Monthly Archives: June 2015

Did you have to do this? / I was thinking that you could be trusted.

If you’re an academic, you have likely been spending some time following what’s happening in Wisconsin right now. (And if you’re not, feel free to go read up before you continue.)

This is a pretty big deal, and there are plenty of other people on the internet to tell you why. So I won’t do that while I have your attention. Instead, I’ll turn your attention to one particular article, and why faculty are fighting the wrong fight.

Before I begin, let me be clear: I agree entirely with every point in the above article. I agree that “[t]enure protects the academic freedom of professors, which gives them the power and latitude to conduct research independently of political interests.” Without such freedom, faculty studying climate change, transgender identity, international policy, or any of a host of other issues with political implications, could find their research – and their employment – directly tampered with by the changing political landscape. I agree that “[f]aculty must be free of interference from outside forces, a common practice in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, when wealthy donors and boards could fire faculty with little justification for expressing their views.” Similarly, as you may recall from previous posts, I have some very strong views on shared governance, which “has been a bedrock principle of higher education, through which faculty members have meaningfully participated in the institutional governance of their universities alongside other staffers and senior managers.” There are complicated conversations to be had, and difficult decisions to be made; the best way to work through them is to do so together. It’s that simple.

And just as importantly, I also agree that “[i]f faculties across the country don’t take a very public and aggressive stand in defense of their colleagues in Wisconsin, there will be little to stop the process of complete corporatization of higher education, with all the damage to the quality and diversity of teaching, research and knowledge production that this will produce.” Teaching and research are similar in that both are designed to change. Just as researchers continue to add to, correct, or clarify what we know, curricula – both in terms of courses offered in various majors as well as the details of individual syllabi – are designed to change over time. As higher education moves more toward the factory model of labor and production, the fewer opportunities there will be to allow and encourage faculty to develop these necessary changes.

All that said, the article is also completely wrong. And please allow me to explain why.

What this article misses is that, while faculty are concerned with “diversity of teaching, research and knowledge production,”* upper-level administration, boards of directors, and state agencies are not. Or, if they are, they are concerned with other things (cough, money, cough) first. To give some local examples:
1. SUNY Potsdam closed down its Employment Relations program, and failed to reappoint the remaining tenure track (and at the time untenured) faculty member.
2. SUNY Potsdam created the first BFA in Creative Writing in the SUNY system, and has not hired any new faculty members to staff this program. Currently, there is only one full-time, tenure track faculty member who is devoted full time to this program as well as the BA in Creative Writing. (Since this program was created, the department has lost two full-time faculty members who taught exclusively in this program. Neither has been replaced.)
3. SUNY Potsdam is currently investigating a number of options that would shrink the general education program, and several departments have been asked to shrink their major requirements (in both cases, to cut the number of credits students must complete).
4. In my department alone, we are down several tenure lines, and are unable to offer anything close to the full range of courses in our department curricula. There are currently no plans to replace the faculty lines in Creative Writing, Composition, or Communication that we need; some of these lines have been unfilled for years.

In none of the above examples was “the quality and diversity of teaching, research and knowledge production” the driving force of the decision-making. In every case – and in countless others in my department, at my university, and at universities across the country – the driving force is money: how much is there to spend, where should it be spent, and what is most important to the university?

In every case mentioned above, faculty used “the quality and diversity of teaching, research and knowledge production” as a reason to keep or replace programs and faculty. And in every case, that argument failed. Money always wins. Lack of funding – even anticipated lack of funding** – trumps every other consideration.

In short, while many faculty will (rightfully and enthusiastically) continue to fight the good fight, they will also (inevitably, predictably) lose.

Faculty need to spend more time fighting the right fight: convincing the decision-makers that the tenure system, which includes the hiring or tenure-track faculty, is in the best financial interests of the university. So in that vein, I offer a few thoughts:

1. When faculty members are teaching part-time, are hired to positions without any upward mobility or increase in pay and benefits, or are required to cobble together multiple jobs in order to make a living wage, those faculty members will be looking for better opportunities. When I was an adjunct, I was more than willing to leave one university to work at another, if that second university paid me more, or offered me more work. And I am hardly alone in that regard. Faculty who are not given job security and fair wages will look for other work. And as we move toward a model whereby most of the faculty are contingent faculty, programs, departments, and universities run the risk of losing any institutional stability. If universities want to run themselves like businesses, let them run themselves like successful businesses, and any business executive worth her salt will tell you that high turnover is a terrible business model. And sadly, universities are not only engaged in high turnover, but seem to be actively seeking it as a sustainable business model. And if we really want students to see themselves as customers,*** we need to recognize that those “customers” may take their business elsewhere. One reason why I am so good at my job is that I’ve been here long enough to know how things work, how programs are designed, etc. (There’s a very good reason why many universities do not expect newly-hired faculty to engage in service or advise students. Experienced faculty are able to assist the customer base much more knowledgeably and efficiently.)

2. This should come as no surprise, but faculty members who are properly supported will more eagerly support their universities. As universities are increasingly fighting over students (and the money they bring in), faculty are increasingly relied on the help recruit students. At SUNY Potsdam, faculty have often been asked to call prospective students and parents, under the (perfectly reasonable) assumption that students are more likely to attend a university when they can address their questions and concerns to the faculty early on. (This is also why faculty are asked^ to work at recruiting and admissions events.) Short of paying faculty to do this work, universities are relying on faculty who are invested in the university. Additionally, those faculty who feel supported are much more likely to convincingly sell the university’s merits. In short, there’s a reason why large companies don’t ask disgruntled employees to do PR work.

3. Faculty members who are encouraged to stay long-term will do a much better job of serving the university by also serving the local community and student population. The longer the faculty serve in their positions, the better equipped they are to address the local concerns and local needs. While in many ways students share concerns across a diversity of identities, it’s equally true that student bodies develop local needs and concerns. The longer I serve in my position, the better I am able to serve my students and my university.

4. Faculty members who stay at universities long-term are able to do long-term work, and some of that work will bring money into the university. There’s a great many funding opportunities through grant programs, and many such grant programs require long-term commitments. For instance, in my own department, we took advantage of several Title III curricular development grants, which required a fair amount of time to craft those grant proposals and institute curricular and technological changes int he department. This kind of work can only be successfully performed by long-term faculty members. This is not just because faculty literally have to be here long-term in order to take advantage of long-term opportunities, but also because faculty who do not see themselves at universities for the long-term are simply not going to engage in long-term projects. Faculty who are continually on the market – or even continually reapplying for their current positions – have neither the time nor the inclination to do this kind of work.

5. And of course, long-term faculty members are more willing and better able to support the university in terms of shared governance, if only because they have the institutional knowledge to do so effectively. But then again, well, see above. There’s a reason why Gov. Walker is looking to dismantle tenure and shared governance simultaneously.

Anyway, hopefully you see my point. All of the above examples should suggest the financial necessity of tenure-track faculty. These are the faculty members who are in the best position^^ to serve the students, the institution, and the community at large. As more and more money comes from tuition, student recruitment and retention become increasingly important. And it is the long-term, tenure-track faculty – the faculty that the university has properly invested in – that will best assist universities in that work. As universities become more interested in branding student experiences, it is the tenure-track faculty who will best serve to craft that brand and deliver the product.^^^

You have to spend money to make money. There is no return on investment, when you have made no investment.

*Or at least they should be. I get very frustrated with those faculty who are not so concerned. Yes, they exist. I’m not going to pretend they don’t.

**By which I mean that sometimes, decisions will be made not because we can’t fund programs now, but because we might not be able to fund them down the line. While this may sound like good financial planning, I have only ever heard this argument made with respect to cutting academic programs. However, when the faculty were told that SUNY Potsdam and SUNY Canton would be hiring a shared VP of business affairs and plant operations – a move that initially (and down the line) cost both universities quite a bit of money – faculty at SUNY Potsdam were told, and I quote, “we have to spend money to save money.” Many of us are still waiting to see how this will be saving us any money.

***And I don’t, but remember, we are trying to be properly armed for this gun fight.

^Sometimes, unfortunately, “asking” means “reminding junior faculty that they evetually need to be reappointed and tenured.”

^^I am not claiming that adjuncts are incapable of doing such work. I am, however, saying that they are not in the best position to do such work. The great work that adjuncts do can be even greater when they are properly supported and invested in.

^^^I hate that I am making this argument. Hate. I am going to have to go eat some cake and watch Netflix when I’m done here.


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