Tag Archives: academic life

Reconciliation ecology and the soul of a university (a radio essay)

My reading of the following essay will be broadcast as part of the series “The Moral Is” (to which I have been contributing for a year now) on Valley Public Radio today, July 3, 2012, during the local morning program Valley Edition between 9-10 AM (rebroadcast at 7PM). Tune in online here if you get the chance. At some point in the future, it will be available in the archives, and I will post a link here when it does. In the meantime, here is the text of my essay (adapted from my open letter to President Welty in the wake of the recent deforestation on our campus) in its original form – it was condensed just a little bit to make it radio-worthy. I hope you find my voice is at least as suited as my face for radio…

Fall colors in the now deforested Lot J

A view of gorgeous fall colors in the urban forest on our campus that was cut down last month to create more parking spaces

Is a university more than a collection of buildings where classes are held so students can get their money’s worth of diplomas? To whom does a public university belong: the faculty and students who live and work there and make it their community, or administrators and politicians who control the fate of a campus with top-down decisions? Does a university have a soul, and if it does, how do we protect and nurture it during economically difficult times? Does a university have a responsibility to model, on its own campus, some of the solutions to the difficult challenges facing society?

I ponder these questions as a tenured faculty member at California State University, Fresno – also known by its new brand name as “Fresno State”. The adoption of that brand, with a logo that no one likes, is symbolic of how out-of-touch our upper administration is with much of the campus community. Campus leaders created a more visible and tragic symbol recently when they literally tore a chunk of life out of campus by chopping down a mature urban forest to expand parking. This was a massive failure from our university at multiple levels: failure to consult with the campus community before cutting down 200 mature trees; and lack of any broader vision for building a sustainable green campus as a model for urban development. Deforestation to expand parking on a campus recently added to Princeton Review’s list of Green Campuses seriously undermines Fresno State’s credibility. I am also deeply hurt because the deforestation destroyed a significant part of my outdoor research and teaching laboratory.

I study and teach Reconciliation Ecology, a multidisciplinary approach to reconcile human development with biodiversity conservation on our overcrowded planet. I work with policy makers, planners, and citizens to find ways to soften our environmental impact while improving quality of life for humans. Our campus provides primary field study sites. Students do original research here, including in the now deforested parking lots. We document how these seemingly barren urban spaces support many wildlife species, including federally protected migratory birds; the Fox Squirrel, a campus mascot celebrated during Squirrel Week; Great Horned Owl, Peregrine Falcon, and other birds of prey living on campus. Their habitats now stand bereft of the tree canopy that provided valuable resources. How do I teach reconciliation ecology if we cannot practice even a modicum of reconciliation on our own campus?

The need for more parking when we are curtailing enrollment is curious, and this approach shows a complete lack of ecological foresight. Was it really necessary to cut down 200 mature trees, which fix carbon, provide shade, habitat, and psychological benefits, to add 600 parking spots? When the whole world is looking for ways to reduce our carbon footprint, and when most urban dwellers are increasingly disconnected with nature, must we really cut down an urban forest to encourage more driving?

The leaders who navigate our campus through extremely difficult financial times must not overlook the ramifications of decisions thrust upon an increasingly alienated and demoralized academic community. A little more respect for the views of faculty and students who care deeply about this university, a little more compassion towards the environment and other organisms who share our campus, and a little more ecological smarts to soften the hard edges of our campus’s physical and psychological footprint will go a long way towards making the difficult times ahead more bearable. It can also turn adversities into opportunities for genuine leadership in building a truly sustainable campus for the long-term future of this century-old university. After all, the university lies at the heart of both, our intellectual and environmental commons, and nurtures the soul of our entire community.

How the athletic tail wags the academic dog at the new “Fresno State”

As of yesterday, I no longer work for California State University, Fresno. I got my tenure at that institution almost two years ago and have been an Associate Professor in the Biology Department ever since. I still have my lab and office in the same Biology building, and I still have that view from my window of the Sierras, currently hiding under ominous dark clouds as the state reels under today’s rainstorm. But our campus too is under some dark clouds these days. So I’m still here. But I’m not at California State University, Fresno any more.

You see, amid continuing budgetary woes, fee hikes, classes being cut, labs straining to accommodate too many students desperate to graduate, understaffed offices, faculty unrest over stalled labor negotiations… a whole litany of troubles, the powers that be on our campus decided that what we really needed was a makeover!! Who doesn’t feel better after getting a fresh haircut, a snazzy dress, and some makeup, right? Maybe a spa treatment (and a colonic cleansing… nah, scratch that) too? What better way to cheer oneself up? So, while we faculty have been struggling to maintain the quality of education in our overcrowded classrooms (e.g., I’ve currently got 72 students in my upper division writing- and experimental-labs-intensive Ecology course this semester – up from the normal cap of 48!), and fighting off attempts to dissolve our entire college of science and mathematics and other “reorganization” plans, those powers-that-be were working with a makeover team to cheer us all up!

Who knew?! You guys… you shouldn’t have!! 

No, really: you shouldn’t have.

But – Surprise!! – you did it anyway. And so, with much fanfare, our new face was unveiled yesterday: all tarted up in skimpy red and white (our “traditional colors”) with a bulldog’s paw (from our sports teams’ mascot, a bulldog) tattooed across our cheeks, and brand new triple-Ds sticking out beneath our chin, like the cheap cheerleaders we are now for the all important athletic brand of Fresno State! Hurray!!

Fslogonew

Feel better now? You sure? You really should, you know! After all, they’ve been deliberating on this re-branding for three years (the same three years that the university has been sinking under the budget cuts… but don’t think about how many people were working on this makeover during that time!). Further, they reassure us, it was truly a cheap makeover too (can’t you tell?), because they couldn’t hire an outside consultant to do a professional job either! Over these years, focus groups and surveys apparently kept telling them that the brand identity people associate with this campus is “Fresno State”, which has been the brand of our athletics division, along with the bulldog as our mascot. And they really identified us with those three D’s too: “Discovery. Diversity. Distinction.” Not, as a wag has it: “Denial. Desperation. Despair.” Call it the three stages of academic grief, and we’re clearly in the desperation stage of hoping for miracles from a makeover, even if much of the faculty is already in despair. But this is the age of education as a free-market commodity, so branded we must be!

The provost does reassure us though that we haven’t officially changed our formal name – but you’ll be hard pressed to find the old formal name on the new website. And with perception governing so much of reality these days, how long before that formal name is forgotten too? Indeed, we no longer even have the word “University” in our new brand name at the top of our new website! I wonder what those focus groups thought we do around here if they no longer think “university” when they think of this campus! So, after celebrating our centennial year just recently, that word doesn’t even fit in our new “brand identity” any more. 

Last November, during one of the series of open forums we had on campus over the proposal to dissolve the College of Science & Mathematics (among other colleges/departments also under similar axes), when someone on the Budget Task Force said that the reorganization plans under discussion only affected the “instructional side of the university”, one of my senior colleagues in the college stood up to remind the provost and everyone else assembled that “we are not simply the ‘instructional side of the university’ – we are the university.” Our passion managed to save the college, for now, but we may be losing the whole game. For little did we know, as we applauded that quaint sentiment that afternoon, that soon we would have to stop calling ourselves a university at all!

Why didn’t they go the whole hog though, I wonder, and actually sell out to a real brand name and bring in some real hard cash? Wouldn’t we have been better off branded as, say… the Doritos Locos Taco State? After all, Fresno was also one of the test markets that launched that exciting new product into the national fast food chain! Looks like consumer focus groups in the valley sure can pick winner brands… maybe there is hope for us after all in an exciting new world of branded drive-through fast-food style “education”! Who needs the sad old “university” any more?

Thus do we begin our second century, no more a university, but a brand, one that came branded in the minds of our sports fans, who apparently think nothing of the thousands of students we graduate from our classrooms every year, or the reams of scholarship we produce. Never mind that, during my tenure on this campus, my department alone has, under shrinking budgets, faculty attrition (down from 22 to about 16) and staff cuts, managed to not only hold the line, but raise the quality of our education. Or that my (shrinking body of) colleagues and I have produced (since 2006) with our hardworking graduate and undergraduate students: 128 peer-reviewed publications, 431 research presentations at conferences, and raised over $10 million in external grants; all while maintaining heavy and increasing class loads under a sharply higher student to faculty ratio. All this, at a non-research (non-RO1) campus where the running joke (on us, surely… hahaha…) is that research is a “required hobby” because we only get paid to teach (and serve on committees), but if we want to get tenure and promotion, why we must produce research and scholarship! Talk about an unfunded mandate. And these numbers are right at the tip of my typing fingers because just this week we had to submitt a deprtmental self-study as part of our 7-year program review where our entire department will be scrutinized to make sure we are up to snuff and maintaining standards on par with other biology programs at other universities. I wonder if the reviewers will notice that we’ve actually dropped the word “university” from our campus name, which should raise the question: what standards should we be upholding really? The normal academic ones? Or some new free-market benchmarks gleaned from some focus groups? Uh-oh… we forgot to do focus groups in our self-study! I hope we don’t get dinged because of that.

While we academics have been sweating to keep up our research productivity and make sure our students graduate successfully, the athletics guys must’ve been really burning up the tracks and fields something fierce, eh? Do tell me if that is the case, for I’ve been too busy in my classes and labs to notice the smoke. Until now… when I look up and realize that they’ve got their brand burned into our flesh now, and in the process have even burned off the word “university” from our “brand identity”. Oops!

We do get to keep the dog’s paw tattoo and the triple-Ds, though! At least Zaphod Beeblebrox may like us more now – and ain’t that something?

But I protesteth too much, for the only thing worrying local news organizations about our new branding ad logo is that Timeout, the campus mascot, isn’t featured in it more prominently! Time for mere academics like me to accept the writing on the wall, perhaps. For this is how the athletics tail wags the academic dog on our campus now. Enjoy the branding. Don’t mind me if I feel like a little flea about to be swatted off the fur of this overly-made-over bulldog.