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Identity crisis

The University of Tulsa’s ‘reimagining’ touches a nerve



Students take the mic during a mock funeral to protest dramatic cuts at the University of Tulsa.

Joseph Rushmore

Days after the University of Tulsa announced a plan called “True Commitment: Reimagining The University of Tulsa,” President Gerard Clancy, Provost Janet Levit, and Tracy Manly, chairperson of The Provost’s Program Review Committee (PPRC), addressed students at the Reynolds Center. Clancy told students they had about an hour to air their grievances and then, after opening remarks by all three, they sat, passing a microphone back and forth, while students asked them to justify the university’s decision to cut more than 40 percent of the majors and to consolidate 10 departments in four divisions.

It didn’t go well.

Alternately dismissive and perfunctory, the three missed the passion and angst in the room. An anthropology student—the Anthropology Ph.D. program is being cut—asked, “What is my degree from the University of Tulsa worth?” Levit responded, “Your value of your degree is worth the value of a TU degree, and for that degree to be valuable, we need to make sure we have strong, viable institution and, so, that’s the value of your degree. And I just want to underscore one of the members of the committee was a member of the anthropology faculty.”

But that was not the worst answer of the afternoon.

When a student, a theatre major, told Clancy his program cannot survive without incoming students to design the sets and costumes and perform—hence, it was effectively killed with this announcement—Clancy responded, “We will sit down and see what that takes. We’ll figure out a way.”

Why was that not already done?

Nobody from theatre was on the PPRC.

Levit said students have been “voting with their feet” to explain why programs were being cut. Meanwhile, TU football, which has trouble drawing flies and is suffering from the same kind of “vote,” wasn’t touched in the new reorganization.

Jacob Howland, Ph.D., the McFarlin Professor of Philosophy at the University of Tulsa—his department is being gutted—is ready to throw things.

“We are left with a combined philosophy and religion minor. Greek, Russian, and Latin have all been eliminated. Chinese was reduced from a major to a minor. Arts and Sciences will now be a service school that staff what will be called ‘university studies.’ I will bet you $1,000 that the content of these courses will be standardized in the curriculum determined by the administration—not the faculty.”

Programs in art, music, dance, theatre, history, education, electric engineering, chemistry, law (including American Indian and Energy), geology, mathematics, physics, and finance are being cut. Days after the announcement in a Tulsa World story—not one faculty member was interviewed—a story appeared in Forbes, which read like it came directly from the provost’s office, and claimed “some faculty are disgruntled.”

Some?

From a resolution passed on April 17:

The faculty of the College of Arts and Sciences resolves 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.

To that end, the law faculty voted unanimously (with the exception of the one member of its faculty on the PPRC) not to implement the increased-teaching-loads part of the proposal until the faculty had a chance to study it.

Inexplicably, this is on the university website:

With a full football scholarship to The University of Tulsa, [Julius] Tennon prepared himself to step onto the field and the stage. Switching from offense to defense, Tennon joked, ‘I like hitting guys more than I liked being hit.’ Unfortunately, his football career was eclipsed by knee injuries, but Tennon focused on earning his degree and cultivating his acting discipline.

So, an acting discipline in a theatre department that will no longer be offered for future Julius Tennons is still touted as part of the TU charm?

Howland was apoplectic at this point and unloaded in a piece published in the City-Journal, called “Storm Clouds Over Tulsa.”

Our story is worth telling, because we have been hit by a perfect storm of trends currently tearing through the American academy: the confident ignorance of administrators, the infantilization of students, the policing of faculty, the replacement of thinking with ideological jargon, and the corporatization of education.

He questioned the university’s veracity and lack of imagination, and took officials to task for having a board of trustees “composed of business executives and lawyers, none of whom has a higher-education background.”

At stake is whether we will continue to be a liberal university: a place where young people, briefly sheltered from the noisy imperatives of the day, may take root in the rich soil of the common human past and grow into mature, independent individuals.

The administration claims the process was transparent, a characterization that infuriates every member of the faculty to whom I talked. PPRC members, who were admittedly in a tough spot, were ultimately hand-picked by Clancy and Levit and had to sign non-disclosure agreements.

A student at the forum asked Levit to post the data used to justify the reorganization.

“No, we’re not going to put it online,” she said.

Clancy added, “It wouldn’t be wise to have it all over.”

“Who are we?” one student asked Levit about the identity of the University of Tulsa.

“Data showed us we’re primarily a high-touch undergraduate institution that provides every student with a grounding in critical and creative thinking, which is heavy in STEM and focused on practical and professional training,” Levit said.

What is high-touch? The short answer: gobbledygook. It’s used by businesses to glorify what they consider to be their close interaction with their customers. Yes, the University of Tulsa is embracing this trope, as if nobody at the school in years past ever thought about working one-on-one with a student before. Further mangling the language, Clancy talks of departments as silos that will be dismantled. The university refers to Levit as a “thought leader,” and in a ‘Dear Colleagues’ letter last September, Levit, herself, wrote “We collectively believe in TU’s ‘secret sauce,’ faculty-led student engagement in the classroom and beyond.”

She also recently and breathlessly explained the PPRC ran “toward, not away from, change.”

The “reimagining” of TU is part Orwellian, part Tony Robbins.

“TU’s governors do not understand what a university is,” said Howland. “It’s a precious cultural institution whose essential task is the preservation, cultivation, and transmission of knowledge.”

(Full disclosure: I have relationships with everyone in this story, with the exception of Clancy, Levit, Manley, and Kerr. Further, I graduated from the university in 1979 with a degree in Rhetoric and Writing and spent most of my time in theatre.)

I asked Howland whether he was worried about retribution. He’s tenured, so he can’t be fired, but administrators can make his life miserable.

“What are they going to do to me? They’ve already destroyed my department. I have no more fucks left to give. How can I ask my students to read about Socrates, who exemplifies moral courage in speaking truth to power, even though he is condemned to death and executed for it—if I’m not prepared to take a stand on this?”

I emailed Clancy, Levit, and Manley and specifically asked about the vote of no-confidence by Arts and Sciences, the law faculty action, any second thoughts on the scope or rollout of the plan, the fury of students (who held a mock funeral on campus), criteria used in appointing PPRC members, Howland’s story in City Guide, and why they won’t just release the raw data they used to make such fundamental changes.

Mona Chamberlin, senior executive director for strategic marketing and communication for the university, responded by email that there was a lot of misinformation out there and she would be happy to “fact-check anything that might raise an eyebrow,” but that most of my questions could be answered by reading through the info on the website.

They weren’t.


“Some faculty are disgruntled. . .” –Micheal T. Nietzel, forbes.com

You cannot make this happen with that much resistance. You can’t fire 100 faculty members. I think they should not have touched a damn thing in any academic program as long as athletics is losing millions and nothing in our accreditation requirements requires that a school have a football or basketball team, or any sort of formal athletics program at all for that matter.
– Tamara Piety, Professor of Law

What most disturbs me is why the collective centuries of experience in teaching and curriculum design of the current TU faculty would be ignored, to shove through a radical maiming of the liberal arts reputation that TU itself has cultivated for the past several decades.
– Bruce Dean Willis, Professor of Spanish and Comparative Literature

If the university is not in financial crisis, why not take more time—say, two years—to have deeper conversations and do this right? If they get faculty and student buy-in, the changes may not look exactly like what they had envisioned, but the entire TU family would be in it together moving forward.
– Grant Matthews Jenkins, Associate Professor of English

The administration does not understand, does not appreciate the importance of graduate students in a holistic STEM education. In the geosciences, as well as other sciences, graduate and undergraduate students are amalgamated in many of their educational experiences, as well as their professional and personal development—a distinct advantage offered by the TU geosciences program.
– Dennis R. Kerr, Department Chair, and Associate Professor of Geosciences

Everybody understands higher education is in transition and largely agree we need to change. But we expect, and deserve, an
open, respectful—and learned—conversation that honors our expertise and experience. Instead of that, we have a leadership team that speaks in platitudes and demeans faculty as a ‘secret sauce’ engaged in a ‘high-touch’ learning environment.  What's more, if we persist with the food metaphors: I'm the main course, not a dish of mayonnaise.
– Brian Hosmer, H.G. Barnard Associate Professor of Western American History

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Identity crisis

The University of Tulsa’s ‘reimagining’ touches a nerve