Monday, September 27, 2010
Please join FRPE and the Education Action Coalition for an exciting conversation about the challenges facing higher education today.
Reclaiming the University: Fulfilling our Promise to Students and the Public
Thu, Sep 30, 5:00-6:30pm
Free and open to all
U of M, West Bank
Blegen Hall, room 5
We are told that the university is in crisis. The administration claims the crisis is created by reductions in public support. Yet even before the recent cuts in state appropriations, the University was doing a poor job fulfilling its educational mission as a land-grant institution. Skyrocketing tuition has limited access to our state’s flagship university, the milking of tuition-generating units to fund initiatives unrelated to education has diminished the quality of instruction, and the pursuit of private sources of revenue has compromised the institution’s ethics and academic integrity. This critical conversation about higher education will illuminate why higher education is failing the public, and consider how collective action can change this situation.
Carl Elliott, Professor, Center for Bioethics, University of Minnesota
“A Fatal Drug Study at the University of Minnesota and Why It will Happen Again” - on the tragic story of Dan Markingson, a mentally ill young man who died in a clinical trial conducted at the University of Minnesota. The case exposes stunning ethical lapses at the U, lapses that are likely to recur without major structural changes.
Gary Rhoades, General Secretary of the American Association of University Professors
“Reclaiming the Public Promise of Public Higher Education” - on how prioritizing private, institutional, and corporate interests in pursuit of revenue and rankings has undercut the public responsibilities and functions of public universities.
Sofia Shank, campus activist and Women’s Studies major at the University of Minnesota
“The Legacy of Bruininks’s ‘Strategic Positioning’: Tracing the Direction of the University” - on the consequences of strategic positioning for students at the University of Minnesota, and organizing for change.
Moderated by Karen Ho, Associate Professor of Anthropology, UofM
Wednesday, September 22, 2010
Bruininks also weighed in from Morocco:
"I have every confidence in Vice President Himle and her integrity"...adding that she "continues to be an outstanding part of my leadership team."
Tuesday, September 21, 2010
Barbara Coffin, head of the film unit at the U's Bell Museum of Natural History, described the TW fiasco as "our messy internal confusion" to the Star Tribune. She added, "Unfortunately, an impulsive late-hour decision to pull the film from broadcast was made without wide internal discussion." The STRIB also reports that The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy has filed a legal request to obtain information about why the documentary was canceled.
David Brauer of the Minnesota Post reports on other cases of industry influence on the U, which resulted in the pulling of a story by a writer who had previously written an article that included some criticism of ethanol. Himle was involved in this case as well and also invoked the word "balance." (Seems like university relations understands balance as giving industry's perspective the same weight as peer-reviewed science...)
Molly Priesmeyer of the Daily Planet tackles the academic freedom angle, with some choice quotes from this blog and Cary Nelson:
"Perhaps Minnesota's public relations office hopes to deflect attention from Troubled Waters by creating a troubled campus," said Nelson, author of the book No University is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom.
"Academic freedom applies to creative projects like films, just as it applies to conventional research," Nelson said. "Of course, if the filmmakers agreed contractually to some form of oversight or approval by the University, that's another matter. If not, the PR office's action is both bizarre and unacceptable."Bizarre and unacceptable indeed. She also had the opportunity to view a copy of the film in the possession of one of the major funders of the project.
Finally, the Daily published an op-ed about "Troubled Waters" in today's paper.
Monday, September 20, 2010
First, Karen Himle spoke to them. She'd been refusing to comment. And her comments reveal that her concerns were editorial. According to the Daily, she
"watched a copy over Labor Day weekend, [and] what she saw unsettled her. The contents of the film were a long way from what the title, “Troubled Waters: A Mississippi River Story,” led her to expect, Himle said. Her concern began when she saw a commercial sign for Organic Valley’s dairy farm. “Typically, in an institutional documentary you wouldn’t see a commercial interest,” Himle said. A few minutes later the film walked through the practices of Thousand Hills Cattle Company. Both companies, which use alternative methods of farming, were shown favorably, Himle said. There was also a scene at the Walker Art Center that discussed local food. “Now I’m thinking, well, OK, so now where’s the river? Because we’re getting an awful lot of commercial conversation,” she said."
Let me connect the dots for you, Karen. Agriculture is responsible for much of the run-off that is damaging our waterways, so to understand what's happening to the Mississippi River, the film had to cover that. And alternative farming methods that reduce run-off offer some solutions for this problem.
Another piece of interesting new information is that a cabal of deans at CFANS also previewed the film and were dismayed by what they saw.
"Levine said questions were raised about the impartiality and the scientific accuracy of the documentary. “I’m not a scientist in this particular area. I was just looking at balance, and it seemed unbalanced,” he said. Greg Cuomo, CFANS associate dean for extension and outreach, said he thought the film “dramatized” the relationship between farming and river pollution and “vilified” agriculture without a strong understanding of how it works. “They made agriculture look very bad,” Cuomo said. Scientists are obligated to look objectively at both sides of a problem, he said. But he said he thought the film “drew strong connections to things that weren’t well supported.” Abel Ponce de León, another CFANS associate dean who viewed “Troubled Waters,” scrutinized its scientific approach, calling it lopsided. He said he did not judge the documentary for which side it advocated, but for a lack of “vital” information. “The University is a place that tests all angles and opinions,” Ponce de León said. “We are not here to give one single opinion or choose an opinion.” The group called for another review, though Cuomo said he didn’t know what the goal of a second look would be. But, he said, there is an expectation of “scientific validity.”"
And the clencher, which finally puts to rest WHY the U pulled the film: "If the scientists from CFANS had not also had an issue with it, the film would have gone forward as is, Himle said."
Say it ain't so! Can you imagine your Dean messing around in your work and telling you that it doesn't meet her/his standards for balance (whatever that means)?
Finally, U scientist David Tilman comments on the film after viewing it. He doesn't think the U caved to special interests. But he also said that the film didn’t appear controversial to him. "“We need agriculture to provide food, a point the movie makes. Agriculture has some environmental impacts,” Tilman said. “All documentaries have to have a point of view. This was a proponent of the Mississippi River.” But he said he thought the film presented scientific facts — “science as best we know it.”"
Saturday, September 18, 2010
But of course university officials won't say that. After the story was picked up by other media outlets, university officials were having a difficult time getting their story straight. Himle has refused to talk to the press, but she indicated in communications with some parties that the film was pulled to review its scientific content. So the U's pretty boy media relations director Dan Wolter was left holding the bag. First he said that he was unsure why the film was pulled but that the Bell Museum had done so because it needed further scientific review. But Bell's associate director of communications, Martin Moen, said that Himle pulled it but that he couldn't say why. University of Minnesota scientists who participated in the making of the documentary are not commenting publicly, but the director of the film, Larkin McPhee, is puzzled. Winner of numerous prestigious awards for her films, McPhee says that the film underwent extensive fact checking by university scientists.
The game of hot potato finally ended today when the Dean of CFANS, Al Levine, finally talked to reporters. According to Levine, "Troubled Waters" was postponed because it "vilifies agriculture." Apparently the film has too much drama for him and unfairly targets agricultural pollution, since it considers agriculture's role in water pollution before discussing other sources of pollution. ""Agriculture is a major contributor to these issues, we know that," he said, noting the film takes a half-hour to talk about other sources of runoff, such as cities or lawn chemicals." He does not dispute the film's accurancy but its balance, and according to him, the film should have presented views by scientists who concentrate on the need to increase agricultural production to feed 9 billion people by 2050.
Perhaps Dean Levine should resign as Dean and become a documentary film maker. University officials have once again shown themselves to be the gang that can't shoot straight. In hopes of quietly squelching a film that highlights the major role that agriculture plays in polluting our waterways--a FACT that nobody disputes--they have created a media frenzy that not only assures that the film will be widely viewed if it is released, but also makes the University look like a sell-out to industry. The University denies that there was external pressure (read: big ag). And that is probably true. The saddest part of this story is that it looks like university officials pulled the film preemptively in order to avoid complaints from industry. Industry influence runs so deep that they can exert power without lifting a finger. The mere possibility that industry will reduce its funding of research at the U leads our top officials to compromise our academic integrity.
Thursday, September 16, 2010
Maybe so, but there's no denying the high debt that many students incur attending UMN. So what to do about it? Maybe not raise tuition? No mention of that. Stop using our students' tuition money to subsidize the prez's grandiose projects? Noooo. The root problem is that UMN has failed to communicate effectively with the public. "Bruininks said the University needs to do a better job educating the public about the actual cost of attendance and ways students can make that cost lower for themselves, like graduating in four years or earning college credit while in high school." In other words, the concerns of Minnesotans are baseless! So little surprise that the administration is reviving the Driven to Discover television ads. Don't bother to fix the problem, just try to dupe the public!
Sounds to me like the administration is making it pretty clear that when they say they want to see the U be a place where great research can happen, they only mean research that makes big business happy.
Wednesday, September 15, 2010
But what's all this about students finally getting the message that getting through in four years is a good thing?
Students aren't the problem here. Not even remotely. Sure, there may be a tiny handful of students who willfully lollygag their way through four or five major changes who then wind up taking seven or eight years to graduate as a result. Maybe. But if those students are out there, they're certainly not characteristic of the students who routinely come through my classroom as fifth- and sixth-year seniors. Those students have been slowed down on the road to a diploma because they're simply not able to take the classes they need to fulfill their requirements in a timely fashion. Those classes simply don't get offered often enough. Or they get offered every semester, but never with enough seats for everyone who needs them. And none of that is because of students. It's because the U's administration doesn't really give a damn about education.
Do the math. Student enrollments are going up. Tuition rates are going up. More students paying more money to attend the U should make it possible for the U to hire more faculty, more P&A instructors, and/or more graduate student instructors to help meet the needs of all those additional students.
And yet, the administration has cut back on faculty lines, let go more P&A instructors than it's hired, and downsized graduate programs. All in the name of "financial stringency." So, at best, students who somehow still manage to complete their degrees in four years will get a weaker education for all that extra money, since they'll be taking ever larger classes from ever more overworked instructors. And, at worst, it'll be even harder than before for most students to complete their studies in anything resembling a normal time frame.
So it's even more infuriating that Sullivan and Bruininks are working so hard to "remind" students of the need to finish up their degrees in four years. It's not our students who need this reminder, after all. It's the administration who needs to be reminded that students can't complete their degrees without taking courses. And that they can't take those courses if they're not offered. And that those courses can't be offered if the administration is shrinking the U's instructional staff instead of expanding it.
The Daily's editors wrote a short commentary on Dan Markingson's case. The editors note that "the case deserves continued public scrutiny, not only about the actions of the researchers carrying out the University’s mission, but about whether the University’s research mission itself favors public good over profit":
The City Pages also published a brief interview with Elliott. When asked how his peers have reacted to his Mother Jones piece, Elliott answered, "Well, outside the medical school, and outside the university as a whole: lots of support for me personally, and, as you'd expect, shock that this could happen here. Inside the medical school: silence." Which may be because many in the medical school are lining their pockets with money from Big Pharma.
How could the U allows its employees to participate in projects that compromise its academic integrity? "You could ask the same question about any of a number of scandals at the university. A couple of years ago, the Star Tribune discovered that Leo Furcht, the co-chair of an ethics task force at the U working on a new conflict-of-interest policy, had steered a $501,000 pharma grant into a firm he owned and which he later sold for $9.5 million in stock. When the Star Tribune asked Deborah Powell, the dean of the medical school, why she had appointed Furcht to chair the ethics task force, she said it was because of his "extensive experience" devising conflict-of-interest rules. Furcht remains chair of the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology." Ouch!
What about developing a stricter conflict of interest policy at the med school? "There are a few people concerned about conflicts of interest, but most of them seem afraid to say much. They prefer to keep their thoughts to themselves. As my brother says, "Doctors fear drug companies like bookies fear the mob."" It's time for faculty in other units to work in solidarity with those in the medical school that are concerned about the influence of corporate money on the academic integrity of our institution.
Also see Elliott's interesting piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the pharmaceutical industry's use of influential physicians (often academic researchers) to give lectures, to conduct clinical trials, and to make presentations on their behalf at regulatory meetings or hearings.
Will the U respond with the usual legal-ese from the General Counsel or will it finally take steps to address the root problem?
Monday, September 13, 2010
- No budget cuts!
- Decrease tuition, cancel student debt!
- Stop layoffs and program cuts!
- Democratize the U! Elected students, faculty, and campus workers on all decision-making bodies!
- Confront institutional racism! Defend affirmative action and ethnic studies!
The Coalition is raising awareness for Oct. 7 on the U of M campus by bannering, picketing, and handing out tons of leaflets to students. They will also have a camera to interview students as a way to engage them about the particular struggles they are going through with tuition, debt, and increased class sizes.
They'll meet up at this location every Tuesday until the 7th at noon, holding a new and creative action each week. FRPE is working with this Coalition on some events related to October 7, so we encourage people to participate.
Sunday, September 12, 2010
This means that the university made an instructional profit on each student of $15,553 for a total of $2.6 billion. In other words, teaching undergrads is a highly profitable business, and these students actually subsidize everything else universities do.We don't have access to all the same types of data for UMN that Samuels did ... but we've got enough of it to approximate his analysis here. And what we're missing (e.g., figures on how much the state subsidizes each student) would tend to skew the figures that we can generate in ways that make things look better than they actually are.
By our calculations, roughly $288m of the $1.2b that the UMN system spends on payroll each year goes towards faculty and instructors who actually teach undergraduates. With roughly 33,000 undergraduates system-wide, that works out to a per-student instructional cost of $8,667.72 for one year. Annual in-state tuition and fees, however, are $12,288. That's a profit of more than $3,600 per student before we factor in whatever portion of the state appropriation is actually spent on undergraduate education.
To be sure, some of that excess helps to fund facilities and services that are vital to undergraduate education. Libraries, computer labs, and classroom maintenance (to name just three) aren't free, and there are thousands of front-line non-instructional staff without whom undergraduate instruction would be impossible.
But when tuition is going up, and the budgets for support facilities are being slashed, it's clear that the administration is working overtime to funnel more and more tuition dollars into projects that aren't part of the university's educational mission at all.
Such a policy, of course, must be opposed. (The article does a good job of explaining why--link below.) But such figures could illuminate some dynamics that university presidents don't seem to want to discuss. For example, universities often shell out big money for star faculty and let everyone else survive on the crumbs that are left over. Such faculty teach fewer and often smaller courses. What would their profit-loss statements look like? Do we have a system in which the labor of the majority subsidizes the super stars? (The answer to that is yes.) In addition, it would probably show that the colleges that teach large numbers of students and survive primarily on tuition are profit centers while many of the units that depend more on research are loss centers. This means that undergrad tuition is subsidizing parts of the university that do not teach them. Which is why the administration keeps promising, but never delivers, an accounting of how tuition dollars are spent. The logic of milking the colleges that generate tuition revenue to fund other parts of the university is manifested in what is happening with faculty positions. Dozens of faculty positions in CLA remain unfilled. Most departments were forced to reduce the number of graduate students that they admit, which means fewer TAs are available to support the teaching of large lecture courses. Students in CLA are having a harder time getting the courses that they need this semester. Meanwhile the biomedical sciences will get 40 new faculty lines. (See for more on this subject: http://umnfaculty.blogspot.com/2010/03/is-now-time-for-big-new-projects.html#links )
Saturday, September 11, 2010
Elliott was also interviewed recently on MPR:
The U, of course, has its lawyers hot on the case of disputing Elliott's work. General Counsel Mark Rotenberg issued the following statement this week:
(On Rotenberg's antics as General Counsel, check out these posts on Periodic Table:
The statement ends with a reference to the Academic Health Center's new conflict of interest policy. Aside from the issue of lack of consultation with faculty at the AHC regarding the policy, the new policy seems to have many substantive shortcomings.
One wonders if such a weak policy has the teeth necessary to prevent the conflicts of interest that may have contributed to the death of Dan Markingson.
Friday, September 10, 2010
Click on the link for the table. Scrutinize it carefully. Note that the figures are from 2008 and 2009, not 2010. The table shows that total faculty positions are increasing, which we all know just ain't so, at least not in the parts of the University that teach most of our undergraduates. Note that there's no mention about things like student debt. Only two-thirds of our students graduate in 6 years (probably because they are working too many hours to avoid going deeper into debt). But perhaps most importantly, the obsession with numbers misses the most important thing--the quality of the education that our students receive. Why don't we think about that for a change instead of obsessing about our ranking?
Dear Faculty, Staff, and Students,
Welcome to a new academic year, one filled with great possibilities and potential!
Despite financial challenges, our progress continues. Consider the new Class of 2014. Never has our freshman class been so academically strong, with so much promise, and with so many new opportunities to explore and discover. For the first time, the mean ACT exceeds 27, and for the first time our entering class will have the opportunity to learn in one of the nation's cutting-edge science and engineering classroom buildings, touted by a recent peer review team as "…preparing for what is emerging as the undergraduate pedagogy of the future,…designed for in-class active learning [that] is unique among large research universities." Next year will see the completion of the exciting and innovative renovation of our exceptional Weisman Art Museum. Together, these buildings frame the Mississippi River as a new gateway to the East Bank of campus. Each inspires us to advance our expectations and aspirations for ourselves and our University.
Other campus changes are less visible but equally compelling. We are engaging in a thorough review of the scope and scale of the University, reevaluating the budget model, exploring new ways of integrating e-learning into our courses and academic programs, implementing recent faculty/student recommendations to reshape and improve graduate education, developing new learning assessment programs, and aligning the health sciences along a new national model.
Perhaps the simplest way of capturing a snapshot of our recent successes is this table highlighting progress from the beginning of our strategic positioning effort through today.
As students, faculty, and staff, we are engaged together in making a difference, each in our own way, toward helping to understand and solve some of the world's most urgent and intractable problems. The stronger we are as a community, the stronger we will be as problem solvers and leaders. Yes, we will have to be even more financially prudent, even more agile, and even more creative in order to invest wisely, but given our mission and goal we simply must continue our intensity of purpose and resolve.
I'm reminded of the words of one of our University's pivotal leaders, John S. Pillsbury, as we continue to advance quality in difficult economic times. Pillsbury, who was instrumental in helping to guide our University through financial hardship in the 1860s, reminded us of the need to "Act; act now; act effectively; act for the greatest good." Wise words to consider as we seek to maintain our strategic positioning momentum.
To our new faculty, students, and staff, I welcome you to your new home. And welcome back to those who already have joined us on our exciting journey together.
Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost
Julius E. Davis Chair in Law
Looks like this will be the ad (warning: grab a bucket first because watching it will make you sick to your stomach):
How much was spent on creating this 3 minutes of baloney? And how much more will be flushed down the toilet on the television campaign?
Thursday, September 9, 2010
But no worries, they tell us, because "the building will be financed primarily through the Student Capital Enhancement Fee introduced at the start of the fall 2008 semester. The fee is being phased in over five years and will cap at $75 per student per semester. It is expected to raise about $79 million a year, director of Financial Analysis Lincoln Kallsen said. It will fund the entire project." In other words, whether students want the facility or not, they are going to be shelling out more in student fees, and this on top of ever-rising tuition costs that have resulted in huge debt burdens for our students. Open up your wallets, kids!
Wednesday, September 8, 2010
For additional commentary on the presidential search see:
Recent Daily reporting on the search:
And finally, a Chronicle of Higher Ed piece on closed versus open searches (the full article is unavailable on the CHE website unless you are a subscriber but UofMN folks can click on this link if already logged in under x500):
Sunday, September 5, 2010
Minnesota does stand out in one ranking, that for total student debt, where it ranks 5th (the ranking excludes for-profit institutions).
Big schools, of course, have more total debt. But this is still a disturbing statistic. (There's a link to the data source for the article for those who wish to dig deeper.)
The Consumerist has a great analysis of the mechanics of student debt, which stands at a staggering $829 billion. The article compares government-sponsored student loans to sub-prime mortgages and argues that it is not only the higher education institutions that are raking in the money. The government has also profited from skyrocketing tuition since students have to borrow more to finance their educations. Everyone wins but the students.