March 9 - March 15, 1995


Academia Nuts

By Jeff Smith

I DO SO love to say I told you so. This sort of admission is supposed to reflect unflatteringly on the character of the confessor, but I am unrepentant: confession is said to be good for the soul, and besides, I make my living telling you so. The higher my batting average, the better my economic prospects.

For the past six years I've been reminding anyone who'd listen that the University of Arizona has strayed from its responsibilities as a state university and a land-grant college, to educate the youth and young adults of our state, and those of other states who choose for whatever educational motives to pay the premium to attend here. I noticed this trend developing several years earlier--particularly during the tenure of John Schaefer as university president--but did not begin ranting about it until my daughter enrolled at the UA, and the sorry state of undergrad education was brought painfully home to me.

First she was bored by the lower-division course requirements of her freshman and sophomore years, and once she got into the second half of her college career--in which I had promised her she would find classes to challenge her intellect--she found it nigh on impossible to get into the class sections her fine arts major required. It took her five and a half years to graduate, in part because she was fighting cooties she caught during a summer school session in Guadalajara, but in not small measure owing to the paucity of professors--or even graduate assistants--available and budgeted to teach undergraduate courses.

Fortunately Liza was on scholarship, so the grand-a-semester tuition bills didn't bite me. Still, I remembered my own career at the UA, during which the only impediment to anyone's completing his baccalaureate requirements in the customary four years were personal sloth or stupidity. In my instance it was stupidity: adding up my credits on fingers and toes during my senior year, I made an arithmetic error of three and came up shy at graduation time.

But I digress.

It was in talking to Liza's friends from foreign shores that my outrage truly was kindled. They were paying on the order of $7,000 per annum on tuition only--let alone books and living expenses--and were just plain unable to enroll in the courses they needed to graduate in four years.

This of course forced an unfair financial burden on them and their parents, and bordered on fraud. Every expectation--historically, and drawn from college catalogs and published curricula--leads one to believe an undergraduate college education is a four-year proposition, barring the aforementioned sloth, stupidity or, in the case of fraternity and sorority members, dissipation.

And we have not even begun to address the quality of the education eventually dispensed by the UA, over whatever prolonged and procrastinated period it takes to put the info across.

Clearly, the emphasis at the UA since John Schaefer took the penthouse office has been on research, scholarly musings in published form, graduate studies in the sciences and, of course, basketball and football. Henry Koffler did nothing to improve the chances of the real college kids on campus, and Manny Pacheco, despite talking a hell of a game, hasn't turned this top-heavy research emphasis around either.

My daughter has graduated and left the campus, but I've got a son there, and so strange has the quality of undergraduate schooling grown today that when I recently had dinner with the lad and his new girlfriend, and later expressed my approval of the young lass and asked how they met, Caleb said, "In class."

"She's majoring in film too?" I asked.

"No. She's my teacher."


Suffice it to say the teacher is a very recent graduate herself. And Caleb is learning lots at college. He may even graduate before he has to send his own kids to the U.

So I was gleefully amused to read last week where CBS's news show 60 Minutes raked the UA over the coals in a recent segment on how universities are ignoring students in favor of hotdog, high-dollar research and big-name professors with long bibliographies of published scholarship and short curricula of classroom teaching.

Leslie Stahl, who is one of my favorite TV news sex objects, reported the segment, which used the UA as its primary focus, and said professors in classrooms are inversely proportional to cops at Dunkin' Donuts. She didn't actually say it in those terms, but that was the burden of her discourse, and I find the scientific tone kind of apt. Inversely proportional...see?

Anyway, seeing it on television doesn't necessarily make it so, nor validate what your own local boy has been telling you all these years, but it does get the attention of the stud geese in the Administration Building--along with about 90 million other Americans, some of whom might otherwise have been writing tuition checks to the University of Arizona. So, if I may employ the scientific tone just this once more, the shit has hit the fan.

Nice tan, Manny.

The good news to emerge from all this bad news, vis a vis our favorite local cow college, is that truth and candor have found a new hero in the person of Jon Solomon, associate professor of classics at the UA. Solomon was quoted on 60 Minutes saying that to get tenure at the UA, "The only thing you don't have to do is teach very well."

After the program aired, Solomon told The Arizona Daily Star that a couple dozen teachers and students told him the critique was a bullseye. Then he mentioned that in the aftermath of this shitstorm he was invited in to meet UA Provost Paul Sypherd, for the very first time, to discuss undisclosed subjects.

Solomon joked, "He probably just wants to promote me and give me a big raise."

That's what I'd do. But Sypherd seems of a more dispassionate disposition, judging by his recent work in weeding out as much of the undergraduate curriculum--journalism for example--as he can kill.

I tried to contact Solomon, but he was away from campus. If his honesty costs him his future, I am making it my personal mission, not to cost Paul Sypherd his, but to guarantee the provost a long and productive tenure...

...teaching freshman English students to diagram sentences.

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March 9 - March 15, 1995

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