Monthly Archives: November 2011

Pity for the powerful

The Quorum Report has a story recounts how Jeff Sandefer found himself in “the most vicious PR firefight I have ever seen in my life”  The Quorum Report requires a subscription (and it’s pretty expensive) so I can not get you to the whole sad, sad story. However, I think you can get a picture of poor Sandefer’s plight from a few tidbits.

Sandefer probably didn’t get himself laughed off the stage when he said this because he underwrote the event (Squeezing the Tower: Are We Getting All We Can from Higher Education) where he  got himself listed on the program as “Master Teacher” at the Acton School of Business (a school he started). He criticized universities who did not want to release data because “the average person doesn’t understand what we do there.”  Sandefer is very unhappy that a more complete analysis of UT faculty workload makes clear it is Sandefer who doesn’t understand what universities do.

While Sandefer whines and moans about universities failing to embrace his “Seven Breakthrough Solutions” we should remember that Rick Perry quickly dumped one of the solutions (calling for alternative accreditation) and other state leaders have distanced themselves from his half-baked notions.

It is unfortunate that Sandefer used Perry and other political connections to ram changes to higher education through behind the scenes. It is pathetic for Sandefer to publicly cry when the other side pushes back.

Why did faculty go public with the fight? (1) That’s democracy in action. (2) Perry and company control the education bureaucracy in the state. A line from the story illustrates the problem:

Sandefer’s own father, [Texas A&M Professor Jaime] Grunlan told Sandefer, had pressured a Texas A&M regent to ram through the Seven Solutions with or without approval, a fact unearthed in a public information request by The Eagle in College Station. That hardly sounded like a starting point for a dialogue on a possible framework for change, Grunlan said.

Sandefer his allies have a legitimate place in the debate. However, there has been no real debate. Implementation has been going on behind the scenes. One of the reasons it has to be done quietly is that Sandefer’s assertion that higher education has been inadequatley supervised should be read as an indictment of Rick Perry. Inconveniently, Sandefer must either suggest that Perry and his appointees actually caused the problems or that the Governor has been so inattentive for the last decade that he did not notice the problem.

So, what’s with all the drama? It looks like people are trying to turn complaining about higher education into a lucrative full-time job. Someone desperately needs to turn people’s attention away from Seven Breakthrough Solutions before conservative donors realize that those reforms are left-wing student coddling and not fiscally responsible solutions to the challenges facing higher education.

By the way, I stay at a modest Days Inn when I do research or attend a conference in Washington, DC. I wonder what the accommodations for the Cato Institution’s meetings on academic thrift look like.

More on modesty

The reviews are in... boring!
If “boring” is the worst thing you’re called on a blog (or in the classroom)…

[Thanks again to Stephan Pastis for putting things in perspective.]

The hard road to academia

There’s a good article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (“Bootstrapping My Way Into the Ivory Tower“) about how hard the road to academia was for one person. Unfortunately, the Chronicle is a subscription site and so those of you who can barely afford to stay in higher education can not read about what it’s like to barely be able to afford staying in higher education.

For those academics too poor to pay to read about what it’s like to be a poor academic, let me summarize:

A single parent who decides to keep her baby, decides to attend graduate school to better herself and pursue her dream, lives a frugal existence, makes use of student loan programs, graduates, finds tenure-track job, and earns tenure. A happy ending–but not a lucrative one for a single-mother working to pay off student loans and support a child who may be dreaming of college like his mother did.

“Without food stamps, housing assistance, subsidized student loans, and Medicaid, there is no way I could have made it through graduate school. Today all of those programs are under threat. To kill those supports is to kill the dream entirely for some people, and to be another voice telling smart young women to just give up and accept the limitations their backgrounds imposed upon them.”

It strikes me as ironic that some of the people making the most noise about elitism in higher education do the most to perpetuate it. Without high tuition and low salaries, more working-class people could earn those advanced degree. Previous generations were lucky enough to get their education in an era when the state committed itself to the kind of low tuition that made schools accessible. We had it easier.

Opportunity should not become a luxury. The question is how many people we keep the American dream alive for.  Personally, I don’t think it’s the American dream unless we can all share it. Professors do not have much control over the process. However, we need to do what we to keep college as affordable as possible.

The politics of higher ed reform

I was heartened to read that Texas House Speaker Joe Straus is now complaining about an “assault on higher education.” A story in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports Straus’ growing concern over how the higher education debate in Texas is being conducted. Straus is sympathetic to some reforms but worries that the rhetoric has gone too far and is needlessly damaging the reputation of Texas schools.

Straus is among a handful of the state’s leaders who have approached higher education reform in a rational way. What’s up with those others?

Some reformers cast themselves as conservatives. However, some elements of the “Seven Breakthrough Solutions” are certainly not conservative since they absolve students of responsibility for their performance and make faculty members and the universities responsible for keeping the students happy and giving them degrees.

The problem is that labels like “conservative” are so overused that they’re useless. Many different views lay claim to the “conservative” label and there’s no one who gets to say what the label really means. In the meantime, some people will hide behind that label to escape explaining their actions.

Some of the politics of higher education reform is driven by large donors who pushed ideas on Perry that he probably would have rejected had they come from other sources. These backers have personal issues with UT and A&M that too often drive their agenda. Further, the relevance of these criticisms to other schools is not an issue to them because they forgot these schools long ago.

So, why target higher education? As I’ve noted before, my salary is less than half of Rick Perry’s rent. It takes some creative work for his backers to paint people like me as some kind of elite. Somebody is really, really hard up for a scapegoat.

Some of this is about budgets. People want to cut budgets and that is easier to do if you convince people that they money is not really needed. These people did the same thing with public schools. What they always ignore is that Texas public schools are run by elected officials just like them. You’ll notice that they can all tell you about a ton of waste when they’re on the campaign trail. However, those cuts are never as easy once they are actually looking at the budget.

However, this is not just about money. If it was, reformers we be going after the salaries of the football coaches at UT or A&M first.

Unfortunately, it’s the job of academic research test what people think is true. The research that we produce that points to climate, evolution, stem cells, etc is not welcome in much of the country’s belief system. That’s the new form of political correctness. Telling people what they want to hear is the job of politicians and television networks. We are stuck with the truth. Even if it is boring or contrary to what people want believe.

This is an age-old problem. It may shift from left to right politically, but it is not going away. You can bet that many Texas politicians will continue to do everything they can to create and cash in on a culture war.

One theory (by Morris Fiorina in Congress: Keystone of the Washington Establishment) is that Congress creates an elaborate bureaucracy to give them somewhat to protect citizens from. After all, a call to a congressional office about a lost Social Security check would never occur if checks never got lost. Members of Congress could not swoop in and save citizens from a nasty bureaucracy that does not exist. Saving voters wins votes so Congress needs to create something to save voters from (preferably, something like the bureaucracy that answers to Congress).

State officials and faculty may have a similar relationship. They routinely assail us for all the alleged inefficiencies in higher education (many created by accountability, assessment, and other political initiatives) and they give us tenure so that we know that deep down inside they need us.

Not that I have a disrespectful attitude towards a supervisor…

I was reading a story (“New Battle of the Alamo“)  in Insider Higher Ed about the possible end of tenure at the Alamo Colleges system when I was struck by the schools new rules for tenured faculty. In August their board approved a new policy that spelled out how you can deal with naughty tenured faculty.

Let me begin by admitting that tenured faculty sometimes get away with too much. I’ve seen “academic freedom” used to excuse some bad behavior and tenured faculty should not be free of any accountability.

That being said, the Alamo Colleges policy goes off the deep end. Here is what the policy (word for word) say can get into “Step 1” trouble for:

  • Excessive tardiness or absenteeism
  • Abuse of or excessive number of personal telephone calls
  • Uncooperative behavior (including disrespectful attitude towards a supervisor such as back-talk or “grumbling”)
  • Loitering or loafing during work hours
  • Failure to follow departmental procedures or directions
  • Reckless or careless behavior
  • Failure to meet performance expectations
  • Failure to perform the terms of employment for reasons other than documented illness or injury (including, for example, failure to attend mandatory departmental/College or District-wide meetings or failure to hold required office hours or otherwise fail to be reasonably available for students, if the terms of employment require it); and
  • Unauthorized operation and/or misuse of College District property

I would hate to be an administrator in this system if someone expected me to write up minor offense. Why? Because there are nine steps that follow a step 1 violation:

Step 1-Counseling (Verbal or Written) This level of discipline is in response to behavior which causes a minor disruption to the image, morale, production or operations of the organization (see above “Disciplinary Violations” for examples). In response, the immediate supervisor (or chair or dean, as appropriate) shall do the following:

  1. Identify the problematic behavior(s);
  2. Allow the employee the opportunity to explain the behavior(s), and investigate if necessary;
  3. Meet with the employee and advise the employee of the unsatisfactory job performance, conduct or behavior
  4. Inform the employee that the behavior(s) has/have violated disciplinary procedure and must be corrected;
  5. Inform the employee that this is a Step 1, “Counseling” step;
  6. Advise the employee of the consequences of continued behavior(s), or other disciplinary violations;
  7. Provide the employee with advice, guidance, corrective action requirements (if applicable) and clarification to assist in avoiding escalation of the discipline to a more severe Step, with copy to Human Resources;
  8. Ask the employee if there are any questions; document any questions and answers given; and
  9. Document the conversation and file it with the departmental employee file, with copy to Human Resources.

That’s a lot of work in response to grumbling, careless behavior, or loafing. And, ignoring some infractions makes it harder to justify enforcing others. The best policy is not create policies you will never enforce.

I think I’d be worried about a school policy about faculty loitering. There’s a fine line between committee meetings and loitering.

Stephan Pastis on Blogging

Stephan Pastis (who actually has his own blog) frequently mocks blogging.

His newest collection of Pearl Before Swine strip (Larry in Wonderland) is #1 on the New York Best Sellers list. You should buy his book or read his blog as a break from all this academic stuff.