Only at his peril does an elected faculty leader presume to speak for his many- minded colleagues. When his institution is ignorantly attacked, however, and brought into disrepute, the urge to speak out can no more be contained than can the damage that Edward Fiske has done to The George Washington University by the low academic rating he gave it in his recently published New York Times Selective Guide to Colleges ("Guide Rates Colleges in D.C.; UVa at Top; GW Is Low," Metro, March 16).
From what we can determine, Fiske's academic assessment of GW was confected from a handful of student questionnaires. In the words of an angry colleague: "Fiske's methodology, if he had any, is not only unsound; it is unfounded." We might leave it at that, were it not for the subsequent publicity that has attended his findings.
What did Fiske discover? He learned that we are an urban university and do not have an ivy-covered campus. He also found that we had a lot of transfer students. Did it also occur to him that transfer students, by definition, are those who make conscious and informed choices, that they deliberately leave other institutions to pursue more specialized studies, and that GW has a nationwide reputation for excellence in those academic fields most closely associated with public service?
To write that our students are "taught by a largely part-time faculty" is not just a misperception; it is downright misleading. With full-time faculty teaching three courses for every one course taught by a part-timer, the preponderance of teaching falls where it should: on the regular full- time faculty. Nearly all of the undergraduate courses in our major departments are taught by full-time, often senior, faculty. We use many of our part-time faculty at the two ends of the teaching spectrum: at the "low" end, where they lead discussion sections or supervise lab work, and at the "high" end, where they teach specialized seminars in which the person hired may be the nation's leading expert in his or her field. And if our professors, as a whole, do not publish as often as do their Ivy League counterparts, it may be because they spend more time preparing for classes than for the lecture circuit.
What hurts most, perhaps, is the anonymous quotation that GW provides only "an adequate education without backbreaking work." This slur on the faculty for its alleged inability to challenge its students is all the more curious when juxtaposed with what Fiske reports of our library. The latter is described as "short on necessary materials and long on crowds." This is hardly descriptive of a library that houses 1.2 million volumes, subscribes to 13,500 journals and adds 70,000 books to its collection each year. Nor do the crowded conditions suggest an unchallenged student body where usage of that facility is 25 percent higher than that of the next closest sister institution.
Clearly, Fiske would be entitled to render critical judgments (universities nurture criticism) had he given evidence that they were drawn from anything more substantial than the quotable spinoffs of a few disgruntled students. As it is, he has toyed with our most prized institutional possession: our good reputation. Were it not for that, and for the wide public attention given to this travesty, his critique would fall beneath both our notice and our contempt. The faculty, students, alumni and friends of this university, have been greatly disserved by these inaccuracies published with the imprimatur (now withdrawn) of The New York Times.