Harry Potter Goes to College

Editor’s note: The latest installment in the wizarding movies, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, will likely make an appearance under many Christmas trees this year. A more important question is whether the books should make an appearance in college courses. This article was originally published in the Charlotte Observer on August 9, 2007.

Universities across the country are adding Harry Potter to the curriculum in disciplines as diverse as English, philosophy, history, Latin, and science. Edmund M. Kern, an associate professor of history at Lawrence University and author of the reader’s guide The Wisdom of Harry Potter, is teaching an entire course on Harry Potter this fall.

The generation of students entering college this year has a mania for J. K. Rowling’s seven-book series about a young boy’s adventures in a fantastic magical world. Harry Potter’s ongoing battle against evil, with its themes of choice and consequences, life and death, and love and hate, reverberates among this generation as Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five captured the students of the 1960s.

But are Harry Potter books good enough for the college curriculum?

Another Battle in the Student Fees War

At most colleges and universities, each student is required to pay fees in addition to tuition and living expenses. Those fees are used to pay for a vast array of things on campus, whether or not the student has any interest in them.

Over the years, there has been a lot of litigation over student fees, with some students arguing that the system for collecting and distributing money is not just unfair but illegal. On November 20, a federal court in New York threw another wrench into the already convoluted legality of student fees.

Student Activity Fees: Who Gets What and Who Decides?

Only a small percentage of student activity fees at University of North Carolina campuses are distributed by students to campus organizations, says a new study. The majority of student activity fees are allocated by university administrators for purposes ranging from repairs to a student center to an undergraduate teaching award.

At N.C. State, only $8.85 out of the $363.50 collected per student for activities is distributed by students. At UNC-Chapel Hill, $39 of the $291.30 students must pay each year is given to student government to disburse to student organizations. “Contrary to the general impression, students are almost entirely excluded from the process of disbursing the student activity fee,” says Jenna Ashley Robinson, author of the study, “Student Activity Fees: Who Gets What and Who Decides?”

Jumping on the Climate Change Bandwagon

The drive to do something about the alleged climate change crisis has been sweeping the world. Al Gore’s movie “An Inconvenient Truth” received an Oscar and he has just been awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace for his attempt to convince people that we must take drastic action now, or else suffer irreparable harm to the planet’s environment.

As Clarion Call reported in July, Elon University chose the book An Inconvenient Truth as its required summer reading for freshmen. And there is much more global warming action on campuses, in particular the proliferation of the American College & University Presidents Climate Change Commitment.

The Climate Commitment calls itself a “high-visibility effort to address global warming.” It aims at “garnering institutional commitments to neutralize greenhouse gas emissions and to accelerate the research and educational efforts of higher education to equip society to re-stabilize the earth’s climate.” Presidents who sign the Commitment pledge to make their campuses “climate neutral” as soon as possible.

College Summer Reading Can Be Useful – Or Not

Many colleges and universities these days have a “summer reading” program for incoming students, which requires them to read a book and be prepared to discuss it during the first few days of class. The programs are designed to create a common ground among new students, challenge them to think critically about new ideas and introduce them to university work and intellectual life at a university.

This is a splendid idea. Done well, such reading programs can help to get college students off to a good start by concentrating their minds on the nature of and reasons for academic study.

Unfortunately, if it is done poorly this becomes at least a missed opportunity. If a school chooses a book that has no timeless message, it will fail to make any lasting impression on the students. And if a school selects a book that is faddish or polemical, it is worse than a missed opportunity. It conveys to the students the idea that college is more about what to think than about how to think. Sadly, at some institutions that happens to be the case in many of the courses taught, but still it’s best to start freshmen off with a good impression.

UNC-Chapel Hill Faculty Defeat Achievement Index

CHAPEL HILL – At the end of the spring semester, the Faculty Council at UNC-Chapel Hill considered and narrowly defeated a policy that would change the way the grading system works. The proposed Achievement Index (AI) is a number similar to the typical grade-point average (GPA) but it would be used to determine class rank and degrees with distinction.

The index is a way of combating grade inflation and would be a trend-setting step if adopted. The proposal to adopt AI at UNC originated with the Educational Policy Committee of the Faculty Council.

Paying the Profs – How Much is Enough?

Is the University of North Carolina system experiencing a “brain drain” because of inadequate faculty compensation?

The UNC administration seems to think so. In 2006, the UNC Board of Governors approved a plan proposed by UNC President Erskine Bowles to raise UNC faculty pay to the 80th percentile among peer institutions. (Why the 80th percentile and not 75th or 85th or some other figure was not made clear.) This plan would also provide merit-based pay increases of four percent per year and $2 million to match private funds for distinguished professorships. To pay for all of that, Bowles has asked the legislature for an additional $87.8 million in fiscal years 2008-09.

Protecting Against “Heterosexism” — for $200,000?

Harvard’s president Derek Bok has written that universities have something in common with gambling addicts and exiled royalty – there is never enough money. One reason why that’s true is that people on campus are almost always spending other people’s money and when that’s the case, there’s a strong tendency to demand all sorts of unnecessary things. After all, if available money doesn’t get spent on what you want, it will get spent on what someone else wants.

The story of the proposed Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender (LGBT) Center at NC State is a good illustration of the infighting that erupts when interest groups battle over how to spend other people’s money.

V-Day: Stripping Away Modesty and Dignity

Ask a random stranger what “V-Day” is. You might get some interesting answers. Some will probably confuse it with VE-Day or VJ-Day, the days marking the end of World War II in Europe and Japan. Perhaps some will think it’s simply an abbreviation of Valentine’s Day. However, no incorrect guesses could possibly be as interesting, or as shocking, as the truth. V-Day stands for “Vagina Day” and takes place the same day as the more traditional Valentine’s Day.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is one of 17 universities in North Carolina hosting “The Vagina Monologues” on or around Valentine’s Day this year. Nationally, “Vagina Warriors” at over 1000 universities will participate in the unusual festivities.