Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Thoughts on Giorgio Agamben - Requiem per gli studenti (A Requiem for Students) and the Birth of the Hollowed Out Simulated University

Therefore the Lord, the God of hosts, the Lord, saith thus; Wailing shall be in all streets; and they shall say in all the highways, Alas! alas! and they shall call the husbandman to mourning, and such as are skilful of lamentation to wailing. . . Woe unto you that desire the day of the Lord! to what end is it for you? the day of the Lord is darkness, and not light. (Amos 5:16, 18)
Giogio Agamben has written an exquisite essay on the university in the wake of COVID-19; It is a lamentation, a wailing, a mourning for the darkness that has been called forth from the pandemic.  It is a provocative piece of impudence at a time when such things may be punished by social actors and risk averse institutions. "Therefore the prudent shall keep silence in that time; for it is an evil time." (Amos 5:13). Agamben has chosen to speak; it is not clear who is left to listen.  And yet the movement toward the reconstruction of the university as simulacra--the way that it parallels the movement toward the reconception of political space as a complex living analytics better understood through models than in flesh and blood--is worth pondering. The techno-populism that the university has become is likely the best simulation of the transformation of society that one can observe as the moment. What comes after pondering, and after observing in these times, is truly best left to silence.  

The essay, Requiem per gli studenti, follows (first published in Diario della crisi of the Instituto Italiano per gli Studi Filosofici 22 May 2020) along with my own brief reflections and a crude English translation. 

Friday, June 12, 2020

Shifting the Employment Paradigm in the Shadow of COVID-19: "Open Letter to the Penn State Administration Regarding Plans for the Fall and the Response to COVID-19"

Pix© Larry Catá Backer, Flop, Needlepoint Pillow, Kuntshaus Zurich, displayed at the Museum of the Ohio State University Columbus

Like most universities of its type, Penn State University has been facing a number of substantial challenges  during the course of the initial phases of the COVID-19 pandemic.  Like most universities, like moved its classes online since March 2020, and has effectively closed its physical facilities during the most dangerous period of transmission of the disease. It has also brought most of their students and faculty home and forbidden travel, especially foreign travel, for a long period to come. Like most universities, it is wrestling with the issue of an Autumn term, balancing the needs of safety with the realities of institutional finance (and collaterally, the preservation of the value of traditional face to face instruction and the solidarity achieved by a community of students coming together in shared space).

The closing of borders, the effect of the move to online teaching, the loss of revenue from operations over the summer and related to student services, and the fear of a drop in enrollment for the autumn term has many university high administrators worries.  Many university administration across the nation have been proactive in working through their worry. One of the most worrisome elements, it seems, is the cost of university operations.  And in the context where teaching and teaching services both account for a large portion of revenues and a sizeable portion of expense (without for the moment considering the drain on university resources of ever expanding compliance and other administrative bureaucracies) some high administrators have begun to target teaching resources as an area where pruning--predictive or anticipated pruning, may be undertaken with the greatest benefit to the fiscal integrity of the university (again without taking into account the revenue drain of its burgeoning bureaucracies).

It is in this context, as well, that Penn State University appears to have chosen to modify its relationship with its contract or fixed term faculty.  Having grown the percentage of fixed term faculty as against tenured or tenure line faculty for a generation, on the basis of all sorts of rationales, not the least of which was that fixed term faculty provide the university with flexibility in meeting and changing teaching demand more quickly and efficiently.  Of course, in the process fundamentally changed the character and protections of the teaching element of the university. 

Now the university appears to be seeking to deploy that power of flexibility proactively by changing a key contract term in the employment contracts of its fixed term faculty. More specifically, it has inserted sme language in their contracts: "This appointment can also be terminated on twelve weeks notice in the event of serious budget or enrollment challenges; all of which shall be determined by the university at its sole discretion." Even assuming that one might read some sort of rwasonablness or good faith constraints, the laguage effectively gives the university unfetterd authority to treat their contract faculty as disposable goods--disposable even before it might consider disposing of other things. Yet, the university would remind its fixed term employees, in the nature of the fixed term relationship.  Little solace to employees who until a few weeks ago conted their service, as well as their expectaiton of continuation, in years.

Simultaneously, the universty, like its peer institutions, has also been busy developing procedures, rules, and approaches to the operation of the institution for the Autumn term, none of which involved faculty to any substantial extent.  But that is hardly to be surprising.  The university, like virtually all others, has merely contributed it bit to a national trend that has reduced faculty shared governance to a vestigial form.  Faculty involvement has been bureaucratized--it is increasingly limited to ritualized post hoc consultation, and to the selection of favored symbolically representative faculty on administrative committees where the real governance of the university is undertaken. Within this new constellation of governance, the formal structures of the faculty have all but disappeared. But that has been something the direction of which has been well known even as those who warned of its trajectory were ignored and marginalized. 

Even the faculty now understands these realities.  And so faced with the tremendous challenge of university action with respect to which there has been little direct faculty input that is meaningful, and developed in a process notorious for its behind closed door development, a group of faculty has had to circulate a letter for mass signature as a means of conveying its own perspectives on anticipated actions by the university.  That letter-- Open Letter to the Penn State Administration Regarding Plans for the Fall and the Response to COVID-19--has been posted for signature.  And it has indeed garnered  a number of signatures. It is not clear where, in similar contexts across the nation, the formal faculty representative organization can play an effective role.

The letter, along with links to the original site where it is posted, follows as it appeared on 12 June 2020.  An active engagement with its contents is encouraged, as potentially the only sort of forum left to faculty increasingly cut out of a ritualized process of engagement tightly overseen by administrators  with the power to retaliate against expression they find 'threatening' or 'unpleasant.'

Monday, June 1, 2020

The Elite University Administrator-Priest and Orthodox American Civic Religion: David Westbrook, "The Church of Harvard A Reading of President Bacow’s “What I Believe”"

From the end of the 19th century the American political vanguard (civilized Americans at the top of whatever then passed for hierarchies of power), like their Marxist-Leninist analogues, have been driven toward civic values as a means of civilizing the masses of migrants now grown powerful through the discovery of the power of disciplined voting. This informal but well organized vanguard group, our American aristocracy, continues to work diligently to develop an orthodox civic religion through which they could oversee the transformation of the American masses into something like the ideal American (the way that Marxist Leninist vanguards seek to develop the ideal worker, or the ideal socialist citizen). It was to be grounded in the articulation of authoritative meaning in the form of the core principles of the American nation. The application of its principles were to be protected (and interpreted) by an alliance of industrialists, financiers, elite lawyers and judges, high government officials, and the leaders of the leading universities. 

That alliance produced a powerful engine for meaning making, and the making of the American sense of itself well solidified in something like its present form just in time for the global unrest unleashed by the first post World War 2 generation eager to translate the principles of the American Republic so carefully developed  by these elites in ways better suited to their own desires.  This collective meaning making was to be enveloped in the language of the core principles of the American political economic model--democracy, stake holding, participation, inclusion, elections, and the like.

But this movement  also produced a substantial divide, the ruptures of which manifesting first in more benign form from the rebellion of Barry Goldwater to the election of Ronald Reagan, and then in its fully mature form with the election of Donald Trump in 2016. Still, the old aristocratic vanguard held together. Its priesthood remained deeply embedded within the societal institutions that drove and shaped cultural narrative. Now allied with sectors of the tech industry, the vanguard could more easily leverage its interventions, and use societal techniques to ensure the privileged position of the orthodoxy over the application of which they presided. To a large extent it is still true that failure to embrace the orthodox position can serve to effectively block any real chance for someone to rise with social, economic, religious and political hierarchies.But reactive forces ought not to be underestimated as rising cunter vanguards emerge.

Within the traditional vanguard united front, the university has always played a key role.  The university served, in substantial respect, as the magisterium of the American civic religion, and the professorate its priests.  That has changed since the 1960s.  The role of priest may still be undertaken by the professorate, but it is the high university official, the leading administrator, that has taken for herself the role of "higher" priest in the Church of Academic verities. And even as that has occurred, sites of resistance has also manifested, sites that seek to produce a counter narrative, one embraced  by a reforming faction, even within the university.

These are the themes that are superbly considered in David A. Westbrook marvelous essay.  Entitled "The Church of Harvard A Reading of President Bacow’s “What I Believe”" the essay first appeared in Medium on 31 May 2020.  The essay is very well worth reading for  its many insights into the complex interweaving of collective meaning making, the academy, its administrators, and the management of social narrative. 

Professor Westbrook has kindly permitted me to re-post his marvelous essay.  It follows below. The original may be accessed HERE.  His bio also follows.