Cary Nelson: "Higher Education's Perfect Storm: What Can We Do?" 1/25 Colloquium
Guest Writer: Martha Althea Webber
Wednesday, January 27, 2010
posted under Campus Faculty Association , Cary Nelson , Douglas Beck , furloughs , Harriet Murav , University of Illinois by Unit for Criticism
[On January 25 the Unit for Criticism hosted a colloquium, "Higher Education's Perfect Storm: What Can We Do?," featuring Cary Nelson, professor of English, president of the national AAUP, and author of the forthcoming book No University is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom. We invited responses from Douglas Beck (Physics) and Harriet Murav (Slavic/Comparative & World Lit). Kritik will soon be publishing an abridged version of Professor Murav's response as well as a contribution by Cary Nelson to our ongoing series, "15 Ways to Take Your Furlough/Voluntary Pay Cut."]
Written by Martha Althea Webber (English)
The small snow flurries and sudden drop in temperature that announced Monday's early morning hours progressed to accumulated snow by the evening when I drove across town with two fellow students to attend Cary Nelson's talk and hear respondents Douglas Beck (Physics) and Harriet Murav (Slavic/Comp Lit). Somewhere along Green Street my car fishtailed to the right and – after a brief moment that felt experience draws out interminably – my car crunched abruptly to a stop against the sidewalk curb.
While I may have found relative warmth and stability after taking my seat for his talk, Nelson began to outline the treacherously icy conditions public higher education has faced from the early '90s (in particular for the humanities and interpretive social sciences) which have sharply worsened since the 2008 worldwide economic downturn. Acerbic humor punctuated his talk and the frequent laughter and occasional applause that erupted from the audience following the description of an administrator's expensive misstep or the English building's slum-like condition seemed to suggest that the active portion of the audience has accepted the basic premises of his talk: the quality of public higher education in the United States is going down just as its access is becoming more limited because of higher tuition.
Douglas Beck and Harriet Murav's responses both accepted these premises, so I want to proceed to the most important part of each speakers' contributions to the evening: "What can we do now?" In doing so, I'm glossing over critical information about the University of Illinois' budget that all three speakers addressed and a particularly chilling, post-GEO strike, December 2009 memo sent to departments which highlights how much cheaper adjunct laborers are (or are perceived to be) for the university than graduate student teaching assistants (a fact both obvious and cruel, but disguised in polite terms and abstracted from human value or educational quality through the device of the “instructional unit”). I encourage discussion of these budgetary considerations in your comments, even if brevity and focus preclude me from dwelling on them here.
Cary Nelson argues that "the only issue” during a financial crisis “is how you spend the money you already have" and he offers three solutions on how to re-prioritize and democratize these spending decisions for public higher education. The first step is for faculty to engage in collective action, which could mean unionizing. The second is for a broad campaign of all the stakeholders involved – students, potential students, campus workers, parents of students, tenured faculty, adjuncts, academic professionals, and so on – to revive quality public education. Finally, the last solution demands a fundamental readjustment in campus governance so that a shared governance model replaces the top-down administration that has left departments fishtailing with little to no control over decisions like spending and hiring. Nelson insists that returning to consolations of our scholarly lives is simply no longer a choice we have.
Douglas Beck also acknowledges our need for improved governance: he argues for leadership that comes from the reluctant ranks of the University of Illinois faculty and administration, and shuns the short-term, careerist hires that professional search firms encourage. He believes that we have reached a moment at Illinois during which we have two choices: we can do the same amount poorly or we can do fewer things. Unfortunately there wasn't time at the talk to elaborate what those "fewer things" should be, but he responded to an email query I sent with the following: "there are quite a lot of small programs of various kinds on campus: about 60 Centers, Institutes, Programs and Units, all of whom derive some funding from the university…. Each has some administrative structure – some inconsequentially small, but some significant. Although I believe I can appreciate the value of the distinct and distinctive identities that derive from independence, I nevertheless think it is a luxury we can no longer afford."
Of the three, Harriet Murav's response was the most outwardly impassioned: despite Interim President Ikenberry's claim a few days previously that high standards might be impossible to maintain, we can preserve excellence at the University and it can be economically feasible. While agreeing with Nelson's demand for shared governance, she offers an achievable and clear next step for faculty action: come to the February 9th Campus Faculty Association meeting and help determine your future because collective action may be the only way to stop the erosion of public higher education.
The discussion period that followed was heated. Comments erupted that demanded we must recognize this issue isn't only about four furlough days but also about the plight of all campus workers. Other remarks from the floor questioned the merits of unionizing, the efficacy of the Faculty Senate, and asked what solidarity and action look like and whether it can be brought to the steps of Swanlund or Springfield.
Compared to my drive to the Levis Center, my car ride home with my friends was uneventful, except for my gentle coaxing of the brake pedal and a few lively afterthoughts (respectfully, Professor Nelson, I have seen actual slums and they look nowhere near as sturdy as the aging English Building we share–and I learned about them, not from a book, but through the volunteering that scholars in the interpretive social sciences often refer to as "participant observation").
Returning home to my computer, as the snow flurried outside, I reread the closing lines of Bob Meister's Fall 2009 open letter to University of California students and wondered if the evening's discussion and the actions that may result from it “are building a movement that can produce new knowledge on which other movements could build.”