Eight years ago, UCLA geography major Derrick Hindery had no particularly high expectations when he enrolled in a dull-sounding course called “Global Environment and Development.” But he ended up meeting an inspiring professor who could stir up students with his talks on world problems. “I basically decided I wanted to change the world,” Hindery said.

Hindery, who began focusing on environmental issues, credits the passion and conviction of the teacher, assistant professor Joshua Muldavin, a relatively new faculty member in the geography department who had spent time in rural China researching sustainable development. He had even demonstrated with the students in Tian An Men Square in 1989.

“He has the ability to draw students into the discussion and get them to be passionate about the subject matter,” said Hindery. “He gets his students to realize that environmental problems are really social problems. His course caused me to seek out an internship with the Rainforest Action Network and look at issues of deforestation in the Amazon.”

Today, Hindery, now a graduate student in geography, is focusing on a cause he feels just as strongly about — saving Muldavin’s teaching career. He and his fellow students are up in arms over the university‘s decision to refuse tenure to the popular professor, who was nominated by many of his peers for Professor of the Year in 1998.

University officials won’t discuss the case. Some say that UCLA doesn‘t like his programs and wants him to focus on trade issues. Muldavin said he should be granted tenure, but declined to comment further on the case.

“There is a problem with oversight in Josh’s case. Something went wrong. He is a distinguished teacher,” said Justin Fong, who serves as student representative on the Board of Regents. “He has lived in the dorms for the past eight years. He has been published in the top journals and has been independently reviewed by his peers. It doesn‘t add up why he isn’t receiving tenure.” Fong said he turned down offers at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to work with Muldavin.

Two weeks ago, more than 100 students gathered outside Chancellor Albert Carnesale‘s office to protest the Academic Council on Academic Personnel’s decision to let Muldavin go. Fong and 18 other students were arrested during the seven-hour protest.

UCLA vice chancellor of academic personnel Norman Abrams said the demonstration will have no bearing on the tenure issue. “If the university began to take into account external political pressure in tenure cases, it would be destructive of the tenure process,” he said. “There would be many people who could muster groups and support.”

Students fear that they‘re losing not only a fabulous teacher, but an entire program. Muldavin heads the International Development Studies (IDS) track, an undergraduate interdepartmental program that looks at current international issues, such as the social, political and environmental effects of World Bank and World Trade Organization policies. The problem is that IDS does not generate the research money and projects the university is looking for to build prestige and revenue, Muldavin’s student supporters said.

“They are determined to shut the program down,” said IDS lecturer George Leddy. “Josh‘s major concern is poor people in rural areas. UCLA would like to see international studies emphasizing trade. Their main goal is financial. They want to build big buildings and fund research. He is raining on their parade.”

Robert Buswell, interim vice provost for international studies and overseas programs, said he has no plans to shut down the program. “The program will go on regardless of whether this particular person stays or not.”

Tenure is the six-year review process by which new professors are offered lifetime employment. Critics say public universities such as UCLA have come to base tenure on research, with little emphasis on teaching.

“This issue is about the decline in quality of education at institutions of higher education overall, and the case of Muldavin is a microcosm of what is happening throughout the university system,” said Hindery. “As a public university, UCLA should be accountable to its students and taxpayers.”

Muldavin began teaching in UCLA’s department of geography in 1991. In 1994, as a junior faculty member, he took over as co-chairman of IDS. (Since then, the number of students taking IDS courses has increased from approximately 20 to 250.) In 1998, Muldavin won the Luckman Distinguished Teaching Award and the Eby Award for the Art of Teaching. That same year, he was UCLA‘s nominee for the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching’s U.S. Professors of the Year Award. He also has served as faculty-in-residence, counseling students on their careers, taking them on field trips and, in one instance, lobbying U.S. Representative Howard McKeon (R–Santa Clarita) for funding to organize a Chinese-film screening and symposium. His work has also appeared in dozens of peer-review journals, including that of the Association of American Geographers and Economic Geography.

Although hailed as “an extraordinarily valuable undergraduate program” in a 1999-2000 Academic Senate Review report, IDS has received very little money from its funding source, the social-science division of the College of Letters and Sciences. (The Academic Senate Review Committee, which evaluates interdepartmental programs every five years, is made up of academics from throughout the University of California system.) The report concluded that without adequate funding and administrative and professorial support, IDS will cease to exist. “If IDS ceases to exist, it signals a serious and embarrassing failure in our academic offerings to undergraduates,” said the report.

The report addressed the lack of research conducted by the program: “IDS has no organized research unit attached to it. This situation has perhaps contributed to its being treated as an administrative stepchild when funding issues have arisen.” It went on to praise Muldavin as “an astonishingly successful administrator” and questioned why the administration allowed the appointment of an assistant professor to run the program for six years. “This seems exploitive. It places at serious risk both the faculty member and the program he or she runs.”

Muldavin has until the end of June to plead his case to the chancellor, but a reversal is a long shot; according to Abrams, very few tenure denials are overturned. (Sixty to 100 professors annually apply for tenure; 90 percent are hired on, Abrams said.)

Students aren‘t giving up. This week they began a hunger strike outside the chancellor’s office to show their support for Muldavin.

“The students have something to lose,” said Leddy. “They thirst for a point of view that is critical. They crave professors like Muldavin.”

LA Weekly