Monday, September 28, 2009
Of Leaders and Lightning Rods
After the meeting, a professor with whom I had a good relationship pulled me aside and mentioned that with the office I now held, I wasn't free to make comments like that anymore. When I spoke only for myself, it didn't really matter what I said. But as a leader in the institution, comments that once would have been merely snarky were suddenly taken as indications of larger directions. What I had intended as a solidaristic expression of grading fatigue came across as either tone-deaf or simply insulting, depending on how charitable you wanted to be.
She was right. I hadn't thought through the implications of saying unguarded things from the position I held. What would once have been 'candid' was suddenly 'insensitive,' if not 'just plain stupid.' If I wanted to be successful in the new role, I had to own the role, including its more constrictive elements. (That's why I blog under a pseudonym. If my name and office were attached to it, I'd have to be a lot more chipper and, to my mind anyway, less interesting.)
Which brings me to Mark Yudof's Q-and-A in the New York Times this weekend.
Mark Yudof is the President of the University of California system. Like most public systems throughout the country, the California system has taken some devastating financial hits over the last year. Of course, the California system has burdens of its own. Its governor is, well, who he is. The state has a weird prediliction for governing by plebiscite (they call them 'propositions'), with all that that entails. The UC system has several structural tensions, most of which (I'd argue) flow from failing to designate and stick with a single flagship. (The SUNY system carries this flaw to an extreme, with predictable results for its standing.) It has a history of extremely contentious labor-management relations, for reasons I won't pretend to understand. And the Great Recession has hit California hard.
In other words, this is a difficult spot even for an effective leader. It's a time for someone in a high position to step up and make a real contribution to the public debate on behalf of higher education, even if that means putting aside his own personal frustrations and speaking consistently with his official role.
Alas. Instead of thoughtful discussions of why the public should continue to support a university system in difficult times, we get this:
The shine is off of it. It’s really a question of being crowded out by other priorities.
Already professors on all 10 U.C. campuses are taking required “furloughs,” to use a buzzword.
Let me tell you why we used it. The faculty said “furlough” sounds more temporary than “salary cut,” and being president of the University of California is like being manager of a cemetery: there are many people under you, but no one is listening. I listen to them.
The word “furlough,” I recently read, comes from the Dutch word “verlof,” which means permission, as in soldiers’ getting permission to take a few days off. How has it come to be a euphemism for salary cuts?
Look, I’m from West Philadelphia. My dad was an electrician. We didn’t look up stuff like this. It wasn’t part of what we did. When I was growing up we didn’t debate the finer points of what the word “furlough” meant.
This isn't public talk. This is backroom talk.
First, of course, it's stupid. The difference between a furlough and a salary cut shows up the following year, when that year's raise is calculated from a baseline. A furlough doesn't count against a baseline, but a salary cut does. So a furlough doesn't just "sound more temporary"; it actually is. A furlough hurts once; a salary cut hurts as long as you work there. While the public at large may or may not care much about the distinction, the employees -- the folks to whom he claims to listen -- certainly do.
Second, though, it does absolutely nothing to plant any doubts that cutting higher ed is worthwhile. "The shine is off it," and as any kid from West Philadelphia knows, academic practices like looking stuff up are for ninnies. If even the President of the University doesn't much care for education, why should anybody else?
I don't know Yudof, and he doesn't know me. But I can guess what was going through his mind. Basically, he's jaded. He gets attacked a lot -- whether fairly, unfairly, or both, I'll leave to my left coast readers -- and after a while all those attacks start to sound the same. So he's impatient with them, and quick to apply shortcuts to what he considers the real issues, if any.
Behind closed doors, that's standard procedure. But an interview with the Times isn't private.
This is one of those times to put personal authenticity aside, and to play your role. Yes, he may be tired of talk of cuts; I know I am, and he faces cuts of an order of magnitude larger than anything I've faced. I can understand a certain impatience with what seems like the umpteenth go-round of the same drill. But he needs to remember that most of the people who read the interview, and who vote in the state of California, aren't wrapped up in his daily reality. They're looking to him to express the needs of the University system, and to make a good case that they're consistent with the needs of California.
When he substitutes his own little tantrum for a chance to express the needs and benefits of the system, he misses a real opportunity, and generates a real opportunity cost for the university. As someone who doesn't know him, I don't give two hoots what Mark Yudof thinks. But I do care what the President of the University of California thinks. Telling us the former instead of the latter is an easy mistake to make, but a crucial one.
It gets worse. By the end of the interview, when the discussion inevitably turns to compensation, we get:
What do you think of the idea that no administrator at a state university needs to earn more than the president of the United States, $400,000?
Will you throw in Air Force One and the White House?
While not technically wrong, this is tone-deaf in the extreme. (If you want to draw a comparison, go with the average salary of a backup catcher in the major leagues.) The UC system employs untold numbers of adjuncts, postdocs, part-time staff, and others whose pay is simply terrible. These are the folks who need to get the job done on the ground if the system is to mean anything at all. Sounding like Marie Antoinette is no way to inspire the troops, except maybe to mutiny.
Making a living in higher ed administration is a privilege. It's a chance to set the background conditions against which untold numbers of people can do their best work. It's the kind of privilege that calls for a certain humility. Yes, it's work, and yes, luring people out of faculty roles to do it will require paying them. But to use an opportunity like Yudof's just to bitch and moan is a sign that he's lost sight of what he's doing.
This is an appalling performance. I hope he's not too far gone to recognize that.
First, you missed something very important: His remarks were selected and edited by the reporter. That warning was in the print edition but not on line. He might have said a lot more about furloughs that the reporter left out to give her article more bite.
I was also appalled when I read that interview this weekend, mostly by the comment about education. It is his #1 job to sell higher ed in his state.
PS - There were four other blog-worthy items in there that ranged from appalling to fascinating. One was specifically about value added by education.
Agreed. My read was that he was trying to sell what he thought business and Sacramento wanted to hear, rather than the support and tough-love his own constituents need.
"I hope he's not too far gone to recognize that."
My guess is that, given the way he's playing the Know-Nothing from-the-streets straight-shooter role, he's not only already too far gone, but in fact was never in the game to begin with.
His "Educational Law & Policy" text (with Betsy Levin) is simply fabulous. It's a very careful work, with footnotes that can be entertaining AND informative (I know, excitement over footnotes, but they are a good read).
But in this interview, he sounds burned out and rather callous. He's not the sparkler that was presented in that text.
Sounds like he's out the door at the end of the fiscal year.....
I can tell that you don't read the paper version of the Sunday NYT anymore. This exact type of q&a is a standard feature of the Sunday magazine and it is a selection edited from a much longer interview. The whole point of this piece and every other one like it, it to take an important figure and ask odd questions or standard question in an odd way to generate off the cuff reactions. I'm surprised that they didn't ask what was in his refrigerator!
In other words, it is a genre piece, fluff that is supposedly to reveal something unexpected about its subject. The tone comes not from the subject but from the editing. They print a similar piece each and every week. It was NOT an interview for a story on education.
Yudof is an intelligent and thoughtful academic, this piece is a "signal" that he has become "renowned" enough in his field to be introduced to a largely audience. The content is not important.
As a UC professor, the interview confirmed for me that Yudof and his central administrators just don't get it. The patronizing line about why furloughs instead of pay cuts minimized the serious issues at stake AND completely ignored the staff and staff members' interests. I don't care what else he said that the reporter didn't use. The attitude embodied in that quote was unacceptable.
Example - all important UC Commission on the Future has 24 members of which 2 are students, 4 are faculty, and zero are UC staff. Public questions for a meeting must be submitted a week in advance. This is quite a statement about the "shared governance" that is supposed to be a touchstone of UC.
Remember to have your own digital recording device when talking to a reporter, and be sure that the "this is being recorded, right?" statement is also recorded. That makes it easier to write the rude letter that might show up next week if the reporter put a period where a qualifying clause or two used to be.
I thought he was particularly clueless in his statement about a $400k cap on salary. Why? Because he IS given a free house and free travel. Probably has a free Blackberry and cell phone and a chief of staff to schedule interviews and book travel for him too. Trying to imply otherwise is mendacity at its worst.
Now how about what Murray or Ravitch said elsewhere in that issue?
However, there's a difference between being candid (which I usually think is ok) and being an asshole. This guy didn't say anything particularly truthful, he just sounded like a big whiner.
Makes the UC system looks pretty bad.
I very much enjoyed my time chatting with the NY Times recently. Check it out: http://bit.ly/3aqDC9
5:49 PM Sep 24th from Twitterrific
For instance, he went through the compensation stuff with Gov Jesse Ventura without saying anything nearly that stupid.