Today’s post is a letter from a reader who, as she says, wants to “start a conversation with fellow academics about faculty abuse of study abroad programs.” I myself have never taught in one, so this one goes out to you readers who have taught in a study abroad program. Does this letter ring true?
I just returned from co-teaching for the first time in a summer study abroad program which is run by my department, and I was fairly sickened by the behavior of my colleague in charge. Specifically, I was troubled by his absence, as he was out of town for 6 out of 7 days a week, for two weeks in a row, on vacation with family. He taught no classes during that time, leaving the students either to take little tests administered by an assistant, or to do site visits by themselves. I continued to teach my class as scheduled. He is the lead coordinator of this program every year, but he appears to use it for family vacations where they have free accommodations and generous per diem which more than covers expenses for them all.
Another colleague has set up a yearly study abroad program during the academic year, such that she is away from campus for up to 6 months every year. She owns property in the city where her program is run, but still claims a huge per diem and lodging expenses. I have it on good authority from former students that she also regularly leaves students to fend for themselves.
In both cases, a second faculty member is always brought along, and it’s almost never a transparent selection process–these colleagues are hand-picked among the friends of the person in charge, becoming a way to bestow and repay favors. More often than not, the second faculty member knows nothing about the country and culture they will be teaching in.
I should make the distinction between what I experienced and the many rigorous study abroad programs that actually place students in foreign universities or internship situations. What I observed was abuse of so-called “bubble programs” which are set up and run usually by one or two faculty members with a vested interest in being in that country regularly, and in which students participate as in a bubble, with little to no contact with the host country’s institutions or people.
I’d be curious to know if your readers have observed similar abuses, and if so, have they found a way to address them? Study abroad programs often fall under the radar screen, since they are usually self-sustaining and not held to regular university budgets or rules. And I suspect that even if colleagues are aware of what’s going on, they keep quiet because they hope that they will be able to benefit from it too, by being invited along one year. But it is appalling to ask students to fund what are essentially faculty vacations and unnecessary per diems. The whole experience has brought out my inner Republican. I find myself fantasizing about program audits, and fuming self-righteously about corrupt professors. I’m at a large state university, which like most has been hit massively by budget cuts, but it seems that some of our study abroad programs remain bastions of financial bloat and unaccountability to students (both financial and pedagogical), which haven’t really been examined yet.
I want to do something but am not quite sure yet to whom I can talk safely, since even my chair and dean have at some point benefited from one or both of these programs!
I Used to Be Disgusted, But Now I Try to Be Amused
Dear Disgusted and Amused,
I have no experience with study abroad programs, but my sense is that the majority of U.S. students participate in “bubble” programs led by U.S.-based faculty rather than the kinds of immersion programs that feature study in another university in the host country. (Quite frankly, I’m sure the language barrier is the major reason–and shame on us!) I have never heard of such an abuse of bubble program privilege, but I can’t say I’m completely surprised. I also don’t think it’s entirely shocking that none of your students have blown the whistle on this kind of faculty neglect–after all, most undergrads are looking for a pretty light workload in study abroad programs, so it might be that the setup by Professor Shirky McShirker works for them, too.
(Is it possible that his responsibilities are mostly administrative rather than teaching? Might he have cleared his vacation in advance with your chair or the dean? But if the chair and the dean are in on the gig, then, I guess that’s not morally exculpatory.)
If these programs are self-funding, none of the students complain, and your chair and dean are in on it all, then I don’t think there’s anything you can do about them other than 1) refuse to participate again in a program you find morally problematic and educationally dubious, and 2) make an effort to steer your students toward immersion programs rather than your colleagues’ scamtastic bubble programs. Sadly, in the large, underfunded state universities we work in, busting up programs like these that aren’t a suck on uni resources is likely not a priority.
In fact, it seems like this is the kind of “entrepreneurial” initiative that universities like mine are encouraging faculty to set up! So long as it doesn’t cost money or even makes the uni a buck or two, it seems like anything goes. (This is pretty much the rationale for selling online courses, isn’t it? They might be worthless, but so long as the students earn their credit and don’t complain, then everyone is happy.)
Don’t get me wrong, though, D&A–I’m with you. I’d rather surrender my passport than participate in something so morally and intellectually bankrupt. But I’m afraid that so long as the program isn’t literally bankrupt, and especially if it even makes bank, this dog don’t hunt.
Readers: over to you.