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Dec 22, 2004 12:54 am

Latest from Utah

A bit more trickled out in the troubling case of Southern Utah’s dismissal of its 2003 professor of the year, Steven Roberds.

First, David Rees, the SUU Faculty Senate president, amplified on his criticism of Roberds, claiming that “in [Roberds’] classrooms when students express their opinions that are different than his, Dr. Roberds puts them down and ridicules them in a loud voice to intimidate them, denying the students academic freedom.”

As Cliopatria readers know, I am a strong advocate of fortifying students’ academic freedom, which represents one way of restoring a modicum of balance in ideologically imbalanced social sciences and humanities departments. And if true, Rees’ would seem a serious allegation. There’s only one problem: there’s no evidence to sustain Rees’ assertion. Roberds has consistently received stellar teaching scores (an average of 91 out of 100), was presented with the college’s Distinguished Lecturer award, and was voted by the students as Professor of the Year—hardly the kind of conduct one would associate with ridiculing students and putting them down in front of others. Moreover, Roberds previously was promoted from untenured assistant to untenured associate professor. If his treatment of students was so offensive, why did the college promote him?

Second, Rees reiterates (and Roberds affirms) what appears to have been an ugly incident involving an anti-gay marriage demonstration last spring, which devolved into a shouting match in which Roberds insulted Rees’ son, a student at SUU. While I agree with Roberds on gay marriage, I can’t say that I agree with his shouting at Rees’ son. Yet it’s also hard to see how this incident would play a role in his tenure case: it occurred not in the classroom but at a public demonstration, where Roberds (and Rees’ son) are both entitled to free speech. It’s also clear from Rees’ comments that he is a strong opponent of gay marriage, raising again the issue of how much Roberds’ politics played in the college’s decision to deny him tenure.

Third, University officials are using the old standby: according to the vice president of university relations, “By policy we are not supposed to talk about these situations no matter what the other side says,” while the dean commented only, “We have followed policies and procedures that led to the decision to not renew Professor Roberds' contract for the 2005-06 academic year." Apparently, then, it’s customary at SUU for department chairs to summon students under false pretenses, ask them leading questions, and then not write anything down when they don’t provide the desired responses.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we gained today a little context on the event that provoked this entire controversy, when Roberds used a swear word toward a student. SUU has a highly unusual organizational structure, in which criminal justice and political science were merged into one department, the Department of Political Science and Criminal Justice. It’s not clear why the school would have merged a liberal arts department with a discipline such as criminal justice.

This merger made Lamar Jordan, a criminal justice professor who does not hold a Ph.D., chair of the school’s political science professors. Finding department administrators is often a problem in the academy, of course: those interested in scholarship or teaching often shy away from such positions, on the understandable grounds that they would prefer to be engaged in research or pedagogical rather than administrative matters. But there is a certainly a problem (again, something I learned from personal experience) when a liberal arts department ostensibly committed to fostering a connection between scholarship and research is presided over by a figure without a scholarly record.

It turns out that the in-class exchange grew out of the aftermath of this departmental merger; Roberds yelled at a student,"What the fuck are they teaching you in criminal justice, anyway?" Everyone concedes that Roberds immediately took the student aside and then publicly apologized to the class, but when word of the event reached Jordan, he initiated his extraprocedural summons of the students.

The motive for SUU’s action is becoming somewhat clearer. The justification, alas, is not.

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Dave Tufte - 12/23/2004

I am an economics professor at SUU, and I have posted on this issue at my blog voluntaryXchange ( twice this week.

I'll jump to the big news: Poli.Sci used to be in one big department with history and sociology. Some of the people in that group are glad the Poli. Sci. people are gone. That's not a scientific opinion by any means, but it's what people have told me.

I think this is an odd combination too. But, we reorganized a lot of departments this past year. The odd combinations often come from having a group of 3-6 in a discipline that just don't have the numbers to justify a complete department.

At our school, Criminal Justice was in the College of Business for a while. They seemed like a nice bunch to me. They left a few years ago, and then went through this incarnation starting this year.

Jonathan T. Reynolds - 12/22/2004


I have no problem with the idea of "career tracks." Indeed, I think most departments do a poor job of preparing students to actually earn a living. That said, I do fear the tendency towards turning Colleges and Universities into institutions that seek to do no more than get people jobs as employees. The goal of the Liberal Arts is, in my opinion, to train potential leaders. In that vein, the great revolution of Liberal Arts education in the US was the creation of institutions that gave working-class folks access to the "tools of the trade" once reserved for folks who attended elite instititions.


Jonathan Dresner - 12/22/2004

As an impractical matter, I wonder why "liberal arts" departments aren't allowed to have career tracks? Let's face it, only a very small percentage of our students are going to be academics. I'm all for the generalized skills and character-building of liberal arts, but that doesn't preclude pre-X programs of high caliber. If we slough off all the trade programs, we lose any input into their academic basis, and that's not a good thing.

Jonathan Dresner - 12/22/2004

My current institution has a separate "Administration of Justice" major, whose chair and sole full-time faculty member is a member of the political science department.

Just as a practical matter, since both criminal justice and political science deal with law and political institutions in action, it seems to me that the overlap in faculty, courses, and students could be enough to justify merging the departments (or not creating separate ones to begin with).

Jonathan T. Reynolds - 12/22/2004

Sadly, combining the likes of Political Science with Criminal Justice as a single department is by no means unusual. My own school (Northern Kentucky University) does it, and so did my previous place of employment. For "Liberal Arts" departments (which, really, should describe all departments at a college or university that isn't a trade school) such conglomerations are often taken as a means to attract students and boost FTE hours by adding a "practical" track to a major often seen by students as esoteric. Indeed, our own PolSci program also has a track in Public Administration and has made efforts to acquire the GIS program currently housed within Geography.

You are right, KC, to point up that constructing departments in such a way can have the effect of clumping together academic specializations that are less-than-compatible.