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.