by AndrewMc | 8/16/2009 07:00:00 AM
I've been chewing on this one for a few weeks, not quite knowing where to begin. I could say "begin at the beginning," which is easy, in theory. If only I knew where the beginning was.

Is it the overall bad economy? Does it relate to trends in higher education that began back in the 1970s? Is it, somehow, Bill Clinton's fault? I'm not sure. What I do know is that over the past few months the Board of Regents for the Kentucky Community and Technical College System has begun to dismantle one of the foundational principles of higher education. And in turn various officials around the state have supported the decisions. And that these decisions are part of a trend.

On March 13, 2008, the Board of Regents for the Kentucky Community and Technical College System voted to abolish tenure for all new faculty hired after July 1, 2009. Despite numerous resolutions condemning the vote from Faculty Senates across the state, despite appeals to the president of the KCTCS system [who was the one who pushed for the policy change], and despite many letters to the governor, it seems that this decision will stand.

In gauging the opposition to this move, one would be hard-pressed to find a greater show of unity among people working in institutions of higher education in any state on most any issue in the past few decades.

From editorials in major newspapers [pdf] in the state, to faculty resolutions, to resolutions from professional organizations, to online petitions, university faculty and even staff worked to get this decision overturned. To no avail.

But they were fighting against more than the KCTCS Board of Regents' decision. Faculty at institutions of higher education suffer a barrage of negative publicity in newspapers about so-called "liberal faculty," the public's general assumption that higher-ed faculty work a few months out of the year and then take the summers off, there is a general devaluation of faculty in general, and a public hostility towards tenure.

In my opinion, the decision by KCTCS reflects a long-term decline in both the valuation of faculty by Boards and administration-types, as well as a short-term change in how Boards are composed. Nowadays many Boards are staffed by political appointees who come from the world of business. These folks see the university as a business, and to them faculty and staff (or "labor") are an obstacle—a problem to overcome in the management of a business.

I recently had the opportunity to attend a couple of meetings of some Boards of Regents. It was not unlike watching sausage get made. The process is ugly, and I think most faculty wouldn't want to see what goes into it.

At one university meeting during the semester the issue of faculty compensation came up. Given the deep budget cuts, faculty at that particular institution will not receive raises in the coming fiscal year. As the president of that university explained, nobody would—the financial situation was too dire, and the state had directed that no state employees would receive a raise.

Except that when the Board published its meeting agenda, it turned out that several administrators and a few well-placed faculty would receive raises in amounts up to $30,000 per year. It also turned out that other state employees would, in fact, receive raises—despite the claims by that university president.

As you might expect, when word of the raises leaked, there was a great deal of outrage. At the Regents' meeting for that university the faculty regent expressed her outrage and noted that the university had already lost three faculty from a single department because of what was seen as a lack of concern for faculty on the part of the administration, as well as because of salary issues. In response one of the Regents pointed out that those faculty were easily replaceable, and that a university needed people who were going to be loyal. There was no dissent.

A few minutes later, when the discussion turned to the administrators' raises, the Regents began praising the work of the administration, and noted that sometimes salary increases were needed in order to retain high-quality people.

At the next meeting of that same board, one of the administrators who received a hefty raise also received a fairly substantial series of bonuses, which elicited the comment from one regent that "this nice little bonus" recognizes the hard work that people do.

Fast forward and change places to the meeting of another board, which I also had the opportunity to attend. Here the Trustees sat through presentation after presentation from different units on that campus. And in fact the presentations on what they had achieved were quite interesting. From sustainable landscaping to dorm retention rates to a series of absolutely fascinating academic initiatives, the faculty and staff of the university were clearly moving in the right direction. Most of the academic presentations were justified by "this isn't going to cost us anything." At the end of each presentation the Trustees either said nothing, or gave a polite "Thank you."

Then came the presentation from the Athletic Director. It was mostly a litany of what will be achieved in the future, and "look at that shiny object over there" moments to distract from the fact that the athletic program is losing money. At one point the faculty representative to the Board of Trustees asked to see a balance sheet for how much had been spent versus how much money was coming in. This was met with indignation and cries of "what an athletics program brings to a university is so intangible."

When the presentation ended the Trustees fell all over themselves praising the athletics director for having such a fine program, for such a great presentation, and for being such a great guy. It bordered on the sycophantic.

I know that this sort of thing isn't confined to a couple of regional schools. It's endemic. Universities have become more top-heavy as non-educational services have increased. Anyone who has read Beer and Circus knows what athletics is doing to higher education.

And yet I can't hep but notice a larger trend wherein universities are simultaneously touting their educational bone fides in terms of the undergraduate "experience," distance education, and continuing education, while at the same time devaluing the faculty who serve as the backbone of that learning experience.

Or are they, in fact, the backbone? The recent decision to eliminate tenure by the KCTCS is a harbinger of things to come. Not a year goes by without the AHA publishing a report on the increased use of adjuncts for teaching. And those adjuncts have it crappier than ever.

The devaluation of our profession is worse than you think. Here's some homework for you. Check to see if your university employs high school teachers to teach college-level courses. And I use the word "employ" pretty loosely here. Many universities have developed programs where high school teachers pay the university to teach for-credit college courses to high school students, and then the teachers receive credit for teaching the class.

That's right, the university is being paid by high school teachers for the privilege of teaching classes. These are usually 100-level classes that fulfill a Gen-Ed requirement of some sort. You are being replaced by high school teachers in the name of economic efficiency, and with a budget crisis and university priorities such as "outreach" and continuing education as an excuse. Can it be much longer before administrators use this as a bargaining tactic with departments and faculty? "You know, you can be replaced by someone who will pay us to teach."

As administrators continue to devalue the work of faculty, our jobs are going to get tougher, and a whole host of attendant problems will manifest themselves. Already faculty have largely lost their voice in university governance, in many cases to students who are seen as customers and who therefore ought to have a voice in university affairs all out of proportion to the experience.

I don't know what the solution is at this point, but I'm all ears. My natural reaction is that faculty ought to unionize, but that apparently doesn't help any more.

What do you think?

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Blogger Ahistoricality on 8/16/2009 2:46 PM:

Unfortunately, the best argument in favor of faculty control, faculty-directed curriculum and non-adjunct teaching is educational effectiveness, and there's no good way of demonstrating that. Most Regents/board members are not educators: they don't really understand the difference between graduating C/D-students and B-students, between B-students and A-students. It takes years for the effects of education to be felt, and describing (much less measuring) the difference between a good education and a mediocre one is subtle and decidedly uneconomic.


Anonymous Cameron Blevins on 8/17/2009 11:10 AM:

It seems like the major issue here is not necessarily the system of tenure, but what it represents - namely, the devaluation of faculty. I have some significant problems with the entire idea of tenure, but in this case it appears that abolishing tenure is being done more as a shot across the bow of faculty, and less as a rational decision based on the merits of the system itself.


Blogger AndrewMc on 8/17/2009 11:20 AM:

Cameron, I agree. This is about faculty as wage labor, not about the intellectual merits of the system.