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Monday, October 26, 2015

Monday, October 26, 2015
The Chronicle Review gave the title "Professorial Anger, Then and Now" to my essay on Thorstein Veblen's The Higher Learning in America, which has now been republished by Johns Hopkins University Press with a helpful historical introduction by Richard F. Teichgraeber III.  The piece is behind a paywall, so I'll say a few things out here.

Most things about academia angered Veblen on some level, like this very title about professorial anger which would have told him he was being relegated by Know Nothings to the status of entitled jerk.  It's true that what Veblen did was frosty, relentless, sarcastic critique, not blood and fire.

My piece outlines Veblen's four main arguments about why "the conduct of universities by business men" actually wrecked higher learning.  His point wasn't only that business folk engaged universities in competition for student market share that squandered resources, or that they twisted academic governance into oligarchy, though he did go into detail on these two.  He made additional points.  One was that business consciousness could not because of the game it played ever grasp or support academic research, like never.   He wasn't saying business people were dumb or evil. To the contrary, they were smart and cunning at a market game that Veblen insisted obeyed an essentially different logic than did unrestricted thought. To quote myself:
The business outlook was equally suspicious of originality. Chasing one another to provide the latest research in vogue, university administrators didn’t ask whether they had something original or special to offer. Their search for revenue led them to imitation, duplication, and the expensive enlargement of what Thomas Kuhn would later dub "normal science." They saw it, in Veblen’s analysis, as "‘bad business’ to offer a better grade of goods than the market demanded, particularly to customers who do not know the difference" — like the families of American undergraduates, who would believe almost anything in the hope of giving their children an edge. Veblen’s warning was that business opposition to scholarly standards of quality was not accidental or occasional, but intrinsic to business thought as such. Even administrators who started out as faculty members ceased thinking like professors and conformed to business logic.
In the essay I cover other dimensions of business thinking that Veblen saw as natural disqualifications.

I was equally interested in Veblen's detailed explanations of what academic reason actually is.  He worked quite hard to conjure forth the fragility and ephemeral nature of thought as it feels its way forward in the darkness. New ideas and surprising answers don't resemble research proposals or business plans for they emerge like movements in a dream.  He had quite a bit to say about the need to protect and serve thinking that was sufficiently unmanaged to produce real discovery and understanding in an economy that was trying to absorb everything into itself.

Prof. Teichgraeber writes about three decades of the "professor's literature of protest" that informed Veblen's critiques.  There was a professor's movement!  It had a result!--the founding of the American Association of University Professors almost exactly a hundred years ago.  The philosopher John Dewey presided. The AAUP's major issues--faculty freely communicating with governing boards, sharing influence over administrative hiring, controlling faculty hiring and grievance, and co-governing finances--are still up for grabs today.  During the post-World War II growth boom, universities enjoyed a kind of détente between faculty and administration, since most conflicts could be solved with program expansion and taking turns until all the players had a similar number of cards.  The allocation machine stopped working right: tenure track lines were converted to contingent jobs, which are now 2/3 of the higher-ed teaching workforce. A majority temporary faculty would have been incomprehensible to Veblen--if sadly typical of business's idea of a good efficiency.  This contingent-majority is now experiencing the intensification of senior management intervention into funding, governance, and education itself (Virginia, California, Oregon, Illinois, Louisiana, Wisconsin, North Carolina   . .). The post-war détente has come to an end.

Ironically this means that Veblen has more to say than ever.  End runs or overturning of faculty governace is being justified by Veblen's Nightmare--the apparently entrenched belief that business expresses universal reason that by rights presides over all human processes, including the making of knowledge itself.

To Veblen's Nightmare we can  add  Veblen's Vision, in which the scholars-scientists, recognizing that real research must be self-legitimating, finally write their own funding rules for the higher learning, and implement them.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Wednesday, October 21, 2015
As you may have noticed, recently university governing boards have been appointing Presidents and Chancellors under conditions of increasing secrecy and without wide consultation with faculty.  The University of Iowa is a recent case as is the University of North Carolina.  The following is a state from the University of North Carolina Faculty Assembly about the UNC Board of Governors' tendency to refuse to engage in shared governance.--Michael

The Leadership and Policy Statement of the University of North Carolina notes that the institution “operates under an arrangement of shared governance” that “honors the important traditional role of the faculty in the governance of the academy.” (http://www.northcarolina.edu/content/leadership-and-policy )

Regrettably, for the better part of a half decade, the UNC Board of Governors has repeatedly failed to follow its own stated principles of good governance. 

The UNC Faculty Assembly has faithfully advised the Board on best practices regarding admissions, tuition, financial aid, leadership appointment processes, curricular design, research and freedom of inquiry, and processes of peer review, yet the Board has repeatedly refused to acknowledge – let alone discuss – points of counsel they have been offered. Instead, they have frequently promulgated ill-advised policies and practices that have proven detrimental to the best interests of public higher education in this state.

The recent mismanagement of the Executive office of the University, from the firing of Thomas Ross, to the hiring of the new President, is but the most egregious in a long train of problematic governance actions.

The failure of the Board to seek the advice and counsel of the staff and faculty is both shortsighted and troubling. No student attends our campuses to be taught, no funding agency or organization provides grants of research support, and no business, governmental entity, or civic organization has come to our institutions seeking public service expertise, because of the teaching, research and service achievements of the Board of Governors or the President of the University. Yet the Board continues to act without the advice and counsel of the constituencies whose expertise they need to effectively govern the institution.

Over the years, the most effective and respected leaders of the University system and its respective campuses have argued that their success is contingent on the support of staff and faculty. We now appear to have entered an era when it is not support, but an ill-informed indifference, that defines how governing authorities in the University think of their relationship to those who carry out the core mission of public higher education. No institution of higher learning has ever achieved excellence and distinction without an active, engaged, and committed community of staff and faculty. It is then incumbent on the Board of Governors to now begin – as it always should have been -- cultivating effective shared governance if the University is to continue on the path of excellence and achievement.

The faculty will not prejudge the commitment of new President to the well-being of the University. But he or she must understand that the secretive character of this search, and his or her own indifference to consulting with staff and faculty when s/he was an active candidate for the position, will make it difficult to win the confidence and trust of the University community.

As this leadership transition unfolds, foremost among those confidence building principles must be a steadfast and unyielding dedication to seeking the best advice and counsel possible, and a readiness to stand against the debasement of institutional governance that has brought the future of the University into doubt.

22 October 2015

For the UNC system Faculty Assembly
Stephen T. Leonard, UNC-Chapel Hill, Chair
Gabriel Lugo, UNC-Wilmington, Chair-Elect


Story comes to the surface about University of North Carolina's plan to hold emergency meeting to talk with president finalist Margaret Spellings (10/15).  This meeting is scheduled for Friday, 10/16, seemingly in an effort to bypass a bill not yet signed, which "requires the search committee to bring forward three candidates to the full board for discussion."

Amidst a call for John Fennebresque’s resignation (10/16) we see positive and negative discussion regarding What a Margaret Spellings Presidency Might Mean for North Carolina (10/16), with critiques on her political involvement (10/20) and her past actions combating LGBT equality (10/21).

Faculty continue to criticize UNC president search process (10/21), noting that '"The failure of the Board to seek the advice and counsel of the staff and faculty is both shortsighted and troubling.'  Concern over this lack of shared governance is widespread (10/22), as is the realization that Spellings is surely in (10/22).

Compiled by Alysse Rathburn

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Sunday, October 18, 2015
Chris here: Because U.S. academia is so decentralized and stratified, few new regimes have a national scope and can be hard to see coming.  The opposite is the case in the U.K., where the influence of Westminster can be felt at the same time on campuses across all four constituent countries, with the partial exception of Scotland.  External assessment increasingly defines and drives peer review in British universities.  In the hope of getting more U.S. academics thinking about the effects of external assessment. we're cross posting this piece from the UK's Sociological Review.  It offers a primer on the Research Excellence Framework and argues that it has had a negative impact on the depth and ambition of research in sociology--and by analogy, in other fields.

by Les Back, Professor of Sociology, Goldsmiths College London.

Twenty years ago public sociology was something you did in your spare time. Even writing for newspapers or magazines was thought of as an extra-curricula and extra mural pursuit. That all changed as a result of the debate stimulated by Michael Burawoy’s influential Presidential address to the American Sociological Association address in 2004 that called for a public sociology. Burawoy’s spirited appeal to revive sociology’s public mission licensed a wide range of productive arguments and unruly activities. I have always held the view that intellectual life is nothing if it is not addressed to a wider public.

More recently, and significantly in the UK, the emergence of the ‘impact agenda’ in British universities has forced academic researchers to evidence our influence on society and ultimately to justify our worth. In austere times universities are required to show that they are worth their salt. Indeed, this was legislated by the Treasury as part of the spending review in order to secure continued investment in university research. It is embarrassing to remember that some of us - at least initially - thought that ‘impact’ promised the possibility of institutional recognition for public sociology. Might the emphasis on relevance and engagement create a ‘public agora’ for sociological ideas of the kind described by Helga Nowotny and her colleagues?

Another President, this time of the British Sociological Association, had a very different view. John Holmwood warned in 2011 that it was “naïve” to think that the turn to impact would lead to an enhanced public sociology. Rather, he suggested in contrast that UK research would likely be “diverted into a pathway to mediocrity."  Surely not, I felt when I first read this piece: John, you are being overly pessimistic! How right he has been proved to be.

Academic research in the UK is evaluated and scored by periodic reviews of the research of every sociology department. This has taken different forms and the latest version is called the Research Excellence Framework. Sociologists are required to nominate four publication for review by a panel of senior academics within each field. Impact was institutionalized in the recent REF2014.  20% of the scores were measured through ‘impact case studies.’

The impact case studies were required to narrate and evidence the detail of the impact that the underpinning research had on society and they either focused on individual staff members or clusters of academics. These impact case studies were scored by ‘practitioners’ working in applied areas that were added to the overall judgment of the REF panel. In case readers need to be reminded, HEFCE defined public value of impact along the following lines:
Impact includes, but is not limited to, an effect on, change or benefit to:
• the activity, attitude, awareness, behaviour, capacity, opportunity, performance, policy, practice, process or understanding
• of an audience, beneficiary, community, constituency, organisation or individuals
• in any geographic location whether locally, regionally, nationally or internationally. 

Also, the number of impact case studies required for each unit of assessment varied according to the number of staff submitted for the assessment. Small submissions of up to 15 members of staff required just two case studies, while large submission of over 35 members of staff required five cases studies.

It seems clear that impact is here to stay. At present it is likely to increase to 25% of the grade for each unit of assessment in the next REF2020. A whole infrastructure is emerging to assess the assessment, where consultants act as ‘Impact Tsars’ and offer advice and software designers are developing digital tools to trace and matriculate the public imprint of our research endeavors.

The shame of the Research Excellence Framework is it secrecy: all the data on the process of the decision-making was destroyed. There is no mechanism for appealing or questioning these judgments. While the list of panel members is public, the specific reviewers are anonymous and therefore individual department's sociologists do not know who is judging them and whether or not they are qualified (see Derek Sayer's analysis). The level of feedback is insubstantial, while the results have profound consequences for each unit of assessment in terms of their income and academic reputation.

In large part the "impact agenda" has licensed an arrogant, self-crediting, boastful and narrow disciplinary version of sociology in public. This is impact through "big research stars" that are scripted – probably by the editors of the impact case studies rather than themselves – as impact "super heroes" advising cabinet ministers and giving evidence to parliamentary select committees. This version of public intervention is by definition narrowly concerned with evidencing its own claims. It is aligned with providing a kind of reformist “empirical intelligence” that nudges at the edges of policy and political influence. Reviewing the 96 REF2014 impact case for sociology, 80% of them can be categorised in this way.

That isn’t the whole story and 20% of those impact case studies entered showed radical ambition. What was inspiring in the best of the impact case studies is how they also point towards a different kind of model of public engagement by challenging campus sexism though collaboration with Students Unions or creating archives of political activism. In the most appealing and compelling cases, clusters of scholars worked together to try and shift the public agenda through evidence and critical enquiry that challenged conventional thinking be it around race and segregation or casual forms of class stigma and hatred. These examples offer an alternative way to think about how to hold to a public commitment within the current climate.

In 1967 Howard S Becker wrote an influential essay called ‘Whose Side Are We On?”. This essay is often understood simplistically as a sociological call to simply to align with the underdog. It is important to note that Becker’s argument is critical of sentimentality that also can be blinding while posing in colours of radicalism. Rather, Becker says it is not possible for a sociologists to stand outside the issue of value and values: “the question is not whether we should take sides, since we inevitably will, but rather whose side we are on."

For all of our radical affections and promises, a close look at the public portrayals of sociology in REF2014 show the ‘impact agenda’ to be tinkering with minor reforms. In the final analysis, this agenda puts us on the side of the political elite, Ministers of State, Job Centre Managers, Immigration Officers and the apparatchiks of prevailing government policy. Bluntly, it puts us on the side of the powerful.

Is that version of sociology worth its salt? Is this a compromise too far for the discipline? Some will say, “well this is ‘just a neo-liberal game” and this “isn’t all of sociology.” They are right. Not every sociologist in Britain has to write an impact case study--yet. They might also console themselves with the idea that this is just a language game: we need to play and not take it too seriously. I would suggest that these patterns amount to more than that. The ‘impact agenda’ is coming to constitute our self-understanding, guide our decisions around job appointments, and I would go further to suggest it limits the public ambition of our discourse. Remember that next time someone says: “I think that might make a really good impact case study.” This preoccupation is acting as a filter for our sociological attention.

It is a reminder to those of us who feel that sociology has or had radical potential that ‘the public’ is not necessarily populated by incipient transformative forces and potentials. Burawoy’s conception was limited by leftist assumptions regarding the radical potential of civil society. What we are seeing is something much closer to Antonio Gramsci’s characterization of ‘organic intellectuals’ who are tied to the interests of institutions and a narrow set of functions that are “organisational and connective”. Edward Said, commenting on Gramsci’s prescience, wrote that, as a result, “organic intellectuals are always on the move, on the make”. This is reminiscent of today’s “impact agenda” and the opportunistic way we have been steered to think about sociology in public, where the bottom line becomes “can I make this into a impact case study?” We are required – by our institutional commitments and responsibilities – to be on the move and on the make.

Today sociology’s radical ambition is being dwarfed by a conservative and timid version of the discipline. This is what we are seeing in the Research Excellence Framework, which itself produces an academic performance of self that is in keeping with its own definition of public value. There are other ways to think of public sociology that return us to Buroway’s intervention of more than a decade ago. His vision of sociology in public might be usefully supplemented with the educational ethos that is steeped in the tradition of extra-mural studies led by Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall and out of which cultural studies emerged.  This was a communal vision of higher learning or what the Worker’s Education Association called a collective highway.

A sociology with and for the public, is, I would argue, one that is humble, collective, dialogic, inventive, artful and trans-disciplinary.  Here sociological ideas can offer a navigation device or a compass and a way of attending to what is before us but also to determine our direction of travel. That would be a future sociology worth its salt.  But it is not one supported by the REF assessment system.