Liberty University Students Speak Out! And then what?

October 15, 2016

On HuffPo this morning:  “Liberty University Students Denounce Trump”

My first reaction to the piece was to be really impressed with students who circulated a petition that rejects Trump, and even criticizes university President Jerry Falwell Jr for continuing to support a candidate whose values run counter to the articulated values of the school and church Falwell leads.

“So often we run into people that say, ‘Oh you go to Liberty, that’s that Trump school, right?’ When when you walk around campus, the students, we don’t embody anything that Trump advocates for,” [student Caleb] Fitzpatrick told The Huffington Post. “We’re not taught to value the things that Trump values. And so when the tapes came out last week, we felt like that was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

So far so good. Speaking out against the president of a university isn’t easy, especially a university which works so hard to enforce dogmatic loyalty to the leader of both the school and the church that powers it. The students deserve kudos for that.

Two points, though, refract that sense just a bit. First (if you’ve taken a writing class from me you’ll recognize this), is with the idea of “just informing people” and making our voices heard.

The group doesn’t plan to take further steps against Falwell or the Trump campaign.

“We’re kind of moving on, because we believe we’ve done our job. That the world has seen and heard us raise our voices,” [Fitzpatrick] said. “That was our endgame, was just informing people. There’s no candidate that we want to endorse.”

The notion that anyone is “just informing people” makes me queasy as both an activist and rhetorician because it ducks claiming any real purpose. Nobody “just informs people” as an act of generosity. Giving people information isn’t the same as giving them money for food, or donating clothes to families that can’t afford  them. You inform people to change their thinking and their behavior (h/t Karl Marx, “The point is to change it.”), and not to claim what your real goal is makes you disingenuous. Or, you’re just not thinking through the implications of winning your own argument, and that’s not very responsible.

Yes, these students are students, not professional activists, and are likely invoking the “make your voice heard” trope because they know it. My point is the one I wish Malcolm Gladwell had made in his infamous “Small Change” piece (New Yorker, 2010). Rather than demeaning social media’s use in activism, I wish he’d emphasized the safety-valve effect instead, i.e., doing something simple but low-impact makes people less likely to do something more difficult and high-impact because they think they’ve done their part. These students made a strong statement against Trump, and Falwell for violating their  trust. And then… what happens next? Nothing really changes. Jerry Falwell, Jr still campaigns for Trump, and still–the students correctly note–uses the Liberty brand as a source of ethos, while he also says he doesn’t represent the institution when he uses its name. Huh?

[A side note: imagine a Liberty faculty member campaigning for Clinton or Stein and using their title as a Liberty faculty member while they’re doing it. “Professor Smith, YOU’RE FIRED!”]

The second point that made me think hard is a passing mention of thefaculty response to the petition.

About 2,500 people, including some faculty members, have signed the petition since it went up Wednesday afternoon …. Some faculty members have privately encouraged the group, Fitzpatrick said, but were hesitant to sign the statement. He believes they might be afraid of retribution.

Faculty members won’t sign a petition that students wrote and circulated because they’re afraid of retribution. They encourage students to take a principled stand that they themselves are afraid to take. My reactions to this are several and all over the place.

  • Thank goodness for my union that makes retribution nearly impossible [knock wood].
  • Those jerks are hanging students out to dry and hiding behind them while they do it.
  • Some faculty probably did help the students’ process and efforts and warrant some praise for that even if they were afraid to be public about it.
  • When APSCUF President Ken Mash, spoke to students here at WCU a couple of weeks ago and told them that they have some kinds of power the faculty don’t, he was right.

The question is what students do with that power. We hear you. Now you have to make that count for something.

What I learned at COCAL XI

August 13, 2014

[FYI: I had planned to write about COCAL already, but my union, APSCUF, asked me to write a piece for their blog. This is the piece I wrote for them, which will cross-post there. If you follow the APSCUF blog and want to talk about any of the issues here in terms of internal union discussions, let’s have that conversation there. –SK]

First, a loud thank you to APSCUF for sending me to New York City August 4-5 for the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor’s 11th biennial conference. If you’re unfamiliar with COCAL, the organization has emerged since the late 1990s as a–if not the–central venue in which adjunct activists collaborate to develop strategies and tactics to win better working conditions for contingent faculty. COCAL brings together contingent/adjunct activists from Canada and Mexico (both of which have hosted conferences) with their US counterparts, understanding contingency as a globalizing phenomenon.

I learned a lot at this conference, and before getting into the details, maybe the most important lesson is something I already realized (perhaps the most forceful statement of it by and for adjunct faculty comes from Keith Hoeller) but had reinforced more palpably than I could have imagined–

Lesson #1: While tenured and tenure-track faculty should and can be helpful advocates/allies for adjunct faculty equity, the real push for equity comes directly from adjunct faculty. I’m not sure how many other tenured/tenure-track people were there (I recognized a couple but expect there were some I just didn’t know), but the energy, talent, and commitment in the room were almost entirely adjunct-driven. If I could bring anything back to APSCUF from this conference, it’s a dose of that commitment for all adjunct members of the union; we know the talent and energy are here. The struggle for equity is everybody’s, including yours. 

Other people have covered the conference’s proceedings. This post from the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s Vitae section offers a coherent overview of events. Inside Higher Ed’s coverage of the opening plenary session addresses the need to take direct action, including strikes (Stanley Aronowitz argued strongly for wildcat strikes; Cindy Oliver, president of the Federation of Post-Secondary Educators of British Columbia, contended that any public employee besides emergency responders has a moral right to strike) and better to articulate the (academic) labor movement in terms of non-financial issues. Other panelists and audience members considered tactics available to faculty in non-union states. The second plenary, which I’ll say more about below, focused on specific strategies and tactics (mostly in union environments) for gaining and protecting contingent faculty power. The third plenary focused on linking arguments about contingent academic labor to issues of contingency in other labor sectors.

At that second plenary, called “Inside the Academy: The Cutting Edge,” I learned about a variety of efforts that I think translate pretty directly into possible APSCUF positions/actions:

Lesson #2: We need to support in every way we can SEIU’s Adjunct Action campaign, along with similar AFT and USW metro organizing efforts, even in areas that don’t directly affect our members. USW has been working in Pittsburgh, and AFT is organizing across the Philly metro area as well as one campus in Pittsburgh. While APSCUF adjunct faculty are members of our bargaining unit already and won’t be targets of those efforts, there’s no reason that we can’t and shouldn’t offer support–to the extent that it’s welcome. Not only are better conditions for contingent faculty an obvious good, but often APSCUF adjunct faculty work at multiple institutions, and we’re benefiting them by working to improve those institutions. 

[Updated AUG 20: It’s also important that we support non-union contingent faculty organizing/activist efforts like the New Faculty Majority. NFM has been one of the driving forces behind Campus Equity Week; has been working at state and national levels on legislation (most recently Senator Durbin’s proposal to extend student-loan forgiveness eligibility to adjunct faculty who haven’t been able to maintain full-time schedules); and so on. 

Lesson #3: Genuine adjunct equity goes beyond compensation. Donna Nebenzahl, representing the Concordia University Part-time Faculty Association (CUPFA), described their successes on two important fronts. In their last contract, they negotiated a $240,000 (Canadian dollars, but still) professional development fund specifically for part-time faculty. The dollar amount aside, the key concept is the commitment the union and university have made.  I strongly call on APSCUF to make a similarly strong commitment to our adjunct faculty, as members of our bargaining unit. Likewise, Condordia part-time faculty have (to borrow Nebenzahl’s words) “permeate[d] the governance of the university” by winning representation on hiring committees, curriculum committees, and other governing bodies. APSCUF permanent faculty members need to support our adjunct colleagues in this regard–there’s simply no good reason not to. 

Alternating with the plenaries, the other major events at the conference were three breakout meetings of “interest groups” focused on specific strategic problems: working with media; negotiating equity; legal issues (Affordable Care Act; discrimination issues; etc); building a national agenda (working with unions and other organizations across institutions and regions); and organizing (with) students. The charge for the interest groups was loose, but the gist was to develop a short strategy statement, and if there was time to develop whatever tactical recommendations we could in order to operationalize the strategy. I joined the student group, learning at the beginning of the first session that organizers expected us to stay in a group for all three (I had planned on attending the media and national agenda groups as well, but deferred to the preference of the people who had done the work of putting the conference together).

I wasn’t able to attend the closing session at which all five groups presented their final results, but (with the permission of our group members and facilitators) I can share what the student group developed, and one member of the national agenda group has already blogged theirs, a project they call the Democracy Index. That group is undertaking an effort that resonates with and builds from what many contingent labor activists have been trying to do for years–develop a method for praising institutions that do well by their adjunct faculty, and just as importantly, calling out institutions that do wrong. There have been attempts in my field (Composition/Rhetoric/English) to push our professional organizations (MLA, CCCC, NCTE) to censure departments/programs with bad labor practices, and the response has always been that bylaws (and, they argue, laws about non-profit status) prevent them from censuring/punishing anybody. The Democracy Index doesn’t call for censure, specifically, but instead proposes to publicize rankings and reports on institutions’ treatment of adjunct faculty: compensation, but also access to professional resources, academic freedom, and shared governance (see Lesson #2, above).

Lesson #4: Throughout the conference (and certainly in other adjunct activist venues), one of the common tensions is over how to prioritize compensation vs governance and professionalization issues. Is it more important to make sure everybody can pay their rent and buy food first, even if that comes at the expense of governance rights, or do we establish governance rights first in order to demand compensation equity more effectively? The answer to that is largely local, of course. APSCUF does reasonably well in terms of compensation, particularly for full-time adjunct faculty, but adjunct access to governance rights and professional development is inconsistently supported. We must do better. 

The interest group on organizing with students produced a statement of Core Principles and Practices (click this link to download the file, which we saved as Student Strategy Document). Our conversations focused on the need to balance the ethics of democratic organizing (not coercing students into supporting adjuncts), the common issues that students and adjunct faculty face, and the needs of adjunct faculty.

Lesson #5: The work we did in the student group reinforces the need for our Student-Faculty Liaisons, at both local and state levels, to be involved in efforts for faculty equity of all statuses, including adjuncts. Many of our students already work contingent jobs. Many will graduate and, without a tectonic shift in the economy, find other contingent jobs. We can fight contingency in unison, without exploiting students to do it, if we’re careful and attentive to the ethics of what we ask for. 

Again, I’m very grateful to APSCUF for sending me to New York, and I’m grateful to all the organizers and participants at the conference for their welcome, their energy, and a commitment I hope I can share across the union and with adjunct activists and sympathizers everywhere.

I’ll end with this request, a campaign I’m involved in that garnered some attention and support at the conference too. A few weeks ago, the good folks at State APSCUF posted a piece I wrote about this petition to David Weil at the Department of Labor , calling for signatures from faculty at all ranks/statuses, managers, staff, students, parents/guardians, families, anybody with an interest in quality higher ed. As of August 10, we’re approaching 6800 signatures. Please sign and share.


“I don’t know”

September 12, 2012

Although most of my blogging these days happens on the blog I contribute to for our faculty union local, every once in a while I have to say something higher-ed related that I can’t publish under the auspices of the union. This is one of those…

In the last month-ish, on two occasions high-level managers on my campus have answered questions that seemed extremely important to know details about with rather off-handed “I don’t know.”

The first time, our state-level boss, the Chancellor, encouraged (in some way we don’t exactly know the details of) the Provosts of all 14 schools in the system to sign contracts with a for-profit company called Learning Counts. If you don’t have the time/energy/stomach to click through, Learning Counts invites students to submit portfolios describing “prior learning experiences” (professional, military, etc) that Learning Counts converts into recommendations for college credit. That is, they believe what people do out in the world should earn them course credit at colleges. I’ll set aside my dispute with that claim (for now–it’ll get another post soon), and instead focus on a different problem. In our system, the evaluation of students’ petitions for course credit (via transfer, or a process some departments have called Credit by Exam, or by AP/CLEP) is done by faculty. Not only is it work that we’re better suited to do (because we’re the ones who write and understand our own curricula, not to mention all sorts of things about teaching and learning because we’re [bleeping] professionals), but in our system it’s also work faculty get compensated for. So, the system has asked Provosts to sign an agreement that hands off faculty work to people who may well do worse at it.

At a periodic face-to-face meeting the union local has with management (called Meet and Discuss–I’m not sure how common that term is in other unions), we asked the Provost some questions about this agreement after learning that she’d already signed the contract. Most evocative of the problem here, we asked, “What do you know about Learning Counts’ process for evaluating courses, or their criteria? How does this work?”

“I don’t know.”


Understand that I’m not attacking the Provost personally here. I have no idea what was happening in her head, nor do I know what kinds of demands were made of her and her fellow Provosts, or any of that. But I’m very distressed that she, anybody, would sign onto an agreement that has severe implications on faculty work, curriculum, and the quality of our institution’s degrees and brands, without knowing how that agreement gets executed.

Second (and I did post something about this on our union chapter blog last night–click here for background). I had an email exchange with the WCU VP responsible for answering Right to Know requests about National Educational Services’ use of the term “internal research” as the rationale for their information request. This morning, the VP told me that he doesn’t really know what they mean by the term, but once they have the information they can pretty much do what they want with it.

So. Anybody can make a Right to Know request and offer only the vaguest excuse for wanting the information. Then, once they have it, they can do anything they want with it even though that use has nothing to do with the request for asking.

So why bother vetting those requests at all?

Gee. I don’t know.

An Open Letter to Governor Tom Corbett (R-PA)

March 10, 2011

[I just sent this letter to the Governor.  It takes up a theme I’ve been developing here on the blog for the last few weeks: “Who does that help?”  I don’t expect the kind of reply the letter calls for, of course, which is one reason I’m posting it here.  It becomes a lot harder for him not to answer if A WHOLE LOT OF US ask it.  Yes, that’s a call to action.]


Governor Corbett:

As a faculty member and union leader on a PASSHE campus (WCU), I’m sure you can understand that I’m reacting to your proposal to halve our state allocation for next year with some dismay.
I’m also sure that other concerned faculty, who are better at making financial arguments than I am, have been (or soon will be) elaborating our case for a less draconian (from our perspective) budget cut–to you in hopes that you’re willing to rethink/compromise, and to our local legislators in hopes they’ll support us.
So rather than trying to convince you on specific economic grounds that we really need x dollars system-wide in order to function, I want to ask a somewhat different question.  If the Legislature gives you what you’ve asked for, and our allocation drops by half, who does that actually help?  Who, as specifically as you can say, actually benefits from that move?  Where, specifically, does that money go instead of to PASSHE, and how does that shift benefit the system’s students and their families, the system’s employees and their families, and the communities that depend on their PASSHE campuses in large part for their economic well-being?
Believe it or not, although I’m a committed liberal and a union officer, I’m willing to hear responses to that question with an open mind.  I will, however, be demanding in the sense that a response without specifics isn’t enough.  Who does it actually help if you win and enforce such radical budget cuts on a system that has already shrunk or condensed our operations as much as we can without sacrificing the quality education students and the Commonwealth rightly expect of us?
Thank you for listening, and I’ll be looking forward to your reply.
Seth Kahn, PhD
[Personal contact info, blah blah blah]

[Self] Pep Talk

March 10, 2011

[WARNING: the “pep talk” part of this takes a while to get to…and it’s probably not all that peppy, but headed in the right direction I think…]

Hard to watch or read any news for the last few weeks and not feel a growing sense of doom for those of us who strongly support labor–not just “working people” or “the middle class” (which are categories so diffuse that they don’t capture much anymore), but Labor, as a movement.

Yesterday we took hits in Wisconsin, which most of us know about, and Michigan, which took me by surprise.  The day before, PA’s new Republican Governor, Tom Corbett, offered up a budget proposal that slashes state funding for public universities (already hovering just over 30% of our operating budgets) in half; demanding salary and benefits givebacks from public unions (at least he said it directly); and so on.  We know about the passage of SB5 in Ohio, which will likely pass the House and be signed into law soon.  Idaho legislators have voted to strip K-12 teachers of collective bargaining rights.

And this is, as we all know, just the beginning.  Actually, no it isn’t.  The effort to kill labor has been growing, steadily, for a long time now.  Ronald Reagan’s breaking of the Air Traffic Controllers’ union is a more (but still not entirely accurate) marker of the onset of this strategy.  We can leave it to the labor historians to duke out dates, but the point is that what we’re seeing right now isn’t new; it’s more frontal and more public than we’ve seen–as far as I know, we haven’t seen this level of attack on organized labor since about the 1940s)–but it hasn’t popped up from nowhere.

A lot of my liberal friends will disagree with me here (although a lot will agree, too), but one of the major enablers of the current attacks on labor is the national Democratic Party, which has taken Labor for granted for a very long time now.  And that’s partly Labor’s fault, too, for living in an “At least they’re not Republicans” paradigm.  Dems know Labor won’t desert them, so they vacuum up campaign contributions and organizing/mobilizing energy during elections and then do nothing to support Labor in between.  The Dems could have passed EFCA quite easily had they wanted to, instead of just sweeping it under the rug.  The Dems could have told the Republicans to shove the Bush tax cuts up their bums because we need that money to pay things that actual human beings need.  But they haven’t, and there’s little reason to believe that will change in any future I can imagine.

So where does that leave the actual working people, the people on whose labor this country depends, to turn for support?  All that’s really left, it seems, is each other.  There are millions of us.  We don’t have the cash that Waltons and Kochs and Gateses and Soroses have on hand.  We don’t have the weapons that wingnut militias have lying around.  We don’t have legislatures in our pockets like our self-appointed neo-liberal corporate masters have.

And you know what?  I’m finding myself less and less troubled about those problems as every minute goes by.  Why?  Because the institutions they ru[i]n only continue to work as long as we the people continue to support them.

Whose money are the rich stealing?  Ours!  How do we stop that from happening?  Don’t spend money on stupid crap; buy from union shops; tell the bad guys that you’re boycotting them; make a stink in every setting where people are giving money to culprits of exploitation.

Why do corrupt quasi-representative government institutions continue to sell us down the river?  Because we let them–by voting, or not voting, and then pretending like we’ve discharged our duty as citizens until the next Election Day.  We have to make demands and fight for them.  We have to confront lawmakers and executives face-to-face.  We have to demand that the self-annointed answer hard questions in public, and lambaste their empty answers.

On Facebook yesterday, two of my friends started calling for a General Strike, and quite honestly I think we have to start thinking about that.  If Labor, as a movement, is going to mean anything in this country, it’s time for its proponents to think really hard about throwing down the gauntlet.  For too long, our culture has subscribed to the “What’s good for _____ [fill in the blank with corporate quasi-capitalist behemoth] is good for America” logic, and it’s proven time and again to be a lie.  Why not, “What’s good for American workers is good for America?”

What’s so damn hard about that?

Or put another way:  We’ve allowed ourselves to be pigeon-holed as a “special interest” for too long.  What could be less “special interest” than the basic economic security of the huge majority of the population?  There is only a small cabal (the real “special interests”) to whom our basic economic security doesn’t matter.  We can no longer wait around for those very elite, wealthy, selfish, solipsistic, inhumane people to come to their senses, to wake up, to have an epiphany, to see the Lord (or Karl Marx, or Lech Walesa, or whoever).  We can do this without them.


Academic Union Supporters–two signature campaigns for you

March 8, 2011

[If you’re anti-union, or don’t care about unions, I’m not talking to you right now :)]

Just got this e-mail from a group whose EFCA petition I signed a long while back.  They’ve got two signature campaigns: a petition against right-to-work laws (those of you in PA should most certainly sign) and a statement in support of collective bargaining for public employees.

Hello scholar,

State legislators in several states (PA, MO, ME, NH, IN) are attempting to pass so-called “right to work” laws.  Please consider adding your name to our petition opposed to these efforts:

We also have a statement in support of collective bargaining rights for public employees.  We’re just shy of 1,000 university professors and researchers.  If you haven’t already added your name, please do so today.  We are getting ready to release the statement as soon as we hit 1,000.  Here is the link:

Finally, stay tuned for information on the national Day of Consciousness around workplace rights, planned for April 4th.

Thanks for all you do,

Erin Johansson

Research Director

American Rights at Work


And another question about shared sacrifice

March 7, 2011

Yesterday, I wrote a critique of the current shared sacrifice trope in debates about budgets at federal and state levels.  The basic point, if you didn’t read it and don’t feel like reading it now, is that not only are the current budget-cutting efforts happening primarily on the backs of the non-rich, but that the rich are in fact benefitting from every single implication of those cuts.  It’s not even not-shared sacrifice; it’s actually redistribution of wealth and power from the bottom up.

Thinking this morning about our faculty union’s current negotiations, I have to ask the question in our context too.  We hear, over and over, that the current economic situation in our state is calling for shared sacrifice.  And our union, as we’ve made quite clear, understands the economic terrain–just as well or better than our system’s negotiators do, because we live with the consequences of it EVERY DAY.  I’m sorry, y’all, but that’s a divide that system management simply can’t cross.  We work, on the ground, with students, faculty, staff, and our local management; we see the direct implications of the state’s economic situation every time a student has to drop out of school because of financial problems, or a faculty member is retrenched, or another manager gets hired, or groundskeepers have to buy their own gloves and masks in order to be safe at their jobs, or…

So, when faculty sacrifice by taking on larger clases, more advisees, increased research expectations with decreased support, salaries that lag behind inflation even before you account for our increasing contributions to benefits packages (which I don’t begrudge, except to the extent that PASSHE management doesn’t seem especially inclined to do the hard work of fighting for better deals because the costs aren’t the same for them), shrinking academic freedom as teaching and research opportunities shrink in the face of increasing student bodies and mandatory “efficiencies” (like our state’s 60-credit transfer articulation agreement), …

Most of these sacrifices, management can make a case for on a one-by-one basis: accept larger classes in return for x; pay more for your benefits in return for y.  The problems are two:

(1) Taken together, they represent a huge problem.  It’s very, very difficult to do the job we’re hired for if every day we have to undertake another rear-guard action to protect our ability to do our jobs.  More directly–when we have to spend as much energy defending our work conditions as doing our work, there’s a big problem.  The problem is, as I think we call know, that anti-academic forces then use that problem as an argument against public higher education.  They get to say (although they’re lying) that faculty are greedy (we’re selling out our students in order to negotiate better contracts) and ineffective (we’re not working hard enough).  We all know that’s bullshit, but it plays well in the press.

(2) Closer to what I thought I’d be writing when I started this post–as faculty bargain away more and more of our positive working conditions in the face of supposed economic catastrophe, where’s the sharing?  That is, what is management giving up in return, and on what grounds are we faculty to believe it’s anywhere near proportional to our own sacrifices?  As faculty positions haven’t grown in proportion to increasing student bodies while management positions have skyrocketed, even as slight reduction on management hires doesn’t come close to balancing that out.  We also all know that because management salaries aren’t on steps or regular increments, they can play all sorts of accounting games with when and how raises are allocated (and often backpaid) so they can say they sacrificed the very raises they were still able to bank.

And beyond that, following closer the logic I started laying out yesterday, there’s an argument to be made that management doesn’t simply avoid sacrificing, but actually benefits when faculty gives up hard won territory.  When fewer of us are teaching more students, cobbling together more grants so we can afford to do any research, advising more, administering programs and departments with shrinking support, and all the rest of it, we’re also less likely to participate in shared governance (on whose time? with whose energy?); we (especially junior and temporary faculty) are scared for our jobs and less likely to make waves; we spend a lot more time doing management’s work for them (my last two CCCC papers are about the trickle-down of management work onto faculty, obscuring that phenomenon by calling it “shared governance”); and on and on.

I’m not as angry at our system management as I am at the Scott Walkers/Tom Corbetts/Chris Christies/Koch brothers/Tea Partiers of the world.  I’ve met a couple of our upper managers and, while I don’t especially appreciate some (most?) of the moves they make, I don’t distrust them personally.  Let’s put it this way–it very often doesn’t seem like their commitments to the work of the system are the same as ours.  There are lots of reasons that might be, and lots of ways of accounting for it, and even probably some good responses to it.

But for now, the important thing is that I see scant evidence that our state system is coming anywhere close to the level of sacrifice they continually ask faculty for, and it’s increasingly difficult to motivate faculty to keep sacrificing without some sense that we’re not the only ones doing it.

UPDATE: Comrade (!) Kevin Mahoney at the KUXchange has written extensively and convincingly about Naomi Klein’s shock doctrine, one of the more convincing descriptions of how PASSHE covers for its decisions in economic terms.  His colleague Amy Lynch-Biniek has done some good work calling attention to the inattention system management pays to what matters about teaching and learning, namely, teaching and learning.