Tenure… Exceptionalism Redux

October 13, 2022

A pair of columns in Inside Higher Ed has made me revisit a post from January 2020: the notion that tenure gets a bad rap not because of anything intrinsic about its protections, but because people who have it have a bad habit of talking about it in ways that sound like we’re declaring ourselves Exceptional in some way (see “Tenure isn’t the problem; exceptionalism is the problem“).

In the first IHE column, “Why I’d Gladly Exchange My Tenure for a Union” (Oct 3, 2022), Juliet Shields argues–she’s not wrong–that the way most tenure systems and TT/T faculty treat tenure incentivizes individual success and competition over the solidarity necessary to protect all of us. I both cheered the recognition that lots of TT/T faculty are self-absorbed if not maliciously selfish, and screeched at the assertion that tenure is the problem (see the 2020 blog post). This morning (October 13, 2022), AAUP President Irene Mulvey and AFT President Randi Weingarten published a response (“Why Not Both?”) that says much of what I wanted to say. In short, tenure and unions aren’t mutually exclusive or even inconsistent, so posing them as a choice isn’t helping. There are some edges of their argument that I could quibble with if I felt like it, but I’m happy that two powerful leaders of academic labor organizations said something largely laudable.

There are two points I want to add; I’m not disappointed that they didn’t say these already, but I think it’s worth saying them anyway (duh, or I wouldn’t be writing this….).

First, as I said in my earlier post on exceptionalism, we do the entire profession a disservice when we act like tenure is something special that only some of us deserve. I’ve been arguing for years that if tenure is necessary for doing top-quality academic work, then every faculty member who does any kind of academic work should be eligible for it, no matter the workload size or distribution. This position opens a Pandora’s Box of hiring and evaluation practices, which I’m happy to talk more about, but for now the point is, if we need to tenure to teach/research/govern/serve well, then nobody shouldn’t be able to get it. That doesn’t feel controversial to me.

Second, and this is a new way of putting this (for me, at least), maybe we need to quit treating tenure as a reward, or something you earn, or something that’s “granted,” and instead talk about it as something that’s withheld. Shifting the frame so that tenure is something everyone should obviously have instead of a magical prize that only some people deserve would go a long way towards deflating campaigns against it that correctly call out arrogance and superiority complexes among faculty who damage each other’s ability to work well in order to protect their own sense that they’re somehow exceptional. If you’re somebody who believes that education is a right (we can’t have a functioning democracy without an educated populace, so withholding education is an attack on democracy), or healthcare is a right (we have to stop people from dying for no reason, and withholding medical care from people who don’t have money is just punishing them for being poor), then you already understand the logic. The problem is getting people over the feeling that tenure is a marker of how special we are. The only reason it currently has that rhetorical power is that we claim it does. We could stop doing that tomorrow, and instead claim something much healthier for more faculty–we need protections to do our jobs, and anyone who withholds those is wrong.

There’s a follow-up post already brewing in my head that goes to Keith Hoeller’s arguments about tenurism, and how maybe this shift in how we recognize what tenure means helps with that. I’m only saying this here in hopes that it reminds me to come back to it.


Re-Re-Redux: “Who does that help” when we do other people’s jobs for them?

August 24, 2022

I did a series of posts years ago with this name. The gist of them, in simplistic terms, was that faculty need to be more direct about asking management to answer this question with regard to policy/structural changes, rather than letting them off the hook with platitudes. Push for specificity about why ideas are good and who benefits from them.

I’m revisiting the question today catalyzed by a conversation I had with a friend (who I won’t identify) about what’s happening on the campuses of the newly consolidated State System universities here in PA, along with trickles of information I’m getting from Facebook posts. Pardon the PG-13 language, but it’s taken only three business days to hear both “shitshow” and “clusterfuck” from friends on some of those campuses, and those are just the ones I noticed.

Ever since the consolidation “plan” (which was never a plan so much as a dream, at best, or a fever-dream at worst) came out last summer, I’ve expected this: nothing was going to work well because how could it. Faculty would bend over backwards to soak up the damage caused by trying to do something this complex too quickly and wrong-headedly. And then faculty would take the blame when it doesn’t work, with the architect of the plan deflecting blame from the bad planning onto the people who had to try execute a disaster.

It’s crystal clear that the first two of those are happening already. In today’s conversation, I pointed out that solving all those problems for students in the moment feels right, but it also absolves management of the responsibility for having caused them if we’re not very mindful of how we handle it. So here’s the thing I want to put on people’s heads.

If you work on a consolidated campus and students are coming to you for help with problems that are management problems to solve, I won’t tell you not to help. That’s cruel. But I’ll suggest that you stop for a minute before you do, and think about the extent to which you’re letting management off the hook for fixing their own mistakes, for minding their own house, when you do it. If you were here in 2016 (or any earlier contract negotiation cycle), you already know the principle that when students start asking questions that are management’s problem to answer, we make sure students know who to ask. The same principle is true here. If you can do that without leaving students (for example) stuck standing outside a building in a thunderstorm because their class got moved and nobody told them, do it.

Because the answer to the question “Who does it help when we fix management’s mistakes for them?” is “Management.” Full stop. Don’t let the fact that we also care about the people we learn and teach with be a reason to absorb utterly unreasonable levels of responsibilities for what should be (and is) other people’s jobs, and blame for implementing the plan that got us all here. Help is great, but don’t help the people who broke this more than you have to.

Let me be clear: I AM NOT saying that we should make anyone’s lives or jobs harder. I’m not advocating that we send students on wild goose chases around our unsettled campuses trying to figure out where to get their lost ID cards replaced so they can eat in the cafeterias. Some problems are easily solvable and important to handle right this second. But I am saying that when an unresolved issue isn’t dangerous, and when there’s obviously somebody else who should be handling it, let them. That doesn’t seem like too much to ask.

About those “If I could really indoctrinate my students…” memes

November 10, 2021

If you’re an academic or friends with any, there’s a pretty good chance over the last couple of years you’ve seen a meme circulating that says some version of, “If I could really indoctrinate my students, they’d read the syllabus first,” or “…they’d do the reading before class,” or “…[insert common complaint here].”

ICYMI, the meme is, in spirit, a response to right-wing accusations that “leftist” college faculty are recruiting students into our shadowy socialist/communist/Marxist (these terms get used willy nilly) revolutionary army, which is (not to put too fine a point on it) just silly. As I’ve said a million times before, if my colleagues were a tiny fraction as radical as the right wing say we are, a lot of the labor organizing/activism I do would be a lot easier.

Even though I get the spirit of the thing, I’ve never liked it. And without wanting to pick fights with indviduals who have posted it, I figured I should try to explain why. First, even as snark, it’s thinly veiled student-bashing. It reinforces the “Those damn kids these days won’t even… [do thing I want them to]” that makes it easy for people to think we don’t respect our students. And once we establish (“establish”) that we don’t respect our students, accusations that we’re indoctrinating them become a whole lot easier to justify. Remember, the people who accuse us of indoctrination are projecting their own desire to control their own kids, so when we accept that projection by wishing students would just follow our orders, we’re doing their job for them.

Look, I get it. It’s “just a meme.” And of course it’s frustrating to get the same email 6 times about something people were in class for when I answered the question the first time. And yes, it’s frustrating when I plan an activity that doesn’t work because not enough people were prepared for it. It happens. But to use those moments of human frailty as defense against coordinated bad faith political attacks is kinda gross.

If you haven’t done it, I don’t understand what you’re waiting for

June 11, 2021

If you’re a faculty member, student, alum, staff person, even a manager in the PA State System of Higher Education, I hope you’ve followed what’s happened over the last two days if you weren’t already keeping up with the news about the Chancellor’s Consolidation #BadPlan4PA.

On Wednesday and Thursday of this week, the State System Board of Governors hosted four public comment sessions via Zoom where interested folks could put our positions about consolidation on the record. Well over 100 people (students from at least six different institutions, faculty and staff from almost every institution, local business owners in several towns where consolidations are likely to cost jobs and potentially students, and more) spoke. Only one of those people supported the plan, and to be honest, he didn’t really even support it because of its details, but on the grounds that “doing something” is better than doing nothing. It was an endorsement, but hardly a ringing one.

Those of us who spoke in opposition, on the other hand, raised specific issues that the plan doesn’t address; problems the plan is likely to make worse; problems with the process by which the plan got developed; unanswered questions, the actual answers to which could save or ruin people’s educations and livelihoods.

If you didn’t watch or participate in those sessions, the first thing you should do is look at these two posts on the APSCUF blog:

If you don’t have just under 8 hours (!) to watch all four sessions, at the bottom of each post is a thread of live-tweets from each day. At the very least, you owe it to the people who spoke to read them if not watch them, and to acknowledge the weight they were willing to take on by speaking in such visible, candid, and powerful ways.

And then you need to answer the call, if you haven’t participated in any of the actions we’ve asked you for. At this point, here’s what we encourage.

  1. Send a comment to the Board of Governors, using their online comment form.
  2. Send a message to Governor Tom Wolf, asking him not to support the plan, and to make clear to the Board of Governors that he does not support the plan.
  3. If you’re comfortable making a statement on video, register for an APSCUF-hosted Comment Session on Monday, June 14. Registration is required.
  4. If you’re a current or retired WCU faculty member, contact me to sign onto letter circulating locally calling for the Board of Governors to vote no on the plan.
  5. Follow PASSHE Defenders on Facebook, and attend (at least help advertise) their rallies.
  6. Although there’s no more formal role in the process for members of the PA legislature (unless the plan is defeated and we need new legislation to start the process over again), you can certainly let your legislators know that funding the system properly would obviate the need to overhaul it so radically, and that supporting initiatives like the Nellie Bly scholarship go a long way in the right direction without having to go through this mess again.

If your reaction is to be irritated that I’m calling on you to do at least one of these to honor the work that so many of your APSCUF and AFSCME siblings, your friends, and our students have already done, I’ll be sorry about that after this is over. Feel free to remind me I said so, but not without doing your part first.

An Open Letter to Chancellor Greenstein regarding PASSHE Consolidation

May 21, 2021

Chancellor Greenstein:

I write as a citizen of Pennsylvania, a faculty member at West Chester University, and a committed advocate for public higher education in the commonwealth and nationally. I am not writing as a representative of the faculty union. I’ve already written to the Board of Governors to express my distress at their willingness to move so hastily through such a complex process, and to Governor Wolf to express my suspicion that if this experiment of yours goes awry, you’ll leave a giant mess for those of us who are genuinely committed to the system to clean up while you go elsewhere.

There’s a lot I want to say about the plan itself and the process by which we’ve gotten here, but for the sake of simplicity, I’ll frame my point as much as possible as a response to a comment you made on the Leaders and Leadership Podcast . During your appearance, you said:

Honestly? Please take a minute or two to understand what it sounds like you’re saying here. First, it’s not supposed to be “fun” to oversee a system that’s been underfunded by our legislature for decades; nobody disagrees that there are problems. Second, and more substantively, you’ve dismissed the knowledge and energy and commitment of more than five thousand faculty and thousands of staff and students and others who also pretty smart and well-educated people as “resistance” instead of considering the possibility that maybe it’s legitimate disagreement because we also know things. We know students and their families, and alums, by the tens of thousands who think this plan is dangerously undercooked. We know legislators who agree–you spoke to several of them during hearings. We know the impacts your vision will have on the local communities where consolidating campuses are located. We know what our collective bargaining agreement (which, as a friendly reminder, you and the Board of Governors also ratified) requires answers to that the current plan does not provide.

We are not “resisting” you. We think this plan has a lot wrong with it, and a lot more that’s not clear enough to be adoptable. And you’re responding to that by simply accusing us trying to prevent you from acting courageously. Well, maybe in this case the courageous act is to recognize that many thousands of people who care deeply about this system and who also understand education, education policy, and economics have some severe reservations about the details of this proposal, and do not believe that just a few weeks of revision is anywhere near enough time to address those.

Sometimes the courageous act is admitting that you got it wrong. All I’m asking is that you show enough courage to take that possibility seriously instead of ignoring our very real and legitimate concerns.

Today in Bad Activisting

February 26, 2021

Not just today, but also today.

This morning, I saw this meme on Facebook, posted by somebody I trust and with accompanying links to news stories that document the situation. I reposted, with a note along the lines of, “If you’re less beer-snobby than I am…..” It didn’t take but a few minutes before the first (of now several) comments about the low quality of the beer on this list, and that’s what I’m interested in thinking about for a minute here.

Facebook call for Molson-Coors boycott in response to Toronto brewery lockout

It happens every time I post anything calling for people to boycott or avoid a product, a la: “I’d boycott Papa John’s, but their pizza sucks!” Or, “Chik Fil A is bigoty, but their chicken sucks!” You get the idea.

I’ve often wondered about those comments’ relevance. If you don’t like the food/beer/clothes/whatever, that’s your call; it just means you’re not in the audience for the boycott call. But today I realized my reaction goes a little further than that. I imagined being the person who sees that post, thinks, “Damn, I should read the comments to see if there’s more information here,” and the finds myself being insulted for my terrible taste, at which point I’m a lot less inclined to participate in a boycott.

If you see a call for a boycott of something and aren’t a customer of something, fine! But if you see somebody trying to organize an action, don’t undercut it by insinuating (or saying explicitly, but most of the time it’s unintentional) that anyone who might have listened to the call has poor taste. Think it if you want, but don’t say it where the actual audience for the thing can hear you.

Some thoughts on responding to accusations that faculty “aren’t teaching” during remote instruction

October 9, 2020

My university, West Chester University of PA, announced on Wednesday that we’ll be primarily remote again for Spring 2021. Responses to this news in social media have been… not all positive. Respondents, some apparently current students and their families/guardians, are accusing the faculty of “not teaching”; accusing the university of “stealing” from them; and so on. None of this is especially unique to us. I got on one of those threads this morning (Friday) and was responding to a “Faculty aren’t doing their jobs” comment when I realized the rhetorical complexity of the situation.

As I commented on a friend’s wall yesterday, I think one of the reasons students aim their angst at us is that we’re their primary point of contact for the university; I’ve asked most of 1,000 students over the years how many could name their academic dean and can count on my fingers and toes the number who said they could–and I didn’t check them on it. Also, for entirely understandable reasons, most people don’t really care much (or know) how decisions get made at our institutions, and “the faculty” become a proxy for “all the white collar employees.”

Responding to this situation is hard, especially where management/faculty relations are healthy, because the obvious responses sound self-aggrandizing/whingy (“Hey, cut us a break! We’re trying harder than you think!”) or like we’re deflecting blame onto managers who don’t deserve it either (“This wasn’t our decision, it was [insert title here]!”). Further, as I argued loudly on Facebook threads in last spring, every time we screech publicly about how much on-line education sucks and how much we hate doing it, we’re authorizing students to think less of it.

Honestly, I think the approach to these conversations, to the extent they’re worth having (and that’s open question, to be honest), looks something like this. There’s a way to make the point more gracefully than I’m about to, but in substance….

Many of you may in fact be less medically vulnerable to COVID-19 than faculty and staff are. But that doesn’t make us less vulnerable. Are you really asking us to risk our lives, or at least risk serious illness* for us and our own families, for our jobs? You could say that (hooray for free speech), but be honest about it. If that’s not what you mean, then please don’t say it. If you need support you aren’t getting, we can work on that. If you’re just disappointed that things aren’t normal, so are we. If you’re nervous about your future, we can talk about that too. But none of those conversations will go well if they begin with accusations that we** made this decision in spite of you or without regard for you, and that our best efforts to make this work are earning zero credit from you even for the attempt.

If you’re just angry and blowing steam, that’s entirely understandable. I hope that’s the case for most of you, at least.

*If you’re a COVID-denier, I’m not addressing that. Why bother?

**To be clear: President Fiorentino’s announcement emphasizes the scientific and public health policy reasons for the decision, for which I’m grateful. But he and the rest of the university’s management team know that most of the faculty have grave concerns about the safety of the campus if too many people are on it. I don’t want to undersell the extent to which most of us are relieved–not happy, but relieved–by this news.

Open Letter to Provost Zayaitz, Kutztown University re: COVID-19 notifications

August 17, 2020

Dear Provost Zayaitz:

I’m a WCU faculty member who’s been following the situation at Kutztown with regard to the university’s plans to emphasize face-to-face instruction this fall. A colleague posted on social media this morning a copy of a note you sent in which you indicate that faculty will not be notified if a COVID-19 positive student is one of their classes:

The university will not be informing faculty if a student/students in their classes tests positive due to HIPAA. However, it is possible that a student might self-disclose to you. I hope this is helpful.

That’s an alarming position for a number of reasons, not least of which is that CDC, HHS, and other federal guidelines are all clear that disclosures to prevent serious and imminent threats are well within the law. Put most directly by the Office of Civil Rights:

Health care providers may share patient information with anyone as necessary to prevent or lessen a serious and imminent threat to the health and safety of a person or the public – consistent with applicable law (such as state statutes, regulations, or case law) and the provider’s standards of ethical conduct. See 45 CFR 164.512(j). Thus, providers may disclose a patient’s health information to anyone who is in a position to prevent or lesson the serious and imminent threat, including family, friends, caregivers, and law enforcement without a patient’s permission. HIPAA expressly defers to the professional judgment of health professionals in making determinations about the nature and severity of the threat to health and safety. See 45 CFR 164.512(j).

It’s not against the law to notify people who are at significant risk of that risk. And if the university’s position is that the risk level isn’t clear enough to justify that legal position, that’s an even stronger reason to be cautious rather than cavalier. “We don’t know how dangerous it is, so let’s assume it isn’t” is a position I can’t believe anyone would take.

At the very least, it’s crucial that you revisit this decision about notifying faculty about infected students. Faculty must know if somebody with an infection is in our classes. Furthermore, given the certainty that this will happen, you need to issue clear guidance to the faculty about their rights and responsibilities to students who become infected. I know you’ve already done some of that, which makes it even more confusing that you expect faculty to comply with those directions but refuse to tell them who the directions apply to. Furthermore, it’s hard to understand how this position comports with any meaningful contact tracing. If students are in face to face classes, the faculty for those courses are obvious contacts.

We could nibble around the edges of the law all day long, but the simple fact of the matter is that your current position will harm the campus community by making it more dangerous for people to comply with your direction to teach face-to-face as much as possible. Please rethink this response to a simple question and recognize that your faculty are, in fact, taking on substantial personal risk to themselves. Don’t amplify that risk unnecessarily.

I appreciate the difficulty of running a complex institution in such circumstances, but this issue should be one of the simple ones. If you’re putting faculty at risk by making them teach face to face, you owe it to let them know if they’ve been exposed.

Thanks for listening, and I hope we can all get through this safely.

Seth Kahn, PhD

Professor of English

West Chester University

Union resolve revisited

July 18, 2020

[Note: This is my personal blog, and while I talk about some union work in this post, and I’m talking to union members–and non-members, and other people–I want to be clear that the claims are mine, not on behalf of the organization.]

Facebook Memories tells me that four years ago today, I wrote a post for the State APSCUF blog (which I can’t link to for some reason) in advance of our strike where I tried to articulate what I see as the key emotional stance of solidarity: resoluteness. We can be angry; we can be scared; we can be lots of other things. But the moment at which we resolve to stay together, arms linked (metaphorically while we’re socially distancing), we have tremendous power.

That reminder couldn’t be timed better as we approach Fall 2020 semester; across the PA State System of Higher Education, management’s willingness to hear and react humanely to our professional and personal concerns about safe working conditions is all over the place. Last week, West Chester University announced what I think is a model policy: most activities, including classes, will be online. Courses like clinicals, some labs, and some performance courses, will be face-to-face following strict safety protocols. Some campus common spaces and resources will be open and will follow strict safety protocols. We make everybody, including people who need access to campus, safer by sharply reducing the number of people who go there. A few days ago, East Stroudsburg University announced a similar policy.

At the other end of the spectrum, stories like this one from my friend and collaborator Amy Lynch-Biniek at Kutztown are appallingly common. I’ve heard from faculty at at least four universities that HR departments are rejecting requests for flexible work arrangements that aren’t specifically ADA-mandated. Faculty report being instructed to disclose confidential medical information and then being denied accommodations; being told if they don’t qualify for ADA accommodations that they can take unpaid FMLA leave (because we can all afford to go a semester or two without pay, amirite?); being told that childcare responsibilities aren’t the universities’ problem; you get the idea.

Our union’s response to such positions has been clear; these rejections of simple arrangements because the law doesn’t strictly require them are unacceptable morally (it’s inhumane to risk people’s lives where alternatives obviously exist) and professionally. Our chancellor was lavish in his praise of our emergency move online in Spring 2020, and his own System Redesign plan requires the exact pedagogical commitment to remote teaching that our institutions are denying so many of us. Apparently, we did something heroic and must keep doing it to save the system, but we can’t do it when the lives of tens of thousands of students, staff, and faculty are at risk from a global pandemic.

APSCUF President Jamie Martin responded to this…awkward logic in her remarks to the Board of Governors on July 17:

We are asking that our faculty be permitted to feel safe, that their concerns about their health and the health of their loved ones be taken seriously. My colleagues want to teach — they just do not want to become sick.

All of which leads to calls that are burbling up from faculty. Even those of us whose local management made smart decisions are angry and scared for our friends/colleagues/union siblings across the system. Faculty on campuses where local management is being inhumane have every reason to feel those and more. The call that’s emerging from the ground level takes on several different voices. A petition drafted by the APSCUF Statewide Mobilization Committee (disclosure: I chair the committee) calls on the Chancellor to recognize that faculty’s commitment to safety isn’t selfish but is motivated by the same concerns for our most vulnerable community members as he is. We need him to respect faculty’s decision-making about how we can best protect safety and do our best work, and he needs to tell his campus managers to do the same. A group of faculty at Shippensburg University are circulating a petition calling for online teaching across the system until safety protections for everyone are much stronger, and also calls for an array of justice-based overhauls around fighting white supremacy and other forms of bigotry. A Facebook post from Kevin Mahoney, APSCUF member and one of the best labor activists I know, calls on us to follow the lead of K-12 teachers around the country, and refuse to work until it’s safe for everyone–students, staff, and faculty alike.

As chair of the APSCUF Mobilization Committee, my primary responsibility is to work with the campus chairs to mobilize members at the direction of our leadership. For right now, that direction is to get signatures on the petition. I have also signed and promoted the Ship petition because I share its broad vision of how interconnected the issues of labor justice and racial justice are. I would commit in a second to a collective action aimed at refusing to threaten tens of thousands of lives for no discernible reason.

If you’re not resolved to the last one, then at least do the first two. And think hard about your reasons for hesitating to go further (there are explicable reasons). But we have about six weeks, in some cases not even, before students, staff, and faculty are made to return to conditions that aren’t safe for anyone and are profoundly threatening for many. Our system leadership needs to know that we will not sit idly while lives are risk. Let’s hope that saying collectively-but-quietly (via petition) is enough, but I’m asking you start thinking hard about what you’ll do if it isn’t.

“If they’re trying to save money, they should hire MORE adjuncts instead of firing them” is not helping

May 16, 2020

Too many times in the last several days, I’ve seen well-meaning faculty on Facebook responding to mass layoffs of NTT faculty by pointing out that “adjuncts cost less,” and if universities really want to save money, they should hire more adjuncts instead of fewer.

I will take as given that people saying this believe they’re making an argument for protecting adjunct faculty. But please think for a minute or two about the logic of this before you say it.

The reason they cost less is because of a terribly inequitable system.

If you mean to make an argument against exploiting the contingency of contingent faculty, just say that. Tossing faculty to the curb in the middle of a pandemic is a profoundly inhumane thing to do. It’s inhumane at any time.