10/23/19 Purdue Hovde Hall

More than 135 Purdue professors have sent letters in an attempt to push back against the Board of Trustees potentially instituting a civic literacy graduation requirement — despite objections from the University Senate.

The letter campaign, organized by Purdue’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, was designed out of concern that the trustees are not hearing from faculty, said engineering education professor Alice Pawley, president of Purdue’s AAUP chapter. Letters are being sent to trustee JoAnn Brouillette, who is the chair of the board of trustees’ academic and student affairs committee.

“That’s what the letter writing campaign is sort of designed to do, is to have them learn how the faculty feel, not represented by the administration,” she said.

Purdue’s trustees announced on April 19 their plan to adopt a civics literacy graduation requirement for undergraduates, beginning with students who enter Purdue in fall 2021. The board will vote on the requirement at its June 11 meeting.

Pawley said the dislike for the civic literacy requirement is less about the lack of need for civic literacy engagement, which she feels is an important topic, but more about the way the University is going about implementing it. Rushing to mandate the requirement without the official support of the faculty, she said, violates shared governance principles.

Shared governance is the delegation of authority between the faculty senate, the administration and the board. The AAUP letter said shared governance is described in the University Code that delineates the powers of the board of trustees, and how the board designates power to the president and to the faculty.

“Through the University Code, the board delegates to the faculty ‘general power and responsibility to adopt policies, regulations, and procedures intended to achieve the educational objectives of Purdue University and the general welfare of those involved in these educational processes,’” according to documents cited in the AAUP letter. “Universities need strong shared governance, because a university that is aware of its interdependent parts and which understands the strength of all those parts working together will be able to solve educational problems better.”

Trustee: We’ve heard their concerns

Pawley and the rest of the executive committee of Purdue’s AAUP chapter provided the Exponent with Brouillette’s response to their letters.

“It has been two and a half years since President (Mitch) Daniels first proposed the civics literacy requirement,” Brouillette wrote. “Since then, we have solicited and received considerable input from faculty, students and staff.”

Brouillette declined the faculty’s request to meet to discuss the proposal further.

“While I certainly respect your request, I believe no purpose would be served by meeting to debate this matter further or to bring the trustees’ attention to collaborative principles we already fully recognize—and indeed have observed in this case,” she wrote. “The Board of Trustees strongly believes that now, more than ever, we must do all we can to ensure our students leave Purdue as informed citizens.”

Student trustee Noah Scott also acknowledged the history of the proposal.

“There have been significant and thorough discussions about creating the Civics Literacy program – including with faculty,” Scott said in an email statement to The Exponent. “All of which are being considered by the board for the June meeting.”

In the May University Senate meeting, Provost Jay Akridge made similar remarks regarding the urgency of enacting the civics literacy requirement.

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

Professors worry

Some faculty expressed fear that the rushed program may not tackle the issue of civic literacy in the best way.

“I really care about civic literacy,” Pawley said. “I think it’s hypocritical to say that one cares about civic literacy and then not to follow governance procedures to bring it about. Like there was a vote, the vote matters. Otherwise, what are we teaching students about civics literacy?

“Civics literacy is so important that it’s one of my career objectives, to help bring about engineering as a way to make more engaged citizens. It’s not about thinking that it isn’t important. It’s about thinking, from my perspective, that it is so important that we need to do it right.”

One of the participants in the letter writing campaign was professor Ronald Stephens, who teaches African American Studies in the School of Interdisciplinary Studies.

He said the proposed civics literacy requirement did not incorporate enough discussion on racial injustices or diversity or help to establish any “meaningful policies” to aid in such issues.

“These trends essentially signal the putting of a Band-Aid over a very deep and penetrating cut in American civic life that may be heading in the wrong direction,” he said in a written statement.

“It seems to me that students should be required to take at least two courses on a topic dealing with racial injustices plus a post test about racial diversity and equity in the U.S.,” Stephens said.

Pawley said she thought the proposal may be rushed due to the student trustee Scott’s term ending soon or Daniels wanting to see the project completed before retiring.

In the letter to Brouillette, the faculty wrote that Daniels and Akridge have said that because the original proposal was developed by faculty and trustees received feedback from the senate, the obligation of shared governance has been satisfied.

Pawley said she wished Akridge would bring the updated civic literacy proposal back to the senate for review.

“The provost is developing this new proposal, he should bring it to the Senate,” Pawley said. “He’s a member of the Senate. Any member of the Senate can bring legislation to the Senate, like he could have done that this whole last year.”

After a AAUP meeting Monday night, Pawley said the consensus of the faculty who attended was to work on getting a copy of the official proposal, which has not been made public. She said she also hopes to continue getting signatures and finding a way to get more members of the board aware of the will of the faculty, including reaching out to media.

Pawley said she thinks one way to accomplish this may include hand-delivering paper copies of the letter to the trustees at the meeting.

“We’re also focused on communicating to faculty why this power grab by the board matters — not because we think we can change their minds this time, but because we’re concerned about the next attempt,” Pawley said. “Boards should not be able to decide what faculty teach, or what constitutes graduation requirements, because they do not have the technical expertise necessary to determine this.”

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