Monday, May 12, 2014

The Strangest Academic Department in the World

The University of Arkansas at Fayetteville has an academic department in its College of Education & Health Professions that is one of the strangest I have ever seen.

It is called the Department of Education Reform, and the strangeness starts right off on the department's webpage: edre/ There one sees that the department is the "newest department in the College of Education and Health Professions, established on July 1, 2005. The creation of the Department of Education Reform was made possible through a $10 million private gift and an additional $10 million from the University’s Matching Gift Program." One is never told – anywhere – that the gift was from a foundation set up by the Walton family of Wal*Mart fame. Of course, the Walton family has sunk more than $330 million into one in every four start-up charter schools in the past 15 years. This is pretty dark money since few know how deep into education reform the Waltons are. And the University of Arkansas is not advertising on their web site that an entire department was created by one very ideologically dedicated donor.

This lack of acknowledgement of the ties between the department and the Waltons goes even further than the unwillingness to advertise who is paying the department's bills. The January 2014 issue of the Educational Researcher – house organ of the American Educational Research Association – carried the report of a study that alleged to document a very impressive benefit to children's critical thinking abilities as the result of a half-hour lecture in an art museum. Pretty impressive stuff, for sure, if it's true. The article was written by Daniel H. Bowen, Jay P. Greene, & Brian Kisida. (Learning to Think Critically: A Visual Art Experiment) Now it is never disclosed in the article that the art museum in question is Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, the creation of Alice Walton, grande dame of the Walton family, or that the authors are essentially paid by the very same Waltons. Now the authors should have disclosed such information in their research report, and the editors of the journal bear some responsibility themselves to keep things transparent.

One thing among several that is truly odd about the Department of Education Reform is that when you click on the link to the department ( you are taken immediately to, which appears to be a website external to the University. Huh? What gives? The University doesn't want to be associated with the department? Or the department doesn't want to be associated with the University of Arkansas?

Once you are at the internal/external website ( for the Department of Education Reform, you can't get back to the University of Arkansas or its College of Education. Even clicking on the University's logos at the top of the department's homepage leaves you right there at So the department is really in the University of Arkansas, but it seems to act like it would rather not be associated with it.

Among the activities of the department supported by the Walton money is the endowment of six professorships. Well, there are only six professors in the entire department, and only one of those is not sitting in an endowed chair. I know of no other department in which 5 out of 6 faculty occupy an endowed chair of some sort or other. Well and good. Professors work hard and they deserve support and many have labored for decades without such reward. However, the five endowed professors of the Department of Education Reform appear to be a tad different from most endowed professors. In fact, only one of them strikes me personally as having the kind of record that would deserve an endowed professorship at any of the top 100 colleges of education in the country.

Among those surprising recipients of endowed professorships are four others. Robert Maranto has a doctorate from the University of Maryland in 1989 and had only risen to the rank of Associate Professor at Villanova when he was hired by the department in 2008 to fill the Chair in Leadership.

Gary Ritter earned a doctorate from Penn in 2000, and less than a decade later is awarded an endowed professorship by the department.

Likewise for Patrick Wolf who made it to Associate Professor at Georgetown before being named 21st Century Chair in School Choice in the department. And the department chair, Jay Greene, never made tenure at a university before logging five years at the notoriously right-wing Manhattan Institute and then jumping into the 21st Century Chair in Education Reform at the University of Arkansas.

Question: Who is making these decisions? How does this department relate to the College of Education & Health Professions? Does a university committee vet these appointments to endowed chairs? What role do outsiders play in hiring decisions? The department administers the University's PhD in Education Policy. The department uses the University's imprimatur in much of what it does. Does the University have any say in what the department does? And the bigger question: Is everything for sale today in American higher education?

Gene V Glass
Arizona State University
National Education Policy Center
University of Colorado Boulder

The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not represent the official position of NEPC, Arizona State University, nor the University of Colorado Boulder.

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