Saturday, March 8, 2014

Carol Vance--Decades of Excellence, an Educator Whose Work is Needed Now More then Ever, a Friend through all the Struggles

 Now at 73, I have some overview of those whose thinking, and even more, generosity in enabling collective thought, were essential to how I and so many others made sense of things. My friendship with Carole Vance grew deeper during the "Sex Wars" of the 1980s, but I have always known she was there, in that large room in upper Manhattan, bringing scholars and activists together, sharing work, encouraging deeper questions. Thus, it was inconceivable to me when I was told by a Jill Matthews, a mutual friend, of Columbia's non-renewal letter. When the most powerful act as if they have to destroy excellence because they have no power to stop the demands of the market, they are stamping hopelessness on us all. We must take action. With the permission of the student drafters of the letter and Carole's permission I share their action with you. Here’s the address for Un-Occupy Mailman, so you can follow what is happening.

February 4th, 2014
Dear Provost Coatsworth,
 We are writing as current and former students at Columbia University to urge you to rescind the letter of “non-renewal” given to Dr. Carole S. Vance, effective July 2014. This petition is the outcome of mobilization by doctoral students in Sociomedical Sciences who are shocked and alarmed by this recent event and its broader implications.
The termination of Dr. Vance profoundly disrupts the education and training of current graduate students. We are also deeply concerned about the training of future student cohorts. We have been told that Dr. Vance’s termination is due to financial limitations in the department, and we recognize that the department faces difficult circumstances. However, it seems dangerous and shortsighted to balance the budget by terminating a world-renowned senior scholar and prized mentor, while retaining only faculty who bring in a high percentage of external grants. We believe this strategy is unsustainable and threatens to undermine Columbia’s reputation as an international leader in education and teaching. It guarantees that those scholars who work on the cutting edge of their disciplines, whose ideas are challenging to the established status quo among grant reviewers and funding agencies, will be pushed out. It will immediately diminish innovation at Columbia.
Columbia’s department of Sociomedical Sciences was the first of its kind in the nation. Today, our pioneering interdisciplinary program is a model for graduate schools around the world. It provides a unique educational space at Columbia to train leaders in global health. In Sociomedical Sciences we are trained to apply social theory to address critical global health concerns. This emphasis on translating social science for maximum impact, to solve real world problems, is one of the reasons why, year after year, our graduate students are awarded more prestigious social science grants than many other more traditional, and much larger, social science departments. In the last five years alone, our doctoral students received no fewer than six NSF Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grants, three NSF Graduate Research Fellowships, six grants from the Social Science Research Council, five Fulbright IIE grants, one Fulbright-Hays grant, four grants from the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, four fellowships from the American Association of University Women, two grants from the Horowitz Foundation for Social Policy, one grant from the American Philosophical Society,  one Mellon Interdisciplinary Fellowship, one Mellon/Association for Learned Societies Fellowship, and two Mellon Post-Doctoral fellowships, as well as many awards for regional studies and language, travel, leadership, and service awards. These are in addition to the numerous grants and fellowships students in our department received from NIH, NICHD, NIDA, NIMH, NCI and other federal health agencies.
Our students are an integral part of Columbia’s intellectual community. In the past five years, our doctoral students have served as teaching assistants for 26 courses at Columbia’s Morningside campus and Barnard. Between 2012 and 2013, our advanced doctoral students taught five summer courses in the History, Sociology, and Anthropology departments.  Over the past several years, five of our students have been awarded teaching fellowships in the Undergraduate Writing Program. Our students consistently publish in the top public health journals as well as the most prestigious journals in history, sociology, anthropology, and political science. We are also involved in collaborative research projects and book publications with faculty at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
The success and dynamism of our students is due, in no small part, to the quality of our faculty. Dr. Vance has been a professor in Sociomedical Sciences for 30 years and she is the very heart of the program. Dr. Vance is an inspiring icon for innumerable students of gender and sexuality studies, cultural anthropology, public health, and human rights.  She attracts students from around the world to attend graduate school at Columbia University. In fact, many of us declined offers from other schools, with better funding packages, in order to pursue a doctoral degree in the Department of Sociomedical Sciences under the guidance of Dr. Vance.
Dr. Vance has received several awards for her skill and dedication to teaching and mentorship, including the Outstanding Teacher Award (1999) from the Mailman School of Public Health and the Faculty Mentoring Award (2007-8) from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. In preparing this petition, we received an outpouring of support from students across Columbia. Dr. Vance is described as a tremendously gifted teacher who guides her students through complex discussions to bring out incisive synthesis and analysis. She is known for her ability to pose critical and provocative questions that challenge students to think outside the box, constantly question their assumptions, and take intellectual risks.
In her tenure at Columbia, Dr. Vance has taught nearly 100 courses and trained over 1,300 students—not in big lecture halls or with multiple-choice exams, but with a personal and hands-on approach that is paradigmatic of an Ivy League education. She has sculpted generations of top scholars and leaders with tireless dedication and a commitment to excellence. Dr. Vance has dedicated her time to core courses that are fundamental to the department’s educational program. She teaches Introduction to Medical Anthropology—training more than 600 students over 27 semesters—as well asAdvanced Seminars in Medical Anthropology, Current Readings in Medical Anthropology,andthe department’s only Qualitative Research Methods course. Dr. Vance’s coursesSexuality, Health Issues, and Public Policy and Sexuality I and II helped students to develop the skills required to translate research into policy for real substantive improvements in public health.
Dr. Vance’s courses are fundamental to sexuality studies programs both in Mailman and across Columbia. She teaches Current Readings in Sexuality and Theories and Perspectives in Sexual Health, which isrequired for the Certificate of Sexuality and Health. Dr. Vance forged valuable interdisciplinary connections through her coursesCross-cultural Studies in Medicine and Illness in Columbia’s department of Anthropology and Mapping Identity: Sexuality, Science, and Policy in Columbia’s Institute for Research on Women and Gender.Her Seminar in Sexuality, Gender, Health, and Human Rights,through which she has taught almost 300 students over 22 semesters, provided a strong connection with the Columbia Law School, which co-sponsored the course for 11 semesters. Dr. Vance also links Columbia into dynamic and innovate global networks of activists and scholars through her two decades of international teaching in India, Turkey, Vietnam, and the Netherlands.
Dr. Vance’s mentorship far exceeds the work of a typical professor. Dr. Vance does not just value students; she prioritizes them. So many of the testimonials we received emphasized her unparalleled dedication. She is always available for support, even on very short notice, on holidays, or in the midst of her own deadlines. Dr. Vance takes her students’ training seriously, which means that she is as demanding as she is generous. Many of us remember that first draft she handed back to us, covered in red ink, with meticulous line-by-line edits, and layers of critical comments in the margins. If intimidating at first, it is now clear that Dr. Vance gives her heart and soul to make us better scholars.
And it is not only Dr. Vance’s direct advisees who benefit from her attention. We received several testimonials from students whom she has mentored informally—those she has coached through the Sociomedical Sciences methods exam (the committee of which she has served on for 14 years and chaired for eight), advised for the Certificate of Sexuality and Health (which she has co-directed for five years) or the Certificate in Health and Human Rights (which she has co-directed for three years), or whose work she simply finds interesting. She consistently checks in with students, announcing new publications, relevant press clippings, funding sources, networking possibilities, and job opportunities.
Dr. Vance never expects any help with her own work in exchange for her time and investment in her students. This generous spirit is diffused throughout the deep and wide networks that Dr. Vance has built over four decades. As Dr. Vance’s students, we benefit from vibrant alliances of colleagues, allies, activists, practitioners, and policy makers, reaching from New York to Africa, Australia and Oceania, Asia, Latin America, and Europe. Dr. Vance is a change maker. She does not just teach her students how to think; she teaches us how to mobilize the power of community, to be heard, and to make a difference. 
Today, approximately 50% of all doctoral students drop out before getting their degree. As graduate students in one of the nation’s most competitive universities, we inevitably struggle to balance personal life with our drive for academic success.  Here again, Dr. Vance has shown us unwavering support—encouraging realistic goals and expectations, motivating us when we need a push, and granting slack when we are ready to break. Numerous student testimonials describe how Dr. Vance helped them through the challenges of graduate education: the loneliness and isolation of fieldwork, difficult career decisions, death in the family, pregnancy, miscarriage, illness, and even assistance in obtaining health insurance and visas for foreign travel. International students make up a vibrant part of Columbia’s intellectual community and Dr. Vance has been an ally and resource for those facing complicated visa, travel, and funding circumstances. Several students said they could not have gotten through the program without her painstaking comments and edits on their writing in a second language. It is because of this kind of commitment that Dr. Vance’s students thrive at Columbia.
Dr. Vance’s rigor, dedication and her reputation for integrity are reflected in the success of her mentees. Her doctoral students consistently excel in the job market. They hold positions in myriad prestigious universities, including Yale, Stanford, Amherst College, Pomona College, Barnard, UMASS Amherst, Wellesley, UCLA and others. They are faculty and researchers in anthropology, sociology, history, legal studies, women’s studies, and Latin American studies. They have global influence, holding positions around the world—in United Nations agencies, Mexico, Ireland, Vietnam, the United Kingdom, Taiwan, and Canada.
The effectiveness of Dr. Vance’s mentorship is also evidenced by the disproportionate success her students have within the department. There are nearly 70 faculty members in the department of Sociomedical Sciences; however, among all doctoral students in the department, last year Dr. Vance’s mentees gave 25 % of all conference papers, accounted for 15% of peer-reviewed publications, and received 10% of grants and awards. The previous year, her mentees accounted for 17% of papers, 15% of peer-reviewed publications, and nearly 20% of all grants and awards. In just the past five years, Dr. Vance’s mentees have received prestigious social science grants and fellowships, including from the National Science Foundation, Fulbright Hays, Fulbright IIE, the National Institute of Mental Health, the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the American Association of University Women, and several Mellon Post-Doctoral Fellowships. In recent years, Dr. Vance’s students have also published seven books, received numerous dissertation proposal awards, prizes for the best dissertation, and awards for writing excellence and for documentary film-making.
Dr. Vance’s students also give back to Columbia, making significant pedagogical contributions in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. In the past five years alone, 13 of Dr. Vance’s students instructed in the Undergraduate Writing Program, taught a summer class, or served as teaching assistants at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences or Barnard. In fact, since 2010, Dr. Vance’s students accounted for a full one-third of all doctoral students in Sociomedical sciences awarded teaching assistantships on the Morningside campus.
Some intellectuals in academia are simply irreplaceable, and Dr. Vance is among them. Given Dr. Vance’s outstanding track record of service and success, we are stunned and discouraged by this abrupt termination of her position. We are alarmed not only with the loss of this tremendous scholar and mentor, but also by the shortsighted financial metric currently being used to evaluate our faculty.  This narrow approach disincentivizes and undercuts quality teaching, mentorship, and scholarly innovation across the board.
We believe Columbia’s educational mission is in jeopardy.  We recognize, with pride, that the Mailman School of Public Health is the third largest recipient of NIH funding among all schools of public health and that external grants are key to the school’s viability. However, these grants support research, not teaching. According to federal effort reporting requirements, a faculty member who brings in 80% of their salary from research grants is obligated to spend no more than 20% of their time teaching. In fact, faculty in desperate need of grants to pay their salary and keep their job will have no time for anything else; they will be constantly preoccupied with applying for the next round of grants. How will the university fulfill its obligation for even basic teaching, let alone make the time for the intensive mentoring and relationship-building necessary to produce top-ranked scholars and the next generation of leaders? This model will effectively gut our teaching and mentorship infrastructure. It is unsuitable and unsustainable for an institution like Columbia with a global reputation for excellence in education.
We firmly believe that it is in the best interest of Columbia University to withdraw Dr. Vance’s letter of non-renewal. We are grateful for your prompt attention to this issue and we respectfully request acknowledgment of receipt of this letter. We trust that your decision will be favorable.
[Signed by 56 Columbia Mailman School of Public Health doctoral degree students and graduates]

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