The Weekly Blab

Volume 4, Issue 2—October 20, 2009


Please note that there are several embedded links in case you want to read more on a particular subject.


Good Stuff This Week:

Lots of good things happened this past week.  Here are some capsule descriptions of ones that I attended.  Apologies if I missed one of yours, but it’s impossible to attend everything. 


The first “non-regalia” Convocation took place on Tuesday, and was a big success.  Prof. John Palfrey of the Harvard Law School spoke on the subject “Born Digital”, and discussed a number of interesting ideas about how students from the digital generation form their “personas”, and what their attitudes are about living in the digital world.  He maintains an online blog on this subject.  There are, no doubt, some important implications for how students learn, and how we should deliver instruction.  About 400 people attended, which makes it (I am told) the best attended academic event in SPSU’s history.  Does anyone know if that’s actually true?  Anyway, thanks to Mark Nunes (who did most of the organization of this, including suggesting and booking the speaker), Nancy Reichert and the Honors students, and SGA for supporting this effort.  The plan is to have a convocation every semester.  Suggestions for future speakers are welcome.


Also on Tuesday, the Scholarship @ SPSU series hosted Prof. Lili Harvey and Prof. Karen Thompson (both of Agnes Scott College), speaking about an article that appeared in the Chronicle called “Maintaining Your Research Mojo”.  Profs. Harvey and Thompson talked about the difficulties in maintaining a research program at a small liberal arts college, including lack of staff support, having only one faculty member in any given research area, lack of high-end equipment, high research expectations coupled with high teaching and service loads, and other issues that are also true for SPSU.  One of the more interesting aspects of this talk were how their own attitudes had changed—they originally “looked down” on older faculty who were no longer as active in research as they had once been, and said “this won’t happen to us”.  They then saw their own research trajectory beginning to follow the same path, and started to think about how to change that.  So—it was an interesting and timely presentation.  Thanks to Bernice Nuhfer-Halten for pulling this together. 


Also on Tuesday, a party was held for the ET department faculty, thanking them for their fine work in successfully achieving ABET accreditation for the maximum six years.  I can personally attest to the quality of the chicken fingers, but I skipped the quiche.  Thanks to Jeff Ray and his office for organizing this.


On Wednesday, the Library hosted its annual Authors Reception.  I couldn’t make this one, but I hear it was a great event that featured an archivist from the National Archives.


Also on Wednesday, the Alpha Chi Honor Society had its third induction of new members.  This is another fun activity, though I almost missed it since it got onto my calendar as happening on Thursday.  Since I have to robe up for this one, I had to borrow Steve Hamrick’s regalia since I hadn’t brought mine in.  As usual, it was great seeing the students and their parents so proud of their achievements and dressed up so nicely.  A real highlight is that each student identifies the faculty member who has had the largest impact on them, and the huge range of faculty who are chosen.  Thanks to Mark Stevens, who coordinates this activity.


On Wednesday night, I went to the International Movie presentation, featuring the Iraqi movie “Ten”.  Iraj Omidvar (ETCMA) introduced the movie, which was about the lives of women in Iran as shown by a series of ten vignettes taking place in a car being driven around by the lead actress.  By a very strange coincidence, just as I got home I received an email from my sister containing an article about the origins of the name “Szafran”.  This article says that the name derives from the spice saffron, which in turn comes from the Persian city of Zafaran.  So, way back in history, my family may have come from Persia.


On Thursday, the Construction Management held its annual fundraising dinner at the Cobb Galleria.  I’ve been to this several times over the past years, and it is always great to see the various grads and industry folks who come and speak so highly of the CM program.  Money raised from the dinner goes for student scholarships and to support faculty research activities.  Regent Tucker (from the BoR) was the speaker.  I won a week at Pawley Island, South Carolina at the silent auction, which is the same place that my backyard hammock is from.


On Friday, no events.  What’s up with that?  Again, sorry if I missed your particular event.  I’m sure it was great!


Issue to Consider:  Higher Education and Manufacturing Automobiles

Ah, October is here, and this is the season of educational analogies.  Several articles have appeared in the press as of late, on the subject of how higher education must change and using the example of what has happened to American automakers as the reason we must change.  The argument goes something like this:  American automakers were once the envy of the world, and held 80% of the domestic market, but their success carried the seeds of their future failure—their inability to change and adapt to new realities caused them to fall to today’s dire levels.  American higher education is currently the envy of the world, but if it doesn’t change to reflect current fiscal realities, it too will fall to the same sad fate.


One version of this appeared in Newsweek, written by Senator Lamar Alexander (R, Tennessee).  His primary solution is that universities should help students complete college in three years.  There are several variations of this idea that have become popular in Georgia and elsewhere, including Early Colleges and Joint Enrollment.  In this article, the colleges used as examples haven’t done anything to change their curricula—they have a three-year option where students can take additional credits in the summer session and in January term (a three-week session common at private colleges).  The students thus take 40 credits a year, and therefore earn their 120 credits in three years.  Such programs have been around for many years and some students have taken advantage of them.  Nationwide, however, the majority of students are taking longer to graduate for a variety of reasons—the average length is now over six years. 


Another version of this is in the Chronicle of Higher Education, written by Hamid Shirvani, the President of California State University—Stanislaus.  The California State system has taken a big hit in financing by the state (which itself is deep in the red), and have been forced to reduce their enrollments by tens of thousands.  Shirvani argues that we have to look at the entire higher education enterprise, and rid ourselves of the “culture of entitlement” that faculty, students, administrators, parents, etc., have fallen privy to.  Among Shirvani’s conclusions are that “employees in higher education must become more productive”, “productivity measures should be applied in all areas”, “we should re-evaluate the notion that large classes are inherently pedagogically unsound”, “for professors to teach more and do less governance and committee work”, to “focus more on degree completion” by “paying more attention to student success and seeking more and better ways [to] support and guide students”, to “re-examine the teacher/scholar model”, and to not “overlook the ever-increasing specialization of graduate programs, in which professors happily replicate students in their own, often narrow, interests, focusing on limited knowledge”.  He notes that the taxpayers must do their share, but then says “the only way that we can persuade them to invest in higher education is to demonstrate our commitment to efficiency, openness, and accountability”.


The automobile manufacturer analogy strikes me as flawed in a number of respects—foreign universities aren’t about to invade our markets (though online universities already have), and I don’t think we’re delivering a form of education that the “consumer” doesn’t want or need—quite the opposite—the world is adopting our model.  Also, there aren’t just three “manufacturers” of higher education—there are 6,000.  Most important of all, education isn’t a commodity like a car—it is a much more subtle, intellectual experience.  Still, both articles make the not so subtle point that we can count on the state for less money (on a percentage basis) in the future, as tax revenues will be down and people won’t be in the mood or have the capacity to have their taxes raised.  Hope that the state legislature (or the federal government) will come through with additional money to restore the last few years of cuts is probably a lost hope.  Despite the harsh tone of the Shirvani article, a focus on degree completion and seeking better ways to support and guide students is both a real imperative and the right thing to do.  Becoming more productive will also be necessary, which means that we’ll likely have to make some hard decisions collectively regarding class sizes and formats.  While I’m still optimistic that we’ll be able to do some hiring of new faculty for next year, doing the full complement seems unlikely.  Eventually, revenues will rise and we’ll get our share, but that is still some time in the future.   


Your comments are always welcome.



Issues to Consider:  Graduation Rates

No takers so far on winning the jazz CD for the best “how to improve graduation rates” suggestion, so the competition is still open.



Issues to Consider:  Cookies at Harvard Faculty Meetings

It’s always interesting to see what articles folks at SPSU respond to.  This week’s big winner was the one about Harvard cutting out cookies at faculty meetings to save money, which attracted more than a dozen comments.  Not too much sympathy was evident for those ivied halls.



New Contest: 

To win yet another jazz CD, answer the following three questions:


1) Americans are superstitious of the number 13.  What number are Italians superstitious of, and why?

2) What common word, other than “orange”, has no word that rhymes with it?  Hint—it is also a color.

3) What is the female equivalent of the word “fraternal”?