Wednesday, February 8, 2012


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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A Case for Solidarity

I just finished Michele Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (New York: The New Press, 2011) which is an eye-opening account of how the American judicial system perpetuates racism. Few, if any, can read this book without feeling enraged at the systemic discrimination that targets people of color as criminals and puts them in a hard-to-break cycle of imprisonment, poverty and despair. In addition to shocking statistics and heart-wrenching examples, Alexander points to the use of “divide and conquer,” as a successful (elite) strategy for undermining opposition and thwart solidarity across color lines. Ever since Reconstruction, if not earlier, powerful interests have used “white supremacy” as a strategy for preventing poor and working class people from forming class based coalitions. Often in exchange of a few token privileges, poor whites have been encouraged to prioritize solidarity across race over solidarity across class.

So what, you may rightfully ask, does this have to do with academia and the CFA’s causes? At first glance it seems presumptuous, even absurd to compare the academic fight for self-governance with those over institutionalized racism because the material outcome is so different. Nevertheless, at the core, the two causes share a common denominator.

Much like poor whites, professors are encouraged to consider their allegiances to lie with the “managerial” classes and reject forming coalitions with colleagues of lower professional rank (i.e. instructional faculty, academic professionals and graduate students) and other workers on campus. Universities insist on keeping a distinction between non-tenure and tenure track faculty even if their educational background and job descriptions are the same, giving the latter a sense of “superiority.” In a recent article, AAPU President Cary Nelson proposes to grant all long-term college teachers tenure at the percentage appointments they currently have. (“From the President: Reforming Faculty Identity,” Academe Online, July-August, 2011). This, he convincingly argues, would lead to a better educational environment for students and professors alike. The fact that this would create a single class of tenure-track professors with common concerns and the power to challenge their employers is obviously not lost on university administrations. Thus, it is in the latter’s interest that the often arbitrary distinction between college teachers’ job classifications is kept intact and that the tenure-track individuals are flattered into considering themselves superior.

Ideally, our solidarity should reach beyond academia, to include workers of all ranks. In a recent issue of Journal of International Communication Victor Pickard warns us not to view educational labor issues too narrowly but to place them in their proper social political context and make the appropriate connections. There is no denying that tenured academics enjoy a relatively privileged lifestyle. Their salaries and benefits are (still) better than those of most workers, on campus or elsewhere, but they increasingly share the growing concerns over work-place issues, wages and benefits with other workers, be they white or blue collared. Although a professor might make far more than the office support staff, her work-related concerns are still far closer to that of the staff worker than to the top 1 percent of income earners in America. “What befalls public school teachers and public-sector unions seems distant from our daily routines. But we should see these conflicts as data points of a larger pattern: the systematic impoverishment of public services and civil society institutions in tandem with the bolstering of corporate power,” states Pickard.

Our capital is largely of cultural value which puts us in a unique situation. We can use our knowledge and skills as outreach tools – letting others know that we belong to the 99 percent of Americans who share a common concern over a long list of eroding social goods and services. Our work-related obligations might be different from those of grade school teachers, social workers and firefighters but that does not keep our jobs safe or our benefits protected. Efforts to “divided and conquer” must be rejected to ensure that we and the rest of the 99 percent stand a chance of saving civil society.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

SB 512 Threatens U of I Pensions

On Tuesday a state House committee approved a pensions bill which contains a number of measures which seriously downgrade the pensions of U of I faculty and other state employees. Among these are:

*Creating a three tier pension system at the U of I which would reduce benefits for new hires
*Increase pension deductions for U of I faculty from the current 8% to 15% as from 2013. This would apply to anyone who wants the present, defined benefit pension plan. This rate could go as high as 17% after 2017.

This is a major attack on public employee pensions and committee approval means the bill can now be voted on by both houses of the legislature. This could happen as soon as today. The State University Annuitants' Association (SUAA), the Illinois Federation of Teachers and the Illinois Education Association all oppose the bill. To read the SUAA press release on the bill click here. We urge you to contact your elected representative and make your voices heard.

Friday, November 4, 2011

A Story that Needs Changing

On Monday, October 24, the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory hosted “The Innovation Conspiracy: Ruin and Rebirth in The American University,” a lecture by Christopher Newfield, professor of English at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

Below is a post he has provided for the Campus Faculty Association Blog. His official blog can be found here.

"A Story that Needs Changing"

Public universities are being endangered by a false consensus about their problems and solutions. The consensus puts every academic activity in an austerity box, which makes it much harder for universities to imagine the educational upgrade our society and economy need.

I’ll offer two examples, and the first occurred last week in the Levis Faculty Center on the UI –Urbana campus. My comment here is not about what actually happened in the room. It is about the story arc that was pieced together by a reporter – I assume with impressive professional skill --from statements that seem to have been made.

On October 25th, the News-Gazette published an article about a faculty meeting with the new University of Illinois system president Michael Hogan. One goal was to discuss Hogan’s centralization plan, which would among other things create a single admissions system for the University’s three very different campuses – Urbana-Champaign, a mature and internationally distinguished public research university, Chicago, an important urban campus, and a regional campus at Springfield. It appeared that the enrollment centralization plan had not yet been presented to the chancellor of the Urbana campus or to faculty representatives. Faculty were worried that the plan was a done deal already decided by the new president and the Board of Trustees. The possible implications were clear: a major point of authority would be taken away from the campuses. Perhaps the Urban-Champaign campus would be leveled down by administrative means.

According to the story, when faculty expressed concerns about this lack of consultation, president Hogan asked if they wanted to go back to the days when UI was under investigation for corrupt admissions practices. He noted that state law “makes it perfectly clear the university is a single, common entity with a single seal, single president... single budget,” although, he conceded, the system has three “somewhat distinct campuses.” He added, “The president is the president.” When UI history professor Mark Steinberg told Hogan, “there’s a growing worry this is a board of trustees we have no influence over,” Hogan replied that the board is “incomparably better than its predecessors” and that they are engaging more with faculty than before. Hogan’s position appeared to be that the faculty had nothing to complain about, and that concerns about consultation could be laid to rest by invoking presidential authority.

At another point, Hogan noted that faculty would be asked to play a “big role” in identifying “programs that makes us distinctive and distinguished.” The reporter then cited Hogan saying that “this is a big university and it was built in an age of abundance . . . Now we’re living in an age of scarcity.” The faculty therefore would be helping the university “to decide whether it can afford to sustain all of its programs.”

The article does not mention anyone who described the practice and principles of shared governance at the University of Illinois. Nor does the article mention anyone that, on the question of academic programs, noted high rates of existing campus innovation or who called on the president and the Board to support upgrading educational quality.

Here we have a missing narrative, one that explains what has actually been going on in universities.

Faculty and staff struggle in a time of cuts to maintain quality, and students struggle to learn in larger classes with less help. Tuition goes up as public funding goes down, and yet, in this accurate story, faculty, staff, and students continue to innovate and try to upgrade with decreasing help from political, business, and academic leaders.

The News-Gazette article instead provided a familiar script. The presidential figure, Michael Hogan, affirms a constitutional basis for a unitary executive, places faculty outside of that, defines the era uniquely as a time of cuts, suggests that faculty had not sufficiently adapted to this plain reality, and defines their role as cutting their own programs. The narrative does not err by raising the issue of program changes, which would normally include elimination and consolidation. The problem is the false tale through which these changes are presented.

Here the executive is the bulwark against people who deny fiscal reality. Full governing partnership with the faculty would implicitly jeopardize this.

The News-Gazette article exists in ecology of such articles. The national discourse is the fuzzy sum of these inputs. As it happens, the next day the Los Angeles Times covered the new College Board report on tuition increases, where other standard elements were introduced. The headline was “California leads nation in escalation of college costs.” The piece began, “Steep funding cuts to higher education in California and elsewhere were significant factors in pushing average tuition and fees up 8.3% at four-year public colleges and universities nationwide this fall.” The causal claim here was explicit: states cut funding, and then universities raise tuition.

Lest readers believe that universities are being hurt by shortsighted legislators through no fault of their own, the narrative locates an expert named Patrick Callan, president of the Higher Education Policy Institute, a reputable think tank based in San Jose, California. Callan told the reporter that the real issue is cost containment: “Universities still resist efficiencies, especially in adopting new technology and persuading research faculty to teach more classes. `There is a real lack of serious attention to productivity and innovation,’ he said.”

This article offers an operative back-story that animates the conflict in the News Gazette narrative without being present in it.

The claim is that faculty and staff not only do not innovate but are opposed to innovation. Sadly, the innovations they oppose, according to this tale, are exactly the ones that would save money while at the same time, through higher teaching loads, help students. This narrative offers the back-story that explains why public universities now require the strong executive that Michael Hogan came to UI to be.

Taken together, these two newspaper articles reinforce the current consensus on public higher education. Here are its key elements, including several that are not part of these two particular articles:

• Everyone agrees that higher education is a private good.
• As a result public funding is never coming back.
• Therefore we must give up on that and orient public universities toward downsized programs, relentless cost cutting, and higher tuition.
• Faculty and staff will resist all of these, so a university’s senior managers must be given the authority to impose efficiencies.
• These efficiencies must be enforced through productivity assessment, including bibliometric analytics for faculty promotions, educational efficiency as measured by degree throughput, and other Taylorist practices.
• None of this hurts educational quality, which will instead improve through tougher management.

These elements form a vicious narrative cycle, and for decades it has had the real-world effect of reducing resources for public education relative to the private elites (p 237). Faculty members need to redouble their efforts to fix this narrative, for the sake of research and teaching alike.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Introducing Our New Blog Editor, Inger Stole

We are introducing a new blog editor, Inger Stole, who will be collaborating with Susan Davis in keeping us posted with CFA news.

Inger is a member of the CFA Communications Committee, and she not only has great ideas for writing about working and learning conditions at UIUC, but she’ll be doing interviews with faculty at unionized campuses.

Inger is Associate Professor of Communication at UIUC, and she is an expert on the history of advertising, war-time propaganda, and consumer culture. Welcome, Inger.

My past few days have been spent in the academic blogosphere where good news is a rarity, at best. Tales of expanded workloads, shrinking benefits, expanded class sizes, and elimination of “cost inefficient” courses and programs seem to dominate the discourse. All of these issues seem inter-linked in a race to the bottom for our working conditions and our students’ learning experiences. Demanding work conditions and stresses that traditionally have been part of adjunct professors’ burden are now trickling up to assistant professors. Those in more established careers have been less affected by the new “austerity measures” but we should not fool ourselves into thinking that tenure is a protection against future administrative quests for efficiency.

It is true that in Illinois, with its grievous economic situation, we never seem to be able to offset the dwindling income from state and federal sources. The administration is eager to show the Board of Trustees and Springfield that it CAN cut its way to a leaner University. The question is for whom and for what purpose. Programs that are less attractive to outside corporate funders are particularly affected by the ongoing “austerity measures” while the administration itself seems to have missed (or not read) its own memo about saving money.

As faculty members emphasized at the recent meeting with the President and Chancellor, many are frustrated by the lack of fiscal and decision-making transparency. We can only guess about the administration’s ultimate goals, but it looks as if the tough economic times have given it a golden opportunity to change the university’s future in much more privatized, corporate direction. Surely I am not alone is having noticed that no one from the administration promises better times, improved benefits, and better working conditions once the “economic crisis” is over. As Norman Denzin said at the faculty meeting, the administration offers no vision or dream for the public university, no big idea we can hang on to about education’s role in a good society. But I think we the faculty can offer one.

Only faculty, be they tenure track or non-tenure track, know what it is like to teach at this university. We are the closest to the students and their learning experience. It is up to us to push the academic administration to join a dialogue about public higher education and its future.

So, I hope this blog can be a place of meaningful discussion about learning and working at the UIUC, and what we can do to improve it. Techno-fixes in the form of “I-clickers” and other ways of digitally managing students are not the answer. Neither do we need to commission new (and costly) image campaigns. The people of Illinois already hold their public university in high esteem. Thus, we need to protect the institution and improve it through our own ways of taking back responsibility for its shape and direction, and make it financially affordable for students to attend.

What is happening in your school or department? What does that mean to your students? How would you improve it? What are you doing in the classroom or laboratory or community that helps your students learn, rather than merely pass assessments?

And specifically, I want to ask: what difference a union would make to faculty at all levels, and to the University as a whole?

Monday, October 24, 2011

Illinois Education Labor Relations Board Refuses UI's Application for a Stay

Big News from Chicago!

The Illinois Education Labor Relations Board (IELRB) last week refused the UI Administration’s request for a stay in collective bargaining and contract negotiations with UIC Faculty United, the Chicago campus union that was certified last spring.

The board wrote:

We find that granting a stay in this case would be contrary to the public policy that supports a duty to bargain. In addition, we find that there is not a reasonable likelihood that the Employer will succeed on the merits. Therefore, the Employer has not shown “good cause” for granting a stay.

Congratulations to all who are plugging away for a contract that includes tenure-track and non-tenure track faculty! This is really good news. There is a duty to bargain.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

What's Wrong with this Picture?

"What's Wrong with this Picture?" is one in a continuing series of posts about academic life. Here, from Claire Potter's wonderful blog for the Chronicle of Higher Education, is a description of the work life of a new, tenure track professor...somewhere in Missouri, we think. What's wrong with this picture?

It was my dream to get a tenure-track job. However, I am only in my second year in a humanities department and my dream has become a nightmare. The semester is not even half over and I am exhausted. My classes are over enrolled by about fifteen students. I am behind on my grading: last week my students asked when they would get their papers back and I heard myself saying that I had left them on a bus and that the Transit Authority Lost and Found was closed for Rosh Hashanah. I barely have time to review the reading I have assigned my students. Confession? Sometimes I don’t even read it.

Every time I think I have protected a little free time someone schedules a meeting: worse, our university now uses Meeting Maker, so I get an email informing me that a meeting has already been scheduled and I am expected to attend. Not infrequently, I have already made a plan for that time — seeing a students, meeting with a colleague — and that something has to be rescheduled into whatever diminishing time is left in the week.

I don’t have time to go to the gym, or to pack my own lunch — two things I swore I would do this fall to maintain my mental health and not gain back the weight I lost over the summer. I see talks and events come and go and don’t do any of them because I am already scheduled to do something else or I am so tired all I want to do is go home. Worse, I have so much to do that I am not sleeping well and I forget things constantly. Keeping up with my writing? Ha! I have deadlines coming due that I can’t even imagine I will keep.

My partner, who moved with me so I could take this job, seems to think I’m not much fun either. Help!

Wow. What's wrong with this picture?