Wednesday, April 29, 2020

COVID-19 and the University: If you Run the University Like a Commercial Enterprise Don't Be Surprised When Your Customers Sue You for Lack of Service--Brandmeyer v. Regents

Students Sue CSU, UC Systems Over Refunds Of Campus Fees

University propaganda departments have for years nurtured the myth that they can at once be hard headed businesses and at the same time the champions and protectors of some sort of ideal non-commercial Elysian space in which students and faculty might romp in the glorious fields of knowledge creaiton and dissemination undisturbed by the machinery that keeps that enterprise running.

It was both a grand illusion and one increasingly belied by the ways in which university administrators from middle mangers (deans and the equivalent) to high level central administration officials began, like cannibal mice, to gnaw away at the foundations of an institution that for a time  held that dual vision together. In the name of hard headedness a generation of administrators (many though not all of them once academics (though to call them that after a few years in administration is to stretch the concept beyond recognition, especially as they began to see themselves as a distinct social element in the ecology of the university, see, e.g., here) have engaged, among other things,  (1) in the deprofessionalization of the faculty and the substitution of technology enhanced (cheaper and higher profit) learning for increasingly creaky traditional methods of delivery and engagement, (2) in the expansion of the business of the university to include a number of different profit centers (dorms, parking, summer camps, etc,); (3) move from a learning centered to a compliance and risk mitigating fundamental operating mode in which administrators became more valuable (and less fungible) than faculty; and (4) like banks and airlines (two other hard headed businesses in their retail operations)  in the fracturing of pricing models so that students were faced a number of fees beyond tuition, room and board for "value added" services. 

The university was at its best in its rationalization of these revolutionary transformations.  Most successful was their ability to convince everyone that there was no transformation at all--the university was no different than it was in the 1960s, except perhaps that its appointments were more luxurious and its techniques more "up to date." Yet these transformations were not inexpensive (except of course for faculty whose existence constantly depressed the ability to use university income for other, and perhaps, higher, purposes. 

Faculty has been particularly slow in learning the lessons of the modern university and obtuse about the way in which it has transformed their position within this business.

Customers, especially students, however, have learned these lessons much better.  Now COVID-19 has made that lesson learning much more visible.  While the university can shift the "cost" of operations to its faculty and staff, it will find it harder to do so with its students.
Students filed class-action lawsuits against the University of California and California State University systems Monday, demanding refunds of student fees in light of campus closures. The students are suing for a reduction of on-campus services because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but will not sue for the cost of tuition or housing. “University of California’s decision to transition to online classes and to instruct students to leave campus were responsible decisions to make, but it is unfair and unlawful for University of California to retain fees and costs and to pass the losses on to the students and/or their families,” the lawsuit states. The suit was filed on behalf of Claire Brandmeyer, a UC Davis student who left campus in mid-March. The students are suing for refunds of student fees such as the $1,128 UC-wide Student Services Fee paid by UC students, as well as other campus-specific fees. (Students sue UC and CSU systems, demand refunds amid COVID-19 campus closures).
Universities had been more willing to prorate dorm and related costs; but not activities fees. "The universities have been more receptive to refunding or discounting campus dorms, residences and dining plans. UC System President Janet Napolitano outlined in a letter to the legislature, that, “UC is providing students prorated refunds on their housing and dining services agreements in the event they choose to leave on-campus housing" (Students sue California universities over fees lost amid pandemic).

The Complaint in Brandmeyer v. Regents follows below. This is not the only action filed. "To date, higher education institutions the likes of Drexel, the University of Miami, Cornell, Pace, Columbia, Liberty University, Arizona’s state colleges, Vanderbilt and Fordham University have been hit with potential class action litigation over their apparent failure to issue refunds for the COVID-19-shortened Spring 2020 semester." (California Universities Owe Fee Refunds for Pandemic-Shortened Semester, Class Action Suits Say [UPDATE]).

Thursday, April 23, 2020

The COVID-19 Effect on the University: The Populist-Technocratic Model of Governance, Free Riding, and Sorting Through the Financial Consequences of Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has produced a tremendous amount of economic stress to all sectors of the American economy.  Though universities sometimes indulge the conceit that they are neither an "industry" nor that they function like other economic institutional actors, that becomes difficult when they are are the wrong side of economic planning.

The pandemic however, appears to have come to the university, like it has come to every other sector of American industry. Having come, it becomes interesting to see the way in which they respond to crisis.  Will they adopt the same tactics of other industrial sectors, in which middle and high level administrators protect their own turf even as they jettison their workers like any other commodified factor in the production of their positions and the income of their institutors?   Will they use the cover of pandemic to move forward a number of initiatives that tradition, custom or politics made impossible or at least difficult before (in the case of the university the evisceration of effective and muscular shared governance, the shrinking of multi-campus locations deemed uneconomic though serving a public or private mission)? Will the cover of pandemic permit the university to use the crisis and the need to exercise discretion hide a series of long and short term retaliations against individuals deemed troublemakers (e.g., At the Borderlands of Ethics: Soft Retaliation and Unethical Exercises of Administrative Discretion)--especially those who have asserted in a muscular form their responsibilities for what they understood to be shared governance, or those who are simply just "in the way" of the personal agendas of administrators as they reshape their "domains"? Will the university indulge in the sort of free riding that has marked the actions of other institution as they preserve the jobs and status of their middle and higher level administrators and shift the burden of financial distress down to line workers (faculty and staff) especially where that shifting is disproportionate (Subsidizing the Free-Riding State and Enterprise Apparatus on the Backs of those Least Capable of bearing that Burden--The Micro Consequences of COVID-19 and Containment Measures)? To what extent will the university, which has over the last decade, practice energetically its ethical principles as it navigates these stressful decisions ther than by giving them lip service?  

These and other questions have now moved from the realm of the hypothetical.  Over the next several months, university high officials will produce the facts form which a close analysis may be undertaken--and their conduct and decisions subject to the salutary exercise of review and accountability.  For the moment what we have are first moves.  One of the first, though likely to be coordinated with those of sibling universities, is that of Penn State. Its president distributed a message to the university community in which the administration revealed its planing for COVID-19 response.  There is nothing singular about the message; this university merely follows a number of other institutions which have concluded that they face serious fiscal challenges that now require a good faith effort to make critical choices that are meant to protect enterprise mission but which invariably will shift the costs of those efforts among critical stakeholder communities. The danger is that the choices made might well shift the financial burdens of such mission protection among stakeholders in ways that may not reflect their ability to bear those costs. 

These messages do not make for easy reading.  They are crafted using a stylized language now common to the communications of high level U.S. academic administrators  in the second and third decades of the 21st century, a language that is both precisely accurate and also redolent with ambiguity and veiling--carefully crafted for the consumption of a broader public.  Yet they provides  template against which one might usefully study the way that university administrators will re-shape their institutions as they respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.   

The university wide communication follows.  The massaging of the message, in house, will occur at the sort of carefully curated "town-hall" meetings that the university now deploys successfully for managing the message to its internal audience to preserve both stability and the appearance of engagement (see, e.g., On the Practice of Town Hall Meetings in Shared Governance--Populist Technocracy and Engagement at Penn State; Practicing Mass Democracy at Penn State: The New Populist-Technocratic Model of University Governance, Socialization, Stakeholder Management and Benefits).

One can only wish high officials well as they take on the burden--along with their staffs and subordinate officials and overseen, to the extent that is their practice and the law, by their boards of trustees.  And it is kind of them to share, after they have begun wrestling with the titanic issues of governance within that community of managers, to share the fruits of their labors with university stakeholders, especially where, as in many cases, it will be them, for the most part, who will be tasked with bearing the brunt of the burdens shifted down to them as a consequence of the decisions of these high officials. That, certainly becomes clear from a careful reading of the formal messaging of which that of the Penn State President is but an example.

Still, the opportunity presented by efforts to speak to the formal messaging through the device pf these "two hall" events might provide an opportunity to inquire about some of the detail suggested by the by high level messages of this type: (1) to what extent had the administration been transparent about financial issues that appeared to blossom over the course of the six weeks; (2) to what extent were stakeholders involved in the analysis and identification of the choices among which hard financial choices would have top be made; (3) how has the burden of the financial challenges been shared proportionately among all stakeholders, including the offices of high administrative officials; (4) what metrics have been used to assess the value of the choices and to measure their effectiveness going forward; (5) what role did the university faculty senate play in the formulation of the choices and in the determination  of how the burdens would be shared; (6) what accountability measures have the high officials instituted to review and assess the decisions they have adopted; (7) are accountability measures public; (8) in light of the burden shifting from the institution to those of its employees least able to bear the burden of the university's financial challenges, to what extent are its mid¡dole level administrator's guided in the exercise of their discretion with respect to the budget reductions they must implement; (8) what efforts were made to develop these hides with the inputs of all affected stakeholders and how might they participate in the departmental budget reduction processes; (9) to what extent will all decision making be justified by the principles that are meant to guide all decision making at the institution (at Penn State, for example the Penn State Principles); and (10) what alternatives were considered and why were they rejected (including the factors that contributed to the construction of best through worst case scenarios used for planning and choice making)?

Of course, it is unlikely that any of these questions will be asked.  And if asked, it is unlikely that answers would be forthcoming.  And yet, the questions, and their answers, will point to the exact form in which the modern university has transformed itself.  Not that this transformation  is unexpected, as lamentable as it might be to some. Business is business.  But the culture of a business, and the character of its leaders, becomes all the more interesting as a business responds to changes in an industry. Those revelations become clearer when the pace of change increases dramatically.  All the more so when those changes can, through the tragedy of pandemic, become much more clearly visible in ways that produce quite dramatic consequences for those on whose shoulders the university prospers. Lastly, pandemic centers questions of character, questions that become more pronounced where decisions made by those on whom responsibility is delegated produce consequences on those with little power or influence in the construction of those questions or the development of responses. In the context of the university, like other businesses, the more telling of those questions revolve around the ethics of decisions that produce administrative free riding within an institutional context in which those who bear the burden of decision making appear to shift, and quite decisively, the burdens and costs of such decisions to those who are least able to bear the burden of these decisions.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Academic Salaries on the Eve of Pandemic: Data From the AAUP

(Pix credit here
The AAUP has provided some interesting salary data for the US academy.  It has no surprises.  De professionalization and the shifting of prestige from the academic to the administrative side of the house are nicely reinforced by the shift of salary increases from faculty to administrators.  As long as the academy continues to indulge the fantasy that administrators are worth more than faculty (presumably because they are fewer and hold more (and increasing authority) there is nothing that will change these trajectories.  
These valuations,. of course, are constructs, grounded in ancient societal presumptions about the value of work and its alignment with authority.  And of course as the authority and autonomy of faculty decrease, a diminution of salary (as the way one expresses value) is also to be expected. Tied to this is the premise that the lower the value of a worker the more likely she is expendable--high value (salaried) administrators, under this premise, are far less expendable (and less likely to be reduced in numbers in the case of financial difficulties, than are lower value (and more plentiful) teaching "staff. But that is exactly how the market has been solidifying for more than a generation. Data and links follow.