Monday, September 29, 2008

Twelve Steps to a Better SIU (1-10)

"The Great Depression" is one of the courses I love teaching at SIU-Carbondale. For fifteen weeks, we explore every facet of this fascinating decade. There were hard times, yes, but we often overlook the good that came from grappling with difficult circumstances. Example: The Twelve-Step Program of Alcoholics Anonymous was born of the experience of Bill Wilson, a stock speculator ruined by his alcoholism. Since then, the line "Hello, my name is John and I'm a _________" has become a cliche as Twelve-Step Programs proliferated.

Inspired by this example, here is my working list of "Twelve Steps to a Better SIU." I haven't made it to twelve yet, which is a good thing -- add your input and I will consolidate a list of "steps" to make SIU better.

1. University Statement on Intellectual Diversity and Academic Freedom: What makes SIUC stand out? We have diversity statements, just like the other guys. We have months dedicated to Latinos, African Americans, Women--just like the other guys. What we don't have in the plethora of statements on the SIUC web site is a bold assertion that SIUC is committed to intellectual debate and diversity. This is remarkable because SIUC has THE BEST debate team in the nation!! We should toot that horn and work from that strength. One way is to set up a regular

2. Debate Series:
college campuses have become intellectually stale refuges for scholars to pursue narrow scholarly topics, and students to pursue narrow technical degrees. "Back in the day," colleges hosted rockus debates with outside or on-campus speakers addressing the issues of the day, scientific disputes, and so on. As a B.A. graduate of the Class of 1984, I returned years later to see that debates--meaningful disputation--had vanished. Even worse, colleges spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on speakers that offer only one side of hotly-contested issues.

"The sound of one hand clapping." We need TWO points of view set off against each other, sponsored or hosted by the university, resulting in the audience clapping TWO hands and getting engaged.

Believe me, this would make SIUC stand out, even as our debate champions stand out as the best in the nation.

3. Reading benches:

Recently I traveled to a private college out of state. I was struck by the abundance of benches, with students sitting and READING. iPods out of their ears, no flicking to their cell phones, but simply reading. God knows the uncomfortable hallway seating on campus does not encourage reading. Our beautiful campus would look even more collegial with more benches. Call it the "missing bench" theory (after the "broken window" concept) but a college without benches is like a town without sidewalks: soulless.

4. Promote religious study

As a state university, SIUC cannot promote a religious point of view. But it can promote the study of religion. Years ago, SIUC, like many major universities today, had a Religious Studies Department. My retired colleague Dale Bengston taught an enormously popular "Religious Diversity in America" course. Heck, even Harvard is requiring its incoming freshmen to take one course on the study of religion. Judging from the popularity of these courses, this would be a splendid way for SIUC to connect with many people of faith across the state (Christians, Jews, Muslims, others). Moreover, you don't need to believe in any religion to understand the importance of studying it. After all, I spent many hours reading about communism when I was a graduate student but I don't embrace the philosophy!

5. Eliminate or cut "special admits":

Our general admission requirements allow a below-average high school student to attend college. "Special admits" are those who fall below the ACT/GPA standards of SIUC. This translates into an abysmal graduation rate* and burdensome expenditures on remedial education. Are we doing these admits a favor or is this the type of "kindness that kills" the spirit of those ill-prepared for college?

*The six-year graduate rate for incoming freshmen hovers below 40%. The four-year graduation rate is below 30%. That is intolerable and it forces instructors to lower standards for students who need to be challenged.

6. Multicultural Center:

The Student Center is the focal point for mid-day activity at SIUC. Every day, faculty, staff and students head there for lunch or to study. The Center has come a long way in its offerings of food and free wireless access.

What does this have to do with a "Multicultural Learning Center?" Dr. Joseph Brown, S.J. (chair, Black Studies) noted that young black students had to congregate ("hang out") at the intersection near McDonalds. What these young people needed, Dr. Brown argued, was a multicultural center. The idea went nowhere (and I doubt it would eliminate "hanging out" at the Student Center). However, my immediate thought was that we already DO have a Multicultural Center:

Morris Library.

Call it the "Morris Multicultural Learning Center (MMLC)" and encourage students of all races to "hang out" there to study! Remember to have benches surrounding the newly renovated, spiffed-up MMLC. That's a "multicultural" idea I can get behind.

7. Home school outreach:

Kudos to President Poshard for acting swiftly on my proposal to reach out to home schoolers. SIUC Admissions is now ready to process applications from home school students. SIUC was named one of the most "Home School Friendly Colleges" in the Midwest. The next step is to reach those students. Misconceptions abound: many people home school for religious reasons but many do not. The assumption is that bright home schoolers migrate to Christian colleges but many wish to remain close to home, or cannot afford an expensive private college. Remember: Home school families make a real sacrifice in income when one spouse quits her job to educate the children. SIUC's affordability and rating as a "home school friendly college" are selling points.

8. Law and Order:

I have the highest respect for the SIU Police but they have never received the backing they need. We should not exaggerate the crime problem on campus but it is real and it keeps many students--particularly women--from attending SIUC. Nationwide, the ratio is 55% women:45% men. Here at SIUC the numbers are reversed. If SIUC had the same ratio of women, we should be 3-4,000 students "richer!"

There is no sidestepping the race and crime issue. Gangs follow students to SIUC. Indeed, last year a bright young black man with high grades came to me for advice on dealing with his former gang--now targeting him (and by "target," I mean "target"). This student had "escaped" from one of the worst schools in Chicago and was flourishing at SIUC. Here was an instant reminder that crime VICTIMS come in all skin colors. Alas, when "diversity" and crime conflict (as they did in a high-profile mugging two years ago), the crime victim is forgotten. Be consistent, forceful and do not "go wobbly" on law and order (or, if you prefer, "campus safety").

9. University 101:

SIU students vary greatly in their readiness for college, an understatement given that half will never graduate. Currently, SIU offers a University 101 course on how to succeed in college. These courses discuss the basics, such as notetaking, organization, time management. Because SIU relies on faculty/staff volunteers, the course is largely limited to our least well-prepared students. As an instructor, I know that even the average-to-above-average students need training in notetaking and in asserting themselves with instructors, who sit during their mandatory office hours waiting for students who never come for help. (I date myself by referring to these as my Maytag repairman hours). Recommendation: Student interns earn academic credit for staffing these primer courses. They may be graduate students (who need one-on-one teaching experience if they wish to enhance their teaching portfolio). Or they may be our best and brightest undergraduates. Other schools require a University 101 of all incoming freshmen. To limit the staffing and building space requirements, waive the course for graduates of community colleges. They have already "made the cut" and have a much higher graduation rate.

10. Reduce Legal Liability:

SIU Legal Counsel has lost several major lawsuits in recent years. Even worse, those cases involved high-profile media publicity that did not reflect well on SIU. Many cases get farmed out to firms that later hire former SIU staff counsel ("revolving door?"). How well does the office perform when audited? The public has a right to know because we taxpayers are footing the bill.

Don't ask Legal Counsel to be "yes men" and women. Case in point: When the Supreme Court handed down its "Michigan decisions" on affirmative action (2003), staff lawyer Peter Ruger and Vice President John Haller proposed mild, sensible changes to SIU's statement on affirmative action. As a member of the Affirmative Action Advisory Committee, I supported the Ruger recommendations. Apparently, however, Ruger told the diversity office what it did not want to hear. SIU refused to change anything. Ruger left for Tueth, Keeney, one of the firms on retainer to SIU. Two years later, the U.S. Department of Justice slapped SIU with a complaint and the university made the headlines by being forced to sign a consent decree agreeing not to discriminate. It didn't have to happen but the top brass ought to demand straight shooting from legal counsel and not let the Diversity Establishment interfere with their work.

Those are my first ten, more to come, but feel free to chime in with your own ideas, or call some of the above just downright wrong. Beware: I may debate you, or I may admit I was wrong.

"He that refuses correction despises his own soul" (Proverbs 15:32)

(To be continued)

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