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Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Speaking at the National Science Foundation, "Can you hear me now?"

Today I had a chance to speak to a small group of senior advisers of the Engineering directorate of the National Science Foundation.  Oh, and there was a secret tribunal over WebEx as well. I was invited to speak as part of the Emerging Frontiers of Research Innovation program. Every three years, NSF puts out a call to the research community to submit emerging research that is potentially transformative and addresses grand challenges. The idea that I submitted on behalf of the research collaboration associated with this blog was one of seven that was chosen out of over 300 submissions.

Title: Emergence in complex biophysical and sociopolitical systems.

I am writing now out of a mixture of pain and amusement.  The pain is that in my over 20 hours of preparation leading up to the 30 minute presentation, I discovered that in the end, I wasn't able to speak to their interests very clearly.

The amusement is about how the talk actually went.

It's a little like this:  A citizen is given audience with the world's largest producers and supporters of soda pop.  The citizen says, "I realize that in your mission to quench the nation's thirst, developing this soda pop seemed like a good idea. However, it is quite literally causing a variety of systemic illness, many of which you are trying to fix yourself.  But you are trying to fix them by supplying more soda pop.  Here is the science that shows your soda pop is killing us.  Instead, people should drink water.  Here is the science that shows the benefits of water.  You could also satisfy your mission of quenching the nation's thirst with a different kind of drink: water."

Response of the makers of soda pop, "I get what you're saying about the water.  But what kinds of soda pop do you envision us producing in this thing that you're proposing?"

Oh, when I think of it, it is quite funny.

They absolutely could not hear what I was saying. I was synthesizing a bunch of research that was really outside their expertise and I think it really caused them to "tilt."

I had hoped that it would cause them to be interested, but that didn't seem to happen. To be fair, one of the people came up to me and directly thanked me, telling me that they learned a lot from my talk. I think they followed what I was saying in some ways, but it wasn't compelling enough--actually, I think that a few of them were unfamiliar with the compelling issues of sustainability, as evidenced by their look of confusion when I said that a "science as usual" path means that the conditions that support cooperative human existence will no longer be in place in the lifetimes of our children or grandchildren.

Alas. I'm trying to manage my feeling of failure.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Summoned to the Provost's Lair

This is a bit of a tongue-in-cheek entry. It details part of the (non) change process at today's universities. The actual people might even be considered "fungible."  It is easy to personalize the actors, yet anyone in their shoes, with the same set of goals, might make the same choices.

Let me tell you a story...
As a background, several of us have been working since 2007 to bring forth a new model of interdisciplinary learning in higher education.  We have had what one might call failures and successes along the way. There was certainly no absence of drama or discovery or even profound transformations in our lives and the students' lives that I would directly relate to our intent to collaboratively research this path together.

During that time period, the university replaced these people: president, provost, 6 out of 7 deans. We had been working for several years with the individuals previously in these roles. All our work was based on collaboration and academic freedom (versus the application of unilateral force by authorized actors in positions of power in the institution, such as the academic senate or administrators).

So, when the new provost came in 2012, we offered to share with her and the new deans what we were doing, since our efforts crossed college boundaries...we offered each year: no response.

This year, the provost has developed a list of strategic directions for the university revolving around these imperatives:

  • interdisciplinary
  • emergent teaching models
  • new meanings of "learn by doing"
  • role of community engagement
  • model of teacher/scholar at our polytechnic
Ironically, this is essentially the list of questions that were at the center of what we have been doing since 2007.  We've published a handful of articles that describe what we've learned, including the compelling transformational experiences of the students and faculty. 

Fast forward to February, 2015
I was summoned to the Provost's office via an email invitation.  It looked like this:

The following meeting has been modified:

Subject: Discuss SUSTAIN 
Sent By: "Debra S. Sherburne" <

Location: 01-305 
Time: Wednesday, February 11, 2015, 8:45:00 AM - 9:15:00 AM GMT -08:00 US/Canada Pacific


No context, no communication about why this "event" was put on my e-calendar.  I've never had a conversation with Provost Enz-Finken (KEF) except random superficial chatter at hors d'oeuvres tables. (Mary) is someone who directly reports to her but otherwise has no relationship to SUSTAIN. 

What we know via reports from colleagues who have been similarly summoned is that KEF calls them into her office for the purpose of reprimanding them or announcing that their institutional privileges are being removed. So, I responded by saying that I noticed that Liz Schlemer was left off and that I'd invite her. 

This is what happened: A 30-second "meeting"
Provost Enz-Finken invited us to sit down in her office across from her. The table had been set up with items on the table so that it was clear that two chairs were taken and she and Mary would be structurally opposing Liz and me.  

She (Provost Kathleen Enz-Finken) said,

"I'll make this brief. We only have a half hour.  I don't know what your plans are for next year, but the university is no longer going to support SUSTAIN.  That's it." 

This was an amusing announcement on so many levels.  The first was the we had decided not to continue, so this was a little, as Roger says, like a homeless person standing on the side of a one way street, declaring that the traffic will obey and go in the direction it was already moving.  

The other is that the university has done almost nothing to support SUSTAIN.  The "support" has amounted to withholding $130,000 worth of laboratory resources that we brought in, doling out about 25% of it in last year of the research (i.e., significantly preventing us from doing the work that they committed to supporting).  "They" did help us schedule classes, which is a university function; this amounts to "checking a box" on an on-line scheduling system and entering specific text. 

We were not asked any questions.  We were not given any reasons. 

I asked, "What does that mean to you." Were were given a speech about the university no longer being willing to set aside sections of courses and have those under-enrolled. [The implication was that this was some kind of resource drain on the institution.]  When Liz pointed out that all courses were at their normal capacity and the under-enrolled courses were taught as overloads, that we paid for sections the first year that were under-enrolled, the Provost then restated that the university was no longer willing to do the special scheduling. 

When Liz mentioned that we were interested in learning, we received a kind of speech from KEF that consisted of "I saw 'this' coming years ago, but there is only so much I can do."  It was a speech about how faculty use unwise processes that are unauthorized, that they do not follow the proper channels and "things get out of hand."  (This reference to "out of hand" was interesting...whose hand?  The association of "hand" with "manipulation" is also interesting as a model of institutional management, espoused as "leadership.).  This is the way, in her view, that these faculty-lead initiatives do not achieve what they intend to achieve and they do not last.

We didn't inquire as to what SUSTAIN was, in her mind, meant to achieve. We didn't ask if she read the research report that she and Mary were sent, that documents the learning gains and qualitative experience of SUSTAIN students. 

I pointed out that "death" is a natural process and we had planned for it to die. I also pointed out that SUSTAIN runs through collaboration under the auspices of academic freedom and the volunteer efforts of a group of people, that we in fact were not interested in ourselves continuing the work that this type of collaboration required.  I asked her to clarify that she wasn't asking faculty not to collaborate. (The answer was "no," of course). 

I did not point out that we were accomplishing the things that she has outlined in her strategic plan for this year.  I did not ask her how she intended to accomplish those things. 

Mary provided a narrative of how the parts of the organization that she was in charge of were already accomplishing the things that SUSTAIN was about (interdisciplinarity, development of the teacher-scholar, emergent pedagogy, community engagement).  MESSAGE: Your efforts are not needed because the university has it covered.  My response was to inquire if it was her intent to discourage faculty from self-initiating creative efforts in this domain. (The answer was "no," of course). 

We were then dismissed and thanked for our willingness to have this "conversation."  

The exchange was more of a unilateral pronouncement of a self-authorized point of view. But I see how those whose point of view is being stated might mistaken this for a conversation.