Monday, November 29, 2010

 

Context

Over the break I finally had a chance to read Higher Education?, by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus. It was yet another in a long line of pieces that purport -- at least in title -- to address higher education generally, but that assume a daily reality that simply excludes community colleges. (At least Hacker and Dreifus had the good grace to admit it.) Suffice it to say that it seemed to mean well, but was so scattered in its presentation that I was just left shrugging.

I had a similar sense reading Historiann’s recent post on what she takes to be the roots of the casualization of academic labor. In response to a snarky line by Thomas Frank, she defends the honor of the tenured faculty: “No tenured faculty in any department I’ve ever been a member of has cackled with glee at the prospect of seeing our ranks depleted and populated instead with adjuncts.” I presume this is true, though it’s a way of implying a contrast. Who, exactly, is cackling with glee?

She answers:

Here’s how the adjunctification of a department happens: when my senior colleagues retire or a colleague resigns to take another job, we lose not only the tenure line but we also lose the money. The Dean’s and Provost’s office–or some other entity farther up–hoovers up the salary savings, and my department gets nothing...


Well, “hoovers” certainly sounds sinister enough. But in case that was too subtle, she swings for the cheap seats in the next paragraph:

Administrators are the authors of this shift from tenured to casual labor, and they’re the ones who benefit from it directly. (emp. in original)


Those would be the administrators who are cackling with glee, I assume. The villainous glee derives, I’m guessing, from the direct benefits that accrue to deans and provosts.

It’s a genuinely stupid theory, and one so far removed from any reality I can recognize that I honestly have to wonder at the professional competence of anyone who would believe it, let alone write it. Yet intelligent people write this stuff, and other intelligent people seem to believe it.

This January will mark a solid decade in academic administration -- approximately ten years more than Historiann, if my math is correct -- and I can attest that in those ten years I have never seen or heard a dean or provost cackle with glee at the prospect of hollowing out a department. Not once, not ever. In my decade of personal observation, at multiple institutions, it has never happened. In discussions with my counterparts at other cc’s in my state, the same is true for them. Nor do the benefits accrue directly to deans and provosts. Where does the money go?

This Washington Post article sent to me by an alert reader gives a clue. Here’s some reality I can actually recognize:

Even as community college enrollments have climbed during the recession, 35 states cut higher education budgets last year, and 31 will cut them for next, according to survey data from the National Association of State Budget Officers. Those shortages are expected to worsen next year when federal stimulus money that had plugged holes in state budgets is no longer available.


Aha! Could it possibly be that deans and provosts have constraints, too? Might it be the case that those of us at community colleges are facing budgetary realities far beyond the imagination of folks at research universities? WaPo continues:

That's partly because community college budgets have grown more slowly than at other institutions, according to an analysis of federal education statistics by the Delta Cost Project. In 2008, the education-related spending for an average full-time student at a community college was $10,400 while it was about 20 percent to 50 percent higher at public universities and at least 50 percent more at private four-year colleges.


Hmm. And yet, we have administrators, too. Perhaps there’s a flaw in the theory somewhere...

To combat the budget cuts, the College of Southern Nevada has increased the proportion of cheaper adjunct faculty, closed two of 11 learning centers in the community, and held classes at midnight to maximize the use of class space.


Aha! A direct causal link between decreased funding and increased adjunctification. No cackling with glee here.

Here in Las Vegas, state funding for the College of Southern Nevada has dropped more than 17 percent while the number of students, on a full-time basis, has risen 12 percent. While a federal stimulus bill provided funding to community colleges, that money is about to run out, too.
"In Nevada, we have to accommodate state budget priorities such as Medicare, public safety, including corrections, and K-12 education," Richards said. "Higher education comes in fourth or fifth in the list."


And there we have it.

Administrators may be the bearers of bad news, and sometimes the people who have to choose among terrible options. But to assume that we’re sitting on piles of money, cackling with glee while exploiting adjuncts and pocketing the savings for ourselves, is just otherworldly. It assumes a context completely out of keeping with anything I can recognize as reality. It’s so far afield that the only truly fitting rebuttal is a sigh.

One could object, I suppose, that the adjunct trend goes back much farther than the Great Recession. But the drivers behind the trend go back farther, too. I’ve written at length about them over the years, and (spoiler alert!) have devoted a chapter of my book to them. The screwy economics of higher education come from all kinds of sources: the credit hour, tenure, public funding constraints, and ever-increasing technological demands each play a part. Management can help or hurt, but it can’t explain the main direction. Private industry has managers -- lots of them -- many of whom make far more than any dean or provost I’ve ever met. Yet our costs are increasing much more quickly than theirs. A serious explanation requires different variables.

The only way I can imagine the “Provost as Dr. Evil” theory making any sense would be if you never looked beyond the confines of a single academic department. If your context is any broader than that, the theory quickly falls apart.

At some level, I suppose, none of this matters. If some bloggers want to go off into la-la land, that’s their business. But if higher education is going to make any kind of recovery, let alone headway, it will have to do so cooperatively, and with collective acknowledgement of Objective Fucking Reality. The issues are endemic, severe, and increasing. Coming to grips with that will require, among other things, letting go of the fantasy that the deans could just fix everything if they would only see the light. The first step is to acknowledge that colleges exist in a much larger world, and are subject to it in important ways. Without that context, there’s really nothing to say.

Comments:
I am a community college department chairperson. While we can agree there may be a void of cackling glee, I have 2 vacated full-time faculty slots in my department that will NEVER be filled. All of the sudden no one has or knows the position numbers for the positions to complete the replacement RFPs (requesting since Aug 2010 and still waiting).
 
Well said.
 
DD, you're supporting her point. There is no meaningful difference on the ground between "We have no more money so there will be no more full-timers" and "We have plenty of money but there will be no more full timers." In both cases the results are the same; the administration is pawning budget concerns off on exploited people.

I'll believe that you think this is bad when you advocate for your college creating full-time adjunct positions with benefits, makes certain they're covered under the collective bargaining agreement as full members, and doesn't hire "Beige" from a previous post. Instead, you've spent your energy advocating against tenure of any type, which is again consistent with her approach.

Until then, you think it's kind of lousy, but have no intention of meaningfully addressing it. Which is fine! You're not required to stick your finger in the dike. But you should probably make clear that you also plan to make sure that no matter how bad the cuts get, you know that you don't plan to take the 50-80% pay cut that an adjunct represents. That may not involve cackling, but it certainly does involve picking the loser.
 
Over the years, I have met plenty of university administrators who have asserted that higher education can be "lean and mean," that "business as usual is not an option," and many, many more buzz words. These have all been (and still are) people who believe they can make a career by cutting costs, which in a labor-intensive environment such as a university, means, above all, cutting wages, and that means, in turn, replacing permanent faculty positions with adjuncts. They may not be cackling, but they clearly see their self-interest aligned with the end of regular faculty positions.
 
There will always be a certain fraction of faculty that will blame all woes on evil administrators. That is just the way of the World, so I'd suggest just accepting that and moving on. Enumerating the fallacies in such folks' arguments is akin to pointing out the Tea Party contradictions in logic to a devotee; not a good use of your time.
 
Don't take Historiann's comments quite so personally. You don't have to be cackling with villainous glee to be an essential part of the disemboweling of a department. Multiple faculty departures with adamant words from an administration that there will be no replacements? Faculty told their parental leaves won't be replaced (which scares them so much they refrain from taking the leave)?

Look, at my institution, I don't believe the deans are at fault. Our deans are essentially powerless except as advocates. You're probably in the same boat. You don't get to set the budgets, you just are supposed to mediate between the academic administration and the staff/faculty.

Even if you're not an independent agent, we need our deans to be passionate advocates, helping to solve the crisis that's affecting our students, first and foremost. Even just an expression of fellow-feeling, that you understand this hurts and that we are panicked over the cuts, would be a lot more helpful than "Just shut up and take it for the good of the institution."
 
Social cognition researchers have documented a pervasive cognitive bias called the fundamental attribution error: when an event occurs, we tend to discount situational and contextual factors that caused the event and overemphasize the importance of individual motives and intent. Historiann's post is a vivid example of this cognitive bias. (And to be even handed: every administrator who complains about "lazy" or "stubborn" faculty also nicely demonstrates the fundamental attribution error.)
 
OT(?): You talk about "a chapter in my book" as if it's close to becoming a reality (or, dare I hope, already a reality?)

I definitely would like to read it. How are you going to let us know where to find it without blowing your cover?
 
Years ago in Hawaii on the sugar cane plantations there were three "classes" of people who kept the business going. Initially, when the cane plantations were opened, it was only two groups - a very small number of wealthy owners, and Asian or Polynesian workers. The WASP owners didn’t like dealing with the workers so they brought in a third group, Portuguese overseers, who were white enough for the owners to find palatable but still Catholic and low enough culturally to be abused without anyone really feeling bad about the whole thing. Every time the workers rebelled, the owners brought in a new group of Asian people until the islands were a fruit cocktail of cultures.

Academia is like a sugar plantation. Tenured faculty and administrators are the Portugese - elite enough for the public to trust but intellectual and therefore slightly suspicious and a little absurd - certainly not "regular people". Adjuncts are the disposable labor. The well off 5% of Americans who control 40% of our nation’s wealth are the owners of the plantation in this little metaphor and the American voter keeps buying their damn sugar (you can have great cheap government services - education, prison for everyone, healthcare etc. all for no new taxes!!!) Cheap sugar always involves exploiting someone.

The most successful uprisings in the Hawaiian islands happened when the Portugese joined with the workers in demanding better treatment from the owners.

In approaching the fight over money and budgets, I think we all need to remember the most basic rules of war. When you fight, be sure you’re fighting your true enemy and use methods that don’t result in friendly fire…
 
Also off topic - I hope that sufficient creativity goes into an anonymous book author photo. Perhaps I'm remembering an old post in which DD mentioned a paper bag over the head, Groucho glasses, etc?
 
I'm really ambivalent about your post, DD. Yes, Historiann is sometimes woefully simplistic. Both Historiann and I work in a state that for the past 10-15 years have lurked near the bottom in terms of funding of higher ed (this year I think we are 48th). So she and I know very well what you call "Objective Fucking Reality." On the other hand, I would imagine that we both have watched administrators at our respective institutions piss money away like water on things that were marginal to our schools' core missions, such as education: at my institution, a move to Division I football (getting rid of which would more than make up for recent state cuts), at Historiann's the creation of an online international university. I guess the problem is that we just don't respect our administrators - their self-interest seems to more about the shiny new toy (like a bunch of low-enrolled, online graduate programs) while they starve the well-established and successful programs already in demand (composition and western civ, anyone?). If you knew the specifics of her institution, you might be more sympathetic.
 
I love the crack about stupid theories and generally agree with the gist of the post. But without cashing out the actual context analysis it's fatally vulnerable to Janice's self-interest critique and Ivory's class war critique and Anonymous' optional allocation critique.

It's not just that budgets are slim. It's that the whole system of higher education is a Ponzi scheme that's up against its margins. The actual economic return of the pure education mission outside the top tier schools is in the red vs. its cost. The fantasy of social leveling has no cash value and subsists on its hegemonic function. And therefore the 'sell' of lower-tier schools has to involve all sorts of shiny 'marginal' geegaws like sports and online international universities in a desperate attempt to bootstrap prestige and revenue streams that can support the whole tottering edifice.

These are proper structural problems. Punting to state budgets is just kicking the personal blame from administrators to politicians; see Milo.
 
our state U has at least 20 positions that i know of that could be terminated without any effect whatsoever on the campus (positions that have salaries of $70k+, well up to $110k+), and i'm familiar with all of 3 departments. granted, this isn't "faculty" from the standpoint of tenured researchers & profs; it is faculty in terms of IT and administration (how many "business analysts" does your U employ? what a joke job...).

but the U won't cut them.

granted, i don't know how lean CC departments are, but when it comes to a state U, i'll never believe the whole money argument. our state U would rather employ 3-4 completely-unqualified-people for $40k a piece, spend $20k a piece to get them trained & up to par, & then have to maintain their positions, benefits, salary, & retirement, rather than hire someone who is amazing and insanely good for $80-$100k.

i'll never believe any money arguments when it comes to a state U. i know too many people who are employed who sit on the Internet all day long, or who don't even come into work (and don't register PTO because their Dean does the same thing).
 
I don't think you can criticize what Historiann writes from the perspective of a second tier state university whose leadership has delusions of grandeur from the perspective of a mere decade of administration at much different institutions. And if administrators get huge pay raises while faculty get little or nothing in the face of state budget cuts, it is hard to say they are not profiting from their actions.

Which is not to say that any of the above happens at my CC. It doesn't. But I know enough places where it does happen to observe that the argument can be based on fact.

I'm looking forward to your book, to see how you explain the following.

"the credit hour"

Our CC has both credit hour and clock hour classes. Both are driven by our customers, the people who hire our students or accept them as transfers. Since I've actually seen a college fail because it had no means of providing an objective evaluation of what students knew, I can see why we don't ignore the needs of those employers.

Someday 'soon' I hope to write a blog about productivity. Our productivity has increased because we teach the same material in less time ... because our credit hour is less than you assume it is.

"tenure"

If you look simply at the fraction of lower division classes being taught by persons who are not on the tenure track, it should be evident that universities have reduced its impact significantly and only keep it because it serves their purposes.

"public funding constraints"

I have documented that only a very small fraction of the tuition increases at one university were needed to cover the drop in state funding. Tuition there is double what it needs to be, based on what was delivered when I was a student. (Which was, by the way, a t-t professor in every class except one plus a lab TA in another and a recitation TA in a third.) IMO, much of it goes to support research via salaries paid to the t-t people who mostly now do research.

"ever-increasing technological demands"

You didn't say if those demands were reality based, or why Moore's Law hasn't stayed ahead of them. I've seen SmartBoards used in math classes, and all I see is a smaller blackboard that erases better than a whiteboard.
 
Good blog post. Thanks for sharing this perspective.

Speaking personally, I find it pretty persuasive, though I have to admit I don't find this defense of administration 100% convincing. I think you've got a pretty good defense, maybe 90% convincing, but not airtight. Let me try to explain the other 10%, in case it helps administrators understand better where some faculty might be coming from.

I understand that there are severe budget constraints. I understand that when the administration declines to replace a faculty who leaves, they're just trying to save money so they can meet their budget. But implicitly that represents a priority/value judgement: that it's more important to spend the money on something else in the budget, rather than hiring a replacement faculty member. When I see money spent on things that don't seem related to the academic mission (e.g., large sports programs, large construction projects, pet initiatives from administrators), it makes me wonder about those priorities and why the non-academic mission implicitly got prioritized over the academic mission. The fact that, at my institution, the number of administrators have increased much more rapidly than the number of faculty over the past two decades, and that administrators get better salaries, doesn't help either: it makes one wonder what priorities this reflects.
 
By the bye, please don't take my comments as saying that admin don't have interests in common with teachers. They definitely do. I guarantee you, every administrator wants the college to have ample resources to address the problems that it faces, and nearly all of them want the teachers to do a basically good job. These are, of course, very much the interests of the faculty as well.

But the Portuguese analogy is extremely apt. The administration is very capable of pawning off shortages on the faculty, simply because of the power imbalance. If the faculty allow this by not organizing or by themselves marginalizing adjuncts, then that's how the story ends. Administration and faculty can be partners in shared governance and in advocating for adequate resources for the school. But once the knives are out, the admin knife is bigger, because that's what they do.
 
The last time I said this you quoted Barney Frank to me and then lost your temper completely, seeing me, I suppose as a typical crazy whiny instructor, squatting on the golden toadstool of tenure, spitting venom at any reasonable manager happening by.

But fools rush in.

Of course I don't think management has any direct interest in hollowing out departments. But I do think the higher reaches of cc management, the ones that go the legislature, have a huge interest in growth. That's their selling point to the legislature--that pitch certainly had not worked lately to increase our budget but apparently it's the only argument they have.

That vaunted growth is not sustainable with current tuition and subsidies unless adjuncts are used. So, when my boss's boss's boss goes on his regular cheerleading kick about how great we are, I get queasy.

Queasy, first, because his job security is directly connected to growth. He is not a disinterested party. No money goes in his pocket when our department is hollowed, but he does get a nice dollop of glory, praise, and something nice for his c.v.

Queasy, also, because when he touts growth and forgets to mention adjuncts, he is derelict in his duty to lead and educate. The people in my state believe that there is a free lunch or that we are fat fat fat and could take some hits or that we have sissy departments that aren't needed at all.

My boss's boss's boss needs to tell the legislature, the governor, and the public the truth about how we have grown and what its hidden costs are, and this he will not do.

So, I agree with you: "The first step is to acknowledge that colleges exist in a much larger world, and are subject to it in important ways. Without that context, there’s really nothing to say."

And it's that larger world I don't see my cc system willing to engage with at all. It's that boss's boss's boss of mine who's in lala land, who refuses to mention the word 'adjunct' in polite company, who allows his political masters to continue to fantasize about running us like a business, merging with other state institutions, sucking up hs students to keep us running, and so on.
 
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?