these questions, I was ordered by my dean to drop the line of inquiry and make no contact with schools. I would not be allowed to update a study of mathematics preparation (done years before by one of my predecessors) that would have given us insights on how best to intervene early on behalf of struggling students once here. I was denied even a general profile of applicants from those schools (if there were any.) I could not follow up with contacts made at visit day events held for the purpose of recruiting good students.
The reason? I was told changes in an application profile that might result from outreach risked the Admissions mission of generating glowing reports each fall, as their method of computing quotas of admit offers per high school might not work. We can't risk inviting more applicants from schools having "over-represented demographics" - we might have to accept them. In any event, the order from Admissions through the Provost's office and my Dean was specific: drop it.
Scholars know a system organizes around its reward structure. At UM, Admissions sits under a financial and reporting operation in Main Admin. Its director reports to people who manipulate spreadsheets for a living. No person responsible for successful student outcomes, much less any member of the professoriate, is in that org chart. Thus it can't be surprising that Admissions optimizes for reporting, not educational successes.
(Later my analysis pointed out that my college would have met the campus goals for retention rates had Admissions only followed its own published guidelines for vetting applicants. Back out the statistical burden of failed students who objectively lacked the criteria for admission to this university in the first place and we'd have been there. By then, however, I was effectively talking to a wall. They're happy to accept unprepared students who satisfy reporting needs - look how diverse we are! - since later drop-outs are the college's reporting problem, not theirs.)
I marveled at the disconnects. Our leadership's rhetoric supported increased production of computer science graduates, yet they dogged our efforts to stand up a CS Education degree, that would prepare high school teachers for the field and improve P-20 alignment. We buck administrative headwinds to this day. (The best scholars, in my view, spend as much time on education as research, not squeeze one to serve the other.)
My incredulity turned to horror at ways our leadership quashed even legitimate dissent. When a staff member in the college office became concerned for her physical safety after an unwanted encounter with her supervisor, she approached the ombudsman, who promptly arranged a meeting. Immediately after the three met, and in evident retribution for her having called attention to management issues in the dean's office, the employee was summarily fired by the dean. (The ombuds answer? Silence. Case closed.) Scholars should not tolerate a hostile work environment - much less create one.
Over the years, I've stood up for students, advocated hard for excellence, voiced alarm at problems as I saw them, pitched solutions as I found them, and invited colleagues to join me in doing the same. I have also paid the price for foolishly caring about a shared mission instead of hunkering down to do research where the only sharing is done grudgingly at the trough. UM is no longer a place where honorable people can voice a question or disagreement in safety. Unfortunately for the state, this is inconsistent with excellence. The best ideas advance by force of reason, not reason of leaders' force.
What I've described are leadership actions that were not based on scholarly traits we teach students, and while most faculty were not complicit, many were complacent. Our leadership has recently changed. When will the flawed and unjust practices change?
If some of these examples surprised you, then I've made my point. We're not paying full attention to what bureaucrats do with our proxy. Academic programs, assessments and assurance that people in our community can engage in open debate on hard ideas without fear are our responsibility. We should be the first ones on our feet demanding justice and critically reviewing the consequences of any administrative move. We need not all agree on policies - that would likely be pretty boring! - but we should all agree on values that bind us together. We should be able to trust that our leadership's actions in support of the mission are implemented in good faith. And we should be able to check.
So this ramble finally brings us back to the Dream Act. I've painted for you the backdrop as I've witnessed it: Ours is a campus that will admit undergraduates not for the quality of their preparation but for the color of their skin, for administrative empire builders to look great in reports but obscure the fact that overwhelmingly - and in spite of expensive and exclusionary support bureaucracy - these students reach poorer outcomes than had they been handled equitably from the start. This is wrong. Our practices subvert the just goals that created an industry out of diversity in the first place. Parents may be surprised to learn that well-qualified kids may miss a shot at the flagship so that the seat may be filled by an objectively unprepared student who, predictably, will drop out after incurring huge taxpayer expense. That is, nevertheless, already the reality today.
I see the Dream Act as making this more perverse. While all other transfer applicants compete on an as-qualified, space-available basis, the Act will guarantee (and subsidize) admission of students who overwhelmingly serve UM's diversity reporting needs, which is to say, this campus won't assess their preparation, just process their paperwork. But in which side of Admissions' de facto two-tiered system will that paperwork be processed? When they cut to the head of the line, the Dream Act beneficiary will displace a qualified applicant, an applicant from a traditionally under-represented minority - or maybe both.
Nobody is in any danger of me being in charge, but were this the case, I believe we could raise quality, lower cost and achieve just outcomes by making zealous scholarship safe again. None of us is as strong as all of us - a transparent culture in which colleagues have both incentive and freedom to practice our intellectual crafts will cultivate innovation that no campus leader could ever hope to dictate on his own. As the first steps towards such a culture, we should demand shared governance, mentor our young (both administratively and academically) and embrace the flagship status in substance, not rhetoric. We should demand excellence - not just manage its memory.