Dream On…..

In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article entitled “Keeping Tenured Professors Engaged,” a number of strategies are discussed, including peer-to-peer guidance and modifying the allocation of faculty’s responsibilities among teaching, scholarship, and service.  It’s unlikely, however, that any institution has been more creative in addressing this issue than Stanford University, which will initiate its Noble Slumbers program in September 2018. 

In a press conference held on Thursday, Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne noted that “historically, Stanford has been a leader in research on the functions of sleep, as well as sleep disorders.  And, like other schools, we face the challenge of dealing with tenured faculty members in their late 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s who, quite frankly, are sometimes no longer able to consistently ‘get the ball over the plate,’ if you know what I mean.  Increasingly, our students complain about professors who nod off while delivering lectures, resembling  horses that doze, standing in their stalls, before they’ve finished their hay.  This is an incredibly awkward situation when you have 300 students sitting in a large lecture hall.  It’s not unusual to have a student in the back of the auditorium yell, ‘Is he dead?  I’m pretty sure he’s dead.  If he’s dead, can we leave?’  Almost always, the answer to the first question is NO, and the professor is profoundly embarrassed.”

In the Noble Slumbers program, any tenured professor who is 55 or older can fulfill his or her teaching load by serving as a subject in a sleep study conducted by a Stanford researcher.  Four days a week the faculty member will come to campus at 9:00 am and go to bed in one of the University’s sleep labs.  At 3:00 pm he or she will be awakened and allowed to go home.

The offices of these professors will be assigned to adjunct faculty, so that the latter will no longer need to hold office hours in Stanford’s small number of uni-sex bathrooms scattered around the campus.  In the words of President Tessier-Lavigne, “This is a win-win!  No more faculty-student discussions of term paper topics while toilets flush — or even worse, don’t flush — in the background!”

Most of the tenured faculty who are eligible to participate in Noble Slumbers are excited at the prospect.  As Stanley Grosk-Yippen, a 73-year-old chemistry professor who hasn’t discovered a new element for the Periodic Table since 1981, observes, “I admit that my days as an academic wunderkind are in the distant past.  This new program will give me an opportunity to………….”

Zzzz.

May the REM cycle be with you, Professor. 

 

Say What?

“We don’t like to brag, so we’ll let others do it for us.”

Thus begins the full-page advertisement for the University of California at Irvine in the February 9th issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education.  The ad proceeds to reference high rankings for the school in both The New York Times and U.S. News & World Report before mentioning the “record-setting” number of applications it’s received this year.

Ahem.

It’s clear that UC-Irvine has taken the art of bragging to a new, post-modernist level.  It involves two easy steps:

STEP 1:  Claim that you’re not going to brag, and then…..

STEP 2:  Brag.

When asked to comment on this PR sleight-of-hand, the school’s Chancellor, Howard Gillman, was a bit sheepish.  “Ever since we stopped requiring our Communications staff to take an undergraduate course in Aristotelian Logic, and allowed them to substitute an accelerated online course, Reasoning for Marketers, we’ve had this problem.  At this point I’m not sure what to do.  I get caught in a Mobius strip of argument every time I try to engage our Strategic Communications leadership on the matter.  I think I’m making progress, and then find myself right back where I started.  I’ve got to stop smoking so much pot!

“Can we please talk about something else?”

 

It Could Be Worse……..

It’s not often that a university president smiles broadly when sharing news of a major scandal at his or her institution.  But that’s exactly what Mississippi Wesleyan President, Dr. Beauregard “Bo” Sternum, did when he announced on Monday that 30% of the school’s sophomore class had been expelled due to a cheating scandal. 

In a hastily called press conference, Sternum began, “My friends, I’m proud to say that the misdeeds I describe to you today do not concern lecherous predators among our faculty, sexual assaults by frat boys, protests against controversial campus speakers, NCAA recruiting violations, trigger warnings, gender pronouns, trigger pronouns, gender warnings, censorship, or graffiti targeting racial minorities and LGBTQ members of the Mississippi Wesleyan community. 

“Instead, what we’ve got here is a good, old-fashioned case of exams being stolen from faculty offices by one group of students and sold to another group of students.  This is a damn fine tradition that has been around as long as there have been schools, and while the offenders must be punished, let’s keep in mind the goals of the individuals who were involved: the sellers were endeavoring to pay for their college education without taking out high-interest loans, and the buyers were striving to get good grades.  I think these are ambitions that we can all identify with — and even praise.  We hate to say goodbye to these young men and women, but I wish them well at the University of Mississippi and Mississippi State, and if any of them ever needs a letter of recommendation, they need look no further than Bo Sternum, a man who was not averse to writing an answer or two in the palm of his hand back in the day.”

Don’t Be Fooled by the Puffin….The News Isn’t Good

In what is certainly one of the more depressing interviews ever published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Professor Bryan Caplan (George Mason University) discussed his new book, The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money

You can read the gut-wrenching details for yourself, but let’s just say that higher education, as currently structured, doesn’t fare very well in his analysis.  Of course, Dr. Caplan is a Professor of Economics, a discipline not known for the cheery disposition of its practitioners.  That being said, this gentleman’s vision is especially bleak, even when compared with the views of his dyspeptic colleagues.

Like a gigantic, frozen cow pie dropped from a Black Hawk helicopter into the middle of a tranquil Maine pond on a hot summer’s day, the ripple effect of Caplan’s critique is generating collateral damage on campuses across the country.  On Tuesday, for example, 32 humanities faculty at the University of Buffalo rented a school bus, affixed a banner that said “We are deeply sorry for taking our students’ money,” and drove off the cliff at Niagara Falls.  The sole survivor inhaled a lethal dose of toxic dry-erase marker (hidden in her parka) before rescuers could intervene. 

At the University of Virginia, a sociology professor walked onto the school’s fabled Lawn (actually, it’s called The Lawn), assumed the lotus position, softly declared his remorse for having pursued an academic career, ingested a dozen habanero peppers, and then spontaneously combusted as puzzled students looked on.  As one frisbee-tossing sophomore remarked, “THAT WAS BEYOND COOL!”

Finally, Wesley Splenn, an arts lecturer at Dartmouth College, encased  himself, naked, in a Winter Carnival ice sculpture of a baby puffin in order to draw attention to the existential void that is higher education.  That night, over 200 students held a candlelight vigil to honor the frozen Splenn, but all those tiny flames produced the unintended consequence of melting the sculpture and saving his life.  He was both annoyed and undeterred (sort of).  “I’ll try again next year, unless Dartmouth offers me a tenure-track position, in which case all bets are off.”

 

A Caliber of Prevention is Worth…..

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that an associate professor of psychology at Harper College in Illinois was recently terminated by the school after being arrested for shooting at truck drivers and exchanging gunfire with state troopers near an interstate highway (no joke).

If only Harper officials had paid more attention to the student evaluations of this wayward faculty member on RateMyProfessors.com.  Consider, for example, the dimension of “Likelihood of Discharging a Firearm during Class”: the professor’s score was 4.8 out of 5, well above the 2.7 average for Harper faculty overall.  Also, student comments included, “It always freaked me out when he would clean his guns while we were taking exams,” and “If discussion started to lag on the topic of the day, he would open the classroom window and start shooting at pigeons.  Seemed kind of weird to me.  Easy grader, though, so I’d recommend taking him as long as you’re okay with the pigeon thing.”

Colleges and universities should take note:  although RateMyProfessors might be too unreliable to use for tenure-and-promotion purposes, we could be underestimating its potential for preventing gun violence. 

 

 

Raising the Bar…..or Just the Microphone?

Should a TED talk be a required part of a faculty member’s tenure-application portfolio?  That’s the question stirring up controversy at Princeton University these days, following the decision of the school’s Tenure and Promotion Committee to deny tenure to Carsden Pik, an Assistant Professor of Physics. 

Pik’s publication record in prestigious scholarly journals is impressive, and in 2015 he was nominated for a Nobel Prize for his work demonstrating that black holes are actually dark grey.  However, these accomplishments were not sufficient, according to the Committee.  The decision letter sent to Pik, which he shared with the press, states that “student course evaluations were the only evidence you provided of your teaching ability.  The severe limitations of these measures have been extensively documented in the research literature.  A more valid indicator of your teaching performance would be videos of TED talks you have delivered.  Unfortunately, you have never been invited to present a TED talk.  If you are indeed the excellent instructor you claim to be, why have you never been invited to give a TED talk?  What’s wrong with you?  Virtually everyone in academia, including custodial staff, has given a TED talk in the past few years.  Why haven’t you?  We ask again:  What’s wrong with you?”

In response, Dr. Pik maintains it is not his fault that the color of black holes is not a topic sexy enough for a TED talk.  “I guarantee you, if I did a show-and-tell highlighting kittens playing with yarn, those clowns at TED would erect a statue in my honor.  Princeton’s T & P Committee can just go bite me!”

Princeton’s President, Christopher Eisgruber, has chosen not to reverse the Committee’s decision. “I feel bad for Professor Pik, but he’s his own worst enemy.  For the love of God, man, stop hiking your corduroy pants up to your nipples and wearing ketchup-stained shirts to work every day.  Maybe then you would get a nod from the folks at TED.”

Tian Tian, Mei Xiang, and Professor Jones

Well, it’s about time. 

On January 16th the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) declared tenure-track faculty to be an endangered species in North America.  According to FWS Deputy Director Greg Sheehan, “the decrease in the percentage of full-time faculty that are tenured or tenure-track has reached a point where extinction is a distinct possibility if ameliorative action is not taken soon.”

As a first step, FWS is collaborating with the Harvard Museum of Natural History to display eight tenured Ivy League professors (one from each school) in separate diorama exhibits that can be viewed by Museum visitors.  Jane Pickering, Executive Director of the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture, states that “these will all be professors in excellent health — four women and four men — who will go about their daily lives in habitats constructed especially for them.”

Each diorama will consist of a small office that includes a mahogany desk, ergonomic chair, bookshelf, faded Oriental rug, personal computer, and printer, as well as wall posters of Neil deGrasse Tyson and Doris Kearns Goodwin.  A feeding station equipped with a water fountain and high-nutrition-food-pellet dispenser will be located in the corner.  Toilet facilities and sleeping quarters will occupy rooms adjoining the dioramas, not visible to visitors.

Pickering promises that “the care the professors will receive at the Museum will rival in quality what is provided to those priceless pandas at the National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C.  We want these folks to thrive, mate, and reproduce.  Vibrant, multi-colored academic robes will be worn  by the male professors during the high-fertility wine-and-cheese season (April and May) in order to help them attract their female diorama colleagues.  Our goal is to produce at least one tenure-track baby by June 2019.  We saved the bald eagle, and we can save tenure-track faculty!”

Well said, Ms. Pickering.  Well said. 

Mea Culpa, Mea Culpa, Mea Maxima Culpa

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that both Arizona State University and the University of Kansas recently rescinded honorary degrees they had awarded to noted television journalist Charlie Rose, in the wake of accusations that Rose had engaged in sexual harassment.

The Chronicle dubbed these reversals “clawbacks,” surely one of the less pleasant words in the English language.  In any event, clawbacks are gaining momentum, and not just in the realm of dealing with sexual mischief.  Exhibit A: Amherst College, one of the most prestigious liberal arts colleges in the United States, announced yesterday that it will be revoking the degrees of graduates who benefited from grade inflation at the school dating back to 2000.  According to Amherst President Carolyn Martin, “during a faculty retreat in late May there was a spontaneous outpouring of guilt and shame over grade inflation that was all-consuming.  Many professors were flogging themselves with leather bookmarks dipped in vinegar, while others engaged in rampant, intentional paper-cutting.  It was a remarkable display of existential angst.  I had never seen anything like it.”

It all began when a sociology professor rushed the stage during the retreat’s opening session, grabbed the microphone from the facilitator, and wailed, “I have never given a student a grade that he or she truly deserved.  I am a coward and an insect!”  The session turned into an AA-type meeting, with one person after another standing up and proclaiming, “My name is _______, and I inflate.”  It wasn’t long before a Catholic priest was summoned from the College’s Spirituality and Sushi Center to hear confessions. 

According to President Martin, “the whole day ended up being a journey to hell, with lots of uncontrolled sobbing and remorse over selling one’s soul in order to satisfy, as one professor put it, ‘demands of the relentless demon spawn of wealthy parents’.”

As the retreat came to a close, faculty vowed to take action that would go beyond the five Hail Mary’s that Father O’Shaughnessy instructed each offender to recite as penance.  They committed themselves to reviewing every grade they had awarded since the Spring 2000 semester, making adjustments when necessary.  This task took all summer.  The result: nearly 40% of all Amherst graduates since 2000 will have their bachelor’s degree rescinded.  On January 15th, 2018, these individuals will receive registered letters informing them of the College’s action.  The newly minted non-graduates will be afforded an opportunity to take the re-graded courses at a discounted tuition rate.  “It’s the least we can do,” says Martin. 

President Martin realizes that Amherst’s clawback will generate controversy, but she stands by the decision.  “I had a professor come up to me a week after the faculty had voted to take back the degrees.  She said that she’s sleeping better than she has in a decade.  Her recurrent, cold-sweat nightmares of living in a dystopian universe where the only letter in the alphabet was ‘A’, and the only number was 4.0, had ceased.  She hugged me, cried, and then fell asleep in my arms.”

For the record, pharmacies in Amherst, Massachusetts report that sales of Ambien have decreased 73% in the past two months.

 

Making Lemonade

A recent Chronicle of Higher Education article entitled “Tips on Making the Most of Your College’s Location” shared suggestions for how “a college situated in a seemingly less-than-ideal place could appeal to students.”  A useful piece, to be sure, but it omitted some compelling examples of doing the most with the least.  Here are two stories that deserve greater attention:

Wetlands Community College (Everglades City, Florida) — There are more alligators in Everglades City than there are people, and the single most frequent cause of death in this community is being eaten by an alligator while walking or driving.  “These gators are smart,” observes Gary ‘Sweetwater’ Wench, Everglade City’s sheriff.  “They hide in the back seat of your vehicle and when you stop for a red light — Whammo! — one chomp and it’s over.  Plastic-covered car seats are a must in our town if you want to avoid replacing upholstery every three months!”

For years this constant threat of sudden death suppressed enrollment at Wetlands, until Bix Slawson became Dean of Admissions in 2014.  Slawson decided to revamp the institution’s recruitment materials to focus on the allure that risk and danger have for teenage males.  “We introduced our new branding slogan, ‘Live on the Edge at Wetlands’, in 2015, and haven’t looked back.  Our incoming class has grown from 283 in 2014 to 890 in Fall 2017.  The first-year gender breakdown has shifted from 56% female to 89% male during that period.  And our newly established Russian Roulette team won the NCAA Regional Finals last year.”

Slawson acknowledges that “we do have a retention problem, of course, because of the gators and the high number of students who try out for the Roulette squad.   But those who survive frequently go on to serve with distinction in elite units of the military.  Most Navy SEALs are Wetlands graduates.  We’re very proud of that.”

Carlsbad University (Carlsbad, New Mexico) — The city of Carlsbad is located about 25 miles from a nuclear waste repository.  “Radioactivity makes people jumpy,” says Dale Janway, the town’s mayor.  “And I mean that literally.  When radioactive material is absorbed through your skin, it affects the nerves associated with limb movement.  Just walk down Main Street in Carlsbad and you’ll notice people’s bodies jerking all around like they’re marionettes controlled by a crack addict.  It’s the damnedest thing you’ll ever see.  Naturally, this used to alienate high school students who might otherwise come here for college.”

Not any more.

In 2013, Swaseen Mushkentaya arrived at the University to chair its Performing Arts Department.  She soon recognized that the spasms produced by radioactive poisoning closely resemble much of the oeuvre of modern dance.  “It’s all there,” Mushkentaya claims. “The choreography of Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, Twyla Tharp.  It’s as if the city’s public spaces were one huge rehearsal studio.”

Mushkentaya realized that combining toxic levels of radioactivity with dance instruction was a win-win for the school and the community.  She initiated a master’s program in Modern Dance that has attracted students from all over the country, and her latest work, Mutant Twitcher with Three Heads, will premiere this summer at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Massachusetts. 

“Our enrollment has mushroomed over the past three years,” Mushkentaya boasts.  “Oops, did I make a bad joke?”

Moral of Story: Stop complaining that your school sits atop a live volcano, and start turning negatives into positives.  Wetlands did it, Carlsbad did it, and so can you.

 

The Flake Stops Here

It’s not often that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) injects itself into political controversies relevant to college campuses, but 2017 has not been an ordinary year.  So perhaps it is not surprising that the agency has announced that it is reclaiming the word “snowflake” for its exclusive use.

In a December 21st press conference held at NOAA’s headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland, Chief Administrator Timothy Gallaudet noted that in the past few years the term “snowflake” has been “hijacked by conservative activists and re-purposed in a derogatory fashion to describe an overly sensitive or easily offended college student.  This is an abuse of a word that depicts one of nature’s most stunning creations, an intricate, wondrous, symmetrical ice crystal that gently descends through the Earth’s atmosphere.  Dragging ‘snowflake’ into the polarizing discourse of our nation’s current political battles is simply unacceptable.  STOP IT.”

Doctor Gallaudet suggested that the term “whine-puppy” be used instead of “snowflake” to refer to the population in question, a recommendation that was immediately objected to by representatives of DUPE: Dogs United to Pee Everywhere.

Happy Holidays to All from University Life!