Scare Tactics

The latest kerfuffle at Yale University involves the school’s police union, which distributed a flyer to incoming students asserting that crime and violence in New Haven were “shockingly high” and “getting worse,” and stopped just short of claiming that walking the streets of the city at night was akin to playing blindfolded hopscotch in a Ukrainian minefield.  University and public officials were appalled (CNN online, August 26th). 

Let’s turn down the burner under this teapot, shall we?

Making provocative claims has long been standard practice in union-management skirmishes in higher education.  Here’s a sampling from the past decade:

Wellesley College, 2015 — Dining hall workers threatened that they could not guarantee the freshness of the arugula, kale, or Bibb lettuce served in the cafeteria salad bar if their wages remained stagnant.  In a press release, the union stated that “Health-conscious Wellesley students are likely to encounter slimy, oozing greens in the weeks to come, a mucous mess resembling the bubbling contents of a La Brea tar pit.  And diners shouldn’t even look at the adjacent tubs of decomposing blue cheese and ranch dressings.  There are no words to describe what could be metastasizing in there.”

Florida State University, 2018 — Students returning to FSU in the fall found notices in every campus bathroom warning them that Brazilian Leaping Piranha had been discovered in toilet bowls across the university.  The flyers indicated that “two or three Leaping Piranha can shred a pair of adult human buttocks in less than 40 seconds.  Your posterior could be the next victim.  Never sit directly ON an FSU toilet seat; hover several inches above it when doing your business.”  This message came from disgruntled members of the Facilities union, who were planning to strike. 

Marquette University, 2022 — Individuals entering the school’s main library were greeted by a poster proclaiming that “over 7500 college students die every year from paper cuts caused by library books and journals whose page-edges have not been properly varnished by qualified library professionals.  Don’t put yourself at risk.  March with us to the President’s house on Saturday to demand funds for additional library staff.  Or would you rather bleed out in the stacks, with the dust-covered, razor-paged biographies of Robert Louis Stevenson, Samuel Johnson, and Virginia Woolf being the only witnesses to your demise?  It’s your decision.”

Take a deep breath, Yalies.  The chances are good you’ll survive the fall semester.  

Ivy League, 100 AD

“We knew this day was coming,” laments an anonymous faculty member at New College of Florida, the state’s Honors College in Sarasota.  “It’s sadder than a flash freeze in an orange grove the night before harvesting.”

Pursuant to an Executive Order from Governor Ron DeSantis, on September 1, 2023 New College will begin a journey in which it reverts to what the Governor describes as an “educational state of nature.” 

What, exactly, does that mean?

In DeSantis’s words, “we will return New College to the pure, uncontaminated, educational Eden that characterized institutions of higher education centuries ago.  With one exception, no books or ‘scientific’ journals will be allowed on campus.  This will significantly reduce the likelihood of our students being infected with that syphilitic destroyer of young minds: COGNITION. 

“The one exception to the book prohibition will, of course, be the Bible (Floridian translation).  Every student will be provided with one, bound in genuine Everglades alligator hide, and every course in every discipline will draw exclusively from this divinely inspired source.    

“I promise you: New College will make learning great again.

“And yes, our school WILL, for the first time, field an NCAA Division I football team, with linemen the size of Hummer H1 X3’s.  Be afraid, Crimson Tide of Alabama, be very afraid.  We’re going to go Jurassic Park all over your ass.”

The Thrill….Is It Gone?

It’s mid-August, and professors around the country are contemplating the beginning of another academic year.  As they gaze at stacks of syllabi in desperate need of revision, some are asking themselves, “Can I really survive another year of doing this?”

If that question strikes uncomfortably close to the place you call home, it may be time to consider retirement, regardless of your age.  To assist you in making this decision, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has recently issued its latest edition of The Seven Warning Signs That It’s Time to Retire.  Here it is:

1.  Even though you aren’t due for your next colonoscopy until 2030, you schedule one for early September in order to avoid attending the first General Faculty Meeting of the Fall semester.

2.  Instead of using the Blue-Sticker Faculty Parking Lot to which you’ve been assigned — a location two blocks away from your office — you’ve started parking your car on the lawn right in front of your building.  You’ve accumulated over 50 tickets in the past few months that you have no intention of paying.  

3.  This year, in the section of your course syllabus reserved for communicating the school’s official policy on the use of gender pronouns in the classroom, you announce that you will be referring to everyone as “Sal.”

4.  At your department’s annual Welcome Back Potluck Party hosted by the chairperson at her beach house last week, your sole contribution was a box of Dunkin’ Donut holes.  You scattered them around the patio to attract seagulls while you got roaring drunk on Mike’s Hard Lemonade.  At the end of the party you tossed your flip-flops into the koi pond and ordered a newly hired faculty member to fetch them, citing your status as a tenured professor. 

5.  You plan to screen “Pretty Woman” in IMAX format at the first meeting of your Intro to Western Civilization course in the fall; students should know how great it was to be a sex worker in the 1990s.

6.  When the weather is nice, you often skip class to go sit on your favorite bench in the campus quadrangle and engage in staring contests with pigeons.  You challenge them not to blink first, and you never lose.  If passersby interrupt the competition, you fling a donut hole at them and say “Shoo!”

7.  When colleagues invite you to lunch, you hand them a $25 gift card to Olive Garden and tell them to have a good life.  

If you said, “Yep, that’s me” in response to 4 or more of these scenarios, a visit to your school’s HR department is probably in order.  It’s time to file the appropriate paperwork to jump-start the disengagement process.  Good luck.  

 

 

Up Close and (Not Too) Personal….

In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s recent foray into the realm of college admissions, highly selective schools around the country are grappling with the challenge of how to maintain or increase the diversity of their student bodies without explicitly favoring applicants of a certain race (see The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 1st online).

The early results indicate that elite institutions are getting creative.  Here’s a sample of application-essay prompts that schools are now using:

Brown University:  “A lot of people are talking about something called ‘race’ these days.  Our school has a name that evokes images of color, and our mascot is Bruno, a brown bear.  How does that make you feel?  If you were a student at Brown, what brave actions would you take to overcome those feelings if you felt those feelings needed be overcome?  In your answer you can refer to other animals that are noted for their courage if you wish.”   

University of Florida:  “Let’s say that you’re a slave.  Discuss some of the skills you’d hope to develop in that role, and how they might help you succeed in a work-study job at the University of Florida.” 

Bowdoin College:  “Imagine that you are a girl or boy of a non-whitish color who’s being bullied on the playground by a group of other children, some of whom may (or may not) be whitish.  How could you handle this situation in a way that would not be related to, or have implications for, your status as a non-whitish person?  Feel free to use drawings as well as words.”

Stanford University:  “Josh Gibson was a legendary Black baseball player who, due to segregation, never got a chance to play in the Major Leagues. Explain how your reaction to this fact would make a distinctive contribution to the Stanford community, especially its athletic teams.”

Duke University:  “Assume you’re a professor giving a lecture in your Organic Chemistry course when you glance out the window and notice that the student KKK chapter is setting fire to the main library and chanting, ‘D.E.I. deserves to die!’  Would you stop lecturing and attempt to transform this incident into a ‘Teachable Moment’ if it was the last class before the midterm exam?  Why or why not?”

University of Chicago:  “Beyoncé or Taylor Swift: Choose one.  That’s all.  Just choose one.”

Those softly spoken words you hear are the prayers of admissions officers throughout the nation.  

 

“I’m Shocked To My Very Core!”

True Fact:  A recent study of Ivy-Plus colleges (the Ivies plus Stanford, MIT, Duke, and the University of Chicago) found that legacy applicants to those institutions were five times more likely to be admitted than non-legacy applicants with similar qualifications (Chronicle of Higher Education, July 24th online).  

Around the country, academics were stunned. 

“I’m shocked to my very core!”, remarked a long-time Harvard faculty member upon hearing the news.  “Who knew that the six generations of Pewter-Mastersons that attended our school were related?”

“Gadzooks!”, exclaimed Dartmouth President Sian Beilock.  “I had been wondering why our student body was so wealthy and white.  I just assumed that low-income minority high schoolers were put off by the frigid winters up here in New Hampshire.  Of course, our traditional recruitment pitch — ‘Dartmouth: We’ll Freeze Your Ass Off’ — probably doesn’t help.”

At Princeton, Professor Emeritus Noreen Fenderdent recalled that for decades she had been puzzled by the number of male students in her classes who wore bow ties, salmon-colored khakis, and Bass Weejuns with no socks.  “Could they have been legacies?”, she asks.  “These young men tended to be whitish.  Or at least I thought they were.  During my career I tried to make it a practice of not seeing color when I looked at people.  Okay, maybe sometimes I did.”

If elite schools are forced to curtail legacy admissions, alumni/ae donations could plummet.  Indeed, Yale President Peter Salovey warns that such an outcome would lead to reduced funding for student activities at his school:  “We’d probably have to eliminate our junior varsity Cribbage team, or at least replace the diamond-encrusted cribbage-board pegs we currently use with cheap plastic ones.  And the annual spring trip of the Antique Fountain Pen Club to the Vienna Montblanc Exhibition would, in all likelihood, become an every-other-year event.  I won’t lie to you; things could get tough around here.”

Yes, they could.

A decade from now, as Yale-educated hedge-fund managers tuck their children into bed at night, they might find themselves whispering to their little ones, “I may not be able to guarantee you an elite college degree, but I promise: you will have many, many ponies.”

 

“Dear Search Committee….”

As Jennifer Furlong and Stacy Hartman point out in the July 21st issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, writing the cover letter for your first faculty job application can be a challenge.  Furlong and Hartman offer excellent advice for tackling this task, but they do omit a number of tips widely recommended by experts in the field.  Here are 7 of them:

Downplay geographical preferences.  Don’t say that you want to teach at Duke because your aging parents live in nearby Chapel Hill and your mother has a serious drinking problem that you need to keep tabs on.  And under no circumstances should you send the Search Committee a photo of your mom.  

Promise that you won’t be a complainer.  State categorically that you will never grouse about the shortage of faculty parking, the 15-credit-hour-per-semeser teaching load, or the mango/yak incense stick that the secretary burns each day in the department office.  Include a short video that shows you crossing your heart as you make these promises. 

Avoid controversial topics.  Even if you feel strongly about the matter, resist the temptation to indicate in your letter that you think it would have been better if Bruce Jenner had never made the decision to transition to Caitlyn Jenner.  

If you describe your flaws, be honest.  For the love of God, don’t bullshit readers with self-praise disguised as critique (e.g., “I admit it, I’m a perfectionist.”).  Far better to be unflinchingly candid (“I should shower more often.”  “I fabricated a bit of the data in my doctoral dissertation.”  “I once purchased a voodoo doll to put a curse on a grad school classmate I envied.  The next day she was hit by a truck.”).

Don’t make threats.  This should be a no-brainer.  It’s never a good idea to intimate that “something bad” might happen to one or more members of the Search Committee if you’re not offered a job.  

Be linguistically flexible.  Inform the Search Committee that you’re comfortable using the phrase “lived experience” in everyday conversation on campus if that’s consistent with the culture of the university, but that you’re also okay with employing the less redundant term, “experience,” if that’s the norm.  

Display sensitivity to local/regional context.  For example, if you’re applying for a faculty job in Texas, be sure to mention that you look forward to packing a firearm in class, and that some of your fondest memories are of Grandma Tess taking you hunting at the neighborhood dog park when you were a kid.  

There’s a terrific position out there in academia waiting for you.  Start writing that cover letter.

You Deserve to Know….

Money Magazine recently announced that it is replacing its rankings of colleges and universities with ratings that will range from 2.5 stars to 5 stars (Chronicle of Higher Education, June 22nd online).  

So, here’s a question:  Why start the ratings with 2.5 stars rather than with zero stars? 

Investigative reporters from University Life have discovered that the magazine does assign ratings lower than 2.5, but it chooses not to publish them in order to avoid stigmatizing the institutions involved.  As a service to our readers, we are sharing the criteria upon which these lower ratings are based. 

2 Stars — Schools that offer Introduction to Snake-Handling as part of the core curriculum (“Fairly common in Pentecostal bible colleges in the deep South,” says a confidential source at Money.)

1.5 Stars — Colleges where more than 40% of all undergraduates major in Beer Pong or Esports 

1 Star — Universities where at least one-third of all 1st-floor residence-hall rooms are available to the public for hourly rentals (“Housekeeping staff at these schools display very low morale.”)

0.5 Stars — Institutions that do not participate in federal student-loan programs, opting instead to use DraftKings and/or FanDuel as a means of helping students finance their education (“These kids graduate with astonishingly high levels of debt.  It’s criminal.”)

Zero Stars — Schools whose alumni/ae have a greater than 30% chance of being arrested between 2 am and 4 am for speeding while driving in the wrong direction on an interstate highway (“This is what happens when you major in Beer Pong.”)  

The Bottom Line:  If a college your kid is interested in is not rated by Money, there’s probably a damn good reason. 

 

“Soft” No More…..

A recent letter to the editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education’s “Daily Briefing” complains that the term soft skills sounds sexist and devalues the humanities” (May 30th online).  

Fear not.  Help has arrived.

Here are three phrases that are replacing “soft skills” at colleges and universities around the country.

Cashmere CompetenceThis graceful wording has officially unseated “soft skills” in the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania.  According to Wharton’s Dean, Erika James, cashmere conveys a sense of softness without any connotations of weakness.  It’s sleek.  It’s luxurious.  It rocks.  And you can never go wrong with competence.  In the business world, it’s what we call a ‘sturdy word’.”

“How You Doin’?” Proficiency — Widely used at New York University in honor of iconic “Friends” character Joey Tribbiani.  As NYU President Andrew D. Hamilton observes, “there were few women who could resist the smooth, silken appeal of Mr. Tribbiani’s greeting.  We want our graduates to be just as interpersonally successful in THEIR careers.  Every conversation in the workplace should begin with How You Doin’?

Non-Anal AttitudeLet’s be honest.  The bulk of one’s interactional prowess is simply the result of not acting like an a**hole.  Florida State University is attempting to explicitly focus students on this reality.  “We’re tired of graduating sphincter after sphincter,” says FSU President Richard McCullough.  “If this shift in language can help us achieve that, I’m all for it.”

“Soft skills,” your days are numbered.  

Making Summer Memories…

If you’re an assistant professor with young children, few periods in your life will be more stress-filled than the summer before you apply for tenure.  How can you take a family vacation when you must devote virtually every waking hour to preparing for your T & P application in the fall?

Sending the kids to a three-month sleepaway-survivalist camp in Newfoundland is likely to be prohibitively expensive.  And if yours is a typical family, all four grandparents have serious drinking problems, which means that having your offspring stay with them for the summer is not a realistic option.  

What is needed here is a little creativity.  It is in this spirit that University Life presents five expert-endorsed vacation recommendations for tenure-track faculty members facing severe time constraints.  

1 If you live near the Northeast Corridor, you can make the round trip from Boston to Washington, DC and back in a single day on Amtrak’s Acela Express (less than seven hours each way).  What kid doesn’t love a train ride?  There’s so much to see, even if much of it will be blurry because the train is going really fast.  When you arrive at DC’s Union Station, treat the family to a food-court meal at Chick fil-A or Shake Shack and then hop on the next Acela for the return trip.  If you sit on the same side of the aisle heading north as you did traveling south, your kids will experience new scenery.  Voila!  Vacation accomplished in less than 24 hours!

2 — Have your children watch the Live Cam of a bald eagle’s nest in Big Bear Valley, California.  The Live Cam operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  Need we say more?  Just plunk the kids down in front of a PC with a 14-day supply of Cheetos and Mountain Dew, and then head to your home office to tackle that “Revise and Resubmit” manuscript on the Taylor Swift/Jonathan Swift connection that’s been bedeviling you.  You’ll get crucial work done while your offspring learn how our national bird feeds its young.  

3 — If you reside in a state that has legalized recreational marijuana, your vacation problems are so over.  Simply set up the kids in the den with a month’s worth of THC gummies and a couple of spinning multi-color pinwheels, and they will be mesmerized for days on end while you review page proofs for your forthcoming book on the history of Amish full-body tattoos.

4 — Is there anything more thrilling for youngsters than spending a week in the New York Public Library while you pore over the collected papers of Joan Didion?  Hell no.  Attach ankle monitors to your kids and then set them loose in this majestic building every morning.  Challenge them to find ways of gaining access to the restricted rare-book archives and removing items.  They’ll love you for sending them on this high adventure with nothing more than a penknife and a compass. 

5 — What’s more fun than popping bubble wrap?  Not a damn thing.  Buy a dozen giant rolls of industrial bubble wrap and toss them into the basement with your offspring.  The kids will have a month of nonstop excitement while you figure out how to put a positive spin on the less-than-stellar student evaluations your teaching has received over the past five years.  (Bubble-wrap vacations work best with children who are not academically gifted.) 

With these suggestions in mind, there’s no need to sacrifice your kids’ summer happiness in order for you to achieve promotion and tenure.  Good luck. 

 

That’s Not a Tsunami, That’s Progress…

The emergence of ChatGPT, the Artificial Intelligence text-generation technology, has professors all over the country soiling themselves as they anticipate being consumed by a tsunami of student plagiarism (e.g., see “The Review Forum” in the June 9th issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education)

Men, women, and non-binaries of the academy…..please relax.  As it always does, higher education will adapt and survive. 

Here are a couple of institutions that are leading the way.

Beginning in 2024, Princeton University will no longer award the bachelor’s degree.  Instead, graduating students will be given a Certificate of Attendance.  No written assignments of any kind will be required in undergraduate courses at the New Jersey school.

As Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber recently noted, “at an elite institution like ours, it doesn’t really matter if students learn any content or have an eye-popping GPA.  What matters are the highly resourced people you meet and the social networks you establish as you cultivate a lifestyle that will provide the level of success, wealth, and leisure you are entitled to.  That’s why a Certificate of Attendance from Princeton is much, MUCH more important than a degree.  You can’t network if you don’t show up.

“The elimination of all writing assignments in undergraduate courses will render ChatGPT irrelevant.  Hell, we lost the battle against plagiarism decades ago.  Students have always been one step ahead of us.  Let’s just acknowledge that fact and move on.  Getting rid of these assignments will provide our students with more opportunities for networking and our faculty with more time for submitting op-eds to The New York Times.  It’s a win/win.”

The University of California system has chosen a different path.  Starting next year, the only undergraduate degrees it will offer are a Bachelor of Arts in ChatGPT Management (BACM) and a Bachelor of Science in ChatGPT Management (BSCM).  

According to Chancellor Michael Drake, “the most crucial skill a 21st-century college student needs to learn is pretty straightforward: how do I use ChatGPT to produce excellent written work?  Colleges should be embracing this tool, not running away from it.  Of course, we understand that most faculty have little interest in reading ChatGPT-generated essays and papers, so our colleagues at UC-Berkeley have developed a ChatGPT text reviewer that professors can use to grade these assignments.  We’re calling the whole operation ‘Chat-to-Chat’.

“Voila!  We have replaced the outdated and inefficient internal-combustion engine of evaluation in higher education with an auto-drive system that Tesla would be proud of.”

Open your eyes.  It’s a ChatGPT world.  We just live in it.