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The Weekly Blab 5.1

The Weekly Blab

Volume 5, Issue 1—August 23, 2010


Welcome Back

I hope everyone had a great summer, and got a little well deserved rest.  I’d also like to welcome the new faculty to our SPSU family.  For the benefit of new readers, The Weekly Blab is a “weekly” newsletter I send out to Academic Affairs to be able to discuss things in an informal manner.  Sometimes it’s about SPSU items, sometimes it’s about more general trends in higher education and related matters, and sometimes it’s about an item that has tickled my interest.  Nothing in here constitutes official policy—it’s all subject to change.  Your comments and suggestions are always welcomed.


Summer Vacation

My family and I had a nice vacation the first week of August in Litchfield Beach, S.C.  In case you’ve never been there, it’s about half-way between Georgetown and Myrtle Beach on the South Carolina coast.  The beaches are broad and quiet in Litchfield Beach, and the next town north is Murrell’s Inlet, which has a big bunch of excellent seafood restaurants.  Myrtle Beach is 15 miles north for anyone who wants touristy activities.  The weather was a little cooler than Atlanta (low 90’s during the afternoons), but there was a stiff ocean breeze that would kick up at about 5 PM each day, so sitting on the beach in the evenings until sunset was a real pleasure.   Now it’s back to Hotlanta, with no ocean in sight!


New and Improved!

It’s hard to imagine just how much SPSU has changed in a relatively short time.  We’ve talked before about growth in the number of students, but that’s not all that has grown.  Just since last year, we’ve now got a new parking deck, new residence halls (Hornet Village), new specialty housing (The Columns), a new dining facility (The X), several other food service locations on campus, a new location for the Physics Department (second floor of Building H), a new location for the ATTIC (first floor of the Student Center), a new location for the open computer lab (now known as the Knowledge Commons, in the Library), several new study carrels on the second floor of the library, and new offices in Building J.  Coming up next in October is the completion of the Engineering Technology Center and the Architecture Studio Building (dig those cool bricks!).  The pathways between the new buildings and the rest of campus will also be complete then.  It’s almost like having an entirely new campus.  And that’s not to mention all the new equipment that was ordered.


Also new is a certificate in Architectural Studies, which was approved over the summer.  We’ll be submitting a full proposal for an M.S. in Architecture later this semester (the letter of intent was approved this summer).  Other degrees in the works or under consideration include B.S.’s in Biology Education, Chemistry Education, Mathematics Education, and Physics Education, and bachelors degrees in the areas of graphic arts/new media arts, forensics, environmental, and biotechnology.


Also new—a nice complement of new full-time faculty.  Everyone should have received a copy of the “mini bio’s” sheet at the faculty meeting, but I’m posting it online as well.  And the new part-time faculty I met at the orientation looked great as well.

Take My Advice

Thanks to everyone who participated in the pilot advisor training sessions this summer, as well as to the folks who taught them and who are serving on the advising committee.  All indications are that the pilot went very well, and that participants’ suggestions have been incorporated into upcoming plans. 


This fall, a schedule has already been set for advisor training sessions for full-time faculty.  All full-time faculty are required to participate.  If you think you already know all this stuff, (a) you may be surprised by what you don’t know, and (b) you should volunteer to help teach them!  Sessions for part-time faculty will begin in the spring.  These sessions focus on basictopics—what everyone should know about basic advising issues and about referrals.  Next year, we’ll roll out Level II—Intermediate Advising Issues, and the following year, Level III—Advanced Advising Issues.  Anyone completing all three will get a certificate as a Master Advisor, suitable for framing and also for credit in the professional development category for tenure and promotion.


It Was a Hot Summer

There were a lot of articles this summer about the future of academia.  If you believe all of them, it’s pretty clear that we’re headed for Hell in a hand-basket, but summer is also the silly season.  Thus, let’s look at the major topics one by one, and maybe try to apply a grain of salt to some of the arguments.


Argument the First:  It’s the End of Tenure!

There have been a lot of articles lately about the end of tenure.  Nationwide, the percentage of faculty in tenure-track or tenured positions has declined, and depending on whom you believe, is currently as small as 33%.  This trend has been accelerated by the recession, but has been going on for at least 20 years.  In these articles, the usual reasons are given for the reduction in tenure percentages:  it gives institutions more flexibility, it allows deadwood to be gotten rid of, it saves money, and so on.  An interesting take on the “tenure as we know it is over” argument came in the July 25 Chronicle of Higher Education, entitled “Goodbye to Those Overpaid Professors in Their Cushy Jobs”.  The article argues that tenured faculty are now being called upon to work harder because of the recession, though some are resistant. 

“In California, where increasing teaching loads was being considered, department chairs at UC-San Diego suggested that the university system should “drop the pretense that all campuses are equal” and consider closing campuses at Merced, Riverside, and Santa Cruz to save money.” ” 

That didn’t sit well with one reporter:  "These folks are willing to stab in the back thousands of students and would-be students, UC faculty and support staff, and cities just to keep their own inflated salaries for what amounts to a three-day workweek," wrote the columnist, Jeff Jardine.


This argument is always interesting to me, because it is often made so badly.  First, the statistics are often presented in a way that skews the picture.  I don’t think that the number of tenured positions in higher education has declined in anything like the serious way that the statistics imply.  What’s actually happening (I believe) is that the number of tenure track positions has in fact increased a little.  The percentage has dropped because the number of part-time faculty and non-tenure track faculty has increased much faster.  While one might argue that the reduction in percentage of tenure track appointments isn’t a good thing, it’s a far cry from saying that tenure as we know it is over.  Also, a lot of these statistics count heads, instead of counting FTE.  Since full time faculty are (duh!) full-time and part time faculty aren’t, adding a full-time faculty member to the ranks increases the numbers in the full-time column by one, but adding the equivalent in part-time faculty can raise the numbers in the part-time column by eight.


Replacing tenured faculty with part-timers does save money, but there are other costs to the institution to be considered.  In general, part-time faculty (many of whom are far more excellent than the amount we pay them merits) are less invested in the university and its students than full-timers, since they’re around less and have to scramble among multiple campuses to make ends meet.  Replacing tenured faculty with non-tenured contract faculty (an increasingly popular proposition for saving money) actually costs money in my experience.  The deadwood argument also doesn’t hold much water, in that tenure has never been a defense against not fulfilling your job expectations. 


Argument the Second:  Move Online, or Face Doom!

Bill Gates, the font of all knowledge for many, spoke at the Technology Conference at Lake Tahoe, California on August 6, where he opined that Technology will make ‘Place-Based’ Colleges less important in 5 years. He argues that using technology can help lower costs for students.


“Five years from now on the Web for free you'll be able to find the best lectures in the world. It will be better than any single university…After all, what are we trying to do? We're trying to take education that today the tuition is, say, $50,000 a year so over four years—a $200,000 education—that is increasingly hard to get because there's less money for it because it's not there, and we’re trying to provide it to every kid who wants it,” Mr. Gates said. “And only technology can bring that down, not just to $20,000 but to $2,000. So yes, place-based activity in that college thing will be five times less important than it is today.”

Now, far be it from me to say that one of the world’s richest men doesn’t have a clue, but Gates really doesn’t.  The ability to find the “best lectures in the world” and make them available to everyone has existed since around the year 1439—it’s called a book.  The web version of this may be a bit slicker, allowing video and graphics instead of still pictures and figures (or block-prints in Gutenberg’s time), but it’s still largely the same thing—a thing that few students can learn from alone.  The way in which most students learn, be it online or “live”, is through interaction with faculty and with each other.  Being able to access the best lecturer online doesn’t change that. 

Some colleges are now experimenting with changing what faculty do—less teaching (since they can use the videos, dontcha know) and having the faculty act more like individual guides.  This may be a good idea, but it certainly won’t save any money since more individualized assistance costs more than lecturing.  Online courses are not the big money savers that many legislators or business persons think, in that course caps still apply—a faculty member can’t effectively teach a section of 500 online any more than they can teach it live.  And the less the faculty member is involved, the more we’re back to the students teaching themselves from a book.  Most universities have found that aside from construction costs, online education is as expensive or more expensive than live.  There are lots of good reasons to offer courses and programs online.  Saving money (again, except for construction costs) isn’t one of them.  The idea of bringing costs down from $20,000 to $2,000 is a pipedream, unless the students ultimately are teaching themselves.

There were lots of other ways that “proved” we’re all doomed, but I’ll stop there this week.


This Week’s Trivia Contest

We’ll start the academic year off right (Chemistry!) by asking a set of questions about the names of the elements.  First response with all correct, or the response with the most correct takes home the swag, which is (as usual) a jazz CD from the vast Szafran vault.


(a)  Which of the elements was first detected not on Earth, but in space?

(b)  Which element is named for a Mediterranean island?

(c)  What element is named for the fact that its compounds are so beautiful?

(d)  Which city has the most elements named after it (and what are they?)

(e)  Which element is named after the city of Paris? [Hint—it isn’t Francium]