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Friday, December 26, 2014

Friday, December 26, 2014
I'm sure 2014 in higher ed was different from 2013, but right off I can't think of how.  The nation continued its permanent public university austerity program, encouraged flimsy hopes for ed-tech rescues, conducted long political arguments over possible 2-percent revenue increases, fantasized about self-unbundling into flexi-modularity, and proclaimed indignant doubts about the educational value of going to college at all.  So what was new? Even my biggest stayed the same, which I called the "hardening of the downward definition of public higher education through budgetary means, with no public debate."  

Cheer up, I said to myself--it's the holidays! Santa Barbara's one day of winter rain has already come and gone. Some new things did happen in 2014 higher ed, and some of them were good.

1. The College Liberation Movement.  The splashy version came from some Ivy League humanist dissidents who described elite private universities as sorting machines for those reared to rule our newly post-middle class society.   There was the "excellent sheep" debate, started by William Deresiewicz's July article, "Don't Send Your Kid to the Ivy League" and carried on in his book, Excellent Sheep, sustained by attacks on him by Jim Sleeper among others, and brought in quieter form to the big screen by the film Ivory Tower.   

Dr. Deresiewicz drew a sharp line between what happens at places like Yale, described as training in "the analytic and rhetorical skills that are necessary for success in business and the professions," and actually learning how to think.  However one felt about the details, the discussion put the humanistic goal of personal development at the center of the college agenda.  It cut against the naïve vocationalism that has justified corporate reach-ins to core educational functions. It clarified that colleges must do what businesses cannot do, according to their own vision and expertise.

I have my quarrels with this Ivy humanism, starting with my dislike for the overdrawn contrast between liberal and practical arts.  I think that the systematic inculcation of deep skills are next on the to-do list of public universities.  But higher ed leaders have so completely lost confidence in the special powers of higher learning that they needed every kind of explanation of why teaching is not a business.  

2. A New Deal for Faculty Governance.  When the chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign announced that she was pocket vetoing the appointment of Steven Salaita to a professorship that had been approved by every campus agency, she awakened the closest thing to a national faculty outcry that the country had seen in years.  Prof. Salaita remains in limbo, and governance procedures have not been fixed.  But I don't know a single faculty member who isn't now aware of the fall of the faculty, having in 2014 seen faculty be overridden in a main area of authority.   The premature MOOC contracting of  2013 showed admin to be as ready to redesign the curriculum as it is to make all financial decisions on its own. Many faculty who weren't worried about MOOC-mediated governance got worried about the suspension of hiring protocols by senior managers under donor pressure.  

Other kinds of encroachments also got faculty attention.  The newly-hatched Board of Trustees for the University of Oregon planned to write the faculty senate out of the university's new constitution, with the effect of "relegat[ing] university stakeholders to supplicants." Faculty generated an imposing counterattack.  We learned all over again that faculty bodies, once awakened, have more than enough brains at their disposal to stop any train that "has already left the station."

3. Fixing Women's Student Experience.   Even the federal government got involved with the question of what campuses are or aren't doing about sexual assault.  It was impossible to ignore the issue of inadequate protection for victims while pondering  Columbia student Emma Sulkowicz's "carry that weight" thesis project, in which she has carried a mattress with her everywhere on campus until her alleged assailant is no longer at Columbia. (Thank you Gawker for telling us that the alleged assailant is a feminist.)  The Chronicle of Higher Education had a huge spread about "alcohol's hold on campus" ( as in "A River of Booze"), and what it lacked in news value (did you know that some college students drink too much??) it made up in expressing general worry that academics are getting lost in a labyrinth of peripheral activities. Concern about the welfare of women was strong enough to prompt coverage of a study showing that college women are raped less often than non-college women of the same age, which helped embed the campus problem in a wider national context.  Rolling Stone's partial retraction of its "bombshell article" about a alleged gang rape at a University of Virginia frat house did not produce a chorus of triumphant claims that sexual assault is a phony problem.  This year, colleges en masse started to confront women's continuing--if not escalating--physical and psychological insecurity, and the national coverage was a major reason.

4. Contingent Faculty Come in from the Cold.  In early 2013 I wasn't picturing the adjunct faculty group New Faculty Majority appearing before Congress to describe academia's faculty labor problems, but it happened in November of that year, and the momentum carried into 2014.  We're finally seeing proposed legislation requiring colleges to report on their use of part time and non-tenure track instructors.  Adjunct faculty also won an case about their free speech rights and had their status considered in a student debt forgiveness proposal.  They have in general, because of the work of Prof. Maisto and many others, become a major presence in discussions of the future of higher ed.  

Writing in this space, Jennifer Ruth raised the issue of tenure-track faculty complicity in creating a disposable workforce, and named some necessary costs of reversing the trend.  2014 brought unprecedented public awareness of the overuse of contingent faculty and of the shame of their exploitation.  This has already meant increased interest in tenure-track -- non-tenure track (NTT) alliances.  This would improve NTT conditions and reduce the divisions within the faculty that have empowered administrations at faculty expense. Awareness of these possibilities is deeper than it was just a year ago.

 5. The Rise of Educational Quality.  In 2014, student debt hit the wall. The usual justifications of this destructive kludge of a funding strategy are yielding diminishing returns with students along with everyone else.  Adding to the pressure, "the debt is too damn high" was joined by another theme, "debt for what"? Students at the UC Regents meeting in November were eloquent on the subject of the shrinking educational benefits of attending UC that they traced directly to  budgetary "efficiencies" like giant lectures, mechanized grading, and near-zero rates of individual attention.  "We want classes.  We want professors," UC's student regent felt the need to explain to Governor Jerry Brown.   State funding will stay flat without a big push, and detailing the sources and costs of quality education could give state governments their first concrete--and politically charged--reason to reverse years of funding cuts.

I never tire of pointing out that the only reason for the existence of public universities is mass quality--mass access to top quality teaching and cutting-edge research--that puts regular folks on the level where they can genuinely match elites. It's not too soon for faculty to join students in putting the quality back in mass quality, while creating news kinds of quality to reflect on current conditions.  The success students had this year in holding off major politicians like Jerry Brown--and in getting cited in revenue arguments by governing boards--signaled to at least some faculty that it's time to step up. 

6.  Relinking Student Protests and Social Movements.  The biggest recent domestic news has been the protests of the non-indictment of police officers who had killed unarmed Black men, particularly in the cases of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO and Eric Garner in New York City.  The "Hands Up Don't Shoot" and "I Can't Breathe" protests overlapped with various campus struggles about funding, tuition, debt, diversity, free speech, campus policing, the morale of students of color, and other issues.  These intersecting protests linked the public university to the postwar period of its major development, when society could imagine colleges as offering knowledge for the satisfaction of broad social needs.  In contrast to the narrower mission of serving technology industries, which now seems to many, as the middle classes stagnate, to be just one more way to enrich the rich, the classic social movements increased both the social influence of the university and the quality of its knowledge.  1950s and 1960s voters rewarded universities for this pertinence before conservative elites punished them for it.  The university's golden age and the civil rights movement had different origins but symbiotic aspirations.  This year, parallels among student and non-student movements pointed towards a better common destiny.  

One thing about 2014 was the same as previous years.  I loved the basics of the job-- the research, the teaching, and the learning with colleagues and students. My UCSB students were wonderful. They came through bouts of overpolicing, a mass murder, and ever-mounting levels of background stress; they wrote great crime stories in the detective fiction lecture I just finished, and had all sorts of ideas for educational upgrades that will continue next year.  

In the meantime, many thanks from us for reading Remaking the University this year, and warm wishes for the rest of the holidays. 

Monday, December 8, 2014

Monday, December 8, 2014
 by Matthew Dennis, Professor of History and Environmental Studies, University of Oregon

After a year of negotiations, the Graduate Teaching Fellowship Federation (GTFF) at the University of Oregon went on strike last week over the University's refusal to grant two weeks of automatically granted sick leave for illness or childbirth.  Kaitlin Mulhere has a good overview at "Inside Higher Ed." UO's faculty senate passed a resolution criticizing the administration's handling of the strike, focusing in part on admin's plan to bypass TA grading   in a way that would weaken academic standards "by administrative fiat."  The UO faculty senate is now investigating this issue. The grad strike coincides with a conflict between UO faculty and its Board of Trustees (pictured above) over faculty governance. The Board is planning to change 70 policies at its meeting this week, and some major changes in the UO Constitution have been proposed by the Board chair.  These and other issues are well-covered by the UO Matters blog, where their scanner processes official documents 24 hours a day.

UO professor Matt Dennis wrote an op-ed for the Eugene newspaper that lays out the issues. His letter to his students is below, in which he makes institutional issues part of his students' overall education.

Dear Students,

The Graduate Teaching Fellows union (GTFF) has declared its intention to go out on strike next week, on Tuesday December 2. I’m writing to you now to explain how this will affect History 201. The GTFF and the UO administration’s labor representatives have been in negotiations since last November (2013) and have hit an impasse. The GFTF has made a number of reasonable demands, which the administration seems unwilling to grant. As a result the GTFs have chosen to use the only real leverage they possess—to withhold their labor. Strikes are disruptive—that’s their point. We notice the critical contribution that the strikers—our GTFs—make to our educational lives, and we hope that the administration quickly realizes that as well and settles their conflict with the GTFF. It’s impossible to predict, however, how long the strike will continue.

Some will blame the GTFF for this disruption in undergraduate teaching, but the administration bears considerable blame for its unwillingness to compromise. They have likely spent more in their prolonged negotiations with the GTFF than it would have cost to fund the GTFF’s requested two-week sick leave policy. And it will cost much more to hire replacement workers to circumvent the strike. My personal opinion is that this approach is ill advised, counterproductive, irresponsible, and needlessly expensive. Though the central administration represents itself as “the university,” in fact the heart of the university is its students (undergraduate and graduate), faculty, and staff—most of whom have not had any say in the negotiations, even though we have the most at stake.

The administration seems willing to compromise the academic integrity of the university in the interest of “continuity.” I am not. It has recommended a number of “options” to work around the strike, including hiring others to grade your work, even suggesting advanced undergraduates, canceling exams and other assignments, transforming exams into multiple choice tests, or simply grading students on the work already performed. In History 201 this would entail abandoning the syllabus (my contract with you), and awarding final grades based on some 55 percent of the graded work completed so far. Because this course is designed to reach a large number of students—over 100—and because my other responsibilities already demand 100 percent of my time, I am not able to grade your work myself. But, on professional and moral grounds, I would not do so in any case. Your GTFs have done a terrific job, worked with you closely, and know you and are in a position to judiciously evaluate your performance. Under present circumstances I cannot do as well--as well as you deserve. Nor will I undermine their efforts to get a just contract. I will not work as a strikebreaker or “scab.”

Where does that leave us in History 201? The exam you took last Tuesday, November 25 (20 percent of your grade) is not yet graded, but it should be evaluated, and your grade on it should be counted in the calculation of your final grade. As should your final exam. Next
week, during the strike, I will deliver my final two lectures in the course as scheduled. The
discussion section meetings taught normally by GTFs, scheduled for week 10, will be
cancelled. The final exam (25 percent of your grade) will occur as scheduled on Tuesday,
December 9 at 8:00 a.m. I will proctor the exam myself and collect your examination books,
but the exams will remain ungraded until the strike is settled and the GTFs are able to grade them. Thus, if the strike extends into finals week or beyond, you will not receive a grade in History 201. Under these circumstances, with so much of your work ungraded, I am unable to file any grades ethically, responsibly, or fairly.

It’s possible that a representative of the administration might decide that filing grades—even indiscriminate ones—is more important than insuring the integrity and justness of such grades. Communications from the administration have suggested that in some cases it might usurp the role of “instructor of record” and file grades themselves. Such a move would be arbitrary and capricious, and a fundamental violation of academic freedom, but it could occur nonetheless. I certainly hope that this does not happen, and that the strike is quickly settled, that the administration treats you equitably and with the respect you merit, and that this mishandling of negotiations with the GTFFs doesn’t damage the integrity and reputation of the University of Oregon we have worked so hard to sustain.

You may be concerned about how all this will affect your academic progress or financial aid. I am empathetic. These are important administrative matters, requiring administrative fixes in these extraordinary circumstances. I encourage you to contact the administration, which should be able to find workable administrative solutions that do not compromise the
academic integrity of the university. It’s their responsibility—and it’s in their interest as well as yours—to ensure your ongoing eligibility for financial aid.

I will see you all next week and answer any questions you have then. I hope in the meantime that you have a nice Thanksgiving holiday and that somehow the strike is averted.

best wishes,

Matthew Dennis,
Professor of History and Environmental Studies
History 201

Chris here: this is the strike resolution letter, posted at UO Matters