Wednesday, February 25, 2009

 

Poster Children

This story in IHE is worth checking out, especially with all the comments. It's about Florence Babb, who is apparently an endowed professor and coordinator of a center at the University of Florida. According to the story, her current job involves – among other things -- teaching one course per semester, at a salary a hair under $100,000 per year. In light of a catastrophic budget shortfall, the University wants to increase her teaching load by one course per year. She objected, and has enlisted the union to fight on her behalf.

First, the disclaimers. I had never heard of Florence Babb before reading this story, and I don't really care about this case in itself.

But as an example of something I care a great deal about, it's fascinating.

Read the comments to the story. The first two dozen or so are nearly unanimous in condemning her, taking her as yet another example of a tenured layabout who considers herself above the people whose taxes allow her to complain for a lucrative living. (The other line of attack comes from adjuncts who compare their per-course pay to hers.) And this is in IHE, the readership of which, I'm guessing, hails disproportionately from higher education. Can you imagine how this story would play in a local paper?

The particular dilemma, at this point, boils down to which part of 'unsustainable contract' trumps the other. UF is claiming, correctly, that the current fiscal shortfall demands some level of sacrifice. Babb and the union are claiming, correctly, that a contract is a contract.

Both sides are right, but if they've retreated to such intractable positions they've both already lost. If the University 'wins,' I'd expect 'stars' to start decamping for greener pastures as soon as the market improves, since they'd be afraid that promises are written in sand. If Babb 'wins,' the University will have to take out its cuts instead on those least able to fight back – it's not like the fiscal crisis will just go away -- and the anti-public-education conservatives will have their latest Ward Churchill to use as a battering ram. Either result is ugly.

Whether Babb 'deserves' to win, at this point, is beyond my ken. But for letting the conflict get to this point, yet another in a long series of raspberries to the leadership of the University of Florida. This is not how it's done.

The first mistake is in defining her job as a 'professor.' If most of her job involves running a center, then reclassify her as a director, and allow her to teach a class each semester. It's more accurate, and it adjusts the expectations in the University's favor. At that point, she's not lumped into the same category in the public mind as a freshman comp instructor. Instead, she's part of the leadership of the University, and her contribution is pitching in to teach a class. Same basic job, same salary, but suddenly she goes from 'lazy' to 'pitching in.' In the public mind, the difference is huge.

The second mistake is in failing to build the relationship of trust over time so that when the poop really hit the fan, you could approach her in a spirit of pitching in. Most people, most of the time, respond to respect with reciprocity. (Admittedly, and regrettably, this isn't universal. But it's a good 'default' setting.) If the climate of trust is strong, the few holdouts who spurn the request in a spirit of 'me first' will feel real, and painful, social sanction from their peers. This is not to be discounted.

I've seen this happen in close-knit departments when someone goes out mid-semester with a medical emergency. When that has happened, I've seen conscientious colleagues step in and pick up classes midstream, saving until later any discussion of compensation. They've done it out of a sense that it's the right thing to do. If the climate is such that 'doing the right thing' doesn't feel like 'being played for a sucker,' then even some usually-crabby types will surprise you. On the other hand, if they have a long-nursed sense of being put-upon, you can expect a campaign of sustained, self-righteous nitpicking. And if they nitpick long enough, they're bound to find something.

Yes, there are times when it's possible for academic administrators to lay down the law, to give what amount to direct orders. (“Show up for your classes or you're fired.”) But if you have to resort to that, you've already lost. Winning a 'victory' in the Babb case will almost certainly cause untold future damage, as others who've signed contracts will wonder at the reliability of those. The right move would have been to deal with it internally and informally. Now, the University will lose either way.

Distrust within colleges leads to the kind of polarized behavior that generates poster children for distrust by the public. Every time a story like yesterday's hits the local press, higher ed takes another beating. We can't afford that now, if we ever could. A single poster child for wasteful tenured layabouts could cost millions in lost state aid. The smart move is to avoid getting into that position in the first place.

Comments:
Pitch-perfect take, DD.

Here's the one thing about the Babb story that I haven't seen written on anywhere, and that could the the monkey wrench thrown in the works: HOW was Babb asked to take the extra course?

If a superior asked her to cover the extra course formally, then I expect the union has a pretty easy case. It sounds like she had a pretty solid contract, she specifically negotiated the course reduction when she took the gig, and unions are there to defend solid contracts. UF loses. QED.

But if the subject was broached by an admin verbally? From some of the stuff you've posted on here, even if there was a verbal discussion of raising a person's teaching load in ways that weren't consistent with the contract, without ever making a formal request, the professor in question could make noise and might have a case that the university was trying to adjust the contract in an underhanded sort of fashion. Is this a fair statement, or am I being dense?

Put another way: would this sort of contract (not knowing these specifics - I don't know Babb any better than you do) pretty much make the professor untouchable to even ASK about helping with teaching load in this sort of situation?

And if a person lands in this sort of contract, and then the economy completely tanks and the person (shock, horror) wants to pitch in and help, is there a way for that person to pitch in without setting a precedent that admin could take advantage of in future circumstances?

(The joys of having spent a whole career in right-to-work environs...the moment you mention "union" I completely go clueless...)
 
In the interest of partial disclosure (I have to post anonymously as I'm not yet tenured), I'm always predisposed to see the unionized worker's part.

That said, a few points. I'm raising them here because the IHE forum got quite testy and because DD raises it for all the reasons in the article and the others it raises, too. First, comments not related to DD's specific reading.

1. The article is pretty crappy. With so little information about the contract and no material on her duties at the Center, comment from peers about her work as a scholar, etc., I think it might predispose some readers to vilifying Babb. Incomplete reporting begets uniformed responses.

2. Without knowing much of anything about her job as a coordinator of the grad. program (not even how many students they have!), we can't judge whether she would be unfairly burdened by teaching another course. This sets aside any consideration of her scholarship, which one would assume is important and productive given the endowed status. Having been a director of a program whose time commitment far exceeded the teaching duties the accompanied the position, I would hesitate to automatically assume that the directorship + three courses per year would put her well over 40 hours/week even over 52 weeks. It certainly did in my case (though I had five courses plus the directorship--some weeks I worked over 80 hours).

3. Like it or not, universities sign contracts for certain work during certain times with certain rewards. They consistently abuse these contracts (an extra credit hour here, more required work during the summer [when we're talking about 9-month contracts, as mine is] there, etc.), and workers need to stand up for them to be enforced fairly. An extra credit hour is one thing, an extra course another. It's a huge change in the contract.

4. Many of the people who commented seemed to want Babb to suffer: to teach 5 courses per term for nothing. But workers shouldn't aim to spread the misery around but to aspire to fair wages and enforced contracts. It's in the interest of all workers in all industries.

And now on the DD's commentary:

Really excellent, DD. I couldn't agree more about the administration's mismanagement of the situation. My institution is also suffering, and I will be teaching an overload (by a whole course) next term. But that was not demanded of me but rather the administration came to my program with the budget concerns and asked for our solutions. This is what we came up with together. Do I like it? Not especially, but I am willing to do it to maintain the integrity of my program and to help get us through a tough period. Do I expect others to make similar sacrifices, too? Yes, absolutely, and I know they are. Do I expect that further good will might come my way when tenure decisions are ultimately made? I hope so. Do I hope my very small program will stay afloat and therefore that I will keep my job by being a relatively problem-free unit with few demands? Oh, yes. Very much so.
 
Sorry, I made a mistake. I said:

I would hesitate to automatically assume that the directorship + three courses per year would put her well over 40 hours/week even over 52 weeks.

I meant:

It's quite possible that the directorship + three courses per year could well exceed 40 hours/week even over 52 weeks.

Sorry.
 
There is something else that isn't spoken here. I understand that several adminstrators have left UF for other schools. Could that be part of the problem? The inexperienced leaders are left to deal wtih this PR mess?
 
Funny, I had the same first thought when I read the story: "God, this will play TERRIBLY in the paper."

That said, I agree with your analysis. My read of the story is that the administration did not make clear its terms for adding the course. Is the extra course a one time thing, or is this increase going to stay forever? Is there any reduction in the expectations of her scholarship in that chair position?

I am currently teaching 1-and-1, in addition to which I administer a program and conduct research. I haven't worked under 50 hours in years. I work nights and weekends. I have taught more new course preps than you can imagine. Sure, I could pick up a course--I have, when we were in a real bind--but it would be a real hardship. AND I was rewarded with a semester without teaching to make up for it.

I honestly think that, should this go to court, the union will win. A contract IS a contract, and Florida will be hardpressed to prove how getting one professor to teach more than the contract (few others have teaching load spelled out) will solve their problems.
 
I have worked with Florence Baab when she was at the University of Iowa. She's a gifted anthropologist, a great teacher at the grad level(never had her as an undergrad) and a capable program administrator. She's not a kooky prima donna sort, but a very grounded person with a lot of administrative experience that she came to UF to use.

I think it's important to realize that the Florida public universities and the Florida legislature are perceived (with good cause) as very hostile to women's studies. Programs in Florida are under disproportionate threat of elimination, with the economic situation being an opportunity to excise programs that some conservatives believe are politically distasteful, while other tangential programs that are more politically palatable but cost more money are left untouched. So, I assume that one of the things that has made this situation so touchy is the perception that she is being asked to increase her load while Joe over in the Business Leadership Center is not. The trust issue has a lot to do with the particular field in play...Not to mention that a contract is a contract and she came to UF specifically because of the contract she negotiated.
 
A contract IS a contract

Unless it's a mortgage contract...
 
Quoting Anonymous (@7:53 AM), who starts by quoting someone else:

A contract IS a contract

Unless it's a mortgage contract...

Actually, a contract is a contract, unless you declare bankruptcy or, in the case of a state university, financial exigency. There's no suggestion that I've seen that UofF is offering financial exigency as the reason for having (some? everyone?) teach more. Absent a reason for invalidating a contract (and, as I've noted, such reasons exist), then, yes, a contract is a contract.

Having said that, I think DD hit it out of the park.
 
A trivial amount of research (clicking on the link in your article, then clicking on the one in the IHE article, then clicking on the one on her web page) led to the following observation:

She is not the Director of the Center. That is someone else. She is the Graduate Coordinator. (There is also an undergrad coordinator.) They list a postdoc (in another department), a research GA, and three grad TA. That suggests minimal reserach grant funding.

The point no one seems to have mentioned in my quick read is that she is in an ENDOWED chair! That means she is not being paid by state funds, or that a significant part of her support comes from a targeted endowment. Changing her duties might, quite possibly, violate the terms of that endowment.

Now if the rationale is that losses mean they don't have money in the endowment to support her program, a smarter Dean could have posed the problem in a different way: teach or lose your grad asst.
 
Very provocative story. Nice to read a thoughtful analysis of "behind the scenes" University negotiations.
 
As Bridget suggests, this post absolutely needs to be read alongside yesterday's. The article I read (which I don't think was the IHE one, but I can't find it again, so maybe it was?) strongly suggested that these demands were NOT being made across the board. If I were in Babb's shoes, I would not feel at all inclined to pitch in for the university when such requests are not aimed equally. To do so would be to accept the university's implication that research in Women's Studies doesn't merit the same protection in times of economic crisis as research in other disciplines. Sacrifices need to be made, for sure, but there is not reason for professors in politically unpopular disciplines to acquiesce in attempts to focus those sacrifices on our fields.
 
Edit: that should be "no reason"
 
What is the ratio of female professors being asked to "pitch in" vs. male professors?

This is Florida, after all.
 
I should followup to say that most of your comments were spot on, DD. I have now read the comments on IHE and I was stunned at their naivete.

All of those adjuncts who think professors at an R1 are there to teach classes are telling me exactly why they have failed to get hired at a major university! Even "regional" universities are looking for more than that. (Dr. Crazy's blog is a perfect insight into that world.) It is hard to tell who the other comments came from, but I'd be shocked if someone teaching a 1/1 load in Engineering at an R1 would complain about a 1/1 load somewhere else in that university. And does that one commenter really think all of the English profs at UF teach freshman composition?

Can you imagine how this story would play in a local paper? Interesting question, but I would expect the paper in that small college town would understand the loading issue (and the salary issue) better than papers elsewhere in the state. They have probably written articles about the salaries of med school faculty, not to mention that of the UF basketball and football coaches. Her salary might be below average for a full professor with 25 years of experience.

On the "long term relationship" side, she was stolen from another university (where she had been for 22 years) in Jan 2005 specifically to fill an endowed chair. That is a special relationship, quite different from that of a regular tenured professor. My reading of this event is that the admin is either utterly incompetent or is trying to find a way to tell her to go back to Iowa.

I should also update my own observations. I now see that there are 60+ (I quite counting) affiliated faculty in that program, so there could very well be many dozens of grad students that fall under her oversight but are not actually "in" the department where she gets paid. That can be a hazard in an inter-whatever unit.
 
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