Cary Nelson: "Higher Education's Perfect Storm: What Can We Do?" 1/25 Colloquium
Guest Writer: Martha Althea Webber

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

[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 follo
wing 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 Univer
sity 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.”


Make A Comment


Bonnie said...

Thanks Martha for writing on this presentation. I was unable to attend and wanted to know more about it.
It's a national problem, as Meister describes it. I find it really interesting that you linked to his open letter on the LA Public School site, a "free university", of which there are also several springing up around the country.
Are these free universities, open schools, and self-education projects, direct response to the privatization of our universities? And are they a solution?

Anonymous said...

I doubt that free universities can be a solution to anything: least of all to the frame of mind that's evident in the quoted material from Douglas Beck. The idea of sharing administrative costs is not necessarily bad. But what comes next? Elimination of small programs? Small classes? Reduction of tenured faculty in favor of cheaper alternatives? Depressing as his comments in the linked DI interview are, Stanley Ikenberry seems to realize that excellence can't be had on the cheap. His readiness to say in public that maybe UI won't remain "top" in the future is possibly the scariest thing we've heard so far. Let's hope it isn't also one of the most truthful. Thanks to Webber and Nelson and the others for trying at least to get our attention focused before it's too late.

Martha said...

Bonnie: Thanks for your comment, although Kritik kindly provided the links for this piece and I was unaware of the Public School and their function.

Anonymous, I understand your skepticism, but I wouldn't discount the value of alternative sites of education. History shows us their connection to social change can be very profound with very little resources (except the most important: time commitment). Consider 19th and 20th century women's clubs (Gere) or the Civil Rights Movement with the Freedom Schools and Freedom Quilting Bee to name only two of its educational actions that continue today. Whether it is online at a site like Public School, participating in or organizing a democratic employee union, or small physical working groups based on your faculty, graduate department, unit, or other affiliations - as Meister says earlier in that same paragraph of his letter - "the problem is here, the time is now" and we have to build alternative forms of knowledge. If the administration can't uphold the public, land-grant university mission of the universities we are working for, then we have to consider reconnecting to it through alternative forms of rhetorical education.

I downloaded a pdf of Meister's letter in late November 2009. That same week, two things happened:
- 17 November UIUC GEO Strike Ends
- 18 November police taser several UCLA students protesting a mid-year 33% fee increase vote at a University Regents meeting Covel Commons on campus

In the matter of a day my elation at the efficacy of collective action for the protection of public higher education plummeted. I graduated from UCLA in 2004 - only months after Schwarzenegger's election in the "total recall". I was sorry to see his signature on my diploma because he quickly distorted and privatized the public higher education system that had helped me achieve my BA in English through funding support and low fees. During my last year at UCLA I tutored at Covel Commons for ten hours a week - the building is a student resource center devoted to supplementary academic and enrichment activities. Watching students tasered outside of a building where six years before I "discovered" the field of rhetoric and composition and decided to enter graduate studies makes me realize how quickly access can disappear and spaces can change.

Anonymous said...

Martha, I didn't mean to "discount the value of alternative sites". They have a great value. I'm just not ready to assume that "the administration can't uphold the public, land-grant university mission of the universities we are working for." I see the value of alternative sites as supplementary to the fight to preserve (and improve) the research and teaching missions of the public university. As you surely know, everything has a cost. If public research universities and elite private universities stop providing economic security for progressive teaching and scholarship who or what will fund it? Corporations?

Anonymous said...

I am grateful for this thoughtful account, and no less so because I want to quibble on two points among the many important issues that came up at this excellent forum. I’d like to respond to the reference to an administrative memo that “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 haven’t seen anything that would leave me to accept this claim about cheap adjuncts as fact, let alone as obvious, even if we limit our sense of “cheaper” to dollar counts, a limit that, like Webber, I see as suspect. To take only one example, the numbers quoted from the memo seem bizarrely fudged. They assume that an adjunct would teach 1200 “instructional units” a year. That’s 600 a semester, which for one semester equals two classes of 300 or three classes of 200. Cruel, yes, but not obvious or factual, so far as I can see. Nevertheless, if these bizarre calculations make sense, and thus if good education is no longer one of our goals, then why stop there? We could save oodles of dollars if we hired one adjunct (or two, or a hundred) to teach all the instructional units in the university.

The summary also says that “remarks from the floor questioned the merits of unionizing.” I don’t remember any such remarks, but perhaps I have forgotten them. I do remember many remarks from many quarters that enthusiastically supported unionizing.

—Bob Parker

Unit for Criticism said...

Bob, I entirely agree. I wonder how many adjuncts at UI are currently teaching two classes with 300 students each and also how comparable any such adjuncts would be to grad students (who are unlikely to be assigned a class with 300 students). Harriet Murav's post, put up earlier today, contains more information about, and analysis of, this December 2009 memo. On a different note, I too recall enthusiasm from the floor on the possibility of unionization--as well as spontaneous applause when the possibility was mentioned. Lauren

Martha said...

Thanks for your considerations Bob. I agree with your thoughtful analysis of the December 2009 memo especially when you recognize the logic used to justify the memo's figures and how they carry with them the unstated fact that "good education is no longer one of our goals" as an institution. Harriet's post on the memo examines its implications far better than I do here, and I really appreciate the solidarity she has shown to graduate employees on campus.

From my own participation in my employee union (GEO), I encourage all University of Illinois faculty to attend the Campus Faculty Association February 9: speak with your peers to envision collectively what a good education is and the resources, benefits, and values that need to be upheld in order to achieve it.

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Unit for Criticism said...

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