Speaking in Tongues….

In a November 15th press release, the Modern Language Association of America reported that enrollment in foreign-language courses in U.S. colleges and universities significantly declined from 2016 to 2021 (Chronicle of Higher Education, November 16th online).  

Experts note that there are a number of reasons for the decline.  Here’s what we know (percentage decreases are in parentheses):

FRENCH (-23.1%):  For decades, students took French because it was the language of seduction (e.g., Voulezvous coucher avec moi?”).  However, several studies have shown that it is the French accent that gets people into bed, not the words themselves.  As a result, interest in French courses has waned.  It is also the case that, increasingly, casual sex on college campuses requires only a minimal amount of preliminary conversation (“You wanna?”  “Um, Sure.”).  Elegant, seductive whispering just isn’t needed as much anymore.

CHINESE/MANDARIN (-14.3%):  With virtually all take-out menus in Chinese restaurants now available in English, student demand for instruction in this venerable language has plummeted.   

GERMAN (-33.6%):  The impact of social media and smartphones on the attention span of American students has made it impossible for them to learn lengthy German words like dralenstorfhausencracken.  You can’t communicate very effectively in Munich if your vocabulary is limited to frau and herr.  

PORTUGUESE (-21.8%):  With Russia having announced its plans to annex both Portugal and Brazil in early 2024 (“Our borders are threatened,” claims Putin), there won’t be much need for this language unless you are travelling to Mozambique or Cape Verde.  

JAPANESE (-4.6%):  For many years, most American students taking Japanese were under the mistaken impression that they were taking Chinese.  Ever since a New York Times investigation revealed that error, enrollment has dropped.

RUSSIAN: (-13.5%):  Speaking Russian is great when you’ve been drinking a lot of vodka and want to demonstrate bluster.  Unfortunately, as college students increasingly substitute hard seltzer for Russia’s national beverage, demand for its national language has taken a hit.  

SPANISH (-18%):  Now that the whole Lin-Manuel Miranda phenomenon has run its course, interest in Spanish has slipped.  The success of Bad Bunny has not been sufficient to offset this decline.

ITALIAN (-20.4%):  Once researchers discovered that nearly 85% of all Italian communication takes place through hand gestures, the need to know the actual words became much less pressing.  

LATIN (-21.5%):  Except for Vladimir Putin, nobody says “Veni, Vidi, Vici” anymore.  

ARABIC (-27.4%):  Arabic numbers (1, 2, 3, etc.) remain very popular.  The language, not so much.

As Ron DeSantis is fond of asserting, “if you can’t say it in English, it’s probably not worth saying.”



Double Take….

TRUE FACT:  The Chronicle of Higher Education is not known for the amount of female cleavage it displays in a typical issue.  But that all changed on November 10, 2023, when a full-page photo of Dr. Wendy Osefo, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University, accompanied an article that discussed her role in the “The Real Housewives of the Potomac,” a reality-TV show on Bravo.  Yowsa.

This is just the latest case of college professors dipping their toes — or, in the case of Dr. Osefo, something else — into the deep end of the pool of commercial television.  How many of the following shows do you remember?

UNDERCOVER NUN (1961-1963, CBS):  In the fall of 1961, Tamara Froxel, a Professor of Religious Studies at Wesleyan University, entered the Benedictine Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut.  She was not a nun, but pretended to be one.  

Wearing a bodycam disguised by her wimple, Dr. Froxel recorded the daily routines of the Abbey’s residents.  Because these cloistered women did not watch TV, they had no idea they were becoming famous.  

UNDERCOVER NUN was cancelled after two seasons.  According to the show’s producer, “eventually, people got tired of watching quiet women bake bread, can preserves, and gaze upward during prayer.  Forty-six episodes, and not one pillow fight at bedtime.  Very frustrating.”

TENURE ISLAND (1974, ABC):  The series began with 12 full professors from colleges around the country being parachuted onto a remote island in the South Pacific.  

By Day 10 they had all perished, having starved to death during a protracted community meeting in which a filibuster by a portly humanities professor from Clemson blocked a vote on a cannibalism proposal.  

“The show was an absolute disaster,” lamented its executive producer.  “We had no idea how clueless tenured professors would be when it came to surviving in the wild.”

The final episode of TENURE ISLAND has never been broadcast.  

DAM! (2002, National Geographic Channel):  In 2001, Nelson Crossfork, a Vanderbilt University anthropologist, spent 8 months as a member of a beaver colony in Caribou, Maine.  During that time he helped his fellow beavers build an elaborate dam on the Aroostook River. 

This limited series documented Crossfork’s arduous journey to becoming accepted by the beavers, culminating in a secret beaver-flap ceremony in which he was inducted into the Aroostook Order of the Overbite. 

In 2004, Crossfork returned to the colony, where he currently lives.  He works as a policy advocate for the Order of the Overbite, lobbying the Maine State government for beaver-friendly legislation. 

His memoir, “Beaver Boy,” will be published in 2025 by Simon & Schuster.   



Brand Me….

Institutions of higher education have embraced branding with the ferocity of a sweaty, sumo-sized Aunt Ethel giving a full-body hug to her pierced-nostril niece at Thanksgiving dinner at Cracker Barrel.  Consider a few of the ad taglines in the October 27th issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education: “Fearlessly Forward” (University of Maryland); “Excellence Is Earned” (Rutgers); “Bold Hearts. Brilliant Minds.” (UC-Riverside); “Where Minds Meet Machines” (Stevens Institute of Technology).      

2024 will welcome a new batch of in-your-face slogans.  Here’s a sampling of what’s in the pipeline for January, according to Ad Age magazine:

“We’re Rich.  We’re STINKIN’ Rich.  And We’re Not Apologizing.”  (Harvard)

“God Wants You.  Here.”  (Oral Roberts University)

“Where Interpersonal Skills Go to Die”  (California Institute of Technology)

“We Do Football.  Full Stop.”  (University of Alabama)

“Even Our Underwear is Tweed”  (Yale)

“Colder Than a Polar Bear’s Ass.  Deal With It.”  (University of Alaska)

“We Give You the Keys to a Freakin’ Fighter Jet, Bro!”  (Air Force Academy)

“Protest Anything.  Anytime.  Anywhere.  We Don’t Care.”  (University of Wisconsin-Madison)

“Enjoy the Deep South.  In New Jersey.”  (Princeton)

“Education.  Plus Potatoes.”  (University of Idaho)

“Major in SPF 50”  (University of Miami)

“We Supply the Firearm.  You Decide How to Use It.”  (Texas A&M)

“Shave Your Legs.  Or Not.”  (Wellesley College)

“The Virgin Mary.  In Residence.  Every Day.”  (Catholic University of America)

“Other Schools Suck.  We Don’t.”  (Bucknell University)

College presidents, it’s time to check your brand.






Beyond Lemonade

It is probably true that “nobody likes writing tenure letters,” as the headline asserts in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article on the practice of asking external reviewers to evaluate the work of tenure applicants (October 23rd online). 

Of course, writing a favorable letter for a highly qualified candidate is fairly easy.  But what if the individual’s record has been abysmal?  Do you give a negative review, one that could put a final nail in the coffin of the candidate’s application and relegate him or her to a future haunted by PTSD, substance abuse, and the inability to put food on the table for one’s innocent offspring?

If you are a reviewer who is averse to consigning your underwhelming colleagues to such a fate, do not despair.  It is possible to apply a positive spin to the most dismal of raw data.  Consider the following letter, which helped secure tenure at the College of William & Mary several years ago for an assistant professor.  The names of the candidate and the reviewer have been redacted to protect their privacy. 

Dear Tenure and Promotion Committee:

At first glance, the performance of Professor __________ over the past six years appears deficient, perhaps even laughably bad.  However, a closer, more contextually sensitive look at his record reveals a different story. 

Scholarship:  It is true that Professor __________’s only publication during those six years was a Letter to the Editor of the local newspaper, in which he urged city officials in Williamsburg to put up a stop sign at the corner of Jefferson Davis Highway and Route 417.  But take note: following the installation of the requested sign, accidental pedestrian deaths at that intersection decreased by 56%, more than offsetting the 34% increase in intentional gun homicides at that location during the same period.  (The latter outcome reflects the relative ease of shooting someone from a vehicle that is not moving.)  How many other tenured faculty members at your institution can claim to have saved so many lives?  Don’t these numbers reflect the true “impact factor” of Professor __________’s work?

Teaching:  Yes, Professor __________’s student evaluations suggest that he is one of William & Mary’s most inept instructors.  And it is also the case that his syllabi are largely incoherent, filled with incorrect dates (October 34th?  Durando 12th?) and puzzling assignments for courses that are supposedly in English Literature (“Your DNA saliva samples are due on November 4th”).  He often delivers entire lectures in pig Latin, and routinely covers classroom windows with a black tarp in order to prevent “Croatian sterilization rays” from infecting students’ genitalia.  Not a pretty picture. 

But consider this: there is much to be learned from a bad example.  Students who take Professor __________’s courses develop a heightened appreciation for the good teaching that other professors at William & Mary demonstrate.  Result: the overall status and prestige of your school is enhanced.  

Service to the Institution:  Professor __________ has only served on one committee at William & Mary: the Therapy Dog Review Council.  This body evaluates the performance of all therapy canines that are deployed in the campus library during the stress-filled two weeks at the end of every semester.  Records indicate that he only attends meetings that take place during the lunch hour, and only when a meal is provided.  On several occasions he has been censured by the Council for calling a dog a “bitch.”  

Nevertheless, his contributions to the Council’s work have been impressive.  For example, incidents in which therapy dogs bite students have declined by 26% since Professor __________ recommended tranquilizing them (the dogs, not the students) prior to petting sessions.  

Conclusion: In my view, Professor __________’s accomplishments at William & Mary clearly call for the awarding of tenure.  Just do it.   


_____________________________, Ph.D.

Distinguished Professor of British Literature, University of __________

Sometimes, lemons can produce champagne, not just lemonade.  Embrace the challenge.  Start writing.   


“Where’s That Smell Coming From….?”

Lincoln Christian University (LCU) in Illinois will cease operations at the end of the 2023-24 academic year, with its seminary moving to Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri (Inside Higher Ed, October 13th). 

There’s only one problem: lingering aura.

According to Nelson Buckridge, LCU’s Director of Buildings and Grounds, “as the years pass, any seminary worth its salt will develop a divinely inspired ambience that suffuses the entire campus.  It doesn’t disappear when the institution shuts down.  This aura can hang around for decades, evolving into a fatal miasma under certain circumstances.”

Buckridge warns that such a miasma will indeed materialize if the site’s new occupants are in league with Satan.  “Just try putting a casino, strip club, Walmart, or Chick-fil-A in that location and see what happens.  People will start dropping dead faster than a barnful of horseflies hit by a mushroom cloud of Raid.  It won’t be pretty.

“Let nature reclaim LCU’s land for a couple of generations before installing a new tenant,” recommends Buckridge.  “And then start with a Ben & Jerry’s.”

Perhaps Standardized Tests ARE Telling Us Something….

TRUE FACTS:  On October 11th the nation learned that average scores on the ACT, a widely used college readiness test, had declined for the sixth consecutive year (ACT Newsroom and Blog).  One day earlier, the University of Wisconsin System announced that the new name for its network of schools would be the “Universities of Wisconsin.”  According to President Jay Rothman, this new designation “is the best way to describe our thirteen excellent universities” (University of Wisconsin System online, October 10th). 


What President Rothman did not describe was the real reason for the name change: the majority of Wisconsin’s adult population no longer knows what the word “system” means.  

In a Gallup telephone poll commissioned by the Wisconsin State Legislature in August, 54% of the respondents could not define “system.”  Another 8% claimed that a system was “the female sibling of a tem.”  And 5% mistook the word for “cisTum,” a medical term, which refers to an antacid tablet that identifies with the gender of its color (i.e., blue = male, pink = female).  

In an email sent to the leaders of Wisconsin’s 13 public universities in late September, Rothman maintained that “it makes no sense to continue using a word that our constituents do not comprehend.  I’m sorry, but ‘system’ has got to go.”

Several of these leaders welcomed the change, confessing that they were also clueless concerning the word’s meaning.  As one of the university presidents put it to a University Life reporter, “I’m a numbers guy, not a words guy.”  


“We Stand with Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther….”

On September 13th, the men’s basketball team at Dartmouth College filed a unionization petition with the National Labor Relations Board (Chronicle of Higher Education, September 14th online).  

Although the NLRB has yet to render its decision, on the morning of October 4th a representative of the team nailed a list of 12 demands to the office door of Mike Harrity, Director of Athletics at Dartmouth.  The list includes the following non-negotiables:

—  All baskets made by Dartmouth players at home games shall count for 3 points.

—  Every game played against Brown University will take place at Dartmouth, because Providence, Rhode Island “sucks.”

—  During home games, no fouls will be called against Dartmouth players unless the infraction involves a weapon and loss of blood.

—  The wine bar currently located in the team’s locker room shall be expanded to include a selection of at least 6 draft beers on tap, with the brands rotated weekly.  No Bud Light.

—  In any home game in which Dartmouth plays a higher-ranked opponent, the score at the beginning of the contest will be 10-0 in favor of Dartmouth.

—  Every Dartmouth player shall be featured in his own episode of ESPN’s “30 for 30” during the basketball season, with each episode broadcast at least 4 times.  

—  During home games, no Dartmouth player will be ruled out of bounds as long as he has one foot in bounds and calls out, “Still in, still in, binny-binny-bin!”

—  At the annual Winter Carnival in February, each member of the team will be depicted in a Maya Lin ice sculpture prominently displayed on the Dartmouth Green.

—  Double- or triple-teaming a Dartmouth player who has possession of the ball shall not be allowed at home or away.

—  During the regular season, all Dartmouth players shall be granted diplomatic immunity for their actions on and off the court. 

—  Regardless of its record, the team will receive an invitation to participate in the NCAA’s March Madness tournament.  Its first game will always be played in prime time at Madison Square Garden.  If Dartmouth loses its first game, it will be entitled to a “do-over.”

—  In 2024, Dartmouth will introduce a new mascot for the college: “Bouncy,” a smiling green basketball with legs.

As of 5:00 pm on October 5th, Mr. Harrity had not responded to these demands. 




“Sticks and Stones May….”

What do you call a group of college and university presidents?

Distinctive labels abound in the animal kingdom: a colony of penguins, a pride of lions, a gaggle of geese, a school of fish, etc.  Now, at long last, the dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster has announced that it will use the term “Alamo” to refer to leaders of institutions of higher education — as in, “an Alamo of Florida college presidents recently attended the inaugural convocation at the new DeSantis University for Twisty Minds in Key West.” 

Gregory Barlow, President of Merriam-Webster, observes that “Alamo” captures the sense of unrelenting challenge that college leaders face today: “The embattled, courageous volunteers who defended the Alamo in 1836 fought against overwhelming odds.  The same can be said of university presidents in 2023.”  

Barlow notes that “we are considering names for other groups in higher education: a gathering of department chairs could be called a ‘kerfuffle’, an assembly of deans is without question a ‘disaster’ (the alliteration is a bonus!), a roomful of provosts definitely qualifies as a ‘bottleneck’, a group of chief financial officers constitutes a ‘spreadsheet’, and a bunch of tenured professors would, of course, be an ‘annoyance’.  

“We’re still working on what to call students.”

“This Touchdown Was Brought to You by the Buffaloes, the Official Football Team of the University of Colorado…”

TRUE FACT #1:  After Deion Sanders became head football coach at the University of Colorado in December 2022, 41 scholarship players on the team left the school via the transfer portal.

TRUE FACT #2:  During that same period, 50 players from other schools used the portal to join the University of Colorado football team.  (DraftKings Network, September 2nd online).  

The Buffaloes, who were 1-11 in 2022, are 3-0 so far this season.  

That was STEP ONE.

Yesterday, the University’s Chancellor, Philip DiStefano, announced STEP TWO, which will take effect next year. 

According to DiStefano, “On January 1, 2024, the University of Colorado will no longer require members of its football team to be enrolled as students at the school.  Simply put, we’re looking for young men who want to play football and are good at it.  We will not discriminate against applicants who may be ‘academically dim’ or have no interest in going to college.  

“Football is not about Renaissance Poetry, World History, or Organic Chemistry.  It’s about football — full stop.  Would you insist that a Professor of Political Science know how to execute a screen pass or a flea flicker?  Of course not.  Then why should we expect a free safety to know the author of Moby Dick or the origins of World War II?  

“Severing the link between student status and football participation will represent a quantum leap forward for both higher education and college football.  In the same way that Hyundai is the Official Car of the NFL, the Buffaloes will be the Official Football Team of the University of Colorado.  It’s just that the players won’t necessarily be students at the University of Colorado.  Is that so hard to understand?  

“At 11:00 pm on January 1st I will be able to go to bed and sleep soundly — with a clear conscience — for the first time since I became Chancellor of this institution.  The days of enrolling our football players in 3-credit courses on how to heat soup in a microwave will be over.  I look forward to long nights of dreaming about gorgeous meadows filled with puppies and butterflies.”

Take note, presidents of colleges and universities across the nation.  You have nothing to lose but your Ambien.  


The Professor Is MORE Than In….

“The Missed Opportunity of Office Hours,” an article in the September 1st issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, laments, “Meeting with a professor can help students learn, or even change their lives.  So why don’t more students do it?” (p. 29)

Fear not.  Instructors around the country are becoming more proactive in engaging students outside of the classroom.  Consider the following three examples:

—  At UMass-Amherst, Sociology Professor Nevina Praline converted a 50-year-old taco food truck into a recreational cannabis and soft-serve ice cream dispensary (“Sweet Dreams”).  She then set up shop on the perimeter of the campus quadrangle.  Although Sweet Dreams is open to everyone, Praline’s students receive a 20% discount on all purchases.

“There’s nothing like a little weed to loosen students up and make them feel comfortable sharing their concerns about how they’re doing in my course,” says Praline.  “And it gives me the opportunity to offer advice right on the spot.  Of course, the extra income I derive from Sweet Dreams turns this venture into a win-win.  Let’s face it: my salary as an assistant professor sucks.  I can now afford the Camembert Du Bocage at my favorite cheese boutique in town.  Yay!”

—  Every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon during the fall semester, Stanford University Finance Professor Grady Spurling carries a folding chair and small table into the all-gender restroom across the hallway from the classroom where he teaches Introduction to Technology Wealth Management, the most popular undergraduate offering at the Palo Alto school. 

Spurling notes that “because my course meets twice a week for three hours with no break, many students REALLY have to pee when class is over.  I station myself right next to the sink section and put an “Open for Business” tent card on the table.  I also place a small bowl of Starburst candies there.  When one of my students stops by for a treat, I strike up a conversation.  The flushing toilets and gurgling urinals can make it difficult for us to hear each other — and don’t get me started on the electric hand dryers that roar like leaf blowers — but the effort is worth it.  In addition, I find out who washes their hands and who doesn’t.  As a result, I’ve stopped shaking hands with most of my male students, especially Virgil.”

—  At Oberlin College last spring, Classics Professor Winston Selbane began phoning his students on a regular basis between 2:00 am and 4:00 am, whispering the greeting, “Yo, wassup, mofo?”

Dr. Selbane is no longer employed at Oberlin.

Yes, reaching out to students can be risky.

But some risks are worth taking.  The future of your students is at stake.