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Friday, December 4, 2009

Hub of Mediocrity: Inviting the Playground into Our Classrooms

This is my latest Roundtable briefing and commentary. I am afraid it is highly critical and I apologize to my colleagues on the Roundtable who have worked so hard to produce a document that meets both the approval of the Arts & Sciences Council members and the expectations of the Administration that funded it and has closely supervised and encouraged its progress to this point. I offer my comments as constructive criticism.

The A&S College Extended Roundtable Implementation Committee (RTIC) met for three hours on the morning of Wednesday, December 2nd in the old BOT conference room, where we discussed the merits of the “Progress Report Circulation Draft.” This document was distributed to all A&S Council members via Email on December 1st. Members in attendance included: N. McClelland, L. Anderson-Huang, C. Beatty-Medina, C. Gilbert, D. Nemeth, D. Stierman, L. Rouillard, B. Pryor, J. Benjamin, D. Tucker, P. Lindquist, M. Denham, C. Habrecht, J. Barlow, R. Heberle.

Dean McClelland opened the meeting with an enthusiastic endorsement of the document, at one point calling it “worthy of a Pulitzer Prize.” She added that the document nevertheless might be improved by strategically inserting some more “key” or “power” words (those used currently in A&S College transformational discourse statewide in Ohio): “integrative,” “innovative,” “communicative,” and -- most important --”efficiencies.” My word search of the entire document however failed to discover anywhere the phrase “aspire to academic excellence.” This seemed strange to me since Dean McClelland in previous meetings had stressed that the final Roundtable Implementation Report would recommend a list of “action items” that could with confidence lock-in our future trajectory toward a “top-tier” ranking among A&S Colleges nationwide.

Ensuing discussion around the table revealed that the five themes comprising the “Progress Report” synthesis (curriculum, scholarship, teaching/learning modalities, graduate study, and space) had so far resulted in a draft document that emphasized in large part implementing transformational change in the A&S College by systematically improving the lower division undergraduate learning experience, thereby measurably improving retention rates of at-risk students. I have asked repeatedly to our group why UT is interested in recruiting and then retaining (at great cost in dollars and reputation) academically-unmotivated students rather than recruiting on-record high-performing academically-motivated students? Are we after a top-tier quantity ranking or top-tier quality ranking? These questions have so far gone unanswered.

Details of the transformational plan outlined in the Report further reveal that a perfect storm of 1) extreme student centeredness, 2) collaborative learning technologies, and 3) unspecified but ominous “efficiencies” are converging on the A&S College that will flood its classrooms with casual and entertaining educational activities, many featuring hand-held electronic devices. Question: Will this flood meanwhile serve to sweep our remaining tenured professoriate, long dedicated to preserving a disciplined regime of academic excellence in the A&S College, from the center of the undergraduate classroom experience, to its periphery, and eventually out the door?

This Roundtable Implementation Report in its present incarnation seems satisfied to aspire to achieve only academic mediocrity for our College of Arts and Sciences. Many of its recommendations involving the undergraduate leaning experience appear to be inviting the playground into our classrooms. If so, this initiative seems counter-productive and especially unfair to the expectations of the academically-motivated A&S College student high-achievers we have recruited. We have in fact promised them an excellent liberal arts education and satisfying academic experience on this campus.

The floodgates are already opening up: the discipline problems and anti-academic attitudes that have already trashed the academic aspirations of our urban public primary and secondary schools are apparently soon to be invited, accommodated and formally implemented into our own A&S College curriculum, scholarship, teaching/learning modalities, space and graduate studies . The huge internal contradiction and false claim in this Roundtable Report is that it claims to be taking the High Road to Top-Tier Ranking while it is obviously mapping out instead in this Roundtable Implementation Report a Low Road to Mediocrity -- or worse.


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...


Powers words such as "integrative", "innovative", and "efficiencies" are little more than administrative code for doing more (likely less) with less. As such, the process as described by you and others on this blog represents little more than an exercise that attempts to legitimize change (variously conceptualized) through faculty participation. The true challenge facing administrators, particularly in Colleges of Arts & Sciences, in a time of fiscal crisis is to stake a claim and strategically invest in and expand faculty and key infrastructures. While no doubt the impact on specific programs, disciplines, and departments may (likely will) be uneven, a failure to invest in faculty, programs, and infrastructure is a prescription for atrophy.

Concerned Alum

Awestruck said...

This is the most true description of the roundtable process that has yet to appear. Nemeth for Dean!

FRD said...

Dr. Nemeth has had some fantastic posts recently putting forth some outstanding ideas, but I have to admit his last post has me stunned. I will certainly grant the possibility I'm misunderstanding, however UT has no ability to choose not to admit students who have a high school diploma. That is a state law that other schools are able to get around via branch campuses, but UT does not have that luxury.

Further, again, my apologies if I am wrong, but do these words: "the discipline problems and anti-academic attitudes that have already trashed the academic aspirations of our urban public primary and secondary schools are apparently soon to be invited..." from Dr. Nemeth refer to UT Guarantee Students?

If they refer to some other issue, I would greatly like to learn of it, but I've worked with Kevin Kucera regarding recruitment in our department and the Guarantee is a wonderful idea. It is bringing in the best students from urban districts and particularly when state law gives UT no ability to turn anyone away, focusing on attracting strong students from urban high schools seems exactly what we would want, does it not?

Further I know A & S is in position to raise its college admissions requirements: that is part of the reason the Learning Collaborative was instituted - to serve as a point of entry while allowing colleges to be more selective.

Dr. Nemeth has had some wonderful ideas and this last posting seemed so out of tune with those others, I will cheerfully admit to missing the issues he speaks of. But if he is referring to the Guarantee and College admissions requirements, I must say I find his words incredibly disappointing. I have a great deal of anger personally for how this president and provost are pulling UT's strings, but I worry such arguments (which I again emphasize I may have misunderstood) undercut our standing.

Anonymous said...

It is not state law that the University has to dredge the harbors to find students--you misunderstand. Yes, UT must admit students with high school diplomas. But this does not mean that we should forego recruiting good students and focus resources on them. I think you and Dr Nemeth would agree on this.

Bloggie said...

Bloggie accidentally lost a few comments due to some mysterious electronic glitch. If you posted and have not seen your comment, please re-post it and Bloggie will try to do it right this time. Thank you.

horns n' fins said...

I must admit that I'm confused as well, and I hope Dr. Nemeth posts a clarification. I assume that he's not referring to the UT Guarantee since that effort is aimed specifically at high school students with a high GPA who also need to maintain a high GPA in college to stay eligible. Plus, if he meant to slam the UTG program, he probably would have done so by name.

So I certainly hope he doesn't mean that program. But I really don't know what specifically he is referring to. Jim, could you be more specific as to what you were thinking in that section of your post?

Anonymous said...

I'm all for any program that demonstrates it promotes "first-tier" academic excellence in our Arts and Sciences College. Are the retention rates for UT Guarantee students good? I have not seen that data. Speaking of data: Here, for seven Ohio universities, are the six-year graduation rates for students entering in 2001:

Miami University = 78.5%
University of Cincinnati = 51.7%
Bowling Green = 56.6%
University of Akron = 33.9%
Cleveland State University 31.3%
Ohio State University = 71.2%
Kent State = 50% (for 2003-2009)

This OBOR data appears in a Kent State University newspaper report written by Kelly Petryszyn titled "University Concerned about Low Graduation Rates" and can be viewed here:

Perhaps someone out there can share with us comparable data for UT. signed, Jim

WTF said...

I agree with Awestruck, Nemeth for Dean!

Anonymous said...

Though your intent is great, the Deanship, as it stands now, is way below someone like Dr. Nemeth.

WTF said...

WTF was I saying? Nemeth for Dean? No way. Nemeth for President! and the BS will end.

Anonymous said...

Is the picture at the top of this post of a recent Arts and Sciences Council Meeting?

JB said...

regarding the picture, No; it's merely a new "modality" of teaching.

Laura Sailer said...

Dear Professor Nemeth and his critics, this was brought to my attention by one of my own professors. After reading the article about it in the Collegian, I too was ready to cry racist and elitist, being a product of an "urban" school myself but also a Dean's list student for 3 consecutive semesters as a Sociology undergrad and now a graduate student in Music Education.

However, after I read Professor Nemeth's original post, I have to say that people are taking what he has said out of context and running with it. Before you can criticize someone, you have to know his or her position thoroughly. I don't think anyone bothered to do this...they skimmed what he wrote and seem to be fixated on a few words.

After reading the blog, it seems to me he is criticizing a new proposed PLAN for the College of A&S, one which, pardon the language, allows the inmates to run the asylum. By this I mean Professor Nemeth feels that the College is proposing allowing a more lax approach in our classrooms to make students like coming to class rather than being concerned primarily with academics.

He does use urban schools as an example of undisciplined schools and fears our university will become this way, but I don't think he is even talking about the program that allows students from urban schools with a 3.5 GPA to get a free education at UT. I think people just assume because he used the word "urban," he must be critcizing this program.

That said, I do feel that this is an unfair, though not racist, generalization about urban schools. As a current education major, I have visited both elite and less economically advantaged schools and have seen the same kind of discipline problems in both. It all boils down to what teachers are willing to accept in their classrooms, and this goes double for the University.

I think all Professor Nemeth was trying to say is that he is not in favor of any policy where academics are sacrificed to lure students to the University or the department of College and Sciences. If we disagree with him, let's first be certain we understand what his point was in the first place!

horns n' fins said...

Laura, I applaud your nuanced and thoughtful response. It is probably the best response that I've seen on this topic.

horns n' fins said...

This is my belated reply to Jim's "anonymous" post above that requested some statistical information.

1. lists UT's 6-year graduation rate as 42%.

2. The UT Guarantee program was announced last Fall. Application deadlines were during the Spring semester so this semester, Fall 09, is the first semester of attendance for students who had been awarded this scholarship, so no retention statistics are yet possible for them.

3. Retention data for students with the same characteristics was presented by Kevin Kucera, Associate Vice President for Enrollment Services at the October 14, 2008 Faculty Senate meeting. The minutes are available at with VP Kucera's remarks beginning near the bottom of the fifth page. His PowerPoint presentation is available at Retention rates for for DHS students are on 10th slide. The figures show that students with the eligibility requirements of the UT Guarantee program have retention rates comparable to the overall UT student population and higher than the overall rates for all students from the initial six target cities.

Anonymous said...

The following blog posts to the Independent Collegian newspaper website indicate that the “transformation” of the UT Carlson Library under the Jacobs Administration has also invited “the playground” into its sacred space:

Mike Staveskie posted on Monday December 14: ~ While on the subject of mediocrity I challenge everyone who reads this to go to CARLSON LIBRARY any week day night on the first floor. I am disgusted with how UT runs Carlson Library. It is a zoo in there with people talking on cell phones and listening to music on their phones. The fact that a majority of students are on Facebook or Myspace. How do you promote academics in a place like that?
Just the other night I had to fill out an electronic survey so I went to the library to do that ... I couldn’t even concentrate because of all the distractions with people on cell phones and yelling across the room to check out Facebook. I challenge Krystal Weaver to do something about that facility if she wants to make a lasting impact on the UT campus. Instead of speaking about lacking academic preparedness or calling out "racism" I encourage both parties to do a survey of their own at Carlson library for actual facts. If no actual survey is done this is just going to be another lost argument that people will forget in 2 weeks and it will also serve as a learning tool for both parties involved. ~

“Geoff” posted on Tuesday, December 15: ~ Furthermore, I challenge anyone to go to any of the other floors at Carlson library, and spend an hour or two trying to study under a sign that says "quiet area." Apparently there is an epidemic illiteracy on main campus, as most people who come in apparently cannot read the "quiet area" signs posted everywhere. The Carlson library is a zoo, the Mulford library is becoming one, and the law library illegally bans UT students from studying there. Maybe they have the right idea over there at law. ~