Donald Parsons: Knapp era begins in earnest

One need not love the Henry James novel Golden Bowl to appreciate that small events can carry great meaning. We have had such an event at GW. A distinguished group of 11 faculty members argue clearly and passionately against the main proposition of one of my recent opinion pieces in The Hatchet. Now the piece, in which I proposed we close the engineering school, could well have been written to stimulate a response, which would seem to make a reaction unremarkable. But that is not the case at GW. In the last few years, I have put forth a steady flow of opinions on University happenings without serious faculty response. Many pieces have touched on administration misadventures and almost no faculty member ever disagreed, but certainly not all. We now have scholars disagreeing on an important GW policy issue and laying out their reasons publicly.

My pleasure goes far beyond the simple joy of being noticed. I am almost sure that the absence of earlier responses arose because faculty felt that faculty opinions, mine or theirs, did not matter. There was little to gain in voicing complaint in the Trachtenberg years. Without simplifying greatly, the president got an idea for a building project, the treasurer figured out how to finance it, and the executive vice president for academic affairs decided which student services would be “retrenched” to achieve the treasurer’s guidelines. One could publicly lampoon the president’s decisions to the amusement of colleagues, friends and family, but GW events pretty much went as his whims took him. I am not saying the president’s whims were invariably bad, just inevitable. After all, he spent almost 20 years NOT building a monolithic science and engineering center. The point is that it did not matter what faculty or students thought about his projects – they were going to happen. The reaction to my proposal to close the engineering school suggests something else – that faculty believe that reasoned debate may influence administration decisions.

The substance of the faculty letter deserves more careful consideration, and I would welcome further discussion on that in one public forum or another, but I would note at this point that I agree with much of the response. The writers fully endorse the administration’s buyout offer to the bulk of the senior faculty in engineering, a conclusion I arrived at as well, though more reluctantly. They also embraced the idea that technology and engineers are important in modern societies and that engineering is well worth teaching. It is good that the community be reminded of that, though, as with most economists, I personally find the argument obvious. Economists rarely dream of returning to Thomas Hardy’s Wessex or George Eliot’s Middlemarch. In our own way, we get rewarded for moving people along from just such environments. The harder question, to which the writers contribute some interesting ideas, is whether it is best taught at GW.

The one argument I would emphatically reject is the call for moving the discussion to a secret faculty governance forum to avoid disturbing students and parents. This partly suggests a misunderstanding of how faculty governance operates. Debate in the Faculty Senate is open, with remarks distributed to the entire community. A Hatchet reporter attends regularly. The argument also reflects differences in our view of the University. Academia, at its best, is built on robust public debate of options and decisions.

That said, I do not want to minimize the writers’ important contribution to this debate. The reality is that faculty members are actively engaged in discussing an important community issue in a public forum. Optimists, of which I am one, would argue that such an exchange arises because ideas and arguments about campus issues now matter. Perhaps the Knapp era has begun in earnest.

The writer is a professor of economics.

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