An Open Letter to Teach for America Regarding Teacher Strikes

February 20, 2019

[UPDATE, Thurs 3/21/19: I have submitted this letter, finally, with 51 signatures on it. If you still happen upon it and want to endorse it, I’ll keep adding people until we get a satisfactory response. –SK]

Dear Ms. Villanueva Beard, CEO, Teach for America:

The current wave of teacher strikes across the United States leads us to request that Teach for America leadership rethink your organization’s stance towards your members’ participation in those strikes.

An Associated Press article (“Teach for America Slammed over Oakland Strike”, Feb 12) indicates that your advice to TFA members in the event of a strike is to do what they think is right, but to understand that joining the strike may come at substantial financial cost to them. To be fair, your spokesperson hints that TFA “is exploring if it could help supplement an AmeriCorps education award if a teacher loses it.”

This advice is troubling for three reasons. First, it’s textbook coercion to lay a decision and the penalty for making it alongside each other while acting like you don’t mean to connect the dots. The fact that AmeriCorps has a policy preventing participants in its programs from striking doesn’t make the threat less of a threat. That is, it’s no less coercive by virtue of being accurate.

Second, there’s a conflict between the fact that your members are fully faculty at the schools where they teach, including their right to become members of the union, and your policy that they face penalties for participating in perfectly legal activities attached to their membership. They’re allowed to pay dues; they’re allowed to file grievances; they’re allowed to vote in union elections; but they are penalized for striking. It’s difficult to see any logic in which those propositions are consistent.

Finally, TFA’s claim not to have a position on strikes rings awfully hollow in the context of your support for and collaboration with publicly anti-union forces; this piece from Gary Rubinstein names just a handful, and anyone who has followed TFA over the years is likely familiar with more.

We understand you’re trying to thread a needle: recognizing the right of your members to participate in legal activity while recognizing a policy of your partner organization. To be candid, we would be more sympathetic to the difficulty of that position if TFA hadn’t been so unfriendly to teacher unions–and the entire reason that we need them, which is to stabilize the teaching workforce instead of exponentially increasing turnover.

With all that in mind, we are therefore asking Teach for America for two actions.

  1. Shorter term: follow through on the suggestion in the AP article linked above to “supplement” any financial harm to TFA members if they engage in legally protected activity. Not to put too fine a point on it, TFA has access to resources (private benefactors in addition to federal dollars) to replace the subsidies without really missing any of it. We’re confident you could make up the difference without much struggle.

 

  1. Longer term: encourage AmeriCorps to change its policy regarding eligibility for loan-repayment or tuition assistance based on participation in legally protected activity.

As long as striking is legal, and as long as TFA members can join unions, it is unethical for TFA to discourage participation in strikes, and more so while pretending not to be doing it. Furthermore, although many supporters of teacher unions and public education are troubled by TFA in principle, your organization could earn kudos by doing the right thing here.

Sincerely, Concerned Teachers/Faculty/Union Members (you don’t have to be a union member to endorse–I meant that to include union folks who aren’t also teachers)

To add your endorsement, please CLICK HERE; this link takes you to a Google Form. I’ll update this post periodically with new signatures.

***
Seth Kahn, PhD
Professor of English, West Chester University of PA
Member of APSCUF (Association of PA State College and University Faculties)

Steven Singer
English Language Arts Teacher in Western Pennsylvania
Edublogger – Gadflyonthewallblog.com
Blogger & Research Director at the Badass Teachers Association
Member of NEA

Rosemary Pearce
Teacher
Bayport-Blue Point UFSD
Bayport-Blue Point Teachers’ Association

Anne Nguyen
Teacher
Hartford Public Schools
AFT &HFT

Laurie Ann Lawrence
Gifted Support Teacher
Henry County BOE
NEA/GAE/HCEA

Gregory Sampson
Teacher
Duval County Public Schools
Grumpy Old Teacher
Duval Teachers United

Lisa Konigsberg
Instructor
West Chester University of PA
APSCUF

Susan Schorn
Writing Coordinator
University of Texas-Austin
Texas State Employees Union

Liliana Naydan
Assistant Professor of English
Penn State University-Abington
Former LEO Michigan union leader

Michael Flanagan, Ed.D.
Teacher, UFT Union Rep
NYC Department of Education
Badass Teachers Association Executive Board
UFT, NYSUT, AFT

Craig Crowder
Graduate Instructor
University of Kentucky

Caprice Lawless
Adjunct Faculty
Front Range Community College

Carolyn Betensky
Professor of English
University of Rhode Island
URI-AAUP

Anne Frances Wysocki
Associate Professor Emeritus of English
Department of English
University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee

Galen Leonhardy
Professor of English
Blackhawk College
IFT Local 1836

Heather Schell
Assistant Professor
George Washington University

Joe Berry
Retired teacher and professor
Retired City College of San Francisco and U of IL, presently Ton Duc Thang U, Viet Nam
AFT 2121 at CCSF (and NEA, AAUP, NWU/UAW, and IWW)

Don Unger
Assistant Professor
University of Mississippi
UCW-CWA

Darin Jensen
English Instructor
Des Moines Area Community College
NEA

Drew M. Loewe
Associate Professor, Writing and Rhetoric
St. Edward’s University
www.drewloewe.net 

Leslie Bary
Department of Modern Languages
University of Louisiana-Lafayette
AAUP

Dr. Sheila Addison
Researcher, consultant, trainer
Margin to Center Consulting
http://www.drsheilaaddison.com

Mercedes K. Schneider, Oh.D.
Classroom teacher
St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana
deutsch29.wordpress.com
St. Tammany Federation of Teachers

Eliza Noh
Professor
California State University-Fullerton
California Faculty Association

Karen Kirkpatrick
Teacher
Madison Elementary
CTA/NEA

Liberty Stanavage
Associate Professor
SUNY Potsdam
UUP

Nora Bacon
Professor Emerita
University of Nebraska at Omaha
AAUP

Frances L. Pierce, M Ed
PSEA-NEA UniServ Director, Retired
Retired
PSEA-NEA Retired

Donald Eismann
Retired School Administrator
Sumner Bonney Lake School District

Jennifer Beech
Professor of English
Univ. TN@ Chattanooga
UCWA

Sherri Craig
Assistant Professor
West Chester University of PA
APSCUF

Dawn M. Armfield, PhD
Assistant Professor
Minnesota State University, Mankato
IFO

Amy Lynch-Biniek
Professor
Kutztown University
APSCUF

Ashley Patriarca
Associate Professor, English
West Chester University of Pennsylvania
APSCUF

Lydia Snow
Music Education Instructor
Northeastern Illinois University
Illinois Federation of Teachers

Megan Berkobien
Graduate Worker
University of Michigan
GEO3550

Marjorie Stewart
Associate Professor of English
Glenville State College

Jennifer Johnson
Lecturer
University of California, Santa Barbara
UC – AFT

Nancy Mack
Professor of English Emeritus
Wright State University
Engaging Writers with Multigenre Research
AAUP

Paulette Stevenson
Instructor
Arizona State University

Karen Mitchell
Elementary Teacher, Retired; English Instructor, Retired Juneau, AK School District; University of AK SR
Former member NEA, AFT

Jerry Carbo
Professor
Shippensburg University
APSCUF

Amy Wan
Associate Professor of English
Queens College, CUNY
PSC-CUNY

Ann Green
Professor
Saint Joseph’s University

T J Geiger
Assistant Professor of English
Baylor University

Darci Thoune
Associate Professor of English/First-Year Writing Program Coordinator
University of Wisconsin-La Crosse
AFT-UAPUWL Local 6502

Miriam Reumann
Teaching Professor, Dept. of History
University of Rhode Island
AAUP

Thomas Ultican
Retired Teacher
Mar Vista High School
tultican.com
SEA

Lynne Formigli
6th grade science teacher
Cabrillo middle school SCUSD
NBPTS EA Science
UTSC

Delia Poey
Professor of Spanish
Florida State University

Peter Greene
Retired teacher

 

 

 

 

 

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About “Viewpoint Diversity” and False Equivalency

February 3, 2019

I’ve been reading the current thread on the WPA-l, about a new discussion group called Heterodox Rhetoric and Composition (HxR/C), and I’ve been thinking about why some of the language the Heterodox Academy uses seems more dangerous to me than it appears to people joining the group.

The term “viewpoint diversity” is the heart of it. This 2017 piece in Vox traces the history of the concept as part of an explicitly conservative project. HxR/C’s language rings a bell similar to that of David Horowitz’s Students for Academic Freedom–because it’s a clear outgrowth of it. In the early 2000s, the preferred term was “intellectual diversity,” and the Vox piece documents the morphing between the two. The Students for Academic Freedom website hasn’t been maintained actively for a while,  but both the language and the chains of reasoning they used were similar to the Heterodox Academy’s (which hosts HxR/C).

When the SAF version of this movement defused, its descendants seems to have moved in two directions. One of them has turned into Turning Point USA, which looks/feels more like Horowitz as an individual (i.e., confrontational and partisan) in its style, and the other is the Heterodox Academy, which looks and feels more like a direct descendant of FIRE. [A note about FIRE: I first learned of them during the Horowitz SAF campaign. They’ve always struck me as an almost perfect mirror image of the ACLU–an organization the politics of which lean in one direction, but are occasionally complicated by the organization’s willingness to take stands on behalf of people they disagree with.]

The folks involved in HxR/C may not buy that history or may want to debate details of it; at the same time, I hope this makes clear why that history–in which some of us oldsters were pretty deeply implicated–is making us (at least me) respond to this initiative with concern. The Hx R/C members may not (and I believe them when they say so) mean the same things, but the overlaps in the language and logic are hard to ignore.

Along with all that, this morning I read a post from a physicist named Adam Becker at Undark (which, I’ll confess, I haven’t vetted carefully as a source). The post, called “Junk Science or the Real Thing: ‘Inference’ Publishes Both,” is about a periodical called Inference that practices viewpoint diversity. They don’t use the phrase, exactly, but their About page says [bold added, italics in the original], in part:

Founded in 2014, Inference: International Review of Science is an independent quarterly review of the sciences. Inference is dedicated to publishing reasoned, informed, and insightful critical essays that reflect the true diversity of thought across the fields that comprise the journal’s remit, from Anthropology to Zoology….

We have no ideological, political, or religious agendas whatsoever.

The language should look familiar. Also, to be clear–Becker directly asserts a political agenda and motives in his argument that I am NOT asserting here.

To be fair, Inference replied to Becker’s essay on their site, responding point-by-point to some of the details, but not squarely addressing his major argument: that putting bad arguments alongside better arguments doesn’t lead to “dialogue” but instead to legitimizing the bad arguments by making them look like they belong. The editors of Inference do say that anyone who wants to respond to what they think is bad science can write letters to the editor. As somebody who’s been an avid letter-to-editor writer for many years, I can assure you that a letter in the opinion section has a lot less power than the multi-thousand-word ostensibly-professionally-vetted piece it’s responding to. C’mon.

The position of the Inference editors, which seems similar if not identical to the position the Heterodox Academy takes, strikes me as false-equivalence. Not all statements have equal force, and to assert that those difference in force are purely logical/critical/rational is to enable (at least) even the most irresponsible utterances as viable.

Accusations of false equivalence vary in terms of their willingness to declare (or presume) motives. I often accuse Fox News of superficially including an occasional “liberal side” of a story only to create straw arguments serving their right-wing agenda. On the other hand, while I don’t think the New York Times or CNN are particularly right-wing (or left), both organizations willingly give space to viewpoints that are demonstrably dishonest (see: entire history of the US occupation of Iraq) in the name of “fairness.”

I’m not addressing the motives of the HxR/C members, partly because I have lengthy personal relationships with some of them and I don’t want those to confuse the issue; partly because Trish Roberts-Miller’s point about motivism is right (it’s more of a tool for reinforcing group in/out-ness than it is an analytical tool); and partly because I want to acknowledge their own explanations for what they’re doing.

In return, I hope members of the group will take the discomfort some of us are expressing not as an effort to shut them down, but as a legitimate expression of concern about their group’s resonances with projects that have, in fact, been aimed explicitly at silencing “radical leftist indoctrinators.”


About the shifting culture of WPA-l

November 9, 2018

A grad student who I don’t know posted a query on the Writing Program Administrators listserv last night about members’ experiences of the list. The post and subsequent responses got me thinking about how the culture of the group has changed over the years. [I’m putting this here instead of there because it’s pretty self-indulgent.]

Short version: three contexts (choose your own spatial metaphor for how you’d arrange these) have changed–the field of comp/rhet/writing studies around which WPA-l circulates; the profession’s labor situation; and the sociopolitical moment in which we marginalized/oppressed people increasingly boldly (and organized-ly) refuse to put up with it anymore.

When I joined WPA-l in Sept 1998 as first-semester PhD student, the list was mostly about two things: (1) WPA business, which I was interested in following because I didn’t know anything about it; and (2) doing what Joyce Locke Carter described as being “in the hotel bar and hallway at CCCC,” i.e., listening to people talk about what we do. Also, as a brand new PhD student, the “hallway” was full of famous people in our field being informal, sometimes just chatty, because for many (when a LOT of “lonely WPAs” worked with colleagues uninterested in what we do), the list served a social function along with its professional functions. I remember grinning ear-to-ear when Steve North responded to a comment about snow in Syracuse with a joke about snow in Albany.

Because the membership was smaller, and people on it really were needed each other, it was also more welcoming to new people–although in retrospect it’s clear to me that one reason I found it that way is my identity, and I hereby apologize to anyone who tried to tell me that without my hearing it.

Around the same time, it was becoming more of an expectation that members of the field talked about ourselves in “more scholarly” ways, so the discourse of the list started to change. It didn’t entirely move away from the business of WPA work, but it expanded to include a lot more theoretical debates/arguments. Especially as a grad student, and still (way back when) as a junior faculty member who was finding a place in the field, it was thrilling to be able to hear and to have those “hallway chats” with experts, and to do it all the time!

So we have, circa 2001, 2002, a list that’s adding a function (more intellectual debate) to its historic functions. Then (I’m truncating radically here) two other things happened/are happening: (1) as the field grew in numbers, so did the list membership, so the kind of we-all-know-each-other ethos didn’t hold anymore (and one of the problems is that some of us long-timers still act like it does); and (2) the academic labor context changed, such that people like I was in 1998-2002 (and other grad students who felt comfortable participating in vigorous conversations with “important people”) can’t assume a safe future (or, can’t afford to be as cavalier about their chances as I probably was). These two points are connected in ways I’m glossing over.

And now: the work many of us thought we’d been doing for years, working against bigotry, working to share power with people who historically denied it, working for equity and equality and justice, is coming home to roost courtesy of a new generation of list members who are bold enough to bring it.

Let me say very clearly that’s not a criticism of list members who have observed and been victimized by problematic and oppressive behaviors for years and didn’t feel safe saying so more publicly. That’s the whole damn point.

I applaud the individual courage of those who are pushing us long-timers to be better people, better mentors, and better co-workers.

 

Kairos matters. It’s time.

 


What Democracy Looks Like

October 5, 2018

A convergence of two recent lines of thought–I need to spend a few minutes putting them together. There’s not a lot new in here, but as I often preach in class, nothing is too obvious that it’s not worth saying at least one time.

This semester I’m teaching a course in environmental advocacy writing and was talking yesterday about working for Greenpeace in the summer of 1989. Greenpeace has always framed its activism as democratic organizing against corporate power (rather than about individual responsibility), and that’s the frame I “grew up” in.

This morning (Fri Oct 5), David Sirota published a furiously brilliant opinion piece in the Guardian (“America’s New Aristocracy Lives in an Accountability-Free Zone“), in which he describes what wealthy and powerful people have done in this country to insulate themselves from any legal or political consequences for their abuses.

Sirota’s explanation of what it will take to pierce the accountability-free zone is exactly right and worth quoting at length.

To wedge open the gates of the accountability-free zone, everyday citizens will have to be organized enough to overcome already-well-organized money.

In the political arena, that means electing pro-accountability candidates of both parties, and then forcing them to follow through on prosecuting wrongdoers and voting down aristocracy-approved nominees who represent the accountability-free zone.

In the consumer economy, it will require boycotts, pressure campaigns, union drives, #MeToo movements, shareholder resolutions and other direct actions to hold companies and executives accountable (and as the recent minimum wage campaign against Amazon proves, those efforts can succeed). It will require support for companies that offer different models of corporate behavior, and it will require swarms of cable-news-addled dittoheads to shut off the TV and instead support other forms of media that are serious about questioning, scrutinizing and challenging power.

In the job market, it will require employers to actually fire executives when they lie, cheat, steal, harass and otherwise mistreat their workers.

And at a cultural level, it will require any and all efforts to rescind and deny social status to those who have committed egregious war, financial and sexual crimes — and it will require doing that even if those miscreants wear nice suits and have gilded credentials.

I had a micro version of this realization during the summer I spent canvassing for Greenpeace. Outside the office one day before work (yes, playing hacky sack!), one of my comrades was ranting about how EVIL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! 3M (the target of one our major campaigns) was.

I said, “Y’know what’s ‘evil?’ Satan. If 3M is really evil, we’re probably not going to out-organize Satan, so we should just go drink beer instead. If that sounds as silly to you as it does to me, let’s get to work. There are millions more of us than there are of them.”

The wealthy and powerful don’t get away with being terrible because nobody can stop them, but because not enough of us band together to do it. The work of making that happen is hard, but the concept isn’t.


That New NTT Hire Needs Your Help Too

August 13, 2018

In the 8/12 Chronicle of Higher Education, Jane Halonen and Dana Dunn offer senior faculty advice to help new hires adjust to new positions, institutions, locations, and cultures. Much of the advice is great; I’m not broadly attacking their piece (certainly I’m not thrilled with all of it–if you’ve heard my rant about pieces that ignore teaching-focused jobs, you can guess the rest), but I saw the link posted and responded to by adjunct faculty, and I share their irritation that it ignores them.

So I decided to produce an analogous piece for tenured/tenure-track faculty to help new NTT hires adjust to their new positions too. You probably have more new contingent colleagues than new tenure-track colleagues anyway. Not all of this is new, but for some of you it will be newer than others.

I’m not going for perfect parallelism, but in some cases I’ll quote them so you can see why I’m saying something.

Respect the background, skills, and qualifications of your new hires.

Their version:

Today’s new … hires are likely to arrive much better prepared, since the tight tenure-track market means they aren’t necessarily new to the profession. They may have had supervised teaching opportunities in graduate school and worked … as contingent instructors. Many… have an ambitious scholarly agenda and multiple publications….

My version:

Many new contingent colleagues have more teaching experience than you, and you should respect them for that. Ideally, you should create opportunities for their strengths to benefit the department, especially them, but at least recognize their professionalism. Furthermore, many are just as ambitious scholars as you, and can be plenty productive if you don’t deny them resources because you assume they don’t want/need them.

Mentor actively.

Their version:

…the watchful eye of a department chair is different from that of a graduate adviser. There is no guarantee that their new supervisor will alert them to common pitfalls (e.g., that doing a course overload for extra income may mean they get little else done that semester) or closely track their research progress so that their tenure prospects remain favorable.

My version:

If you’re a supervisor, supervise. That means more than making renewal decisions based on flawed (at best) student evaluation instruments. Make sure they know how to access resources. Make sure they know what the rules and standards are, and if somebody is struggling, help them.

Also, protect them as much as you can from, for example, losing a few thousand dollars and maybe access to health insurance because that “course overload for extra income” probably was supposed to be the adjunct’s course.

Help them adjust to the complexities of a new setting by treating them like people who belong.

Their version:

Even with the preview of academic life [I’m going to ignore how patronizing that is. Oops, apparently I’m not.] that adjunct appointments provide, new full-time faculty members may be surprised by the complexity of their new department’s culture and traditions, the characteristics of the specific student population, and the challenge of finding a reasonable work/life balance.

My version:

If they’re invited to participate fully in the department, and credited for it, and recognized as human beings, the rest of this is less of a problem. Treat them the same as anyone else.

Recognize that NTT faculty often have research agendas, and you should help them pursue those.

My colleague Katie Feyh and I have done workshops at the last two Rhetoric Society of America conferences on sustaining research agendas in contingent positions. While some of you may believe resources are tight enough that you’re leery of distributing them even further (Right answer: fight for more resources. Wrong answer: treat colleagues like they don’t exist), some supports cost nothing. For example, if your IRB has a policy against adjunct faculty applying as PIs, offer to sponsor applications. Better, try to get that policy changed.

Provide opportunities (and compensation) for service for NTT faculty who want it.

Your NTT faculty might want to participate in curricular conversations, or assessment projects, or deciding departmental awards, or….  Why anyone would ban them from doing this is beyond me; on the flipside, it cannot become a de facto expectation, and you can’t expect or demand it without compensating them.

An increasing number of colleagues are opting out of tenure-track positions, sometimes because of what Halonen and Dunn rightly call vicious politics. Don’t judge.

A growing cadre of faculty are choosing not to enter (or to leave) the tenure-track for lots of reasons. Don’t assume that colleagues aren’t on tenure lines because they couldn’t be; more than you think just don’t want to be. And that’s a choice you should respect.

Halonen and Dunn close with a list of specific advice I won’t try to parallel, but one item is just as applicable to new NTT hires as it is to new TT hires:

Show them the town. Get brochures… to help introduce a new faculty member to life beyond the campus. Share tips on the best festivals, brunch spots, barbers, dry cleaners, day-care centers, and so forth, so that the new person isn’t starting from scratch in every practical decision that attends moving to a new place.

Don’t assume NTT faculty couldn’t get better jobs somewhere else, or retired from “real jobs” and are now teaching because it’s something to do, or the other stereotypes we all too often have about NTT faculty. They’re people, and if humaneness matters, it matters for everybody.

[UPDATED: One other point: don’t invite your NTT colleague to collaborate on something with you, and then take the credit for it “because they don’t need it.” Yes, this happens, and you’re a monster if you do it.]

Their last two sentences are exactly right. Since Halonen and Dunn didn’t explicitly apply them to NTT hires, I will.

[T]he level of care extended to its members reflects the character of a department. Ensuring that newcomers have a humane workplace means you do, too.


University executives’ pay and “fat cat” faculty

July 21, 2018

The Chronicle of Higher Ed’s yearly “Executive Compensation and Private and Public Colleges” is making the rounds again on Facebook, which got me thinking about some of the problems faculty face in using information like this.

Asking why executives deserve so much money invites bad actors to answer “You’re right. Let’s not pay anybody well!” Every time I see a list like this, I immediately want to demand that, like faculty, management justify their pay according to the value they bring their institutions. Put another way–while James Ramsey was president of the University of Louisville (which he was when this survey was published), what on Earth did he to earn this kind of money?

Screen Shot 2018-07-21 at 8.42.59 AM.png

To be fair, the base salary is only (!) about $330K; let’s work with the figure of $330K.

The Louisville Business Journal compiled a database of U of L and UK employees (using 2016 salary figures). I generated a list of English Department faculty at U of L (I’m not going to name any names here). The highest paid faculty member in English makes over half the president’s base; the next highest about half; the third highest about 40%. Most faculty in the department make less than 1/3 the president’s base salary, and eight of the forty-four listed faculty earn roughly 10%.

In case the point isn’t clear:

What actual work justifies such a massive pay differential between him and the faculty who do the teaching and research that comprise the function of a university? I’m not arguing that he doesn’t “do anything.” Part of me thinks he needs to answer for how much state money he’s pocketing–not just relative to his own job description, but also relative to what other people at his institution earn for labor that, frankly, the university could do without less than they could do without his. (If that’s not true, then the proof is exactly what I’m asking for.)

The problem making this argument to decision-makers is that challenging the value of somebody else’s labor is unlikely to increase anyone’s perception of the value of yours. So my gut reaction to want to demand it is probably not tactically very sound.

Misunderstandings about university work allows purse-string-yankers to conflate…a whole bunch of things…

Given the inconsistent terminology for positions even within academic circles, why would I expect my neighbor to know or care a whole lot about what an Associate Vice President for University Advancement and Director of Sponsored Research? At the same time, a curious neighbor can look at a list like the Louisville Business Journal’s (or similar projects) and see that lots of people who work at Nearby University are making well into six figures in base salary. If you see those numbers and don’t really know/care how those titles differ from “Professor,” it’s easy to believe that most people at the university (except people serving food and cleaning, but who thinks about them?) are making lofty sums.

The consequences of the problem aren’t clear until the (mis)information gets to people who want to undercut faculty and/or public institutions. Too often they get away with claims like “Look at how much those people are getting paid” without acknowledging (although they know) that we aren’t all the same people. Because neither their handlers nor their constituents have much reason to care about the difference between an Assistant Vice Provost and Director of [insert office here] and an Associate Professor and Director of [insert program here], the fact that one probably makes three times the salary of the other doesn’t register. Worse even: the Assistant Professor of Practice and Associate Director of the University Writing Center (NTT) whose salary is probably one sixth (if that) the Assistant Vice Provost, but the title is just as oblique!

Because most voters and handlers of legislators don’t have a stake in pushing back against this conflation, faculty are largely left to our own devices–and it’s hard to do without sounding defensive, self-aggrandizing, or both.

As management becomes more populated by people without academic credentials/experience, and by people who are friends with those same people who already don’t like us, it makes the reach of that mis/dis-information campaign even longer.

Even bracketing off malice as a motive for letting this situation get so toxic, it’s become easier for university upper-management and state-level decision-makers to be too cozy as their backgrounds have become less distinct–or sometimes (e.g., Mitch Daniels at Purdue; John Thrasher at Florida State) literally indistinct. Or like Bruce Harreld (forgot about him, hadn’t you?) at the University of Iowa: a corporation-friendly governor installs a big-businessman as president, thus ensuring the circular logic necessary to (self-)justify that move.

circular reasonining .gifcircular_reasoning_magnet-ra983f6e7462e4b9b8aa87d90eb7ec662_x7js9_8byvr_307.jpgcircular reasonining .gifclear-495a83e08fc8e5d7569efe6339a1228ee08292fa1f2bee8e0be6532990cb3852.gif

The university needs to be run like a business. Why? Because we needed a businessman to run it. How do we know he’s doing well? Because he says so. How do we know how well he ought to be compensated? Because we believe businessmen. Neat.

So what’s the point here?

This problem has been building for years, and faculty haven’t handled it well. We’ve allowed powerful people with bad (ranging from malicious to selfish) motives to mix misleading data with misunderstood university structures to produce a public impression of faculty as a bunch of overpaid [choose your own slur].

Responding well is complicated. Once something is as entrenched in public discourse as the overpaid-faculty meme, it’s hard to dislodge–just like any meme. In this case, it’s also hard because what it means to “win” the argument isn’t obvious.

But a couple of things I think are probably true about our approach.

1. I don’t think highlighting pay disparity helps–certainly not as the central argument. It’s especially problematic when people making comfortable middle-class salaries are the ones doing it.

2. This is not an argument (as if it were just one) to make in “the public sphere” (as if there were such a thing) with the expectation that “winning” it would change anything. A bunch of newspaper op-eds explaining what faculty “really do” isn’t the answer. It’s not harmful (done carefully), but there’s no reason to expect it to accomplish much.

3. The heart of the argument (I’m hardly the first person to say this) is that students and faculty come first because we’re the reason universities (colleges, community colleges, all of us) exist.

OK, this has gone on long enough. I’ll revive a question I’ve asked before as a way of hitting the brakes.

Who does it help:

To pay a university president $330,000?

To insult faculty work ethic?

To pretend damaging public institutions is about helping students?

 


The bigger picture about Vermont Law School’s tenure-stripping

July 16, 2018

If you follow academic labor news, you probably know that on July 1, 14 of 19 faculty at the Vermont Law School were stripped of tenure via the school’s claims of financial exigency.

It’s one thing (and not wrong) to react to this story by defending tenure, as I’ve seen many friends in social media do. I have tenure and am not in giant hurry to give it up, so yes, I think it’s worth defending.

That said, take a minute (really just one, or two if you really feel like working hard) to think what you’re mad about, and maybe what you should be mad about.

It’s vile that these faculty have been de-tenured. It’s vile not just because it harms them personally, but because it exposes them to what tens of thousands of non-tenure-track faculty face every day. It makes their employment unstable at best; it challenges their academic freedom; it makes them at-will employees of incompetent and capricious management.

Or put another way: why does the Vermont Law School want this? Because it makes the faculty easier to exploit, abuse, and erase. Just like our adjunct/NTT colleagues have been explaining to us for years.

If you haven’t heard it when they said it, maybe you’ll hear it when (formerly) tenured people say it. And if you’re angry about this now (and I hope you are), I also hope you’ll be angry on behalf of people who have never been tenured and never will, not just people who were lucky enough to have it in the first place.