Monday, January 4, 2010

An Academic Recap of 2009

Given the media's current fixation on one golfer's rampant infidelities, it is hard to remember that anything else happened in 2009, especially before that failed suicide attack on a Detriot-bound airplane Christmas morning took over the headlines this holiday season.

Of course, much did happen last year, and most of the mass mediated, end-of-year lists captured the big stories, including those angry town hall meetings, the concomitant dulling of a "post-racial" president's post-election luster, our ongoing economic crisis, the passing of a Kennedy, America's war efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, protests in Iranian streets, the King of Pop's unexpected death, and the panic about H1N1.

But academia also had its own big stories this year. Here's my top ten list (in no particular order):

1. Protests against cuts in the University of California system. New Yorker magazine just published a fascinating glimpse into Berkeley's branch of that movement, which has students, staff, faculty, and administrators waging a war over the future of public education in that state (with implications for the rest of us). There are even controversial proposals (published in places like the Washington Post) that pivot on a decoupling of Berkeley from the other UC campuses, of saving top-tier public universities across the country through selective privatization. For now, there are strikes (and threats of more strikes) on Berkeley's campus, and faculty must decide whether or not to cross those picket lines and teach their classes.

2. That bizarre and surreal "story" about an African-American professor at Columbia who allegedly got so upset about a white colleague's indifference/insensitivity to contemporary racism that he punched her in the face at a pub near campus. The story went viral in a day (back in early November) and disappeared just as fast. I can only hope (against hope) that that only means it was all some kind of sick joke/hoax. Indeed, if it wasn't, the dropped coverage on this confounding tale is troubling in and of itself.

3. The long wait for the National Research Council's national ranking of doctoral programs. They released a detailed guide to their methodology this past Fall, but not the actual rankings. This non-story is clearly a big story in its own right. And I'm sure that the plot will only thicken in 2010.

4. Lincoln University's attempt to impose a body-mass index requirement on its graduating seniors. The initiative was met with cheers from some (for addressing rampant obesity) and jeers from others (who labelled it a form of discrimination). The 'nays' won, and Lincoln rescinded the requirement.

5. The stimulis money that funneled into university-based research projects as part of the government's economic recovery package. I know quite a few colleagues (in several different fields) who were able to take advantage of this initiative, stimulating their own research projects, even and especially those that had already run out of funding.

6. Media stories about how the economic downturn potentially made a bad situation worse at Harvard University. Vanity Fair's expose on the matter is still one of the most startling, attempting to blame at least some of Harvard's current financial predicament on its previous investment strategies and the people who made them.

7. University responses to H1N1. Duke University took a particularly pro-active approach to thwarting the threat. We may not be out of the woods yet, but this summer's media coverage now seems somewhat overblown.

8. Ongoing stories about how universities across the nation are tightening their belts to weather the economic downturn. I first heard about massive budget cuts at the University of Washington in Seattle. Other institutions have followed suit. What university initiatives get put off and de-prioritized when annual budgets are slashed by 15% or more?

9. That controversial New York Times op-ed in early April (from Columbia University Professor Mark Taylor) pleading for us to "end academia as we know it." The piece began by describing graduate education as "the Detriot of higher education," a provocative opening salvo. There were many academics who quite publicly disagreed with Taylor's remedies, including his call to end tenure.

10. An anemic academic job market. Newly minted PhDs continue to lament the slim pickings. 2009 was probably a little bit better than 2008 (at least in some fields), but there are even bigger questions to debate about academia's increasing reliance on adjunct labor and its implications for the future of doctoral education.