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Thursday, July 22, 2010


Money Makes The World Go 'Round

From the moment Esther floated the suggestion that I come on board to help create a doctoral program in Afro-American Studies, I knew that the key to our success would be my ability to find money to support the graduate students. UMass is perpetually underfunded and afflicted by periodic budget crises. Save in the sciences, which live off research grants into which doctoral student support is routinely built, graduate education is funded almost entirely by Teaching Assistantships. There are a handful of graduate fellowships, open in a university-wide competition, but without the TA-ships, doctoral programs in the Humanities and Social Sciences would wither and die. As is the case at countless other public universities in America, the allocation of TA-ships at UMass is tied to undergraduate enrollments, particularly in the introductory courses that are officially designated as satisfying the course distribution mandated by the university's General Education requirements. For this reason, major departments such as Economics, Psychology, and History routinely offer large introductory courses crafted to satisfy the Faculty Senate's General Education guidelines. Hundreds of students are enrolled in these courses, which are taught by a combination of lectures and weekly discussion sections. Doctoral students lead the discussion sections and do all the grading and student counseling associated with the course. All of this is of course second nature to anyone who has spent time teaching in a public university in America.

Since Afro-American Studies until this point did not have a graduate program, it received no allocation of Teaching Assistantships, but over the years, the Dean of Humanities and Fine Arts had given one or two TA-ships to the department because several of the courses actually enrolled so many students that the instructor could not handle the grading. The principal recipient of this assistance was Femi Richards, a gentle, soft-spoken scholar from Sierra Leone whose specialty was the design and making of beautiful African fabrics. Femi taught a wildly popular Introduction to African Studies that regularly drew as many as two hundred undergraduates. He recruited his TAs from other departments -- Art and History, principally.

Once our doctoral program had been approved, we applied to the Dean for an allocation of TA-ships, but immediately we ran into a problem that I had seen coming for the entire four years during which we had been planning our program and shepherding it through the approval process. TA allocations are a regular part of the annual Dean's budget. Each year, when it comes time to make up the next year's allocation, the default position is for every department to get the same allocation it currently enjoys. Every department asks for, indeed, demands, more TAs, flaunting its enrollment figures as justification. There was never a reserve pool of money from which those demands could be met. Every new TA position given to History meant one fewer allocated to Classics or Comparative Literature. As for TA transfers across deaconal lines, say from History to Economics, it would have been easier to ask the two departments to exchange buildings.

Thus when Afro-American Studies suddenly popped up with a brand new doctoral program, the Dean -- Lee Edwards, who had run for the job on a platform of favoring Women's Studies and Afro-American Studies -- gave the department exactly no new TA-ships. We had had one and a half TA-ships the year before [yes, this precious commodity, like the lembas carried by Sam and Frodo, was carefully parceled out in fragments], and we would have one and a half once our doctoral program was running. It would have been easy to conclude that this was racism rearing its ugly head once more, but that was not in fact the case. It was something much more insidious -- institutional inertia. The Dean was simply not prepared to weather the storm of protest she would have stirred up had she shifted her scarce TA money around to give us a fair share of it.

What to do? It was perfectly obvious to me that there were only three solutions, and even before the first students showed up to launch our new program, I began an effort to try all three. The first option was to apply for General Education accreditation for a number of our undergraduate courses and then reconfigure them so that they became lecture courses with discussion sections. At that time [this changed, subsequently] allocation of TA-ships specifically for Gen Ed courses was actually funded by a separate pool of money controlled by the Provost's Office, and I was pretty sure that if we could produce the enrolments, we would get some sort of TA allocation from that source. The Provost was less immediately answerable to departments than were the Deans. [If all of this strikes you as a lot of inside baseball, you are correct. Programs at public universities in America live and die by this sort of machination.]

Getting Gen Ed accreditation, although time-consuming, was entirely doable. The request had to go through a number of Faculty Senate committees and then to the floor of the Senate -- ordinarily a process consuming a year. I got that process under way. But there was considerable resistance in the department to the suggestion that we reconfigure our courses into large lectures with discussion sections. The members of the department had for a quarter of a century been running a first class undergraduate program, to which they devoted a great deal of time and energy. The saw themselves as performing an important educational service to countless White as well as Black students, and they were right. John Bracey was the most vocal opponent of the proposal, even though he actually had the most to gain professionally from the establishment of a successful doctoral program. John regularly drew many more students than could be handled even by the large room at the end of the hall in which we periodically held our department meetings. When John's classes met, students would pour out of the room into the hall, and sit on chairs pulled in from other classrooms, craning to hear what was going on inside the room. When I suggested that he move his courses to any one of a number of larger lecture halls in other buildings, he angrily refused. In the end, the idea of tapping into the existing pool of TA-ships on campus by using the General Education requirements went nowhere.

The second possibility was to bypass the Dean of Humanities and Fine Arts and try to get support directly from the Dean of the Graduate School. At UMass, the Graduate Deanship is a somewhat inferior position, inasmuch as it has a relatively small budget and no departments or programs reporting to it. In 1996, however, as we waited the arrival of our first class of students, the Graduate Dean was Charlena Seymour, an African-American Communications Disorders scholar who was past president of her national professional organization and a long-time friend of our department. My appeal to her actually produced a really significant measure of support, without which we would have been unable to make our program a success. Charlena went from the Graduate Deanship to the position of Interim Provost in 2001, and then to the regular Provostship in 2004, a completely unexpected and heaven-sent development that resulted in significant administrative support for our doctoral program for ten years.

Even with Charlena's help, we were going to need more money. The problem was a simple matter of math. We planned to take five students a year [although in the first and third years we actually admitted seven], and since we expected students to finish in five or six years, that meant that before long I was going to be looking for funding for as many as twenty-five or thirty active students. I knew from long experience in doctoral programs at UMass and elsewhere that adequate funding was the secret to success for our students. This was especially true because of a wrinkle in the rules governing student fees. Thanks to the fact that the graduate assistants had unionized and fought successfully for a pretty good contract [alongside their comrades, the members of the Faculty Union], a graduate student with at least a one-half Teaching Assistantship received a waiver of tuition and many additional fees, including a very hefty fee covering health care for the student and and his or her family. The stipend for a full Teaching Assistantship wasn't much -- it crept up above twelve thousand by the time I left, hardly "full funding" by any stretch of the imagination. But with the various waivers, the value of the full package was as much as twenty-five thousand dollars a year. So the difference between being funded and not being funded was enormous for our students. It was clear that I would have to put on an all-court press to secure the third source of support: outside grants and donations.

I had been raising money one way or another for almost ten years, by that point. What with HRAAA, USSAS, and IASH, I thought I was a pretty accomplished and successful fund-raiser. Well, I tried everything. My first idea was to reach out to the hundreds of former students who had come through our department's undergraduate program, many of whom, I was sure, had fond memories of Esther, John, Ernie, Mike, Bill, Archie, Max Roach, and even Jimmy Baldwin and Chinua Achebe. Surely they would be thrilled to support a revolutionary doctoral program. Alas, it was not to be. Working with the University's Development Office, I sent out hundreds of letters to our graduates, but the return was miniscule.

My next thought was to go to several of the big foundations who had laid major bread on the Temple University Africana Studies Program and other Black Studies programs around the country. I was especially optimistic about the Rockefeller Foundation, and actually made a trip to New York with John Bracey to talk to a program officer, but in the end, we got not a penny from them. John was convinced that the real reason for their refusal to help us was that "they know us, Bob. They know we are a dangerous group, from their point of view. Temple may talk big, but they are no threat, and neither is Skip at Harvard." He may have been right; but the result was no money.

At about that time, UMass had its moment of basketball glory with John Calipari as coach and a star, Marcus Camby, who went on to the NBA with a multi-million dollar contract. All of the UMass basketball players had studied in our department, and John Bracey was sure he could shake big bucks out of that tree, but there again, we got not a single dollar. We even had high hopes for Bill Cosby, who had taken a degree in the UMass School of Education. One of the graduate students in our first group was the granddaughter of a woman who had taught at UMass and was very friendly with Cosby's wife, Camille, but although the granddaughter did splendidly, the family connection never brought in any money.

So I spent a good deal of time in the Graduate School Fellowship Office, pouring over huge books listing all of the thousands of foundations that had a record of supporting educational programs. I discovered that while there were a good many fellowships for individual students fitting this or that profile, virtually no one offered programmatic support for doctoral programs in the Humanities. My search was not without results, however, for as I paged through endless listings of foundations, I began to notice that there was money out there for programs that helped minority students to make the transition from high school to tertiary education, and to succeed academically once they enrolled in a college or university. I had, I thought to myself, created a successful school-to-college program for minority students in Springfield, and had raised almost $700,000 to support it. Perhaps I could turn that success to my advantage.

Thus was born the idea for a new program, which I christened Scholars of the Twenty-First Century. My idea was simplicity itself. I would create a program for first year minority undergraduates that would combine a demanding academic component with a great deal of small group and one-on-one mentoring and instruction. I would recruit the Freshman students from each UMass entering class and hire my Afro-American Studies doctoral students as Tutor/Mentors. Even though fewer than twenty percent of each entering cohort could be considered "minority," in a class of four thousand Freshmen, there were more than enough potential Twenty-First Century Scholars. Fairly quickly, I settled on the structure and parameters of the program. [I had already learned that if you run everything by yourself, you need waste no time holding committee meetings or circulating memoranda. I routinely made major decisions for USSAS while taking a shower or waiting at an intersection for the light to change.]

I decided to divide the students into groups of five. To each group I would assign an Afro-Am grad students as Tutor/Mentor. In the Fall semester, all of the groups would do a three-credit course, as part of their regular five course UMass load, focused on the minority experience in America. There would be a great many short papers with instant feedback from their graduate student Instructor, trips to the University Library to learn how to use a research library, and individual meetings as well as group discussion meetings each week. We would choose a single text to be used by every group, but the graduate students would be free to flesh out the assigned reading with materials of their own choice.

In the Spring semester, the three credit course would be devoted to independent research. Each student would choose an individual research topic on any subject that interested him or her, and the semester would be spent working on that project under the guidance of the Tutor/Mentor. The written work of the semester would be first a brief statement of the project, then an outline, after that a series of preliminary drafts, and then a final paper submitted in time for the end of semester celebration. At that celebration, we would start with a dinner, after which a number of the students would get up before the entire group and assorted guests [the Chair of Afro-Am, the Dean, the Provost, etc.] and make a brief presentation of the results of his or her research. Over the summer, I would assemble all of the research papers, those that had been the subject of oral reports and those that had not, and I would desktop publish a volume of them that would be distributed to each student and to administrators as evidence of the quality of the students' work.

Although I designed the Scholars program quickly, I did not do so haphazardly or fecklessly. In fact, the program embodied three beliefs that I had long held about tertiary education, both in the United States and in South Africa. First, I was convinced that so-called "objective tests" like the Scholastic Aptitude Test are virtually worthless as indications of a the ability of a young man or woman to do satisfactory work at college. I decided, therefore, that I would test this thesis, if I were able to raise the money to launch the program, by deliberately recruiting minority Freshmen with strong high school records but very low SAT scores.

Second, I had long believed that the key to success for beginning students is a demanding curriculum combined with a great deal of individual and small group instruction. This, I had observed, was the sort of education routinely offered to students at elite small private colleges [although not at the richest and most highly rated large universities, where the senior professors by and large play little or no role in direct interactions with beginning undergraduates.] By limiting the Scholars classes to five students, I ensured that students would receive the sort of attention I believed would result in their success.

Finally, I wanted to test my conviction that students needed the experience of serious independent research at the beginning of their undergraduate careers, not the mere pretense of "research" in introductory science courses. Perhaps I was influenced in this belief by my farcical encounter with laboratory research in Harvard's much-hyped Physics 11 course, back in '50 - '51. I could still recall going through the charade of "testing" the law of the conservation of momentum by firing a twenty-two bullet into a block of wood hanging from a thread and measuring the displacement of the block from the vertical. The margin of error in the experiment was so large that virtually any theory of the conservation or non-conservation of momentum would have been consistent with the results we obtained in that "laboratory."

In addition, I hoped, by allowing students to choose any topic they wished for research , whether it bore a relation to the subject matter of the first semester or not, to engage their intellectual energies and curiosities in a way that the exercises in the large "Gen Ed" courses never could. If I may get ahead of my story just a bit, once the program was launched, students took advantage of the latitude allowed in the second semester to write their research papers on a range of topics that I would never have been able to anticipate. A young woman who had been born in Puerto Rico and hoped to become a small animal veterinarian wrote a lovely paper on endangered birds of Puerto Rico. A young Cape Verdean man took the opportunity to explore the patterns of immigration from the Cape Verde Islands to the Southeastern shoreline communities of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. An Asian American woman studied the relationship between traditional Chinese medicine and modern Western medicine. A young African-American man looked into opportunities for minorities in the medical professions. And - my favorite - one woman even wrote a first person narrative account of what it was like to be the only woman working in an automobile body shop.

When I began my search for funding, I ran into a bit of luck. During the time I was running the Summa program out of IASH [which, you will recall, was the Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities], I had managed to secure four one year $25,000 grants from the Nellie Mae Foundation to supplement the big Balfour grant. Nellie Mae is the New England Loan Management Corporation or NELM [hence Nellie Mae], and in its original incarnation, it ran a small foundation whose grant limit was $25,000 per project per year. But in 1999, Nellie Mae was bought by Sallie Mae [SLM, or Student Loan Management Corporation -- are you following this?] and suddenly the endowment of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation was increased tenfold. Just as I was looking for support for the Scholars program, the NMEF announced that it was increasing its grant limit from $25,000 to $250,000.

The success of the SUMMA program had given me some street cred with Nellie Mae, and I succeeded in getting first a one year $100,000 grant [while they were making the transition to the new foundation format] and then a four year one million dollar grant. I was off and running. From then until I retired in 2008, I was able, by combining the Nellie Mae money with the support from Charlena and the bits and pieces of TA-ships from the Dean, to provide full support every year for every single one of our doctoral students. The first year students got scholarships, so that they would be free to tackle the big Major Works seminar. Thereafter, they were awarded TA-ships either to serve as Tutor/Mentors in the Scholars program or to work as regular TAs in departmental courses. Even the Nellie Mae money, generous as it was, was never quite enough, but some of our students won fellowships on and off campus, others were recruited by the University's Honors College to teach there, and for still others I was able to arrange teaching gigs at Hampshire College which, through a reciprocity agreement, carried the same waiver of tuition and fees.


David Pilavin said...

"..I would test this deliberately recruiting minority Freshmen with strong high school records but very low SAT scores.

If you really wanted to test the thesis, you should have recruited:

1. Freshmen with strong high school records but very low SAT scores
2. Freshmen with strong high school records and strong SAT scores and compared the results
3. Freshmen with low high school records and strong SAT scores

and then compared the results.

David Pilavin said...

there was a typo in my previous comment - but you get the point

Robert Paul Wolff said...

David, David, welcome to the real world! It was a miracle that I could get the admissions office to cooperate to the extent of actually giving me some student files to read! We are not talking laboratory conditions and hamsters here. Actually, the University statistics office did an analysis of the performance of our students and confirmed that we were making a difference. But if someone waqnts to claim that our success was simplty a consequence of the fact that we were paying attentjon to the kids, and that it had nothing to do with the content of the program, I could live with that.

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