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.