Wednesday, March 30, 2011

What's Cookin' In Higher Ed? The Race To Become The Stupidest State In The Union

Do I smell a conservative advocacy group in Florida too?
A young friend of ours recently visited a public college which we at Tenured Radical have admired for years.  S/he reported conversations with undergraduates about the effects of the persistent defunding of higher ed in that state, and the ways in which defunding has diminished a quality liberal arts education that people with very little money still have access to.  A prominent problem, in the view of students there, was incessant faculty turnover due to low salaries, poorly maintained library collections and the erosion of benefits. In turn, the constant loss of faculty  made it difficult to establish mentoring relationships, get recommendations for graduate school, or do senior honors work with faculty who had helped them develop the research and had planned to advise it.

The notion that college teachers are as interchangeable as hamburger flippers at Wendy's follows, of course, on the neoliberal notion that secondary school teachers are also interchangeable.  Furthermore, on no evidence, free marketeers have sold the notion that college professors will continue to work cheerfully, and to a high standard, for as little salary and as few benefits as colleges and universities choose to pay us. The only teachers you really want at your school, the logic goes, have the personalities of 18th century Franciscan missionaries in the New World, willing to sign on to thankless, ill-paid labor purely out of love for those to whom they will minister. Although this theory goes unspoken in an increasingly adjunctified world of private higher education, attacks on educational employees in New Jersey, California and Wisconsin seem to be giving new energy to strategies for disempowering and intimidating teachers at all levels.  This is particularly heartbreaking in states that seem to want to break with a long history of providing quality, public higher education to ambitious students with little money.

One problem with free market theories for reorganizing education is that they lead to a free market in educators.  This, in turn tends not to be conducive to what administrators need to deliver a quality education to students:  faculties who commit to a particular school, and create a culture of excellence, over the long term.  Policy makers who believe that free market competition creates better education for the most people have, frankly, never been in a classroom beyond their three-year hitch at Teach for America. While I don't know anyone in teaching who wouldn't consider voluntarily sacrificing money and prestige to make and keep a desired life as a college professor, I also don't know a single college professor who, on balance, believes that year to year contracts, no job security, diminishing benefits and the lowest possible pay are the basis for building a career in education.

Tell that to the Florida legislature.  Florida, of course, has been a leader in defunding education, (recently ranking 36th nationally in per pupil spending, ahead of luminaries like Mississippi) and in pioneering a terrific policy that gives troubled  schools in poor districts even less money to work with (repackaged by the Obama administration as "Race to the Top.")  Now it appears that Florida Republicans now want to do for higher ed what they have accomplished at the secondary level.  Word out of Florida today is that a bill that would prohibit the granting of tenure at state and community colleges went through a legislative committee yesterday and is headed to the state senate.  Faculty would work on annual contracts but administrators would not; only new and untenured faculty would be affected by the law.  As Denise -Marie Balona of the Orlando Sentinel reports,

Opponents argue it would prevent colleges — already strapped by budget cuts and increasing enrollments — from attracting and retaining top-quality employees.

But state Rep. Erik Fresen, who presented the bill at Tuesday's committee meeting, said the legislation is designed to help college administrators.

If administrators had more flexibility with their personnel, Fresen said, they would be able to expand and cut programs to meet student demand, which can sometimes change quickly.

"Oftentimes, the colleges cannot respond in time because of these 'handcuff' situations," said Fresen, a Miami Republican who chairs the House's K-20 Competitiveness Subcommittee that voted 8-4 to approve the bill.

The bill also requires colleges, when facing layoffs, to let go of their poorest-performing employees first instead of basing decisions on seniority.

At least one community college president has already come out in opposition to the bill and, as Balona reports, Florida Gulf Coast University experimented with one year contracts but "had such trouble holding onto faculty" that it now offers multi-year contracts. But he greatest impact will be on community colleges and the students who attend them. According to, 66% of young people in Florida who continue their education beyond high school do so in-state.  Two-thirds of them, even those who plan to take the B.A., will matriculate at community colleges following high school graduation.

So it is no accident that community college presidents, who are protected under the proposed legislation, understand what a disaster this policy is.  It worth emphasizing that the right has produced a new strategy that is remarkably consistent:  going after "workers" in the name of "citizens" and "taxpayers" -- as if they were not all the same people.  In Wisconsin, Michigan, and Florida right wing special interests and their political stalking horses have provoked college professors -- who are already educated, can leave the state and will -- with the hopes of caricaturing them as a bunch of overpaid, lazy babies who are sucking at the public t!t while students languish.  But the people who will suffer, as the little story I opened with argues, are students. Students will have a longer time to graduation, they will have access to less qualified faculty who can't get better jobs, and most of their professors will be stopping off on their way to somewhere else.  This, I am sure, will get lost in the debate as free marekteers replicate the success they have had in transforning the real estate market, higher finance and Iraq in the last decade.

In the coming weeks, we at Tenured Radical will have more to say about disinvestment in higher education in many kinds of schools, as well as its consequences for students as well as faculty.  The management actively solicits guest posts on these issues. Although we have consistently bucked for the reform of the tenure system, the elimination of tenure in a climate in which any protection for public employees, is under attack and any security for the creation and maintenance of stable, dedicated faculties that can guide students through a two or four year degree, is truly unthinkable. We withdraw that position, pending a change in the political atmosphere.


Contingent Cassandra said...

As a full-time, non-tenure track faculty member, I go back and forth on how badly I want tenure (and whether I might be better off in a system where nobody had tenure, rather than one where I'm part of a substantial but relatively powerless and apparently permanent underclass). On a day to day basis, I'm more interested in earning a salary equal to those of my tenure track colleagues with similar education and experience (rather than c. 2/3 of an entry-level TT professor's salary after 10 years at my present institution, and 9 years with the PhD), and in having at least the opportunity to have service (and hence a real voice in governance) and perhaps even research (and so a chance to keep up my skills and keep myself marketable should my present multi-year contract not be renewed) included in my official job description. But I also suspect that faculty committees would have a much less effective voice if at least some of the members didn't have tenure (while the ability to engage in protected speech about events outside the academy is, of course, one of the important effects of tenure, the ability to tell Deans, Provosts and Presidents things they don't want to hear -- such as the fact that education is a labor-intensive, messy process that can only be made so efficient -- is at least equally important to the health of universities, and, I believe, of the nation). And I very strongly suspect that, if my university were required to pay contingent faculty at the same rate it pays TT faculty, let alone give us course releases for service and research, many of the arguments about "flexibility," and other justifications for having long-term, non-TT, faculty would evaporate. The bottom line really is the bottom line: we're cheap, and the university wants to keep us so.

Lou said...

@Contingent C - I am recently tenured, but I suspect that my salary is as compressed as yours. I make less than 2/3 of what an entry-level TT would make today. (Sometimes I think I should quit and reapply for my job - but quasi-permanent hiring freezes have made that a moot point.)

Tenure does not always translate into better salary; in fact if one has stayed in the same (large state) university for the entirety of one's career, it can mean the opposite.

My geographic area has become so unaffordable at my current salary, that I too am at the point where I think I might sacrifice tenure in favour of a better salary.

Tenured Radical said...

I understand what you are both saying, although your views are framed by the already degraded work conditions I have described. And yet imagine the effects on a faculty when no one actually knows whether they will be employed from year to year; of managing the workload we do and preparing to be reviewed annually; of ebing dismissed because some Tea Party yahoo reads an op-ed you have written and wants to move up the party ranks. Schools. Are. Different. From Corporations. And corporations actually aren't served very well by rapid turnover either: hence the fat cats who went in and argued for paying out bonuses with federal bailout money lest their own workforce become volatile (and guess what? We bought it! But not when teachers say the same thing.)

And here's what everyone needs to focus on: the heart of a labor movement is not the preference of the individual worker, but a view of how the workplace ought to be organized regardless of how it actually is organized and whether some people would benefit from a restructured system that throws everyone else under the bus.

Such a system might include multi-year contracts conferred following review, with union membership guaranteeing that the interests of the worker would be preserved. But we *cannot* sit by and watch union organizing being made illegal (and btw? Could some national organization take this to effin' court?) and say that we are willing to give up tenure too because the same forces have narrowed access to tenure.

T said...

I think tenured faculty, who by and large have abdicated this responsibility heretofore, need to be leading the charge on making the case that they (I'm still in ABD land, on the market in the fall) are engaging in socially necessary labor.

TR, I think what you've done in this post is start to sketch out some of the reasons why *real* faculty (traditionally tenured or otherwise) serve an important function in our society, but I think this needs to be done systematically and publicly.

Our unions (where we are unionized) are on the defensive, attempting to fight against cuts and fighting against the limitation of the right to fight, but somewhere there needs to be more leadership on the offensive.

Rarely have we articulated to the public what it is that we do, and perhaps even more rarely have we explained why it is important in an intelligible and non-pedantic way.

I don't really know what this development of an articulated defense of the faculty member or the dissemination of this vision looks like, but unless we get in the game, we're definitely not going to win.

Anonymous said...

In addition to the community college tenure bill, there's another bill in Florida which hasn't yet moved forward much yet but is equally troubling. This bill would automatically decertify faculty unions (as well as several other government unions) if less than 50% of eligible members are actually members. Granted, University administrations in Florida are excellent at ignoring the demands of faculty unions (based on my observations as a graduate student at one FL university), but this proposal would obviously render unions even less effective.

I'm not sure whether this proposal would be legal, given that Florida is a "right to work" state. But it's certainly representative of the current political climate in the state.

I'm nearing the end of my doctoral research at a Florida university, and I have to say that the current educational climate here will be sending me elsewhere to look for employment. The current state government really does seems to be engaged in a race to the educational bottom, while they try to figure out how to eliminate all taxes on business and funnel money to the current governor's chain of clinics.

Tenured Radical said...

T: the only place I would disagree with you is that these arguments are made consistently by the AAUP, they are made loudly, and they are made in a variety of forums.

What all faculty need to do is join the AAUP, organize, and be part of this process.

Anonymous said...

Texas has taken the lead in this race most visibly with the neoconservative garbage being served to public school students in their version of American History textbooks. I doubt that college texts are any better. It is obvious that the effort to produce graduates who are completely out of touch with reality and just go with the flow are paying off to the advantage of Wall Street. As one business school grad put it he was taught that labor is just an expendable capital resource.

Anonymous said...

Without the security of tenure, there will be no one to stand up to the administration when they work to make an institution into a diploma-mill. That's already happening in schools with tenured faculty. At one regional school they let everyone in (which is fine) but then get upset with 50% or more of them fail to complete the normal freshman year. If you let in large numbers of ill-prepared and/or unmotivated students you should expect them to flunk out if any reasonable quality standards are maintained---so quality has to go!

Unknown said...

These issues are why I didn't become a teacher when younger. I have a sister-in- law and a niece who are teachers and I applaud them. I actually took an easier path and became an RN!!

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Looking forward to the rest of this series, TR -- I would identify as someone teaching (and tenured) in an affected area, but then, who isn't these days?

anthony grafton said...

Keep 'em coming, please, TR. This is vital work. I agree that the AAUP does a vital job. By the nature of the organization, though, it can't articulate what research and teaching are all about, and why the people who do it shouldn't be treated as widgets, as eloquently and effectively as individual faculty can--if they'll stand up and do it, as you do.

motusmotus said...

It seems this is part of a repugnican plan to stop all public and state schools to be replaced by private schools on all levels. I bet the Private schools that the right wingers love so much are not really run so shoddily.

Contingent Cassandra said...

"And yet imagine the effects on a faculty when no one actually knows whether they will be employed from year to year; of managing the workload we do and preparing to be reviewed annually." The thing is, I don't have to imagine this; these are the conditions under which I, and my non-TT colleagues, have been working for my whole teaching career (which now spans about 17 years post-TA, 7 of those years as an adjunct at a wide variety of institutions). Having a multi-year contract helps a bit, but not a great deal; I'm always aware of how the ratings I get on annual salary reviews, which require nearly the same level of documentation as contract renewals, may affect my next contract renewal.

Nor, sadly, do I see my TT colleagues living up to this ideal (which is, I agree, a desirable one): "the heart of a labor movement is not the preference of the individual worker, but a view of how the workplace ought to be organized regardless of how it actually is organized and whether some people would benefit from a restructured system that throws everyone else under the bus." Instead, in a decade at my own state R2-that-wants-to-be-an-R1, I've seen restructuring, but in the direction of creating an ever-more-privileged TT class whose research/advanced course focus is made possible by an ever-expanding class of exploited contingent faculty teaching the introductory classes that actually bring in the tuition dollars (at a time when tuition dollars are an increasingly-large portion of the university's funding). In short, it feels like I and my contingent colleagues have for some time been part of an ever-growing pile of people under the bus, but that those riding in comfort above haven't paid any attention up until now, and still don't seem particularly aware that one reason the vehicle is rocking so alarmingly is that the wheels barely touch the ground anymore.

For someone in this situation, it's tempting to think that we might be better off if the bus toppled over (i.e. tenure were abolished), and we all had a bit more room to move around. I know that prospect is illusory (in reality, we'd all be injured, and the people at the bottom even worse so than those at the top), but, from the perspective of those under the bus, it can still be be tempting.

All of which makes me think that T is right: if tenure is to be preserved, then the tenured faculty need to lead the charge. In my opinion, they could do worse than following the plan that the AAUP has sketched out (which is, I think, pragmatically self-interested as well as ethically defensible), and using whatever influence they can muster to see that long-term contingent faculty (the actual people, not just the positions) are converted to tenure track. That would mean tenuring some teaching-intensive faculty, even at places that prefer to think of themselves as "research" institutions, and facing the possibility that such faculty may have somewhat different interests than research-intensive faculty, and may vote those interests in committees and in faculty assemblies. It might even mean accepting a higher teaching load for all faculty, and/or ongoing competition for research-related course reductions (and some of my non-TT colleagues would already represent real competition in that area). However, it would (re)create a critical mass of people who have a personal, not just a theoretical, interest in preserving tenure.

I'm not sure what tactics might actually bring such a revolution about; the only one that comes to mind is a voluntary freeze on outside hiring until the situation of current contingent faculty is resolved. That would be pretty drastic, but so is the current situation.

Contingent Cassandra said...

None of this is meant to be an attack on you personally, TR; I've enjoyed your blog for a long time (and in fact have commented anonymously a few times), and I very much appreciate your starting this conversation. I'm just trying to describe the situation as I see it from my particular position in the academic employment hierarchy. I realize that the picture will vary depending on individual, institution, etc., but I hope my perspective can help you and others in positions of greater power shape your understanding of the current situation, and of what needs to be done to change (not just preserve) it.

Tenured Radical said...


I think it is a great comment -- and I think you are right. You should guest post some time.

LouMac said...

A teaching-focussed tenure track would be a great start. In language-literature departments such as mine, the Great Divide plays out between the language and the lit/culture/history etc.

Language is taught by grad students, lecturers and language coordinators, none of whom have tenure. It is also often staffed by so-called "trailing spouses" (ugh), usually women married to male TT professors, who might be native speakers. This not only reinforces workplace inequality but also gender inequality within hetero marriage, and the idea that only one person's job really matters. (This, and the overwhelming percentage of adjuncts who are women.)

TT faculty at RIs have little or no knowledge of, let alone investment in, language teaching. (Liberal arts programmes have a better balance, mainly because there are few if any grad students to exploit.) I'd like to start by making all language coordination positions tenure-eligible. Ideally, there would be one TT position for each year of language classes, and another for those equally crucial 3rd-year crossover classes when students start to work on writing and analysis skills in the target language. Also, TT faculty, even or especially full profs, should teach at least one language or writing class a year.

Dorothy Potter Snyder said...

Looking for a commentary from TR on the Yale sexual harassment situation!

missoularedhead said...

I am an adjunct, and while tenure is something I dream of (imagine…a house I own, getting paid in December AND January!), I get the arguments both for and against it. But you're right, TR, that tenure isn't an either/or issue. Should it be reformed? Yes. But at what expense?

I earn much less than Cassandra does (goodness, but 2/3rds sounds like heaven…I might not need food stamps if that were the case), but even so, the state of Arizona has just gutted the community college system. Many students here who could have gone straight into university are trying to do the fiscally responsible thing and save money by getting their gen eds out of the way in a community college, but at some point, even that will become cost-prohibitive with the state cuts. We are already operating on a bare bones budget…there simply isn't enough to cut.
However, this does give us one bit of hope. If the now 2% of state funding goes away, some of us argue, then we are no longer bound to state laws regarding higher education. We can be less restricted on where we spend our money (and how) and focus on actual teaching and learning. That in itself is the one, lone hope we have.

T said...

I think this is the story getting told--despite the fact that at the end of the essay he says we're already teaching this stuff, it should just be packaged differently. The message that the public hears is that education the way we* want to do it is useless to the majority of people, save for a very small group that are essentially fictional in the minds of the public.

We, including the AAUP, are doing a very poor job of taking control of this conversation.

*Acknowledging that actually, I have huge problems with a lot about the way undergrads are treated at many places

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