• Home
  • About Us
  • Guest Posts

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

A Global Crisis of Faculty Faith? Two Berkeley Examples

I've always believed that university professors are willing and able to govern academics, but now I am not so sure.  I am worried about growing fatalism among even tenured faculty activists.  I'm concerned about the tacit belief that unstoppable historical forces have already destroyed the universities they want to keep.  From this standpoint, local resistance can work but remaking is futile, though remaking is the premise of shared governance and of academic freedom.

My summer travels took me to London, Copenhagen, Lisbon, Liverpool, Bonn, Cambridge, Johannesburg, Cape Town, Crewe, York, and Valencia, mostly for lectures and discussions with faculty members about the state of  universities in their country.   I was struck by the contrast between the great intelligence and professional commitments of the professors on the one hand, and their lack of hope for universities on the other.  Several of the visits revolved around higher education conferences, where I heard brilliant analyses of the nuts and bolts of national education initiatives that lacked a standpoint for faculty intervention.

Everyone was extremely busy teaching, running research centers, organizing outreach programs, testifying to government officials, and so on--there was never a lack of constructive activities.  But I sensed little confidence that any of the faculty activities would help improve their institutions or the policy environment. There are important exceptions to this rule, and I am always impressed by the great spirits who continue to be attracted into academia. When necessary, faculty would set up Temporary Autonomous Zones and hope that these spaces--labs, classrooms, offices--would escape outside attention long enough to succeed at getting their work done. It's not that faculty members saw managers as their enemy. They saw them instead as a fatal environment.

A few examples: in Denmark I heard stories both of a comedic inability of managers to return email from faculty who had major proposals before them and of the mandatory use of automated work output management systems that scored and ranked faculty members for university managers.  In South Africa, I encountered professors who were angry at their students for demanding #FeesMustFall rather than at politicians for failing to fund the higher education mission. in Britain, I worked with faculty who were responding to the post-2011 elimination of public funding for all qualitative teaching fields by reinventing entire programs nearly every year to be more appealing to the student market.  They were all great people who had reacted to challenges by creating better local solutions, but with no expectation that it would help the university system.

In most cases, output audit was replacing direct faculty-administration dialogue and the collaborative reimagining of that university's future.  The UK's Tory government has been the most explicit about its use of funding authority to replace professional judgment with market signals. In cutting central government funding for instruction to zero for most subjects, it has forced teaching to cater to student demand.  It uses impact assessments and other auditing techniques to norm STEM research to business needs.

Governments are ignoring the fact that universities are supposed to be way out in front of public sensibility in both technical and sociocultural subjects.  Universities can't be original unless they are out in front. Managing by audit, in contrast, readily norms the teaching of society, culture, and science to established mainstream views, whether that be commercial television's stories of the origins of terrorism or the pharmaceutical industry's preferences on the characterization of molecules. This norming reduces the university's non-market and social value. It ironically reduces its market value by emphasizing existing rather than future skills for students and well-known rather than challenging problems for research.

It was impossible for me to forget the University of California's travails no matter the distance, and I see two recent Berkeley issues through the gap I saw this summer between faculty reaction and faculty governance.  One issue is the budget: Berkeley's senior managers are apparently still saying that private revenue streams and more entrepreneurship will fix the budget deficit.  I interpret the evidence to show that the deficit came in large part from privatization and cannot be fixed by more of the same.   I also think that the admin's proposed solutions of "enrollment control, self-supporting degree programs, increased land utilization, entrepreneurship, and fundraising" expresses the conventional budgetary wisdom of our proverbial neoliberal era of the kind that universities exist to get beyond. Either way, the issue can't be resolved by meetings that offer spotty information about which faculty ask isolated questions and express frustration.  It can only be resolved by faculty bodies--the Senate and/or the Faculty Association and/or other groups--doing independent analysis with comprehensive financial information and building their own sustainable budget to advocate to the administration.  Faculty members haven't shifted from budget reaction to budget governance. Until they do, nothing will change.

Same goes for the Berkeley administration's suspension in the middle of the term of a student-taught course, "Palestine: A Colonial Settler Analysis."   Dean Carla Hesse suspended the course on the same day that  "43 Jewish, civil rights, and education advocacy groups" wrote to campus chancellor Nicholas Dirks to claim that the course was political advocacy, met the "government's criteria for anti-Semitism," had been approved and was being taught by anti-Zionist zealots, and was out of compliance with UC Regents policy.  And yet the course had been approved through a standard process in which faculty members have primary and ultimate authority over the curriculum--in this case the department's acting chair and the Academic Senate.  It also appears that the Berkeley administration would have taken no action without pressure from outside interest groups, and that the suspension was a response to this outside pressure.  The chancellor and/or executive dean in this case intervened in the faculty's core domain in response to an outside grievance, and they triggered national coverage of basic questions about academic freedom.  For the blow by blow of that issue I refer you to John K. Wilson's detailed analysis, Berkeley professor Samera Esmeir's commentary, and Dr. Wilson's critique of Dean Hesse's reinstatement letter.  My point here is that various kinds of internal pressure were brought to bear, from every student in the course and also from Berkeley faculty, which resulted in the course's reinstatement, and yet this kind of strong reaction is not going to be enough.

For the dean's reinstatement letter claims both that deans "review, but do not approve the academic content" of courses in this program and that this review legitimately asked about course content, that is, about "whether the stated objective for the course to 'explore the possibility of a decolonized Palestine' potentially violated Regents Policy by crossing over the line from teaching to political advocacy." The latter phrase does assert an administrative right to review content of these student-taught courses even when they are, as in this case, approved by the appropriate faculty.  Dean Hesse's position is thus that enforcement of University instructional policy does not lie with the faculty alone, but requires administrative supervision.   This remains a departure from standard AAUP-based principles of faculty self-governance of instruction.  It is consistent with the trend toward shifting the supervision of instruction reflected in the MOOC wave of 2012-13, where officials signed contracts with little faculty knowledge or input, and with the trend toward removing faculty from the university's reputation management that enabled acts like the Board firing of Professor Steven Saliata from the University of Illinois and of Asst. Professor Melissa Click from the University of Missouri.  While faculty reaction helped resolve the immediate UC Berkeley issue, faculty governance will be needed to reconstruct authority over curriculum in order to prevent such intrusions in the future.

The Berkeley student course on Palestine raised the question of whether society will allow universities to function as their over-the-horizon intellectual resource.  It represented academic inquiry that fulfilled the intellectual mission of being out in front of public sensibility on an important question. When a classroom, library, or laboratory houses original solutions, some factions will see them as impossible, outrageous, or offensive.  This is the routine impact of any avant-garde in art, science, and every field in between, whose members are treated as enemies before in many cases being lauded as pioneers.   All the outrage means is that the university is doing its job.

Since senior managers can apparently not be expected to stand up to influential outsiders, the tenured faculty will have to do it.  It would be better to do it by re-establishing governing authority over the conditions that make originality possible, rather than putting out particular fires on a global scale.


Chris Newfield said...

The Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate today released a "statement on the suspension of a student-facilitated course" that says, "We reject the notion of decanal authority to approve or suspend courses. That authority is vested in the faculty." The text is below:

The Berkeley Divisional Council (DIVCO) is deeply concerned about the Administration’s recent effort to suspend a course, an action at odds with mandated procedure and one that raises serious questions about academic freedom.

As delegated by Regents Standing Order 105.2, the Academic Senate has the authority to authorize and supervise courses and curricula. This responsibility is one of the cornerstones of shared governance, and is inextricably linked to fostering and promoting the academic freedom of both faculty and students. The responsibility for curricular oversight is carried out at Berkeley by the Division’s Committee on Courses of Instruction (COCI).

COCI’s review and approval process is predicated on the notion that “the faculty as a whole has the responsibility of ensuring that courses are conducted fairly and effectively, that University rubrics like credit units and breadth requirements are treated consistently, that requests for exceptions and variances are evaluated fairly, and so on.” At the same time, COCI acknowledges that “academic units represent professional bodies in their disciplines, and as such are uniquely suited to decide on the appropriateness of specific topics and approaches. Questions of appropriate depth and breadth, necessary prerequisite training and knowledge, and appropriate standards of evaluation all belong to these units.” These principles form the foundation of our course review and approval process.

The events of September 13, 2016, in which a student-facilitated, DeCal course, “Palestine: A Settler Colonial Analysis,” was suspended by the campus administration undermine the Senate’s authority over courses and curricula, and abrogates shared governance on our campus. The course proposal was reviewed and considered according to posted procedures, which include three levels of oversight. The student-facilitator adhered to University policy at all stages of the process. Concerns were never raised at any stage, and the course went into effect at the start of the fall 2016 semester uneventfully. The administration’s attempts to suspend the course reflect a disturbing lack of transparency and disregard for the fundamental principles that underlie the faculty’s curricular oversight.

Accordingly, the Divisional Council reasserts the Senate’s delegated authority, and calls on campus administration to respect and adhere to established procedures and processes for the review and approval of courses and curricula. We reject the notion of decanal authority to approve or suspend courses. That authority is vested in the faculty.

DIVCO is also deeply concerned about the negative effect these events have had on the student-facilitator of the course, and the chilling effect these actions may have on prospective student-facilitators. While we appreciate that the course has now been reinstated, this is not sufficient. One of our students has been publicly blamed for not following proper procedures. This is contrary to all that we stand for as educators, and represents a serious violation of the student’s academic freedom and of our values as an academic community. We therefore call on campus administration to publicly retract the false accusation that the student facilitator did not comply with policies and procedures that govern the normal academic review and apologize to the student-facilitator.

In closing, we note that COCI is undertaking a comprehensive review of this incident, and will report back to DIVCO in the near future.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Chris, yes, you have hit a bunch of nails on the head. From my perspective in STEM education, the "Charlie Foxtrot" is that the MOOC-like techniques that have survived hard-core empirical testing are not the ones that private companies are adopting, nor the ones that UC administrators support.

It is again that... life is an endless replay of high-school, where the popular kids figure out how to get power (like the MOOC-cool companies and the UC administrators who admire them), while the nerds who actually ask the hard questions end up out in the margins.

Chris Newfield said...

this is sadly true

Unknown said...

Overall a good account of what's going wrong world-wide in academia. It is sad that even Europe, its birthplace, is not immune. In place of an environment that fosters great intellectual achievement for which that system has always been known, we now see the rise of 'bibliometric indices'. In most European countries, one cannot be promoted unless one has a sufficiently high 'h-index'. Of course, this tends to lead to the emergence of 'citation networks' and other forms of petty corruption, a natural reaction, no doubt. In other words, it encourages people to 'game the system'. We have our own version of this sort of thing, of course. The reason why it has not completely overrun academia in this country (yet) is that ours is a large and relatively decentralized system, whereas in Europe even a professorship is subject to strongly centralized national control. Little wonder why top scholars are rated, quite literally, as B-grade professors, while the A-team consists largely of those who do safer, less innovative work. I do wish the article had stopped there.

Chris Newfield said...

Yes as you probably know the h-index was developed by a physics professor at UCSD, and there's no agreement among faculty about whether bibliometrics are an extension of peer review with clearer rules and more objective outputs or whether they are audit culture's managerialism run amok, plowing under all originality as they move relentlessly through the disciplines--or something in between. My only point here is that faculty members are tending to exit politics in the sense in which discourse constitutes both life in common and collaborative agency. And we'll never steer anything, especially not bibliometrics, if we don't change course.

Tom Abeles said...

Faculty, a long the way, exchanged their rights and time consuming responsibilities of self governance for a sinecure and opportunities for intellectual pursuit. It's hard to get one's "no" back, especially since times have changed.

Also, many faculty, not externally funded, are subject to revenues that come, in a large part from the undergraduate education programs. Here there is little acknowledgement that the nature of those who matriculate as post secondary graduates have changed, their needs have changed and those outside of the Tower who fund have also changed their expectations. And while there is a negative perception of the idea of student as "customer" within The Academia, the need for revenue prevents the notion that there are other paths for continuing education than the Ivory Tower and a select population interested in a hand-crafted, personalized experience at the feet of the faculty.

Many come to the institutions because they are a source of cultural and social capital, areas that content oriented faculty eschew in their academic pursuits. Much of this by the students parallels what faculty drive for in accepting bibiometrics having yielded alternative measures as part of their administrative compromise.

Additionally, the arrival of the Internet and now AI via deep learning changes the nature of how content can be accessed and used that, in many ways puts this knowledge in the intellectual commons even to the point where it is accessed by the academics themselves both in creation and use. This blog and wiki are excellent examples.

In the US, the expansion of the use of adjuncts, particularly at the post secondary level, but even in some post baccalaureate roles points out that the tenure-track faculty's lack of strong response may indeed highlight their willingness to accept their acquiescence which even now may indicate that tenure also is not a sinecure.

Chris Newfield said...

@Tom Abeles excellent mini-post. And you're quite right that universities not only lost primacy in distribution of complex information, where the public desire for this is being answered by projects like Vox, but are losing "deep learning." If that goes, especially at big public research universities where it was always limited, then we won't be much more than a lot of (mostly contingent) post-high school teachers attached to contract research operations. Sebastian Thrun's vision of radical consolidation in the higher ed indusry will have been right after all, even if for the wrong reasons. Most people inside and outside don't want that to happen, but it's a real possibility.

Anonymous said...

How do we distinguish serving the public from bowing to outside pressure groups?

If we're so proud of being a public institution, how do we pick and choose which parts of the public we can ignore, even delegitimize?

Chris Newfield said...

my formula is that we serve but never bow. I don't mean to be trite, but I think that's a good principle to use to make case by case decisions about partnerships that work in both directions and that assume the university's intellectual independence and honesty. Partnership decisions also have to be more collaborative than they are now inside the university, which will make them smarter. They also can't subsidize the outside partners anymore, which is the form of "bowing" I've been especially preoccupied with ending.

Dr Purva Pius said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Join the Conversation

Note: Firefox is occasionally incompatible with our comments section. We apologize for the inconvenience.