Sunday, November 6, 2016

On Being Student Centered--More than the Periodic Aspirational Message is Needed

(Pix © Larry Catá Backer 2016)

X's mom died of heart disease when she was 16, her father is disabled, and she is his custodian. X cares for her sister's kids when she needs to make extra money to put food on the table. Z's mother died in a car accident when he was 12, with no life insurance, his sister is disabled and he is her care giver in their small apartment. This is all they can afford; to make ends meet and because of the medical equipment required for care, he sleeps on the couch......Today is a bad day; no transportation.  X is lucky.  She managed to borrow a car, no insurance though. X is picking up Z, her study buddy Z so they can both get to class. Without their mutual support, they would be unable to survive the stress of their personal and academic lives. Both X and Z look to their faculty for support but expect nothing from those who run the institution. If our administration had half of the chutzpah of these students...... I am lost here....
These are the circumstances of a significant enough portion of the students who seek the fulfillment of the hope that is at the very center of the promise of post secondary education in contemporary American colleges. How does an academic institution practice being the sort of student centered place that the typical institution trumpets  from the lofty speeches of its administrators to the pages of its social media products? The answer, increasingly is that they may not.

This post considers the problem of being student centered for the contemporary American university and the growing chasm that separates administrative formalism of the concept (through rules and aspirational sentiments) as against its functional realization.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

On the U.S. Department of Education Final Program Review Determination Re Penn State's Clery Act Compliance Before 2011 and Its Assessment of a $2.9 Million Fine

"This letter is to inform you that the U.S. Department of Education (Department) intends to fine the Pennsylvania State University (Penn State; the University) a total of $2,397,500 based on the violations of statutory and regulatory requirements outlined below." So begins the official notification, with justification and explanation, of the largest fine assessed to date by the federal government against a university for violation of that cluster of statute and regulation usually shorthanded as the Clery Act.   It is possible that the University will contest this fine, though it is hard to speculate on what grounds. That alone might be cause enough to think about the implications of this fine and its underlying causes, as American universities consider these ramifications for their own operations.

To some extent, the letter, and the action was not unexpected by the wider community in the United States. It was a long time coming--the investigation began almost five years before.  What is especially interesting is both the odd logic of the letter and what it suggests, not about Penn State's failures before 2011, but those of the government itself. Equally interesting, perhaps more so, is the determination of the university itself, in its heroic efforts to move forward, to seek to obliterate the past, one might think, as if it never happened. One can only end an analysis of action and reaction with a sense that the lessons learned may well have been the wrong ones--both for the United States, and for the university it has sought to make an object lesson to advance its own agendas. 

The U.S. Government's letter may be accessed HERE.  

My thoughts follow along with the statement of high University officials follows and for background, the story as reported by the Associated Press.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Without Comment: "Jury orders Penn State to pay McQueary $7.3 million"

(Pix © Larry Catá Backer 2016)

This post requires no comment.  There are strong feeling on either side of this, and it is a small piece of a much larger puzzle that touches on the nature of the modern public university within the cultural transformations in early 21st century U.S. life.
"McQueary's award could grow larger in the coming weeks. Gavin still has to rule on his whistle-blower claim that Penn State ousted him from his $104,000-a-year assistant coaching job because he spoke out about Sandusky and school officials. . . . . Since 2012, the school has paid more than $93 million to settle claims from 32 Sandusky accusers, and university officials have acknowledged the school bears some responsibility to the victims of its former assistant football coach, who is serving a 30- to 60-year prison sentence for the sexual abuse of 10 boys." (Jeremy Roebuck, Jury Orders Penn State to Pay McQueary $7.3 Million,, Oct. 28, 2016).
I note only this: "On the Management of Scandal in the Modern University; Some Lessons and Insights for Times of Crisis" (July 13, 2016).

Thursday, October 20, 2016

"We Know You Are Busy and Wanted to Avoid Burdening You With This" -- More Techniques that Undermine Shared Governance in the Contemporary University

(Brochymena, Pix © Larry Catá Backer 2015)

I have been considering the ways in which administrators undermine shared governance in effect without appearing to challenge the forms by which it is undertaken. Undermining shared governance rather than challenging the authority of faculty to engaged in shared governance avoids the politically costly effort to eliminate formal structures (and the discussions it might require). More importantly, it preserves faculty as a tool, a resource, for governance without having to acknowledge any governance authority beyond those wielded by administrators. One uses tools; one negotiates with governance partners.

I have posted thoughts of my list of the top ten techniques that administrations currently have deployed to undermine shared governance ("You Don't Have the Authority": Counting Down the Top Ten Techniques that Undermine University Shared Governance). I added a shorter list of honorable mentions ("We Abhor Retaliation But Expect Loyalty to Our Decisions" -- Techniques that Undermine University Shared Governance, the Honorable Mentions and the Deeper Issues they Reveal).  I noted then:
That the techniques are not necessarily developed to subvert shared governance for its own sake hardly absolves an administration that on the one hand heralds its embrace of shared governance and on the other engages in radical industry transforming actions that enhance structures in which faculty become "knowledge workers" on an assembly line the principal purpose of which seems to be the "production" of units (students) ready fr insertion in labor markets at a level commensurate with the reputation of the university itself. (Ibid.)
This post adds to the list of honorable mentions of techniques that did not make the original two lists. They are the synthesized expression of  experiences from a number of different institutions. 
1. "We Know You Are Busy and Wanted to Avoid Burdening You With This."
2. The Absent Administrator and Ghosting the Faculty Organization .
3. "We promise to get that information to you right away."
I will continue adding to the list, please send me additional techniques I might have missed (and perhaps prudently via personal email from a non-university computer using non-university provided internet service.

Friday, September 30, 2016

On the Proper Role of University Administrators as Members of a Faculty Senate: Do Voting Rights Subvert the Institution of Faculty Governance?

(Pix © Larry Catá Backer 2016)

University faculty organizations serve as the institutional voice of the faculty in the complex but important operation of shared governance. This role distinguishes universities from other corporate enterprises, and brings them closer to models of public organizations in which principles of democratic participation are essential for the legitimacy of the organization and its operations (e.g., On the Institutional Role of a Faculty Senate: Part 1(May 4, 2012)). 

The essence of the institutional character of faculty organizations is its role as a representative of the faculty and its perspectives.  That representative role can be preserved only to the extent that the faculty organization itself is controlled by and reflects the will of the faculty, especially in its relations with other stakeholders, principally the administration of the university. Under this model of shared governance, faculty, administration, and board of trustees are three distinct actors which together comprise the critical institutional elements of governance.

Yet in some public research universities, the representative role of the faculty organization has been challenged.  In some of these institutions, there has been efforts, sometimes successful, to include within the faculty organization a substantial number of voting members who represent the administration within the faculty organization itself.  This post considers the issue of administration membership within a faculty organization, its effects on shared governance, and advances a suggestion that recasts the role of the administration and its officials within a faculty organization. 

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Economic Determinism and the University--Considering Voluntary "Early Retirement Packages" to Tenured Faculty

(Pix LarryCatá Backer 2016)

It is something of a national trend among American universities to offer variations of a standard form of "early retirement program," loosely modeled on those quite common in industry. A recent article in University Business nicely lays out the context and the economic politics of the tactic:
It’s an increasingly common move by campus officials during challenging economic times: voluntary retirement. Offering these incentives to faculty and staff provides a ready means of reducing personnel costs while not being seen as severe and traumatic as layoffs, salary reductions, and furloughs tend to be.

Although the details of such plans vary from one college to the next, they all rest on the potential for shrinking the workforce during times of static or declining budgets.

Even where employees will be replaced, costs may be lowered by using part-timers or hiring less experienced full-time personnel. New employees may also come with less expensive benefit packages than those negotiated in earlier eras. (Mark Rowh, Retiring Minds Want to Know How institutions are making voluntary retirement programs work  University Business (July/August 2012))
 This post considers the trend from the perspective of its collateral effects--first on the way this tactic is used increasingly to systematize fundamental changes in institutional character and operation, and and second on the faculty tempted to take the university up on its offer (academic freedom, and political rights). The "bottom line" is simple enough to state and implicit in the University Business article: the voluntary retirement device is an excellent way for administrators to avoid responsibility for significant change (furthering the "blame the system" mentality that has become standardized in university administrative cultures), but in a way that presents significant traps for the faculty tempted to take the university up on its usually much less valuable than advertised benefit. Faculty should be wary about accepting such "benefits", university faculty senate's should take a more aggressive position in examining the institutional effects of these programs, and university administrators should be held to a higher degree of account for using this indirect lever to remake the institution in a manner to their liking.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Unionization Comes to the Learning Factory: The Trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York and Graduate Workers of Columbia– GWC, UAW. Case 02–RC–143012 (August 23, 2016)

Once upon a time, the University was a well ordered enterprise for knowledge production and dissemination.  But it has fractured and been reconstituted along corporate lines as education has become a commodity and the university a factory for the production and deployment of revenue and influence. The two categories--faculty and students--have also fractured.  Faculty have been divided into distinct classes whose politics has substantially eroded both shared governance and the effective protection of academic freedom.   But students have fractured as well.  Where once students were the objects of knowledge dissemination, they are now broken into at least three categories.  The first are the traditional consumer of the university's educational commodity. The other two are deeply transformative.  The first are the student athlete--who provide a valuable source of revenue to the university as a corporate owner of talent exploited in markets for sports entertainment.  The second are student consumers who are also  employed in the knowledge production and dissemination business of the university--the research and teaching assistants who perform much of the lower status research and teaching at the university.  In this capacity they serve simultaneously as a consumer of product (leading to the award of a degree) and as a factor in the production of knowledge or of teaching revenue to the university. 

It should come as no surprise, then, that as the university in transformed into a business, its productive forces would seek the protection of law to enhance their positions as employees or otherwise as holders of valuable commodities (teaching and knowledge) that are inputs in the production of university revenues. For students, protection against exploitation and bargaining for the protection of their interests have taken the form of efforts to unionize--efforts that have been vigorously resisted by the university (as they might by any other business enterprise).   In the efforts to unionize student athletes see here, here, here and here. Indeed, with the 2015 decision of the National Labor Relations Board dismissing efforts of student athletes to forma  union, the idea of the dual status of students within the university--as consumers and as labor--appeared to be rejected.

But the efforts of graduate and undergraduate students to unionize appears to have succeeded where the student athletes failed.  In August 2016, the "National Labor Relations Board issued a 3-1 decision in Columbia University that student assistants working at private colleges and universities are statutory employees covered by the National Labor Relations Act." (NLRB Press  Release). The NLRB holding on Columbia University was clear:
Thus, we hold today that student assistants who have a common-law employment relationship with their university are statutory employees under the Act. We will apply that standard to student assistants, including assistants engaged in research funded by external grants. Applying the new standard to the facts here, consistent with the Board’s established approach in representation cases, we conclude (1) that all of the petitioned-for student- assistant classifications consist of statutory employees; (2) that the petitioned-for bargaining unit (comprising graduate students, terminal Master’s degree students, and undergraduate students) is an appropriate unit; and (3) that none of the petitioned-for classifications consists of temporary employees who may not be included in the unit. Accordingly, we reverse the decision of the Regional Director and remand the proceedings to the Regional Director for further appropriate action.
The issues are far from a stable resolution.  Universities and their lobby will no doubt work the back rooms of legislatures, and the courts have yet to speak.  But it has become increasingly difficult for the university enterprise to run a business--athletic and knowledge based--without the obligation to recognize the character  and identity of its labor force. The fact that students might simultaneously serve in two capacities--as consumers of university products and as the labor used to produce that product--must be recognized and embraced. There are lessons as well here for faculty, especially as the university effectively dismantles shared governance and threatens academic freedom. 

The Press Release issued by the National Labor Relations Board follows along with links to the decision and the documents of the parties.  The decision--The Trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York and Graduate Workers of Columbia– GWC, UAW. Case 02–RC–143012 (August 23, 2016) can be accessed HERE

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Central Planning and the University: What is So Bad About Administrative Management of Knowledge Production and Dissemination?

(Pix source here)

I have been studying the approaches of Marxist Leninist societies--businesses and governments--especially in the way in which institutions founded on Leninist principles with Marxist objectives relate to markets.  The traditional view of  such systems viewed markets with suspicion and sought to substitute an objectives based central planning apparatus--driven by a well trained and motivated bureaucracy--for the choice and efficiency structures of the market.  The idea was that better choices would be made and more efficient use of productive forces could be sustained.  But at its foundation was the Leninist notion that market driven choices were inherently ideologically tainted against which a bureaucracy of planners was necessary to avoid the errors of popular choice in the service of the construction (or preservation ) of a Marxist society.

That approach was transformed in the decades since the breakup of the old Soviet Union. Over the last 40 years two distinct approaches have arisen.  The more traditional Central Planning Marxist-Leninism continues to embrace at its core an anti-markets principle and the object of the state is to remake individuals to better suit the needs of central planning.  The other, Markets Marxism, increasingly embraces markets and markets based mechanisms as a means of social, economic and political progress compatible with the state's long term objectives.  In that case markets are the means used to achieve objects, as opposed to the traditional Marxism in which the objective was to avoid the market. (Discussed HERE).

Yet, one might ask, why would a site focused on university governance have any interest in Leninism and market ideologies? Because, it seems, universities in the West (and large western multinational enterprises) appear in the early 21st century to be the heirs and most vigorous centers of anti-market, central planning ideologies in both their operation and in the institutional cultures that they advance. The result, of course, is highly ironic where these institutions are meant to serve as the knowledge production foundation of political-economies founded on both principles of representative democracy and of markets.  But irony is the stuff of dinner parties.  There is real effect as well--internal central  planning in the knowledge production and dissemination industry substantially determines who decides what one learns, how on studies and what knowledge is produced. The power over those decisions has been shifting from individuals and from the stakeholders within the university, to bureaucracies asserting managerial controls through the exercise of administrative discretion. In centrally planned economies, the result is usually a substantial loss of productivity, a shifting of the focus of productive capability, and the loss of innovation.   Have American universities now adopted cultures of central planning or Markets Marxism as the basis for their operations? 

Monday, July 18, 2016

Just Because it is Legal Doesn't Make it Right--The Extension of University Control of Employee "Outside Business Activity"

(Pix © Larry Catá Backer 2016)

The evolution of the legal rules constraining the terms  through which labor may be purchased in the West had seen a long evolution--from villeinage and indenture (slavery for some) to service in the form of the sale of labor to a master who is empowered by law to manage and control the person whose services have been purchased.  That employment relation, that relationship between master and servant is hierarchical and personal in a way that the relationship between investor and enterprise is not--capital is invested but not purchased and performs no service beyond offering the value obtained and a forbearance of repayment for a time certain. Echoes of the the more comprehensive notions of service, and of the role of the servant, remain visible today in the scope of discretionary authority the law permits to a "master" to regulate the non working lives of employees to the extent it might interfere with its business and operations--as those are conceived by the employer. For at will employees, of course, the legal master-servant relation is to permit the master (though technically both have the power) to terminate employment for any reason--and in the master's case, to condition employment on a host of criteria, subject only to the constraints of other law, contract, or at the extreme, constitutional limitations. 

The master-servant relationship exits within the university as well.  For faculty, however, the operation of the master-servant relation has been constrained both by contract and by the scope of the interpretation of the twin principles of academic freedom and shared governance.  These have sometimes proven to be strong protection in the absence of statute or policy.  Other times, their protection has been somewhat less powerful.  Beyond the legal constraints lie a powerful policy conversation that has been shaping the societal consensus relating to the propriety of the exaction of conditions for work that touch on the non working life of the employee. These have tended to push toward a growing societal disapproval of the assertion of employer power reaching into the private lives of employees. At the same time, universities across the United States have sought to expand the boundaries of the definition--and thus the protection--of their interests in the intellectual prowess represented by the individuals whose services they have purchased for the provision of customary teaching, research and service duties.  Where once universities were principally concerned about the protection of its interests in the face of patents and related innovation and the opening of businesses by mostly scientists and engineers seeking to exploit ideas nurtured through the university, and to constrain the scope of professional practice by its lawyers, architects, musicians, etc., now the university seeks to control well beyond these simple and direct activities.  It is at the intersection of these two opposing societal movements that university policy relating to the control of faculty outside business activity meet.

Many of these issues have been dealt with relatively uniformly by contemporary large research universities across the United States.  This post considers one hypothetical example of this effort in that light and the Commentary of Professor Hypothetical in light of that effort.  It is a hypothetical example only; but it presents issues that touch on such efforts across the nation.  As a generic model it will be presented as the efforts of Public University (PU), a land grant University in the State of Republic,  in the development of a Labor Policy (LRX) that seeks to manage employee business activities in the context of a new model. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

On the Management of Scandal in the Modern University; Some Lessons and Insights for Times of Crisis

Scandals and litigation can have a substantial effect on the operations of the modern university. The long running efforts of Penn State University to meet and mitigate the effects of the prosecution of a former athletic employee for various acts of gross sexual misconduct provides the model template for the early 21st century large university.As such, the lessons that ought to be drawn should be of importance to university administrators and shared governance partners throughout the nation.

There are a number of lessons that can be drawn:
1. Such disruptions can be long lasting. It is difficult to reduce the "life span" of such events, and the risk of substantial mistakes increases the more strenuously administrators seek to shorten this life span through retrospectively short sighted decisions.

2. Information about events of national and public concern are nearly impossible to control. The harder the university works to control the flow and manufacture of information for distribution internally or externally, the more likely that it will have detrimental effects on moral and on the position of the university. Individuals and organizations, including state officials are likely to draw negative inferences from especially ham handed efforts to control either information flows or discussion.

3. Preserving the illusion of control tends to create unintended consequences.  It is an illusion to believe that scandals of this sort can be managed or controlled, especially by groups of senior administrators who do not have (given institutional cultures and the logic of their positions) a means of grasping rank and file sentiment.  The harder the effort to stage manage thought, to socialize employees, or to limit expression, the more likely that division between senior administrators and rank and file will grow, and that mutual trust will dissipate.  Ordinarily this is of little moment--but the consequences will be felt not in the context of the scandal but in virtually every other administrative program--from benefits reform to conflicts of interest and consulting initiatives. Trust, once lost, is hard to recover
4. The university's failure to account transparently for its expenses and objectives in meeting the scandal will also contribute to a reduction of trust  That reduction will focus on faculty and staff--who will view university efforts at cost reduction aimed solely at them much more suspiciously in the face of multiple millions of dollars spent to manage and deal with scandal related accountability issues.  To them, such cost reductions appears to amount to a cram down of the expenses of the scandal form the university to faculty and staff.  In effect, taken as a whole, university cost cutting in the face of a scandal tends to be understood as a faculty-staff subsidy of the costs of the scandal, a cost that appears to be passed through from the (rich) university to the (much less financially endowed) faculty and staff.

5.  That failure of transparency might well affect outside stakeholders as well--from the state in its budgeting processes, to alumni and local leaders who might also begin to worry about trust issues and the nature of their relation to the institution. 

6.  There are always unanticipated surprises in the course of resolving major scandals. In the effort to produce accountability new and sometimes quite burdensome information may come to light that might well complicate efforts at scandal crisis resolution.  

All university administrators must begin to better plan for and meet the likelihood of major crisis.  This is a difficult task, and one for which the university community itself must be prepared to be forgiving and patient as events unfold. Still, there is a need to better prepare for protecting the university community and the functioning of the university as it seeks to deal--ethically, transparently and forthrightly--with scandal.  That requires programs for both vigorous defense of false accusation and humble and forthright acceptance of responsibility.  Indeed, Penn State's Values would appear to mandate these as the basic principles of the university's own operations. And in any case they ought to serve as a baseline against which administrator decision making and conduct generally ought to be judged.

Some of the implications of these insights may be discerned by a reading of the surprising and continuing events revolving around the horrible Sandusky related scandals.  The first is a recent article from the Washington Post (Will Hobson and Cindy Boren, "New Court Documents Suggest Others at Penn State knew of Jerry Sandusky Abuse," Washington Post, July 12, 2016) which may be accessed HERE.  The second is a message from the University President. These are presented without comment in keeping with the request of the Penn State President set forth below.