15 Ways to Take Your Furlough/Voluntary Pay Cut
#5: "A Furlough to Arms"

Friday, February 5, 2010

posted under , , , , , by Unit for Criticism

[Cary Nelson's contribution to the "15 Ways to Take Your Furlough/Voluntary Pay Cut" series on the condition of higher education is excerpted from the lecture he gave for the Unit for Criticism's January 25 colloquium, "Higher Education's Perfect Storm: What Can We Do?"]

Written by Cary Nelson (English/President, AAUP)

The requirement to choose between a 2% salary cut and self-selected furlough days is not simply a matter of convenience. It represents a series of fundamental political choices. We can lie about our likely activities and pledge to do no work for four days.

I would urge faculty members instead to pick furlough days and use one such day to self-report violations, then join the collective activities organized by the Campus Faculty Association, including their February 9 meeting and February 15 common action day/teach-in. Contrary to the Senate Executive Committee's call to "contain the damage," I do not believe we should make seamless cooperation our goal.

The list of prohibitions on furlough days is itself an unacceptable embarrassment to institutions like the University of Wisconsin which has distributed them. No visits to your office or your lab, no professional phone calls to students or colleagues, no research oriented reading or writing, no university work of any kind. Not only do these protocols offend academic freedom, they violate your human rights. Thus I regard self-reporting violations as a form of nonviolent professional disobedience, conscientious objection to the war against the faculty.

So, alternatively, you can admit the furloughs were really a salary cut and just take a 2% reduction. But then the two choices—pretending not to work, or admitting you will work without pay-- put the lie to each other. Apparently our senior administrators were not prepared for the news that some faculty members prefer not to lie. At the moment, we can either accept the administration’s paternalism on good faith, or we can resist. We can also let a thousand flowers bloom, resisting on one day, cooperating on another, hold a mass teach-in, volunteering in the community, and so forth. A public display of faculty/staff solidarity is an important component of an activist strategy. But do not delude yourselves into believing you can win public support for teaching and research if you limit yourself to volunteering in an old folks home or adopting a highway for a faculty cleanup project. You cannot build public admiration for our core activities indirectly. Moreover, unless deliberate noncompliance is part of our collective response, it will not have sufficient impact.

Taking the 2% salary cut is easier, but it includes no element of resistance. Combining a teach-in with nonviolent professional resistance establishes a full protocol for the faculty to assert its rights and its point of view. If at least 100 faculty members agree to identify furlough days and then publicly declare that they “read a book,” “talked with a student,” “worked in their lab,” etc., on one of the furlough days, then we can gain national publicity for a faculty collective voice.

I know some of you will say “We do not see the benefit of being confrontational,” and I also know what that really means. “My dignity is fragile,” “I am afraid of retaliation.” “If I keep my head down maybe the world will stay the same.” A research university is a roiling mix of fear, arrogance, and idealism. But the first of these, fear, is never far from the surface. I understand that. I’m no less subject to it than any of you. I have just learned to control it and move on. That is what you must do if you wish some control over your fate. That said, if the administration is foolish enough to punish you for reading a book, then let them reap what they will have sown. They would be the laughing stock of higher education. I do not believe they will go there.

Be assured, the furloughs are in place not because the university lacks the money to pay faculty/staff salaries but because there is a cash flow problem and the university prefers to spend the available funds in other ways, to protect other priorities.

Not, of course, that we really know what all those other priorities actually are. The faculty needs independent sources of information. We could fund an annual audit through the AAUP for about $4,000. The AAUP has already donated a general audit of the system and can now move on to detailed campus-by-campus reports. Short of that, there is every reason to distrust a university budget. We have never seen one that is adequate, never seen one that lists all resources available to an institution. Over the last year we have analyzed budgets for a dozen large institutions that claimed severe financial difficulty and found all the claims false. On the other hand we have found several small schools to be literally in jeopardy of financial collapse, but that is not the U of I’s situation.

Despite some loss from investments, total UI revenues grew from 3.573 billion in 2005 to 4.046 billion in 2008. Tuition and fees in the same period grew from 507 million to 662 million. Bonds payable are at $1 billion, but our total assets are over $5 billion. Interest payments on our debts come to only 2% of our budget. Our cash flow projections have to be modified by removing depreciation costs from the budget, since depreciation is not a cash expense. Overall, the UI is in excellent financial health.

The one alarming piece of financial data is that while expenditures on instruction increased only 12% from 2005 to 2008, and expenditures on research increased only 2%, three of the four administrative categories increased more than 20% in the same period. In the financial report on the UI system that the national AAUP just released, we conclude that the fact that UI administrative costs have increased at a substantially higher rate than expenditures on teaching and research suggests “the UI system has not be true to the core academic mission” (13).

Now ask yourselves this: if you look at senior administrator’s salaries three to five years from now, will they have been handsomely overcompensated for their 2010 furlough days? Will faculty and staff?

The assurance that the university will honor its core mission is thus the least reassuring thing one hears. For we are not in agreement about what our core mission is. We now have an honorable interim president, but some of the mid-level administrators who transferred funds to cover the losses from Global Campus or facilitated clouted admissions are still in place. The ideology that endorsed the Academy on Capitalism has not been rooted out. This remains an entrepreneurial campus looking toward defunding the humanities and the interpretive social sciences. Unless you are perceived as bringing in money, a perception that is often misleading, you have no reason to trust the administration.

For, short of outright gifts, dollars often come packed in a Trojan horse. The administration is well aware that the grants supporting big budget science or engineering research often do not cover all costs. So tuition income is siphoned off from other units. Global Campus is the model for every major initiative. And this system of robbing Peter to pay Paul operates without informed faculty consent. A ruling ideology and set of priorities have increasingly been imposed on the campus without adequate consultation or buy-in.

Our current system of shared governance is not adequate to address either the ideological differences or the compensation gap between faculty and administrators. That does not, however, mean that I am opposed to cooperating with good administrators. For nearly twenty years, a succession of deans and provosts and chancellors routinely posed the same question: “How are humanities, science, and social science disciplines evolving and how can Illinois be a leader in those changes?” They were eager to invest in the whole range of disciplines so as to make that happen.

But the world has changed. The administration is no longer genuinely interested in what the humanities have to offer the country. The sciences in many ways have it worse. Tenured humanities faculty members at least have intellectual control over their diminished patrimony. Scientists forced to turn to corporations to fund their work are frequently compelled to focus on producing marketable products, rather than on fundamental research. And now the university itself touts research that translates into products. If all this were just a local phenomenon, it could be reversed. But these are national and international trends.

The faculty needs an independent voice willing to speak truth to power. It needs an organization with sufficient membership and sufficient independent financial resources to be a decisive force on campus. The faculty senate, only intermittently reliable, is not a sufficiently independent or courageous voice. Like many senates nationwide, it can be corrupted by members hoping to use the body as a route to a well-paid administrative position. It can be compromised by a tendency to withhold critical information from the faculty as a whole.

The standard form of financially and legally empowered faculty organization is called a union, but there are examples of nonunion but dues paying faculty organizations—including nonunion AAUP chapters with majority membership--that also negotiate salary, benefits, shared governance, and academic freedom issues with the administration.

As it stands now, candidates for senior administrative positions come for an interview, assure us they love children, puppy dogs, and arts and humanities faculty, then do as they please as soon as they are on the job. Humanists lose their infrastructural support, and scientists lose their academic freedom.

Why on earth should two thousand PhDs cede their collective fates to a provost, a chancellor, or a president? Do they know more than we do? Are they more enlightened? Do they better understand what a university is or should be? Do they have research and teaching experience? Did you have that confidence in Joe White? Do you have that confidence in the board of trustees? Do you think the next administrator will be a philosopher king or queen?

The second chapter of my new book No University is an Island (NYU) is devoted to enumerating and analyzing the threats to academic freedom posed by higher education’s transformed administrative and cultural climate. I list sixteen, pointing out that the U of I regularly violates merely 15 of those. The key threats to academic freedom include:

1. INSTRUMENTALIZATION (the notion that higher education is first and foremost job training);
2. CONTINGENCY (the shift to faculty without job security and full academic freedom;
6. UNWARRANTED RESEARCH OVERSIGHT (as with institutional review boards);
and finally

About the last threat, I say in part: The recession gives administrators the opportunity to claim financial crisis whether or not it is true. Their plans often demonstrate they do not share the same values, priorities, loyalties, goals, and sense of mission as the faculty.

Deciding how to deal with either real or imagined financial constraints entails fundamental moral and ethical issues. How well schools deal with them—whether they are even willing to address them—may depend on how staffing and compensation have evolved over the last two generations.

An institution that pays its president and its football coach half a million dollars a year or more, an institution that has bought into huge disparities between salaries for humanities and business faculty, an institution that already pays contingent faculty subminimum wages, may be ill-prepared to address the ethics of employment in a “crisis.” Nothing is more disingenuous in the context of an amoral salary schedule than an administrative declaration that “we all have to share the pain equally.”

If the worldwide recession continues, many institutions will face a fundamental choice—whether to exacerbate or ameliorate pay schedules and working conditions that are wholly unfair. Should campuses now reap the fruits of gradually enhanced exploitation or take this as an opportunity to address them? In any case, the central issue is always how you spend the money you have. That requires broad campus-wide consultation. Otherwise both shared governance and academic freedom will suffer.

The university has a cash flow problem, but the reason the faculty is being subjected to taxation without representation is that the administration has other priorities for spending the money is does have. The main problem is with Swanlund, not Springfield. There is one and only one solution to these problems—collective action. Reconceive faculty identity to embrace both careerism and community responsibility. Then act. The jury is still out on whether this faculty can rise to the occasion.

Long term, we will need to see the operational fruits of faculty solidarity. That will require:
  1. A sustained conversation about the mission of the university and a search for faculty consensus about what that mission is. Until then, special pleading for disciplinary utility or funding is likely to be unsuccessful.
  2. A broad campaign to create a coalition of students, faculty, parents, administrators, citizens, and legislators to revive the commitment to public higher education. It has begun in California, with the realization it is not a short-term goal.
  3. A readjustment of the power relations between faculty and administration. That will mean broader faculty involvement in campus governance.

There really is no other choice. The only other option is to work at a university whose overall goals and practices many of us do not believe in. Meanwhile, idealism harnessed to progressive self-interest can overcome fear and arrogance. But only if we remake our lives.


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KBHC said...

Thank you, Cary, for your thoughtful response to this crisis.

Anonymous said...

"The main problem is with Swanlund, not Springfield." I get the point of the contrast in the context of your argument but I'd say the problem is with both. Useful piece though.