10/23/19 Purdue Hovde Hall

Student trustee Noah Scott was addressing the University Senate over Zoom about the civics literacy curricula that Purdue's board of trustees plans to require for new graduates.

A professor cut his words short.

“I can’t speak on behalf of the board myself," Scott said, "but I, again, add we’re always open to hear any input or concerns—”

“No, you’re not!” interrupted associate professor Alexander Francis, who teaches speech, language and hearing sciences.

Senate chair Deborah Nichols paused the conversation before allowing Scott to continue, while Francis seemed to continue speaking while muted.

The interaction encapsulates the conflict between the board of trustees and the senate that played out Monday afternoon.

Faculty members heard proposed legislation written by engineering education professor Alice Pawley, which addressed the board’s perceived overstep in aiming to approve the civics literacy requirement next month despite the senate's vote against a similar proposal in April 2020.

The new graduation requirement, first proposed by Purdue President Mitch Daniels more than two years ago, is scheduled to be voted on and approved at the Purdue Board of Trustees’ June 11 meeting.

The senate attempted to alter its legislative process to vote on the bill before the June meeting, despite its power being only symbolic. But a motion to hold a vote Monday failed by a fraction of a percentage point. The senate won't formally reconvene until the fall semester.

While Pawley acknowledged her belief that civics literacy is important, she expressed concerns over how the board decided in seemingly unilateral fashion to enact the graduation requirement without the senate’s approval. She said the board's method is “a bad idea.”

She noted that an understanding of civics includes an understanding of shared governance — the same kind of shared authority divided between the board and the senate. Trustees' independent action seems hypocritical to her.

Faculty members discussed problems they saw in both the content of the requirement and the way the board has pushed the legislation forward without passage through the senate.

“It’s important for the will of the faculty to be known,” Pawley said.

Student trustee Scott, the only trustee who spoke at the meeting, said the board wants to avoid an unnecessary delay in enacting the new graduation requirement.

“At this pace? If we pause it again — nothing’s ever going to get done on this,” Scott said.

As current students are grandfathered in, there is a built-in four-year cycle for students to whom the requirement might apply, Scott noted. He said the multi-year delay is on top of the delay added “out of respect for additional concerns for what’s been going on."

“We cannot pause this again,” Scott added. “We cannot pause the entire train again to retread the path that we’ve already traveled.”

Scott said he believed last year's initial proposal was voted down not because of its content but because of its timing. The pandemic had just begun, and campus was upended from late March to May.

Pawley disagreed, saying many other factors beyond the pandemic played a role in the senate’s decision to shoot down the proposal.

“Actually there were a series of substantive questions that were laid out in the minutes and I have laid out in the legislation,” she said. “I think that it is not a great argument to say, ‘Nothing is going to ever get done on this because nothing has gotten done on this yet.’

“It sounds like there has been a ton of work happening behind the scenes on this front. ... That could come to the senate and be voted on by the board of trustees. That is movement.”

Provost Jay Akridge also spoke to the board’s urgency in voting on and enacting the civics literacy requirement.

“They believe it to be important,” he said, “and waiting for another year was something that I understood them to not feel was acceptable.”

Other faculty members took issue with this line of thinking, saying shared governance takes time for good reason: so that legislation accurately representing the will of faculty can be passed.

“I will say, I am incredibly disturbed and I find it quite ironic that this is coming in discussion of civics literacy,” Francis, the speech professor, said. “I am incredibly disturbed to hear a trustee of Purdue University proposing that the best reason to completely do away with any sort of typical process is simply that it has taken too long.

“I find this ridiculous, I find this a scandal, I find this absolutely, absolutely disappointing.”

The proposal’s history

Last April, the University Senate heard legislation from the educational policy committee that aimed to establish a bachelor’s degree requirement for civics literacy.

With 28 in favor, 51 opposed and two abstaining, the legislation failed.

The initial working group for the proposal, comprising former senate chair Cheryl Cooky, Vice Provost Frank Dooley, and professors Phillip VanFossen, Jay McCann and Robert Browning, presented its ideas and heard feedback from the senate.

But after the legislation did not pass, the professors were asked to instead craft a proposal for a civics literacy certification that was meant to be voluntary.

“We never thought that we were in the process of making a requirement,” Browning said during Monday's meeting. “We built upon almost a two-year process of discussion on what would constitute civic literacy and what was considered by the senate last year.”

Browning said he now supports what he sees as a strong proposal.

The current proposal to be considered by the board, as explained in an April 19 press release, includes a test of civics literacy being developed by both Purdue faculty and outside “expert consultants,” as well as one of three other learning options.

“It’s no longer a high-stakes exam," Akridge said. "It’s an exam that students can take as many times as they need to pass."

The exam itself has also changed. Cooky said the “naturalization test is no longer a part of the exam.”

The program's other portion offers students the choice to complete one of 13 courses; listen to 12 podcasts developed by the Purdue Center for C-SPAN Scholarship and Engagement; or attend six civics-related events that the University has approved.

The present proposal differs from the initial idea, Cooky said, and those developing the proposal have made concessions based on input from critics and advocates.

“I do think to suggest that this wasn’t a compromise, or to suggest that faculty and the senate input was not taken into consideration in terms of the development of this proposal over the last two years, is somewhat disingenuous,” she said.

Francis acknowledged that the current document may be different from the plan that failed last year. But he said the University Senate needs to see the written proposal the board of trustees plans to enact in June in order to have proper input.

“This needs to follow the normal process," he said, "which is to be heard one time and voted on the next time."

Professor Audrey Ruple motioned to suspend the rules of the senate to vote on the resolution Monday, as opposed to waiting until after the board’s June meeting.

The senate voted 45-23 to suspend the rules — just tenths of a percentage away from meeting the required two-thirds vote needed for such a suspension.

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