Education dept. faculty search revives controversy

by Rachel Osterman | 11/8/00 6:00am

The fight over the future of the education department didn't end with the administration's decision last year not to eliminate the program, as was previously considered.

Nor did it end when the administration promised to inject new funds into the struggling department.

Instead, the debate persists, albeit in the less visible arena of faculty hiring -- a typically low profile, highly personal area, but one that will likely determine the future of the education program at the College.

With the formation this fall of a search committee for new education faculty, the process of composing a revamped department has proven no less controversial than the process of deciding whether or not the department should continue at the College in the first place.

Last night, the Student Assembly passed a resolution that objects to the current composition and intent of the search committee, requests a voting or nonvoting student on the hiring board and asks that a public forum be held on the future of the education program.

In an amendment to the original resolution, the Assembly said the committee should give greater consideration to candidates' teaching skills -- and not the abilities of the candidates to attract research funds.

And just in case the stakes of the search committee's deliberations go unnoticed, the New Hampshire section of The Boston Globe is writing an article on the search process.

"I'm kind of lost right now as to why people are so upset," Dean of the Faculty Ed Berger said.

What worries proponents of the education department is the direction the search committee might be taking. They say the committee is placing too much emphasis on the psychology and economics of education, and not enough on the discipline of education itself.

They also say the committee values candidates' abilities to attract research funding and produce prominent scholarship more than it values their teaching skills.

"It's good they're trying to build the education department, but the question is how that happens," said Assembly President Jorge Miranda '01, who has spearheaded the Assembly's response. "We all want to see it build on its strengths, not the strengths of the psychology or economics department."

But Associate Dean of the Social Sciences David Blanchflower, who is heading the search committee, said the group's goals do not conflict with the improvement of the education program.

"My view is that [teaching and research] are not inconsistent with each other," he said.

He said that for reasons of confidentiality he could not comment on the qualities his committee is looking for in candidates, and that he could not say whether the committee is leaning toward candidates who are strong in teacher preparation or in the social science of education.

What Blanchflower did specify, however, is that he is leaning toward "tenure-track people who are going to do a lot of research about how kids learn; all these things are really important and that's where the research frontiers are."

Indeed, the official advertisement for the new position does not stress a need for faculty with experience in such areas as public education and teacher preparation.

"Senior candidates should be nationally visible scholars who have made specific contributions to their fields and have a history of extramural funding. We are particularly interested in candidates whose research interests link to other areas of strength at Dartmouth College," reads the advertisement placed in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

But underlying the current controversy is the education department's historically awkward position at the College.

In both 1993 and 1996, administrative reports called for the program's elimination. At the time of the second report, the department was kept alive when more than 300 students gathered in Dartmouth Hall in support of its continuation.

Then last year, a panel of external experts in education reviewed Dartmouth's program, after which they issued a report praising the department and calling for its strengthening.

One major difference between the first two reports and the most recent one is that the earlier reports were compiled by non-education Dartmouth faculty who had little experience in the field.

But also at play in the external committee's positive findings were changes within the department. While the program's place in a liberal arts institution was previously questioned, the department had since streamlined its curriculum, devised an off-campus teaching program in the Marshall Islands and forged partnerships with area school districts.

Specifically, the external committee's report suggested that Dartmouth hire three new tenure-track professors -- one in developmental psychology, one in teacher education and one with a specialty in math and science.

Also a cause of the current debate over the hiring committee is the composition of the committee itself. Of the six faculty who are heading the search process, all the voting participants are white males. While there is one female on the committee, she does not have tenure and therefore cannot vote on a senior level appointment.

"Do I regret that we have not been able to attract a single tenured woman on the committee? Absolutely. Do I regret that we don't have a single minority member on the committee? Absolutely," said committee member, Chair of the Education Department Andrew Garrod.

"I'm not saying that they won't be able to select a very fine person," he continued. "But appearances do matter."

The Assembly's resolution elicited a particularly lively debate at last night's meeting. Prior to the vote, Miranda urged members to consider the measure carefully, and it only passed along narrow lines.