Thursday, March 30, 2017

On the Front Lines in the War on Tenure: Wayne State and the Changing Dynamics of Tenure in Knowledge Factories

(Pix © Larry Catá Backer 2017)

When universities loudly proclaim a desire to revoke tenure en masse, both the cat and the proclamation (as theatre covering motives and agendas) ought to be the subject of some consideration.  That was what came to mind as I read the recent quite public efforts of Wayne State University to shed a large number of its medical school faculty. "In a move rarely seen in academia, Wayne State University is trying to fire multiple faculty members depicted as abusing their tenure by doing as little work as possible" (here). Of course the rationale is absurd but in a way that reflects the disconnect between reality and administrators: had these faculty really done as little work as possible then it would not have been an abuse of tenure--the abuse comes when they work less than the minimum expected.  Of course the true of phrase might merely be bad writing. I suspect the writing is true, but the motives it exposes are not--that what it reveals is the effort to invert the standards of tenure to capture greater productivity to the university without any corresponding payment. 

This post considers the recent move by Wayne State to remove a large number of its tenured medical school faculty for non or under productivity in light of the two motives that may underlie both the move and the consequential weakening of tenure: (1) money and (2) labor flexibility.

The Wayne State story, of course, did not start in 2017.  The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that "Wayne State has tried on two previous occasions in its history to revoke tenure. It was unsuccessful in both attempts" (here).  Perhaps the third time is the charm.  But it also suggests that the motives of the Wayne State administrators may not be entirely as they proclaim. The issues are not so much tenure as they are (1) money and (2) labor flexibility (but note that flexibility magically ends with the faculty and applies not at all to the institution of administration). 

The money motive is well known--universities increasingly seek to reduce the obligation to say their faculty; or better put, they increasingly demand that faculty provide their own support as a condition of employment. "For example, the national average for tenured faculty with grants is about 40 percent, but Wayne State’s average last year was about 14 percent" (here). Few have sought to consider a model in which one can be hired with the expectation of providing a chunk of one's own income and support.  The idea, if floated elsewhere might appear absurd.  But in academic circles it has become a marker not of honor but of "productivity." But providing one's own support and tenure might be compatible; certainly faculty have been socialized to believe they are. And, indeed, it has become quite fashionable to measure the value of a faculty member by the amount of other people's money she might be able to draw to the university.  An absurd partnership from the perspective of an employment relationship that university tend to babble on about in reference to their faculty; but one that works precisely because it conflates markers in prestige hierarchies within academic fields with the financial needs of the university. And, indeed, the spectre of money (and the ability of its administrators to effectively manage it) appeared to loom large in the Wayne State story:
Last December, Wayne State's medical school and faculty practice plan, University Physicians Group, announced it had lost $32 million during fiscal 2015 ended Sept. 30.

While some costs have been reduced, officials said earlier this summer that the monthly losses still stand at about $1 million per month.

However, in a Aug. 7 story in Crain's, David Hefner, the university's vice president for health affairs, said the medical school is expected to cut its annual losses to about $16 million by the end of fiscal year 2016, which ends Sept. 30. (here)
 Curiously, it appears nowhere suggested that the administrators overseeing this bleeding of funds are to suffer the same fact as underperforming faculty.  Perhaps under performing administrators are measured by a different standard, or they can manage with impunity.  There is irony here--the same administrators now going after Wayne State Medical school faculty who bemoan the financial inefficiencies of tenure as a block to eliminating under performing employees appear to have a protection themselves that might well exceed that of tenure.

In any case, it is harder to square tenure with the "flexibility" motive. Since at least 2012 Wayne State administrators have been taking the position that terminating people to satisfy the flexibility needs of the institution and tenure are somehow compatible--though the explanation offered is always mystifying:
Margaret Winters, associate provost for academic personnel at Wayne State and another member of the university's negotiating team, confirmed in an interview Sunday both the proposal and the quote, but she said that the former did not represent an attack on tenure and that the latter was taken out of context. "Our intent has never been to do away with tenure," said Winters. "I'm proud to be a faculty member with tenure."

At the same time, she said that the university needs "flexibility" if it is going to continue to "focus on students" in times of tight budgets. Wayne State, like other Michigan universities, has experienced repeated state budget cuts and also strong pressure to minimize tuition increases. Financial exigency is "a very high bar," she said. The idea that tenured faculty members (who are doing their jobs well) could be terminated only in cases of financial exigency is "a luxury of the past," she said. (HERE)
But of course this explains little.  It is instead a pastiche of administrator code words for a project that would preserve tenure as a word, but would functionally eliminate its protections (see, e.g., here, here, here, and here).  But what makes them powerful is the success of university administration is deploying the language of markets to business of education, the effect of which is to transform power relationships within the university in ways that make the classical justifications for tenure almost incomprehensible to contemporary actors. 
 Most of these changes have been well veiled by a combination of well developed rhetoric of passivity ("we can only respond to the market" rhetoric, whose falsity is only augmented by the profound effect on markets that responses produce especially by the largest university players) and by restructuring that increasingly re characterizes most important aspects of university operations as administrative and financial and thus beyond the reach of the traditional governance mechanics of academic governance. These changes have found ready acceptance and the culture of university governance has been affected so that faculty, trustees, administrators and students have begun to understand the university as cultural object in ways that would have been unthinkable a generation ago. (here)
The rhetoric of flexibility, then, serves as a shorthand for a set of organizaitonal premises that now appear to dominate thinking within academic managerial circles: (1) that markets rather than faculty ought to drive academic content (2) that the university should aim for real time changes in content to mirror changes in the tastes of these drivers; (3) that faculty productivity gains ought to be captured by the university to the greatest extent possible; (4) that the university is now dependent on two interlinked markets--the markets for inputs (students) and outputs (employers)--and that university administrators (not faculty) are best suited to make the adjustments necessary to maximize profits from the exploitation of input and output markets;  (5) that the state has become a generator of costs rather than of revenue that also must be managed but that also requires that regulatory costs be borne by faculty to the greatest extent possible; (6) faculty can be segmented to maximize their aggregate contribution to university profitability while reducing the aggregate cost of their utilization in the search for profit; and (7) profit is dependent only in part on prestige, but that universities have over invested in those factors contributing to prestige at the expense of lower cost productive factors (mostly faculty) necessary to produce profit (in the aggregate). .
It follows that, indeed, there is no intent to eliminate tenure precisely because tenure remains a factor that students use to gauge the value of their education.  As a revenue and status advancing mechanism, then, the formal adherence to tenure remains important. But what is important is the appearance of tenure--that is the ability of an institution to point to a core group of faculty which can be described as both protected by tenure and also leading examples of high rank in academic prestige markets (however those may be measured--and usually through measures beyond the control of the institution). But the ability of create an impression of "academic excellence through the markers of tenure does not mean that it should be wasted on the core mass of employees who have the task of instructing students. Though this remains controversial, my sense is that most institutional leaders have come ot the conclusion that tenure is wasted on mere instructional personnel.  Instruction requires a different set of skills--a set of skills that are more fungible.  And thus perhaps in the minds of administrators, it is possible to reduce the costs of production of instruction by changing the character of the instructor form professional (tenured and research oriented to a significant extent) to a blue collar status.  To them falls the task of teaching the knowledge that is produced by others. Perversely that bifurcation (knowledge production and knowledge dissemination) and the change in the status of both also increases the pressure on tenured faculty (knowledge producers) to substantially increase their productivity--especially since there are fewer now required to produce roughly the same amount of measurable result. And it also suggests that the need for tenured faculty has decreased substantially as their individual productivity (as a function of their utility for maximizing aggregate contribution to  profit) increases.  In that context it is easy to understand why Wayne State would prefer to rid itself of tenured faculty, and to use the language of under or non productivity as the lubricant for the operaitonalization of its real project--to reconstitute its faculty into a mixed blue and white collar workforce  more compatible winch current profit maximizing models.

And of course,  that provides the excuse to swell administrative ranks--a workforce of this kind is always in need of overseers to ensure their compliant and productivity maximizing behaviors. Reduction in force of administrators and staff will be a long time coming under this emerging model of university profit production.

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