UI professor: The University of Iowa’s reason for being


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Assessment of our graduate education is needed, but not as conducted by the Provost’s Task Force on Graduate Election.

• The task force was charged with articulating “priorities for increased excellence in graduate education.” But University of Iowa Provost Wallace Loh devalued this charge by insisting that faculty and student quality not be evaluated. Why not? Isn’t this what a university is about? How can a committee increase excellence if it neglects research quality?

• Of 176 degree programs assessed, 44 were in arts and humanities. Yet only three out of 21 committee members hailed from the arts or humanities. Is this appropriate representation?

• Statistics provided by the Graduate College did not include evaluations of quality. Faced with the contradictory task of increasing excellence without information about quality, task-force members should have insisted on expert input.

• Graduate College Dean John Keller noted in a March 5 guest opinion that, “The focus of the assessments was on graduate-student outcomes.” But the committee defined “student outcomes” narrowly. Instead of stressing research quality or student placement, the committee emphasized easily measurable (but not necessarily pertinent) figures including “time to degree.” That narrow focus meant the committee overlooked genuine markers of excellence. Take film studies. The national prize for best dissertation won by a UI film-studies student — not taken into account. Placement in tenure-track positions at Yale, Chicago, Notre Dame, etc. — not considered. The crucial role of Iowa Ph.D.s in developing film studies as an academic discipline, plus continued contributions to the field — ignored in favor of time-to-degree data that make no distinction between a diploma mill and a world-class program.

• The university has a long tradition of recusal: Faculty judging internal competitions don’t participate in decisions regarding individuals in their unit. The task force report does not mention recusal, but it raises questions. Of 23 degree programs rated “exemplary,” 17 are represented by task-force members. Of 71 “high quality” programs, 40 are represented. But of the 26 lowest-rated arts and humanities degree programs, none are represented on the task force.

• We were told no final decisions would be made until September. Yet the Graduate College has already withdrawn fellowships and other recruitment funding from programs designated as “additional evaluation required.” Why this rush to judgment? Is the expression “additional evaluation required” not sufficiently clear?

• “The task force scrutinized programs in all academic areas equitably,” Keller claimed. “Of the 14 graduate programs identified as requiring additional evaluation, one-half were in the humanities and one-half were in the sciences and social sciences.” But the task force evaluated five separate areas. The arts and humanities area constitutes not half the programs evaluated, as Keller implies, but one-fifth. Instead of the expected 20 percent, 50 percent of arts and humanities programs are in the lowest category. Presenting this outcome as equitable is misleading and inappropriate.

This is a sad moment in the history of a great university. I feel a profound sense of shame when our university’s chief academic officers proclaim that restructuring should be based on something other than faculty and graduate-student excellence. If we forget the university’s reason for being — its educational mission — we will have abandoned the very values on which the university is built.

Certainly, we face unprecedented financial challenges, but unless evaluation is based on our long-standing commitment to genuine excellence, the outcome will damage the university rather than serve it.

Rick Altman is a UI professor of cinema and comparative literature and the director of film studies.

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