Category Archives: Academic programs

How Open Is “Political Dialogue” at UVA?

by James A. Bacon

There is widespread concern among critics of higher education in America that elite universities are squelching free speech and open dialogue in the pursuit of social justice. There is ample evidence that such is exactly the case. But institutions vary, and what occurs at Harvard or Yale may or may not be indicative of reality at the University of Virginia. It is incumbent upon us at the Jefferson Council to draw conclusions about the state of free speech and civil discourse at UVA based on what is happening at UVA, not what we read of horrors elsewhere.

Fortunately, in the age of the Internet, the partisan and ideological proclivities of college faculty are more transparent than ever — even if administrators are not. Professors leave abundant evidence in their writings and in digital recordings. Insofar as we have time, we will profile cases we come across.

We first became interested in Rachel L. Wahl, an associate professor of education at UVA who is affiliated with the Karsh Institute for Democracy, because she was one of eleven appointees to the Religious Diversity Task Force charged with addressing religious bias on the Grounds. If a purpose of the task force is to facilitate dialogue between hostile religious groups, appointing Wahl was likely a good idea. Not only does she encourage respectful dialogue, she researches what it takes to achieve it. Continue reading

UVa’s Ever-Expanding Bureaucracy: Student Advising Edition

by James A. Bacon

University of Virginia old-timers (like myself) remember what it was like to find help in picking courses and deciding majors. We’d latch ourselves onto a professor who took an interest in us, and he or she would walk us through the process. It did require some initiative on our part to reach out, but then, we were accustomed to taking matters into our own hands. I was fortunate. My advisor, history professor Joseph C. Miller, was not only a charismatic teacher and a leading scholar in his field, but he regarded the care and tending of students — even lowly undergraduates like me — as part of his vocation.

That’s not the way it works anymore. Faculty members are still expected to play a role in advising students, but it is a much diminished one. At UVa, responsibility for dispensing advice has been bureaucratized.

At the UVa Board of Visitors meeting Wednesday, the Ryan administration highlighted what it is doing to improve student advising. The dominant themes of the session were (1) the student experience is lacking for many, and (2) the answer is hiring more advisors and investing in the latest, greatest technology.

The picture that emerged is that UVa has numerous fragmented initiatives at the school and college level but no coherent university-wide vision. Practices vary widely. The cost of programs was not discussed. No cost-benefit analysis has been conducted. With no clear objectives beyond “we want to be the best,” there are no logical limits to an endless expansion of programs.

It was evident from the presentations that some very earnest, well-meaning people have been working on the issue for a considerable time, but the Board heard no analysis of how the perceived problem came to be, nor did anyone suggest that the answer might be returning responsibility for advising students to the professors. Blasted with a firehose of information, Board members were given little time to formulate questions.

One obvious question, never posed, is how much it costs to advise students. The inflation-adjusted cost of “student services,” of which student advising is a significant component, increased 22.4% between 2012 and 2022. To what degree does expansion of advising programs contribute to the ever-rising cost of running the university — costs that must in turn be covered by higher tuition? Continue reading

Info-Wars at UVa: Who Decides What the BoV Needs to Hear?

Provost Ian Baucom

by James A. Bacon

Last October University of Virginia Provost Ian Baucom briefed the Faculty Senate executive committee about a package of four multimillion-dollar academic initiatives that were in the works. The camera angle in the video recording shows him as a tiny, barely discernible figure at the far end of a long conference table. But his fast-clipped, staccato voice comes through loud and clear.

One initiative would address society’s “Grand Challenges” while another would build the university’s R&D infrastructure. Two others, largely geared to the pursuit of diversity, would set up a $20 million fund to aid the recruitment of graduate students and a $20 million fund to boost recruitment of “under-represented” faculty.

Members of the Faculty Senate were on board with the diversity programs, and Baucom felt at ease talking about them. “Behind [the faculty-recruitment initiative],” he said, “is the reaffirmation of the Audacious Futures Report to double the number of under-represented faculty. The president and I have been very clear that he stands by that goal.”

Four months later when the initiatives had moved further through the administrative pipeline, though, the Provost was less forthcoming with the Board of Visitors than he had been with the faculty. He described the Grand Challenges and R&D initiatives in considerable detail, but barely acknowledged the other two strategic priorities. He never explained that the faculty and graduate-student initiatives were designed in part to advance diversity.

The dichotomy in Baucom’s presentations raises important questions of governance at UVa. At a time when racial preferences in admissions and hiring are coming under increasing scrutiny, how much information about those practices is the Ryan administration withholding from the Board of Visitors? Who decides what to tell the Board? What power does the Board have to demand a fuller accounting? Continue reading

How to Degrade Academic Excellence, Lesson #1: Make SATs Optional

In Bacon’s Rebellion, Jim Sherlock makes a novel point that I haven’t seen discussed elsewhere. The University of Virginia and other elite higher-ed institutions are thriving in an age of declining student enrollment because they are perceived as elite. That perception depends in large measure upon the fact that some of the smartest, highest-achieving students in the country go there. However, by extending the decision to make SATs and ACT scores optional and substituting subjective admissions criteria, UVa is admitting a student body marked by a greater variability in academic aptitude. It remains to be seen if the decline in academic exclusivity will undermine its reputation as an elite institution. But it very well could.

How will UVa reconcile the tension between subjective admissions criteria and its pretense to be an exclusive, elite academic institution? Will it accept a higher attrition rate of less academically prepared students? Will it bolster lower-achieving students with intense tutoring and academic support? Will it steer the lower-achieving students into “gut” courses and majors? Or will it lower academic standards and embrace grade inflation?

Given the acceleration of grade inflation at UVa in the past five years, Virginia’s flagship university appears to be settling for a policy of incrementally compromising its standards of academic excellence. The obvious advantage of this approach is that it is hard to detect and easy to deny, and the results won’t be evident until the current leadership has retired or moved on.

— JAB

Explaining the Decline in English Majors

by James A. Bacon

Once upon a time, the University of Virginia was known for the excellence of its English Department — one of the most highly regarded in the country. Perhaps it still is. But you wouldn’t know it from the decline in the number of students earning B.A. and graduate degrees.

The number of degrees awarded has declined by almost half — from 404 in the 1999-2000 academic year to 210 in the 2021-22 year, according data contained in the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia database.

To be sure, the precipitous decline in the number of students studying English at UVa reflects a national phenomenon. “During the past decade, the study of English and history at the collegiate level has fallen by a full third. Humanities enrollment in the United States has declined over all by seventeen per cent,” writes The New Yorker in “The End of the English Major.”

The article explores many potential causes. Declining funding for the humanities. The rise of social media and the diminution of of attention spans. The surging cost of a college degree and practical decisions by students to master disciplines with a greater financial payoff. Continue reading

Tragedies in Charlottesville

by Loren Lomasky

Poor University of Virginia, the bad luck just kept coming. In 2014 the campus was rocked by the story of a vicious gang rape perpetrated at one of the fraternities. “Story” is is the operative word; it transpired that the Rolling Stone expose was entirely fabricated. Three years later the alt right came to town. Although to the best of my knowledge no actual member of the university community took part in its marches, the image of troglodytic wielders ot tiki torches spreading their menace across grounds was indelibly etched into the American imagination. And then came Covid.

These were external inflictions, but on Nov. 13, 2022, the University experienced an unexpected trauma. On a bus returning from a cultural outing to Washington, DC, one student gunned down three others. UVA responded by sending teams of counselors across the campus to respond to the pain of those who had lost friends or classmates. The university has no special expertise in psychological healing, but to its credit it did what it could.

Entirely different were alterations made to the academic mission. Backed by university president James Ryan, provost Ian Baucom decreed that no graded assignments be required from students until after the Thanksgiving break, that is, the close of term. What if periodic writing papers is necessary to the integrity of the particular course? The question did not arise; upholding academic standards had no place on the administration’s priority list.

In case these measures were insufficient to calm the atmosphere, Baucom also decreed that all Fall semester classes were now Pass-No Pass. At first glance this may not seem especially radical. Almost all colleges offer an option for students to take an occasional ungraded class. Typically that option will be elected so that one can try out a subject distant from one’s major without undue risk to the gradepoint average. That, however, is not at all like what the administration imposed. First, Pass-No Pass was not an option available to some students for some courses; everyone in every course was summarily included. Second, it was not a choice between a graded or ungraded course. Rather, all students would complete the class, find out in the fullness of time what grade had been assigned to them, and only at that point choose whether to keep the grade or simply receive credit for the course. Presumably the idea behind the policy – I say “presumably” because the administration is not often inclined to spell out its reasoning – is to minimize potential anxiety. Students need not worry about receiving an undesired grade because they can simply make it go away. Continue reading

UVa Grade Inflation Has Accelerated Since 2018

Source: University of Virginia Institutional Research and Analysis

In the spring of 1992, the cumulative Grade Point Average (GPA) of University of Virginia undergraduate students was 3.1, according to data maintained by the office of Institutional Research and Analysis. By 2021, the average GPA had soared to 3.6.

Grade inflation is a national phenomenon in U.S. higher education, so there may be nothing unusual about the long-term trend at UVa.

What does stand out in the chart is how grade inflation has accelerated in the past few years. The dot in the graph represents 2018, the year Jim Ryan became president. The average GPA that year was 3.4. Within three years, it shot up to 3.6. Viewing the UVa data in isolation, however, cannot tell us whether that incipient hockey stick is unique to the University or common to higher-ed nationally.

An average of 3.6 implies that at least 60% of all grades are As — and that assumes that the rest are Bs. If we assume that students occasionally are assigned Cs or Ds, the percentage of As is likely even higher. It would be interesting to see the grade distributions. Unfortunately, UVa does not provide that information. Still, based on the data made public, one must wonder, does anyone ever receive a failing grade anymore? Continue reading

Helping Minorities Thrive in STEM

Josipa Roksa

by James A. Bacon

There is a shortage of doctors, scientists, engineers and other employees with STEM (science, technology, engineering, and medicine) backgrounds in the U.S. economy. One reason is that American institutions of higher education aren’t turning out enough graduates with STEM degrees. And a big reason for that is that roughly half the students who enter STEM programs drop out. The labor shortage is especially marked among Hispanics and African-Americans.

The University of Virginia is trying to address disparities in STEM degrees awarded by applying university funds to leverage a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute — $7.7 million total over five years — to support the Driving Change and Inclusive Excellence 3 initiatives that aim to “enhance the academic experience and success of STEM students, particularly those who belong to historically excluded groups.”

The project director is Josipa Roksa, a professor of sociology and education who gained notoriety a decade ago as co-author of “Academically Adrift,” a book that showed that more than one-third of college students showed “almost no significant improvement in learning” during their four years in college. Since then, her research has focused on racial/ethnic inequalities in learning.

The underlying problem is that many students who enter UVa STEM programs are academically unprepared for the courses taught. Continue reading

Would Someone Enroll the UVa Board in These Courses, Please?

Laura Goldblatt

by James A. Bacon

Like most higher-ed critics, Bacon’s Rebellion conducts analysis of Virginia’s higher-ed institutions from a politically conservative perspective. Colleges and universities have mostly gotten a pass from commentators on the left wing of the political spectrum because, I would suggest, colleges and universities are almost all leftist-dominated institutions. But there are occasional exceptions.

One of those is a course taught by University of Virginia assistant professor Laura Goldblatt this spring, “The Marketplace of Ideas? Following the Money at the University of Virginia.” Her course description starts with an excellent question: “Why does student tuition for four-year, US colleges keep rising (at rates above inflation)? And where do all those tuition dollars go?” Continue reading

Restructuring Higher Ed for Greater Produktivität

Pre-COVID, the UVa Kaffeestunde met every week. German speakers of all levels hung out to sprechen deutsch.

by James A. Bacon

Last month the University of Virginia Board of Visitors approved a recommendation to eliminate the M.A. and PhD programs in the Department of Germanic Languages & Literatures. While UVa students retained a healthy appetite for learning to read and speak in German, only a few showed an interest in plumbing the depths of German literature.

The scaling back of the German department, which offered advanced courses in such authors as Freud and Kafka last semester, was part of a larger restructuring of UVa’s graduate foreign-language program. The board also voted to eliminate the M.A. program in Italian and the B.A. in Comparative Literature. Continue reading