An instant classic.

25 08 2012

My friend CSU-Pueblo math professor Jonathan Poritz has made appearances on this blog before. You just didn’t know it was him because he was untenured and therefore wanted me to keep his name out of my posts. However, I can tell you he’s been an incredibly important influence on my thinking about technology issues of all kinds.

Now that he’s tenured, he’s speaking for himself in the pages of Academe, the journal of the American Association of University Professors. His subject is technology and academic freedom. Specifically, he’s arguing that professors should embrace open source software not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it will improve pedagogy, increase efficiency, cut costs and support academic freedom.

And here’s the part that just kills me: Jonathan convinced Academe to publish the article under a Creative Commons license so I can link to it in .pdf format on his web site before it even appears in the journal.

I’ll have more to say about all this stuff at the Academe blog once it actually appears in that journal, but for now you should just read a piece which I’m certain will become an instant classic and think hard about how to bring more open source software to your campus.

Workers’ control in academia.

15 06 2012

I’m sure new readers will be shocked to learn that my original field was American labor history. I still teach it once every two years at which time I always get exactly enough students to keep the class from being canceled. Like a lot of labor historians I know, I’ve developed other interests. Still, what I’ve learned can be very useful for understanding the situation currently faced by everyone in my profession.

I’ve written about Harry Braverman in this space before. The title of this post is a variation of a book title by the late David Montgomery. However, my favorite labor historian has always been Herbert Gutman. To my mind, Gutman’s first collection of essays, Work, Culture and Society in Industrializing America, is the best labor history book ever published because it’s all so accessible.

Since I don’t want to set foot in my office any more than absolutely necessary this summer, I’m going by memory here: Throughout the book Gutman explains how nineteenth century industrial workers had different priorities than their bosses. Since many were immigrants, they came to America with a pre-industrial mindset. They were perfectly willing to demand a barrel of beer to drink at work because work was alienating and producing non-stop for ten or twelve hours at a time was generally not an appealing prospect. Over the course of the 19th century, their employers broke the power of these workers through mechanization and the division of labor.

Skilled workers could once set the pace of production or even drink on the job because they had control of the shop floor. Once managers broke that control, more of the profits from industrialization inevitably flowed toward capital.

I’m not suggesting that professors start drinking on the job. However, I am suggesting that online education is a threat to our control of the shop floor. In fact, it entirely eliminates the shop floor we once controlled. Online educators can hardly even interact with their students at all without negotiating a space controlled almost entirely by their employers.

Yet unlike in nineteenth century America, there is no guarantee that increased production serves the best interests of society. Is teaching more students a good thing if the education they get is superficial and impersonal? I say “no,” but even if you say “yes” don’t you think actual educators should have a major role in answering that question? After all, public education is not supposed to be a private profit center.

Ever heard of shared governance? It’s a principle that has guided American higher education for decades now. It means that faculty should play an important role in the way their universities operate. After all, without them there would be no university at all. Shared governance also suggests that faculty maintain at least some of their prerogatives as the terms and conditions of their employment are determined to everyone’s satisfaction. That’s why when non-profit university administrators insist on acting like Robber Barons, the cause of education isn’t served.

What can faculty do in response to John D. Rockefeller-like behavior? First, wake up and smell the coffee. Your job is being redefined right under your nose and most of you don’t even realize it. Second, insist on participating in the conversations about what your job will become. Third, if you aren’t treated with the respect you deserve, then organize. It doesn’t have to be into a trade union. Even the simple act of joining the AAUP will do wonders for your understanding of how the university works. The more people who understand what’s happening, the more people will be willing to do something about it.

In any event, you have to do something. History suggests that once you lose control of your shop floor, it’s darn near impossible to get it back.

Hey Washington Post! May we get a correction, please? Or even a source?

25 03 2012

I’ve been away for a few days, so although I skimmed this incredibly dishonest Washington Post op-ed by David C. Levy when it came out, I didn’t quite take in the enormous magnitude of its dishonesty until I got a chance to read it on a computer screen rather than my phone. Luckily, Robert Farley lays a well-deserved smackdown here, which is well worth your reading time.

Yet he is only refuting the premise of the piece, that faculty don’t work hard enough. I want to take on the assumption which that premise is built upon:

Happily, senior faculty at most state universities and colleges now earn $80,000 to $150,000, roughly in line with the average incomes of others with advanced degrees.

If ever there was a figure in a newspaper article crying out for a footnote, this is it.

I happen to be senior faculty at a state university and I don’t make anywhere near the bottom of that spread. I also happen to know that most professors at my university in other fields (with the exception of business) make nowhere near the bottom of that spread because I had to survey those salaries in order to get an equity adjustment that brought me a little closer. As a matter of fact, I had to study salary data at all of our so-called “peer institutions” and nobody in history at any of those institutions make anywhere near that spread either. Indeed, our institution pays history professors right in the middle of the range of our peer institutions. The only reason I actually got an equity adjustment was that I was being out-earned by colleagues in my own department at a lower rank.*

So yes, I think the conclusion that we don’t work hard enough is absurd. [In fact, I think I’m going address that as part of a three-part series that’s currently bubbling around my brain for publication at this blog next week.] However, Levy’s argument isn’t just that we’re underworked. It’s that we’re underworked and overpaid, which is actually two lies in one.

Unlike hours tabulation, which is very hard to compute [If I’m reading a history book I happen to enjoy is it leisure or professional development?], there are collective salary figures out there arranged by discipline generated by the AAUP and other sources. Rather than cite any of those numbers, Levy gives us a single example Maryland’s Montgomery College, where the average full professor apparently makes $88,000/year. So where did the $150,000 come from? Yale? And what does the average instructor (faculty and adjuncts together) make at Montgomery College? Are the adjuncts there not working hard enough too?

If you read his piece closely, you’ll notice that like so many other people writing about higher education, Levy doesn’t acknowledge that adjunct faculty even exist because such an admission undercuts his so-called “argument.” Since they’ve been around as a class for four decades now, there actually are such people as “senior adjuncts.” Are they not faculty? Don’t they deserve to be paid as well as other trained professionals too?

In the end, this is all just another reason why we’re all in this together, since in an age of permanent austerity everyone’s salary and working conditions will ultimately converge.

* You’ve heard of salary compression? This is what they call salary inversion.

The academic freedom crisis of the 21st century.

21 03 2012

Somebody call the AUUP! I think I’ve found the academic freedom crisis of the 21st century. From IHE:

[Lasell College] wants 100 percent of faculty to be actively using the college’s Moodle-based learning management system (LMS). And it wants comprehensive LMS usage — every course, all sections — before the end of this year. That means at a minimum, an instructor will have to use the online platform to take attendance, post assignments, and post grades.

“We’re basically mandating it,” says Michael B. Alexander, Lasell’s president.

I’m surprised this hasn’t happened before. After all, LMSs (even the open source ones like Moodle) are expensive to operate and universities want to make the most of their investments. Moreover, it’s easy to track students (and faculty) when you use them, thereby satisfying the urges of administrative control freaks everywhere. That article even introduced me to a new term: “LMS usage deficit.” I think any administrator who uses that term is basically showing their hand. They want all faculty to use the LMS whether they want to or not.

Why might some faculty resist using a particular LMS? Leave aside the fact that they might be philosophically opposed to the concept of online learning. What if the system itself…cough…Blackboard…cough…stinks? After all, how many institutions actually have enough shared governance to give faculty a significant say in educational technology decisions? I recently approached a faculty member on our IT Board top ask about getting the university to run WordPress on our servers and he started laughing hysterically. Apparently, I’ll be lucky if that happens before I retire.

Despite such rather obvious concerns, the faculty at Lasell haven’t quite digested the implications of all this:

The plan does not appear to have run up against much resistance from Lasell faculty. But while the usage thresholds proposed by Alexander are slight, the president might be treading a fine line when it comes to requiring that faculty use particular features in Moodle. “If you’re going to see faculty resistance, it’s going to be if they are told what tools they have to use,” says Cristina Haverty, chair of the department of athletic training and exercise science.

I guarantee you that the situation she describes is coming somewhere, sometime soon. If it’s not done in the name of cost-cutting, it will be done in the name of “customer service.” At that point, the AAUP and every other defender of academic freedom is going to have to make the case that how educational content is being delivered is just as important as what educational content is being delivered. Otherwise, academic freedom is going to go the way of the face-to-face class in the all-online higher education utopia that is apparently just over the edge of the horizon.

More paying students, fewer teachers to pay.

15 09 2011

The new issue of the AAUP magazine Academe is out. It’s on the subject of “The Humanities,” and it’s very, very good. I might do some more blogging from it when I get my paper copy, but for now let me simply call your attention to this review of several recent titles in the “higher education is doomed” genre by Ellen Schrecker:

The readers of Academe need no reminder about the execrable working conditions and inadequate remuneration of the men and (mostly) women with contingent appointments. For Hacker and Dreifus, outrage is the only response: “It is immoral and unseemly to have a person teaching exactly the same class as an ensconced faculty member, but for one-sixth the pay.” (Emphasis in original.)

But it’s not the “ensconced” faculty member’s fault.

Thank you so much for that last part, Ellen. Perhaps it’s self-evident to all of us with tenure that we actually prefer more tenured colleagues to less (if for no other reason to spread the committee work around), so we don’t say that enough. It should also be self-evident that a better-paid professor is a happier professor and a happier professor can concentrate more on every aspect of their work, including teaching.

Of course, anyone who’s read Bousquet or any other higher education tomes by authors who actually know what they’re talking about can tell you that the growth of adjuncts in the academy dates from the 1970s. The online learning gold rush, however, is of much more recent vintage, and it should go without saying that the way it’s being done now isn’t exactly helping the cause of education either.

Nevertheless, it’s still nice to see someone say that too every once in a while, which is why Donald Eastman, the President of Eckerd College in Florida, is my new hero. Do yourself a favor and read his entire piece from the St. Petersburg Times after you finish reading this post. For now though, here’s a taste:

To be sure, online learning has its place. But for most students, it is a last resort. For those who have no other options, who cannot get to a classroom because of time or distance barriers, online instruction has to suffice, and thank goodness for it. Adult students who simply have neither the time nor the scheduling flexibility to attend classes are understandably the primary users of online course work.

Increasingly, however, public universities expect traditionally aged students to take online courses because of lack of space. This year the Florida Legislature passed the Digital Learning Now Act, which mandates that all high school students take at least one class online to graduate — as if high school students need to be required to use the Internet!

This is precisely why UD calls online education the “poor white trash” of academia. But since this has always been a labor blog, I want to talk about who’s teaching the classes rather than who’s taking them. While I know a few tenure track faculty who’ve taken the plunge into full online learning (often on the side to supplement their not quite stellar incomes), for the most part it’s the adjuncts who teach these kinds of courses. [The University of Phoenix, if I remember it right, is based on a model where EVERYONE is an adjunct.]

Seriously, who has the time to learn a new system when you have committees, research, shared governance issues and all your existing face-to-face classes to teach already? I’ve become an online education Quaker precisely because I’m so busy trying to be the best face-to-face teacher I can be, and because I like to leave as much of my work as possible at the office when I leave for the day. Nevertheless, I’m still concerned about how online education plays out around academia because I care about educational quality.

Leave online education entirely to administrators, the non-tenured and the non-tenurable and educational concerns will inevitably be squashed by the drive to save money during our new austerity. It won’t be sold as austerity, though. It will be sold as efficiency. [There’s that “MBA thinking” again!] Check this out from some tech guy writing in IHE:

[A]ctively seek vendors as partners that can provide technology to “scale” any of your existing processes out of the classroom — marketing and communication, financial aid, student services, community building, and student success. Over the past 30 years or so, technology has been used within the existing educational model and within the operating framework of our institutions. Institutions need to look at technology differently — they need to see it as an opportunity to transform what they do and help them adapt.

“Scale” classroom teaching and you get hundreds of students enrolled in a single online class. More paying students, fewer teachers to pay. That’s our online future. A single adjunct overseeing hundreds of students taking multiple choice tests may be good for the bottom line, but it’s not good for education. And if we really care about education, that’s precisely the sort of thing that we all need to work to stop.

When exactly did professors take a vow of poverty?

21 04 2011

Apart from a very unfortunate post about totem animals, the Chronicle blog ProfHacker is about the most useful blog around. Reading it has made me a better scholar, a better teacher and (in a small way) a better person. This post, however, made me want to throw stuff at my computer screen:

Surveys of faculty salaries do matter to those who study academic culture at large, and such information can be useful in certain contexts. But, in general, I do wonder if such discussions do more harm than good. Faculty salaries vary greatly for a host of reasons we could barely list in an hour of brainstorming. And what counts as a “good” salary will vary, too. But isn’t that true of all fields? I am married to a lawyer who is quick to point out that attorney salaries vary incredibly from the $22,000 one makes annually in a nonprofit to the million another makes in a private firm. I have heard doctors say the same thing. And accountants. And engineers. I think it is pretty safe to say that you can pick almost any field and point to examples of those who make very little and those who make a lot.

Personally, I have a problem with the notion that economists make more money than historians because economists are somehow more useful than historians are. But that’s not what’s being argued here. What’s being argued here is that some historians make more money than other historians because they’re better than the rest.

In fact, as this year’s AAUP salary survey handily explains, the reason is more like an accident of birth than a judgment of worth:

Another labor market phenomenon that sometimes affects faculty salaries is known as compression or inversion. Labor economic theory predicts that people with more experience will earn higher salaries; their experience gives them an edge in doing their jobs well. Thus, within a discipline we expect full professors to earn more than associate professors, who in turn earn more than assistant professors. This relationship between experience and pay can be overwhelmed in disciplines for which there is a shortage of individuals willing to complete a graduate degree when they could enter the private-sector job market sooner at higher salaries. In those cases, the market makes the new PhD recipient so much in demand that universities have to pay him or her more than they pay more senior assistant professors (and sometimes more than associate professors as well). Compression refers to the situation where a more senior faculty member is paid only slightly more than the newly appointed colleague; the extreme case of this is inversion, where the more experienced individual is actually paid less than the newcomer.

From the perspective of economic theory, compression or inversion are simply reflections of the operation of the labor market. From an organizational perspective, however, these conditions can be destructive because of their potential negative effects on faculty morale.

Alas, my wife is not a lawyer. Therefore, I can’t afford to live in ignorance. Salary surveys like the AAUP’s are very useful for making the case for making my case for economic justice.

I recently heard an administrator from another university explain to a group of faculty that college teaching was a “sacred calling.” This made me wonder if the bosses in Chinese sweatshops described making bra rings the same way. I doubt it. Nobody but college professors would be gullible enough to fall for such blatant disregard of the economic rules upon which labor markets are supposed to operate.

And by the way, I don’t get summers “off” either.

15 02 2011

This is why I love national AAUP President Cary Nelson:

“Many of us work 12 or 15 hour days, seven days a week. If it became clear how many hours we put in, there’d be an unimpeachable argument for better compensation and more faculty positions.”

He’s arguing against Kean University’s policy of making faculty members fill out time sheets, but it takes in so much more when you look at that quote out of context, doesn’t it?

I am not a dangerous radical. Really!

9 02 2011

When I first saw the headline of this article, “Shared Governance is a Myth,” I was prepared to take out my poison pen and go to town on the guy who wrote it. If you get into it though, you’ll see that he writes more out of sorrow than out of anger. Here’s a taste:

Administrators appear to honor teachers’ desire for influence by establishing faculty senates and placing interested faculty members on a host of committees. Young profes­sionals embrace committee assignments eagerly, believing that it is their responsibility to contribute to the governance of their colleges and delighting in the power they think this confers on them. It takes years of rank and the bitter­sweet experience of extensive committee service to realize that faculty influence on the operation of the university is an illusion, and that shared governance is a myth.

Committees report to administrative officers who are at liberty to accept, reject, or substantially alter faculty recommendations. In many cases, deans or subdeans convey to the committees they sit on what outcomes the administration considers acceptable. This not only guides deliberations but also casts a pall of futility over contrary conceptions. Only rarely does a committee offer recommendations not in line with the prior ideas of top administrative officers.

The description here is basically accurate, so I guess my real problem is with the word “myth.” I would have called my version of this piece, “Shared Governance Is an Ideal.” Reality is often different, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be.

A few days ago, a very enthusiastic colleague in the business school here sent an e-mail to all her colleagues explaining how membership in the American Association of University Professors has opened her eyes about what’s going on around campus. Since I’m president of the local chapter, I got a cc of that message. This is part of what I wrote to the same folks as a follow-up:

If the rest of you don’t mind me taking this opening, I want to elaborate a little bit on the ideas that [my enthusiastic colleague] has explained. The American Association of University Professors isn’t the American Civil Liberties Union. It can’t protect rights that you don’t have (and I shouldn’t have to tell the faculty of a business school that employees of all kinds in America have very few rights).

Since its founding in 1915, the AAUP has cultivated a series of what might be called “best practices” for American higher education that serve the mutual interests of faculty, students and administrators alike. These include academic freedom and shared governance. The organization sees its job primarily as reminding people who don’t know about these ideas of what they really mean and how well they’ve worked throughout American higher education over the last hundred years or so.

Translation: “I am not a dangerous radical. Really!”

Yes, I’m working on cultivating a reputation for principled reasonableness around campus, but it helps that I actually believe this stuff. Faculty members have as much impact as their respective administrations want to give them. Therefore, the way to influence the course of events on campus is not to shake your fist every five seconds, but to explain as coolly, calmly and collectedly as possible why your way is the best way for everybody involved. Sure, you’ll get some bone-headed administrators who won’t do what’s right because they can’t see the forest through the trees, but most of them have to be smart otherwise they wouldn’t have gotten them where they are.

Alright, that last part might have been a bit overly optimistic, but the administrators that I’ve known in a decade plus of college teaching have always at least been willing to listen to reason. That should be all you need to to get the ball rolling in the right direction.

People running universities should have experience running universities.

6 02 2011

You’d think this premise would be uncontroversial: People running universities should have experience running universities. But not in Colorado.

Back in August, the president of my university, Joe Garcia, resigned to run for Lieutenant Governor of Colorado. He won. I was proud to vote for him as I knew he’d be good at the job, but I was also a little annoyed because he had been a very good President. Enrollments are up. Buildings are being built. I looked forward to seeing Joe turn his attention to improving the academic situation on campus.

Joe had an interesting background for academia. He’s a lawyer by training, but he had been a community college president before joining us. Our local paper, the Pueblo Chieftain, is convinced that the less experience a university president has with academia the better they’ll be. So they’ve published a series of editorials making that point, both directly and indirectly.

This is my response to one of those editorials (the last one linked to in the above paragraph). The Chieftain was nice enough to put it on the op-ed page.

I’m not sure it’s going to make a difference in the end because Colorado seems obsessed with having people running universities who have little or no experience running universities. I’ll obviously work with whoever the Board of Governors selects to be the next President of CSU-Pueblo, but finding another Joe Garcia is going to be tough and no matter who the next President is I’ll likely be around campus longer than they are.

Update: I just picked a paper copy of my op-ed and noticed that the Chieftain ran yet another editorial on this same subject today opposite my piece.

Since this post is getting some serious traffic thanks to the illustrious Historiann, let me ask you all this: Are there any other states besides Colorado where a significant number of universities aren’t run by academics or are we on the cutting edge of an unfortunate trend?

What do faculty and Walmart workers have in common?

6 12 2010

On Saturday, I heard Cary Nelson speak at the state AAUP’s annual meeting in Boulder. It was actually the same speech he gave at the shared governance meeting in Washington, D.C., but not exactly the same. Besides, like when you listen to your favorite albums enough, you sometimes hear little things you didn’t pick up the first time around.

What I picked up most this time around was a thought about the relationship between state aid at public universities and tuition. It’s obvious when you think about it: When state aid decreases, the costs of running a college are shifted to students in the form of higher tuition. From the typical administrator’s standpoint, it basically doesn’t matter. If you raise tuition too high, perhaps students will choose a cheaper alternative (like community colleges), but as long as enrollment continues unabated one source of money is as good as another.

The problem with this arrangement from the faculty perspective is that it sets students and faculty off against one another. Want a raise? Tuition is going to have to go up. Of course, there are many other expenses in running a university besides faculty salaries, but I’ve noticed a tendency among administrators everywhere to inflate the relative percentage of the cost of instruction compared to overall budgets and I think this is precisely the reason. Invoking the interests of students to their teachers is a much better argument than saying you can’t have a raise because they need to hire still more administrators or pay the football coach another million dollars per year.

This is what reminds me of Walmart. certainly everyone on the tenure track still has it better than the average Walmart worker, but I’ve been a Walmart blogger for a long, long time and I think I’m starting to see a parallel here. When Walmart is attacked for its poor wages, a certain class of Walmart defenders (many of them in economics departments), make an argument like this:

[Obama] has appointed the 37-year-old Jason Furman, one of Wal-Mart’s most prominent defenders, to head his economic team. On the campaign trail, Obama blasted Clinton for sitting on the Wal-Mart board and pledged: “I won’t shop there.” For Furman, however, Wal-Mart’s critics are the real threat: the “efforts to get Wal-Mart to raise its wages and benefits” are creating “collateral damage” that is “way too enormous and damaging to working people and the economy … for me to sit by idly and sing Kum Ba Ya in the interests of progressive harmony”.

That collateral damage is, of course, higher prices for cheap plastic crap. In our case, it’s higher tuition – probably for the same class of students that feel the need to shop at Walmart.

Obviously I’m sympathetic to people at the bottom of the power equation in both these relationships, but those in academia can at least take the argument in another direction by invoking the effect of budgetary decisions on the quality of instruction. As I put it after the first time I heard Cary Nelson give this speech:

Our first inclination is to thank our administrators for not furloughing us (and if we are furloughed, to thank them for not firing us) when we should be asking, “What can we do together to make sure that the education we’re providing doesn’t suffer?”

We work at universities, not Walmart. If the quality of instruction isn’t someone’s first priority, then that person might want to consider employment in Walmart’s management team rather than higher education administration.

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