From the Mothership: Big News and Strange News

The headline and photo filled up half of my morning paper’s front-page, above the fold:

UBC scores coup by luring Nobel physicist

The University of British Columbia has scored a major academic coup, snagging an American Nobel Prize winner with a promise to pump $12-million over the next five years toward the professor’s passion to improve the teaching of science.

The departure of Nobel laureate Carl Wieman from the University of Colorado at Boulder was front-page news in the state and considered a significant blow to the U.S. university, where his superstar academic status helped attract millions in research funding over the years.

It’s the professor’s fascination with teaching that is bringing him to Canada. The University of Colorado offered Prof. Wieman just $5-million (U.S.) to fund his research into science education, about half of what UBC was putting up.

“This is quite significant, to have someone of his stature in the science community,” UBC president Martha Piper said yesterday in an interview. “It’s incredibly exciting, and it fits right in with our strategic vision for UBC.”

Prof. Wieman, 54, was awarded a Nobel Prize in physics in 2001 as part of a team that proved the existence of a form of matter predicted by Albert Einstein, called the Bose-Einstein condensate. He has also been recognized as an exceptional teacher, receiving the highest award from the National Science Foundation in the United States for distinguished scholars. He has been at the U.S. university for 22 years and reportedly attracts about $3.5 million (U.S.) a year in research grants to the university.

His appointment, effective January, 2007, will give UBC international bragging rights and enable the Vancouver university to promote itself as one of only two in Canada with a Nobel laureate on its faculty. (Nobel laureate John Polanyi is at the University of Toronto.)

Prof. Wieman was not available for an interview yesterday. However, he told the Denver Post that he is currently more interested in promoting education reform than continuing research at his atomic physics lab. “I wasn’t really able to do the atomic physics research at a level that I was very happy with any more,” he said. “I’ve never wanted to be one of those doddering old scientists who are 30 years behind the times.”

Note that Prof. Wieman is not coming to UBC to spearhead some major research into high-level physics. The announcement clearly indicates he is here to teach and to promote change in how science is taught. That in itself is of immense significance.

And who says that teaching doesn’t pay? Prof Wieman can expect to at least maintain the $300,000 (US?) he’s currently paid annually at the University of Colorado.

FYI, Dr. Wieman gave a talk here last November (in what we now know was a recruitment trip) entitled “Science Education in the 21st Century: Using the Tools of Science to Teach Science” and you can snag UBC’s podcast of the session here.

Huge news, and with campus-wide effects. But the message implied is somewhat at odds with another story I read in my morning paper this past Saturday:

Faculty at UBC win legal victory

The faculty association at the University of British Columbia has won a significant legal victory that bolsters its right to grieve and reverse the UBC president’s decisions on whether a professor is promoted.

A B.C. Supreme Court judge has ruled that a framework agreement between the faculty association and the university permits an independent arbitrator to reverse a decision of the president if he or she is found to have acted unreasonably.

The four-year-long dispute between the faculty association and the administration involves the status of Lance Rucker, an associate professor in the faculty of dentistry.

“The Rucker case is extremely significant,” said James Turk, the executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers. “It sends a message that university presidents must exercise their authority in a reasonable manner or they will be held accountable.”

A senior appointments committee at UBC recommended unanimously in 2002 that Dr. Rucker be promoted to full professor. He also had the support of the dean of dentistry and the department head.

Dr. Rucker has been at UBC for more than 20 years and was named its dental educator of the year in 1992. He has published a series of mystery novels and also performed as an actor. In 1999, a UBC publication detailed his accomplishments in dentistry and said it would “flirt dangerously with understatement” to describe him as a renaissance man.

Despite the recommendation of the appointments committee, UBC president Martha Piper sent Dr. Rucker a letter in July, 2002, to say he had been denied a promotion because he did not have enough publications in academic journals.

“The number of publications is not appropriate in this case. The record is that he is an exceptional professor,” said UBC faculty association president Eliott Burnell.

Dr. Piper was serious about her objection to Dr. Rucker’s promotion. UBC lost an April 2004 decision by an independent arbitrator, then appealed the ruling to the provincial Labour Relations Board (they lost), and appealed that one to the B.C. Supreme Court where they have just lost again. UBC is considering further appeals.

There is undoubtedly much more to both of these stories than is reported, so I’m in no position to pass judgment. But these messages don’t fit well together. This is undoubtedly a banner day for teaching and learning at UBC, and it appears that the publish or perish mentality is alive and well.

About Brian

I am a Strategist and Discoordinator with UBC's Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology. My main blogging space is Abject Learning, and I sporadically update a short bio with publications and presentations over there as well...
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2 Responses to From the Mothership: Big News and Strange News

  1. Jon says:

    And now we have a new president… I’ve met the guy. He seems to me, from my brief meeting, a very good thing. Time will tell.

  2. Brian says:

    I’ll cling to any reason for hope that presents itself. Thanks for that Jon.

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