28 February 2014 – Carleton University Senate

Senate was fun on Friday 28 February 2014. There were lively discussions. There were no long dull monologues. Many of my colleagues seemed genuinely engaged. When there was little or nothing to report, people were brief. It was also fantastic catching up with my amazing colleagues from across the university, who I seldom see outside of this venue. It is a delight attending meetings like this.

Strategic Mandate

The province announced that it would use Strategic Mandate Agreements for allocation of new graduate students slots for the next three years. By ‘new’ the province means graduate programs that do not currently exist. Therefore Carleton will ask for monies, for example, for new MSc and PhD programs in biochemistry and health science, the former of which is at least ‘new’ in name. Carleton will be submitting their revised Strategic Mandate document in mid March 2014 to reflect these requests. It is hoped (but not expected?) that new faculty lines might also be funded if the province approves new graduate student slots.

The university president announced that the staff of Training, Colleges & Universities (TCU) does not want any new joint graduate programs, although really only singled out joint graduate programs between Carleton/uOttawa when making this remark. Apparently such joint programs would be a waste of money, being duplicative. First, I do not agree with that as provincial policy. Second, based on the TCU staff comments, I wonder why Carleton’s revised Strategic Mandate document will be including a new joint MSc in statistics with uOttawa. At least that was the only joint gradate program listed out of the 15-20 on the provost’s powerpoint slide. (Note: I think this means that biochemistry graduate students will no longer be required to have committee members from uOttawa, as they do now when they are getting MSc or PhD degrees via either biology or chemistry).

Teaching & Learning Framework

The Associate Vice President Academic for Teaching & Learning presented official notions on a new “Teaching and Learning Framework”. Not only is the term ‘framework’ ridiculously vague, so was her alternative term ‘guideline’, especially for a document that is not supposed to be prescriptive. A better and seemingly more accurate descriptor than ‘framework’ would be ‘laundry list of sometimes successful practices’.

The Associate Vice President Academic for Teaching & Learning told Senate that, inter alia, effective teaching should be:

  •     experiential, active, and interactive
  •     high impact
  •     discovery-based
  •     context-dependent
  •     high-diversity in substance and form.

Ironically, her presentation embodied none of these elements. Instead, it was merely a stunning example of how to completely misuse powerpoint with an old-fashioned lecture style. While her heart may very well be in the right place and her speaking was enthusiastic, this presentation was the antithesis of leadership by example. Not that administrators need to be good at what they are administering. I was reminded of a great swimming coach from my childhood, who we eventually realized could not swim.

Maybe I am too much of a dinosaur, but I still advocate for the 3 R’s: reading, writing and arithmetic. However, if we are to adhere to the new Teaching & Learning Framework, we will probably have to abandon the first of these R’s because reading (as well as quiet contemplation) are often considered passive.

Graduation Lists

A question was asked (don’t you love passive voice?) about due diligence by members of Senate in approving graduation lists. The answer seemed honest, but unsatisfying. Senate is supposed to mainly rely on staff members to get this right and then departments and faculty boards to provide a scintilla of oversight. But faculty boards seldom have any real information. I believe the university president said that any member of Senate has the right to review any student files regarding graduation. But her closing summary was more sobering: Individual members of Senate should simply ask themselves, “To the best of our knowledge, is the graduation list okay?” I guess that sort of constitutes due diligence, but hope that we never have to convince a judge that such a threshold suffices.

DFW rates

The university president and provost unequivocally stated that DFW rates never have been nor probably ever will be used for decisions about tenure, promotion, and confirmation. While many people will cheer this policy decision, I personally think it is misguided. If a faculty member fails three-quarters or more of the students in a first-year class, shouldn’t that be taken into account in decisions on tenure, confirmation, and promotion? The only place in which super high DFW rates could be considered an asset is our journalism program, which has (according to publically available senate documents), “an historic admissions practice that yields twice the number of students in first year who can be admitted to second year.” I really value DFW rates in courses where we cannot trust the official JCAA Course Evaluations because those evaluations are administered long before students receive their grades. For instance, there are some units and many courses on campus where it is required that at least half of the course grade be based on the final exam or final project. DFW rates can provide useful information about teaching performance, at least in extreme instances.

Senate heard that the provincial metrics associated with differentiation and Strategic Mandate will not include DFW rates. The province only seems to care about graduation rates. This seems reasonable, although, if three-quarters of the students in a first-year course fail, then many students will take an extra year to finish their degrees.

There was a lively discussion about DFW rates in traditional versus on-line courses. I applaud ORIP for providing some initial numbers and the university president for asking Senate how to better present these numbers. First the bad news, then the good news, regarding DFW rates.

The provost remarked that sample sizes were too small to be statistically significant. Yet, he presented traditional versus on-line course DFW rates with four significant digits (!), but did not report sample sizes, variance, or t-test statistics. He also did not know whether the averages he presented were over classes or over students, the choice of which can severely skew statistics. The first good news is that this subject will be revisited at a subsequent meeting of Senate, with the analysis done more properly. Given the short amount of time to prepare the statistics for the 28 February 2014 Senate meeting, that seems reasonable.

If you believe the statistics presented, the other good news is that DFW rates are not that much higher in our on-line course than in our traditional in-person courses. The numbers reported at this meeting of Senate were DFW rates of 10% in traditional courses and 14% in on-line courses. And the number that means even more to me was the withdrawal rate, which was supposedly 25% in traditional courses and 33% in on-line courses. If those turn out to be close to the real numbers, which remains to be seen, then Carleton is doing far better than almost any other set of on-line courses.

Administrative Matters

This blog only covers material from the open meeting of senate. I do not and will not report on matters from closed sessions. This blog is not meant as a proxy for the official minutes of the meeting, which have been extraordinary at capturing the essence of Senate meetings.

Less than 24-hours before this Senate meeting, a question was raised about which motions members of Senate that are appointed by the Board of Governors can vote upon. My reading of the university rules are that any elected member of Senate can vote on any motion. Furthermore, “Members of Senate do not represent the constituency from which they were elected, but rather the best interests of the University as a whole.” (Academic Governance of the University). I was elected to Senate by the Board of Governors on 8 October 2013. Quoting from the publically available minutes of that open meeting, “It was moved by Ms. Griffin-Hody and seconded by Ms. Porter that Prof. Gorelick be appointed as a member of Senate for 2013-2014. The motion carried.” If deans and the Board of Governors can whip votes of all faculty members of Senate that are elected, what is the point of Senate? However, given that final resolution of this matter about my voting was not resolved before this meeting of Senate, I respectfully refrained from voting on any motions for this one day, especially since none of the motions seemed to reflect obvious Board of Governors matters.

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