Mark Jones, “Queen’s University Academic Plan”: Complete and To Be Continued (12 December 2011)

As published in QUFA Voices, 12 December 2011:

Our Senate unanimously approved a “Queen’s University Academic Plan 2011” on November 22.  Some have asked how the unanimous approval came about, for just before voting, Senate received a petition with almost 800 signatures[1] explicitly “urg[ing]” it “to reject” the draft plan and endorse instead an alternative motion submitted by Senator Jordan Morelli in October.  Senate had also received a second, parallel petition, also urging that it “reject” the draft plan, signed by over 60 “Friends of Queen’s.”  Two academic units (the Department of Art and the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies) had issued statements unanimously endorsing the Morelli motion (the first point of which was “that Senate reject the draft currently proposed by the APTF”).  And QUFA Council, a body representing all academic units at Queen’s, had voted 30 to 2 to endorse the Morelli motion. So how could Senate, with all of these requests “to reject” the proposed draft, unanimously approve it?

The answer is complicated. On the one hand it should not be forgotten that Senate rejected, in October, a motion that the votes on the “Academic Plan” should be conducted by secret ballot (Minutes, p. 4).  The very existence of such a motion reflects that there are members of Senate who feel vulnerable when they have to vote in the open on politically controversial issues.  That more than one of every six people who signed the Morelli petition signed with “anonymous,” a pseudonym, or first-name only, suggests that the fear of being seen to dissent is widespread.  This is not a sign of healthy democracy in itself, nor is it a healthy sign that our own Senate should have voted down a Senator’s request for the protection of a secret ballot.  The minutes do not mention that anyone offered an argument against the use of ballots:  it is, in fact,  hard to be sure what that argument might be.

On the other hand, if we consider not just the November meeting of Senate, where the November draft was not discussed in substance before voting, and where no one objected to the verbal incoherence in the amended motion before voting to approve it—if we consider not just this meeting of Senate but the whole process since September, it is evident that opposition, including the Morelli motion and the petitions supporting it, made many positive differences in the outcome of the “Academic Plan.”  For in three drafts presented since September, the Academic Planning Task Force (APTF) made several deletions in response to objections.  Not only did they drastically reduce the number of specific recommendations, but they dropped their proposals for “UNIV 100”; they ceased recommending that Queen’s employ undergraduate TAs as teachers and pay them with academic credits; they withdrew their endorsements of virtualized, blended, and “distance” learning; and they also excised the earlier drafts’ recommendations for reducing disciplinary course “content.”  Further, in the November Senate, Jordan Morelli succeeded in making two significant amendments to the APTF motion itself.  First, he revised the wording in section (a) so that the phrase “Academic Plan” refers to the whole document, including the “pillars,” rather than to the 12-page introductory summary.  Second, where the APTF motion (section (d)) called for ongoing planning “under the leadership of the Provost,” Senator Morelli substituted language ensuring that ongoing planning will follow the consultative “process established by the 2010-2011 APTF” and that it will answer to Senate rather than the Provost.  This is critical because the Provost is an officer of the Board of Trustees.  It is Senate that has, at least in principle, responsibility for safeguarding Academic standards at Queen’s.

In these ways, some of what was sought by the original Morelli motion has still been achieved.  Nor is it only for what was deleted from the APTF’s September draft or from its November motion that we can be thankful.  Several strong sections, which the Morelli motion had suggested approving separately, have survived within the “Plan” as now approved by Senate.  These include the sections on “Fostering Students as Writers” (pp. 20-23); on “Disciplinarity and Interdisciplinarity” (pp. 26-31); and on “Globalism, Diversity, and Inclusion” (pp. 32-45).  Embedded as they now are within a connective tissue of more anodyne recommendations for “inquiry” and “transformative learning,” it is easy to lose sight of these sections.   But they are the three key sections that were begun last spring and posted by early summer, and that are fully grounded in the APTF’s intensive consultations and the earlier unit responses (their footnotes amply reflect this connection with the consultative basis).  These parts make significant recommendations and should be read by everyone.

But the downside of approving the whole APTF draft under the title “Queen’s University Academic Plan” is clear and simple:  whatever you may call it, this is by no stretch a complete “University Academic Plan.” The APTF achieved a good deal, but a comprehensive plan wasn’t part of it; even the “Four Pillars” rubric cannot dress up a few narrowly focused fragments as a four-square plan for all or even most parts and aspects of Queen’s.  In September’s Senate, several complaints were heard about the “undergraduate-centric” quality of the draft plan and its neglect of questions of research and of graduate and professional education. This is a serious gap for a research-intensive institution, and is the more serious today when graduate studies are under special pressures, e.g., when universities are routinely responding to financial difficulties by admitting more PhD students, by using them to train more undergraduates, and by hiring fewer PhDs.  Others have observed that the lack of faculty renewal is the main source of academic challenges now facing Queen’s.  Yet on this issue too our new “University Academic Plan” is entirely silent.  Queen’s is, like all modern universities, under intense pressure to respond properly to the academic potentials and discontents of electronic media and online resources.  And it has lately been responding to this pressure in practice by developing CDS and even writing a “business case” for increased use of virtual course delivery; yet there is nothing at all about this subject in our new “Academic Plan.”

And so on.  I truly don’t mean to minimize what the APTF has achieved:  it’s just that it can also be dangerous to inflate it in the fashion of Queen’s News Centre.  This round of our academic planning originated in 2009, when the Administration sought to close programs with low student numbers and was told that it needed to do some academic planning first.  And throughout the process there has been intense and persistent pressure to accept proposals for cost-cutting measures—centralization of departmental offices, expansion of year 1-2 courses, re-weighting of course-credits, use of undergraduate TAs, jettisoning of specialized “content,” and, of course, virtualization—as though these were notable academic enhancements.  So now we can expect the Administration to declare its “academic planning exercise” over, and (having jumped the gun with the BFA) start sharpening its pencils.  The truth is that our planning has just begun.

What we should have learned through the process of the past two years is that academic planning really can’t be completed; we need “a plan” less than we need a rational, open, and genuinely consultative process for continual planning.  That is where the APTF really shone, at least in the early days, before it began blacking out sections of its website.  It consulted widely, it wrote down and posted what it had heard, it drafted, and posted its drafts, it re-drafted in response to the feedback on those postings, and the parts that it completed in this fashion prove the benefits:  listening is better than making it up, and many heads are better than one.  The triumph of Senate last month was not in approving a “Queen’s University Academic Plan” (that remains imaginary), but in approving Senator Morelli’s final amendment for rolling the incomplete process forward.    If Senate continues this process and works to keep it democratic and transparent, we can be optimistic about the half of this glass that isn’t full.


[1] At least 630 of the signatures had been verified as representing Queen’s students, staff, alumni, or faculty members.

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This entry was posted in Academic Plan (Drafts), Clippings, History of the "Academic Planning" Process, Petitions, Process. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Mark Jones, “Queen’s University Academic Plan”: Complete and To Be Continued (12 December 2011)

  1. Anonymous assistant prof. says:

    I notice that seventeen days later the minutes for that meeting are still not available. Does it normally take this long or are they being delayed on purpose?

    • Senate minutes are ordinarily made available only with the agenda for the following meeting, which is usually less than a week before that meeting occurs. Thus there is ordinarily a three-week delay, but since there is no December meeting of Senate, the November minutes are delayed by another month. Ideally, they should be made available within a week, so that members can check against memory and prepare for the following Senate meeting.

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