28 March 2014

The Senate meeting of 28 March 2014 started off slowly, but became increasing entertaining. It was nice to see so many colleagues engaged. Credit should also go to the clerk and university president for encouraging more engagement.

On-line courses and DFW rates

The assistant vice-president for institutional research and planning (OIRP) led a data-rich discussion of DFW rates (the percentage of students who get a D, F, or W [withdrawal] from a course), comparing on-line courses with comparative traditional courses. This arose from a question I asked in February based on the general milieu of high withdrawal rates from MOOCs. Senate learned that Carleton’s on-line DFW rates were not radically higher than that of our traditional courses, which is amazing. However, we also learned that many of our on-line courses are blended, with an on-line lecture component and an in-person lab component. The president and provost rightly mentioned that some form of interaction with an instructor makes a huge difference with on-line courses. Having in-person labs and/or tutorial with on-line courses may make a huge difference, which is probably why our DFW rates look so good.

This is also a chance to follow the latest expert opinion regarding on-line university courses given by Janet Napolitano (see the YouTube video here), who is the president of the University of California system, which includes ten huge universities, some of which are world renowned, such as UCLA, Berkeley, and UC Davis. Napolitano was formerly the head of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and, before that, governor of Arizona (her signature therefore is on my PhD degree). She basically said that to conduct on-line courses properly, including genuine interactive components, on-line courses would be at least as expensive to offer as traditional courses. Napolitano basically described on-line courses as a dubious business model. Also see Michael Hiltzik’s write-up in the Los Angeles Times (here) regarding the interview with Janet Napolitano.

There is undoubtedly provincial pressure to offer more on-line courses. Our vice president finance is probably also salivating over their income-generating ability. But then there is also financial pressure to hire more sessional (contract/adjunct) instructors. To me, on-line courses are just another way to water down higher education and save on labour costs, especially if the teaching is not done effectively.

Strategic Mandate Agreement

We had been hearing lots about strategic mandate agreements for several years now, and I won’t rehash details. But we did hear and learn some new things today.

Our provost said that when the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities (MTCU) talks about sustainability that they are almost exclusively concerned with financial sustainability. That is classic green-washing, but I truly appreciated the provost’s candour.

The provost provided some new details about Carleton’s draft of a strategic mandate agreement at the open session of Senate. This is the same information he presented at the open session of the Board of Governors the previous day, which the general public attended, including a reporter from the Charlatan. The difference at Senate, though, was that the provost asked all members of Senate to keep this matter confidential. This is outrageous because the request was made at an open session of Senate – the university president and provost have the power to take Senate into closed session – and the provost let the proverbial cat out of the bag the day before at a public venue, without asking anybody to remain silent.

One of Carleton’s proposed boutique (“institutional”) metrics will be the average score from student course evaluations [This is information that was verbally highlighted by the provost at the public session of the Board of Governors, covered by journalists, so cannot legitimately deemed confidential]. In my Board of Governor’s blog, I already critiqued this seemingly ridiculous metric, so simply want to add a few additional criticisms here, without repeating my previous arguments. Carleton wants to report this metric because our course evaluation scores are high. This prompted some of my colleagues to wonder whether the person who proposed this metric was high. Teaching evaluation scores are as arbitrary as the questions that are on the form. Given that the questions can change, as they recently have, why wouldn’t the province think we could change them again? Why not propose questions for the course evaluation forms like, “How often does your instructor wear shoes?” (we would score close to 5 on that) or “Does your instructor wear clothing to class?” (I hope we would score 5 on that). There are also easy ways to game the system, even if we do not change the questions. For instance, grade inflation will result in increased average course evaluation scores. We could also quietly replace arithmetic means with geometric means or some other form of average that skews the results in the direction we want. For these reasons and the ones in my 27 March 2014 Board of Governor’s blog, the proposed boutique metric of average course evaluation scores makes Carleton look foolish.

Senate was consulted on the strategic mandate agreement in the same way that Aboriginal nations were consulted about forming treaties. This was an utterly paternalistic exercise on the part of the administration, with a few (power-hungry?) rank-and-file faculty members brought into the process as a public relations ploy. At least that is why I assume the recently appointed czar of our health science program was mentioned at Senate today for their help with drafting the strategic mandate agreement. Senate was never meaningfully consulted in the strategic mandate process. Senate was only advised of drafts immediately before their submissions, when it was claimed there was insufficient time to change things. This bizarre dance continued for at least two full years. Senate is supposed to be the highest decision-making body on academic matters for the university; the strategic mandate agreement is the most important academic document that the university has; yet Senate was completely shut-out of the process. Because of that, we are left with foolishness like average student course evaluations scores as institutional metrics and lack of adequate copy-editing, e.g. sometimes the so-called ‘Strategic Integrated Plan’ was called the ‘Integrated Strategic Plan’ by one of the few (dyslexic) people privileged enough to draft the document. Carleton’s reputation would have definitely been bettered by meaningful consultation with Senate, which could have occurred in closed special sessions.

At the end of this strategic mandate ‘discussion’ at Senate on 28 March 2014, Carleton’s president surprised most members of Senate by springing a motion upon us asking for a vote to acknowledge receipt of the draft strategic mandate agreement. There was no need for such a motion. The president could simply have included this information in the minutes. The draft strategic mandate agreement was already memorialized in the “Senate Binder”. Plus, Senate only saw a non-final draft of the strategic mandate agreement. This motion, without adequate notice (Senate Rule of Order section 6 states, “The normal Notice of Motion period is ten days”), seemed like a devious ploy to show that Senate had been meaningfully consulted with regards to the strategic mandate agreement, which has clearly not been the case. Fortunately, Senators saw through this ridiculous smokescreen. While a majority of members of Senate voted to approve this motion acknowledging receipt, a large number of Senators dissented. The president’s subterfuge really fired up several rank-and-file members of Senate, which perversely was a great thing (please try this again).

Involuntary Closure of Integrated Science

Today we mourn the demise of Carleton’s Integrated Science program. In shepherding this involuntary closure through Senate, we got to see some impressive hypocrisy. At Senate and at the previous day’s Board of Governors open session, the provost claimed that Science Faculty Board knowingly made the decision to involuntarily close the program because science faculty thought the program was no longer needed. Both my memory of the events and the supporting documentation in the “Senate Binder” indicates that this is not true. Instead, this matter was very much imposed on the Science Faculty Board in that the administration had already made Integrated Science a “zombie program” by suspending admissions without Senate approval and without Science Faculty Board approval. What can a rank-and-file faculty member do with a program that administrators had already decided would not be allowed to admit students? Science Faculty Board showed angst in the debate and in voting to involuntarily close the Integrated Science program, with 17 votes in favour of closure, 6 opposed, and 6 abstaining. The vote at Senate for closure was even closer, with roughly half the Senators in favour of closure, one-quarter opposed, and one-quarter abstaining. Senate documents (today’s Senate Binder) at least were truthful, stating that Integrated Science was being closed because its director did not complete some quality assurance self-study paperwork, the dean did not take the lead to find somebody else to do this essential task, and the administration unilaterally cancelled all admissions to the program.

There are at least four problems with this involuntary closure. First, we should all be concerned by how easy it was to involuntarily close a viable program. Second, there is talk (empty talk?) about offering a new interdisciplinary program (other than existing the Bachelor of Humanities program?) that bridges science and the arts & social sciences (Faculty of Science and FASS). Yet none of the individuals that I know who are cross-appointed in these two faculties have ever been consulted about such a proposed new program. Third, Integrated Science was a money-maker: almost no costs, while bringing in substantial revenues. While Integrated Science may not have been a great recruiting program, they were remarkable at retention insofar as many students in other science majors could use Integrated Science as a fallback option after not passing certain required courses for other science majors. I cannot discern whether this fallback option to transfer to Integrated Science will be available to current science students during the transition period when the university fully closes down the program. Fourth, Carleton is strongly touting our interdisciplinary programs, and Integrated Science was as interdisciplinary as we get in science. Usually I am extremely proud to be a member of the Carleton community, but not today. Such blatant hypocrisy is too embarrassing.

Question Period: Carleton’s Teaching & Learning Framework

A series of questions were asked about Carleton’s new teaching and learning framework. If I may paraphrase the questions: (1) What guarantees exist that the framework will not become prescriptive? (2) Does reading constitute active learning? and (3) Who gets to decide what constitutes high-impact practices? Because the associate vice president academic for teaching and learning was not present at Senate, the provost stood in and did not answer the questions!

A few useful items, however, were later mentioned by the university president. First, she encouraged further questions at question period. Second, she mentioned how helpful and useful the Educational Development Centre (EDC) staff were, especially about teaching us about new pedagogical techniques. I completely agree with her on both points. But what is still an utter mystery to me is why we need to codify such matters in a document that is explicitly called a “framework”. Cynics pointed out that this is so that these supposedly non-prescriptive notions could later be foisted upon us in prescriptive ways. Only time will tell. But simply changing the title of that document might go along way to allaying fears.

Recording Votes

The Senate Academic Governance Committee proposed a motion for changing how we record votes. We currently record the following three options: unanimous, passed on division, and defeated. The motion was to change the three options to unanimous, passed, and defeated, but in special circumstances to add the words “on division” to one or more of these three choices. Quickly, there was a tangle of amendments and the matter was referred back to committee. There were odd discussions, such as about votes that are “unanimous on division” and “defeated on division”, the latter of which is truly absurd insofar as the person making the motion should automatically be ethically obliged to vote in favour. But the basic idea here for the proposed change seems great, even if the implementation may require some more work.

Senate Emergency Response Committee

Just prior to the two CUPE 4600 strike deadlines in early March 2014, the Senate Emergency Response Committee was activated. Once the strikes were averted, the committee was deactivated. I do not agree that a strike constitutes an emergency. In fact, a strike could be something unilaterally and consciously decided upon months or years in advance by either side. H1N1 pandemics may be an emergency. Earthquakes may be an emergency. But labour disagreements should never be considered emergencies. I find this misnomer akin to calling it a ‘traffic accident’ when someone intentionally rams you with their car. There is nothing accidental about that, just like there is nothing emergency-like about a strike. Would someone like to propose a motion to revise the terms of reference of this Senate committee?

Graduate Courses in Bomb-Making and Explosives

Carleton will soon by offering a pair of new cross-listed engineering courses in bomb-making and explosives (CIVE 5705 and IPIS 5520). I am too much of a pacifist to let this go without a highlight. But I did not object to the course offering because we should have academic freedom to offer courses that will offend others. For example, I am sure that some people find aspects of my evolution of sex class offensive. I will, however, note the irony of bringing a bomb-making course to Senate while Carleton’s Department of Security (OPSEU) is on strike.

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