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Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Academic Freedom Among the Very Serious People

I'm tired of band-aids on university policy problems that never heal the underlying wounds, so I asked that we faculty do some new things in a piece that appeared in Inside Higher Ed last week.  Called "Time for a New Strategy," it argues that defenses of tenure and academic freedom will increasingly fail, as they did in Wisconsin this year, unless we call for the same protections for all employees.

The big advantage, I argue there, would be that we faculty would no longer base our claim to academic freedom on an exceptional status that most of the public doesn't accept. Another advantage would be that we would no longer have to rely on our university boards and executives to protect us, which is also not working well.  A third advantage would be that we could broaden our claims to public benefits beyond the competitive excellence that we generally mention first as tenure's product.

For a crib on all this, the Wisconsin-Madison School Education does a better job of excerpting it than I just did.  And I wrote a headnote to a link for the Universities in the Knowledge Economy (UNIKE) project of which I'm a part.  Do have a look at the piece if you have time. I was surprised that none of the IHE comments called it unrealistic, pretentious, impossible, overblown, or anti-excellence, so maybe I can drum up some of that kind of criticism a little closer to home . . .

Faculty Talking in Public: the case of Sara Goldrick-Rab

I know that direct public engagement won't always be easy or pleasant for faculty--but not for the reasons we may think.  Wisconsin provided another example this month with the backlash against the higher education sociologist Sara Goldrick-Rab's effort to contact incoming undergrads with information about the legislature's changes to the Madison campus where they were arriving.  In May, she saw some high school grads tweet pictures of themselves as happy #FutureBadgers, then contacted them with links to articles about budget cuts and the striking of tenure protections and shared governance from state law. "I hate to bring bad news but" began the first of these, with a link to a Wall Street Journal piece. As Angus Johnston's excellent overview at Student Activism explained,
Some of the students responded to her tweet, she responded to some of their responses — tweeting that she thought they should know about the recent events at UW because she assumed they would want “a degree of value” and she didn’t “want students 2 waste their $.” 
And that was it. The whole thing amounted to about a dozen tweets over the course of a little over an hour late one Sunday night, with pretty much nobody watching.
But one of the students contacted a member of the Madison campus College Republicans with the claim that Prof. Goldrick-Rab had harassed them, someone reviewed her abundant twitter feed and found a tweet comparing conservative Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to Hitler, which broke unwritten rule number 1 of the twitterverse ("never compare anyone to Hitler--not even Hitler"), and before you knew it there was a tell-all exposé in the College Fix that began like this:
Shocking new allegations emerged Wednesday against the University of Wisconsin-Madison professor who tweeted that Scott Walker and Adolf Hitler share “terrifying” similarities. 
The University of Wisconsin Madison College Republicans put out a press release alleging that sociology Professor Sara Goldrick-Rab also tweeted at incoming freshmen who support Scott Walker, antagonizing them about the Republican governor’s budget cuts to the University of Wisconsin system. 
“The College Republicans of UW-Madison call on the University of Wisconsin-Madison to address the harassment of these future Badgers on Twitter who were doing nothing but showing their excitement for attending this university,” the group’s chairman, Anthony Birch, stated on its Facebook page. “Professor Sara Goldrick-Rab: We find the way you have approached the dialogue around the intersection of politics and our university’s future disgusting and repulsive.”
Nothing surprising here: everyone is reading their assigned lines, the appointed roles are being played, and a good time is being had by all--except for Prof. Goldrick-Rab, who picked up some nasty tweets calling for her to be fired.   This is of course the kind of thing that prompts everyone to wield academic freedom like a police shield against the crowd calling for the democratic removal of an annoying professor.

So naturally the professor could count on her university to stick up for her right to send higher ed public policy information to the public, which includes incoming students, whom she'd found via public tweets.  Not.  After their meeting on July 20th, the Faculty Senate's executive body, the University Committee, released a statement (now removed from the agenda page) stating that Prof. Goldrick-Rab was a courageous defender of the shared governance that the Committee was charged to uphold and that had been so seriously weakened by recent legislation: “While claiming to stand for academic freedom, . . .[she] has in fact damaged that principle and our institution with inaccurate statements and misrepresentations.”

The committee members gave no examples and offered no evidence, but must have been censuring her claims that quality was damaged by budget cuts.   For they wrote, "we are deeply dismayed with the actions Professor Sara Goldrick-Rab has taken toward students and faculty on Twitter in recent weeks to discourage them from coming here."  The Committee, apparently lacking a member with expertise in academic freedom or higher education policy, seemed to assume that academic freedom should be limited by the needs of brand loyalty.  You can be a nationally-renowned expert on higher ed policy, as Prof. Goldrick-Rab is, but may not claim that the state's attacks on budgetary stability, tenure, and shared governance are hurting the quality of UW-Madison.

You might think I overstate, but when is the last time the UW-Madison University Committee issued a public admonishment of an individual faculty member?  Badger brand was clearly also on the students mind: "It's not a waste [of $] if you're going to Madison," a student replied to Prof. Goldrick-Rab.  (She answered back plaintively: "University is changing as we speak. Maybe look at info?")

The University Committee felt no apparent concern about Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank's claim  (as reported by Scott Jaschik) that the University had not been changed at all:
I feel compelled to respond to those who may question whether the University of Wisconsin-Madison is still a great place to learn and to teach. The answer is a resounding yes -- and I know that because I hear it daily from students, faculty members and staff as well as alumni, donors and friends. Any institution has its critics, and especially in social media, it’s important to remember that the loudest voice usually isn’t the most accurate. The Badger community is strong and continues to stand for excellence in education, in research and in community outreach.
As Joan Rivers would have said, "Can we talk?" Yes it's true--everybody's great.  The faculty are great, the staff are great, the students are great, the alumni are great--all just as great after the state budget was passed as they were before.  That's not the point.  The point is that the institutional infrastructure is less great, and the governance relations are less great, the job protections are less great, the resources that protect class size, professor interaction, individual feedback, and student learning are less great, and the institutional funding to support extramural grants are less great.   The point is that Wisconsin politicians made the UW System less great while denying their actions were doing that--and the Madison chancellor agrees that after budget cuts and tenure termination nothing is less great!  So does Ray Cross, UW System president, who in the aftermath actually thanked "legislators for their collaborative spirit and willingness to continue an important dialogue."  No harm done by cuts or deleted tenure! Ray heart WI leg!  There was no "dialogue" at all--or was there? And in the midst of this, the University Committee targets one of the small number of faculty voices that is independent of the legislative-administrative consensus that UW is as-great-with-less, and goes after her.

UC Faculty and the UC Budget

The practical consequence of this management by marketing is that it aborts public awareness of the need for public funding, tenure, and shared governance before it can be born.  This blog has often commented on the California version of the capitulation that undermines the university's public claim while demobilizing supporters (Mark Yudof was our great master).   It works in the fog of public relations that has replaced honest and open discussion within universities of real problems and of how to fix them.  Senior management's publicity culture forces candid assessments into a position of oppositionality (what Chancellor Blank calls "the loudest voice [that] usually isn't the most accurate").

Failed strategies persist through an imbalance of power that is partly organizational (administrators have decision rights and access to information that faculty, staff, and students do not).  Failed strategies also persist through a lack of accountability for disastrous results at the executive levels of academia, business, and government alike.  The consensus dogma that "the era of public funding is over" has guided university leadership for the better part of a generation, and it has conspired to suppress public funding. We have seen this for years in California, and it is happening now in Wisconsin. Same playbook. Same failure.  Same chin up carrying on irrespectively.

The UC Regents meeting last week offered another case in point. This spring and summer this blog offered a series of posts on what the state budget actually does to UC finances this coming year (Chris, Joe, Michael, Joe).  Were you to compare these analyses to the July Regents' Committee on Finance 2015-2016 budget document, you would find that this document paints an incomplete picture.  It omits the past history of Board of Regents budget requests, admits no downside, declares victory, and concludes as follows:
By adopting the provisions of the funding framework agreed to by the Governor and the University, the budget approved by the Legislature puts UC in a strong financial position that provides the University with predictable and stable support for the next four years and offers students and their families the certainty to confidently budget for the costs of a UC education. This outcome resulted from the spirited debate over appropriate funding levels for higher education in California sparked in large part by the plan adopted by the Board in November.  The University has come a long way since then, a result that should be welcome by all University stakeholders. (6)
Cue romantic music, like at the end of The Player.  The University has no funding problems, the funding gaps don't exist, the Committee of Two (President Napolitano and Governor Brown) was in fact a state-wide spirited debate, and everyone is in love and having babies who can all afford UC.  This is the official story presented to the Board that has formal fiduciary responsibility for the long-term health of the University.

Some of the missing pieces of the picture appeared in a statement from the co-chair of the Berkeley Faculty Association, English Professor Celeste Langan.  Among other things, she noted that the above document
misleadingly claims that the final budget “incorporates the funding framework developed by UC and the Governor.” If you’ll recall, the “framework” of the May Revise proposed that the state make a contribution of $436 million toward the unfunded liability of the UC Retirement Plan.  The final budget, however, promises only a “one-time payment” of $96 million; there is nothing in the budget that commits the state to two additional payments of $170 million.
Prof. Langan also noted that the legislature did not require the addition of a defined-contribution pension tier but that UCOP is advancing that idea anyway, for unknown reasons of its own.  She added a critique of strategy:  "The Council of UC Faculty Associations is opposed to the University making permanent changes in the structure of its retirement plan in exchange for a very modest one-time contribution from the State."

This presentation brought faculty "stakeholders" to the table and offered information that was missing or even misstated in the official documents.  And yet it was jammed into a 2-minute slot during the public comment period hours before the Committee on Finance meeting, and was cut off halfway through.  In this context, the faculty speaker who takes shared governance seriously, carefully analyzed the documents, and represents a faculty organization is rabble-ized by the governance format, the content is made oppositional, the consensus sails on without a scratch, and failures persist without being processed or having their tactics corrected.

The Function of Very Serious People

For years I've been noting the frustration and disappointment that many faculty and staff feel with the low standard of argument and debate in university affairs--with the secrecy, the withheld information, the exclusion of working faculty and professional staff, the closed circles of discussion, and the strategies that don't work but that are used again and again. It has reminded me of the impatience, disbelief, and occasional anger I started to see in Paul Krugman's columns around the time of the Iraq invasion in 2003, and that resurfaced with a renewed intensity in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis, where he watched already-refuted dogmas prevail regardless of their results.  Prof. Krugman started to refer to the people who could impose failed strategies again and again as Very Serious People whose status and influence made them immune from criticism, even when it came from the lofty pay grade of a Nobel prize winner like him.

Prof. Krugman is disturbed all over again by the application of failed austerity dogma to Greece, and recently linked to a Henry Farrell post at Crooked Timber that defines the VSP.
People whose beliefs are reinforced and widely circulated so that they are socially and politically influential, even when they are manifestly wrong, are Very Serious People. The system provides them with no incentives to admit error or perhaps to understand that they have erred, even when their mistakes have devastating consequences.
Prof. Farrell adds, "the problem with VSPs is not that they are biased (we all are) – it’s that the systems around them magnify that bias, reinforce it, and reflect it, creating the risk of vicious feedback loops of self-satisfied yet consequential ignorance (as in the Iraq war)."  He contrasts VSP syndrome with democracy, which has an epistemological advantage:
it harnesses mulishness and rancorous dispute, to reveal the information that is latent in the disagreements between our various perspectives on the world (which are inextricably intertwined with our value judgments). However, when certain people’s perspectives are privileged, the value of democracy is weakened. Their perspectives will continue to prevail, even when they are wrong. Weak arguments that they make will be treated as strong ones, while strong arguments made by their opponents will be treated as weak ones.
There's further interesting material there, but you see the connection.  Public universities also have a serious VSP problem. It  fuels our intellectual crisis of purpose and blocks good communication with the public.

We faculty have saved ourselves enormous time and effort by letting our own VSPs run the operation inside and out. But we can't afford this anymore.  We're going to have to practice open public argumentation instead, as I was trying to say in IHE.  What I mean is that we can't have academic freedom without organizational democracy.  Academic freedom's current decline is good proof of that.


Brian Riley said...

Chris, do you agree with what Noam Chomsky was saying a few years back (easily googled) about the US actually being a "polyarchy," instead of a democracy? If true, then it seems that many of our public higher ed problems are the result of that and that the issues run really deep.

Chris Newfield said...

yes, I think of it as "post-democracy," a term that circulates more about EU countries

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