A report worth reading, by Rick Altman, on recent cuts at Iowa. The report is worth reading for its clarity: he notes not just the need for cuts, but also the need to invoke academic as well as financial criteria when making them. He also points out how the humanities took a beating at Iowa during this recent process. (How surprising.)


In a 5 March Press-Citizen Guest Opinion, University of Iowa Graduate College Dean John C. Keller explains, as his title proclaims, that “Pursuit of excellence comes through assessment.” Taken together with Provost Wallace Loh’s recent oral and published remarks, Keller’s piece provides a clear justification for assessing the quality of the University’s graduate programs. He is right, assessment is necessary. And in these difficult budgetary times, reallocation must be practiced assiduously — even to the point of closing some programs. The question is not whether to assess the University’s graduate programs, but how to assess them. The procedures adopted by the Provost’s Task Force on Graduate Education leave much to be desired. Here are some important reasons why further — and a different kind of — assessment is necessary….

Task Force Criteria. Judging from the criticisms leveled at those programs initially judged “Weak” (subsequently relabeled “Requiring Further Evaluation”), qualitative concerns such as the caliber of faculty and student research took a back seat to such quantitative measures as completion rate and time to degree. Dean Keller notes that “The focus of the assessments was on graduate student outcomes.” What he doesn’t say is that the data furnished to the committee defined “student outcomes” in a particularly narrow way. Instead of focusing on the quality of dissertations, the number and quality of student publications, or the type of institution where students found jobs, the Task Force focused instead on easily measurable (but not necessarily pertinent) figures including “time to degree.” The case of the Film Studies PhD program is instructive. The fact that a recent Film Studies student won the national prize for best dissertation was not taken into account. The number of Film Studies dissertations that have been published by prestigious presses was deemed less important than the amount of time it took those students to complete their degrees. No attention was paid to the fact that recent Film Studies graduates are now in tenure-track positions at Catholic University, the University of Chicago (2), Fordham, Michigan State, Notre Dame, Trinity, the University of Iceland, and Yale. Or that earlier Film Studies graduates are now tenured at dozens of major universities, including Brown (2), Chicago, Cornell, Dartmouth, Georgetown, Harvard, Northwestern (2), Notre Dame (2), Texas, and Yale. The fact that Iowa PhDs have been crucial to the development of Film Studies as an academic discipline, and continue to make major contributions to the field, is ignored in favor of time-to-degree data that make no distinction between a diploma mill and a world-class program….

When challenged about the Task Force’s recommendations, the Provost has regularly insisted that the Task Force on Graduate Education was not created to evaluate faculty and graduate student performance. When contacted by an international network of scholars and alumni, he has consistently claimed ignorance of their letters. When pressed, the Dean of the Graduate College offers inappropriate arguments. This is a sad moment in the history of a great University. It is hard not to feel a profound sense of shame upon hearing this University’s chief academic officers say publicly that it is appropriate to base University restructuring on something other than faculty and graduate student excellence.

Many University faculty currently share a sense that the University’s educational leadership has been supplanted by an efficiency expert mentality. In these difficult times, do we need to sail our ship efficiently? Of course we do. But if we lose sight of the University’s reason for being — its educational mission — then we will have abandoned the very values on which the University is built. To be sure, the University of Iowa faces an unprecedented financial challenge. But efficiency expert solutions provide only a short-term fix. Provost Loh and Dean Keller are right that we need to evaluate our degree programs, and that we need to make hard decisions based on those evaluations. Unless the evaluations are based on appropriate values, however, the evaluations will damage the University rather than serve it.

The whole thing really should be read. Its criticisms of the process of budgetary cuts are incisive, and its advocacy of intellectual standards exemplary.