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Sunday, May 11, 2014

Sunday, May 11, 2014

University Week: Are Faculty Ready to Drive the Bus?

Since loud media doubts about the university's value have been the backdrop of my entire academic career, I wasn't shocked to look at the back page of my New York Times Sunday Review and see two headlines: "Professors are Prejudiced, Too," and "Rape and the College Brand." 

The findings of the first piece should have been obvious--but weren't-- through all the years of right-wing claims that universities and their affirmative action programs were biased against white people. The study found the opposite.
Professors were more responsive to white male students than to female, black, Hispanic, Indian or Chinese students in almost every discipline and across all types of universities.
And there's this:
We found the most severe bias in disciplines paying higher faculty salaries and at private universities.  In a perverse twist of academic fate, our own discipline of business showed the most bias, with 87 percent of white males receiving response compared with just 62 percent of all females and minorities combined.
Nothing perverse here:  members of wealthier and pro-corporate disciplines would logically show systematic bias in favor of their core constituency, which is also society's dominant group.  This has been endlessly pointed out by people who've followed the findings of the past seventy years of race and gender studies in the humanities and social sciences--and in recent official reports, like that on "Acts of Bias and Discrimination Involving Faculty" at UCLA.  But it's always nice to have confirmation from within a community of traditional prejudice-deniers.

The finding is worth repeating: Academics, the most educated people in society, turn out not to be gender- or color-blind after all. They discriminate in their everyday professional life, and don't need to be dog-whistled to do it.

The authors say they don't think faculty "intentionally discriminate," which actually makes the problem worse. It suggests that academia, particularly at its most influential end, is riddled with unconscious bias over which faculty members therefore have little control.

Why does this bias persist, sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education?  A major reason is that few of us white folk make a conscious effort to root it out.  I don't mean we fail to become color blind, because we can't be. We instantly notice color and gender as quickly as we notice, height, weight, approximate age, or accent. We also instantly impose our interpretative paradigms to generate familiar meanings from those phenotypes--class or community of origin, likely friend or possible foe, etc  But though we can't be color blind, we can change our interpretative frames. Why don't faculty work harder on making these frames visible and criticizable and changeable? Why don't we at least work harder than the wider society does, especially around a residual, biased expectation that white males will show higher academic quality?

Of course many of us do, but there are also entrenched reasons why most of us on university faculties do not.  One is that at least some faculty gravitate as much towards high social status as towards high academic achievement, so their their bias towards white males is statistically coherent.  A deeper reason is that many if not most of us on university faculties are talent aristocrats.  We aren't that interested applying race or gender egalitarianism in an inevitably color-conscious world because we aren't egalitarian about ability, reward, or opportunity in the first place.   We could reduce unconscious bias against women and students of color were we to believe broadly in a "democracy of intelligence." But we can't because we don't--we are as status conscious as any other segment of American society, and perhaps increasingly insecure about status rather than militantly opposed to ending status inequality's shredding of aggregate educational opportunity and achievement.  If we aren't opposed to those kinds of inequality of outcome, we can't uproot class, race, and gender status as their inputs.

The second article is about the national coverage of many universities' mishandling of sexual assault.  Ross Douthat, one of the Times's conservative columnists, describes the university as corrupt, by which he interestingly means replacing the educational mission with a corporate one.
Corruption is a strong word, but not, I think, unmerited. Over the last few generations, America’s most prominent universities — both public and private — have pursued a strategy of corporate expansion, furious status competition, and moral and pedagogical retreat. But the moral retreat has in certain ways been disguised: elite schools have abandoned any explicit role in policing the choices and shaping the character of their students, but they have masked that abdication in the nostrums of contemporary P.C. piety— promising diversity, tolerance, safe spaces, etc., with what can feel like a preacher’s sincerity and self-righteousness. 
This has allowed them, notionally, to be many things to many people: students are promised adult liberty and a community that will protect them if anything goes wrong; parents get a fuzzy rather than a corporate vibe from deans, R.A.’s and other authority figures; admissions departments get to pitch a fun, even bacchanalian lifestyle while faculty-lounge liberals get to feel as if they’re part of a worthy ideological project. 
This was going well until Mr. Douthat distracted himself by trotting in political correctness.  In fact, there is no contradiction between liberty and community. Universities synthesize these, which is one reason that conservatives have a hard time understanding what they do.  The synthesis does not mean "policing the choices," since the development process requires that students learn how to make their own choices--in part by freely making them.  It does mean "shaping the character," but dialogically not unilaterally, and again through practice, both in and out of class.  Universities are engaged in  human development, which is not an "ideological project" as such, though it does involve studying and bringing ideologies to consciousness, which we never manage to do completely, including human development through higher education as we now practice it. Neither faculty nor administrators can directly control the educational process, since it is also always student self-education.

Then Mr. Douthat gets back on track.
But the modern university’s primary loyalty is not really to liberalism or political correctness or any kind of ideological design: It’s to the school’s brand, status and bottom line. And when something goes badly wrong, or predators run loose — as tends to happen in a world where teens and early-twentysomethings are barely supervised and held to no standard higher than consent — the mask of kindness and community slips, and the face revealed beneath is often bloodless, corporate and intent on self-protection.
This is true--the pursuit of multiple revenue streams has cost the university its unique educational profile, and neither the public nor its students assume it will chose principle--or care of its own people and mission--over its image with outside funders and politicians, which it translates as potential revenues to come.

Mr. Douthat is right that the university has a problem with its social mission.  But then so does the faculty.  I went to a couple of meetings this week about stepping up faculty governance, one about the reform of the academic senate and another about faculty unionization.  Given recent UC experience, it's pretty clear that faculty unions would give faculty members more say over issues like health benefit cuts, pension changes, educational funding, and policy questions where, as Bob Samuels pointed out, "faculty don't even have a seat at the table."

That is a major problem.  But I'm making a different point here.  More faculty governance won't be better faculty governance unless we faculty decide we really want low-cost, high quality higher ed for an ever-growing percentage of the country's population.  Do we really want mass quality?  Do we really want research and teaching to be publicly funded because they are so deliberately democratic?  If we don't really want that public mission, and if we would rather focus on improving our own status in a hierarchical educational order, then we might as well stick with our current administrations.


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

You say 'Given recent UC experience, it's pretty clear that faculty unions would give faculty members more say over issues like health benefit cuts, pension changes, educational funding, and policy questions where, as Bob Samuels pointed out, "faculty don't even have a seat at the table." '

Permit me to be dubious. I've been a member of the Santa Cruz Faculty Association (the only union for tenure-track faculty on any UC campus, I believe) for decades, and it has not given us any more say over any of the issues than non-union campuses have. It has been a completely toothless union, permitted to bargain only over issues under campus control. Note that everything of consequence is under UCOP control. For years, some faculty referred to is facetiously as the Santa Cruz Parking Association, since that was the only thing they ever managed to make headway on (and I was generally opposed to the union position on parking fees, that I felt were too low for faculty relative to the actual costs of providing the parking).

I think that a system-wide union for the faculty might have a little more teeth, but I'm not expecting to see that happen in the next decade.

Chris Newfield said...

I don't think a union without bargaining rights is a good predictor of the behavior of a regular bargaining unit, but point well-taken. The post was less about how faculty would represent themselves than about whether faculty would take positions on educational policy that are different than the ones admin generally take for them. I started out meaning to write about incidents in which faculty have stood up for themselves--against "shared services" at MIchigan-Ann Arbor, or against admin-led educational programs, particularly involving online. But a comment on the IHE report about Rutgers made it unclear what actually happened (http://www.insidehighered.com/quicktakes/2014/05/09/rutgers-graduate-faculty-rejects-online-degree-compromise#sthash.xqVa4KRG.dpbs) . And I'm less interested these days in whether faculty can oppose a specific administrative intrusion than in whether we can go where admin cannot go in defining the purposes and describing the activities of public higher ed, e.g. explaining openly why it's good for states to have universities that conduct research (the answer cannot take the form of "creating the next Mark Zuckerberg"), or what specific educational improvements renewed public funding would be used for. Unionization wouldn't help with the conceptualization any more than Senates are at the moment. The post is saying that there's some basic (collaborative) intellectual work defining faculty-and-student-centered university work that needs doing.

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