The Arizona Desert Lamp

And then there were two.

Posted in Campus, Politics, UA Transformation Plan by Evan Lisull on 10 September 2009
No, not <i>that</i> Oscar Martinez.

No, not that Oscar Martinez.

A second name has come out of the professorial closet, as Regents Professor Oscar Martinez publishes a guest op-ed in the Star denouncing the administration. Money quote:

There is overwhelming dissatisfaction among UA faculty and administrators with the policies and practices of the upper administration. This is tragic because the UA has never needed the strong, positive decision-making that it requires now; yet it is getting mostly ineffective and polarizing leadership.

Provost Meredith Hay, in particular, has become a lightning rod and legions of faculty and administrators would like to see her vacate her post.

“Legions!” you say. Funny, then, that given the chance to actually express their discontent, the total number of professors even attending a forum – let alone dissenting – was “somewhere around 80” according to the Wildcat. Perhaps the true dissenters feared a surprise release of nerve gas in the Kiva Room, or mass detentions followed by forced confessions before the Regents at next month’s meeting.

The main issue with this movement continues to be the wild-eyed secrecy with which it conducts itself – resisters in Iran were more willing to declare their identity than these professors, some of whom are certainly tenured. In spite of his commendable willingness to come into the light, Dr. Martinez exhibits this posture in what should be a relatively innocuous paragraph:

Web classes sacrifice direct contact with students and do little to teach critical thinking skills. And the failure of the UA to monitor Web classes carefully is spawning questionable practices, as in the case of one tenured senior professor on the high end of the pay scale currently teaching small Web-based courses while residing 1,200 miles from Tucson. Such an arrangement is certainly not cost-effective.

Dr. Martinez has already gone ahead and plastered his name all over a very-public column. This example cites a “tenured senior professor,” meaning that s/he has effectively no risk of being removed. Class listings are public information. Yet rather than just stating the name of the professor and the classes at hand, Dr. Martinez instead drops hints like a prosecutor trying to get news coverage – “high end of the payscale,” “1200 miles from Tucson” (is it Portland? Or is it (cue ominous music) Mexico? Perhaps we can get Jolted Joe Arpaio to sign onto this group, arguing against the outsourcing of online classes to ‘illegals’). Contacted by phone, Dr. Martinez declined to say why he opted to word the paragraph as he did – at best, it may have been a matter of respect for his fellow professor. At any rate, the class is HIS 429A/529A, “US History since 1877.” The class is taught by Professor Karen Anderson, who made $111,438 as of 2009 (source: the Wildcat’s nifty salary GoogleDoc). Students within the history department are urged to add their insights in the comments.

Still, it’s not quite clear that this is necessarily a bad thing in of itself (the cost-effectiveness is especially questionable, unless Professor Martinez means to call into question the tenure system as a whole), and the dislike of these classes gets downright bizarre:

Ask any professor if she would like to see her child taking such a class [with 1000+ students in Centennial Hall – EML] and you will elicit a horrified look accompanied by an emphatic “No!”

You will get a similar reaction if you mention online classes, which are on the increase at the UA because the administration wants to boost enrollment.

Perhaps not being a professor’s kid is screwing with my perspective here, but as far as I know my parents did not emphatically scream “No!” when I told them that I was taking an online class this fall. In fact, this online class – SOC/POL 315 – is being taught by a doctoral candidateJessica Epstein – who is currently residing “in a different time zone” where “you’ll likely get my emails after you’ve gone to sleep.” Academic disaster? Hardly. The class is extremely enjoyable (in spite of D2L) and informative; further, it incorporates free online material (examples include NPR and blog posts (!) from Ezra Klein and Baseline Scenario), which could prove to be an actually effective way to cut down on textbook prices (still, the course still ultimately relies on two books). Already it has proven to be better than the average class at the UA, and far better than the average POL course.  Contra Martinez, online education – and other forms of education that don’t involve one-on-one professor contact – can, and will, work.

It should be also pointed out that it is not “the administration” that wants to boost enrollment, but the Arizona Board of Regents, who have explicitly spelled out increased enrollment as a primary goal in their 2020 Plan. If the professors at the UA want less enrollment and more control (which they should), they really should consider whether having a separate Board of Regents might be worth striving after.

Such critiques are secondary as far as internal university politics go – and perhaps, so is this whole discussion. After all, even if the only problem with Provost Hay was, say, her hair, there is nothing preventing the Deans from casting a vote of no-confidence, using the same pabulum to justify themselves as Shelton and Hay currently do. Yet if yesterday’s meeting was any indicator, this groundswell of support is not enough to do anything, until a broader case can be made to win over those who are on the fence. The gesture from Dr. Martinez is striking, but its argument as a whole isn’t quite there yet.

3 Responses

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  1. d said, on 10 September 2009 at 4:24 pm

    The Wildcat commenters made two good points about the low attendance: 1) It was held from 1-3, a peak class time; 2)why would people want to participate in something that has been so ineffective.

    As someone who has been forced to take a number of online classes, I can tell you that your experience is unusual. Most students hate them.

  2. Evelyn B. Hall said, on 11 September 2009 at 5:25 pm

    Hi Evan,
    In my humble opinion I think it would be more judicious (I know you believe in responsible reporting and in telling the truth) to go a little easier on those cringing tenured professors – Tenure protection is not what you think it is; and contrary to popular belief, tenured professors are not untouchable. An administrator doesn’t have to fire –or try firing– a tenured professor, that’s too complicated. It’s much easier to simply eliminate the program they teach in, as long as you do it while wringing your hands and apologizing balefully. That’s actually being discussed (read: threatened), according to some of the most recent posts in the UA Defender.
    To the list above of reasons why the Wednesday meeting was poorly attended, you can add (as Lynn Nadel did), the fact that the organizers didn’t provide much lead time.
    But you can also add the observation that quantity isn’t the only consideration, or maybe not even the most decisive one, because some of the UA’s heaviest hitters in faculty governance were there, and what they said was, as the expression goes, not pretty.

  3. Karen Anderson said, on 20 September 2009 at 4:22 pm

    As my name has appeared in this, I thought I should add my comments.

    Because of my absence from Tucson and the reduction of my teaching load by one course, I asked to have my salary reduced by 25% (you do the math). I could have simply bought out a course and retained a much larger proportion of my salary, but I did not think it would be ethical to do so.

    Online teaching has its problems and possibilities. Indeed, all kinds of courses can be poorly or effectively taught. My students are receiving a great deal of careful attention to their written work (which is extensive) and to their online discussions this semester. This, I believe, is far superior to the neglect one may experience in a mega-course. On the negative side, there is nothing that can replace the kind of discussions that are possible (though not always present) in a traditional classroom. As a teacher, I miss those experiences.

    I will return to Tucson in the spring to teach traditional courses. In the meantime, I continue to work with graduate students via email, to do the national and regional service expected of a professor, and to work on my research.

    The problems facing the university are dire. At a minimum, the Regents and the administration should commit to policies that advance effective teaching, not simply teaching on the cheap. This requires that they also recognize the critical importance of tenure-eligible and tenured faculty in the teaching mission of the university.

    Karen Anderson
    Professor of History

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