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.


“Who does that help?”

February 8, 2011

At last weekend’s APSCUF Legislative Assembly, delegates were treated to a Q&A session from our recently hired Chief Negotiator Stewart (or Stuart?) Davidson.  I won’t talk here about the specifics of what he said, except to say that he was impressive.

A comment he made about how he approaches negotiations (something to the effect of always reminding the other side that we do, in fact, have a shared mission) got me thinking (long chain of associations, the underlying rationale behind it between me and God) about one way we (all of us APSCUF members) ought to be responding to just about every management “initiative” or “challenge” we face these days.

What happens if we insist on asking one simple question: Who does this help? 

Notice I’m not asking “What’s the benefit?”  I’m emphasizing “Who” because our management, even the saner, more humane ones, seem to need an occasional reminder that at the end of the day, our system is made up of actual people. 

So, who does it help when KU (or Mansfield, or Shippensburg, or…) management issues retrenchment letters?  It sure doesn’t help the retrenched faculty, who lose their jobs.  It doesn’t help the rest of the faculty, who have to soak up the extra work their former colleagues can’t do any more–or see bargaining unit work get shipped off to other units where it doesn’t belong.  It doesn’t help the students to see programs cut, or classes grow, or advising get thinner because there are fewer people to do it.  It doesn’t help the community.  It doesn’t help the Commonwealth keep students from leaving the state for greener pastures, or keep alums in the state because of their fond memories of watching their faculty get fired and their programs canceled. 

So, who does it help when WCU management tries to comply with the 25% temporary faculty cap in the CBA by simply firing as many adjunct faculty as they can?  Not the students–class sizes inevitably go up.  Not the faculty–class sizes go up, reassign time is harder to come by…  Not departments, who still face pressures to increase majors, course offerings; to comply with sometimes bizarre and/or labarynthine mandates from agencies nobody recognizes…  Management, somebody might argue, benefits from evading a loss at arbitration, but that’s not a “Who.”  And that’s precisely why I insist on asking the question that way. 

I could keep adding examples here, but I think the principle is pretty clear.  If anybody who reads the blog is interested in adding examples, by all means do! 

The most important thing to remember here, I really believe is that we’re not professor-bots; our students aren’t student-bots; our managers aren’t manager-bots.  If we all make a good faith effort to remember that formulas, systems, projections, policies, and all the rest of it don’t mean jack shit in the absence of *people*, then navigating the current terrain of budget problems and bad government leadership (Oh, hi Governor Corbett) gets a lot easier.

Slashing jobs is good, right?

September 1, 2010

This post on today’s Daily Kos reports that the top 50 job-slashing CEOs in the US earned nearly $600 million dollars last year.


Apparently, because nobody can currently afford to buy anything, the way to maximize profits is to cut costs by firing people. So humane.

As I was reading the post, the word “retrenchment” jumped out of it at me. Yesterday, I learned that now 8 (more than half) the universities in the PASSHE system have announced plans to retrench faculty in the coming year. So humane.

Apparently, the PASSHE Office of the Chancellor subscribes to the same logic as its corporate brethren (yes, that’s gendered on purpose). To cut costs, fire the people who do the work and therefore earn actual pay.

The problem, of course, is that many of the campuses have seen (and continue to project) GROWING enrollments; that is, what PASSHE is doing is EVEN WORSE than the corporate sphere. Not only is PASSHE shedding jobs, but they’re asking faculty to cover the work of the faculty who get retrenched, and to do more work by teaching more students, all with fewer people and for less money.

Not to put too fine a point on it, this is nearly psychopathic. The people who get paid obscene amounts of money to administer our system are inhumanely destroying the livelihoods of the faculty who can least afford to defend themselves (retrenchment begins with part time and temporary faculty, and then probationary, pre-tenured faculty next) or to lose their jobs. In the meantime, rather than shrinking operations to match the decreased capacity (which I’m not suggesting they do), they continue to admit more students.

The Chancellor of PASSHE published an opinion essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education a while back in which he made the case, clearly and correctly, that public universities simply should not and cannot be the battlegrounds on which budget battles get fought. We’ve compressed, economized, and austerity-fied ourselves to the bone already, and any more cuts will come at the expense of quality. At the time, he was exactly right. Now, the situation is even worse. Quality is already going by the wayside, and these continued cuts, accompanied by shamefully dishonest rhetoric about how dire the budget situation really is, threatens our ability to do anything other than survive–until our management pulls it collective head out of its collective you-know-where and puts its money where its mouth is.

APSCUF election results, and some musing on implications

April 20, 2010

This past weekend (April 16-17), APSCUF elected its officers (Pres, VP, Secretary, Treasurer) for two year terms.  The electees (I don’t like the term “winners” because it implies that those who didn’t win are “losers”) are:

President: Steve Hicks, Lock Haven

VP: Ken Mash, East Stroudsburg

Secretary: Helen Bieber, Kutztown

Treasurer: Chris Hallen, Bloomsburg

Ken Mash is the only new officer, replacing Amy Walters, who stepped down.

The re-election of Steve Hicks as President is significant for a number of reasons.  I voted for (SPOILER ALERT!) Steve and Ken (Helen and Chris ran unopposed, so those votes weren’t nearly as dramatic) because I’ve been satisfied with the work Steve has done in his first term as President, and with the work Ken has done as statewide Meet and Discuss chair.

Are they perfect?  Of course not, and the campaign run by Rob Mutchnik for President and Debra Cornelius for VP aired some legitimate concerns–if you’re reading this with much interest, you already know what they are, so I won’t air them again here.  I hope, and fully expect, that Steve and Ken will take those concerns more seriously than simply to nod their thanks at Rob and Deb for raising them.

I also hope, although I didn’t vote for them, that Rob and Deb will continue to fight on behalf of APSCUF.  The vote tallies were decisive but not overwhelming, which tells me at least these two things: (1) in general, Legislative Assembly delegates are satisfied with the current administration; but (2) Rob and Deb struck enough chords with the delegates to demonstrate that there’s still plenty of work to be done moving APSCUF forward–especially in the near term, as we move into negotiations season, but also in the long term.

Unlike some other delegates, I see the pending negotiations season as an *opportunity* to take on that work, rather than a crisis towards which we’re dashing headlong.  We all know that the negotiations will be difficult, as PASSHE continues to misrepresent the budget situation and its impacts.  We know that we’re entering negotiations with a different kind of process in place, and a different kind of dynamic among the campuses as a result.  From my point of view, given the shift in APSCUF’s ethos over the last few years, all that “uncertainty” actually opens up possibilities for the union, at the state level, to commit to democratic processes, creative mobilizing efforts, and negotiations postures/strategies that would have been very hard to commit to before.

Obviously, preparing for negotiations and possible job actions is hard work no matter what.  If that hard work can, in this instance, have positive short AND long-term effects on our union, I’d rather that than work our asses off for a mediocre contract and no long-term impact.

Why I love my union

March 23, 2010

Let me begin by saying that like any large, complex organization, APSCUF has its issues.  I’m not going to detail them here (you never know who’s reading!); my point is that I’m not going to wax utopian about how perfect we are, because we’re not.

However, I had several conversations, both formal and informal, at last week’s annual meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication that helped me regain some perspective on the quality of the work we do representing our faculty across the PA State System of Higher Education.

Without naming names or campuses, let’s just say that I talked to several people whose unions had committed what strike me as grave errors over the last year.  We know that the California State U system faculty voted to accept furloughs last year.  I don’t blame individual faculty for casting those votes; CSU management did a smart (albeit evil) thing by asserting that faculty could accept furloughs or could cause the firing of several hundred adjunct faculty members.  Given that most adjunct faculty are living on shoestrings already, it’s hard to consign them to a worse fate–total joblessness.  I will argue, though, that despite some criticisms I’ve heard since I became an active APSCUF member in 2002, including contingent faculty in our bargaining unit protects us against this kind of strategy.  Divide-and-conquer tactics work less well when everybody’s united in the same unit.

In two other systems, managers are dangling increased reassign time in front of writing program/writing center faculty in order to maintain high levels of work without any extra support or compensation.  The all-but-promise, that is, says that if faculty will work extra-hard now, they’ll be rewarded later with the support they need to do the current extra-hard work.  We all know that those kinds of all-but-promises don’t amount to a hill of beans unless the unions make it so.  It doesn’t sound like that’s happening, though, and for the life of me I can’t figure out why.  APSCUF has worked hard to make sure that necessary reassign time and support are protected.  We may have upset some people whose reassign time we haven’t worked so hard to protect, but knowing that we really are up against the budget wall, we have to make good decisions about what’s worth fighting for and what isn’t.  Contrasted with what I’m hearing about other unions and systems, I think we’re making those good decisions.

I talked with two people from yet other unions/systems that are currently trying to replicate the recently ended Cal U in the High Schools program, which allowed high school students to take courses at their high schools, taught by high school teachers, for college credit.  The problems with this are legion.  It took APSCUF several years to end this program, although the last few of those several years were spent trying to enforce an arbitration that should have ended the program sooner.  But at least we did it, and to discover that other unions are slow to respond to similar initiatives is, not to put too fine a point on it, distressing.

And all of these examples omit the larger category of conversations I had with faculty who aren’t unionized, either because they haven’t gotten there yet or aren’t allowed to be.  Let’s just say that I thank my lucky stars for the work APSCUF has done over the years and continues to do.  And to APSCUF members who get frustrated with the organization at times, I can only exhort you to talk with colleagues in other places besides PASSHE, and to understand that we have here is a remarkably solid union–as long as we all stand together and make it so.

Retrenchment at KU (repost)

March 11, 2010

If you haven’t already heard, retrenchment proceedings have begun at Kutztown University.  At an emergency local Meet and Discuss on Monday, KU management indicated that they intend to cut several programs that are underperforming (the list they provided is partial, and they won’t say which others are targeted), and that they intend to reduce the faculty complement (they won’t say by how much).

This news is troubling on several fronts.  First and most obviously, any move that reduces the size of the faculty is bad, especially as enrollments continue to increase.  There’s no way, under the circumstances, for class sizes not to grow and hence lead to all the negative impacts that come with it: reduced attention to individual students; reduced attention to other duties like advising, service, and scholarship; pedagogical and curricular shifts that don’t benefit anybody.

Second, of all the campuses in the PASSHE system, KU is the least likely candidate for retrenchment.  Their student body has grown, in proportion, much more quickly than any of the others.  Programs continue to achieve remarkable successes.

Third, beginning system-wide retrenchment proceedings with such a not-obvious target bodes very poorly for the rest of the system.  As I commented on the KUXchange blog, I can only believe that this move is more political than economic, and more economic than educational.  PASSHE has lobbed a hand-grenade into the middle of an already-difficult situation (dealing with economic problems state- and system-wide).  Based on their stances at both local-KU and statewide Meet and Discuss meetings, they seem disinclined to share the requisite data, to be clear about what their plans are, and to recognize the reality of what they’re doing.

Faculty aren’t just paychecks and FTE’s.  We’re people; most of us have committed huge chunks of our lives, time, energy, money, and more to being the best faculty we can be–to doing right by our students and our schools, to protecting an environment in which learning and teaching can happen at their best.  Retrenchment, even if really necessary, is an incredibly painful process.  To use it as a political tool; to deflect attention from management’s mistakes by blaming the economic problems of the system on those of us with the least power to have made the mistakes, much less correct them; to pit faculty against faculty in turf battles over which programs and jobs stay alive…  There’s no word bad enough to describe how inhumane that is.

After midnight, why am I here?

February 20, 2010

I don’t mean that question in any existential sense.  I should be asleep.  My meeting tomorrow starts at 8:30 am, and I need a good breakfast beforehand (the hotel restaurant opens at 7 am), and I need to be awake for a while even before that.  So I should be crashed, but I’m not.  Maybe if I write a bunch of boring stuff, I’ll put myself to sleep :>.

The good news of the day (non-teaching-wise: teaching is always good news):

1.  Because Ann got off work a little early, and because Rainbow Cab messed up my reservation with them, I got to spend a couple of extra hours with my spouse before I took off for H’burg.  That’s a win!

2.  Routledge e-mailed JongHwa and me this morning that our Activism and Rhetoric manuscript has been shipped to their production facility in the UK.  Now it’s between us and the copy-editors, who we hope will find little to quibble about.  Still on track for August release, which will be just in time for the class I designed around the book.  More to the point, I believe at this point any of the potential logistical problems (like contributors not having signed their contracts) are solved.

3.  Two really cool advising sessions this morning.  I’m always happier (duh) when advisees come to sessions having thought about what they want and need.  Both advisees were prepared, but had interesting things to talk about, questions to ask (not the ones they could have answered for themselves).

4.  Sen. Arlen Specter has signed onto a letter circulating among Dems advocating passage of a healthcare bill with a public option, using the reconciliation process if they have to.  I’m stunned that Specter would sign onto it.  As I wrote on Rep. Mark Cohen’s Facebook wall, I’d like to be able to take this as an omen that Specter is actually enough of a Democrat to remember that years ago he supported legislation that’s almost identical to the Employee Free Choice Act!

The irksome stuff of the day is standard issue and not worth thinking about just now.

OK, that pretty much worked.  Zzzzzz……