Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Here I Stand

Unperson. Thoughtcrime. De-tenure. The first two words of this list are from the novelist George Orwell's 1984; the last is from the University of Tennessee's "advocacy" page, reporting on the most recent Board of Trustees meeting. Though Chancellor Jimmy Cheek reported to the Faculty Senate Monday afternoon that the term was a "typo" and the website issued a correction that made it disappear from the record faster than an Orwellian "unperson," it lingers in the air, as does the content of its context, which was item 6 in a list of cost-saving or revenue-generating procedures proposed by President Joe Di Pietro. The university has current procedures for firing tenured professors, by the way, for cause, including misconduct, low performance reviews, financial exigency, and program consolidation, procedures which have been endorsed by the faculty and the administration, as is appropriate to the model of shared governance that is supposed to be a part of university life. These procedures take a while, as I believe they should, in order to guard against witch hunts or personality conflicts unfairly eliminating someone who spent close to 10 years (after the B.A.) training for their degree, competed with between 50 and 120 other qualified candidates in their particular field to get the job, and then another 6 to 7 publishing, teaching, and serving well enough to be awarded tenure. With tenurable professorships so precious, believe me, "no one wants to see ineffective faculty members at UT" (a direct quote from my colleague Mary McAlpin); we have procedures for removing them.

So let's be clear about the set-up in the proposal: the 6-point proposal presents the (false) spectre of so many lazy faculty members growing fat on the University's dime that the category is a target for cost savings. This spectre panders to the worst of legislators' and Tennesseans' attitudes about higher education and in no way reflects the dedication, productivity, and downright selflessness to which I have been witness pretty much every day of my 19 years of teaching at UT. Even more importantly, it is a red herring, distracting us from the larger picture and the men and women behind the curtain. The fact is that the University has already been getting rid of tenure by slowly outsourcing the profession through the use of adjuncts, many of whom are full-time and most of whom shoulder high teaching loads while making less than your postal carrier or a beginning teacher in the K-12 school system. In my department, my lecturer colleagues hold a Ph.D. in English and attempt to continue their research because they love it and they know it enriches their classrooms; however, they remain ineligible for tenure. Their jobs are not structured like mine because the outsourcing of the professoriate has happened across the country over the last 20 years, reducing the number of tenure-track jobs drastically. The dismantling of the job of professor into more lecturer positions and fewer of the conventional "professorships," in other words, has already seriously eroded the principle of tenure. Let me be clear: I do not think that tenure means a job for life. It's about academic freedom, free speech, and the autonomy of the university as an institution of higher learning. I've now seen for myself how much that academic freedom matters when half of my colleagues fear for their jobs if they speak out in committees on issues about instruction, if they don't get positive student reviews (in themselves increasingly problematic surveys of what students "liked"), or if they teach material that challenges students.

The academic freedom I enjoy as a tenured professor at UT is first defined by one's responsibility
to use the freedom of his or her office in an honest, courageous, and persistent effort to search out and communicate the truth that lies in the area of his or her competence.
What, then, is the expertise I invoke here? That of an English professor, a lover of the word and seeker of truth through it, like Orwell. Orwell's passion for good writing grew from a sense of citizenship.  His 1946 "Politics and the English Language" is as chilling a read as 1984 for someone in my line of work. Orwell declares "the great enemy of clear language is insincerity." He then supports his declaration with examples of that insincerity, including the description of air-strikes on rural villages as "pacification," as well as sloppy usage, cliches, and the bloated phraseology of political and business propaganda.  I've fought and lost some of the lesser assaults on the language, like the use of "impacted." Molars are impacted; you are not "impacted" by a movie unless, somehow, the seating arrangement is so horrible that either the Jaws of Life or a gigantic dentist is necessary to get you out of your chair afterward. But I've given up on that one. "De-tenure," however, is worth fighting because of what it attempts to mask. Tenure is already on the ropes at UT, as at so many other places, because so many faculty already don't have it. My lecturer colleagues know that their employment with the university is designed to be "flexible," another Orwellian term for easy to fire.  Our situation, like most American workers in the "mobile," "lean and mean" labor force toiling beneath better "business models," is tenuous, and the message is: don't unpack. In an era of "do more with less," all this means that lecturers teach more, while tenure-line faculty are asked to publish more, provide more service to the university, and advise more students to justify their allegedly easier jobs. What I note is that both of these hamsters are running awfully fast in their wheels.

At the same time, the number of administrators, most of them much more highly paid than any faculty member, has blossomed in an era of better "business models" for universities. The organizational charts from the three main divisions of UT (the President's staff, the Chancellor's staff, and the Provost's staff) are dizzying in their complexity and do not fully represent the number of associate deans and other administrators for each of the Colleges and other units. The same Board meeting that broached the removal of tenure as a cost-saving measure began (after the invocation) with Di Pietro putting forward a statement about a new Vice President of Development and Alumni Affairs (actually, a promotion) at a salary of $307,000, before benefits, moving expenses, and an additional "non-accountable expense allowance." That figure would hire 5-6 assistant professors or 8-9 lecturers in English, depending on how you do the math, probably with change left over. Development folks are supposed to raise funds, I understand, but I have my concerns about how much of the university's resources now go to them. I also have concerns about the effectiveness of their approach, which actually cost the English department money (another story for another day). My main point is that higher administrators make great salaries, usually 3 or 4 times what tenured faculty members make and 8 to 10 times what full-time lecturers make, and their numbers and roles seem to be growing with more calls for "review," "accountability," "making hard decisions," and "better management." Call it the spread of Vice. New initiatives justify new administrators, who usually create more work (and anxiety) for teaching faculty already struggling to find the time to see to their increased responsibilities, take care of more students, and stay on top of new developments in the field.  These administrators are also no longer (as they once were) subject to any faculty oversight or review, though we do get the occasional survey about whether we "like" what they're doing.  The teaching faculty carry on, like Orwell's Boxer from Animal Farm, determined to work harder, while we await the withering away of the state. That's why listing the removal of tenure in the context of a list of money-saving and revenue-generating proposals sounded so ominous to many of us. Even if "de-tenure" was truly a typo, it was a revealing one.

Mark Burstein, President of Lawrence University and also the recipient of an MBA from the Wharton School of Business, has a thoughtful piece on the limits of "business model" thinking for higher education, in which he reflects on the ways he sees business model thinking "directly at odds" with the college experience and even the "core values" of higher education. I would like to see our administration be as thoughtful about the limits and dangers of this approach, and to look at the burden that the sprawling 3-system administrative staff places on the University budget. Let me also add that I can write this post because I have tenure. I believe it guarantees my right to speak without fear of reprisal (a right not enjoyed by many of my colleagues), and I have come to a much clearer understanding of its importance in these strange times. Here I stand; I can do no other. I boldly take issue not just with the term "de-tenure" (even though it was swiftly disappeared from the website) but with the ideas behind it: the placement of post-tenure review as an item under cost savings and, further, with the "business model" approach to higher education. If you want to find the money to finance higher education, don't look down at those who do the teaching, mentoring, service, and research, good people; look up.