Wednesday, April 23, 2014

On Administrative Overreaching: Threats, Social Media, and Academic Freedom

I have also proposed policy changes for universities, at least respecting social media.  (Proposing a Set of Social Media Policy Guidelines For Penn State University (March 17, 2014)).

(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2014)

But the problem not only persists but appears to be increasingly embedded in university governance cultures. It seems that the answer for many university administrators faced with controversy in political and social spaces that are traditionally dynamic is to (1) declare a broad authority to regulate, (2) produce regulations to confer an unconstrained discretion on administrators charged with carrying out its "objective", and (3) treat these regulations as trumping academic freedom, shared governance and the personal and human rights of the regulated class. While their motives, from an institutional perspective, are rational, their application becomes obsessively irrational. 

These issues were recently nicely discussed by academic and social commentator Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a University of Tennessee law professor.  Professor Reynolds suggests a combination of culturally institutional paranoia plus isolation may account for the problem.  I think that he is basically correct but that the culprit is the system in place to reward institutional paranoia in the form of rigidity and risk aversion. Until  universities stop being rewarded for producing (and universities stop rewarding) the administrators described in the article, this problem will only increase.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Wellness Wars and High Deductible Plans--A University Obsession With Substantial Consequences Including for Shared Governance

(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2014)

The Report of the Penn State University Health Care Task Force has been circulated. The HCTF devoted much space, necessarily, to a critical examination of the University’s Wellness Plan roll out last year (e.g., The New Eugenics--The Private Sector, the University, and Corporate Health and Wellness Initiatives; The Wellness Wars Continue--A Task Force is Constituted and the Institutional Role of the Faculty is Reduced in Function).

But the Report also spotlighted an important element of the University’s benefits strategy that escaped much notice–high deductible benefit plans. This post considers some issues that faculty might examine as they turn from the Wellness Plan to this other strategic move on the benefits front that is a common strategy employed by universities as they seek to deal with the issue of benefit plan cost containment.

As many universities continue to buy ideas from their stables of benefits consultants (the rate and use of which and their benefits compared to their costs remaining substantially well hidden from any form of accountability), one idea has begun to resonate well--high deductible benefits plans.  These plans have much that is desirable in benefits plans--they offer the appearance of coverage and deliver less.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The State of Diversity at Penn State--An Interview With Leaders of the Joint Diversity Task Force

(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2014)
Issues of diversity have become an important element of engagement among stakeholders at Penn State--especially our students who have been driving current efforts (e.g., Diversity Awareness Task Force: Statement to the University Faculty Senate, January 29, 2013).  Upon petition by students before the University Faculty Senate, and with Senate support, a Joint Diversity Awareness Task Force was appointed (discussed at Diversity in Silence--The Joint Diversity Task Force Report at Penn State University Becomes Less Visible). Its work includes involvement in the university's recent complex efforts to reform Penn State's General Education programs.

The members of the JDATF have been working hard move Penn State's diversity project forward.  I recently sat down with the three co-chairs of the JDATF - Dr. Patreese Ingram, Dr. Karyn McKinney, and Brian Aynardi - to discuss the work of the committee one year after being charged.  The notes of our interview and responses to my questions are set out below.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Wellness Wars Heat Up--Of Lawsuits and Corporate Wellness Programs Pitting Moral Rights Against Legal Power

Universities tend to lag behind their corporate "brothers" and "sisters" in the corporate world.  Mostly it is a matter of re-framing governance cultures.  But also it is that corporations tend to be governance and institution organization leaders--universities follow, and somewhat timidly.  There is good reason--the university is a vastly different form of industry (in culture and organization and governance).

But not, it seems, when it comes to the structuring of benefits--especially wellness programs.

(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2014)

I have been following the wellness wars at Penn State for its valuable lessons about the transformation of stakeholder and governance relations within the university, and for what it tells us about the changes in universities culture about its willingness to control the non-work lives of its employees in the name of revenue protection (e.g., The New Eugenics--The Private Sector, the University, and Corporate Health and Wellness Initiatives).  As Penn State awaits the report of its Wellness program task force (e.g., The Wellness Wars Continue--A Task Force is Constituted and the Institutional Role of the Faculty is Reduced in Function), it might be well learn what one can when the wellness wars heat up in the corporate world.

What the corporate world is now beginning to experience is that when it crosses deeply held cultural lines--when it treats employees as property over which it can assert increasing control, when it seeks to control the non-working lives and choices of employees, for example--in ways that are alien to basic cultural and political (though perhaps not legal) premises on which this democratic Republic is founded, then there is likely to be a reaction.  In the courts, usually, but not always. 

And so we have this: Jillian Berman and Hunter Stuart,  CVS Sued Over Controversial Wellness Program, Huff Post Business, March 20, 2014, parts of which follow.  What is most interesting in the reporting is the way in which employees invoke moral and personal rights and employers counter with legal power.  In this sort of contest, the employer may win in the short run, but their legally permissible actions will tend to undermine the system that makes their operation possible in the long run.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Who is the Real Drag on University Revenues? The AAUP Reports that Rates of Pay Increase Faster for Administrators than Faculty or Staff

There is a specter haunting the opinion-fueled reality that is the "sense" that there is a crisis in higher education. That spectral presence howls to any who would listen (and there are many) that the great driver of cost increases for universities are "staff" salaries--faculties and others who are a necessary evil (the chief engine in the "production" of university product--tuition paying graduating students).

This specter feeds on "numbers"--that collection of data that when appropriately packaged appears to --definitely-- suggest a single and privileged view of the "reality" of the "price" of education--the need to pay people to do it. That vision is made manifest through a simple calculus. When one aggregates the full cost of the provision of salary and benefits to staff against all of the other costs of operating a university, then those costs tend to dwarf the others. But that says little more than that faculty and staff constitute the largest factor in the production of revenue. It both states the obvious but in a way that suggests something more. And indeed it could suggest the opposite of the purpose for which is is trumpeted--that the larger the percentage of faculty/staff cost, the larger the university and the greater its aggregate revenues.

More interesting but less often used are measures of productivity. These are less often used because the obligations of faculty are not just to churn out class contact time. Faculty are also leveraged by the university to produce prestige (and thereby increase the "quality" of revenue from higher status students, and as a draw for students from other states) and to generate revenues through grant income. More difficult still is quantifying "free" time, the time universities expect faculty to perform that nebulous duty: service. Because these measures are hard to assess, most universities either engage in acts of dissimulation--they reduce faculty productivity to student contact related time (and thus create a tension between internal expectations of productivity and public measures thereof).

More interesting still, if our aim is to measure burdens on revenues, might be to shift the assessment gaze from faculty/staff toward administrators. Thus, for example, a very different picture of "drags" on revenue generation appear when one compares aggregate increases in salary/benefits for faculty against aggregate increases in salary/benefits for administration and athletic personnel. This generates a host of issues--from the assessment of administrative productivity (a measure that universities might appear to be as eager to resist as these institutions have been enthusiastic about applying sometime incomplete or misleading measures to faculty productivity for public consumption). Indeed, if faculty salary/benefits have been substantially flat for the last several years, while those of the administrative and athletic personnel have been increasing and increasingly substantially above the rate of inflation, then it might be possible to conclude that the greatest drag on the growth of marginal revenue lies with administrators and athletics personnel rather than with faculty/staff.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Working Toward a New Social Media Policy for Penn State--Some Resources for University Owned Social Media

I have been writing about issues of university control of social media and efforts to regulate the use of social media, including those neither owned nor controlled nor used for university purposes, but which are maintained by university employees. See Proposing a Set of Social Media Policy Guidelines For Penn State University and links there.

(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2014)

This post includes links to social media policies for academic libraries.  There is much that might be usefully learned here as universities move forward toward social media policies respectful of their own interests and mission and those of the individual liberty interests of its faculty and staff. 

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Widening the Wellness Wars at Penn State--A Report From the Student Front

(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2014)

One of the most contentious issues that now drive university-stakeholder engagement is health care and benefits. This issue has implications not merely for the substantive issues of benefits for employees at universities, but also touches on core issues of shared governance and university culture that will contribute to the changing character of universities going forward. I have been following the wellness wars at Penn State because the university appears to be an "industry leader" in these matters and what happens here will likely shape the way that universities generally will approach these issues. Penn State is not unique--most large universities have, perhaps on the theory of "benchmarking strength in numbers", have coordinated loosely (though I have no idea whether it was intentional or instrumentally managed) on similar approaches at roughly the same time. I have chronicled some of this engagement (e.g., The Wellness Wars Continue--A Task Force is Constituted and the Institutional Role of the Faculty is Reduced in Function; The "Narrative Advantage": The Two Faces of Wellness Programs at Penn State and the Importance of Control Its Master Narrative; The Next Round in the Wellness Wars-- A Response From Faculty Representatives).

While these discussions have centered on faculty and staff, universities have recently opened a new front in their wellness wars--one directed at students. (e.g., The Wellness Wars at Universities Opens a Student Front). This initiative will likely have profound changes on the relationship between universities and their students (especially their graduate students). And, like similar movements to professionalize student athletics (see, e.g., Alicia Jessop, Northwestern Student-Athletes Clear The First Hurdle To Unionize, Forbes, March 26, 2014; Irony and Incoherence in the "Professionalization" of University Education) these moves to "manage" benefits for students will likely also contribute to the move to professionalize graduate students.

Like student-athletes, these students occupy multiple positions within the university. They are both students and also employees, in their latter role playing an increasingly important role in substituting for full time faculty positions (tenured or contract) and serving to leverage senior faculty research projects--which appear to benefit the university in real ways. As these roles change in importance and become unbalanced it is likely to affect the way in which students see themselves and how they respond to changes in "working conditions" offered by the university.

Those changes can be seen at work at Penn State. This post provides an update of the moves and counter-moves that pass for dialogue on these issues at Penn State. Beyond the obvious--the way that ego and hierarchy, the way that entrenched ways of looking at things and the passive "virtues" of incremental modifications to effect profound change--the current state of relations suggests yet more evidence of the consequences of failures to build trust through engagement and open, honest dialogue. Hard decisions will always have to be made in large institutions--but in a university setting, certainly, they need not be made through a hierarchical structure that impedes rather than fosters cooperation and joint effort for a common cause.