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Revolution by template

The University of Tulsa’s sleight of hand



The University of Tulsa

Greg Bollinger

One of the things that still boggles the mind surrounding True Commitment: Reimagining The University of Tulsa—aside from its clunky rollout—was how utterly unprepared school administration officials were for the faculty uproar.

Instead, they peddled Successories posters:

For those focused on our future and on the work at hand, we are rowing hard and in unison. Some of us may be pros, while some may be new and just finding their sea legs. The water may be choppy at times, but we are rowing, all while finding new ways to improve performance.

That was the school’s provost, Janet Levit, presenting the plan to the faculty back on April 11. Bad enough faculty members felt dismissed and marginalized, their departmental identities and life’s work sublimated, but now they were being asked to buy into some fatuous boating cliché.

While touting the courage it took to present True Commitment—the administration’s self-congratulations was positively Trumpian—Clancy and Levit simultaneously tried to reassure a nervous university community it wasn’t that big of a deal.

Regarding these large changes, President Clancy said, “I actually call it the third transformation of TU.” This is the largest and most significant change seen by the university in over three decades. (The Collegian)

But then he added:

Just 6% of our total student population are enrolled in the affected programs for their primary degrees.

Either you’re announcing a significant change to your educational philosophy or you’re just junking the theatre department. Pick one.

Which brings us to EAB, an education consulting firm—TU’s education consulting firm. I have a copy of its report, How Multidisciplinary Organization Supports Institutional Goals, which, depending to whom you talk, was either the muse for True Commitment or simply scanned in under the TU logo.

A number of faculty members told me that Tracey Manly, head of TU’s Provost’s Program Review Committee, publicly acknowledged that EAB was actively involved in the formulation of True Commitment.

I wrote Clancy and asked him.

“The True Commitment plan,” he answered, “was developed by faculty on the Provost Program Review Committee, and no consultant, from EAB or elsewhere, proposed or developed any part of the plan.”

Except.

Clancy also said: “For several years, at the recommendation of the previous provost, TU has been a member of EAB’s academic affairs forum, which offers members access to research on a variety of issues, including different models of transitioning small departments into larger divisions.”

Interesting distinction.

Clancy had also previously sent an email to a faculty member in which he wrote the school had “Implemented the Advanced Performance Solutions with EAB to track our academic efficiencies,” so, clearly, EAB’s DNA can be found on True Commitment.

“Manly discussed it at one of the early ‘town hall’ meetings in the weeks after 4/11.”

That’s Robert Jackson, the James G. Watson Professor of English at TU, who wasn’t at all happy with the process.

“They were not actually ‘town hall’ meetings at all, but highly choreographed sessions in which emailed questions were read to the president, provost, and Manly, and no follow-up questions or other discussion after their responses were allowed. In light of their efforts at tight control, Manly’s acknowledgement of EAB’s involvement seems to constitute quite a lapse. But there it is. Unfortunately, this exemplifies the administration’s performance from the beginning: dubious methods of forging policy, authoritarian impulses to censor communications and ham-fisted control of the official narrative.”

EAB, as mentioned, helps schools transition from departmental models of higher education where, say, philosophy, geology and English act as sort of nation states within the university, to an interdisciplinary approach to academia, where disciplines are combined and critical thinking, acknowledgement and appreciation of ethical concerns are the new focus. An interdisciplinary approach, since it lumps departments together (like Philosophy and Religion), eliminates staff and increases class sizes (all elements of TU’s True Commitment), can also save a school money.

But only a cynic would say that’s the true motivation.

Call me a cynic.

In his book In Defense of Disciplines, Jerry A. Jacobs, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, says there’s something else at play:

The push for interdisciplinarity fits with current managerial ideology, and increases the power of administrators.

And EAB is sending out the template to administrators on not only how to implement the plan, but the talking points that should be used in selling it.

EAB, in its “Sample Timeline Academic Reorganization,” recommends a five-year phase-in of such reorganization; the University of Tulsa announced a five-year phase-in for True Commitment. EAB talks of “silos” in its “Multidisciplinary Reorganization Toolkit”; President Clancy did as well in his message to faculty and staff, touting the move “from siloed departments to interdisciplinary divisions.”

EAB refers to its president of enrollment and advancement marketing services as a “thought leader”; the University of Tulsa applies the business-speak label to Janet Levit as well. And EAB advocates creating “high-touch student service model”; Janet Levit says the University of Tulsa is a “high-touch undergraduate institution.”

“We have also discovered uncanny similarities between the proposed cuts at TU and those at other institutions that hired EAB,” Jackson adds. “Even the wording of official documents, press releases, and the like, is identical, or nearly so.”

The problems with True Commitment, though, are not just stylistic. In its report, EAB instructs universities how to ramrod the whole process.

“When institutions are very small or very centralized, it is possible to make a decision without an extended period for faculty, student, or staff input.”

Lovely.

“My department, English, is one of the few in Arts and Sciences to have been spared the most devastating cuts,” says Jackson, who, nevertheless, despises the new plan.

“Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be much basis at all for faculty to trust the administration at this point,” he says. “A few administrators produced the plan in secret, developing its details with the input of an external consulting firm while keeping the TU faculty in the dark for months. Then they unveiled the plan with the claims that it actually came from the faculty and represented a high level of shared governance. Now they expect the same faculty for whom they’ve shown nothing but contempt to carry out a plan that will seriously harm the institution. So, you tell me, what would you do if you were a faculty member in this situation?”

I would throw something.

In the section “Divisional Faculty Evaluation Checklist” under Divisional Promotion and Tenure Guideline Checklist, EAB explains the new criteria for faculty advancement. In doing so, it trashes a tenure system which has been around since around 1887.

According to the EAB’s website, where once “Department promotion criteria prioritize evidence of disciplinary excellence,” the company now advocates “Divisional promotion criteria prioritize divisional and institutional mission.”

What this means is that under the new interdisciplinary model, the University of Tulsa will be able to promote faculty members, not for their mastery of disciplinary rigor, but because of their ability to satisfy institutional objectives.

Look, if TU wants to crib an off-the-shelf reorganization plan and pass it off as coming from Sinai, that’s one thing, but this change in tenure is chilling.

TU administrators want to be Geppetto to the faculty’s Pinocchio.

At one point in her presentation to staff and faculty, Levit reminded faculty to behave: “I request that you have an open mind and civility in discourse.”

When you gut a person’s passion and life’s work—when you literally jackhammer the ground beneath his or her feet—civility is the last thing you get to ask for.

Jackson sees the long con.

“Invoking interdisciplinarity is simply an attempt to make an unpopular administrative power grab sound intellectually defensible,” he says. “I’ve been thinking about interdisciplinary scholarship for the better part of three decades now. I even earned advanced degrees in two different fields in an effort to be able to do good interdisciplinary work, which has to meet standards of quality and rigor in each discipline it addresses in order to be taken seriously. That’s a tall order, and one of the things I’ve learned is that it’s quite difficult to produce good scholarship in any single discipline, let alone more than one. What’s been proposed at TU, instead, is the actual destruction of disciplines based on some very short-sighted, and often inaccurate, metrics.”

Here’s Clancy again:

We met with faculty who are impacted by these changes to share with them what you are about to read. I’m grateful for their support of the greater purpose. With rare exception, there was understanding and support.

Rare exception?

On April 17, the faculty of the College of Arts and Sciences resolved not to implement the changes proposed by the PPRC within the coming year (2019-2020), pending the creation of a task force, composed of and elected by A&S faculty, to study the effects of the proposed changes on students, faculty and the University.

The vote was 89 to 4.

And one of the four who did support the plan, Kalpana Misra, dean of The University of Tulsa’s Henry Kendall College of Arts and Sciences, just announced her retirement, following the 2019-20 academic year.

“Any speculation that my decision and the university’s plans for change are somehow tied is inaccurate,” she wrote me when I asked if there was a connection.

“I wanted to return to my teaching and scholarship,” she wrote. “I look forward to leading the college through the next year and recognize that our planned changes are particularly difficult for many of my colleagues.”

I’ll be curious to see if “our planned changes” becomes “their planned changes” when she’s back with her colleagues.

While we’re on the subject, where are the faculty members not on the PPRC who will fall on their swords (and teaching loads) for this plan? Where are their public statements highlighting their eagerness to row in the same shell for TU’s institutional glory?

Jackson, for one, won’t be one of them.

“This is a disaster, in something like the 16th-century Italian sense,” he says. “The stars are out of alignment, and a great many people are going to suffer for it.”

Read that quote again. Jackson combined history, English, astronomy, and psychology. The University of Tulsa’s True Commitment is not just a disaster—it’s an interdisciplinary disaster.

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