Thursday, November 29, 2007

 

Plate of Shrimp

“It's like when someone says plate. And then someone says shrimp. And then someone says plate of shrimp...It's part of the cosmic web of coincidence.” -- Repo Man


Every so often I stumble upon two articles back to back that seem like they were written to answer each other, even though they obviously weren't. It's part of the cosmic web of coincidence.

My fellow IHE blogumnist John Lombardi published an enigmatic, but thoughtful, piece on the “deconstruction” of the faculty role into its component parts. He argues that “the remarkable transformation of much academic commitment from an investment in a person who produces many products over a lifetime to the investment in specific products that ensure the competitive position of the employing institution” is the result of “the demand for high levels of student access, high productivity demonstrated through measurable output, and low cost,” and the concurrent rise of “accountability metrics.” He appears to lament the decline of “the norm of faculty life [that] revolved around a full-time tenured position in a college or university where we would become permanent and engaged members of the academic community, participating in teaching, research, public service, and governance responding to a holistic conception of faculty responsibilities.” (emphasis added)

It's a fairly straightforward story of the gentleman's agreement giving way to the contract. Contracts lack the ease and flexibility of the gentleman's agreement even if, to any objective observer, they're far more inclusive than the old form. If you keep expecting the old form, you'll keep being disappointed in the costs of, well, modernity. People who intuitively understood the 'holistic conception' will find any mere list of components somewhat underwhelming or reductionist.

Right after that, I found an unintentional rebuttal in a piece in the Chronicle. The piece, “As the Professoriate Ages, Will Colleges Face More Legal Landmines?”, examines the ways that colleges and universities can run afoul of the Americans with Disabilities Act. (The conceit of the article is that the aging of the tenured faculty will lead to increased disability claims over time, and therefore to more opportunities for litigation.)

As the article correctly notes, the ADA requires employers, when confronted with a disability claim, to make reasonable accommodations. A college can deny an accommodation request if it can show that the request would “require the college to reduce, eliminate, or modify the essential functions of a job.” How could it show that?

[T]o make such a case, an institution must be able to describe what, in fact, the essential functions of a faculty member's job are. That is why each college should identify and distribute a list of the essential functions that a faculty member at the institution must perform, preferably in some official policy document like a faculty handbook, individual employment contract, or collective-bargaining agreement. Establishing a clear set of essential functions will notify faculty members of what they are expected to do, provide a guideline for administrators who are asked to provide reasonable accommodations for faculty members who can't perform certain parts of their jobs, and justify a college's agreement or refusal to grant a particular accommodation...If it is to hold up to scrutiny during litigation, the essential-functions list should be prepared before a faculty member discloses a disability and requests an accommodation. (emphasis in original)

Exactly. That “essential functions” list that Lombardi considers reductive and shallow is the only thing keeping litigants from bleeding the college dry with legal judgments. The gentleman's agreement model of individual judgment on a case-by-case basis – with all the favoritism that entails – simply isn't sustainable in court. And for very good reason.

The tension between the ideals of contracts – transparency, clarity, reciprocity – and the holdover ideals of the gentleman scholar – an apprentice system, a complete lack of accountability, and lifetime job security – becomes obvious when younger faculty clamor for more transparency in the tenure process. They're trying to bring the logic of exchange to bear on a system premised on the denial of the logic of exchange. It's possible to do a little of that, but ultimately, giving someone tenure means exempting them from having to uphold their half of the deal. That's why colleges have been so slow to let go of the much-feared unwritten rules, even when the unwritten rules seem archaic or even silly. By necessity, they try to suss out motivation, as much as actual production, so they don't get stuck with someone who will collapse in exhaustion at the finish line of tenure and retire on the job, stirring only to file the occasional grievance.

As Lombardi correctly notes, higher ed has indirectly acknowledged the end of the 'gentleman's agreement' era by constructing a parallel system of faculty hiring separate from the tenure track. That second system is clearly second-class – adjunct and temp positions that offer no security, lousy pay, and no signs of institutional respect. It's almost a parody of the worst of the corporate world, the profits from which subsidize the otherwise-unsustainable gentlemen with tenure. The landed aristocrats are bought off, and the proles too scared or shamed to organize.

Every so often I suggest moving to full-time renewable multi-year contracts with academic freedom stipulated as part of the contractual language. (That way, violations of academic freedom would be actionable as breach of contract. That's actually a stronger legal foundation than academic freedom has by itself.) Stop trying to psychoanalyze junior faculty; give up on the gentleman scholar; spell out the expectations on both sides; don't renew those who don't perform. Let's have the conversations about what the job actually entails, and write down the results of that conversation for future legal reference.

Lamenting the world that's lost is fine, but someone said plate of shrimp. It's time to move on.



Comments:
It seems as if the real problem with the 'gentleman's agreement' (gendered language aside) is that significant numbers of the prior generation failed to uphold their part of the bargan (both administration and faculty). Paradoxically, it seems as if renewable contracts of sufficient length would provide the maximum amount of security and stability vs. the current situation. With contracts of at least 5 years, faculty members could have 'fallow' periods as well as periods of intense connection to their work -- and it would all even out over 5 years....
 
I have to be missing something in your argument: are you really saying that the ADA is why you want to eliminate tenure?
 
This evokes an issue that came up for me this week: my SLAC is moving to a model of fall-only first-year student orientation, but it wants to have students select their first-term courses during the summer. When we had summer orientation, students met with volunteer faculty members to help select courses. (First-year students have a fairly limited set of options, especially in their first term.)

The school wants to retain the advice from the professors, but it wants to do away with the orientation period when that took place(during one week of the summer, students spread out over the week for one-day orientation, only about an hour's commitment per professor per day). One possible solution raised would be for the professors who serve as first-year students' advisors to advise them via email over the summer.

However, faculty contracts explicitly state that we are employed only for the nine-month period of the regular academic year. If the school wants to move to a model of requiring professors to serve in this advising role during the summer as opposed to using volunteers, doesn't it have to address that in the contract? Does the administration want to open the Pandora's box of work done over the summer? (Approximately half of the faculty would be involved each year.)

The "gentlemen's agreement" model suggests letting it just happen, but the contract model under which we technically work suggests otherwise. It's really quite a minor point, but will professors be required to devote a certain number of hours answering email over the summer? What about people whose research takes them abroad, sometimes to places out of email contact?
 
Overall I agree with you. But the "contract model" would require (or at least *should* require) much more oversight and, well, *leadership* from college administrators than the gentleman's agreement does. "Essential functions" implies that someone is actually going to keep track of who is and who is not performing these essential functions -- and actually *confront* a faculty member when s/he is not. Perhaps it's the tenure system that prevents many administrators from doing this now, but it's also the pressures of collegiality, etc. It seems to me that as academics, with the exception of the tenure process (and often not even then) we're really, really bad at evaluating each other honestly.
 
Another factor which I think is missed is that the "gentleman's agreement" model of faculty dates to a time when it was, really, a gentleman's agreement. It was expected that university faculty would have either monastic-style lives, or substantial private means.

When did it become possible to support oneself comfortably and respectably as general university faculty?

SamChevre
 
The real problem with the parceling out of faculty duties to adjuncts is that it leaves administrators as the "permanent full time" people. They -- often people who have not been in a classroom for years, and who haven't talked to us about our experience -- make educational and pedagogical decisions they lack the knowledge and experience to make.

As for multi-year contracts. In theory I agree. My institution used to have them -- three one year contracts, a three year contract, then 5 years -- and then a few years ago changed us all to one year contracts. It makes people who have worked there for 25 years feel really valued to have the HR director (2 years) say, well, we need flexibility.
 
Sorry, DeanDad, I'm still not convinced that multi-year contracts would offer the same protection of academic freedom as tenure. Any administrator who wanted to force out, say, a Juan Cole or an already-tenured Norman Finkelstein would only have to find some slim pretext for not renewing the contract. Compare that to the high bar required to remove a tenured faculty member from his/her position. I'm willing to hear more about this idea, but every time I've seen you mention it, you do so in a glib short paragraph, and frankly, it sounds quite naive to me.

--Shane in Utah
 
I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Dean Dad, if you get your dream of abolishing tenure worldwide overnight, then faculty in certain fields (primarily the STEM disciplines) will demand a huge increase in pay, and rightfully so.

Would you be willing to double or triple tuition to hold on to these facutly? No? Then leave tenure be; it's one of the few perks of the job that makes up for (relatively) low faculty salaries.
 
I'm beginning to see why you have so many complaints about your relationship with your faculty, which you appear to want to treat as hourly wage slaves whose every action is in accord with the policies and procedures that come from your office, or whoever replaces you if you move on to repeat the process at another college on the typical time scale for admin turnover. (What is it, five years?) You might be the origin of the problem.

You write "a complete lack of accountability" as the result of tenure. I find that assertion preposterous. I find it unbelievable that your institution has contracts and/or policies that allow a faculty member to skip class (say, all semester) and just turn in grades and call it a year. Yet that is what you are asserting when you make such blanket statements. No tenured faculty member is totally unaccountable for his or her actions.

Are you accountable for yours? Do you check that they are all in their classroom, working away at your educational equivalent of the power loom, spewing forth ppt and checking attendance? Why not? That is what you would have to do if you were fully accountable for ensuring that your contract workers were doing exactly what you told them to do on Thursday. I can see your college now, with a TV camera in every classroom and a bank of monitors in front of your desk.

An alternative model is one where faculty are expected to carry out a variety of roles over a career, where younger faculty active in research get a reduced teaching load, a load that is carried by older faculty who are less active in research or not carrying the administrative burdens that can get in the way of research productivity. One where young faculty, who might be quite green in the classroom, are mentored and mature - rather than fired because their 50% of teaching wasn't quite up to snuff, while that nationally famous research only counts as completing that half of their assignment satisfactorily. You know, one like the one I have seen in the best departments, where people like what they are doing and are not doing it just to avoid being waterboarded.

DD, you need to rethink the way you motivate the people you seem to think are working for YOU rather than for the betterment of mankind.
 
First, whether it's Harvard University or Podunk Community College, 20% of the faculty undergoing tenure review in any given year will be a logistical nightmare.

Next, I've said it before and I'll say it again: Tenure, at least in California community colleges, is NOT a guaranteed-for-life job. Truly bad teachers should be fired, and they can be if admistrators are willing to pay attention to emloyees' due process rights and to do the careful documentation that is required to end someone's career.

This unpleasant and difficult work is necessary with or without rolling tenure.

--Philip
 
ccphysicist said: I'm beginning to see why you have so many complaints about your relationship with your faculty, which you appear to want to treat as hourly wage slaves whose every action is in accord with the policies and procedures that come from your office

You know, I have a better word for that lengthy description of yours: "Employee."

Which they ARE, right? They're not clergy, they're employees. Salaried, to be sure, but employees all the same.

Aaaand... THAT means that they get their policies and procedures set for them, by their supervisor/manager/administrator. Horrors! Perish the thought!

heh.
 
This is one of those topics on which some folks in the industry are so deeply emotionally invested that they can't see the forest for the trees.

I'll spell it out for you.

Tenure is dying.

It's dying by adjuncting-out, by postdoc-ing, by temping, and by plain old cancelling of sections.

It's dying by proprietary schools, and distance education, and 'applied' majors.

Although you wouldn't know it from reading my attackers, most college faculty in America aren't tenured or tenure-eligible. That's not a debatable point; it's just a fact.

Tenure is dying. It's dying because it doesn't make sense anymore.

We can rage against the dying of the light -- and shoot messengers with reductio ad absurdum shots, like Sherman Dorn did, or plain old ad hominem attacks, like ccphysicist.

Or we can propose constructive, humane, sustainable alternatives.

I don't claim any monopoly on those alternatives, and I'm happy to participate in a conversation in which people propose better ideas than mine.

But I won't engage those who question my ethics, my commitment to education, or my motives. Neither will the general public, which is why you guys are losing the long-term fight.

The postwar Golden Age is over. Will we shape the future, or will we just bitch as it happens to us?
 
This is an interesting point:
Any administrator who wanted to force out, say, a Juan Cole or an already-tenured Norman Finkelstein would only have to find some slim pretext for not renewing the contract.

However, you can't merely look at the negative effects.

Say there was wide acceptance of a 5-year term. This might hurt certain people whose academic preferences would put them on the wrong side of the administration.

However, it would prove a vast help to those people whose employment situation is such that they are one one year terms (or less.) That second group would, IMO, obtain a nebulous "academic freedom" benefit which would exceed the cost to the few controversial professors that are harmed. All of hose new professors--ripe with fresh ideas--would be able to propound said ideas without fear of being summarily dismissed in January.

On average, I'd expect that the new professors would be more radical, not less radical, than the established ones. As a result the overall freedom would be enhanced.

Moreover, the second group of currently-restricted faculty is surely larger in membership than the group of faculty who would need to tone down their rhetoric. This provides yet another stone on the scale.

Of course, that assumes that "academic freedom" is something worth protecting in its current form. It's surely important at some level. But my experience is that professors are wont to claim all their decisions relate to academic freedom, and that's simply not what it was developed to protect.

Grading on a curve? Assigning a certain number of hours of average load? Getting your grades in on time? That's not what academic freedom is. And I've heard it, and probably, so have you.

Combine academic freedom with tenure and you've got an area ripe for abuse. If the amorphous nonexistent "union of nonunionized professors" ;) would cease its attempts to splash the bounds of academic freedom and tenure out of the bathtub, then colleges and universities might be a bit less inclined to pull the plug on the whole affair.
 
Interesting fantasy, DD, when you choose to "defend" your assertion that all tenured faculty are completely unaccountable by the assertion that the challenge for you to defend it was an ad hominem attack. Is it really the case that you cannot remove a tenured faculty member who does NOTHING at your institution? Its not the case at mine.

I don't see where sailorman gets the idea that the employer-employee relationship is doubted by any faculty member, tenured or not. The question is whether management is willing to do the work, and it is work, to micromanage what its faculty do on a daily (or hourly) basis with detailed plans and accountability measures at the same level that it is done at Ford or Toyota or WalMart. The additional levels of management would drive costs through the roof.

And DD, if your comments create the perception in an outsider that you literally expect your tenured faculty to file a grievance to get anything done, what sort of climate do they create at your institution? Certainly not the climate my Dean creates at my institution, which is something you do need to think about.
 
Sailorman, the concern of some of the best tenured teachers at my institution is that untenured faculty are inflating grades and passing students who have not learned the material ... so they can get good ratings and thus keep their job. Would this behavior increase or decrease in a climate where everyone was reviewed every 3 to 5 years? Who would do the reviewing, if the people who normally do this administrative work (tenured faculty supervise adjuncts at my institution, not administrators)? Would education benefit if even more students come out of 2 semesters of college English unable to write a page of coherent prose but with a 3.0 average?

And are faculty more likely to do a good job if they are treated like professionals rather than unionized hourly workers on an assembly line? I know I am not alone in the view that the public schools went downhill when they went from professionals to union members, and that some of the positive attributes of my institution might be due to it not having union shop rules, but rather actual shared governance.
 
"Tenure is dying. It's dying because it doesn't make sense anymore."

Is it dying because it doesn't make sense, or is it being killed off because admins, managers, boards of regents and other people running the universities from a business standpoint want more flexibility and to cut costs?

Really, tenure is all "we" (by which I mean some lucky few profs) have --- I'm really leery of making any moves to dismantle tenure before putting into place other, _better_ safeguards and protections and guarantees of living wages ... because abolishing tenure and making adjuncting standard across the board would be the _most_ flexible and cost-saving option.
 
Nice site you got here!
Be sure to check out my blog about college scholarships
 
I have to agree with justanotherliberalprofessor - tenure is what universities have on offer to attract the best and brightest into the academy that compensates for the lower salaries.

What kind of idiot suckers would slog through graduate school without even the prayer of tenure at the end of the tunnel? (And I include people currently at low-ranked universities in overcrowed fields in that category.) The only people who would take that deal are people with no financial sense, no planning capabilities, and a periennial sense of martyrdom. Is that who you to make up your entire faculty?
 
@sailorman: "Which they ARE, right? They're not clergy, they're employees. Salaried, to be sure, but employees all the same."

Yes, but ... I think we have to be careful about taking away academics' freedom to do their jobs with a great deal of self-direction. One of the primary differentiations in the labor market today is between those employees who are allowed to self-direct and those who are not.

I do notice a certain desire (not from DD) from some administrative quarters (and where I am, even more from the state legislature and its spawn that provide our funding) to reduce faculty functions to their most basic, measurable, automaton-like bits so that all faculty can be pressed into the same mold and all produced exactly the same widgets -- I mean, students.

When that happens, faculty are going to jump for the professional world, where they can make more money and where they can self-direct their work. Self-direction is one of the biggest perks going these days, and it's one of the best ways to retain talented professionals, even at lower salary levels. If universities fail to do that, they will see a massive abandon-ship for the professional world.
 
Sailorman, the concern of some of the best tenured teachers at my institution is that untenured faculty are inflating grades and passing students who have not learned the material ... so they can get good ratings and thus keep their job. Would this behavior increase or decrease in a climate where everyone was reviewed every 3 to 5 years?
Let's stick with 5 instead of 3 as I agree that three years is probably too short.

Generally speaking, I agree that reviews tend to increase folks' desire to "look good in the review."

I'm not sure why this is really a problem--or if it is a problem, why it would be any different from a tenure review. And of course, there's the other side: focusing on at least some review (even if it's only once every 5 years) provides a bit of protection against slacking.

And are faculty more likely to do a good job if they are treated like professionals rather than unionized hourly workers on an assembly line?
Probably something in between. Faculty are human, and it's a fairly common trait to give a worse performance when the consequences of poor performance are reduced.

Neither side is lying: Obviously there are some profs who would work their asses off even if they had guaranteed employment for the rest of their life. Equally obvious is that there are some profs who start slacking and who are fairly difficult to get rid of. I know I am not alone in the view that the public schools went downhill when they went from professionals to union members, and that some of the positive attributes of my institution might be due to it not having union shop rules, but rather actual shared governance.
 
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