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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.

Weak Anti-Faculty Union Arguments

[ 49 ] October 29, 2013 |

University of Illinois professor Nicholas Burbules’ anti-faculty union arguments are laughable. They are laughable precisely because he ignores the reality of 21st century administration-faculty relationships and what administrations are trying to do to faculty. Burbules thinks that shared governance is a real and serious thing today:

By contrast, shared governance begins with a presumption of shared commitment to the constitutional principles and to the best interests of the institution. Faculty and administrators view themselves as partners in a common project; this is what the “shared” in shared governance means. This certainly doesn’t mean that the parties always agree—but even where there are disagreements, they are usually respectful and collegial.

Under shared governance, administrators assume that the feedback and advice of the faculty will help them make better decisions, and that those decisions will be better understood and supported by professors when they grow out of consultation and openness. They respect the faculty’s fundamental rights and control over academic matters, and involve them in a broad range of other decisions as well—even when they may not be strictly required to do so.

Faculty members, for their part, respect that administrators have an accountable responsibility for making certain decisions and sometimes have information and considerations that cannot be widely shared. They recognize that senior administrators are faculty members, share the values of the faculty, and understand the concerns of the faculty. The governance roles of administration and professors are viewed as complementary, having legitimate spheres of authority that need to respect each other.

Right…. Senior administrators totally share the values of the faculty, such as eliminating the German, French, and Philosophy departments, replacing tenure-track faculty with adjuncts, reducing budgets, and generally squeezing the faculty while padding administration with more positions and six-figure salaries. And the administration oh so much cares about faculty feedback to their bad ideas. I mean, in my 7 years as a faculty member, I’ve seen nothing but respect and positive responses to feedback from faculty. In my fantasy world, I’ve seen administrators realize their ideas were bad, restore funding for departments, take the humanities and social sciences seriously, reinforce the values of a liberal arts education, support professor free speech, and respect the traditional role of a higher education in shaping a new generation and exposing them to new ideas. It’s a fantasy world because the real world of academia is mostly terrible. Which is why we need unions.

If it wasn’t for my AAUP union, I would not have a job anymore. Burbules claims that faculty are professionals, not workers, but not only is that an arbitrary distinction, but it also doesn’t represent the reality of the 21st century university. There’s a reason why more and more faculty members are unionizing, including a major recent victory at the University of Oregon. I’m sure Burbules however is on his way to a nice administration sinecure through this essay and what is no doubt his other anti-union activities at his home campus at the University of Illinois.

The Commercialization of Academia in Britain: A Big Picture View

[ 29 ] October 23, 2013 |

In March, I posted “The Commericalization of Academia: A Case Study” to LGM. This past weekend, Rob drew my attention to this review essay by Christopher Newfield published in the Los Angeles Review of Books. The subject of the review is The Great University Gamble: Money, Markets, and the Future of Higher Education by Andrew McGettigan. I’ve not read the book, but you can rest assured it’s on my list for the next time I find myself in my local branch of Amazon.

Newfield addresses many of the same themes I did in March, only he does so without the anecdotal specificity, but rather from a broader perspective. I concentrated on how my institution, and actors within my institution, react to shifting incentive structures initially imposed exogenously (and then trickle down through the structure of the institution itself). His excellent essay examines where this is coming from, and more critically, why.

The reasons addressing the why question for public consumption are first, universities had to shoulder their fair share of the necessary austerity budget introduced after the coalition victory in 2010, thus the teaching grants from the central government that universities had relied upon for the foundation of their budget were largely zeroed out and replaced with tuition fees allowed to treble in one big bang, themselves funded by a state run loan system. Second, the marketization of higher education in England and Wales would result in an improvement in the quality of education. Because that’s what markets always do.

Newfield dispenses with both of these explanations with efficient ease. Instead, he suggests a different motivation:

This larger project is rarely admitted but easy to state: it is to turn the United Kingdom’s public university system into a commercial business sector with a right to public subsidies.

But that still doesn’t fully answer the question:

(W)hy privatize? The Tories seek to transform public higher education into a market-driven and financialized business, but why? Is it mostly for the immediate financial benefit of Tory-favored industries? Is it the sheer force of neoliberal belief — privatization for its own sake? Both of these? Something else?

A full answer is beyond the scope of both McGettigan’s book and this review, but I can at least point in what I am sure is the right direction, one confirmed by McGettigan’s analysis. The deeper purpose of the Tory changes is to end the post-World War II reformation of universities in the West, which created mass access to university studies roughly equal in quality to those elites enjoyed. We could call this the Great Democratization, and its genius, particularly in the United States, was to build an infrastructure for delivering mass quality — cutting-edge teaching and research, the latest in scientific, social, and cultural developments — to the children of doctors, construction workers, corporate executives, cash register salesmen, film stars, department store clerks, truck drivers, computer scientists, and migrant farm workers, that is, to the entirety of society in accordance with their motivation and preparation. Certainly there were whole populations that had to fight their way into this system, and that still must fight. But the regulative ideal was that even if you couldn’t get into the most selective universities — Harvard, Oxford, et al. — you could receive an education of quality similar to what you’d have received there. The United States had an abundance of immersive liberal arts colleges and public research universities as good as any university in the world, signaled by then-UC President Clark Kerr’s pleasure in the fact that a 1964 review found more top-ranked departments at UC Berkeley than at Harvard. Importantly, the quality of the public universities did not depend on their selectivity, which was then low at Berkeley and everywhere else. In the United Kingdom, students at Sussex could study with the world’s pioneers in science policy studies, or at Birmingham with their equivalents in cultural studies, without feeling like rejection from Cambridge had put a cap on the development of their creative capabilities. Massive public funding enabled this rough equalization, this evolving democratization, of academic quality.

And that’s where we have the true target:

The Tory counterreformation takes aim at all of these postwar democratizing features. The government’s 2011 white paper affirms that universities are in some part public goods, but then zeros out the public good of social and cultural fields by cutting their teaching grants to zero. The public funds for non-cost-benefited enrollments, for remedial, experimental, or innovative programs, will in the new system be available only if they point toward future revenue growth. The independence of academic governance from financial management is greatly reduced. If Thatcher once famously remarked, “there is no such thing as society,” Cameron has operationalized this as the somewhat less resonant, “there is no such thing as a public good.” For these latter-day Tories, even educational goods are private, and so the arbitrator is the market, which grants presiding authority to the business structure and to the leading figures and firms in the relevant sectors.

Newfield outlines three ramifications of this counter-reformation. First, the traditional model of leaving academic governance to academics is eroded (at best in my decade at my present institution, it’s been limited anyway) instead replaced by the logic of the market economy. I noted an anti-intellectual bias in the administration at my institution in my March post; this is perhaps best illustrated by remarks made by one in a leadership position a couple tiers above me at a departmental meeting immediately following the awkward Saturday closure of the Politics major (May 2010). We were informed that the shutdown would not be on the agenda for the meeting, but we placed it there anyway. He opened by acknowledging the intellectual contribution our department of (a bunch of muddled words strung together which seemed to imply some nebulous form of critical post-modernism as he only vaguely understood it), but that what we, and our students, really need here is a more objective business-oriented approach to scholarship. I interrupted with a comment along the lines of “wow, if you only had any idea who we are, you’d know that description doesn’t fit” (there are no post-modernists in my department, for example).

Second, instead of a progressive expansion in enrolment, erosion in student numbers will now occur. While I can only speak to my experience at my institution (and my program), this is precisely what happened. We had a spike in numbers for the 2011/12 cohort, the last admitted under the old tuition regime. They get to pay the old £3200 per year through their three years of study. One ramification of this spike is that my final year class is oversubscribed by 40%. It then cratered in 2012/13, and hasn’t recovered.

Finally, Newfield suggests that a polarisation of quality will only increase, and that universities in the “mass of mass higher education” will face financial challenges that, it is implied, will force us to make cutbacks. We’re fortunate in that we’re not feeling this heat just yet, but it’s impossible to say how this will play out in the near future. And, of course, I’ve reduced my administrative responsibilities over the past few years, resigning as department chair in 2010, and stepping down as undergraduate “programme manager” this past August, so I no longer have direct access to the same level of data I sued to have.

One advantage of the centralised, unitary of government here in Britain is that this can be undone by the next government if it so desired in one act. The Liberal Democrats are going to lose about half of their support, partially due to reneging on the pledge made in their 2010 manifesto to not increase tuition fees (which of course they proceeded to ignore once they received a seat at the big kids table). If they find themselves in a coalition with Labour, undoing this damage should be at the top of a Lib Dem agenda as a means to right the wrongs they’re committing in the present government. Or a Labour majority government can re-orient higher education in the United Kingdom from the commercialised morass it is, and return it to the public good it is better understood to be, allowing for equality of opportunity, aspiration, and upward mobility. Or at least the perception of those things.

Sadly, given the track record of the last Labour government (1997-2010) in undoing the neoliberal agenda of the previous Conservative government (1979-1997), I’m not confident that such an approach will be adopted.

The Gun Scare

[ 132 ] September 21, 2013 |

We know of the Red Scare. On campus, anticommunism during World War I and after World War II led to fired faculty and silenced opposition.

Today we live in the Gun Scare. If professors speak out against the NRA, they are drummed out of their jobs.The website Campus Reform is their McCarthyite shock troops. I of course experienced this last December. Luckily I survived for reasons I will get to in a moment. David Guth, a journalism professor at the University of Kansas may not be so lucky. In a fit of despair after the killings in the Navy Yard last week, he tweeted, “The blood is on the hands of the #NRA. Next time, let it be YOUR sons and daughters. Shame on you. May God damn you.” Now Guth was obviously not calling for the murder of the children of NRA officials. What he was doing to desperately calling for the NRA to imagine this was their own children dying since these people seem completely immune to the thousands of deaths per year in the United States that come from the policies they support. There is evidently no limit to the acceptable casualties so that people can play with their shiny toys and feel tough against anyone they see.

Now Guth’s rhetoric was more unfortunate than my own. Whereas I used a common metaphor that no one could take seriously, Guth’s language was quite direct. But looking at the response to my situation and his shows very little difference from cowardly university administrations. Immediately, both URI and KU sought to distance themselves from unpopular opinions of their faculty that were a) not expressed in the classroom, b) were expressed on private twitter accounts, and c) had nothing to do with the university. It’s not the language or subject that bothers the administrations, it’s the idea that professors would speak up publicly on the sharpest and hardest questions of the day in ways that are not nice and thus draw attention to the university.

Guth is in real trouble. Of course he is receiving death threats from the same yahoos and idiots who sent me death threats. They’ve inundated his department, his dean, and his higher administration. I feel bad for all the people who get caught in the middle of this foolishness, as I did when it happened to me. He has been suspended with pay. He has state legislators calling for his firing. He’s at least tenured so he has some limited protection, but tenure doesn’t mean much when the rubber meets the road. Guth himself says that he agrees he should be removed from the classroom considering the situation. He’s putting up a brave front, but I wonder when or if he will ever return to the classroom. Or will KU fire him when the light moves on to something else?

Why do I have still have my job? Why was I not suspended? I think in the end I am lucky. First, I wasn’t just some dude tweeting, but I had prominent friends with access to other prominent friends and this led to real pushback that the URI top administrators did not expect when they distanced themselves their lowly assistant professor. Second, I had a union and my union rep was furious and really took it to the administration. Third, I teach in Rhode Island and not Kansas. Our state legislature can be nutty but it’s not filled with crazy Tea Party types who would do away with all the liberals in Lawrence if they could. Fourth, this happened to me at the very of the end of the semester and not the beginning. Had it, I don’t really know what would have happened.

It’s important that we push back against university administrations not supporting their faculty’s freedom of speech, even if you don’t agree with what Guth said. Because it’s going to be you next when you express any opinion, even outside the classroom. This is part of a specific right-wing war against the university. It is the last liberal bastion in America now that they’ve mostly crushed organized labor. Cutting German and French departments, devaluing the liberal arts and social sciences, and suppressing political dissent is all part of a larger project to undermine dissent and free thinking at the university and turn it into a training ground for what passes for the 21st century American economy. Faculty lack class-consciousness and a sense of solidarity with one another. Those who benefit from high salaries in business schools don’t think twice about the decline of the philosophy department. Our work is so atomized that we rarely talk to the people in our own departments, not to mention across the university. Schools with unionized faculty at least have that to bind us together and that helped me tremendously.

Unfortunately, Guth doesn’t seem to have that. His fate worries me greatly, because that could so easily be myself.

Vaguely Organised Musings on the Value of Blogging for the Academy and Academics

[ 8 ] September 1, 2013 |

Over at Monkey Cage, Andrew Gelman has an excellent piece on how post-publication peer-review works (and doesn’t) in the blogosphere. One of the central themes (to me) is how complacency can be part of the process. This, of course is not limited to the post-publication phase of research dissemination and consumption. Any academic here can tell you stories of referee reports that lacked a clear understanding of one’s manuscript to the point where it seemed possible that the report was the result of a skim job. Likewise, while I’ve been told by my superiors up the British university chain of command that I spend too much time on accepting and writing such reports[*], there have been times when four or five have stacked up in my queue that I know that there have been more than one where I did not feel as though I was as thorough as I might have been.

The Gelman piece reminded me of a post of Rob’s from earlier this year. I agree in the main with Rob’s arguments, with one caveat that applies to both the political scientist as blogger as well as post-publication peer review writ large: the blogosphere is ephemeral. Whereas a journal article (both print and most e-journals) is tangible, replete with an ISSN identity, what I’m writing right now isn’t. A blog post isn’t as fleeting as a tweet (unless you’re, say, Anthony Weiner), it is less concrete than a publication. This caveat applies independently to the Gelman and Farley posts, as the subject of each serves a different purpose, but ultimately it serves as a minor limitation to both.

Given this, I agree with what Rob wrote all those months ago:

Core argument is this: Sides treats blogging (and what I tend to think of as associated “public intellectual” activities) as adjunct to a successful political science career.  I, on the other hand, think that we should take seriously the possibility that these activities should become the main course of a successful career in political science (and other fields).

Save that I don’t think “public intellectual activities” should replace publication, but co-exist on a relatively equal level. As one who does a bit of media (it pays to have my accent in the Southwest of England. Well, it doesn’t pay cash money, but you know), I’d place blogging above media appearances; a five minute interview is more ephemeral than this very post (for better or worse). I’ve turned the process around a bit; in a few months I have a paper (which coincidentally cites Gelman) coming out in a solid third-tier journal that began life right here as a post on LGM.

However, if we really want to make this stick in terms of professional currency, we need some sort of institutionalisation of output. It could be as simple as unique ISSN numbers for various blogs, better indexing of authors / posts, etc. I don’t have many answers on this Sunday afternoon, but these are a start. For the vast majority of blogs an ISSN serves little more than vanity, but for academia it’s subtly different. In the United Kingdom, with our slavish, methodical accounting of research output via the RAE/REF, an ISSN/ISBN is requisite for credibility.  EDIT: I honestly don’t know how prevalent this is in the academic blogosphere, if it exists at all.

[*] Indeed, if I don’t have the time to do a credible job, I’ve been known to let a manuscript slide into perilous delinquency. There’s at least one from earlier this summer that might match this description.

The Eleventh Commandment of Graduate School: Be Nice to People!

[ 121 ] August 26, 2013 |

Claire Potter has her Ten Commandments of Graduate School, all of which I recommend highly.

Thou shalt not rack up unnecessary credit card debt. You may need to take out student loans to pay for things like shelter, food, medical care and a decent laptop computer. But don’t take out loans to pay for things you bought just to make yourself feel better. Try to make a budget for yourself that includes fun and going out to dinner with friends, but not all kinds of stuff you will end up throwing away when you have to move. And just because it’s a book doesn’t mean you need to own it. One of the great weaknesses of academics is buying books they never get around to reading.

Thou shalt not neglect thy dental or health care. Every tooth of mine that gets worked on in middle age became a problem in graduate school. I am totally serious about this.

Thou shalt find an excellent thrift store. You will gradually build yourself a wardrobe of professional clothes (ok, if you are like me, you will build a wardrobe of black tee shirts) and you needn’t buy anything new. Go to the swanky neighborhoods near your university and buy the really nice things other people discarded. If you don’t know how to shop, get someone to teach you.

Thou shalt not assume that merit systems are determinative. If there is anything I hate seeing on the Interwebz, it is people claiming that the person who got the job/fellowship/prize isn’t as smart or deserving or credentialed as they are. It’s the, “Gee I wrote four articles and have a book contract, and *that* person only wrote one article and a review essay” syndrome. I always wonder, Hmmm….maybe you didn’t get the job because the other person was nicer. #Everthinkathat? Academic success is not about racking up points and head to head competition. It’s about other people making choices that you have no control over. Do your best work, and then let it go.

Thou shalt have an excellent professional back-up plan. Tape this to your mirror. Keep your eyes peeled for opportunities to learn things that will give you options if that dream job — or any tenure stream job — does not materialize. Things digital, things foundation oriented, things administrative. Yes, the Ph.D. program is designed to educate you, but this is the moment to educate yourself.

Thou shalt become an excellent colleague. Be generous with the others in your cohort. Look for people’s good sides and try to ignore their annoying qualities. And if you must, be honest with someone, whether it’s a hygiene issue or something that is just getting on your nerves. Beginning any comment with, “Hey, it’s probably just me, but…..”

Thou shalt join thy professional organization. It is a false economy to be out of touch with what is going on in the larger world of your field (particularly if it’s not a terribly large world, like Scandinavian Studies or something.) While you are at it, keep educating yourself about academia in general by reading Inside Higher Ed, this publication (some of the best blogs are free, but a two year subscription is cheaper than a month of your cable bill), and academic blogs (particularly those in your field that will alert you to books long before the reviews appear in a journal.) There are many voices: listen to all of them, decide what you think and what you care about. Professionalize yourself. Even if you end up leaving academia, you will know why — and how to use your experience to do something that suits you better.

Thou shalt not suck up to thy mentors nor have sexual congress with them, nor shalt thou, when a TA, cross the line thyself. Need I elaborate? An excellent way to shred your career right at the beginning is to be part of a sexual harassment suit. Or a co-respondent in someone’s divorce. Here’s another hint: undergraduates and graduate TA’s are not “students” in the same way. Even if you are only a year or two older.

Thou shalt not gossip and spread hurtful calumny, nor write vituperative email, nor bcc when chastising others. Many of the ways you may have behaved on email as an undergraduate will erode your reputation as a graduate student. For example: telling tales out of school on the faculty or on other graduate students; expressing resentment and anger to an audience; or writing long, enraged emails that you copy to other people. Particularly in the latter case, that email may be out there forever. Don’t assume your university email is private either: make sure you have another account that only the NSA can get into.

Thou shalt use the word discourse sparingly; likewise neoliberalism, and other theoretical catchphrases designed to obscure that thou hast not fully thought through thine ideas. The best part of the first year in graduate school is immersing yourself in the theoretical tools of your discipline or interdisciplinary field. You will feel like a big, wonderful sponge. But, as the wise Carroll Smith-Rosenberg once said to me, “Wear your theory lightly, my dear.” Don’t sound smart: be smart. Intellectuals don’t want to have Michel Foucault, or Michael Warner, or Gayatri Spivak, or Anthony Appiah read back to them: they want to know what you think. Make sure you know, and learn to speak and write it in the most inviting way you can.

Thou shalt remember that this was supposed to be fun. If you aren’t having fun, it is essential to find out why. Seek out appropriate counsel.

Claire gets at my larger point in a few of her commandments, but if there’s one thing I would say to graduate students, it would be to be nice to other people. Be nice to your fellow grad students. Be nice to your professors. Be nice to the students in classes you TA for. Never ever ever do something like sabotage fellow students by running to the library and hiding their books (this may in fact be an urban legend, but for whatever reason graduate students in history at Chapel Hill were always accused of this to me. Who knows.) Don’t undermine fellow people. Don’t talk bad about your peers. Don’t complain that someone got funding and you didn’t. Even if your fellow graduate students aren’t very nice, why engage with this? Stay positive, which means being positive to other people. Your fellow graduate students shouldn’t be seen as competitors with you. Instead, express solidarity with them through your fellow class interests.

Even though, as Claire points out, academia is no meritocracy (I have my job because I am lucky, not because I am so much better than all these other people), at the end, if your work is better, you will have a better shot at jobs. Being a jerk isn’t going to make your work better. It’s going to make you a bitter mean person who no one will want as a colleague. That matters a lot because departments don’t want to hire people they won’t want to see in the halls and exchange pleasantries with. That might not be the case at the very tippy top elite schools, but at the vast majority of institutions, it is. I’ve been lucky enough to be part of three departments, each of which range from being cordial with each other to having a lot of true friendships. And I don’t think anyone in these departments would allow great research and brains to overcome an unpleasant personality.

In short, as with most of life, be nice.

I’m a fraud!

[ 172 ] August 13, 2013 |

I don’t want to steal anyone’s thunder or appear to be piling on, but one aspect of Hugo Schyzer’s “confession” strikes me as especially problematic, especially at a time in which the humanities are under assault from well-funded conservative forces: his claim of academic fraudulence.

He’s clearly not a fraud in the traditional sense, i.e. he didn’t falsify his credentials or publish papers on data he knew to be cooked. He claims that when he was in graduate school, “there was no such thing as porn studies,” so he lacked the credentials to teach it. Which, I suppose, is technically true. But he also claims to have “do[ne] the reading,” which in practice is all that’s required of scholars who work in a field that didn’t exist when they earned their doctorates.

The other “fraud” he believes he committed is that he spoke about feminism but “never published in any serious academic journal [because he] wanted to write for a popular audience.” Anyone familiar with the current state of academic journals knows about the incestuous nature of “blind” review: your name’s not on your submission, but if you’ve spoken at a conference or to another scholar in the field, you’re a known quantity. Your work whispers your name to the person who reviews it and that, as much as any independent factors, determines whether it’ll be published. (Why yes, I am that cynical.) But I haven’t come here to bury humanities journals—their “style” secures them a place in the deepest recesses of empty libraries—only to note that failure to publish in a discipline or subdiscipline doesn’t disqualify a person from teaching in it if they’ve done the reading. That’s all that’s required. If Schwyzer convinced his colleagues that he’d done the reading, he was qualified to teach a course in whatever it was he’d read.

Does this system require trust and lend itself to abuse? I suppose. But as someone who spent 13 years teaching at one of the best universities in the country, I can assure you that when you stand in front of a classroom of bright, motivated students you always feel like a fraud. You’ve never read enough, and you never will have. Your shelves will always be lined with books you should’ve already read. You feel like a fraud because you’ve only read thirty books on X, but your students consider you an authority for the very same reason.

Was I a hypocrite when I taught a literary journalism course after only having casually read Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe, and John McPhee? What if I told you I’d also had a subscription to The New Yorker for a decade? How much literary journalism did I need to read to be able to teach it? How familiar with its style and conventions did I need to be? I can’t answer those questions, so instead I’ll say what every teacher knows to be true: I wasn’t qualified to teach the material until I’d already taught it a few times.

That doesn’t make me a fraud—it makes me a teacher.

Here’s a hypothetical: an academic writes a dissertation about, say, evolutionary theory in fin de siècle American popular culture, but later starts reading and writing about a subject in which he’d received absolutely no graduate level training. I don’t know, like film theory. He reads the seminal texts, then writes about it online, for a popular audience instead of an academic one, for the better part of six years. Would this academic be qualified to open an “Internet Film School” at the Onion A.V. Club? Would he be a fraud if he did?

Embargoing Dissertations

[ 55 ] July 23, 2013 |

Academics face increasing problems in dealing with academic publishing. This is especially true in the book-driven fields of history and anthropology, where because dissertations are now archived online, publishers don’t want to publish them. This leads to a real problem for young academics who need tenure. For me, this is not a big problem because I have completely reworked my project anyway and have condensed the entire dissertation down to the first two chapters of my book manuscript. But for others, who complete a dissertation that really is quite ready or close to ready to publish as a book, this provides a true dilemma.

Unfortunately, the American Historical Association’s response, to call for the embargoing of dissertations so that young scholars can publish them, is not particularly helpful. Rob has talked about the many problems of academic publishing. It’s almost impossible to have a serious, scholarly, and timely conversation based upon your research in an academic setting. I’m currently writing a very long book review for an important journal in the field of labor history covering multiple books. It’s around the theme of what should labor do to stem its crisis. I’ll finish writing that review in the next month. It probably won’t be published until the fall of 2014 or so. By then, who knows how relevant it will be for anything?

So retracting knowledge is not a good answer for a discipline that needs to remain relevant. What needs to happen instead is a revision of tenure requirements that consider a cluster of factors rather than simply a book to determine whether a person’s scholarship has value. This could be citations of your dissertation (problematic in its own right I think but it has some value), more of an emphasis on articles rather than books, a path toward new research, the dissemination of research in non-traditional ways (through the internet or other new media for instance), etc. But of course departments and especially universities don’t want to do any of that. Rather, the increased difficulty of publishing combined with the retraction of jobs has created a labor surplus. So the universities can see tenure denial as a money-saving exercise and can effectively demand whatever they want from assistant professors (that faculty who got their jobs in the 1970s and never published a single word seem to be routinely the most strident in upholding publication standards for young scholars has amused me for at least a decade now).

In any case, I don’t see anyone taking the AHA statement seriously. It’s really not an acceptable response.

The Core Reason for the Humanities Crisis

[ 207 ] May 28, 2013 |

Leon Wieseltier asks the right question in his graduation speech at Brandeis: “Has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were cherished less, and has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were needed more?”

Unfortunately, his answer is totally wrong.

So there is no task more urgent in American intellectual life at this hour than to offer some resistance to the twin imperialisms of science and technology, and to recover the old distinction — once bitterly contested, then generally accepted, now almost completely forgotten – between the study of nature and the study of man. As Bernard Williams once remarked, “’humanity’ is a name not merely for a species but also for a quality.” You who have elected to devote yourselves to the study of literature and languages and art and music and philosophy and religion and history — you are the stewards of that quality. You are the resistance. You have had the effrontery to choose interpretation over calculation, and to recognize that calculation cannot provide an accurate picture, or a profound picture, or a whole picture, of self-interpreting beings such as ourselves; and I commend you for it.

The problem is not science and technology. For one, science, technology, and the humanities can be blended in very interesting ways. Second, science and technology are not the enemy.

The enemy of the humanities is corporate capitalism and their bought political cronies. We are indeed living through the greatest crisis in the humanities in American history. That’s because corporations control educational policy, corporate heads sit on the board of trustees of universities, and the right-wing correctly sees higher education as the last place in the United States where one can hear open critiques of capitalism. The attack on the humanities happens in higher education policy–through telling students they can’t get jobs with a liberal arts degree, through paying professors in Business and Physics departments vastly more than in History and English, through “running universities like a business,” which of course means isolating any field of study that doesn’t bring in outside monies. At the base of all of this is a capitalist war against its critics. And it’s hardly surprising that Wieseltier would miss this. Criticizing capitalism makes people uncomfortable. Criticizing technology is easy. But in this case, it’s wrong.

ISA! ISA!

[ 23 ] April 4, 2013 |

Blogging at you today from the 2013 International Studies Association Conference in San Francisco, California. If you’re currently enjoying ISA, please consider stopping by the International Studies Blogging Reception, which should include blogger types from Monkey Cage, Duck of Minerva, and LGM.  A few random links of note:

The Commercialization of Academia: A Case Study

[ 226 ] March 28, 2013 |

I’ve been sitting on this post for over 20 months; writing it, editing it, deleting it, writing it again. It was initially inspired by a book review written by Stanley Fish in the New York Times, which generated some online discussion, then the University of Virginia firing and subsequent unfiring of Teresa Sullivan last summer. Finally, we there is the effect that Coursera specifically and MOOCs in general will have on our understanding of the role of higher education. Higher education in the United States is facing a series of challenges, from the erosion of legislative support for state universities and colleges, the emergence of Coursera and its ilk, to a whole scale reassessment of the role of higher ed. In America, the concern is that the sector is being pushed towards a mission dedicated solely to the production of vocationally-equipped graduates with skill sets easily measured, all administered in a commercial framework driven by ever changing business models glossily packaged in the buzzwords fashionable to the day .

We’re already there in Britain.

In immediate response to the firing of Sullivan at Virginia, Siva Vaidhyanathan wrote an excellent piece at Slate. The following two passages are pertinent to this post:

The biggest challenge facing higher education is market-based myopia. Wealthy board members, echoing the politicians who appointed them (after massive campaign donations) too often believe that universities should be run like businesses, despite the poor record of most actual businesses in human history.

Universities do not have “business models.” They have complementary missions of teaching, research, and public service. Yet such leaders think of universities as a collection of market transactions, instead of a dynamic (I said it) tapestry of creativity, experimentation, rigorous thought, preservation, recreation, vision, critical debate, contemplative spaces, powerful information sources, invention, and immeasurable human capital.

Read more…

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