MASTERSON ONLINE: Conflict at Bowen

Readers may wonder why I’ve become intrigued by the recent controversy over whether faculty members at the William H. Bowen Law School at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock will remain free to select and invite their own guest lecturers to fill in when they’re away. Unless we are […]

Readers may wonder why I’ve become intrigued by the recent controversy over whether faculty members at the William H. Bowen Law School at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock will remain free to select and invite their own guest lecturers to fill in when they’re away.

Unless we are headed to that school to one day hopefully become officers of the court (I prefer continuing to practice in courts of public opinion), why do you or I care? After spending five years in an endowed chair at Ohio State’s journalism school between 1989 and 1994, I understand why most readers could give a chicken-fried tort about inside baseball at a law school.

I’ll try to put a smidgen of context and perspective as to why many believe it matters.

My interest and curiosity have been piqued over the treatment of devoutly Jewish law professor Rob Steinbuch, who for 20 years and, in accordance with established university policy, has used guest lecturers from actual legal practice to head his classes in his absence during the annual Jewish high holy days. Steinbuch is now running for state House of Representatives in the Little Rock area.

It’s never made much sense to me that some of Steinbuch’s fellow faculty members would want to eliminate a long-standing guest-speaker policy that could benefit them equally.

So I asked Josh Silverstein, who like Steinbuch is an award-winning Jewish professor at Bowen, if he’d explain why this seemingly simple decision remains at issue.

He told me he believes there are a couple of ways to examine why this intramural battle has been so relatively intense and protracted. Considering my own experience in higher education, his reasoning seemed all too familiar.

“I’m sure you well know the expression that the fights in academia are so vicious because the stakes are so small,” said Silverstein. “This could partially be a manifestation of that.

“There is a staggering amount of pettiness in higher education generally–though I’ve actually seen similar pettiness everywhere, including the law firms and businesses where I’ve worked. My basic philosophy is that every institution in the world is a high school. But it’s more embarrassing that higher education is like a high school because if anyone should know better, it’s us.”

Yet in this instance, he said, he sees even more occurring in meetings he attends, including one only a day earlier.

“One reason the discussion lasted so long yesterday is that me, Rob [Steinbuch], and some of our allies on the faculty made extensive comments during the meeting. We are fighting really hard to stop this.

“Obviously one reason I’m fighting so hard is because Rob is a friend. Another is to get to what I believe is obviously the right result.”

But the professor said there’s an even larger issue involved in all this.

“For roughly the last decade, I have been the leading advocate at the law school for preserving faculty autonomy in teaching,” he said.

“There has been a major movement in higher education to increasingly control how faculty teach their courses. That movement reached my law school in 2013 when Mike Schwartz became dean. I’ve been fighting against teaching mandates ever since.”

Others who want to micromanage the faculty have been fighting on the other side, he said.

“Thus, to some degree, this particular fight has lasted so long because it is part of a larger battle at the law school specifically and in all of higher education generally. To what extent should faculty have control of their own classrooms?”

Silverstein, who recently received UALR’s university-wide Faculty Excellence in Teaching Award, said the fact he and Steinbuch and I are “considered outsiders at the law school” could easily also be subconsciously influencing those who want to amend the rule.

“I know that one reason I’m fighting so hard is because I fight all mandates to slow the creeping move toward increasing control of our classrooms.”

He said he’s never used an independent guest speaker, and only used a supervised guest speaker once in his career.

“But that’s merely what works for me. If Rob or anyone else has a different perspective on what works best in their courses, I want to support them 100 percent. That’s a big part of what academic freedom and faculty autonomy are all about.”

But Silverstein said more is going on. “While the bulk of my presentation to the faculty was focused on the substantive arguments over the optimal rule for canceling faculty make-up classes,” Silverstein said he also dedicated several PowerPoint slides “to the issue of how this [ongoing controversy] looks to the broader university and the public at large, namely that a reasonable observer would suspect this proposed rule change is a case of retaliation.”

Indeed, it seems odd that, after all the brouhaha over this matter, the committee still proposed allowing supervised guest lecturers and independent guest lecturers who are approved by the associate dean on a case-by-case basis.

Thus, the only type of professor-invited guest lecturer the advisory committee advocates restricting is the type Steinbuch has used without issue for 20 years. Why so?

A reasonable observer like me could indeed interpret this as a form of retaliation, especially since it comes following Steinbuch’s successful discrimination complaint against Bowen Dean Theresa Beiner earlier this year when a panel of three faculty members determined Steinbuch had been discriminated again over the matter of being able to choose his own independent guest lecturers in the future.

Silverstein’s explanation as an insider to the enduring faculty tedium at Bowen helped me understand more of the bottom-line whos, whats and whys in the controversy over the attempt to change a policy that seems to have served the law school faculty well for decades.

During my years at the journalism graduate school in Columbus, I regularly invited guest lecturers to address my Kiplinger fellows (all professional journalists earning their expense-paid master’s degrees in one year) at our weekly seminar to expose the fellows to various opinions and professions they likely would be covering in their careers. And there were times when I had to be absent.

Having a guest in those seminars and other of my graduate and undergraduate classes was never questioned or at issue because the administration understood the potential value to these students to understand a variety of perspectives. I had autonomy as a professor to operate my classes as I believed best rather than giving that authority to administrators who never set foot in my classrooms.

Now go out into the world and treat everyone you meet exactly like you want them to treat you.

Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master’s journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at [email protected]

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