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Jack E. Davis

Keep government out of college classrooms

Some of my colleagues at the University of Florida believe the right-wing attack on higher education and the humanities is another strategy, like gerrymandering voter districts, to weaken the left. Universities, after all, are allegedly bastions of liberalism, and the humanities a cesspool of radical expression.

But I think extremists in Tallahassee simply don't know what they don't know about higher education and therefore they rush to judgment.

For one, they are eager to replace tenure with a merit-based evaluation process. Tenure, however, is itself merit-based.

A series of rigorous evaluations over the course of several years holds a tenure candidate to high standards in teaching, scholarship and university service. Peer reviewers from outside the university and multiple committees inside assess performance. The institution's board of trustees makes the final determination. Candidates have one chance to succeed. Many don't, and employment is terminated.

For those who succeed, national accreditation standards require schools to routinely evaluate their continued effectiveness.

Accreditation standards also require schools to protect freedom of thought and the exploration of ideas. Tenure is the procedure most institutions employ. Without this protection, faculty activities are at risk of benefactor or political interference, the latter of which is a distinct possibility in this often polarized state.

Tenure allows schools to compete with the better-paying private sector and attract world-class teachers and scholars. Without it, Florida faculty will depart to other universities and to higher-income careers.

Demonizing faculty as overpaid, undermotivated public employees has become political sport. Every organization, private and public, has its dead wood. I spent nine years in the business world before entering academics, and I'll hold up the work ethic of my current colleagues to my former ones. Each summer, to cite one example, when we are off the payroll, we supervise graduate students and undergraduate independent studies, generating hundreds of credit hours and income for the university. Yet we receive no remuneration for this work.

Unfortunately, the faculty at my university includes a few overcompensated professors. But for every one overpaid there are many more underpaid. And we all know how the current business model in the private sector has created an entire class of overcompensated executives.

Yet Tallahassee favors a business model for universities. Having absorbed massive budget cuts ($150 million at UF) while adding thousands of additional students, Florida's universities are already highly efficient. And they remain the best bargain around. Yearly in-state tuition and fees at the University of Florida is $5,777 compared with $9,472 for an education of similar quality at the University of Georgia and $15,250 at the University of New Hampshire.

Educating students doesn't work well under a strict business model. Medical schools learned that more than a century ago, when students paid the faculty. Schools were diploma mills, where professors had no incentive to advance the science through research and students earned degrees without taking chemistry or biology, or ever seeing a cadaver or patient. After graduation, their incompetence led to countless deaths.

Back when the nation rose to become an industrial giant and world power, pre-professional disciplines were a rare commodity. The foundation of higher education at the time, and the basis for our model today, was a classical education, which embraces the humanities.

To devalue the humanities in favor of engineering, science and technology is to lose sight of important historical and contemporary realities. Silicon Valley firms have always put great stock in a well-rounded liberal arts background. In May, Google announced it would recruit from the humanities to fill 4,000 to 5,000 jobs. Humanities disciplines help students develop observation and communication skills and new depths of perspective and analysis, which contribute vitally to decisionmaking, marketing and product development — think Steve Jobs and Apple. To imagine product design without a humanities influence look at your television remote control — or the two or three piled together.

Tallahassee seems out of touch with humanity. Instead of dictating whether universities should train anthropologists, it would be wise to leave that determination to the market and student demand. Basing a discipline's worth on the average earnings of its graduates, as Gov. Rick Scott proposes, dismisses society's interests and values outside material ones. Our society benefits immeasurably from learning about other cultures, from what people write in books and from imaginations stimulated to reach beyond the constraint of formulas, codes and parameters.

The diversity of minds of faculty, administrators and students at Florida's universities is extraordinary. Their experience in education is unsurpassed. Tallahassee should trust that experience and keep government out of the classroom.

Jack E. Davis is a professor of history at the University of Florida who is currently writing a book on the environmental history of the Gulf of Mexico.

Keep government out of college classrooms 10/18/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 18, 2011 5:52pm]
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