Thursday, November 05, 2009

And If You Give Us A Full Book Of Green Stamps, You Can Teach Macroeconomics

These noble bloggers provided the second notification of the evening that Patricia Turner, vice provost for the University of California Office of Undergraduate Studies (and henchman Winder McConnell, the director of teaching resources for that floundering institution) have a great new idea: get people to teach for free. The first time I saw this news on Facebook I wouldn't have believed it, except that the source was impeccable. According to the online edition of The California Aggie, freshman seminar instructors all received a letter asking them whether they would be willing to forgo the small sum they are paid for this work, $1500-2000 that is normally deposited in their research accounts. "Though Turner could not predict how much money the salary reduction would save," staff writer Lauren Steussy reports, "she stated that approximately 25 instructors agreed to forgo or reduce their stipend."

Other people are outraged, but Turner is undeterred. "When we were brain storming about all of the ways of dealing, I wondered if there were more faculty who would [forgo the stipend] if they were just given the opportunity," Turner said. "People had just done it before. So [McConnell] and I sent a letter saying that in the past, some people have declined these stipends. This is decoupled from whether or not we accept their course." Other Facebook gossip reports that on some UC campuses there are workshops being organized by Human Resources folk to cheer people up about their "furlough days" (pay cuts) by explaining that the free time will allow them to make expansive life choices with this gift that they have been graciously granted by the State of California.

Next week, Turner might want to write a bunch of faculty to ask how they feel about signing up for life insurance policies that stipulate double indemnity in case their death results from being pushed out of a train caboose. Or she might want to find out how many faculty would be interested in taking more furlough time and using it to explore the possibility of becoming sex workers in brothels owned and operated by the provost's office. If you can get 25 instructors to agree not to be paid for their work, anything is possible I suppose. But there is a lot of this going around. On my own campus, we are being offered the opportunity to teach an extra course and/or teach an eight week summer session for adjunct wages to help Zenith close its own budget gap. Compared to the report above, this seems positively liberal, I suppose, as does the fact that our salaries have been indefinitely frozen rather than cut. But no one raises what seems obvious to this Radical: that this pedagogical equivalent to a bake sale would, in effect, be a charitable donation to our employer -- minus the tax write-off -- since full time ladder faculty are paid a great deal more to teach their other regularly scheduled classes.

But there is a larger question at stake about the budget cutting measures that are starting to surface around the country: education is, and always has been, the equivalent of a loss leader at the department store. It's something the United States has to be willing to not make a profit on -- in fact, to accept large losses on -- in order to create generations of young workers, artists, politicians and technicians who are the nation's capital. Our state and federal governments have nickel and dimed higher education for so long that what remains makes no structural sense anymore, and it's no wonder that people do stupid, offensive things to make the cuts demanded of them. Is having the liberal arts taught to freshmen by volunteers what passes for a plan to re-imagine universities to meet the challenges -- economic and educational -- of the twenty-first century? Is the idea that nothing has to change about our values except to ratchet up the practice institutions have long adopted towards adjunct faculty and begin working full-time faculty as hard as they can be worked for as little money as they can be paid? Will we wax enthusiastic about new forms of noblesse oblige, in which some faculty, such as UC's Subhash Risbud, a professor of chemical engineering and material science, who has so much research money available that he is happy to teach a seminar in "his passion" (read: hobby) "of classical Indian music" for free? Are we not concerned that there are actually scholars of Indian music who might be employed to teach this field? For all we know the other twenty-four faculty who gave up their stipends are as blessed as Professor Risbud, but is this also a sacrifice expected of, say, the Chaucer scholar who intended to use that small sum to finance a research trip to England and has no other way of obtaining that money?

What is more appalling is that none of the stories that are beginning to seep out of higher education suggest that any of the measures being taken are temporary, nor is there a broader discussion about what the conditions might be that would return university teaching and scholarship to some semblance of normalcy.


Leslie M-B said...

Oy. I work for the UC Davis Teaching Resources Center as a teaching consultant and programs coordinator, so you might imagine I have some thoughts about this issue.

First, please note: My comments here are mine alone, and are not intended to represent my employer's stance on any issues.

I didn't know about this letter, or the budget info mentioned in the article (that first-year seminars will be the last program cut from the unit), until I read the student newspaper this morning.

I have very mixed feelings about the vice provost's request. I don't work directly with this program, so my comments aren't as well-informed as I'd like them to be, but probably better-informed than those of people outside the unit. :)

On the one hand, the program does attract a lot of senior professors from the sciences who are excited about the opportunity to actually teach a small class that requires very high student participation--as opposed to lecture courses whose enrollment has ballooned to 900 students in at least one case (a subject for another blog post).

If the participating faculty really enjoy teaching in the program and aren't hurting for research funds, then I have no problem with them returning stipends to the program. It is a VERY lean budget year, and honestly, I'm scared the center won't be around much longer if we have further cuts--but I haven't seen the latest budget numbers, so unfortunately I can't speak with any certainty. I do know that unless we find grants to pay his salary, I'll be losing one incredibly talented and thoughtful colleague at the end of the academic year.

On the other hand, I suspect there are also lecturers and humanists (I'm one of them) who use the program as you describe--to have access to research funds they might otherwise not get, and it's not fair to apply any pressure on them, and sending out a blanket letter does, I think, pressure these faculty. For that reason, had I been asked about it, I would have advised they send the letter first to only full professors.

As it offers approximately 200 classes enrolling ~15 students each during the academic year, the program itself represents a very inexpensive way for the campus to lower its overall faculty : student ratio, so from a labor standpoint, any outrage might be better focused there.

I will say that it is an incredibly strong program, with very high quality classes taught by faculty who are passionate about teaching (too rare at any research university)--or who become passionate through the experience of engaging with first- and second-year undergraduates. The program holds faculty to rigorous pedagogical standards. For more information about it, see the first-year seminar faculty toolkit (PDF).

It's sad to see the teaching center connected with this controversy, as the Teaching Resources Center really is a fabulous resource and increasingly an intellectual hub on campus--and we run it on a shoestring budget. (We're small but mighty.) The office staff and graduate student researcher who coordinate and evaluate the first-year seminar program also do really terrific work, so it must be especially frustrating for them to see its administration depicted in an unflattering light.

shaz said...

I'm torn on this. I think there are several issues here:

1)If you don't think an engineer should teach music, that's one issue. But these frosh seminars are meant to have faculty interact with students more than anything. They meet 1 hour/week, have little reading, and often involve topics tangential to one's expertise. So it isn't a case of an engineer replacing a humanities person who might have otherwise been employed.

2) Is not paying for teaching/expertise wrong? Yes, but is it better to have students not get these seminars or other teaching services? I heartily object to the gutting of higher education -- and feel it every month in my reduced paycheck, which I'm at least privileged to get. But I find it tricky to know when to stand up and object v. try to serve students.

I'm reminded of a conference I attended years ago where participants were asked if they could forego their travel funds from the sponsor if they had other resources. Many were happy to, and a pile of graduate students consequently got funding to fly to the conference. Slightly different situation without the same power dynamics, but still, was that wrong?

Maybe there is something good about STEM-type folks effectively subsidizing payments for faculty in lesser-paid fields like the humanities and arts.

Maritza Nieves said...

Hi. I'm reader of your blog and I have a question (it is not directly related to this particular post).I am trying to apply for a 'Diversity Fellowship' for the first time. but am a little lost (it's a predoc dissertation fellowship). Is there any book, article or blog you could recommend that deals with the lexicon used in these kind of applications?

I will really appreciate this.

Best, Maritza

Historiann said...

The Davis strategy is interesting--Leslie M-B is right that the bigger outrage is the fact that these seminars are naked ploys to shrink the ridiculous student-faculty ratio there, not the fact that people are being asked to forgo their research stipends. (I agree with Leslie that it was tacky to send this out as a blanket request, and that the request should have been restricted to the happy, full-prof "hobbyists" out there.)

I wonder what can realistically be required or demanded of people who are teaching for free. On what grounds could either a student or the administration complain about a professor's job performance if it's a non-tax deductable donation to hir employer? The professor's response to such complaints or any demands would (rightfully) be to tell the complainer to suck it. This doesn't strike me as a great way to dignify or ennoble the work of teaching.

Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

Since the money isn't going directly into the paycheck of the prof, at least they aren't being taxed on it.. but, it seems to me that the folks who agree to do it for free probably have a reasonable research budget without this addition...

Doctor Pion said...

Wandered over here from Dean Dad's....

I'm far enough from California that I don't fully understand whether this proposal comes from the University of California system of the Cal State system, but it is a bit misleading to say their pay is being cut. According to the story, they were not being paid to teach those seminars in the past. The funds went into their research accounts, where they would not be taxable income unless used for summer salary rather than travel or other research expenses.

Similarly, the proposal at Zenith only violates your contract if you normally accept extra classes at a "faculty" rather than an "adjunct" rate or are normally promised a specific extra stipend if enrollment in a class exceeds some particular number. Our college has altered the latter (a few extra students before the extra pay kicks in) but not the former.

What I don't really understand is the concern about the student-faculty ratios at large research universities. I thought it was understood that freshmen and sophomore contact with professors was being traded for top tier research. You can't do both without costs going through the roof. If you could, the solution for many universities would be to just get rid of all adjunct faculty and grad TAs and increase the teaching load of full-time faculty to just half of the load taught by other parts of academia.

Anonymous said...

We have a similar program at the University of Iowa. Faculty are not compensated directly; in return for the overload a small amount of money is given to the dept. to spend as they like. One of my dept.'s uses the money to fund travel to conferences (practically all other sources have dried up). Admin thinking appears to be this: it helps student-faculty ratios, while it also improves student retention. Apparently many administrators are taking part. One of the problems with the program is, in my opinion as well as a friend who works in the registrar's office, asking people to do this more than once.

streamlining said...

Or we could save even more money by not paying for a "vice provost for the University of California Office of Undergraduate Studies" or a "director of teaching resources" for the entire university system. How much research and teaching do these folks do?