Tuesday, December 16, 2008
“It's Just a Job” vs. “We're All in This Together”
To oversimplify, TR's position is basically that colleges are communities, and that the members of a community need to share sacrifices in tough times. The idea is that if the community gets a clear sense that the local leadership has a reasonable plan, is sticking to it, is sharing it, is soliciting and listening to input, and isn't pulling any fast ones, then it's fair to include some shared sacrifice in that plan. (Admittedly, that's a long chain of 'ifs,' many of which won't be met in very many cases.) In the case TR outlines, it's reasonable for faculty to accept a pay freeze for a year, given that others are accepting it, too, and that the freeze prevents layoffs. Underlying this perspective, I think, is a nuanced sense of reciprocity as a common obligation. If a single group is singled out for sacrifice, then by all means, resist. But if everybody gives up something, then even a card-carrying lefty could sign on without selling out.
Dr. C's position is less idealistic. She argues that professors are workers, and that workers are entitled to fight for the best deals they can get. She suggests that paeans to 'community' are belied by the weight of her workload, and that given what she already does for her salary, she already (effectively) gave at the office. She seems to suspect that all this 'shared sacrifice' stuff is a sort of surrender by faculty, who are essentially being played for chumps.
There's enough truth to both of these that I don't want to just side with one against the other. (And again, they're writing from very different institutions. It's easier to be idealistic with a 2-2 load and a relatively high salary.) But I think the dichotomy runs far deeper than just the current budget cycle, and has implications that go beyond it.
For example, I'd argue that how one understands tenure will have a great deal to do with which position one takes. I've suggested before that it's reasonable to have tenure or unions, but not both, and this debate helped me crystallize that sentiment. Tenure is a lifetime commitment by the institution. (Since the badly-misguided repeal of a mandatory retirement age, this is literally true.) To suggest that a lifetime commitment somehow doesn't carry with it some sort of reciprocal obligation strikes me as narcissistic, if not laughable. Legally, tenure amounts to ownership of a job. Having tenure and a union amounts to negotiating against yourself, an ethically dubious proposition worthy of an Illinois governor. Being insulated for life against the vagaries of the economy is a privilege, and a rare one; for that privilege to bring with it a certain responsibility for stewardship of the institution is only fair.
On the other side, if you have a union but not tenure, then you're in a clear labor/management situation, and each side knows its role. Yes, there may be times when concessions make long-term strategic sense, but the calculus is still based on cold self-interest. Pay me what I want; where you find the money is your problem. Of course, for labor to represent labor, management has to be able to manage. This model allows for a great deal of recognition of work as work, but it makes things like 'shared governance' look awfully shaky. (To her credit, Dr. C implicitly recognizes this.)
Combining tenure and a union – having your cake and eating it too – reflects a basic unwillingness to come to terms with the nature of academic work. Are full-time professors professionals, or are they line staff? (Adjuncts are pretty clearly line staff, which is why I have no problem with adjunct unions.) If they're professionals, with a stake in the enterprise, then asking them to share in the sacrifice during lean times is entirely kosher. (And yes, I'll accept every single one of the 'ifs' that TR stipulated.) Having an ownership stake in an enterprise necessarily involves feeling some pain during down times. That's what owners do. (Technically, the 'ownership' involved in tenure is of a job, rather than of an institution. However, and this is a key point, the job doesn't exist without the institution.) But far too many faculty cherry-pick, wielding the rhetoric of shared governance when it suits their purposes, but then retreating to union protection when things get tight. “Because they can” is the only justification I can imagine for that, and it's looking a bit threadbare these days. At a certain point, colleges faced with this kind of denial of reality wind up invoking 'fiscal exigency' and rewriting the rules entirely. It's better to avoid that in the first place.
Longtime readers know that I've often taken the position that it's just a job. That's mostly in response to what I think is a really destructive inculcation of values in graduate school, in which people spend years learning that they're unfit to do anything but teach. This set of mental blinders keeps feeding the adjunct numbers, which I don't see as healthy for anybody. If a little demystification can prevent some self-defeating behaviors, great. That said, though, I'll admit that locally, as the budget crunch looms, I find myself doing everything possible to protect every last job. Even if it's just a job, a job is no small thing. And there's something to be said for treating people the way you'd want to be treated.
I've heard that crises are good for clarity. Higher ed has been juggling these two ideals for some time, buying off the conflict rather than coming to terms with the contradiction. Now that the resources for buying off simply aren't to be had, maybe we can finally start to get some clarity.
I've got more to say, but I suspect it will be long-winded. I think I'll do a follow-up post over at my blog. Suffice it to say here that I really think institutional context plays a HUGE role in how we respond to such budget woes, and also how things are framed - I've got much less of a problem with "hey, this will require personal sacrifice, but here are the benefits to the university community - what do you think?" than "you, privileged faculty member, need to do your part (for clearly you just lounge about all day normally not doing your part) for the underprivileged students/staff/whatever at our university." The second approach just makes me feel like the work that I do has absolutely no value and like the people who should best understand the value that it does have - administrators and colleagues - are utterly clueless about what I do in my job. That is demoralizing, and it doesn't make me want to do my part for a community that doesn't value me.
But crises have historically been way, way better for manipulating the crowd in order to achieve all kinds of scallawaggery.
Actually, come to think of it, crises are no damn good for clarity at all. Never have been. They are excellent for demagoguery however.
That's why if you want to achieve some nefarious scheme, you must invent the appropriate crisis and beat that jingo drum for all it's worth.
[ref 20th, 21st century liberalism, fascism, socialism, nazism, communism, totalitarianism, environmentalism, ismism, etc-ism]
The flip side of this was that with all this emphasis on family, there was lot of ignoring of the fact that families can be freaking dysfunctional. For example, crime done to a member of the community BY a member of the community was always handled in a very "we'll handle this in house, you don't need to know what happened to him, you just need to worry about you" sort of way, as if mom was trying to settle a dispute between warring siblings rather than if authorities were coping with sexual assault. Flaws and problems WITHIN the community that tended to harm the feeling of community tended to be ignored or handled very backstage, as spotlighting them would damage the community.
But, "hey, wow, it's a job!"?
Which is to say that the context of the near impossibility of getting up and leaving for greener pastures should also be considered.
Also, even at institutions with tenure, what about people without tenure: here the "shared sacrifice" becomes really a form of extortion.
Faculty accept much lower salaries in order to get tenure. Given the recent offers from headhunters this Fall, I'm paying over $30,000 a year for the prospect of getting tenure.
Tenure is a a type of compensation, but it doesn't give you any ownership of the institution. There's no equity in tenure. I can't sell my tenure when I leave my current position in the way I sold my stock and options when I left previous positions in industry.
Our union members recognize that tenure has immense value to those who have it. But not all members are tenured; one of our most recent contracts gave more job security to non-tenure-system faculty. (We also represent librarians, who don't have tenure.) Our union negotiates raises (with a substantial merit component, determined by departments and deans); it also negotiates on some non-salary issues that affect our ability to teach and do research, such as support for research and course development.
We have also worked with other campus and state higher-education unions (faculty, professional staff, and classified staff) to lobby the legislature for more support for public higher education. In short, unions are not necessarily opposed to the common mission of the institution. If anything, a strong faculty union seems to help the university in its struggle for adequate appropriations from the legislature.
The only academic institutions where faculty actually run things are the Oxbridge colleges (not the universities, but the constituent colleges) where the dons *are* the trustees.
Tenure doesn't confer ownership.
I'd guess that the faculty at our CC are compensated similarly to those at Dr. Crazy's 4-year institution, so one thing I'd like to know is whether younger faculty at her institution are pushing adjuncts aside to pick up extra classes and summer classes just to meet their obligations. That is a clear sign at our school that pay has not kept up with what is needed for those faculty to live as they wish.
Yet that "low" pay is still WAY above the median family income in our area. The difference is that the median family is flat broke but doesn't have student loans to pay off. Or maybe they do.
In general I think the state college system needs to examine its method for distributing funding for new projects before cutting faculty salaries.
If this economy doesn't improve, however, I'll be back there, and heavily Xanaxed. Which I suppose is better than the nearly 25% of lawyers suffering from alcoholism or a substance abuse problem, because at least my substance would be doctor-supervised.
I shouldn't really have to choose between making enough money to support my family and being heavily medicated enough to work. I'm a great teacher. I'm an okay lawyer. And, frankly, a heckuva lot of your taxes went to me when I was a lawyer anyway to pay for local and state government's ill-considered boondoggles and various hiring fiascos resulting in lawsuits. (And even when it's a lawsuit with two private parties, your taxes are paying for us to waste citizen money and judicial time at the courthouse, and make simple cases last for three years, while you keep paying to enable us!)
At least your tax dollars that pay me to teach students give you some kind of economic return and provides real benefits to the local economy. When you pay the lawyers, I'm just funding my 401(k). And the law firm is based out of town, and the profits are mostly going (at this firm) from the partners' pockets to the GOP and ATLA to pay for lobbying that protects their lifestyles. Also to pay for Ivy League colleges for their kids. Paying me to teach at the community college is much more cost-effective than paying me to defend your local government getting sued so that my profits can pay for the partner's kids to go to Yale.
(And don't think for a minute that I'd just displace another lawyer and the cost of your government's legal fees would remain static -- it doesn't work that way. If you've got more lawyers to put on the case, the cost of the case magically expands to accommodate it. Ah, hourly billing.)