Category Archives: faculty governance

at the new school, the faculty and students are revolting


[photo of monkey handler attacked by his own monkeys from the Telegraph.]

Though corporate management has done plenty of damage in the last few months to corporations, employees, and  communities, it’s worth remembering how many so-called “innovations” in education were justified by the corporate model.  Now we all know how well that is working out.

For that reason alone, we should all be watching the collapse of Bob Kerrey‘s leadership at the New School with some interest.  Kerrey, who was hired in 2001 to lead the financially pressed New School, had nothing more than a bachelor’s degree in pharmacy and a (thin yet still dwindling) political resume as former governor and senator from Nebraska.  In today’s current political environment, Kerrey has all the pathos of one of those toxic, overgrown child stars on the E! Network.  Why is this guy even alive? we wonder.  Is there anyone alive who still cares about this guy? And yet at one time Kerrey could pass as a credible future face for the Democratic party, though Kerrey’s future was foreclosed the moment when that other Kerry finished his big stinkeroo of a presidential campaign.

So the Trustees at the New School got exactly what they deserved when they hired Mr. Governor Star Power, but I doubt the students and faculty ever bought into Kerrey, whose politics have been really execrable neoliberal crapola, and whose academic leadership focused on getting rid of tenured faculty, hiring part-timers, sucking up to donors, condescending to students, and pretty much lying to everyone, as this money quote from the NY Times piece shows:

“That’s the problem with Bob Kerrey,” said Mr. Schlesinger, a son of the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. “He charms everybody when they first meet him and then something happens and he turns around and punches them in the stomach. After that, you say, ‘How can I trust this guy?’

Remember, this is someone whose “ahead of the curve vision” for a “twenty-first century” university somehow omitted a research library.  So I suppose that all those world-famous scholars will just have to use Google.

Ultimately, I think Kerrey is going to step down, because he broke that first cardinal rule of university presidents: never embarass the trustees.  And I do hope that this incident directs some of that bad publicity onto the heads of those sh*tty trustees for hiring and supporting the guy.   But Kerrey does have some value as a symptomatic figure, one who shows the costs that universities pay when they hire star power presidents, and forget about the academic mission of the institutions they are supposed to lead.


Assessing Assessment (thanks, ADM)

Perhaps because the semester is over and faculty are thinking about evaluations more generally, some interesting threads on assessment have appeared lately in In Socrates’ Wake, Easily Distracted, and Blogenspiel.  One of the first things that struck me about these posts was how differently this language of assessment and accountability plays out, depending on where you stand in the hierarchies of the discipline or professional status: public universities vs. private colleges, Research 1 vs. everyone else, tenured faculty vs.  tenure-track, lecturers or grad students.   Assessment looks different to people in each one of these locations, and offers different opportunities and risks.  This shouldn’t surprise anyone, but it should make us bite our tongues and think a little harder before speaking out on behalf of others.  After all, though assessment is usually framed as an insiders/outsiders debate, the interests of those “inside” are in fact multiple and may in fact conflict.  Some quick takeaways:

1.  Another Damn Medievalist notes that

all of the assessment of us as faculty is predicated on the idea that students are here to learn. It’s based on the idea that students do learn, and remember. Even though we like to cringe, because so much of assessment and accreditation seems to focus on whether students are getting value for money, it *is* also based on the idea we try to impress upon our students: what we teach is important, and a BA/BA is not just a piece of paper that means a better entry-level job. But what if that’s all the students want? What if they aren’t so worried about the experience, about savouring and remembering what we try to teach them? What if, as one of my students said to me, they just aren’t that into it and really just didn’t feel like getting the A they could have got, because all they needed to graduate was 70%? For most of my students at SLAC, that seems to be the rule.

So assessment gauges individual teacher performance on the basis of student performance: so far so good, but this mimetic approach may also ignore how systemic disparities of student motivation and/or skills will interfere with this model.  As she notes, “All kidding aside, how do we assess places like SLAC in a way that is fair to the good faculty and to the good students? If a campus tries to push a reputation as ‘selective’, then how do we integrate the results for those students who came in on waivers?”  My answer would be, such an assessment will not be “fair” unless these factors are somehow represented as well.  But this inevitably demands that those being assessed work with those doing the assessments, to make sure the questions, criteria, etc. reflect the local circumstances.  And in my experience, it also means that those below a certain threshold of job security/status will never have a voice within the assessment process. 

2.  The ISW discussion was valuable, I think, because it introduced the distinction between standardized assessments (multiple choice tests designed for all students of a particular discipline, for example) and quantitative assessments (rubrics etc. that would allow faculty to exercise qualitative judgments that could in turn be translated into quantitative measures).  Since both philosophy and literature lack a definitive canon that students could be universally tested on, I think the assumption of standardization is the biggest problem with these kinds of proposals, which come most often from non-academics.  It may be different in other disciplines, though.  Those who spent some time in the sciences would know more about this than I do.

3.  Finally, Tim Burke’s discussion advocates pretty convincingly for more transparency and demystification of higher ed, and argues against a “regulatory machine administering tests, enforcing rigorous common standards, hauling professionals up before a bureaucratic star chamber every four years?”   Fair enough, but which do you think your state legislature would prefer?



Bureaucratic versus rhetorical views of the university, via James Boyd White

Yesterday was one of those exhausting days where I spent my whole time on-campus moving from one room to the next, working to persuade a succession of audiences, large and small, about the succession of topics that have momentarily defined my life: Michel Foucault, the historicity of sex and sexuality, the future of the university and our incoming president, classroom assignments, the college readiness standards coming out of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, and of course, SACS accreditation and its Quality Enhancement Plans for my college.

As I try to understand the coherence, or at least the potential coherence, of what I do on days like this, I keep returning to a passage I found in James Boyd White’ s “Rhetoric and Law” about “bureaucratic entities, which can be defined in Weberian terms as rationalized institutions, functioning according to end-means rationality.  These institutions are defined by their goals, purposes, or aims, which they achieve more or less perfectly as they are structured and managed more or less well (299). 

Laura Rosenthal and I have previously discussed, on and off this blog, how much faculty time nowadays is spent servicing this Weberean view of the university, which is built into the entire process of public higher ed assessment and “accountability,” and which seems deeply hostile to, or at least indifferent to, the educational goals of the humanities.  And White drops into a footnote a revealing aside: “this bureaucratic language[of means/end rationality] is very deep in our ordinary culture as well; think of a conversation at a curriculum committee meeting where someone says, “Let us first state our educational goals and then determine how we can arrive at them.”  That is a dreadful way to talk about teaching, yet it is dominant in our world , and once the conversation has begun on those terms it is almost impossible to deflect it to address any true educational concerns.”  (n.1, 316-17) 

We should think for a moment about White’s use of the 1st person plural here, and how it functions rhetorically, and perhaps unintentionally, in comparison with the coercive “we” suggested by the Weberean hypothetical “someone” addressing him in the commitee room.  I suppose I would like very much to be part of White’s “we,” meaning those with a genuine feeling for “true educational concerns,” but feel that I belong instead to the other “we,” as part of the “ordinary culture” (whose culture? whose world?) in which “dreadful ways” of talking about education ordinarily, and as a matter of course, prevail, usually without debate. 

Is this simply the difference between private and public higher education nowadays?  That the well-known academic author securely situated in both the humanities and the professions can feel that he has scrambled far enough away from the Weberean apparatus of public policy that he can view it from the outside?  And what would be the point of debating the Weberean administrator who wishes to begin every discussion with goals and end with appropriate outcomes?

Nonetheless, for all my qualms about some of these aspects of White’s prose, I read the following passage with gratitude, because it captured so much of the rhetoric I am subjected to while doing my work at a public university, even as a teacher of the humanities.

In this way the government, of which the law [or the university–DM] is a part (and in fact the entire bureaucratic system, private as well as public), tends to be regarded, especially by lawyers, managers, and other policymakers, as a machine acting on the rest of the world; the rest of the world is in turn reduced to the object upon which the machine is acts.  Actors outside the bureaucratic world are made the objects of manipulation through a series of incentives or disincentives.  Actors within the legal-bureaucratic structure are either reduced to will-servers” (who regard their obligation as being to obey the will of a political superior), or they are “choice-makers” (who are in a position of political superiority, charged with the responsibility of making choices, usually thought of as “policy choices,” that affect the lives of others.  The choices themselves are likewise objectified: the items of choice [or what we might call “taste”–DM] are broken out of the flux of experience and the context of life so that they can be talked about in the bureaucratic-legal mode. 

None of this is surprising, but the organizational metaphor of the university as a machine constitutes a form of rhetoric that has been so internalized by all parties that no one involved–not administrators, not students, not legislators, not even the voting public–can perceive this as a metaphor anymore.  It is simply “how things work,” or how they should work ideally , and there seems little point in debating the terms upon which public support is given, however it is given.  Whatever agency university faculty might have seems to be predicated on their ability to master this kind of rhetoric, and use it for their own purposes.  How long would a department chair last, if she simply refused to compare the cost/benefits of lecturers vs. T.A.s for composition instruction?

So this is how we arrive at a culminating description like this one of bureaucratic thought, which is perfectly anti-rhetorical in its desire to keep discussion on its own terms, without any acknowledgment of its limits:

This [bureaucratic mode] commits the system to what is thought to be measurable in material ways; to short-term goals; and to a process of thought by calculation.  the premises of cost-benefit analysis are integral to the bureaucracy as we normally imagine it.  Whatever cannot be talked about in these bureaucratic ways is simply not talked about.  Of course, all systems of discourse have domains and boundaries, principles of exclusion and inclusion; but this kind of bureaucratic talk is unselfconscious about what it excludes.  The world it sees is its whole world. 

And, as White concludes: “The overriding metaphor is that of the machine; the overriding value is that of efficiency, conceived of as the attainment of certain ends with the smallest possible costs.”  And how else could we describe the attitudes, if not of our administrators (and some part of any administrator’s job includes answering questions like these), then certainly of the state legislatures who dole out an ever-shrinking proportion of money to higher education in their states, while attempting to dictate on all sorts of matters of curriculum.

And yet what I spend increasing amounts of time on is talk.  Persuading various constituencies within the university to agree upon something.  Coming up with arguments to present to visiting politicians.  And sitting in what has to be at this time one of the most anachronistic entities ever devised, a university “Faculty Senate” whose deliberations are guided by Robert’s Rule of Order.  Where else nowadays does anyone even read, let alone consult, Robert’s Rules of Order?  We have “assemblies” and meetings, but those kinds of heavily formal and rhetorical assemblies and meetings represent one of the last obstacles to the complete takeover of the university by the Weberean, administered model.  And I think at most research 1 universities, the rhetorical model of governance doesn’t stand much of a chance against the corporate money that flows through those places, or the voter initiatives that rumble through like a lost herd of bison.

When I think about the possible rhetorical responses to this kind of bureaucratically enforced myopia, I think one of the most effective strategies is to focus upon consequences, because this diminishes any “choice maker’s” aura of managerial competence, once you can show how easily foreseen problems followed a particular decision.  If there has been a widely-acknowledged organizational catastrophe, what decisions (whose decisions?) led to this outcome?  Was a short-term goal, narrowly conceived and incompetently executed, pursued to the exclusion of lots of other possibilities?  Etc. Etc.  Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s easy to question (or debate) these kinds of styles of administration or management, until some kind of scandal or catastrophe captures a wider public’s attention.  But that’s where I think our opportunities begin.


It’s MLA resolution time! UPDATED

Because I allowed my MLA membership to go dead for awhile, I had entirely forgotten about the resolutions the MLA circulates every year.  This is interesting to me, because I actually served as an MLA delegate for a few years, and spent a few painful afternoons debating such resolutions myself. 

For whatever reason, the MLA doesn’t seem eager to publicize the resolutions or our debates over them, since they’ve stuck them behind some firewall of professional dignity on the MLA website, and nestled them someplace safe where Fox News or the New York Times can’t get to them.

I must admit, though, that years ago, when I was a delegate myself, whenever I returned from one of those long delegate meetings, I was always mocked by my friends for consenting to sit through a 4 1/2 hour debate over whether or not to censure this or that Big Name University for its disgusting, exploitive, union-busting, grad-student grinding, generally greedhead activities.  And no, we never actually censured anyone while I was there.  We just talked about it for a very long time, then decided we’d all be better off if we did nothing.

So I’m interested in the opinions of those on this blog, whether MLA members, ex-members, and not-ever-members, about how they regard such resolutions, if they think about them at all, and how much impact they’ve had on their local workplace.  And if this kind of discussion makes teeny tiny tears of boredom roll down your cheeks, then we’ll move on to a more 18th century sort of topic straightaway.


UPDATE: I feel a lot happier passing this along, from Cary Nelson of the AAUP.  It’s a report about the collapse of faculty governance and tenure in the New Orleans-area universities affected by Katrina.  Take a look, and if stuff like this bothers you, think about joining the AAUP.