Global Studies Initiative On Hold for 2016-17

The status of Whitman’s Global Studies Initiative in 2016-17 is uncertain after Interim Provost and Dean of the Faculty Pat Spencer officially announced on Oct. 21 that faculty would not receive course releases for participating in certain parts of the initiative during this time.

Some members of the faculty are upset with the proceedings, decrying the clarity and methodology of the decision. They also cite the importance of course releases (which allow faculty to reduce their course load requirements if they are working on other substantial projects) to the functionality of the Initiative and worry this decision could effectively end Global Studies. Conversations between the administration and faculty about the future of Global Studies are still ongoing.

“I think this situation is going to change dramatically in the next week or two. At the very least, I anticipate many more conversations,” said Professor of Psychology and Chair of the Faculty Melissa Clearfield.

The Global Studies Initiative was established in June 2008 after a proposal from faculty earned a $345,000, three year grant from the Mellon Foundation. The Initiative now exists with support from the college and involves five major aspects: a Global Studies Director, who with a Steering Committee composed of other faculty is responsible for managing funds and programming under the Initiative; a fall faculty development seminar, which includes discussions of globalization from different perspectives; a summer course enhancement workshop put on by faculty who participated in the fall seminar; a spring Global Studies Symposium open to all of campus; and interdisciplinary courses for students developed by faculty involved with the fall seminar.

Currently, both the Director and participants in the fall seminar are given course releases. According to Spencer, the decision to remove this option for 2016-17 was done in part to allow the new provost who will be arriving next fall the maximum ability to review the Global Studies Initiative during the impending strategic planning process.

“I think it’s important … that initiatives that are developed are periodically reviewed. Not to see whether they should continue to exist but to see if there are new directions that we could go and this is the critical time to do that I think with the transition and the new Provost and President and a new vision for the college,” said Spencer.

Faculty are questioning whether Spencer’s decision is truly a “review,” as it effectively suspends some parts of the Initiative based on how it currently functions. Most concur that review of programs and initiatives like Global Studies is important. However, many feel that it unnecessary to make a decision that limits some aspects of the Initiative and then postpones an assessment for an extended period of time. Moreover, the Steering Committee had already been planning to review the program last weekend and assess ways to improve it before Spencer’s sudden announcement.

“Given the explanations I have heard so far, which have not referenced any specific financial troubles or impending enrollment pressures, I personally don’t see the need to put the current program components on hiatus in order to carry out a meaningful evaluation of its success or to plan for its future,” said Division II Chair Nicole Simek, who was part of the group that drafted the original proposal for the Mellon grant, in an email to The Pioneer.

Faculty also expressed concern about the way this recent ruling was made and explained. Although Spencer stated that he spoke with administrators, some Trustees and the Committee of Division Chairs about the possibility of putting course releases on hold, he did not consult the Global Studies Director Elyse Semerdjian or members of the Steering Committee prior to informing of them of his decision on Oct. 20. Additionally, his initial explanation that day implied that all parts of the Global Studies Initiative would be suspended, something he clarified at a faculty meeting the following day to apply only to course releases.

“[O]n Tuesday, we were told that no aspect of the program would be functioning, not even the  symposium. That kind of unilateralism, without consultation with me, with no consultation with the Steering Committee at all…it defies the codes by which we typically operate at Whitman, which is consultation with faculty, shared governance, [and] transparency,” said Semerdjian.

Spencer acknowledged that his procedure was “flawed,” but stands by the decision he made. He expressed concern about course releases taking faculty away from other courses where there is high enrollment. Both Spencer and Clearfield noted that some faculty have privately voiced similar thoughts, but were unlikely to speak publicly in faculty meetings or faculty listserves due to the nature of the conversation.

“I don’t want to minimize the amount of work and the amount of thought and the amount of effort that goes into any [part of Global Studies]. What I am concerned with is the fact that we’re taking sometimes some of our best faculty out of the classroom, and in turn they put pressure on other classrooms because those students don’t have one of those classes to take,” said Spencer.

With regards to course releases, some members of the Steering Committee note that the benefits extend far beyond the detriments of missing one course during one year, as the ideas and conversations supported by the Initiative can substantially affect a faculty member for many years.

“The kind of course release that [faculty] would get for participating in Global Studies does not impact [the] development of one course – it impacts every single course [they] teach from here on out for [their] duration on Whitman’s campus,” said Professor of Biology Leena Knight, a member of the Steering Committee.

Another issue is that while parts of the initiative could theoretically exist in 2016-17, any director managing the different parts of the program would need to compensated in some fashion. Similarly, the lack of course releases makes it unlikely that faculty could attend the fall seminar and consequently produce summer workshops and interdisciplinary courses on top of their normal duties.

“[I]f you remove course releases, you can’t have somebody volunteer to take on the burden of directing this program, and how successful will you be in recruiting faculty to engage in this intense development seminar absent any space created for them? If you do not get those two pieces, how do you generate a workshop, how do you then generate a symposium?” said Knight.

A major college-wide perk of Global Studies that could be missing depending on how the initiative functions in the future is the ability to attract and retain faculty. Many new faculty cite the program as a significant draw in their decision to accept positions at Whitman.

“[Global Studies has] also been a way for us to recruit and retain a lot of faculty members, especially those who are thinking about diversity in new exciting, innovative ways. I think it continues to do that still as we hire for other positions and recruit…on the strength of a thriving program that engages faculty from all three divisions,” said Paul Garrett Professor of Political Science Shampa Biswas, a member of the Steering Committee.

The concern and confusion around the potential impact of this decision is also having immediate implications. Some faculty are disheartened by the announcement and have spent valuable time trying to assess and address this issue in the chaotic week since the decision was announced.

“I’ve seen it devastate moral. Even in the short term, [many] faculty who have had time that they should have been putting into their classes and making their classes great this week are instead spending their time trying to repair damage…and recover from this poorly-made decision,” said Professor of Politics Aaron Bobrow-Strain, a member of the Steering Committee.

Behind the scenes, a variety of faculty members have written testimonials in support of Global Studies. Additionally, an open letter from students expressing concern over the status of Global Studies has recently garnered over 100 signatures.

But with this activity also comes the potential for a compromise. Various meetings between many key individuals, including the Steering Committee, Spencer, and President Murray, are scheduled this week to converse on the future of the Global Studies Initiative.

“I’m hopeful. I know that [Murray and Spencer are] both in difficult positions with all kinds of pressures on them – I appreciate that. But I think the massive upswell of support for Global Studies, the testimonials about its impact from students, from faculty, from alumni – all of that to me makes me feel optimistic,” said Bobrow-Strain.