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‘High-touch,’ or out of touch?

A critical analysis of TU’s ‘reimagining’

Students protest program cuts at the University of Tulsa.

Joseph Rushmore

As anyone not living under a rock knows, The University of Tulsa—formerly recognized as the premier liberal arts college in the Midwest—has seen better days. Administrators have been met with a steady outcry from the community in response to the university’s decision to uproot 40 percent of the degree programs and offerings in the name of progress and student success.

To better understand where administration is coming from, I sat down with the Provost Program Review Commitee (PPRC) report to put my TU humanities degree to good use. I pored over the report, like a work of literature, trying to understand the authors’ intent. As Barry Friedman pointed out in the last issue of The Tulsa Voice, the language behind the University’s new initiative is “part Orwellian, part Tony Robbins.” As such, the text is a perfect grappling partner for someone with a well-rounded liberal arts education.

Critics say the university’s “reimagining” is based on a narrow view of the future, putting job placement ahead of a comprehensive education and turning students away from fields that are not STEM-based. There was no impact assessment of how this academic strategy, ironically named “True Commitment,” would affect “applications, enrollment, faculty hiring and retention, or institutional prestige.” In their own words, this was a “skate to where the puck will be” decision. Evident in sustained faculty and student opposition, TU leadership has misinterpreted the players, the arena, and altogether, the game they’re playing.

“True Commitment” is just one goal of TU President Gerard Clancy’s five-year “Strategic Plan.” His five objectives all seem to skate towards an imaginary puck without showing how such a path is achievable or why his vision of TU is positive. For example, objective two is to increase enrollment at TU by “a minimum” of 22 percent—from 4,400 to 5,400 students. How this will be achievable following significant cuts to degree options for prospective students, consolidating and closing entire departments, and ostracizing professors in those areas remains unclear from the text of the report.

One goal within objective two is to “[r]educe the cost and perceived cost of a TU education for all.” I don’t know the difference between an actual cost and “perceived” tuition price—I’m a lowly humanities grad, after all—but I don’t see this being reduced anytime soon.

The basis for this plan, which admittedly “radically alters the landscape of our university,” stems from recommendations made by the Higher Learning Commission. However, as Professor of English Holly Laird writes in an open letter:

the HLC did not require this radical a shift in our university design. Though it required the development of a PPRC, the current budget issues and inflated numbers of programs had already been addressed last fall; thus the PPRC was positioned to take as much time as needed to study the university’s history and organization rather than devise a complete transformation of T.U. into something quite different from its historic shape in less than one academic year

Further, the HLC required that TU implement a model of “shared governance” to make assessments; an order that TU leadership apparently saw as more of a suggestion. Laird continues:

nominees for the PPRC were filtered, first, through the deans, then, through an administratively shaped interview process and, then, were asked to sign non-disclosure agreements. Earlier this spring, the plan that resulted was presented directly to you without prior consultation of any of the university’s faculty or student constituencies. This means that not only the concept of ‘shared governance,’ but the claim of ‘transparency’ both were abrogated.

At least seven student and faculty organizations have drafted and signed no faith letters that formally reject “True Commitment.” Xandra Kaste, a recent graduate in French and English Literature, helped draft a letter by students in the French Department. Kaste and her peers went over the recommendations and discussed how they would practically affect students. They compiled enrollment data and compared it to data that the PPRC published.

“We have no idea where [the PPRC data] came from,” she said. “They were drastically less—our actual numbers almost doubled the reported numbers on almost every count.”

No faculty members in the language department were involved in the PPRC process.

“I see it becoming a lot less of a global university,” Kaste said. “I see it as becoming an insular, non-diversified place where there’s only a couple of focuses and students aren’t given the broad academic education they receive now … I think that a lot of the changes have this idea that you need a very specialized and specific knowledge to go into the workforce.”

Identity is not something that can be changed overnight. Provost Janet Levit writes:

“Today, we stake our identity. We are saying it out loud and acknowledging to ourselves what the data—and our students’ choices—have pointed to for so long: The University of Tulsa is a high-touch undergraduate institution that provides all students with a firm grounding in critical and creative thinking, and that is STEM-heavy with a professional, practical focus.”

As students like Kaste and professors like Laird demonstrate, TU administrators are out of touch with their student body and teachers. What’s more, a 2017-18 audit reveal that 60 percent of the annual budget is spent on administration, while only 40 percent went toward education. The university is top-heavy, and its future is at stake, but based on one man’s gamble it blindly skates towards where the puck might be.

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