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Friday, August 7, 2015

Friday, August 7, 2015

Can Faculty Deal with Policy Drift? A List of Options

At his blog mainly macro, the economist Simon Wren-Lewis comments on how the Labour party members who like Jeremy Corbyn (at left) for his anti-austerity policies have been misdescribed as radical: "Talk to some, and being anti-austerity has become synonymous with being well to the left. Of course in reality it is just textbook macroeconomics, . . . [and in]  2009 . . . the need for fiscal stimulus rather than deficit reduction was the position advocated by a centre/left Labour party in the UK, and the Democrats in the US. It cannot be surprising, therefore, that among a relatively well informed electorate that is the Labour party membership an anti-austerity position is still seen as a sensible policy."

The explanation for mislabeling "sensible" as radical, Prof. Wren-Lewis writes, is that while most of the Labour base stayed where it was, the Very Serious People in Labour have moved to the right, in the direction of austerity.

Something similar happened long ago in public universities in North America.  Senior managers and governing boards adopted a view that had previously been confined to conservative think tanks and political subcultures, which was that voters now saw a bachelor's degree as a private good, meaning that "the era of public funding was over."  This view became VSP common sense, and public funding has never recovered.  The two halves of that last sentence are related. There isn't a simple linear causal link between assuming austerity and receiving it, but the belief facilitates the practice.  VSP and voter preferences diverge, as Larry M. Bartels has shown, and austerity politics are more popular with the former.

For those late to the party, I'll retell a UC example.  In the spring of 2007, an aide to the Board of Regents chair gave me a friendly hallway lecture at a UC Board of Regents meeting on the end of public funding just after I'd spoken on the need to rebuild public funding. This was a year and a half before the 2008 crisis hit, so the austerity paradigm was not tied to economic conditions.  Austerity was also not tied to financial rationality: UC's budget was still in trouble from the 2002-05 cuts, as I had just been explaining on behalf of the Academic Senate, and it has not re-stabilized since.  But the austerity paradigm was tied to many kinds of regental convenience, starting with its use as an excuse for political passivity.  The aide was using the "end of public funding" to tell me why the Board would ignore the Senate's formal recommendation that they request a funding increment that would get UC back on its 2000-01 funding track.  

don't enjoy recalling this story, but I sometimes do because it was the moment I belatedly realized that our post-public, austerity-UC was the operating assumption within the University leadership itself.

We know what happened next. After 2008, this paradigm has made it easier for governors and legislatures to cut and not restore, since it established a "new normal" that defined down the limits of reasonable budget requests.  The results have been predictable.  A recent report concluded that "forty-seven states — all except Alaska, North Dakota, and Wyoming — are spending less per student in the 2014-15 school year than they did at the start of the recession."  

It's worth noting that the mechanism that entrenched austerity at public universities was similar to Prof. Wren-Lewis's description of Labour party shift. We had a widely accepted if rarely argued notion that universities mostly produce public benefits with a high non-market value (public knowledge through research, complex intellectual development through mass quality instruction, deep learning for good jobs). This implied the need for strong public funding and low private costs, meaning no or low tuition. This was the "sensible" position that was still out there as austerity was digging in.  But the end-of-public-funding folks did not stage debates where people could show up. There were no venues for defending the public good position and opposing the others, no time and energy to discover and fight what Foucault called the micropolitics that transform institutions and governance itself.  One day voters woke up to find that their common sense has become oppositional or even radical not because general opinions changed but because the leadership consensus drifted right.  

So the question then and now was, how should regular citizens and employees respond?  Permanent austerity's many tangible effects continue to unfold. Some are hard to measure, like reductions in grad and undergrad educational quality.   Some are easy to measure, like the reductions in the value of employee pension and health benefits that we've seen at UC and elsewhere. These effects are controlled by the VSP austerity paradigm against which all "saltwater" economists rail, to no avail.

Long ago, Albert O. Hirschman outlined canonical responses to situations like this.

1. Loyalty.  This means accepting the new normal as normal and getting on with things--writing the grants, grading the papers, reviewing the files etc. in familiar competent ways.  In the short term this keeps things going, so it works if the problem is temporary. If it's not a temporary problem, loyalty makes the problem worse by failing to search for a solution and sometimes obstructing or marginalizing those who do.

2. Exit.  Employees quit the organization or a specific unit. They can modify this to "neglect," in which they stay in place but minimize their contribution to an organization they no longer like or feel at home in.  Exit can provide lots of information about conditions at a university.  The examples that receive press coverage are usually departures of large STEM labs (from UCSD to Rice in 2011, from UCLA to USC in 2013, from UCSD to USC this year, in a case that has already been in court).  One of the PIs who went to Rice said that their group was fleeing the effects of the "support gap" between public and private universities around the country.  This resource gap is a critical problem that is already affecting the role of public research universities in the country's science ecosystem (I go into some detail here).  Someone whose work is endangered by such shortfalls will look to see whether senior managers are addressing the problem directly, and have any hope of solving it. If they don't see these things, they are more likely to leave.

3. Lawsuits.  Albert Hirschman didn't name this, but Jerry Brown has. It works for individual remedies but not so much for collective ones.

4. Voice.  This covers a whole range of efforts to fix the larger system, from departmental retreats to faculty blogging to committee and commission service to regents' meeting protests and much much more.   Within voice we can identify a few major styles.

One is politicization, as when people try to discredit school "reform" by tracing it to anti-union ideologies and to money provided by foundations or people who are anti-union; or UC Regents' austerity policies by tracing them to their largely plutocratic status.  Whatever one thinks of it, this mode is hard to use in the situation we're in now, which has been nicely described by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson as policy drift.

Policy drift has some basic features.  It is marked by a new normal that was not openly debated before it was announced as true or irreversible or both.  Second, the new normal is established by a series of small, technical, and/or disguised compromises that are driven by one party and supported by the opposition party.  In the case of tax and service cuts, the Democrats have served as the enabling opposition: they don't share the theory (public services hurt prosperity) but they co-author the practice (austerity).

Third, the post-facto debate that is triggered by the general discovery of a new normal like austerity, which most affected people don't actually want,  is confined or neutralized by the bipartisan consensus that produced it.  When Democratic regents are as convinced as Republicans that the era of public funding is over, discussion of a reversal will not get beyond the complaining stage.

Similarly, it's hard to have an open discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of UC privatization when the mere use of the term is opposed by senior university officials who are progressive Democrats.  Drift brings endless lamentation and "tough choices" that don't fix anything, but it can't be stopped by logic and evidence.

Another example is the tenure issue I've been writing about (Inside Higher Ed and Remaking): there was no popular shift in the land away from "just cause" employment--the core principle of tenure--and toward at-will firing. The shift took place among decision-makers in a wide range of sectors across the country for various economic and political reasons.  And yet the bipartisan forms of support for academic tenure make it harder to make the more general case for just-cause employment that would solidify public support. The default situation is that at-will firing will remain the norm, and academic tenure will stay an endangered exception.

Yet another example of policy drift: defined benefit (DB) pensions used to be seen as a sensible provision for low-cost retirement security.  Then decades of counter argumentation--brought to us by the financial services industry, market economists, and pension raiders--redefined DB pensions as an expensive luxury that employees didn't deserve.  Most people didn't change their minds about the enormous value of a safe retirement, or embrace philosophical critiques of DB pensions as the best means to that end. They succumbed to get-rich stories, various financial incentives, and a general sense of inevitability created by a long series of technical compromises.

The University of California still has a DB pension.  In the midst of the Great Recession, the Academic Senate and the UC Commission on the Future reaffirmed its efficiency for employees and its value to the University (in attracting and retaining top faculty and staff, and in encouraging a large, unquantifiable loyalty effort from them). But recently President Napolitano has been bargaining bits of it away--there will be a cap on accrual, and now she has defined as inevitable a non-DB tier for new employees.  The latter apparently came not from the state (which does want the salary cap) but from UCOP.  An indirect explanation appeared in a newspaper.
“This is where the pension world is moving, and for public institutions, it makes a lot of sense,” Napolitano told The Sacramento Bee editorial board in May. “It’s much more portable, so for many people that will be an attraction. There are lots of gives and takes in all of this.”
This is indeed "where the pension world is moving"--for the VSPs who control pension policy. It is not where the pension world is moving when that includes the people who pay into pensions.  People didn't change their mind about the value of DB pensions and demand a new portability even with a lower and less-secure benefit.  But some VSPs did.  The pension world that includes financial analysts now also worries about a Baby Boomer retirement crisis, and some of them are calling for a return to formula-based pension pools.   But the absence of an inclusive, evidence-based discussion before the decision is allowing UCOP to restructure UC employee retirement and health benefits slowly, boiling-frog style.  (I understand that UC unions are opposing the new DC tier, as are the Faculty Associations.  Where is the Academic Senate?)

My point here is that policy drift is great at keeping an opposition from forming. It is better at this than open ideological warfare.  The upshot is that academic "voice" strategies have to adapt themselves to policy drift. To wit, voice will need to:

(A) Show how a particular policy is the product of drift, meaning that it is neither necessary nor intellectually coherent nor inherently stable (its maintenance requires lots of effort and money).

(B) Show how the policy drift detracts from working life and overall well-being. People won't get involved in organizational redesign unless it will make a difference to their working lives.

(C) Accept the enormous amount of effort required to dislodge a "drift" consensus.   For example, the education economist Walter McMahon has confronted the private-good drift by writing a fantastically detailed four-hundred page book to show that private market benefits are a fraction (at most one-third) of the total, most of which is non-market and/or public benefit, such that the current market framework will cause society to underinvest in universities.  Of course the book wasn't enough to break the paradigm.  The media's reduction of a B.A.'s value to lifetime wage increments continues without a break, which means that many more people need to give Prof. McMahon a hand.

(D) Address the consensus on the basis of professional ethics and expertise. A familiar example is Paul Krugman: his column today says the Republicans "can't be serious," not because they are conservative but because they have stuck themselves with "crank economics, crank science, crank foreign policy."  Prof. Krugman writes as though politics must be intelligent and that it is his professional obligation to hold it to standards of argument and evidence. He's right.  Faculty and staff should do the same in relation to institutional policy. The founding principles are fundamental: the right to professional self-definition; the obligation to articulate the ethics of one's professional practice; the obligation to act on them.

 (E) Create a counter narrative, an alternative paradigm. In the absence of clear framing principles, continuously advanced, debated, and rearticulated by faculty and staff, the senior managers  of any organization will naturally respond to the demands of powerful actors inside and outside the institution.  Governor Brown, various party leaders, influential business people, the most senior faculty et al. always outweigh the assembled faculty and staff--unless there is a strong culture or guiding ethos as critical theorist Amanda Anderson uses the term.   The silence of the faculty means the politicization of the administration.  Only an articulated ethos can hold the parts together.

(F) Build what the artist Céline Condorelli calls a support structure for building these counter narratives.  Departments or Senates or unions could sponsor working groups focused on addressing specific problems created by drift.  A better idea would be free-standing centers not tied to existing units.  Professors Ann Bermingham and Catherine Cole hosted a "charette" that brought faculty, administrators, and senate leaders together for several days.  It was a strong start on a process that needs to happen regularly over time to build trust, common terms, have long drawn-out fights, and evolve new ideas into systems and practices.

Another example: the education anthropologist Susan Wright once got a large grant to fund a UK research center (the Centre for Sociology, Anthropology, and Politics) whose "approach [was] to try and create 'space' for staff and students, in the midst of fast-moving changes in Higher Education, to reflect on their own values, aspiration and practices, and determine their own agendas for developing their learning and teaching." The center re-granted to groups to set up discussion and decision processes. The goal--this is me projecting a bit--was to take the values, expectations, and practices of particular groups and articulate them into an ethos.   Such a project has to be bottom-up: the UC Commission on the Future didn't change the paradigm as it had hoped because it was top-down and therefore intellectually narrow.

I realize what a hassle this sounds like.  I too had always wanted a job where there wouldn't be too many meetings.  But the alternative to having open, long form debates and getting our everyday practices into full public view is what we have now: unending policy drift.

Read more here: http://www.sacbee.com/news/politics-government/capitol-alert/article25517704.html#storylink=cpy


Anonymous said...

I can't see how DC pensions are any less portable than one's DB. Napolitano when she says `It’s much more portable...' she should be asked to explain exactly how a DC is more portable. She must also explain how she/DC advocates make up the extra costs in DC pensions that arise from longevity risk and from the much higher fees charged for DC pensions by investment banks.

Chris Newfield said...

I think she just means that the UC - DC would be a 403(b) with a third party like TIAA-CREF, UC would contribute and the employee would contribute, and then you could take your TIAA-CREF account to your next university job. I still have a TIAA-CREF account from my first job at Rice U, which acts like a normal mutual fund. But your point about the costs in the mutual fund industry is very well taken-- they are often hard to identify and also high, and savers seem just now to be getting a handle on this problem, right around the time they retire.

Anonymous said...

"(I understand that UC unions are opposing the new DC tier, as are the Faculty Associations. Where is the Academic Senate?)" ..... I think this is a very valid question but further posit..."where is the Staff Assembly?" UC Professional Support Staff, the majority of whom make well below a six-figure salary (to make it clear I am not speaking about SMG-level executives,) are often the ones most negatively impacted by these types of policy drifts. Why are we not hearing anything from their supposed representatives on Staff Assembly and why do we never hear about faculty-staff partnerships being mobilized to counter these type of top-down moves? While faculty were undoubtedly more highly effected by the previous (and potentially on-going) UC-Care debacle, especially at UC Santa Barbara, many staff were equally impacted. It would be nice to see these two groups (Academic Senate & Staff Assembly) form partnerships and practice coalition building when there are top-down policies threatening each of their constituencies.

Chris Newfield said...

very well put. I completely agree on the need for contact and faculty-staff partnerships on policy issues. I can't think of a single Staff Assemly position off the top of my head and would love to be referred to some.

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