Gambit Weekly's coverage of the American Association of University Professor's (AAUP) censure of area universities ("Cutting Classes," Cover, July 10) is timely and important. It is crucial to recognize that the damage done by the storms of 2005 was at least matched by the havoc wrought on the infrastructure of higher education here as well as to the plans, hopes and lives of students and faculty.
"Cutting Classes" focused on AAUP censure as based on failures to protect tenure. Those failures strike at the heart of education quality. Academic tenure is a means of making sure that dismissals of faculty who have proven their value to the university are not arbitrary, that retention decisions are based on institutional needs and faculty merit or its lack. That assurance in turn is based on recognizing the principle of shared governance, making sure that faculty have a voice in appropriate aspects of managing the campus, such as evaluating students, planning curriculum, evaluating peers and planning responses to financial exigency.
Key elements in shared governance are faculty senates, but there was a failure to make any serious effort to involve these representatives in planning responses to the disaster of 2005. The usual justification has been to say that the urgency of the situation made it impossible. There is no reason to believe, however, that it would have been more difficult to reach faculty senate presidents and executive committee members than chancellors and deans. Further, the tendency to ignore or marginalize these faculty bodies appears ongoing.
Another key element in shared governance is insuring that academic tenure is awarded on the basis of a careful, multi-year assessment of a faculty member's scholarly function and insuring that termination of tenured faculty is based on curricular necessities or a failure to maintain scholarly standards as determined by faculty peers, not favoritism or bias. These peer evaluations are bulwarks of academic freedom but were breached.
Tulane President Scott Cowen is quoted as dismissing AAUP censure because "it has no practical consequences." AAUP's goal is not to punish institutions; it is to point out damage done to the principles of shared governance, tenure and academic freedom, damage that impairs a university's ability to recruit and retain the best students and faculty, damage that weakens a vital resource -- higher education -- in our state. Alvin G. Burstein President, Louisiana Conference, AAUP Tulane Should Lead As a Tulane alum, I have followed the events described in "Cutting Classes" since December 2005.
I understand that Cowen, in presenting his total package of the changes to the Board of Administrators, bundled all of it together as a single non-negotiable take-it-or-leave-it deal. He also made it clear that if the board had not approved, he would have left.
Moreover, there's been much talk that many of the changes (e.g. ending Newcomb College) were in the works before August 2005 and thus had zero to do with recovering from the storm. However, the overall financial situation in the fall of 2005 gave Cowen the wherewithal he did not have before to push the measure through. His responses to questions since then have left many gasping. He says over and over that had he done nothing, Tulane would have had to close its doors. While that statement may be valid, it does not address how keeping Newcomb intact would have forced the university to close.
The article ended with the thought that most everyone has moved on. With donor-intent lawsuits currently under way against Tulane, that's not quite true. At the least, Cowen's actions have placed Tulane under a cloud.
Finally, when the area's economy could benefit from Tulane leading the way in rebuilding and building up the medical/research district, Cowen's vision seems to be to shrink away from that. Richard Parisi Lack of Vision Scott Cowen's statement that censure by the AAUP "has no practical impact" is strange coming from a university president. Tulane is the only major university that is currently under censure by the AAUP. It will be difficult for Tulane to hire the best professors, since the academic community now views it as a university essentially without tenure. This is especially true following Cowen's other statement about financial exigency, namely telling the university senate, "It's over when I say it's over."
Cowen also stated in your article that the AAUP "basically ignored all the input the university provided them." When the representatives from the AAUP visited Tulane, Cowen actually refused to meet with them.
A few words about my quote in the article that "We had the opportunity to develop the world's premier engineering school." Katrina utterly destroyed over half of a major American city. We had (have?) an opportunity to help rebuild New Orleans as a model energy-efficient city. It is far easier to build new structures in an energy-efficient way than to retrofit existing structures. There are people and foundations that are lining up to provide money for reducing energy consumption (and CO2 emissions) in the face of the recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. More importantly, most of the technology to do so is fully developed. Therefore, undergraduates could easily participate in the effort. The attraction for potential mechanical and electrical engineering majors to participate in such a hands-on program would be huge. The student body could easily double, attracting the best students in the country.
Financially, Tulane is heavily tuition dependent. Money would flow in. The program would attract global interest, and Tulane would have one of the best-known programs in the world. This is what I meant by lack of vision. Robert Watts Former Tulane Mechanical Engineering Professor