Posts Tagged ‘faculty’

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Will colleges and universities reopen in the fall? That’s the question on the minds of many these days—administrators, faculty, staff, students, and their families, not to mention the communities in which they live.

All institutions of higher education (in the United States and in much of the rest of the world) had a difficult spring, having to close their campuses for in-person instruction (as well as many other activities, from athletics to study-abroad programs) in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic and resort to online classes. There wasn’t much advance notice or planning and, notwithstanding the heroic efforts of faculty and staff and the unequal means of students who found themselves back at home, the results were at best uneven and less than satisfactory.

Now, the question is, what will they do in the fall, while the pandemic continues to accumulate millions of cases and hundreds of thousands of deaths around the world?

California State University—the largest system of four-year higher education in the country, with 23 campuses, 53 thousand faculty and staff, and 482 thousand students—recently decided it will close all its campuses for in-person instruction this fall. Most other colleges and universities of which I am aware either have publicly announced their decisions to reopen in the fall or are expected to do so.

Purdue University and the University of Notre Dame (my former employer) are the latest to do so. Over the weekend, the presidents of both schools published opinion pieces (in the Washington Post and the New York Times, respectively) explaining and attempting to justify their decisions.

Purdue’s Mitch Daniels put it in terms of balancing the overwhelming student demand to return to campus—”the young people who are our reason for existing at all,” who supposedly are not at risk—and protecting the “unusually small minority” (of students, faculty, and staff) “who could be at genuinely serious risk.” Not to reopen, he asserted, “would be not only anti-scientific but also an unacceptable breach of duty.”

John I. Jenkins, speaking for Notre Dame, adopted a somewhat different stance, arguing that the decision to reopen the campus was based on both scientific and moral grounds. Following the science, he explained, would mean keeping “everyone away until an effective vaccine was universally available.” But, he added, relying on a selective reading of Aristotle, it is necessary for society “to bear burdens and take risks for the education and well-being of its young.”*

As readers can well imagine, both decisions were greeted with a great deal of skepticism and considerable criticism (as well as, to be clear, some tepid support). Here are some of the comments from both newspapers:

I can almost hear the dollar signs in his eyes

Immediate removal of this failed Presidential bid, incompetent Governor, who has no business to be the President of a university, should be demanded. This man is as bad or even worse than Trump. There is no place for a man like him in academia.

As a retired university professor, I am concerned about your ability to protect your faculty and staff. Undergrads as a group will have really good intentions, but that age group is not known for its ability to continuously focus on the well being of others. And there appears to be a such a large percentage of asymptomatic carriers that even with extensive testing it will be difficult to keep faculty/staff exposure to a minimum. I wish you all good luck.

I don’t hear any real consideration here of the faculty and staff who are at much greater risk as a cohort than students. What considerations were given to the “least among us?” –to evoke a resonant Christian theme — the elder faculty and staff, the hourly wage workers, those who have pre-existing conditions or care for those with these conditions, who work at the university. I think morality in this case is a bit more complicated than Rev Jenkins wants to have it here. Luck of the Irish to you!

The only way morality has anything to do with the health of college students on campus from an administrative perspective is whether you value money over lives. Schools are not going to be prepared to open in the Fall unless a vaccine or a universally effective cure is miraculously developed before then.

And that’s true across the country. I’ve been in touch with lots of university and college professors and staff members, including former colleagues, and there is a great deal of concern—from hesitation to resentment—about reopening campuses in the fall. Part of the reaction is certainly about health and safety, for members of the university of community as well as the people who live and work in the environs of those campuses (since both students and employees spend a lot of time off campus). It is likely that many of those campuses will become new hotspots, like meatpacking plants and nursing homes, for COVID-19. A second reaction concerns the amount of extra work that will be imposed on campus workers—from faculty through administrative assistants to cleaning staff—at the same time as they have faced furloughs, lowered pay, and cuts to their retirement benefits.

The problem they face is they’re not just there to assist young people to get a college education; they’re working in what I have called (since 2010) the new corporate university.

That university, and not the one portrayed in the public relations copy proffered by Daniels, Jenkins, and other academic executives, is a site for the production of commodities. Many different commodities, in both private and public institutions. Yes, they produce and sell the education commodity to students. But they also offer for sale plenty of other commodities: room and board, NCAA athletic performances, venues for special events, trinkets and apparel with protected logos, patents and royalties. They are also the site of funded research (from both public and private sources) and financial investments, as well as the source of paid consultants (especially in economics).

And, of course, the tail of other activities often wags the dog of undergraduate education, the ostensible reason for reopening offered by Daniels and Jenkins. Unless they reopen the campus for in-person classes, then there won’t be athletic competitions, especially football and basketball. And no revenues from housing and feeding the students or sending them abroad. Plus, if they don’t reopen for teaching, venues won’t be made available for renting for special events. And so on and so forth.

That’s not to say real, valuable intellectual and pedagogical work isn’t being conducted on college and university campuses. It is, at least to some extent, as I learned from almost four decades of teaching on and speaking at college and university campuses. But it does put the decision to reopen campuses in a new light. What’s at stake is the production of those commodities, and the revenues associated with them, and the way those commodities are produced.

As I recently wrote to some former colleagues, who were discussing the university’s announcement of the decision to reopen, which was communicated to faculty, staff, and students at the same time,

Dear friends, former colleagues among the faculty and staff, I don’t envy you. More is being demanded of you, under precarious conditions, and yet you’re only finding out what you’ll be up against with general edicts from on high. Many of you have voiced concerns, and then one or another on the inside steps up to assure you that the issue has indeed been discussed. 

Permit me, if you will, to state the obvious: There are real health and safety issues with the reopening plan. There are also real employment and other economic issues. But what I’m hearing (reading) is, in the end, there’s a real governance issue. “They” discuss the issues, with all good intentions, and “you” have to figure out a way of working with what “they” have decided.

That’s no way for a university to operate, even during a period of exception—when, of course, such issues become even more acute, and the consequences even more serious. 

I wish you all the best of luck,

The fact is, on most campuses with which I am familiar, the decision to reopen the university was made by administrators and then communicated to others, who are then forced to take on the tasks (often in addition to their normal activities) necessary to carry out those decisions. Yes, along the way, there may have been some consultation but the decision-making power rests in just a few hands.

That’s the way the new corporate university functions. “We” (the university faculty) work for “them.” It wasn’t that way when I first started as a professor, when faculty governance was the norm. I worked in an institution with at least some degree of governance by those who did the work (although, to be honest, the staff were mostly left out, which led to union-organizing efforts).

Now, that’s no longer the case at most colleges and universities. So, the decision to return to producing the various commodities offered by institutions of higher education is taken by the administrators and trustees, and then carried out by others, who played no role in actually making the decisions. And, as I wrote to my former colleagues, those decisions during this “period of exception” have even more serious consequences for all concerned, on and off campus.

That’s exactly why the decision of whether or not to reopen college and university campuses in the fall can’t be left solely to those currently in charge. It needs to be a collective decision. Not to move in that direction is an “unacceptable breach of duty” and a “timidity” that undermines the idea of the university.

 

*As one of my former colleagues (a philosophy professor) explained, Jenkins claimed the higher moral ground for his position, but, by Aristotle’s reasoning, the case may be the exact reverse. Here are a couple of quotes Jenkins didn’t include: “the man who exceeds in confidence about what is really terrible is rash” (NE 1115b27-28), and “but even death, we should hold, does not in all circumstances give an opportunity for courage: for instance we do not call a man courageous for facing death by drowning or disease” (NE 1115a). So, instead of accusing the “other” position of being morally deficient, and engaging in rhetorical grandstanding, the only option available is to work out, much more humbly, what would be possible in the current circumstances, and to proceed gradually and with great caution, as more information and resources become available.

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Academic freedom is under assault within the new corporate university.

No, the problem is not the much-publicized kerfuffle surrounding recent talks by Charles Murray and other right-wing speakers on U.S. college campuses. That’s what students do: they try to be provocative. Small conservative student groups, emboldened by Donald Trump’s victory and with financing from off-campus groups, invite incendiary speakers to their campuses—and then other students protest those visits. It’s much ado about nothing, except of course when official academic units and administrators lend their names to the invitations and events.

The most disturbing challenge to academic freedom right now is something else: the unilateral decisions by academic administrators to curtail the speech of faculty members.

Just yesterday morning, the Washington Post reported that two professors were fired for expressing controversial views. One, at the University of Delaware, was an adjunct professor who suggested that Otto Warmbier, the American student whose death last week after being imprisoned in North Korea drew worldwide attention, was a “clueless white male” who “got exactly what he deserved.” Another adjunct professor, at Essex County College in Newark, was first suspended and then fired for defending a Black Lives Matter chapter’s decision to host a Memorial Day event exclusively for black people.

In both instances, adjunct professors—who, with other other members of the academic precariat, now make up close to two-thirds of the faculty employed in U.S. colleges and universities—were fired for making public comments academic administrators deemed unsuitable.

And then there’s the case of a tenured professor in the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s [ht: mfa] History Department who found out that his dean made his chair cancel a class he had been scheduled to teach.

It so happens that [Jay] Smith’s class dealt with a topic that unsettled powerful forces on campus: the place of “big-time athletics” in higher education. This issue is a sore spot for UNC-Chapel Hill, which is still recovering from a major “athletics-academics” scandal first revealed several years ago—about which, it so happens, Smith had been particularly outspoken.

In the new academy, faculty governance has been replaced by top-down decision-making and academic administrators treat everything—from employment contracts to course offerings—just like the executives of any other corporation. If they add to the bottom-line, faculty members are rewarded; if they don’t, contracts are terminated and courses are cancelled.

That’s how the new corporate university operates in the United States. It’s not student protests but academic administrators that are creating a chilling effect, by circumscribing faculty speech and ultimately undermining academic freedom.

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As we know, the share of part-time faculty in U.S. higher education has increased dramatically over the past four decades.

According to the latest report from the American Association of University Professors (pdf),

Part-time faculty today comprise approximately 40 percent of the academic labor force, a slightly larger share than tenured and tenure-track faculty combined.

While the category of part-time faculty includes professors temporarily teaching on a percentage basis—professors on phased retirement who teach one or two courses at a reduced rate, new assistant professors who are teaching part-time while finishing a dissertation, and others—the vast majority (91 percent) teach on a per-section basis.

The AAUP estimates that, in 2016–17, part-time faculty members teaching on a per-section basis earned a total of $7,066, on average, from a single institution. Moreover,

Most institutions avoid providing benefits to part-time faculty by prohibiting them from teaching more than two or three courses in a semester. The average pay from a single institution for part-time faculty teaching on a per-section basis is well below the federal poverty line of $16,240 for a family of two. Even if we assume that a part-time faculty member teaches three courses at one institution and three at another, the earnings from those courses would still likely place him or her near the poverty line.

Part-time faculty are the working poor who today walk the supposedly hallowed halls of the academy.

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A recent report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland shines a light on the changing makeup of employees in the new corporate university.

It shows, for example, that the percentage of employees who are faculty members has been in consistent decline since 1987 (and is now below 60 percent), while the percentage of the part-time employees who are faculty members has been on the rise (and is now about 70 percent). And while the percentage of employees who are management has not appreciably changed since the late-1980s, the category of “other professionals” (of which a large share consists of individuals who work in business and financial operations) is now equal to the share of full-time employees who are faculty members.

What we’re seeing, then, is a fundamental change in the nature of the university, based on “a growth of amenities and other programs outside of the teaching and research that have been the traditional focus of colleges and universities.”

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Lisa Liberty Becker is absolutely right: there’s something seriously wrong with a university system that has “gone the way of Walmart,”

profiting from the continued manipulation of the lowest rung. However, these customers aren’t shopping for $2 T-shirts but for an education. You can give that lowest rung more pay and say it’s better than nothing, but a 50 percent raise on low pay still equals low pay, and one-year contracts don’t provide stability. These conditions affect the courses that college students and their parents pay huge bucks for, thanks to astronomical tuition rates now averaging $35,000. For one of the courses I taught last spring, the school collected $105,000 in student tuition — more than 16 times what I was paid to teach said class.

Adjunct professors across the country—who make up almost three quarters of college and university classroom teachers in the United States—have responded by forming unions and collectively bargaining for contracts, to increase their pay and to obtain longer contracts.

That’s a start. But, Becker is correct, it’s not enough.

I respect those speaking up against university administrations when administrators have so little respect for them, and their union wins are certainly moral victories. However, the cracked framework of the college system persists even after these protests end and union contracts are ratified, and administrators continue to fill adjunct spots with little difficulty.

The problem, as adjunct and tenure-track faculty both know, is the rise of the corporate university, which is governed by boards of directors, run by CEOs, and has all but eliminated faculty governance.

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The “drown the bunnies” scandal at Mount St. Mary’s University has opened a debate about the growing role of college and university presidents who come from outside the academy, especially the business world.*

The problem is, only one participant in the debate, Shelly Weiss Storbeck, even raised the issue of governance. As I see it, the challenge facing colleges and universities is not where their presidents come from but how the institution itself is organized and governed. Without faculty governance—or, in Storbeck’s phrasing, “shared governance”—trustees will hire presidents who govern by decree in order to create and reinforce the corporate university. Then, students will be treated as customers, as passive recipients of an increasingly costly (and debt-accumulating) education, and the members of the faculty will be treated as employees, who in a pact with the devil will be paid to teach and conduct research and stay out of the key decisions facing the institution.

A good example of the real problem is James Ramsey, president of the University of Louisville. Ramsey is an economist, not a business leader, who taught at five different universities before being hired as president in 2002. But he has presided over an escalating number of scandals that, while they’re not as dramatic as putting a Glock to the heads of underperforming students, run from hiring and protecting top administrators who embezzled or otherwise misused federal funds through refusing to submit conflict-of-interest forms and yet offering university contracts to friends to sponsoring a basketball program that supplied dancers and prostitutes to basketball players and recruits (not to mention throwing a Mexican-themed Halloween party, replete with stereotypical sombreros and mustaches).

Both Mountain St. Mary’s Simon Newman and Ramsey, like many other college and university presidents, became embroiled in such scandals not because they came from outside the academy, but because faculty governance in the new corporate university has been undermined to the point where it barely exists. Increasingly, trustees and academic administrators make the key decisions and everyone else, including the faculty, is supposed to follow along and just do their jobs as corporate employees.

The problem, in other words, is the corporate model. We know it’s an undemocratic way of organizing enterprises in any sector of the economy. And it’s certainly an undemocratic way of governing the academy, where the main goals are critical thinking and creating an environment in which students and faculty can work together to produce a high-quality education.

 

*According to a 2012 report from the American Council on Education, “the share of presidents whose immediate prior position was outside higher education has increased since 2006, from 13 percent to 20 percent. Much of this growth occurred in the private sector, both nonprofit and for-profit.”

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If there’s one area that isn’t contributing to higher college costs and historic levels of student debt, it’s faculty salaries—especially the pay received by adjunct professors.

According to Caroline Fredrickson,

In 1969, almost 80 percent of college faculty members were tenure or tenure track. Today, the numbers have essentially flipped, with two-thirds of faculty now non-tenure and half of those working only part-time, often with several different teaching jobs. . .

To say that these are low-wage jobs is an understatement. Based on data from the American Community Survey, 31 percent of part-time faculty are living near or below the federal poverty line. And, according to the UC Berkeley Labor Center, one in four families of part-time faculty are enrolled in at least one public assistance program like food stamps and Medicaid or qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit. Known as the “Homeless Prof,” Mary-Faith Cerasoli teaches romance languages and prepares her courses in friends’ apartments when she can crash on a couch, or in her car when the friends can’t take her in. When a student asked to meet with her during office hours, she responded, “Sure, it’s the Pontiac Vibe parked on Stewart Avenue.”

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Many faculty members in Texas are opposed to SB 11, also known as the “campus carry” law [ht: sm]. The law, which was signed in June by Texas Governor Greg Abbott, provides that license holders may carry concealed handguns in university buildings and classrooms, extending the reach of a previous law that allowed concealed handguns on university grounds.

One of them has now taken his opposition to the law a step further.

A longtime economics professor at the University of Texas at Austin is leaving the school, saying  the state’s new campus carry law — which makes it legal for some Texans to carry concealed handguns into college classrooms beginning next August — has “substantially enhanced” the chances of a shooting.

“With a huge group of students my perception is that the risk that a disgruntled student might bring a gun into the classroom and start shooting at me has been substantially enhanced by the concealed-carry law,” economics professor emeritus Daniel Hamermesh, who has been at UT since the mid-90s, wrote in a letter announcing his departure. “Out of self-protection I have chosen to spend part of next Fall at the University of Sydney, where, among other things, this risk seems lower.”