Monday, June 18, 2012

Who is the real university?

When I wrote a two-part post a couple weeks ago, I thought that would be the last of my ranting for a while, at least on the subject of the business of college professorship.  But something happened the other day at my university that has me thinking, about both new issues and old.  Please pardon one more lengthy post on the subject of writers and other teachers who work in higher education.  The impetus for this post is the sudden resignation last Friday of a high ranking administrator at the University of Central Arkansas, the college where I work.  In a curt, out-of-the-blue email, the president of UCA notified the whole campus of this man's resignation and thanked him for his service.  As you might expect, faculty were curious and even buzzing.  Speculation began as to why the man would resign so suddenly.  We figured we would hear something soon as to the why, if not from the administration then from one a few prominent local reporters who have been dogging UCA for many months, covering every facet of its business (especially the unseemly kind).  Three days later, however, no explanaton has been released.   Newspaper articles appeared Saturday, but these offered no reason for the resignation or much information of any kind.  Then Sunday, the day when papers are their largest and fullest, no articles on the subject appeared at all.  Meanwhile, one can gather from commentary on the web sites affiliated with these newspapers that nobody in the know is talking--not the Board of Trustees, not the administration, not the man who resigned.

The only item of interest that was reported in Saturday's articles was that another administrator apparently emailed the university president to say that she feels sorry not just for the man who resigned but "for all of us."  All of us?  All of whom?  The entire university?  Or the tight coterie of administrators bunkered down in Wingo Hall?  And if there's reason to be sorry for "all of us" does this mean some new, previously unknown economic calamity is about to befall UCA, which has suffered through two economic calamities already due to lies, mismanagement, and--yes--even illegal behavior by recent former presidents?  Maybe not, but if so, doesn't the administration owe an explanation to its employees, who are always the ones to bear the cost of any economic downfall?  (Both mismanaging former presidents--even the one who committed the crime--received truly enormous buyouts and were sent merrily on their way, while faculty and staff were left to pick up the pieces and endure the financial consequences.)  And if the current resignation of this  high-ranking official has nothing whatsoever to do with finances, nothing that is going to affect the working lives of the hundreds of faculty and staff at UCA, shouldn't the administration say that at least, to put to rest useless but inevitable speculation?

Here's the nagging question behind my post today, and the real reason why I'm bothered by the lack of information forthcoming: Who and what, after all, is the real university?   Common sense should tell anyone that the thousands of students who pass through a university every year--and the hundreds of faculty who undertake the labor of teaching those students and advising those students and making sure all the paperwork is filled out so that they can finally graduate--and the scores of staff who assist these students and faculty in thousands of countless and crucial practical matters--are the real university.  It is for the sake of such people, to enable them to do their work better, that a university administration exists at all.  And yet increasingly I sense at UCA a deep, fundamental division of upper administration from faculty, students, and staff.  Increasingly, I sense an attitude from the administration that suggests it sees itself as the real university while everyone else on campus is meaningless, even contemptible.  Increasingly, I see a lack of concern for faculty needs, for faculty governance, for faculty opinions.  This despite the fact that our current president is supposed to represent a change of direction for UCA, a change of both style and substance from the homewreckers of recent memory.  I'm still waiting for proof of this new direction.

Two examples and then I'm done.  And please feel free--anyone who reads this--to tell me if similar conditions, or very different ones, exist at your schools.  If your conditions are different, please explain why.   First example: For nearly two years I served on a university task force assigned to develop a fair, clear, and consistent maternity leave policy for faculty across campus.  There was no such policy before and there still is none.  There are no standard practices from department to department, so the fate of any one person's situation depends on the relative generosity of one's chair and dean, and the relative collegiality of one's colleagues (who may be asked to cover another's classes without any additional pay).   In other words, one can't really count on anything.  Some faculty have received humane and sensible maternity leave; others have gotten none.  Others have gotten worse than none; they've actually been reprimanded for being pregnant.  It's an aburd situation, a lawsuit waiting to happen.  Well, after two years, and many many meetings, the task force came up with a very good, clear policy.  One that would apply across the board, would not exploit fellow faculty, and would not by any means bankrupt the university.   Everyone who worked on the task force--even the administrator who acted as our chair--was very excited about the proposal, even proud of it.  We couldn't wait to see it enacted.  So what happened to it?  As soon as the proposal hit the first administrative level it was rejected outright.  We like the current system better, was the word that came back; it will cost less money.  (Yes, and it will abuse many people, break many hearts, and leave the universty naked before a lawsuit.)  Supposedly, the task force was going to review our proposal in light of administrative complaints, but we were never called together as a body again.  The policy proposal was effectively dead in the water.  Two years of work--conscientious, painstaking work--was utterly wasted.  Because of one meeting of administrators.

Second example: As I mentioned in my earlier rant, faculty at UCA have received no pay adjustment for six out of the last seven years.  Moreover, there has been no indication that we should expect any pay adjustments for the foreseeable future.  Worse, there has not been the slightest indication from the administration that this represents a deep and abiding problem, one that needs to be resolved.   In my opinion, in any profession, pay adjustments for productive employees, even if that only means cost-of-living-adjustments (COLAs), should be regular and expected.  Rewarding employees is a normal and vital aspect of keeping any business running smoothly.  Thus a year in which employees receive no pay adjustment should be considered an aberration and an embarrassment, a situation for which employees are owed an apology and promises to do better by them in the future.  Again, this strikes me as common sense management: show the people who work for you that you care about them; you care about their economic conditions and you care about their morale.  At UCA, the exact reverse situation is in place.  A year in which faculty and staff receive COLAs is seen by the administration as an aberrant one; so if they actually deign to bestow upon us that lousy one or two percent increase we are supposed to bestow upon them slobbering gratitude.  And we certainly should not expect any additional COLAs anytime soon.  Years in which there is no COLA?  Well, that's just business as usual, and why should we ever expect one anyway?  Right now, there is no force driving the administration to grant COLAs to faculty and staff.  There is no meaningful pressure on them to do so, and no negative consequences if they don't.  Something like this requires presidential leadership, presidential involvement, presidential commitment.  None has been forthcoming.  UCA administrators en masse do not appear to be motivated by any sense of obligation toward or respect for faculty and staff, nor by any desire to reward and to hold on to hard-working employees.  If that were the case UCA faculty and staff would receive COLAs every year.  (I'm not even talking raises here.  That's pie in the sky; an impossible dream.) The administration's attitude appears to be: If we don't have to give faculty a pay adjustment, why should we?  We can spend that money on our own projects.  

Well, in a non-union environment, and an environment in which administrators increasingly see themselves as the real university and everyone else as considerably less real, this situation will only continue year after year after year after year, through economic good times as well as bad.   After all, only in an environment in which faculty and staff--and even students too--are considered less real than upper administration would a university feel that it didn't owe the campus an explanation for why a high-ranking official resigned.  It's all more of the same from UCA administrators: circling the wagons, insisting on secrecy, evoking executive privilege, viewing themselves as a world apart.  As if that's worked in the past.  Ironically, what I've seen and what I know from my years in higher education is this: university presidents and officials come and go with shocking rapidity; while they're here they act like they are the thing, but all they do is award themselves gigantic salaries, initiate their own pet initiatives, ignore faculty cautions, and make a royal mess.  If you're lucky, they're chased off soon.  At best they do no damage.  Meanwhile, faculty, staff, and students endure: taking and teaching classes, imparting and improving knowledge, nuturing ideas and ambition, developing talents, caring for tender souls, shaping and changing lives.  Doing the real work of the university.

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