Wednesday, September 17, 2008


For Show

I did a double-take when I saw this piece in the Chronicle. Apparently, the University of Georgia is dealing with budget cuts by reducing faculty travel funds. My first response was, why is this news? But then I saw the punchline: not only are they reducing what they'll pay for faculty to travel, they're actually withholding permission for faculty to travel with their own money.

In response to the obvious question of why they'd care what faculty did with their own money, the provost, one Arnett Mace, responded:

“Some people argue that there is no cost to the university...but the person is not here conducting scholarly work or teaching.”

Apparently, it's impossible to conduct scholarly work outside the office, or to teach online. And exactly who they'll pay to conduct bed checks on the weekends is left for the reader to ponder.

(I can see the scenario now. A dean confronts a professor:

Dean: My sources tell me you weren't home on Saturday night. You weren't at a conference, were you?

Prof: No, I went straight from the rave to the orgy.

Dean: Okay, then. Just don't go to any conferences.)

The move starts to make sense later in the article, when the university's President is quoted as saying that “what we do in this climate gets looked at, and perceptions matter.”

Now we're getting somewhere.

Although it's a delicate subject, and feelings on both sides run high when it's mentioned, the fact of the matter is that public higher education exists at the pleasure of a public that really doesn't understand how it works. Some policies and practices that strike seasoned practitioners as silly have their roots in efforts to prevent inflammatory headlines.

Office hours are an easy example. I've seen (cough) colleges require faculty to be physically on campus four days a week, even if they only teach for three. The idea is that if the press gets wind of a non-trivial number of professors only showing up for work three days a week for full pay, it'll whip up a scandal, and the college will pay the price in reduced political support. Which would happen.

The press periodically gets its knickers in a twist over released time, or travel, or summers, or empty classrooms on Fridays (unless it's to save gas money), or tenure, or esoteric research, or controversial research, or tuition. Usually the stories are grounded in anecdotes about a few outliers – some of which are genuinely objectionable, some of which really aren't – but which imply a much more generalized pattern of abuse. These stories do a great deal of political damage, both individually and over time.

One of the jobs of administration is to find that sweet spot where 'allowing the place to function' and 'keeping the public reasonably happy' overlap. (In some places, that sweet spot is pronounced “football.”) When times are good, that overlap is large, and there's still plenty of room to move. When things get ugly, that overlap shrinks, and some cherished prerogatives get some cold, hard looks. That's when a certain amount of defensive Dilbert-ism creeps in.

I'm not defending Georgia's action, which strikes me as memorably stupid. But while it's certainly absurd, it's not completely random. It's a misfire, but I can see where they were aiming. The public sees 'travel' and thinks 'pleasure junket on my tax dollars.' One florid anecdote about a particularly overentitled professor in a tropical clime, and the university could lose millions. I get that.

The trick is in both acknowledging the reality of the danger, and in addressing it in ways that don't do violence to the underlying mission. UGA gets full credit for the former, but a zero for the latter.

I have another way to think about their decision....

The move could make sense IF they make the following set of arguments.

1) Since the state benefits, the travel SHOULD be paid by the state, but -- since the state refuses to provide the necessary funds -- they don't want to give the impression that the university can do with less than they should have.

2) It shouldn't be the responsibility of the professionals on campus to fund such travel themselves and as such, they ought not establish a practice of allowing it -- because then it will become a continuing practice.

3) The state pays for, or doesn't pay for, other state professionals to travel for work purposes -- in accord with the state's budget. Other state paid professionals wouldn't subsidize travel the state won't pay for, so why should professors be any different? As a result, the expectations for tenure and promotion in the future won't rely as heavily on participation in conferences.
It's also a "brilliant" move by UGA which will reduce the chance its faculty gets poached away by someone else.

Of course, that sucks for the unhappy faculty member--but I guess public perception is more important than someone's career.
We've actually had a similar, although voluntary, request here at my institution. (I'll have to ask my friends at UGA about the details down there.) Again, the concern is perception.

Me, I wonder how you square this with grant-funded research, which is significant both here and at UGA. Many grants explicitly include travel, sometimes to "exotic" locations, for data collection. If the NSF gave you a grant to do fieldwork, you can't just not go....accepting the grant is a promise to do the work outlined in the application. The expenditures are pre-vetted at the Federal level, and by accepting the overhead for the grant money, the institution commits to giving you some release time to do the work.

Most grants also include money for travel to major conferences, and most of those are in large cities. Do you not attend, ticking off the NSF which wants the work it paid for (with taxpayer dollars) shared with the scientific community? Or, do you go, and tick off the state taxpayers who pay your salary and think you should be at home, teaching?
Net conferencing.

Yeah, I know . . . so much for free coffee and bagels.

There are a couple of professional organizations that accept papers, publish proceedings, and host paper presentations as "webinars."

Also allows you to attend two presentations simultaneously. Open two or more windows. Read the paper in one window. View the powerpoints with presenters voice over in the main window. Ask questions by posting to discussion thread in the third window.

[You know- kind of like a massively coordinated "distance learning" exercise?]

Anyhow . . . since academia is generally 5-10 years behind the real world, I 'spect I'll be forced to schlep around to major metropolitan areas to drink stale coffee for another ten years or so.
A couple years back, my family and I had a chance to drop back by the public university in NC that my wife and I had both attended. I emailed one of my professors about our plans and she replied that she was on "research assignment" but that if we let her know our schedule, she'd be sure to be on campus when we visited.

When we arrived, I asked her what "research assignment" was. Apparently it's what they started calling sabbaticals in response to make the concept more palatable to the legislature.
Snarky has it half right, but look for essentially all of the faculty with funded grants to leave UGa in the next year if they really do this.
Yet Another Confused Professor -- Even web engineers go to real time conferences in exotic locales; here's one example.

But what I want to know is whether this is about conference travel alone or all research travel. It's all sorts of stupid from the point of view of the university (not just the individual professors) even if it's just about conference travel (conferencing professors increase visibility of schools and programs, for one thing). As Dictyranger points out, in many disciplines *fieldwork* is part of one's scholarly research. And it's not just a necessity for the sciences. I'm a medievalist and I work on manuscripts, most of which are not available in any facsimile, whether print, microfilm, or digital, and so to see them, I must travel to them. And even if they *were* available in facsimile, much of what I need to learn from them can only be learned from the physical object itself.

So when UGA says that when faculty aren't there they aren't performing teaching or research duties, I want to ask in what way is going to a conference or performing research elsewhere not performing scholarly research???
OK, they are certifiably insane. I get that. (And that ItPF is being hysterically snide by indirectly pointing out how much the State benefits by grant-paid travel.)

1) Every proposal submitted by the university is SIGNED by administrators at the VP level, certifying that they will provide the promised institutional support. The university would be unilaterally breaking that contract by forbidding grant-supported travel that was budgeted in that proposal, particularly if you cannot carry out the proposed work without traveling to do it.

2) They make money on travel! Travel is included in "indirect cost recovery" because the university allegedly provides services to help you travel. Turn back the travel money to the feds and it hurts their bottom line.

Conclusion: This is all for show because the Provost will approve 100% of all grant-funded travel even if it means someone has to cover someone else's class.

3) Faculty at an R1 don't teach every day. Not even close.

4) I went to the physics department web site and noticed that they are still paying people to travel to lovely Athens GA to give colloquia this fall, although the schedule did look embarrassingly thin. Quick way to move from being a second rate department to a third rate one.
So, I checked with one of my buds at UGA, and the Chronicle story is pretty much dead on. My friend currently has a travel request in for the primary conference in her discipline, at which she must perform several official functions, and she's not sure whether she'll be allowed to spend her own travel money to go.

for "confused professor": I'm all for teleconferences, especially ones that use innovative technology (did you read the article in Science about the conference that was held in World of Warcraft?) I think that more seminars should be available using the technology you describe.

However, in my experience, 75% of the good of a conference happens between the sessions, in the sidebar chats with colleagues. Some of my better research ideas were generated over a couple of pints of microbrew at 1 AM, and I have made several friends at conferences who have been very influential in my career over the years. An immersive virtual conference might provide some of that, but the more content-driven example you provide would not.
OK, I am confused about something. If a conference is scheduled for a time when class is not in session, what business is it of the school if you pay your own way? I can understand if you had to cancel regularly scheduled classes to attend, but many conferences are held during normal breaks...
What is happening at UGA is a result of an ominous trend: imposing the culture of public K-12 on higher education. Do not laugh: state legislatures know education best (I use "know" and "best" with all irony I can muster) via the broken system of public K-12. American institutions of higher education has always served as a corrective, but the trend now is, as in the "research assignment" example, to impose these constraints (aka "standards") onto higher ed. The idea that professors cannot use their own money to travel mirrors a budget cutting strategy in K-12, where research (ironic, yes ?) has shown that a teacher's absence from the classroom has a bad effect on "student outcomes." It is a move to view professors as content providers, to diminish the role of the professor as a professional scholar, and to bring faculty under the "control" of an administration that is increasingly made up of people who have degrees in higher ed administration and have not come up through the scholarly ranks. Every professional organization in the academy should consider censuring UGA if it does not retract this policy. For the record, I have no affiliation with UGA.
Why isn't the UGA faculty up in arms over this insanity? How did this possibly get by the union?

Union? It's Georgia
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