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Tag: "academia"

The Real Power of the University

[ 32 ] August 25, 2014 |

In the corporate university, money is what counts. Without public support, universities have become captured by the wealthy donors and corporations who fund them. This is a major contributor to the shunning of majors like German and Philosophy (and to a slightly lesser but still significant extent, History) that means advisers receiving word from high to encourage students not to sign up for those majors, cutting positions, even retrenching departments. To replace them, Supply Chain Management* and other majors that train people to be functionaries of 21st century capitalism without providing them any sort of broad-based liberal arts education or critical thinking.

As the corporations capture the universities, it’s hardly surprising then that the university would begin following the free speech patterns of the corporation, i.e., none for employees. See the case of one Salaita, Stephen:

While many of the emails are fairly similar, some stand out. For instance, there is an email from Travis Smith, senior director of development for the University of Illinois Foundation, to Wise, with copies to Molly Tracy, who is in charge of fund-raising for engineering programs, and Dan C. Peterson, vice chancellor for institutional advancement. The email forwards a letter complaining about the Salaita hire. The email from Smith says: “Dan, Molly, and I have just discussed this and believe you need to [redacted].” (The blacked out portion suggests a phrase is missing, not just a word or two.)

Later emails show Wise and her development team trying to set up a time to discuss the matter, although there is no indication of what was decided.

At least one email the chancellor received was from someone who identified himself as a major donor who said that he would stop giving if Salaita were hired. “Having been a multiple 6 figure donor to Illinois over the years I know our support is ending as we vehemently disagree with the approach this individual espouses. This is doubly unfortunate for the school as we have been blessed in our careers and have accumulated quite a balance sheet over my 35 year career,” the email says.

There is no indication that Wise based her decision on the fund-raising issues, only that these topics were raised in communications to her. A spokeswoman for Illinois said via email that the chancellor receives many suggestions about many issues. She said that she didn’t know if the chancellor met with foundation officials about Salaita but said that the rationale behind the chancellor’s decision was the one she discussed in the email to the campus.

This is the future. If you threaten the beliefs of the fundraisers, you are fired. If you shine a bad light on the university administrators seeking to move up the food chain to ever more lucrative positions, bye-bye. If you dissent from the left, I hope you enjoy the Daniel Payne method of survival on the street. Right now, Stephen Salaita has no job and no money. It’s a dark world out there right now for academics, as free speech and academic freedom decline to their lowest levels in at least 60 years.

* Or as I like to call it, How to Exploit Bangladeshis.

Salaita Update

[ 51 ] August 23, 2014 |

Sadly, the University of Illinois, after two meetings of the Board of Trustees, has decided to stick with the firing of Stephen Salaita for his anti-Israel war on Gaza positions as stated on Twitter. We’ve had several posts here about this case and as we’ve expressed, this is an outrageous attack on the free speech of academics. To fire professors for their speech is a throwback to the bad old days of the Red Scare when professors were fired for not supporting the U.S. effort in World War I. The corporatization of the university continues apace, where employees are canned for not holding to the official corporate political line or speaking their own mind in a way that might bring unwanted attention to the school, even though in the case of Salaita, it’s not like there was even a coordinated effort against him from right-wingers. Sadly, it was other pro-Israel academics like Cary Nelson who brought him down.

In the recent past, there have been real victories when universities have tried to crack down on free speech. The case against myself is one example. I fear this is the beginning of the rolling back of those victories.

Right now, the biggest thing you can do is sign the general academic petition to demand Salaita’s reinstatement and to boycott the University of Illinois until they do so. Corey Robin has been the biggest promoter of the cause and his blog also has links to all the field-specific petitions, useful because our readers come from so many academic fields. Regardless of what you think about Salaita’s statements on Gaza, I urge all you academics to sign this petition because you are next. Or I am next. Or someone you know is next. And each and every time it creates a McCarthy-like atmosphere on our campuses that reduces the intellectual experiences of our students and depresses the freedoms of us all.

Lessons of Salaita

[ 116 ] August 21, 2014 |

Why have we seen a recent crackdown on academic freedom and freedom of speech against academics, whether Stephen Salaita or myself? The answer is that administrators are scared of controversy. It reminds me of World War I, when U.S. entry and the following Red Scare led to the firing of many academics. We are reaching a point where academics are increasingly unable to take controversial positions at the peril of their employment. But one key difference between the two periods is that while the earlier attacks on academic freedom were coming from leading politicians and major power players, what has happened to Salaita is that he made upper University of Illinois administrators worried about how he would reflect upon them. Modern university administrations do not operate to serve students or education. They exist primarily to send administrators farther up the administrative totem pole, whether at the current institution or at another. How do you rise up that food chain? You cut funding for liberal arts and humanities. You reorient resources to big rethinkings of some part of the university you can put on your c.v., even though they will never be implemented. You convince rich donors to give money to build a nice building for the departments and programs you care about, like business. You move resources toward whatever is going to serve your personal future and away from the core mission of the university. You denigrate any majors that rich donors don’t see as valuable or that you can’t fundraise from. If you can, you even retrench faculty, sending 50 year old professors of German and Philosophy who have been at your school for 20 years onto the street.

What you don’t do is have employees say things that might attract attention. For a long time, people said we needed to run our colleges and universities like corporations. And now we are and people like Salaita have no room in the corporate university. Like corporations, the executive class serves itself, not the employees or the students/clients. What happened to me and what happened to Salaita are examples of that. In the linked piece above, I thought this was fairly heartbreaking:

I worry that a lot of academics will decide it’s the latter, and that the only safe path for them is to stay out of the limelight. I’ve seen scholars face this question before, and retreat in order to preserve their careers—a decision I cannot fault. A few weeks ago, for example, an untenured friend of mine noted a powerful link between current events and her field of expertise. She’s a brilliant scholar and great writer, so I encouraged her to write about it. It would have been a great essay, one easily pitched to major publications. It would have helped to shape our understanding of the world in which we live. It was also political in nature.

When she ran the idea by her dean, he said that while he supported her writing about public issues in theory, he wouldn’t necessarily support an opinion piece. He said faculty members must remember that their institution will be judged by statements they make in public. My friend took this as a sign that she risked not getting tenure if she took a controversial stance in public. She didn’t write the essay.

This is bad for my friend’s institution and bad for her. Her small college loses the opportunity to demonstrate the expertise of its faculty members in a responsible way. And she not only has an idea she can’t express, she loses the chance to be read by thousands of people, an experience that most academics never get.

Of course the dean told her not to write it. What if it reflected poorly on him? And because she is an assistant professor, she can’t buck him. Or I mean, she could but there’s a risk there. And so the public discourse is denied a valuable voice and the ability for academics to connect with the broader public–something administrators always say they want but which they really don’t unless it is the business faculty working with local corporations or some such thing–is cut off.

Good Job University of Miami

[ 38 ] July 14, 2014 |

The University of Miami for the win, if by win you mean destroying the planet:

One of the world’s rarest forests, a section of Miami-Dade County’s last intact tracts of endangered pine rockland, is getting a new resident: a Walmart.

About 88 acres of rockland, a globally imperiled habitat containing a menagerie of plants, animals and insects found no place else, was sold this month by the University of Miami to a Palm Beach County developer. To secure permission for the 158,000-square-foot box store, plus an LA Fitness center, Chik-fil-A and Chili’s restaurants and about 900 apartments, the university and the developer, Ram, agreed to set aside 40 acres for a preserve.

Ram also plans to develop 35 adjacent acres still owned by the university.

But with less than 2 percent of the vast savanna that once covered South Florida’s spiny ridge remaining, the deal has left environmentalists and biologists scratching their heads.

“You wonder how things end up being endangered? This is how. This is bad policy and bad enforcement. And shame on UM,” said attorney Dennis Olle, a board member of Tropical Audubon and the North American Butterfly Association, who wrote to Florida’s lead federal wildlife agent Friday demanding an investigation.

The university said in a statement that it is committed to protecting the forests — only about 2,900 acres of rockland are left outside Everglades National Park — and helped execute plans for the preserve, but would not respond to questions.

I mean, sure we are committed to saving the rockland in the sense that we will sell for the 1,000,000th Wal-Mart in this country and turn it into cash we can then concentrate in improving the salaries of our most administrators. That is what America is all about, destroying rare ecosystems to buy ivory backscratchers (unfairly illegal!) to not only our president and provost, but our deans as well. Thus, no questions.

Job Market Strategies

[ 22 ] March 13, 2014 |

For some of these women, this will probably be the most lucrative work their Ph.D. will ever get them.

UIC On Strike

[ 17 ] February 19, 2014 |

The University of Illinois-Chicago faculty have gone on strike in protest of the corporatization of the university that threatens what faculty do–our ability to teach and research, the stability of our jobs, and the defense of the values of the liberal arts education. Like other universities, UIC has moved resources from faculty to administration, gone to the well of adjunct labor to cover much teaching, and underpaid faculty members in an expensive city.

Hundreds of teachers, students and other supporters picketed the University of Illinois’ at Chicago campus Tuesday as part of a two-day strike called by UIC United Faculty, the union representing more than 1,100 tenured and nontenured faculty members.

The walkout, which featured teachers and their supporters picketing and distributing flyers in front of campus buildings for much of the day, is the first to take place at the university. Despite more than 60 bargaining sessions over 18 months—which were joined by a federal mediator in November—the administration and UICUF has not been able to come to an agreement.

“State universities have been turned into businesses, business corporations with a focus only on the bottom line,” said UICUF’s President Joe Persky. “This must change. A university must devote its resources to guaranteeing our student body a first class education every bit as good as Champaign-Urbana.”

Faculty at UIC are striking to demand an increase in wages for both tenured and nontenured professors, as well as multi-year contracts and “control of governance and curriculum.”

Control over governance and curriculum is an important issue. Faculty have traditionally had a significant say in how the university operates and the core values of the curriculum. That is disappearing rapidly as universities move to the same top-down corporate model that brought you the outsourcing of American jobs overseas, the Great Recession, and the creation of the New Gilded Age. Stands like the faculty at UIC are taking are necessary in order to defend the values that made American higher education the best in the world.

Also, using Hull House as the strike headquarters should warm the heart of any historian.

Shorter Kristof: “I’m Too Lazy to Find the Hundreds of Professors Writing in Prominent Places, So Why Are Academics So Irrelevant?”

[ 63 ] February 16, 2014 |

I know Nic Kristof doesn’t put in any actual work to write his columns, but this is ridiculous.

Erik Voeten with the obvious rejoinder that, in fact, academics are pretty much everywhere in public policy.

[SL]: Corey Robin has much more. Professional disincentives notwithstanding, if you can’t find academics writing for a general audience about issues that interest you it’s almost certainly because you’re not looking.

A Question of Mission

[ 66 ] February 7, 2014 |

The Chronicle discusses a new report: “Labor Intensive or Labor Expensive: Changing Staffing and Compensation Patterns in Higher Education”, detailing the rise of professional administrative positions in American higher education. This confirms what anecdotal evidence has been strongly suggesting: administration positions (hence, costs) have increased, dramatically, between 2000 and 2012:

the number of full-time faculty and staff members per professional or managerial administrator has declined 40 percent.

And the kicker: You can’t blame faculty salaries for the rise in tuition. Faculty salaries were “essentially flat” from 2000 to 2012, the report says. And “we didn’t see the savings that we would have expected from the shift to part-time faculty,” said Donna M. Desrochers, an author of the report.

And, happily, there’s more:

Howard J. Bunsis, a professor of accounting at Eastern Michigan University and chair of the American Association of University Professors’ Collective Bargaining Congress, wasn’t surprised by the conclusions of the study.

“You see it on every campus—an increase in administration and a decrease in full-time faculty, and an increase in the use of part-time faculty,” he said. With that trend, along with rising tuition and falling state support, “you’re painting a pretty fair picture of higher ed,” he continued. “It’s not what it should be. What’s broken in higher ed is the priorities, and it’s been broken for a long time.”

We have the same anecdotal stories at my institution. In yet another shrewd move designed to ensure I never get promoted here, I’ve begun to inquire about obtaining detailed numbers on the distribution of costs at my university. The question is whether or not the administrative bloat suggested by anecdote is empirically accurate, and if so, when did it start (more or less) and to what degree. I’m honestly not sure what I will find (assuming that the data, which in theory are public record, are easily acquired). On the one hand, since 2008 the anecdotal growth in deputy vice chancellors of this and plastic professors of that, is strong. Yet, as I’ve argued in the past, the commercialization of the British higher ed sector is at least a generation more advanced than the United States. As the trend in administrative bloat in the US has been measurably underway since 2000 (and really back to 1990), I shouldn’t find a distinct paradigm shift here at my institution in the past five years, but rather the continuation of a relentless trend. Yet, we have had a distinct shift in tone, and stated mission, from the administration since 2008.

This gets to the core of the question: just what the hell is a university for? I’m old school when I argue that the core — arguably only — mission of a university is the creation and dissemination of knowledge. Higher education is a public good and should be treated as such. Everything else ought to flow from that: knowledge transfer to the private sector, public comment and participation (which we used to call “outward facing” academics; I’ve no idea what the buzzword du jour is now), transforming lives, delivering sustained innovation and international impact, and through partnerships and collaborations enhance social inclusion, economic prosperity, and environmental quality in the region (and beyond!).

One bit of anecdote that I can speak to is that while upper management may have increased here in the past few years, front line administrative roles have been reduced in one of the annual purges of jobs that we’ve endured. One of the many differences between American and British higher ed is the lack of trust and autonomy that academic staff enjoy: all of our grading goes through an internal process known as “second marking”, where every fail, every mark over a 70 (roughly translated as an A), and a sample of every mark band in between (40s, 50s, and 60s) gets re-graded by a colleague. This happens for each and every assignment in each and every class we teach. Then, we send a similar sample off to our external moderator, an academic from a different university, who re-checks all this work and writes a report. The lack of front line administrative support has reached the point now where we — academic staff — are expected to do the photocopying of the external’s sample ourselves. This might not seem like a lot of work, but it does add up, and it’s perhaps not the best allocation of resources for the university.

On Strike, and Other Grumblings

[ 17 ] January 23, 2014 |

As I’ve written about, universities in the UK have offered us a 1% pay increase, which they implemented in December, backdating to August. My union went on strike twice last term, once in October and again once in December. Those representing support / professional services, as well as further education lecturers (who only received a 0.7% increase if my memory serves me correct) have periodically supported these actions.

The 1% increase is a joke, for two reasons, neither of which are at all unique to our industry. First, by my union’s own calculation, indexed against inflation, our pay has declined 13% since 2009. Second, Vice Chancellors (university presidents in the UK) have received large pay increases (8.1% according to the BBC) in the past year both down here and in Scotland, and the union’s own analysis suggests an average 5.1% increase (neither inclusive of bonuses nor pension contributions).

As the two one day strikes did not cause any movement on the part of management, the union has changed tack — now we’ve scheduled three two hour strikes over the next month. At least 11 universities have adopted a blunt intimidation approach: they’re essentially locking their employees out for the entire day, arguing that if they participate in the two hour strike they surrender the day’s wage. Curiously, they’re arguing that this decreases the disruption for our students:

A spokesman for Ucea insisted universities are entitled to withhold a full day’s pay if staff do not work normally as it would constitute “partial performance”.

“Higher education institutions do not accept partial performance and many will be deducting a full day’s pay in order to limit the impact on their students,”

“Higher education institutions are dismayed that this form of industrial action has been designed to damage students’ education but will do their very best to protect their students”

My university is only docking us two hours of pay today, unlike the up to 25 who attempt to intimidate, and the backlash to the above in the past 48 hours has seen at least two institutions back off that stand of questionable legality.

That said, at my own university, there are larger issues afoot. The Sociology Department, among whom I count friends and colleagues, is in the process of being gutted, and a new round of “divestment” was initiated on Monday. Tuesday we received an email from the union which in part said the following:

“Some of you may now have received, or know of, the proposals that management has put forward to cut particular posts as part of Academic and Research Review 2015.

We write to inform you that UCU has sent a clear message to management that it opposes compulsory redundancies. UCU will be firmly challenging the pools identified at risk and is seeking an urgent meeting with management to discuss the pool selection process.”

I neither received a letter (email, office post, home post, and it would have gone to all three), nor have heard any information as to those who have, but it does appear to have happened. I’m a little surprised, as my particular unit (the Politics half of P&IR) has always been at risk: we had a round of compulsory redundancies in 2005-06, our major was dropped in 2006, relaunched in 2009, dropped in 2010, and relaunched again in 2013. Needless to say, Monday was not a calm and relaxing day for me.

We had an EGM of the local branch two Fridays ago where this was discussed. To my mind, striking over a 1% pay increase is worthy; however, to make it pay off for me now at the margins the universities would need to between double and triple their offer. I doubt that will happen. However, if there ever was a reason to be in a union, it’s protesting against the annual re-allocation of “investment”, shifting business models, and seeing my institution and “redundancies” in the media every year between 2008 and 2013. I’d happily screw a two hour strike (designed in part to save us money), and walk out indefinitely if it would get my institution to stop sacking people every year. Whatever it would take to save those jobs.

The branch leadership brought this up, and suggested that if we were unified, and if we did all march to the Chancellery, we would probably be successful.

However, we face two problems, both immediately recognisable to Mancur Olson. One, participation in strike action is voluntary, not compulsory. (I voted against these ongoing strike actions, but I’ll be damned if I’m ever crossing a picket line). Leadership implied that we would not be successful in such an action. Attendance at EGMs is illustrative. Immediately before redundancy letters go out, attendance is high. After? it declines. If it’s not a direct threat to one’s livelihood, why should people risk income and the displeasure of management in order to save the jobs of others?

Well, for starters, it might be your own job some day.

The second problem that we face is we operate in an open shop. I don’t have to be a union member at all, let alone support the strike action. If I was a free-rider, imagine all the money I would save; any benefits accrued through improved contracts (such as the one we received between 2006 and 2009) that others sacrificed time and treasure for, I’d still gain. Likewise, Olson’s selective benefits simply do not add up to what I pay monthly in union dues, nor what I’ve sacrificed through the strike actions this academic year.

Today was always going to be a work from home day. I’ve been doing a lot of grading I have to catch up on, there’s a new lecture to write for tomorrow, and time allowing, an initiative for the School of Government that I’m working on. I have a much better computer here, and considerably more comfort, than my janitor’s closet of an office affords. In short, I’m more productive. But rest assured, between 11 and 1, I’ve downed tools. Next Tuesday, we’re scheduled to strike for two hours between 2 and 4. I have lectures from 1 until 2, and 2 until 3. Next week will be a bit more interesting.

Now that I’ve finished this post, I think I’ll have lunch and catch up on a little binge viewing.

Wall Street Lackeys in the Academy

[ 37 ] December 28, 2013 |

As a historian, I don’t really have an opportunity to sell out by using my professional positions to provide expert testimony for Wall Street. But I wonder what that would be like. Evidently, it buys you a really nice home. And there are plenty of academics willing to become complete hacks.

And in a squat glass building on the University of Houston campus, a measure of the industry’s pre-eminence can also be found in the person of Craig Pirrong, a professor of finance, who sits at the nexus of commerce and academia.

As energy companies and traders have reaped fortunes by buying and selling oil and other commodities during the recent boom in the commodity markets, Mr. Pirrong has positioned himself as the hard-nosed defender of financial speculators — the combative, occasionally acerbic academic authority to call upon when difficult questions arise in Congress and elsewhere about the multitrillion-dollar global commodities trade.

Do financial speculators and commodity index funds drive up prices of oil and other essentials, ultimately costing consumers? Since 2006, Mr. Pirrong has written a flurry of influential letters to federal agencies arguing that the answer to that question is an emphatic no. He has testified before Congress to that effect, hosted seminars with traders and government regulators, and given countless interviews for financial publications absolving Wall Street speculation of any appreciable role in the price spikes.

What Mr. Pirrong has routinely left out of most of his public pronouncements in favor of speculation is that he has reaped financial benefits from speculators and some of the largest players in the commodities business, The New York Times has found.

While his university’s financial ties to speculators have been the subject of scrutiny by the news media and others, it was not until last month, after repeated requests by The Times under the Freedom of Information Act, that the University of Houston, a public institution, insisted that Mr. Pirrong submit disclosure forms that shed some light on those financial ties.

There are lots of examples of academics becoming lackeys of industry. I recently discussed the Johns Hopkins black lung program almost completely controlled by one faculty member who denied nearly every single black lung claim, forcing thousands of people to spend their last days in miserable poverty.

Of course, one doesn’t have to support progressive positions. But taking corporate money in exchange for your expertise and not disclosing it is about as immoral as it gets.

Kudos to the Times for taking on this subject.

Universities as Commercial Enterprise, an Ongoing Case Study

[ 153 ] December 10, 2013 |

This essay on the current experience at the University of Michigan published on Inside Higher Ed, made the rounds last week. Titled “Corporate Values”, it includes several quotes that speak directly to my ten year experience at my current institution. To wit:

America’s public research universities face a challenging economic environment characterized by rising operating costs and dwindling state resources. In response, institutions across the country have looked toward the corporate sector for cost-cutting models. The hope is that implementing these “real-world” strategies will centralize redundant tasks (allowing some to be eliminated), stimulate greater efficiency, and ensure long-term fiscal solvency.

As I’ve argued in the past, the experience in Britain serves as both a model and a warning to my colleagues in the United States. Decisions are taken purely on a revenue-stream criterion. If eliminating one undergraduate program will allow resources to be shifted to another, thus resulting in a marginally enhanced revenue stream on a per-student basis, then such a move has appeal. Those of us providing the “content” are treated as interchangeable parts, have superficial input in decision making (which is typically window dressing as one of many “stakeholders” in the institution, designed to assuage concerns of consultation). Management decisions are conducted with no transparency, and handed down as edicts. There’s no entertainment of feedback, let alone constructive criticism.  Again this resonates:

They frame departments as “customers” of centralized services, perpetuating the illusion that the university can and should function like a market. This premise devalues the local knowledge and organic interactions that make our units thrive. Indeed, it dismisses any attribute that cannot be quantitatively measured or “benchmarked.” Faculty members who reject these models quickly become characterized as “change resisters”: backward, tradition-bound, and incapable of comprehending budgetary complexities.

Adopting the corporate model is analogous to Margaret Thatcher’s “There Is No Alternative” policy prescription of neo-liberal economics in response to “globalization”, however one defines the concept.

Of course, if there’s a need for “retrenchment”, “streamlining”, “doing more with less”, or whatever cliche du jour masks the reality of “layoffs”, it’s never the fault or responsibility of senior management. Rather, we need to continually reposition the institution in the face of a dynamic “sector” in order to retain our position as a world leading university. More recently, the fault is placed solely at the feet of the government, and the policy to eliminate central government funding for higher education at once, and allow for the trebling of tuition fees. The degree to which tuition was increased was left up to each institution. Of course, all but a handful increased tuition from around £3000 per year to the maximum of £9000, mine included. I’m not arguing that the universities are to blame for government policy, which simply did in one day what has been a gradual erosion of state support in the US for the past decade or two. However, I think that there might have been an opportunity to price ourselves marginally lower than the overwhelming majority of our “competition”, thus limiting the need for the ongoing layoffs which have characterized my institution since 2008. A google search of my institution and redundancies finds stories every year between 2008 and 2012, including two on our own web page celebrating the lack of resorting to compulsory redundancies in 2009. The VC is quoted: “I consider that the University is now much better placed to achieve its strategic objectives and vision to become a first-choice first-class university serving the city and region and I am confident that we can now look towards a bright and sustainable future.”

That was 2009.  After I wrote most of this post yesterday morning, an email was sent to staff at noon outlining the need to “reshape our academic offer” which will “drive our investment strategy with investment in some areas, and divestment in others, which we think may include some redundancies”. Said email was also couched in the usual fuzzy business speak about sustainability, strategy, and the need to be “fleet of foot”.  Revealing here is, to my knowledge, that this is the first time one of these memos from senior management explicitly admitted that there might be layoffs. It’s already hit the local media here, and here. So, in addition to 2008 through 2012, we can now include 2013 on the Google count of media stories about redundancies at my institution. I think we did not have any compulsory redundancies in 2009, but we did have over 200 voluntary redundancies during the “strategic review” from 2008-09.

Let’s look at that 2009 statement again:

“I consider that the University is now much better placed to achieve its strategic objectives and vision to become a first-choice first-class university serving the city and region and I am confident that we can now look towards a bright and sustainable future.”

Now let’s compare it with that released yesterday:

“From January 2014, we will be commencing the combined Academic and Research Review with the objective of shaping a new and sustainable academic business model.”

Bluntly, a university run along its interpretation of a commercial model will feature employment insecurity as a daily reality. Again, every year since 2008, employees at my institution, be they academic, professional services, or support staff, have faced the prospect of getting sacked.  Maybe this is understandable if it only has to happen once. However, either the original plan failed — and we have to call this a failure as that bright and sustainable future didn’t last very long at all: during 2011/12 a large number of professional services staff were made redundant, and now we have the prospect of sweeping redundancies among academic staff (in addition to what my colleagues in sociology are experiencing right now). If the original plan did not fail, then this is the new normal. And again, it’s not only my institution. A google search reveals a dozen or so institutions in England that are experiencing similar chaotic insecurity in search of the elusive business model that is both sustainable and bright.

Yet, a university is not a business. We do not have shareholders, nor do we sell a product. Universities are a public good, which add value to individuals and society writ large. Assuming that this is the new reality, why in hell would one want to pay the opportunity costs involved in earning a Ph.D. in order to work in an industry where your job security isn’t that far removed from Dominos Pizza, and where your pay is significantly lower than a similar position in the private sector?  Why go into this “sector” when the fickle year-to-year interests of students, or the shifting business models of senior management, can render your contribution redundant?

The flyer attached to this post was sent out by the local branch of our union last week, and those potential redundancies in question are in Sociology (not to be confused with the prospect of additional redundancies released yesterday). The union of course over-states the case; what I’ve heard indicates total redundancies expected by the university can be counted on two hands[*]; regardless, we’re dealing with academic positions held by human beings, and it’s not their fault that the university in general and their subject in particular is in this situation at this point in time. The School of Government is barely four months old, and our Director was hired from abroad and promised a two year grace period to ensure an operative business model. However, after he accepted the position, Sociology were lifted from a different faculty entirely and added to the new school. Sociology used to be in the same school as my department, then in 2009 the social sciences were disaggregated and sent off to three different faculties. And now at least sociology is back with us, for the time being at least. This is a problem created by the complete lack of institutional stability, or as we joke, a Mao-esque permanent revolution. I’m in my 11th year at my institution. Since I was hired, my department has been part of two faculties, was an independent department before those unites were amalgamated into “schools”, of which we’ve now been in four, have had five Heads of School, and our fifth department chair in that period has just retired. Between the seemingly permanent threat of redundancies and the reality of annual institutional reshuffles, it’s amazing that we’re able to get any work done with even a modicum of positive morale, which is especially critical when an important aspect of one’s job is facing students nearly every day during term.

Again, as I’ve written in the past, I don’t believe the entire manner in which my institution responds is down to poor or uncaring management specific to my institution. A part of it is the corporate world view adopted by those running this institution specifically, and most others across the UK. The institution does not exist as a public good, for the creation or dissemination of knowledge, but rather as a business, where success is measured in profit (or loss) and revenue streams. Indeed, it’s going to get worse before it gets better; I learned yesterday that from 2015 there will no longer be a cap on enrollment at any university. What this means for us is our neighbors up the road on the A-38, with a Russel Group reputation and an international ranking significantly higher (at 148) than our 300th, will be able to recruit the level of student that is our bread and butter, for the same tuition fee. As there’s too much pride at stake for senior management to lower our tuition fee, the email sent out yesterday has a compelling logic as a result of the latest restructuring: wholesale scrapping (divestment) of departments, and concentrating on the few subjects where we are competitive with Russell Group institutions. Universities, aside from the handful at the very top of the reputation tables, will specialize in a mere handful of subjects. If this comes to pass, they really won’t be universities any longer, at least not in the classic sense the way the concept is understood.

Three further paragraphs from Michigan essay deserve quotation:

The absence of consultation with regard to the plan is particularly galling given that academic departments previously have worked well with the administration to keep the university in the black. Faculty members are keenly aware of our institution’s fiscal challenges and accordingly have put in place cost-cutting and consolidating measures at the micro level for the greater good.

Whether or not the collective protest initiated by a critical mass of faculty will result in change or reversal remains to be seen. Nevertheless, the past few weeks have been a wake-up call. Faculty must educate themselves about the basic fiscal operations of the institution in these changing times and reassert their leadership. Gardens, after all, require frequent tending.

Otherwise, we remain vulnerable to opportunistic management consultants seeking to use fiscal crisis as a source of profit. Public institutions that remain under the spell of misleading corporate promises will ultimately save little and lose a great deal.

It’s not too late for my American colleagues to ward off some of the excesses of commercialization that are negatively impacting the British system. For starters, the system of governance is still significantly different. American professors have considerably more autonomy, there remains shreds of the model of shared governance, and tenure. Over here, we do not have those advantages. We are fully corporate, and indeed, the onus for recruitment (of students) is largely up to individual programs. (Over one hour of our two hour school faculty meeting yesterday afternoon was spent on ideas surrounding how to enhance recruitment). Yes, there are faculty and even university level initiatives, and “open days” are organized along those lines, but if there is a decline in recruitment for any given program, senior management places the blame on the academics in that program. If we were an automobile company, each of us would be expected to contribute to the literature on advancing fuel cell and hybrid technology, yet also design, build, and sell the car. Yet, to strain the analogy, if gas prices suddenly double, those of us responsible for SUVs all get the sack.

At least we were given a shred of feel good phraseology: “We’re a successful University which has dealt with the volatility of the higher education sector with confidence in who we are and what we do.” However, I find it astonishing that we can continue on “with confidence” when our reality has been the threat of being made redundant for five years running.

I should add that like my colleagues, I take pride in my job, my department, and my university, but it would be nice if the “sector” returned that favor.

[*] As I now occupy precisely zero administrative positions, following nine straight academic years of holding at least one, and for several years two, I’m out of the loop, hence the reliability of that comment should be treated as not 100%.

[**] An unintended consequence of the relatively new “branding” of my institution, conducted several years ago and requiring the help of two private consultancies, is the scope of creativity allowed to precede the “With Our University” to fit different contexts. Let hilarity reign.

More Evidence of the Morale Draining Effect of Corporate Higher Ed

[ 77 ] November 25, 2013 |

The Guardian ran this a couple of days ago, written by an academic who finally grew frustrated enough to pack it in. The takeaway:

Universities in the 21st century no longer aspire to become beacons of knowledge, even though they would like to promote themselves as such. Instead, they are trying to turn into large corporations. Their customers are students, their product intellectual property.

As I’ve discussed in the past, in the UK we face constant employment insecurity. Programs and whole departments come and go, occasionally based on only one year’s worth of data, other times with no decision transparency at all. Additionally, continual institutional re-invention is the norm. Both have a predictably deleterious effect on faculty morale, so stories such as that linked above never surprise me. Indeed, I seriously considered it myself. The commercialization angle was a strong secondary motivation for considering the exit option, along with permanent institutional instability, but the primary motivation was cringe-inducing bad management above the level of our department.

When one considers the low rate of pay we receive compared to similar positions in the private sector, and the huge economic opportunity costs we pay during the years spent training for these positions (especially in the United States, where Ph.D. training is considerably more comprehensive, and as such takes significantly more time, than here in the UK) I’m surprised I haven’t witnessed more colleagues simply quit. If we’re going to face the pressures to justify our continued employment in profit and loss metrics, we might as well receive similar remuneration. That of course is not forthcoming; universities have offered us a 1% pay rise, which the union rejected. We went on strike once in November, and are scheduled to strike again on 3 December. Of course, if I were to apply a P&L analysis on going on strike, the marginal increase over the 1% offer would have to be quite high — it would need to at least double — for the money I’ve lost on strike to pay off in the end, but that’s an entirely different post.

Ultimately, I’m glad that I didn’t pull the trigger. Managers changed, and yet another institutional redesign landed my department in a new School of Government. The new school is led by an academic we hired externally, and one who is an excellent manager of people. We got lucky, and as we just started this new school, we should enjoy three, perhaps even four years of stability. And I still get paid cash money to do my hobby.

Nevertheless, I’m not at all surprised by the column in the Guardian. I’m surprised that it doesn’t happen more often.

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