HSS Discussed Curriculum with President Sparks in 2017; Acting Dean Buckley Responds to Protest

By Brian Frost (EE ‘19) and George Ho (BSE ‘19)

The Department of Humanities and Social Sciences talked about the purpose of its program in relation to the three schools
with President Sparks in 2017, according to Peter Buckley, Acting Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences. “It was not generally known by the students that the faculty had already requested a full program review from the president, which is going to be announced by the president shortly. [...] It dates back to 2017, when we went to the president to say ‘look, it’s about time the overall learning objectives of HSS were examined, and we’re willing to do it.’”

A pamphlet was circulated at the HSS protest on Monday which listed, among student complaints and testimonials, a set of demands for the HSS department and the administration at large. These demands fell into four categories: transparency, hiring, accountability and decolonization/restructuring.

On the issue of transparency, students demanded 1) that the HSS department release student performance statistics broken down by race, 2) that the HSS faculty make its faculty minutes and agendas public, and 3) that the three schools respond publicly to these demands by Nov. 9.

Dean Buckley pointed out that the HSS faculty does not have access to student performance statistics based on race, and that only The Cooper Union administration would be able to publish such data. However, releasing grades without the context in which a particular student received a particular grade would be overly reductive; students can fail courses for any number of reasons. “To do such a transparent thing properly, you would need to know, at a finer level of granularity, the reasons for failure,” said Buckley.

Finally, Dean Buckley emphasized that both the HSS curriculum committee and the HSS faculty committee have sitting student representatives: indeed, the curriculum committee has representation from all three schools. Furthermore, all faculty minutes and agendas are freely available in the HSS office.

With regards to the hiring of HSS faculty, students demanded that the HSS department 1) clearly explain, by Nov. 9, the hiring practices for all HSS faculty, and the attempts that have been made to increase faculty diversity, 2) work towards realizing more effective hiring practices, 3) immediately begin a dean search to replace current Acting Dean Buckley, and 4) actively involve students, in voices and votes, in the hiring process.

Dean Buckley pointed out that, being an institution with neither programs nor research in the humanities and social sciences, The Cooper Union has a particularly hard time attracting diverse faculty who are experts in non-Western disciplines. He cited the current opening for an economics faculty member as an example. “You’ve got to think about what it would take to hire an economist into Cooper Union—a full-time economist—given whatever job prospects a PhD in economics would have.”

Hiring a new Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences is the responsibility of the president’s office, according to Buckley. However, student involvement in the hiring of new deans has precedent. The administrative chairs of Engineering Student Council participated in the search for a new engineering dean, which resulted in hiring Dr. Barry Shoop effective January 2019.

On the accountability of professors, students demanded that 1) the Office of Student Affairs acknowledge that current channels of Title IX complaint are ineffective, 2) the Office of Student Affairs conduct a self-study on its various processes, reporting its findings by Nov. 9, and 3) that all three schools and HSS look into hiring an external ombudsman to serve as a measure of accountability within The Cooper Union.

The document perceives the current Title IX complaint processes to be dysfunctional and asserts that a self-study will find where and why the office has “fallen short.” The demands for an ombudsman and a self-study of the student affairs office suggest that the HSS protest also seeks to address issues across the institution, not just within the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences.

None of these demands concern the HSS department, said Dean Buckley. “The student protest is a protest against forms of education that exist outside of HSS as well, and I think that there’s a mixture there between institutional-level issues and HSS-level issues. And that’s because for many students HSS is the other part of the institution for them. So I think we are bearing the freight here of disagreements with the institution,” said Buckley.

Finally, on the subject of decolonization and restructuring of the HSS curriculum, students demanded that the HSS department 1) acknowledge its responsibility to require students to think outside the bounds of Eurocentricity, 2) publicly commit to the creation of decolonized curricula, 3) restructure the standing curriculum for HSS-1 through 4 by Nov. 9, and 4) “embrace pedagogical practices that allow and stimulate self-understanding in relation to [assigned texts]”.

Dean Buckley highlighted the incongruity of the HSS protest, which draws inspiration from an article written against the English department at the University of Cambridge. The University of Cambridge has a full-fledged three-year English curriculum, as opposed to The Cooper Union’s mere 12-credit humanities and social sciences sequence. “You can decolonize an area which is clearly under occupation, but we don’t occupy much!” said Buckley.

Dean Buckley expressed support for decolonizing the curriculum, saying: “I appreciate two things about the metaphor of decolonization, and that is what we teach and how we teach. And I think that what we teach is more readily answerable than how we teach. Because a lot of changes have already taken place in the ways in which we present material and choose material.”

The demand to overhaul the required HSS sequence by next Friday would be infeasible, according to Buckley. However, he revealed that such a restructuring was already underway: “what we propose is actually more radical than what the students ask, which is not just redoing HSS-1 through 4, but wondering whether that is the right form.”

The protesters demand in their pamphlet that the decolonization of the HSS curriculum be accomplished by “the effective and meaningful insertion of postcolonial readings and thought alongside existing traditional texts.” Following the 2016 protests, Professors Atina Grossmann and Ninad Pandit added non-Western readings to the HSS-3 syllabus. However, a common student complaint is that these texts are not meaningfully discussed in class. Buckley’s conception of current curricular change is consistent with student opinion: “We’re not interested in simply inserting more non-Western texts [...] it’s what you do with the text that is being challenged by [the protest], not the texts themselves.”

Acting Dean Buckley also acknowledged and affirmed the protest. “What I would like you to convey is that first of all, all of the faculty take this seriously, and what seems new to us is the fact that this is as much about how we teach as what we teach, and therefore will mean different kinds of responses to the demands than we’ve had in the past.”

The protesters are demanding an entirely new paradigm from the HSS department, not just a more diverse curriculum but a more inclusive classroom experience. What those changes will look like and how the HSS department chooses to implement them is yet to be seen.

The transcript of the full interview can be found here.

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