Making a Critical Difference: A Conversation with Professor Lars Jensen
Conducted and Edited by Howard Muncy
Lars Jensen is a professor and chair of the math department at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno, Nevada. In late 2021, Professor Jensen was involved in an academic freedom controversy that made national headlines. The Academic Freedom Alliance issued a public letter in his support on October 22, 2021. I was able to recently interview the math professor to ask him about the incident and for his views on academic freedom now that a year has passed.
Howard Muncy: Professor Jensen, the Academic Freedom Alliance issued a letter on your behalf just over a year ago. Can you describe the situation that led to the controversy and how the following year has played out?
Lars Jensen: In 2019, the Nevada Board of Regents mandated that all students must be given an opportunity to complete their college math course within their first year of college, regardless of their level of preparation. Based on this mandate, underprepared students would be simultaneously enrolled in a co-requisite course to remedy their deficiencies. This is the so-called co-requisite system that has been sweeping the country the past few years. Concerned that the underprepared students would not be able to succeed in the co-requisite model, and that completion rates would suffer, Truckee Meadows Community College decided to change the curriculum, and lower the standards of its College Math course. The new curriculum and the new design of the College Math course was presented by the TMCC administration during a college wide meeting in early 2020. At this meeting, during a question and comment session, I rose to explain that the price the college was paying for the new curriculum was a lowering of standards. Before I had said a full sentence, I was stopped by the organizer of the meeting, my dean, and told that “we were out of time.” Then I went back to my office to write down my comments in six bullet points on a sheet of paper, which I went back to distribute during a break in the meeting. Again, the dean attempted to suppress my comments by telling me that the meeting was hers and that I could not distribute the sheet. The dean said I could leave my document by the board or post it at a bulletin board in the room, but I was not allowed to distribute it. I first received a written reprimand, and later an unsatisfactory evaluation for the year 2019-20. The next academic year, 2020-21, I received another unsatisfactory evaluation, concocted from various minor bureaucratic infractions, such as having missed a “mandatory” statement in a syllabus. Receiving two unsatisfactory annual evaluations in a row in the Nevada System of Higher Education is grounds for termination, so a termination hearing was held over two days in October 2020, with the intent by the college to terminate me after the hearing.
HM: Do you feel that the AFA’s efforts, alongside other groups who rallied to your defense, made a difference?
LJ: Absolutely, the AFA’s letter made a critical difference. Without the letter and the letters from other organizations, I think I would have lost the case. The AFA letter helped shine a light on the case, and to increase its publicity. When a highly respected national organization like the AFA comments on a case, the media pays attention, and that happened in my case too. And the letters and the articles in the media were all supportive to my case, and this, I think, made President Hilgersom think twice before firing me.
HM: As a professor and chair in mathematics, what are some of the major issues that you have observed related to academic freedom?
LJ: The major issue I see is in the interference of the administrative sector of the college with the academic sector. There used to be a wall of separation between the two. This is no longer the case. Today, college administrators are present everywhere academic decisions are being made. Administrators show up to department meetings, Faculty Senate meetings, and academic committee meetings, and they do not leave. It has become more difficult for faculty to discuss academic matters freely and openly. Untenured faculty members are afraid of participating in campus discussions. Administrators are more concerned about pass rates and retention rates than about academic quality, and this results in faculty getting badgered by the administration with retention rates and pass rates and how the main goal is to increase these, and the price we pay for this is a lowering of the academic standards of college courses. If academics is weakened in the college equation, the balance of the equation shifts, and the college becomes more like a business, and then the college has failed in its mission and as an institution.
HM: Grading practices and course rigor seem to be emerging more and more as sources of controversy on some campuses. Is this a new trend that is in fact making instruction and evaluation much more difficult with designing and teaching courses or is this a problem that has always been around but without the media’s attention?
LJ: The key phrase faculty constantly hear is “student success,” and student success is measured by course pass rates. The administration has increased the pressure on the faculty to pass students. In some states, like Nevada, this is partially a result of the state funding formula for colleges which is based on student completion rates. Ironically, such formulas undermine the very educational system it is supposed to support. Deans often micromanage academics by telling faculty what to put in their syllabi, “better ways” to teach their classes, what conferences to attend, and what are the “best practices.” All this has put enormous pressures on faculty to pass more students. The primary mission of a college is not to pass students, rather, it is to operate in the common good. We seem to have forgotten that.
HM: Have you found allies or other faculty members, through your ordeal, who share similar opinions but are afraid to speak out? What are your concerns about the long-term effects of this silencing?
LJ: Yes, I had many faculty supporting me throughout my ordeal, and afterwards, both across the college and across the nation. At our college, this has manifested itself in the Faculty Senate initiating several positive policy changes to make sure that what happened to me can’t happen again to another faculty member. It is now harder for the administration to fire a faculty member for speaking up against the administration in defense of academic freedom.