News | Administration

In letter, Teachers College students slam TC President Susan Fuhrman

  • David Brann / Senior Staff Photographer
    UP IN ARMS | Teachers College faculty celebrate after voting not to support the proposed 2013-14 budget last month.

Correction: An unedited version of this article, which stated incorrectly that students had called for Susan Fuhrman's resignation as president of Teachers College, was inadvertently posted last night. The edited version of the article now appears below. Spectator regrets the error.

Students are calling for greater transparency and more ethical decision-making from Teachers College administrators, in the wake of the TC's faculty's almost unanimous vote to reject the college's proposed 2013-14 budget.
 
A group of students has written a letter highly cricital of TC President Susan Fuhrman, slamming her association with the for-profit company Pearson Education and lambasting her administration's recent decision to honor a promoter of standardized testing. The students also denounce the "corporatization" of Teachers College and criticize the school's lack of transparency in the face of tuition increases and large administrator bonuses.

"As caring and responsible scholars and educators, we believe that TC should stand for what is ethically just and educationally sound," the letter read.  

The letter argues that Fuhrman's deferral to the board of trustees on the issue of salary bonuses––Fuhrman and other top administrators received bonuses totaling over $300,000 in 2011-12 alone––is just one example of an opacity that pervades decision-making at the college.

"It seems that only a very small group of extremely well-­off individuals make this decision behind closed doors," the students wrote.

'Not the lives that we thought we'd have'
The administration's proposed operating budget for the next fiscal year outlines a tuition increase of 4.5 percent, which would bring tuition to $1,344 per point. Tuition and fees currently comprise 80 percent of the school's unrestricted revenue.

For the first time in its history, TC is also planning to fund 50 full-time doctorate students by reallocating a projected grant income surplus of $1.3 million and providing an additional $1.3 million from the school. The proposed budget states that this goal will be possible in the next academic yea,r even with a reduction of $1.7 million in total grant income due to federal sequestration.
 
But Sarah Brennan, a third-year doctorate student in the applied anthropology program, said that the school is not planning to give any of the new funding to continuing students, who often work more than one job to make ends meet.

"Our jaws dropped," Brennan said. "We were in debt up to our ears, and that money does not seem to be distributed to us at all. They say is that it's up to the departments, but almost all of the departments have chosen to give that to new students" as enticement for them to enroll.

"If there's an opportunity to take a highly funded position that doesn't exactly align with our values, it's hard to turn that down," Brennan added.

Meanwhile Steve Dubin, chair of the college's faculty executive committee, has stated that he and other professors are not confident that TC's dependence on tuition hikes will make the move to fund more doctorate students sustainable.
 
In hopes of ameliorating next year's tuition hike, the 2013-14 budget outlines a net increase of 5.1 percent in financial aid, up $1.1 million from last year's approximately $22 million.

Students, however, are far from satisfied with TC's financial aid packages. The college's budgetary summary acknowledges this, noting that TC often loses potential students to schools that offer more competitive funding.

On top of being a TA for the last academic year, Brennan taught a class at Borough of Manhattan Community College.

"These are just not the lives that we thought we'd have as doctoral students," she said.

A doctorate student studying education, who asked to not to be named because he feared retaliation from TC officials, said that the funding the college does offer frequently comes with intellectual strings attached.

"Basic availability of funding is part of the problem, but the reason it becomes tricky is that where funding is available, it is increasingly closely tied to administrative oversight," the student said. "It's an unspoken but well-understood rule that the conclusions drawn from one's research had better support the objectives of one's source of funding," if one hopes to continue to continue drawing on said sources for support.
 
The student added that this is not a problem specific to Teachers College, but one which plagues other schools and companies like Pearson as well.

In response to faculty asking for increased participation in budgetary decisions, Fuhrman stated that the school has worked to involve "relevant faculty committees." Students criticized that response, writing in their letter that "if everyone at TC­­ and even those outside of TC­­ are affected by its budget decisions, then every single member of the TC community is a relevant individual with respect to budgetary decisions."

‘A more humanistic approach to education’
Students have also expressed their discontent with Fuhrman's involvement with Pearson, the country's largest for-profit education company and a champion of quantifiable assessment tools for instructors and courses. Fuhrman serves on Pearson's board, and according to the investment research firm Morningstar, Fuhrman owned $272,088 in Pearson stock in May 2013.

Students said they are uncomfortable with Pearson's profit-driven mentaility, expressing concern that Fuhrman's association with the company will lead Teachers College—and the many public schools it influences—toward a more rigid, less academically sound approach to education.

"Markets make profit, not justice, and they should not dictate educational policy, research and practice," they wrote.
 
In January, 34 faculty members signed a letter expressing reservations about Pearson's edTPA, a teacher assessment tool designed to judge the skills of new instructors. The edTPA relies on examining videotapes of teaching candidates, their lesson plans, and student work samples. Beginning in May 1, 2014, the edTPA will be required for teacher certification at New York pubilsh schools.
 
The doctoral student who asked not to be named believes that Pearson, and graduate schools of education around the country, are brushing over important questions about how education should work.

"When we approach these sorts of pragmatic questions without really understanding the fundamental issues that are at play within them, things go from bad to worse," the student said.

Fuhrman has defended her association with Pearson.
 
"I realize that my affiliation with the board of Pearson is disturbing to various members of the TC community," Fuhrman wrote. But the TC board of trustees had approved her affiliation with Pearson when it hired her, she said, believing it valuable for a private-sector company like Pearson to have an educator's point of view.

The students who wrote the letter, however, wrote that Fuhrman's work with Perason is a conflict of interest. They cited the University's confilct of interest guidelines, which state that "where an officer has a significant personal interest in a transaction to which the University is a party… the officer is vulnerable to the charge that his or her influence within the University might be used to advance this private interest or benefit." 

"Students across the country deserve a more humanistic approach to education,” the students wrote. 

'Not a test score'
The administration's decision to award the TC Medal of Distinguished Service to Merryl Tisch was the last straw for students frustrated by Fuhrman's affiliation with Pearson.

As chancellor of the University of the State of New York, which oversees both public and private schools in New York, Tisch has championed "test-driven education reform," students wrote. The testing program supported by Tisch, they argue, is a "black hole of education" that reduces kids to data points.

Asked about the decision to honor Tisch, a TC spokesperson said in an email that administration recognizes "the need to reconstitute its work with a particular emphasis on increased faculty involvement." TC's graduation ceremony last month was peppered with silent protesters, who held signs reading "NOT A TEST SCORE" and attracted national media attention.

For some students, the college's decision to honor Tisch served as a call to action. Now, they hope they can push the TC administration to enact changes.

"As much as I have learned so many things that make me so angry and disappointed, I have also met other doctoral students who give me a lot of hope," Brennan said. " I feel like we have a lot of power."

cecilia.reyes@columbiaspectator.com  |  @kcecireyes

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CU_Alum posted on

"According to the budget, there were $1,117 million 'unspent from previous year(s).'"

That has to be wrong. TC is not sitting on a 1.117 billion dollar surplus. Was the comma supposed to be a period?

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Columbia Spectator's picture
Columbia Spectator posted on

Thank you for pointing this out—yes, it was supposed to be a period. It's been corrected.

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CU_Alum posted on

"where an officer has a significant personal interest in a transaction to which the University is a party… the officer is vulnerable to the charge that his or her influence within the University might be used to advance this private interest or benefit."

TC isn't part of the university. And the article does not say that either TC or the university is a party to any transaction with Pearson.

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Anonymous posted on

TC is a part of the University. Not only are ALL TC degrees conferred by Columbia University, but also the President of Teachers College is the Dean of Education for Columbia University. You should perhaps review the University’s structure before you make such an erroneous comment.

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CU_Alum posted on

Sorry, but you're the one who us wrong. TC is an independent entity and always has been. That's why it has its own president, its own trustees, its own charter, and its own campus.

CU and TC have a contract which, among other things, says that CU will award degrees to TC grads and that TC's president also holds the rank of Dean within the university. The arrangement is similar to the one between TC and Barnard, which is also a separate entity.

Low Library has no direct authority over TC. Rules and regulations that it issues for CU do not govern TC. I pointed this out because the TC students' letter claimed President Fuhrman is violating a university policy.

I also pointed out that the policy only applies when there is a transaction between Columbia and the outside entity. So even if Fuhrman is subject to this policy, merely being on Pearson's board would not violate it. The policy would only become an issue if TC and Pearson were doing business with one another and if she had a personal stake in the deal. As far as I can tell, TC and Pearson aren't doing business at all, let alone in a way that would benefit Fuhrman.

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Anonymous posted on

TC is a separate entity, but is affiliated with Columbia University, the exact same way that Barnard College is. Both of these colleges are "...of Columbia University." Union Theological Seminary, Jewish Theological Seminary, and the Julliard School have looser affiliations, and their degrees are not conferred by Columbia University.

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CU_Alum posted on

Correct. But university policies are only binding on the university itself. They are not binding on affiliates, including those which award Columbia degrees and include "Columbia" in their names. That's why it makes no sense to claim that TC's president has violated a CU policy.

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enrolled TC grad student posted on

I'm responding to this post, and a later one in which CU_Alum said: "The policy would only become an issue if TC and Pearson were doing business with one another and if she had a personal stake in the deal [because Susan Fuhrman owns stock in Pearson."
I agree - but there still could very well be a conflict of interest - you can't just dismiss that.

There could be a direct line between 1. Susan Fuhrman, and her desire to see her $250,000 in Pearson stock grow, 2. Merryl Tisch's blessing for standardized tests and political backing for Fuhrman, 3. a national testing contract for Pearson to supply the standardized tests for schools across the nation 4. and the creation of a large new revenue stream for Pearson, a better outlook for Pearson's stock, and a recent sustained jump in stock price. She wouldn't be the first person to try to play this game from both sides. I think that's the larger logic behind the article, but maybe I misread it. I think that would be how Susan Fuhrman might have a conflict of interest in her role as the leader of a major public school teacher-training institution like Teachers College. Hear me out:

Who knows about Merryl Tisch's holdings, but getting her support, before and after a large and prestigious awards ceremony could have smoothed the way for Pearson to get the contract. The government said, 'We need a test now that we've passed these initiatives requiring principles to test their teachers, and we need tests to evaluate the student performance. And everyone who is adopting the Common Core needs a way to test their kids. And if you don't want to test them, you get no federal funding. So figure out a way to test everyone.' Pearson, seeing a legitimate golden opportunity (I do not begrudge them that), most likely lobbied their asses off in Washington, and stepped in, suggesting that they could fill the void.

This is where it gets confusing. I don't know why the government didn't enlist the nation's teachers to create evaluations for all of the subjects themselves. They could have compared evaluations to each other, tested them, improved them, and voted for the best ones, as a way to create a national standard. There could have been at least been a grant to put on a series of conferences where the teachers of America could be encouraged to come together around each school subject, and create the metrics themselves. They could have debated which questions were the most useful and why. It could have fostered a significant national meeting of minds, which could plausibly have stoked a new era in American public education.

Instead, as far as I know, the government went ahead, without much debate about how things would actually be implemented, and just quietly granted the education contract to Pearson - they said it would be fine if schools used their tests, and since those were the only ones available, and they wanted to put the law into practice immediately, this is where we ended up. I don't recall a serious national debate about how to create the teaching metrics once laws were passed requiring them. Correct me if I'm wrong.

Pearson already makes many of the textbooks for public schools, they make the tests the that students take to be evaluated on the textbooks, and now they make the tests evaluating the teachers. They have a headlock on education, and that in and of itself should be alarming to anybody. It is a monopoly that really matters.

The article says that Tisch, "As chancellor of the University of the State of New York... oversees both public and private schools in New York." Given that New York serves such a large number of public school students, 1.1 million according to wikipedia, Tisch's education lobbying would likely have a powerful effect in Washington. With a nod, a wink, and award from Susan Fuhrman, over complete and total disagreement from the faculty of Teachers College, the intitiative went ahead hastily, and without significant debate. If Fuhrman is such a dedicated educator, perhaps she should take the time to listen to her own employees when they universally reject her plans. When someone does something like that, we should stop for a minute and wonder what would make them inclined to piss off that many of their own people - could it be a shot at more status, more money, or both? When the answer is both, we should look even harder.

Frankly, I think Fuhrman should just pick one institution - she should either stay at Teachers College, and work independently on solutions for public education, without being in the pocket of a company who may or may not have everyone's best interest in mind, or enter the private sector, and play the same game in a much more lucrative context. Using her Columbia affiliation to bless something everyone at the actual school disagrees with, while profiting financially, if not illegal, is in extremely poor taste.

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Anonymous posted on

This is the best teachers college in the nation. Let's keep it that way.

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TC student posted on

it is worth noting that 50 doctoral students is a tiny part of our population considering that TC has over 5000 graduate students and like 1200 or more are doc students...

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Current Student posted on

This is definitely one of the largest Teachers College in the nation. But it is NOT one the best. It is the BEST one though to create and follow the new rules that state PUBLIC EDUCATION under the rules of corporatism. Thus, TC continues with its leadership role in education by helping with the decline of education as a public good. In this sense, Pearson, EPSA, lack of fundung and research, and everything else that is happening in the College makes perfect sense. New students -- especially the ones aiming at making a living out of education -- should definitely put themselves into debt and continue helping TC to be the BEST in its kind.

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BobJ posted on

Your faculty consists of convicted murderers and robbers. What an awesome institution you have!

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