What Hath Harvard Wrought?

Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust lobbed a hand grenade into the foxhole of higher education yesterday when she announced at a press conference that the University would be giving away half of its $35 billion endowment over the next five years.  The reasons for this dramatic action?  One is lack of space.  Faust revealed that “our entire endowment is held in the form of cash, mainly in $10’s and $20’s, that is kept in an underground storage facility in Chicopee, Massachusetts.  We are simply running out of room for all this money, and we don’t want to purchase another facility. 

“The second reason is that we are so filthy, steaming rich that it’s starting to make our Board of Overseers nauseous, and this is a group that has always been comfortable with obscene wealth.  At our February Board meeting in Port-au-Prince, breakfast croissants were served on the same plates used by King Louis XIV at Versailles in 1684, and the filet mignon we had for dinner came from cattle that had graduated from Phillips Andover Academy.  After showering every morning, Board members dried themselves by rolling around naked in 17th-century porcelain bathtubs filled with tranquilized alpacas.  This level of luxury and indulgence is just unseemly, or at least it now feels that way to the Board.  So, we are going to do something about it.  In January 2018 Harvard will present the Governor of Puerto Rico with a check that will save the island from bankruptcy.  In April, we will celebrate National Library Week by paying the accumulated late fees of all patrons at the Boston Public Library.  And in July we will fund the production of the first feature-length action thriller focused on the plight of contingent faculty in the United States.  Entitled Non-Tenure Track,  it will star Nicole Kidman as a full professor at UC-Berkeley and Will Smith as her boyfriend, an adjunct who teaches at various community colleges in the Bay area.  When an 8.3 earthquake devastates the region, Smith’s 1984 Datsun slides into a newly created ravine in Oakland and leaves him at the mercy of a severely compromised public transportation system.  As he attempts to make his way to Kidman, who is trapped in a flooding steam tunnel underneath the Berkeley campus, Smith loses an arm to a leopard that has escaped from the San Francisco Zoo, which has been reduced to rubble.  Lacking health insurance, he must treat the injury with baby wipes.  When Smith finally reaches Kidman, she informs him that her parents would never allow her to be rescued by a man who is untenured, and they both drown in the steam tunnel.  All proceeds from this film will be used to purchase dry-erase markers for adjunct faculty nationwide.”

Reactions to Faust’s announcement from college and university leaders  around the country have been muted.  At Stanford, President Marc Tessier-Lavigne said that Harvard’s decision was “a risky one,” but that he planned to see Non-Tenure Track when it was released.  Haywood Stensen, Interim Provost at Furry Lake Community College in Bozeman, Montana, remarked that “Harvard’s action is not really relevant to us; financially, they live in a different world.  I can access Furry Lake’s total endowment using the “Fast Cash” option at my local ATM.  But I’m definitely looking forward to checking out that movie.  Nicole Kidman rocks!


Welcome to University Life!

Universities are funny places. I was a professor for 41 years, and most people say I’m a funny guy, but I’m not nearly as funny as a college or university campus on a typical day. Now that I’m retired, I need to keep busy so I don’t spend an undue amount of time lamenting the fact that I never pursued my original career goal of becoming a vegetarian. Ergo, I’ve decided to fill the space between date of retirement and onset of dementia with University Life, a humor blog devoted to institutions of higher education. From time to time I will post something that I hope you find amusing and perhaps even thought-provoking, though the former will take precedence over the latter. I’m not trying to reproduce here the essay sections of The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Elsewhere on this page there should be a place to subscribe (for free) to University Life. Subscribers will be notified whenever there is a new post, enabling them to put aside less important matters at that moment (e.g., going into labor, doing their job) in order to read University Life.

University Life does not have a Comments section. There are just too many people out there for whom this blog might serve as a projective ink blot, reminding them of kindergarten traumas involving juice boxes squished into their heads by playground bullies and deranged classroom aides. However, if you would like to suggest a topic for University Life, feel free to email me at mmorris@newhaven.edu. If I use your topic, you’ll be acknowledged (if you wish) when I write about it.

Well, there you have it. Welcome to University Life! — Mike Morris

The Syllabus, Then and Now

During my undergraduate years in the late 1960s the typical course syllabus was majestic in its authoritarian simplicity. For example, see below:

ENGLISH 261: Perspectives on Dickens
Fall 1968
Professor V. Sternhaven
Office: 217 Bixby Annex
Office hours: Wednesdays 2:00 – 2:30
and by appointment

Required Reading
Dickens, Charles.  Everything He Wrote.

2 analytical papers and 1 in-class essay exam (Exam answers must be written in Latin), each worth 30% of your grade

The remaining 10% of your grade will be determined by my assessment of your attitude. HINT: Don’t whine or otherwise exhibit jerk-like behavior.

Attendance Policy
Attend every class. If you miss a class, your course grade will be reduced by a full grade unless you provide an acceptable reason for your absence. PLEASE NOTE: There are no acceptable reasons for your absence.

Extra Credit Work
There is none.

Make-Up Exam
See policy for Extra Credit Work.

In recent years, however, the syllabus has evolved into an excruciatingly detailed contract between labor (students) and management (the professor, as well as every academic administrator above the professor in the university hierarchy). Instructors weave an elaborate spider web of interconnected course goals, objectives, activities, and outcomes designed to keep accrediting bodies at bay. Although the implicit goal of Perspectives on Dickens at Princeton might be to “facilitate the formation of mutually beneficial friendship networks among privileged students that can be utilized after graduation for employment purposes,” this message would probably need to be massaged a bit before it’s ready for the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. On the other hand, professors at non-elite institutions face the challenge of articulating what some might characterize as less-than-ambitious visions for their courses: “By the end of this course, students will have read at least half of one novel by Dickens, OR viewed, in its entirety, a filmed version of one of his works. Students will be able to use the word ‘Dickens’ in a sentence and identify which one of the following characters appeared in Great Expectations: Chance the Rapper, Odell Beckham, Miss Havisham, Adele.”

Of course, what has truly transformed the syllabus into the document I love to hate is the necessity of including within it a host of you-can’t-sue-me-now university policies. A delineation of these policies can easily take up more than half the length of the syllabus. Within a decade most schools will be using a variation of the following template:

ATTENDANCE: It would be nice if you came to class, but I know you’re busy. If you miss more than 50% of our class meetings, it could affect your grade. I’m not saying it will affect your grade, but it could. However, if you never show up, your grade will almost certainly suffer. Perhaps an online section of this course would be better for you.

GRADING: In this course you can choose to be graded on your performance or on your desires. Please let me know the option you prefer by Week 3 of the semester. If you select desires, be sure to indicate the grade you wish to receive, and why. I will do my best to accommodate you. Grades of A+ are only available to students who pick the performance option, except in special circumstances. Please contact the University’s Office for Planned Giving to discuss those circumstances.

INCOMPLETES: A grade of INCOMPLETE will be given if you don’t finish all of your assignments. The INCOMPLETE will be converted to a grade of B once you turn in your work, or once you stop living, whichever comes first.

ACADEMIC INTEGRITY: Please do not plagiarize or otherwise cheat during the course. I realize that sometimes one’s options are limited because you’ve run out of time on an assignment, you walk into an exam unprepared, or you’re just not very smart. It happens. In these situations cheating may indeed be the only viable path if you wish to pass the course. If you find yourself in this fix, please contact me and we’ll work something out that doesn’t involve cash or sexual favors, but could involve washing my car. Also keep in mind that there are worse crimes than cheating. Don’t beat yourself up.

POSITIVE LEARNING ENVIRONMENT: Uttering a racial, ethnic, religious, or sexist slur in class is generally unacceptable, unless the person you’ve targeted has done something that’s really uncool, or is seriously overweight. There’s so much hate in the world these days. Please don’t contribute to it unless you have to. OK?

End of rant. May your Fall 2017 semester be everything you hoped for.