Inside the Academic Destruction of the University of Tulsa

Apr 18, 2019 by

Inside the academic destruction of a proud private university

Jacob Howland –

A Harvard Business School professor recently predicted that up to half of all American colleges and universities will go bankrupt in the next ten to 15 years. While this may be a worst-case scenario, universities have for years been offering an increasingly inferior product at unsustainably high prices to an ever-more skeptical group of prospective students. Many institutions below the top tier are scrambling to respond to the collapse of the higher-education bubble by jettisoning the liberal arts and pumping up the practical ones: health care, computer science, business, and other technical fields that promise to yield jobs immediately after graduation. This approach has been employed in a particularly crude and short-sighted manner at the University of Tulsa, where a new administration has turned a once-vibrant academic institution with a $1.1 billion endowment and a national reputation in core liberal arts subjects into a glorified trade school with a social-justice agenda. Our story is worth telling, because we have been hit by a perfect storm of trends currently tearing through the American academy: the confident ignorance of administrators, the infantilization of students, the policing of faculty, the replacement of thinking with ideological jargon, and the corporatization of education.

I arrived at TU in 1988, the same year Thomas Staley left to head the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas. As TU’s provost, Staley had aggressively recruited serious scholars in the humanities and social sciences. Programs in English, history, and politics were particularly robust; Harvard’s Department of Government devoted a regular column in its newsletter to the activities of our political theorists. Professors critiqued their colleagues’ work, audited one another’s courses, and hosted informal lectures on subjects like pre-Raphaelite painting, medieval monasticism, and the economy of the Italian city-states. Faculty reading groups—some with 15 or more participants, including members of the wider Tulsa community—studied Heidegger’s Being and Time, Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws, Montaigne’s Essays, and Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. Undergraduates in our Honors Program studied literary, philosophical, religious, and historical classics from ancient Greece to the twentieth century and capped off their education with serious, substantial senior theses. My first decades at TU were a time of intellectual ferment and growth for faculty and students alike.

But it became clear some years ago that TU was in financial trouble. Faculty have had no raises since 2015. That same year, President Steadman Upham (whose compensation in 2014 exceeded $1.2 million) informed the campus community that the university was providing athletics with a $9 million annual subsidy. The total deficit in 2016 was $26 million. For nine months in 2016–2017, the university ceased to contribute to faculty retirement accounts—effectively, a 9 percent cut in pay. In September 2017, 5 percent of the nonfaculty workforce was laid off. In December 2017, Moody’s downgraded $89 million of TU’s parity revenue bonds and $57 million of student-housing revenue bonds. Around the same time, it was revealed that TU had for years been running a structural deficit of about $16 million. Athletics accounted for most of the total loss; TU’s law school and Tulsa’s Gilcrease Museum, which the university has managed since 2008, made up much of the rest.

TU’s board of trustees is composed of business executives and lawyers, none of whom has a higher-education background. Three trustees graduated from TU’s law school; two others serve on the board of the Gilcrease; more than a few are major supporters of TU’s Division I football program. Disinclined to address the deficit’s primary causes, the board prefers to plug the deficit through a combination of academic program cuts and consolidations, faculty attrition, and a massive capital campaign. Then again, it was never clear to faculty why a university with a billion-dollar endowment needed to cut academic programs. Some suspected that the financial crisis was just an excuse for fundamentally transforming the institution.

Sharp Chapel (left) and Tyrrell Hall (right), the oldest building on campus (Photos: Courtesy of author (3))
Sharp Chapel (left) and Tyrrell Hall (right), the oldest building on campus (Photos: Courtesy of author (3))

With Upham’s retirement in the fall of 2016, TU’s problems expanded into the realm of education. The crisis we now confront is essentially moral and metaphysical. At stake is whether we will continue to be a liberal university: a place where young people, briefly sheltered from the noisy imperatives of the day, may take root in the rich soil of the common human past and grow into mature, independent individuals.

Upham was replaced by Gerard Clancy, a psychiatrist who served as president of the University of Oklahoma–Tulsa from 2006 to 2014. Clancy’s proudest accomplishment is developing psychiatric-outreach programs for homeless people. His therapeutic sensibilities have informed all his work as TU’s president, starting with the university’s Strategic Plan for 2017–2022. Entitled Building the Foundation for a Great Story and a Greater Commitment, the plan asks not what we want students to learn, but “How do we want TU students to feel?” The answer consists in the four pillars of the new TU Commitment: accepted (“physically, emotionally and spiritually safe”), engaged (“not talked down to, you have a voice and a desire to be heard”), empowered, and launched on a voyage of self-discovery. The administration takes the TU Commitment seriously: an annual Commitment Cup and quarterly Pillars of the Commitment awards recognize employees who promote its goals in an exemplary way, and the provost signs every email to the faculty, “With commitment.”

Integral to the TU Commitment is fostering a “culture of justice” on campus. “We seek out complex problems and injustices in our society,” the strategic plan declares, “and engage in work that promotes justice.” The document also lays out a Diversity Action Plan for building “an inclusive, safe, and diverse community,” which it describes as “the primary foundation on which all [the university’s] objectives will be realized.” Clancy’s approach is aggressive or paternalistic, depending on the group addressed. Faculty resistance to the moral and therapeutic imperatives of the new institutional super ego is presumed to be so extensive as to require something only a few steps short of A Clockwork Orange-style reeducation. On top of an anonymous, online-bias reporting system, Clancy has mandated training in “unconscious bias” for all employees. (We’ve already done harassment and “microaggressions.”) And just to be sure, TU’s new Institute of Trauma, Adversity, and Injustice also regularly surveys “exclusionary, intimidating, offensive, and/or hostile conduct” at the university.

With students, however, Clancy prefers a posture of smothering paternalism. “Some of you have noticed dogs, horses, and other mammals in class,” begins a recent email from an associate dean; new university policy requires that we accommodate these “emotional support” animals in our classrooms. After Donald Trump’s election, Clancy emailed the TU community warning that “Many Americans are concerned, if not outright afraid, that the color of their skin, the religion they practice, the people they love or the politics they espouse . . . could make them targets of violence.” The Brett Kavanaugh hearings prompted an email in which Clancy assured students of “their safety and acceptance at The University of Tulsa,” accompanied by a video in which his wife Paula explained that “even our Clancy family is very diverse; we were born in the U.S. or Korea or Ireland or Canada, and we feel that this diversity makes us so strong and compassionate. And we really think it’s a lot, lot of fun to have all that diversity; we see it in such, such positive terms.”

Upham had made it his goal to pull TU into the top 50 national universities in the U.S. News & World Report rankings. This was commonly recognized as a bridge too far—our highest-ever ranking was somewhere in the seventies—but it was a serious institutional aspiration that recognized the intellectual quality of our faculty. At his first meeting with TU faculty in late 2016, by contrast, Clancy announced that he was turning the ship around: we would now focus on recruiting first-generation college students and offering them job-ready programs. This is the sort of modest goal a public college of local stature might set for itself, not the best private university in the region. And such students cannot possibly afford TU’s tuition, just raised 3 percent to $41,698 for 2019–2020. (Little wonder that Oklahoma’s public universities are now considering competing with TU in Tulsa, news that caused a former trustee to tell me “we’re fucked.”) Clancy hopes to plug the structural deficit and raise scholarship funds through a $500 million capital campaign—but how many first-generation college students know to look beyond the sticker price for financial aid? Still more implausibly, Clancy plans to continue to market TU as a private university of national significance.

Clancy needed some administrative muscle to push through his transformative vision, and he found it in Janet Levit, a former law school dean and Vice President for Strategic Initiatives at TU, a position from which she led the process culminating in the 2017–2022 Strategic Plan. (On her LinkedIn page, she describes herself as “a thought leader on implicit bias.”) After Levit became provost in May 2018, she established the Provost’s Program Review Committee (PPRC), “tasked with reviewing all academic programs and evaluating each one across a number of dimensions, including their contribution to the university’s core mission, their trajectory, their outcomes and their financial sustainability.” Faculty were repeatedly assured that this process would be transparent, inclusive, and data-driven.

Students (wearing black, in mourning for the liberal arts) assemble for a peaceful protest at Collins Hall, the central administration building. (Photo: Courtesy of author)
Students (wearing black, in mourning for the liberal arts) assemble for a peaceful protest at Collins Hall, the central administration building.

In fact, it was none of these things. One immediate indication of trouble was the composition of the PPRC, which included no one from the humanities or the sciences (other than applied ones). In most cases, the PPRC was effectively limited to considering financial data. Some departments and programs submitted comprehensive, internal academic reviews to the committee; others, including English, Philosophy, and Religion (my home department), Film Studies, Arts Management, and Language and Literature, were scheduled to complete their reviews more than a month after the PPRC made its secret recommendations to Levit in February 2019. Worse, the financial data generated by the PPRC—calculations of total cost per credit hour taught—were prejudicially constructed and rife with errors. Instructional costs included the full compensation of endowed chairs, though these are not part of the university’s operating expenses. Courses taught in Honors and other non-major programs were not included in the calculations. Departments were charged for faculty holding courtesy appointments. Receiving pushback at a faculty meeting, Levit insisted that, while she had not seen the PPRC data, it was accurate to “within 2 percent–3 percent.” (The PPRC ultimately admitted that it had overstated instructional costs for my department by 40 percent.) Levit concluded the meeting with an ominous pronouncement: if faculty could “suspend disbelief,” and if we supported what the administration was doing, there would be a place for us at TU. But would there be a place for the liberal arts?

The 2017–2022 Strategic Plan describes “the liberal arts core” as standing “at the heart of TU’s mission.” This is as it should be. Liberal arts are “liberal” because they cultivate free human beings, enlarge the mind, and develop whole and flourishing individuals who are not just servants of society or technology. No program in the university is as central to the liberal arts as Honors, one of TU’s greatest attractions for prospective students. (According to the dean of admissions, no program in the university has a higher yield of applicants.) Incoming Honors students, half of whom are enrolled in the engineering college, read the Iliad in the summer before they matriculate; in their first semester, they read the Odyssey along with Greek tragedy, comedy, history, and philosophy. They go on to study classic books from the medieval period to the present. Honors alumni do some remarkable things; most recently, Jennifer Croft (BA ’01) won the 2018 Man Booker Prize for her translation of Polish author Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Flights.

Enrollment in Honors has skyrocketed in recent years, thanks mostly to the extraordinary efforts of the program’s director, Denise Dutton (herself an Honors graduate). Between 2012 and 2017, Dutton increased the size of the program fourfold, from 65 to 255 enrolled students—but the yearly budget for Honors decreased by 70 percent over the same period. This meant that the program could no longer host visiting speakers, support dinner or lunch conversations between students and faculty, or even pay for snacks at shared events; Dutton took to baking cookies and purchasing refreshments on her own dime. More than 400 students applied for admission to Honors this year. Levit nevertheless slashed its budget, effectively reducing the number of incoming Honors students in the fall of 2019 by 50 percent. Dutton was furthermore forbidden from seeking external funding on the grounds that the university was not prepared to guarantee the program’s existence beyond the 2019–2020 academic year. And though she is herself an assistant provost, Dutton was told that she could no longer email Levit directly; petitions would have to go through her boss.

Around this time, Dutton began removing books and personal possessions from her cozy eyrie in the library. Other TU employees had been escorted from their offices upon being fired, and she didn’t want to leave anything behind when the same thing happened to her.

On April 11, a beautiful spring day, the administration revealed consolidations and cuts. Clancy announced the formation of a “professional supercollege” composed of the existing schools of business, law, and health sciences. Programs in finance, accounting, industrial organization, computer science, digital media, graphic design, cybersecurity, petroleum engineering, and communication disorders, among others, were identified as growth areas. Undergraduate programs in theater, musical theater, music composition, instrumental and vocal performance, dance, Greek, Latin, and Russian (among others) were eliminated, as were all Masters and Ph.D. programs in art, chemistry, history, and physics; they will be “wound down” over the next four years. Chinese was reduced to a minor. Students will still be able to major in French and German, but they will have to take all their upper-level courses in study-abroad programs. The majors in philosophy and in religion were eliminated; there will be only a “combined philosophy and religion minor,” with the PPRC recommendation to “monitor the needed [upper-level courses] for sufficient enrollment.” There will be no assistantships for graduate students entering English and anthropology in the fall of 2019. Arts and Sciences will become a service college. All programs will be combined into four divisions, including one called Humanities and Social Justice. The default course load for all professors at TU will shift from 3/2 to 4/4. Yet somehow, TU found money to announce the creation of a new office, the vice-provost for research—little of which will be accomplished with such heavy teaching obligations.

The communities of teaching, learning, and creative expression that TU has fostered and nurtured for the past 30 years are being destroyed by individuals with little understanding or appreciation of their value. One is reminded of Czesław Miłosz’s The Captive Mind:

A forest is an organism arising out of complicated interactions of mosses, soil, fungi, trees, and grasses. The moment these mosses and fungi are destroyed by the cutting out of the forest, the symbiotic pattern is disturbed and the new forest is a completely different organism from what might be expected by someone who ignored the sociology of plants. Stalinists have no knowledge of the conditions human plants need in order to thrive.

“From new leadership and shifting duties to program reviews and branding initiatives, TU is moving from a relatively stagnant state to one that is much more dynamic and proactive,” Clancy told TU employees in February. When I asked him for clarification, he sent me a list of accomplishments:

  1. New Board Chair, New Provost
  2. Reduced the size of the Board
  3. Created new Board committees
  4. Restructured TU administration
  5. Initiated academic program continuous improvement cycles for each semester
  6. Initiated zero-based budget cycle for each year.
  7. Initiated students success programs
  8. Added faculty to the Board
  9. Created several shared governance committees, including University Council that is updating TU Mission, Curriculum Review Committee that is updating our core curriculum, the Provost Program Review Committee that is reviewing each academic program’s viability.
  10. Implemented the Advanced Performance Solutions with EAB to track our academic efficiencies.

All this ferment is bureaucratic, and what little bears on scholarship and teaching falls like bombs onto a shell-shocked faculty. Clancy’s thoroughly corporate mentality could not be more evident: TU is nothing other than its administrative leadership, and its professors, swamped with pointless paperwork and mandatory doctrinal training, are middle managers.

The campus green, where students have scheduled a “funeral” for the liberal arts on April 19 (Photo: Courtesy of author)
The campus green, where students have scheduled a “funeral” for the liberal arts on April 19

Clancy’s autocratic corporatism and social-action agenda are nevertheless well suited to Tulsa, for remarkable connections bind TU with some of the city’s biggest corporate interests. Ken Levit (Janet’s husband) was president of OU–Tulsa just before Clancy. When he left, he became the executive director of the $8 billion George Kaiser Family Foundation. GKFF plays a significant role in Tulsa’s daily life and economy. The $400 million that it spent on Tulsa’s new Gathering Place was the largest private gift to a public park in U.S. history. In 2016, the foundation helped TU purchase the Bob Dylan archive, and it is currently building a museum to house the acquisition. TU cemented its connection with the Kaiser Foundation in May 2018, when Levit took over as provost and Fredric Dorwart, the foundation’s president, was named chair of the university’s board of trustees. TU is also intimately linked with the Bank of Oklahoma, of which George Kaiser is majority owner. The bank is a major supporter of TU athletics; it is also the corporate trustee of the Chapman Trusts that comprise TU’s endowment. Dorwart and TU trustees Stephen G. Bradshaw and Chester Cadieux III are all BOK board members, as is Clancy (a perk worth 300 bank shares per year, plus additional pay); Dorwart is general counsel for BOK, and Bradshaw is its president and CEO. Clancy also chaired the Tulsa Metro Chamber of Commerce in 2011. (According to the January 18, 2011 Journal Record, he touted the use of diversity as a tool of economic development in his inaugural address to the Chamber and “wasted no time conducting a therapy session on more than 1,200 business leaders, local officials and citizens.”)

The facts illuminate TU’s radical overhaul. Clancy’s priorities dovetail with GKFF’s areas of focus: early childhood education, delivering health care to indigent families, and making Tulsa more vibrant and economically robust. Key parts of TU’s strategic plan could just as well have been written by GKFF: “Who will lead improvements in our K-12 education systems? Who will guide the growing number of first generation students to go to college and help them succeed in college? Who will champion health equity? Who will assist in improving our police relations and criminal justice system? Who will lead Tulsa’s efforts to develop, recruit, and retain young, creative talent? . . . The faculty, staff, students and graduates of the University of Tulsa will.” The new TU will serve the same social and economic mission as the Kaiser Foundation, and Clancy is evidently banking on substantial GKFF funding. Why shouldn’t he? In 2008, after all, he secured a $50 million grant from Kaiser to establish the University of Oklahoma College of Community Medicine at OU–Tulsa.

TU will advance social justice along two tracks of career preparation. Most first-generation students will be routed into jobs like nursing, exercise science, and computing. But the best and brightest will be lured by the prospect of executive positions in charitable foundations, social services, policy institutes, and the like. Clancy himself teaches a Presidential Leadership Program that seeks to “prepare a cadre of TU graduates who are skilled in creating a just, humane and creative world” and to “facilitate students in their transformation from leadership to philanthropy.”

TU’s governors do not understand what a university is: a precious cultural institution whose essential task is the preservation, cultivation, and transmission of knowledge. Absent a board willing and able to defend our integrity as an academic institution, we have experienced what one could call a hostile takeover that appears to have made TU a subsidiary of Tulsa’s biggest charitable foundation and an agent of the city’s corporate interests. Our infantilized and indoctrinated students will receive but a light wash of liberal arts before they are popped from the higher-education oven. They will perhaps be credentialed, but they will not be educated.

Source: Inside the Academic Destruction of the University of Tulsa | City Journal

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