Semester at Sea Subject of Faculty Senate Discussion

March 2, 2006 — The Semester at Sea program dominated much of the Faculty Senate meeting on Tuesday. Vice President and Provost Gene D. Block outlined how the University assumed sponsorship of the more than 40-year-old program, which will fill a niche in the University’s foreign studies program and increase U.Va.’s international recognition.

“I am optimistic this will be an outstanding U.Va. venture,” Block told the senators assembled in the Rotunda Dome Room.

Vice Provost for International Affairs Leigh B. Grossman had been skeptical about the program, Block said, but in late 2004, she met with students and faculty of the program, who praised it. Then in spring 2005, J. Milton Adams, vice provost of academic programs, Rebecca Brown, director of the International Studies Office, and Karen L. Ryan, associate dean for the arts, humanities and social science, sailed during various legs of the ship’s itinerary. They recommended coursework improvements and innovations, but were impressed with the program, Block said.

Several schools were interested in assuming sponsorship of the program when its contract with the University of Pittsburgh ended, said Block, who was not optimistic about U.Va.’s chances, since it was asking a larger fee to cover administration and faculty costs. A contract was negotiated on Dec. 10, 2005, he said, a day after Grossman made a brief presentation to the Faculty Senate on international programs, mentioning the Semester at Sea.

It could be a floating Academical Village, with students and teachers working, eating and living in close proximity, Block said. Past Semester at Sea students have sailed with South African Bishop and Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu and been lectured to by Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, he noted.

The program also offers an element of international study that may appeal to students who would be reluctant to do a full immersion in a single country for an entire semester, Block said. Semester at Sea “would provide a sampling of experiences.”

While there will be an “awkward” transition period, since faculty had already been hired for next year, Block said, David T. Gies, Commonwealth Professor of Spanish, has been named academic dean for the Semester at Sea and is planning a themed cruise for Central and South America when the University takes complete control in 2007.

“I recognized that the quality of the courses has been uneven, but David Gies will put together a stellar faculty for this program,” Block said.

Block said he regretted not spending more time communicating about the negotiations with the faculty and deans.

“Things moved quickly, and I did not have all the time I would have liked,” he said, adding that the faculty “will sculpt this program.”

Several faculty members expressed concern, one asking how the University will benefit from the arrangement and another questioning the academic rigor of the courses.
Block said that by 2007, U.Va. will set standards on the courses. He also noted  that Semester at Sea could draw between $750,000 to $800,000 to the University to cover some of the infrastructure costs of the international program, and that the University can gain international name recognition.

“To be isolated from the world today is suicide,” said President John T. Casteen III, who noted that Semester at Sea has many supporters from among the top universities in the country, including Cornell, Tulane and Stanford universities and the University of California system, all of whom have provided students for the most recent Semester at Sea voyages.

“We should be prepared to take our place in the community of our peers and apply our own standards to this program,” he said.

In other business, Casteen responded to questions regarding a tuition waiver at the University for children of faculty, a senate concern. While it is not uncommon, Casteen said there are many details to consider, such as how it would be funded, who would be eligible and how the plan would be implemented. Senate chairman Houston G. Wood promised Casteen advice from the senate committee studying a waiver. 

The University has raised nearly $800 million toward its $3 billion capital campaign goal, which kicks off at the end of September, Casteen said. About one-third of the money should be raised by mid-summer, he noted.

William B. Harvey, vice president and chief officer for diversity and equity, addressed the senate, saying he was working with several groups to prevent future racial incidents. A Web site has been created for people to report incidents of bias, he said. He also reported that he has met with members of the president’s Commission on Diversity and Equity, noting that 24 of the commission’s 27 recommendations have already been implemented. Citing recent press reports on the pending wave of retiring faculty, Harvey said it would be a good opportunity for the University to bring in minority faculty members, especially at the senior levels.

Charles Grisham, professor and director of the student systems project, updated the senate on the planned integrated student communication system, which would allow students to conduct their transactions with the University, from acceptance through graduation, electronically.

Wood announced that there would be an additional senate meeting in April to work on the senate’s self-study begun at its January retreat. He encouraged the senators to get involved with the several committees that came out of the retreat.