Letter: An open letter to UNI students
Published: Monday, March 5, 2012
Updated: Monday, March 5, 2012 13:03
An open letter to UNI students
In all my interactions with President Allen and Provost Gibson, I have found them to be persons of integrity. They care deeply about UNI and our students. I respect them and appreciate their hard work. But I too love UNI. I want students to have the best learning experience possible, and when I see the administration poised to take actions I believe will harm UNI, I have a responsibility to speak out.
The first goal in UNI's strategic plan is to become a leading undergraduate public university with a strong liberal arts foundation. Tragically, the current administration does not seem to understand how one makes that goal a reality. UNI cannot be a leading university if it closes down liberal arts majors such as physics, philosophy and the study of religion, as appears likely as I write this letter. The closure of these majors will have a profoundly negative impact on student learning as well.
As a student at UNI, you have access to a quality of education that students who attend a community college or for-profit university do not have: your courses are taught by professors who produce knowledge. By contrast, instructors at these other institutions are provided with little or no funding and support for research. Your tuition is higher at UNI than at a community college or for-profit because your classes are taught, for example, by real physicists, real philosophers and real scholars of religion.
What is "real"? Your professors have a consuming passion for our disciplines, and our research emerges out of that passion. Networking with other physicists, philosophers and scholars of religion, nationally and internationally, we present research at conferences and publish articles and books. In our classrooms, we share insights from our research with you and open your eyes to worlds you did not know existed. We excite you about the natural world, empower you for critical thinking, inspire you to appreciate your cultural heritage and prepare your for a global society in which respectful and knowledgeable interactions with others will require knowledge of the religious beliefs and practices of adherents of all the world religions, lest you do harm through ignorance of another's cherished beliefs. Students who share our passion for physics, philosophy or the study of religion major with us; hundreds of other students take courses from us in the LAC, minors and electives.
You may think that if you only encounter a practicing physicist, philosopher or scholar of religion in your LAC courses or an elective, you won't be affected if our majors are shut down. But if taking the MCAT is on your to-do list, don't you want to take your physics classes from a practicing physicist? If the GMAT and LSAT are down the road for you, don't you want to take Logic from an actual philosopher? If you are going to work for John Deere (with operations in India) or for a company that does business with China (as Governor Branstad hopes many of you will do), don't you want to get ready for the intercultural encounters you will have by taking Religions of the World or Hinduism and Buddhism from a scholar of religion?
If UNI drops small majors such as physics, philosophy and the study of religion, perhaps some of the professors who teach classes in these disciplines may be retained. But as faculty retire or leave (by choice or by a layoff), instructors will take the place of professors, if we are replaced at all. Universities hire highly trained, research-ready professors for programs with majors, and Ph.D.s with a passion for research and undergraduate teaching apply preferentially for jobs in departments with majors. If programs such as physics, philosophy and world religions have no majors, UNI will draw any future instructors of these subjects from the same hiring pool used by community colleges and for-profits. Because these new instructors will not teach in a major, they will not be expected to conduct research nor will they be funded to do so.
Is this a future we should embrace? Don't you want the students who follow you at UNI to have the same opportunity to be taught by professors that you have had? Why should students come here for the first two years and pay more when, increasingly, LAC instruction is no longer university-level instruction? UNI also will find it harder to remain among the top comprehensive universities in the Midwest. How can UNI get credit for being one, when it guts majors that define what a university is and cedes more and more courses to instructors rather than professors?
In recent interviews, Jim O'Connor, spokesman for the UNI administration, has criticized UNI professors, saying that our desire to keep "inefficient" programs is not "good leadership or business practice." Because students-are-like-widgets thinking tends to come and go in 10-year cycles, I've heard all this before. But never has UNI stood so close to the brink, so ready to forget that liberal arts majors such as physics, philosophy and the study of religion are the roots of the tree that is the university. Without their roots, trees topple and die. The proposed budget cuts will hack away at UNI's roots, irreparably damaging it. That these things are happening to the university I love is heartbreaking. Please let your legislators know that UNI's budget needs to grow, not decline, and tell university leaders and the Board of Regents that, if cuts must be made, you want them to prune UNI's outer branches and leave its roots intact.
Martha J. Reineke, Ph.D.
Professor of religion, Dept. of Philosophy & World Religions