Monday, December 29, 2014

Steven Salaita, Civility, and Academic Freedom--Report of the Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure at the University of Illinois

(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2014)

I have not spoken to the Steven Salaita affair at the University of Illinois since the story broke earlier this year.
The university's August decision not to hire Salaita -- just weeks before he and his would-be faculty colleagues thought he would start teaching in the fall semester -- set off a huge national debate over academic freedom, civility and the role of trustees and administrators in reviewing hiring and tenure decisions. (Scott Jaschik, A Mixed Report on Salaita Controversy, Insider Higher Education (Dec. 24, 2014))
Though I have been considering the complications of both civility (Here) and academic freedom (e.g., Here and Here), my sense was that Professor Salaita's case presented a number of complicating factors, some technical (employment status), some institutional (procedures and protections principles at the University of Illinois) and some overtly political (using Professor Salaita as a proxy in the domestic intellectual front of the religious wars of the Middle East).  

Professor Salaita's case, then, has been is still too bound up in the personal and the greater culture wars to yet be useful for rigorous critical discussion. It is, I think, still far too early to sort all of these complications out, and to distill the governance and academic freedom issues from the rest for purposes of drawing lessons and suggesting better approaches in future cases. That is particularly the case with respect to the role of the institutional faculty as a critical stakeholder in this case at the University of Illinois.

It is to that later point that I write now. On December 23, 2014,  the Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign issued a subcommittee “Report on the Investigation into the Matter of Steven Salaita” (the "Salaita Report"). The Salaita Report (see full PDF here) has been praised (e.g., here) and was well reported by Scott Jaschik, A Mixed Report on Salaita Controversy, Insider Higher Education (Dec. 24, 2014). It's most interesting discussion flows from a factual conclusion that it reaches--that Professor Salaita occupied a space between applicant and employee that triggered a set of obligations on the part of the University of Illinois, and from a rejection of civility as a standard for employment. I will consider those issues here.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

On the Diseases of University Administration--Lessons From Pope Francis

(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2014)

The Roman Catholic Pontiff's annual greetings to the Roman Curia at the end of Advent usually goes unnoticed.  But the current Pontiff, Francis I, used the opportunity  to stress to his leadership, the highest levels of the Roman Catholic Magisterium, of the dangers  and errors into which they might have fallen. Presentation of the Christmas Greetings to the Roman Curia, Address of his Holiness Pope Francis, Clementine Hall, Monday, 22 December 2014

The importance of the Pope's message should not be underestimated.  Indeed, it is even more applicable to the rigid bureaucratism, cronyism, and self referencing blindness, born of arrogance and insularity, that afflicts many offices of senior leadership throughout American academic institutions. The issue, as one will see, is not that the diseases point to conduct that is of itself bad, but rather to an unbalance that produces bad results when the shared space of the institution is overwhelmed by personal agendas.  And the remedy is simple--to restore balance, administrators at all levels, and the faculty and staff complicit in unbalancing behavior, must engage in the sort of open criticism and self criticism that restores the objectives of the institution of the university, and its mission, to its central role.

And so, in the spirit of this Christmas season, and for the edification of our colleagues serving in senior administrative positions, I offer the wisdom of Pope Francis tuned more precisely to the dangers and errors to which the great authority with which these hard working officials, because of the frailties of human nature and the weakness of the institutions in which they operate, is sometimes subject. 

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Undermining Accountability and Enhancing Authoritarianism in University Faculty Senates--Is Penn State to Play a Vanguard Role?

It is well known generally that the early 21st century has seen a cultural shift toward authoritarianism--either in the form of authoritarian democracies in the political sphere, or in the form of corporatism in the private and civil society sphere.

(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2014)

The university has not escaped these larger socio-cultural trends.  And indeed, many within it have succumbed in large respect to the blandishments of control, monitoring and management of subject populations that they have been elected or appointed to represent. As a consequence, the ability of groups to hold their leaders accountable have been increasingly replaced by regimes designed to separate people from the systems set over them for their governance.  For U.S. universities, this should be a disturbing trend, yet many have sought to turn their representative institutions from democratic into managerial spaces.  In the process the character of faculty governance will change and change dramatically.

While I have written from time to time on these trends as they affect university administration (see HERE, HERE and HERE), I have rarely had occasion to observe and comment on the  way these trends are also shaping the internal governance of university faculty senates.  

This post considers one such effort--the quite misguided effort to extinguish the authority of university faculty senators to interpose resolutions at open meetings of the Senate and to replace it with a system in which such authority is managed by the very Senate leadership who are the object of the accountability enhancing character of this "right to resolution."

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Indulging the Politics of Age in University Benefits--The Example of Move to Strip Older Family Members of Education Benefits

Universities sometimes provide a window onto the darker natures of societal expectations and beliefs.  And there is nothing like the drumbeat of fiscal crisis (the extent of which remains debatable) to permit these darker natures to indulge in otherwise taboo behaviors.  

(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2014)

Nowhere now is this more notable than in the way in which the current (and fashionable) fear of a benefits "crisis" has permitted universities, and sometimes even their faculties, to indulge their darker passions in sometimes quite regrettable ways. I have written about the way in which these crises have permitted universities to indulge in eugenics.  (See, The New Eugenics--The Private Sector, the University, and Corporate Health and Wellness Initiatives).

Today universities are beginning to indulge their passion for discrimination--this time against older persons. The latest trend is marked by the indulgence of a desire to reduce the availability of educational benefits to faculty members by capping the age at which such benefits might be accessed.  

While such efforts tend to be carefully crafted to avoid legal liability for discrimination, the discriminatory intent, as a matter of social norms, is inescapable.  This post considers the vacuity of the rationales usually put forward to support these efforts and suggests that though there may be a legal authority to enact these discrimination, there ought to be a moral basis for opposing these efforts.