Florida Poly Chooses Mediocrity
On May 7, the future Florida Polytechnic University announced that their board of trustees had just approved a Non-Tenure Faculty "model". The press release stated that the Board believed that the model would "help recruit and maintain top talent." In the May 2 press release on how Florida Poly Proposes Non-Tenure Model For New Faculty, FPU Vice President of Academic Affairs Ghazi Darkazalli was quoted saying that the new model "allows us the versatility for faculty to prove themselves outside the boundary and conditions set by the tenure process," whatever that means.
In response, UFF issued the following statement.
Florida’s climate, location, and energetic population make it a likely player in science and technology during the Twenty-first century. The Florida legislature recognized this by designating a High Tech Corridor running along I-4, a project that now includes the Universities of Florida, Central Florida, and South Florida.
The faculty of the three universities and numerous colleges in the region are proud to join the effort moving Florida to the technological frontier. And with its central location and rapid development, Polk county is an ideal location for a leading institution of technological education.
But we have been disappointed by intrusions of selfish, parochial, and even ideological special interests into Polk County’s higher education. We saw that in the destruction of USF Polytechnic, and we are concerned that this may be happening again.
A polytechnic university in Polk County - a real polytechnic, not just a community college with the word "polytechnic" inserted in its name - would be a major asset to the entire state. But that means building an institution that meets contemporary standards of the world today.
These standards include sufficient resources, a broad base of community support that doesn’t flit from fad to fad, and guarantees of academic freedom and independence for its faculty. Academic freedom and independence is necessary for high achieving faculty to function, which is why top scholars typically refuse to go to institutions that cannot make these guarantees. Since top institutions do make such guarantees, any institution lacking them will fail to attract faculty in what is now an international marketplace.
So we are deeply disappointed in the FPU Academic Affairs committee’s proposal that FPU not offer tenure to prospective faculty. In the United States, tenure is the primary guarantee of academic freedom and independence, and lack of tenure is a well-understood signal that an institution is satisfied with third- or fourth-tier status.
We are also dismayed by statements from the FPU leadership that lack of tenure "ensures a fair and equitable review process that allows us to recruit and maintain talented faculty." This position is completely at odds with the realities of the academic marketplace, and considering the recent history of USF Polytechnic, they suggest that political interests are once again applying inexcusable pressures on academic leaders to advance and promulgate policies that will compromise FPU’s future.
Inside Higher Ed has published an article on FPU's Future Without Tenure, which quoted Vice President Darkazalli saying that "[w]e don’t want [new faculty] to be worrying within the first five or six years whether they’re going to be tenured or not." Instead faculty will be up for renewal every five years, or every three years, or every year, depending on the Administration's whim.
Congress Goes After NSF ... Again
Just two months after the National Science Foundation was barred from funding much political science research, Congress is at it again.
Congressman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, has proposed a High Quality Research Act requiring that before the National Science Foundation makes a grant award, it must publish a statement certifying that the project is in the interests of the United States, is "ground breaking" and "answers questions or solves problems that are of the utmost importance to society at large" and is "not duplicative". The bill leaves it to the NSF to interpret all this prose, but leaves the door open for the House Science and Technology Committee – which Smith chairs – to badger the NSF further. The meaning of the badgering language is unclear, but as we shall see, some observers see it as an opening for micromanagement.
Smith's press release states that "Congress should not pick winners and losers by micromanaging grant decisions at the NSF," but explains that "[the] draft bill maintains the current peer review process and improves on it by adding a layer of accountability." According to the release and a letter Smith wrote to NSF Acting Director Cora Marrett, Smith was disconcerted that abstracts for grant awards had titles like "Picturing Animals in National Geographic," "Comparative Histories of Scientific Conservation: Nature, Science, and Society in Patagonian and Amazonian South America," "The International Criminal Court and the Pursuit of Justice," "Comparative Network Analysis: Mapping Global Social Interactions," and "Regulating Accountability and Transparency in China’s Dairy Industry."
Of course, the NSF has been warning applicants about titles ever since William Proxmire handed out Golden Fleece Awards. (But Smith's views on environmental science raises the question of whether exotic projects are what he is really unhappy about.) Smith's request that the NSF hand over the (confidential) reviews of the five grants crossed a line, and Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, the ranking Democrat on the committee, retorted, "In the history of this committee, no chairman has ever put themselves forward as an expert in the science that underlies specific grant proposals funded by NSF."
The American Association for the Advancement of Science magazine Science Insider reported that U.S. Lawmaker Proposes New Criteria for Choosing NSF Grants, and their interpretation of the legislation was that the bill "would replace peer review at the National Science Foundation (NSF) with a set of funding criteria chosen by Congress. For good measure, it would also set in motion a process to determine whether the same criteria should be adopted by every other federal science agency." Science Insider then reported that Science and Technology Policy Director John Holdren attacked the bill and defended NSF's grant selection process.
Earlier this year, Senator Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, persuaded Congress to defund almost all political science funding from the NSF. One response was some soul-searching among political scientists about their, ahem, ineffective political activity. It seems that the old assumption that Congress wouldn't do something like that is wrong; worse, Congress seems so emboldened by its success in fiddling with the NSF that it would like to fiddle some more.
No agency is more central to America's scientific progress than the National Science Foundation, and the lesson Senator Coburn has taught us is that politics is a serious business. This may be the time for supporters and stakeholders in the NSF to think seriously about protecting American science from ideologues and special interests.
Chapter Meeting tomorrow Friday, May 17, at 12 noon at CDB Italian Restaurant just east of USF Tampa at 5104 Fowler Ave.
There will be free pizza, salad, and beer. All UFF members are invited to attend. Non-members are also invited to come and check us out. Come and join the movement.
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