15 Ways to Take Your Furlough/Voluntary Pay Cut #10
"On Conversations, and On Silence"

Monday, March 8, 2010

posted under , , , , by Carl Lehnen
[The next in our "15 Ways to Take Your Furlough/Voluntary Pay Cut" series on higher education is contributed by Joyce Tolliver, associate professor of Spanish and Gender & Women's Studies as well as Chair of the Faculty Senate Executive Committee]

Written by Joyce Tolliver (Spanish/GWS, Chair of the Faculty Senate Executive Committee)

Some recent scenes from the post-meltdown era:

1. Mid-December. My brother from out of state writes us all an email message to let us know that he has been let go from the office job where he has worked for over a decade, effective right after the holidays. Three weeks later, when there is a family emergency, my brother finds a cheap flight home. He has grown a beard, full of white and gray. “I’ll shave it once I start interviewing,” he says, “just in case there is anyone out there who believes I am ten years younger than I really am without this on my chin.” I mentally thank all the gods and goddesses that my brother has spent the last thirty years using much better moisturizer than I do. In spite of the fact that my best friend always unwittingly tests our friendship by calling him “your younger brother,” he is three years older than I am. And, in spite of his extensive knowledge, incisive intelligence, and many talents, he has no degree higher than high school.

2. January 5: I read the Mass Mail sent by Stan Ikenberry informing us that we will be getting two percent of our annual salary lopped off in the form of four furlough days, and that most administrators will be taking ten furlough days. I think about emailing my brother: “Guess what! I’m unemployed too! Kind of...one day a month...for four months!” Instead, I turn the laptop off, and send him a cheery card with a check inside.

3. January 6: I call my friend Moe, who works at one of the Cal State universities. I want to ask him how he is handling furloughs, find out how he handles the hit to his budget and the insult to his professional integrity. There is no answer, so I leave a message. He calls back the following week and leaves a message in return: “Sorry I missed you. I was at the beach. Furlough day!” When we do talk, I ask him about the pay cuts, about the lowered morale, about how outrageous it all is. “You think I should apply for a job in Illinois?” he asks. We both laugh. “No,” I say. “There’s no beach here.”

4. February 12: Paul, the plumber, stops by to take one more stab at fixing the toilet. It’s a Friday afternoon, and the third time I have made a point of being home on a weekday so I could face this domestic problem—not a big deal, really, since my schedule is flexible on Fridays and I work better at home than in my office anyway. He knows I teach at the U of I, and the talk turns to furloughs. He asks me how furloughs work, and then thinks about what I tell him: “So, you get to take a day off every month, you can decide which day, it can even be a Friday or a Monday—you could have, like, a long Valentines’ Day weekend—you don’t get paid for that day but you don’t lose your job for taking so much time off work?” I think about telling him that the key point here is that, hel-looo, I don’t get paid, clarifying that a two percent cut off my yearly salary actually means more like six percent off the paycheck for the furloughed period, reminding him that the papers I don’t grade and all the email messages I ignore one day will still be there waiting for me the next day. Instead, I just say, “Right.” He looks up at the ceiling, grins, then looks back down at me. “Awesome!”

* * *

Were there alternatives to furloughs? Without a doubt, and some were certainly worse. Were furloughs justified? There’s a legitimate debate about that. Some days, I do wonder whether the seventeen million was worth all the sturm und drang.

I have smart colleagues and dear friends who say furloughs are an assault on the faculty, short-sighted, an irresponsible overreaction, nothing but cynical political manipulation. I’ve said some of these things myself, not just to my colleagues but also to the folks who work over in the Henry Administration Building.

But I’ve never had the nerve to say these things to my brother, or to Paul, or to anyone in my family—working-class people who have walked picket lines in the mid-December snow, worrying about whether Santa was going to have to take a rain check this year; store managers and pipefitters and waitresses who are grateful for every day they don’t get an electronic pink slip, for every day they can still pay their mortgages and buy groceries; hard-working model employees who never could understand how it is that anyone who is not on the Supreme Court can really be guaranteed a job for life, barring major illegal screw-ups.

I don’t talk about furloughs or pay-cuts with my family. When I am sitting around the kitchen table with my brothers and sister and my stepmom, the conversation slows only when it’s time for the local weather report. But when the talk turns to the economy--to the son-in-law and the cousin and the neighbor who are not working, to the Medicare running out and the truck leaking oil, to the bills that will just have to sit awhile—then, for once, the professor shuts the heck up.

* * *

We are facing some of the same struggles now, the same anxieties, as Americans in almost every other industry and walk of life: the university is confronting the reality of downsizing, and this is a very unfamiliar and uncomfortable state for most of us. Despite that, we tenured faculty are perhaps the most privileged of all American workers. It’s all too easy for us to forget that.

Perhaps it will come as a surprise to know that one of the main reasons faculty governance groups accepted the idea of furloughs was out of a sense of solidarity with other university staff we knew would be suffering much more severe cuts, even losing their jobs. Furloughs for faculty would not prevent all those cuts, but we felt that it was important to do our part—and, in the best of circumstances, perhaps our small pay cut could keep some staff members working, even if it would not prevent all layoffs.

By now, it has become obvious that furloughs are far from the most difficult sacrifices and changes we will face in the weeks and months to come. But, given the unparalleled job security and other luxuries we now take for granted, it strikes me as a parody of a certain kind of watered-down Marxism to think that we are exploited or oppressed. We are, in fact, incredibly fortunate.

And one aspect of our good fortune is that elected representatives of the faculty are, at present, listened to and respected by the people who are ultimately responsible for administrative decisions; there is a codified structure that allows us to express our concerns as professionals and as core members of this campus community. For many years, and most intensely in the past few months, I have committed myself to the primary venue in which that happens: the Senate and its framework of shared governance. I have accepted the responsibility of keeping the conversation with the administration going in order to serve and advance the interests of faculty. I know this structure works, because I have seen it work to the benefit of faculty, staff, and students across many, many issues over the years. And we need it all the more now.

The budget crisis is real, and all signs are that it will get worse before it gets better. As in any crisis, it is urgent that we pay close attention to how we use our collective and individual energies. We cannot afford to lose perspective; neither can we afford the luxury of fractiousness.

And we cannot afford the luxury of staying outside the conversation, or of limiting our conversations to those who already think as we do. If we want to influence the shape of the change that will occur on our campus—as we must-- we have got to stay at the table, even when those seats at the table become hard, and when the conversation becomes uncomfortable. Now, and even more in the months to come, we will need to work hard at creating calm, collaborative conversations with colleagues in our units, across campus, and across the three campuses, so that we can decide together how we are going to protect the generation of the sorts of knowledge that transform our culture and the lives of individuals--and how to keep access to that knowledge open to qualified students who do not come from backgrounds of privilege.

In order to make that multifaceted decision, we’ll have to let go of the desire to place protection of our own disciplinary turf above all other concerns, and let go of the rhetoric of blame. That is, we will have to talk, passionately but respectfully, to those who need to hear our messages. And we will have to truly listen, to attend, in silence for just a moment, to those whose voices may not have entered our conversations before. Our collective survival depends on it.


Make A Comment


Anonymous said...

And we cannot afford the luxury of staying outside the conversation...

What do you mean "we," paleface?

KBHC said...

I appreciate your message, Joyce. My concern is that, in some ways, you have mischaracterized how faculty feel about the situation. Furloughs are easy to rally and organize around, but I don't think anyone would begrudge the university a two percent pay cut if we hadn't already had our trust eroded by an opaque budget process and diminution of the core mission of research, teaching and service. If in my years as a student and employee in higher education, I really felt like I had ever been at an institution that was completely transparent with its finances and treated me as if I was smart enough to participate in decision-making... if I didn't feel as though higher education was turning into a large classroom accreditation machine based off high tuition and soft money from grant overhead... that would change the game for me, and that institution would have my undying loyalty.

That said, the place I agree with you is that we have to be vigilant about how we protect our turf. This is why I believe in collective bargaining: having a union represent me would mean I have more of a say over how the pie is cut, not that I would automatically get a bigger piece. I would work with my brothers and sisters in other disciplines, other professions, across the university to secure a good life for all of us. Because the one danger of faculty crying foul about furloughs is that we could forget about graduate students, contingent faculty, academic professionals, and many other workers here in our effort to protect fairly privileged jobs.

John Randolph said...

I would like to thank Joyce Tolliver for this post, and for her outstanding leadership of the Senate in difficult times.

I would like to ask the people who choose to post anonymously (perhaps for good reasons) to do so thoughtfully.

Anonymous said...

Professor Tolliver you mean well and doubtless work hard but I think you may not be listening carefully enough. You ask us to stay at the table as if there is a table we've gotten up from. Well where is it? How many faculty have been invited to sit down and with who? Also why can't the table be a table of collective bargaining? Isn't that another way of sitting down to listen and communicate? I could be misreading your intentions, but you seem to be saying that there's a lot of disrespectful non-listening going on. But you don't say where. Is it in the senate? On this blog? During the furlough days? Professor Tolliver: please tell us so that we can understand you. Who is being disrespectful? Who isn't listening? Who is leaving the table?

Lauren said...

I want to thank Joyce Tolliver for taking part in this series which is itself testimony to her strong commitment to dialogue--the conversation alluded to in the title of her post. It's a moving and thought-provoking post and I learned from reading it.

I think the part of the post with which I disagree is the implication that faculty who are responding to the budget crisis with demands for greater transparency and shared governance are somehow insensitive to the plight of others or unaware of their privileges as tenured faculty. In fact, some of us are concerned right now because we fear that the budget crisis will become the occasion for replacing (over the course of time) the relatively secure faculty members whom we know ourselves to be with insecure, contingent and poorly-compensated instructors. I don't in other words see myself as protecting my turf; I see myself as protecting the kind of reasonably secure employment I would like my graduate students to look forward to upon completion of their degrees (on this point see the recent post in this series by the GEO members). I also believe that this kind of security benefits undergraduates and the overall teaching, research, and service missions of this university.

Now this institution may well need to face difficult decisions in the days and years ahead. And that process, insofar as it's inclusive, will certainly require the kind of mutually respectful conversations you urge us to undertake. There I think we are in complete agreement.

Where we may disagree is in the roll that a unionized faculty might play in encouraging this process. Speaking for myself, I don't see the Faculty Senate and a faculty union as mutually excluding in any way. Both can be positive vehicles for shared governance because both can provide faculty with a means of making their voices heard. It seems to me that a strong faculty voice is in the interests of everyone who genuinely wants to preserve the mission of this university.

To be sure, faculty need to have eyes and ears as well as voices. But is there any evidence that those who have spoken up for the faculty are speaking in the absence of listening and reading what has been made available to them? That's certainly not what I heard at the teach-in on February 15. And the people who have been participating in Kritik's "15 Ways" series strike me as avid readers of the documents that have been provided on the subject of the budget crisis.

I wonder if you agree with me thus far. And let me say too that if I've misunderstood you in any way I'm sorry for it and hope you will take this occasion to set me straight. Thank you again for your thoughtfulness and commitment.
Lauren Goodlad

Joyce Tolliver said...

Thanks to Lauren, Anonymous2, John, and KBHC for these thoughtful comments. I hesitate to impose of folks' patience, but as I have explicitly been asked to respond, I will do so.

My personal narration of silence at the beginning of this little piece was not meant to silence anyone else. It was meant simply to share my gut reaction as I witness the real travails of folks who are close to me and who are suffering a LOT more than I am right now. I wanted to frame my observations about shared governance, about conversation within our privileged community, within this larger context of a world--in particular the working-class world that I come from--where the stakes are much higher.

By no means do I mean to imply that faculty who insist on transparency in the process, or, much less, faculty who protect the shared governance process are somehow insensitive or stubborn. On the contrary: we MUST be sure the decision-making processes on our campus are as open as possible, and we MUST defend the shared governance model. In this sense, perhaps you are right, Lauren, that we are protecting our turf: I am all for this, as long as "our" turf is wide and open, and does not end where the neighbor's department begins.

In my contribution to the blog, I do not address the question of unionization, because my intention is to speak about the decisions we must make NOW and in the next few months. There is not currently a collective bargaining unit for faculty members, for better or for worse. There is no bargaining table for faculty members. There may or may not be in the future, but for now, the table we DO have available to us is the metaphorical table of shared governance: the table you sit around, literally or metaphorically, at department meetings, at College committee meetings, at Senate meetings and at meetings of its committees.

I have witnessed the refusal of colleagues to come to this particular table, the one that exists right now, because it is deemed insufficient, or dull, or intimidating, or somehow lacking in other ways. That refusal is the luxury we cannot afford right now: we must use the power we have RIGHT NOW to shape our immediate and long-term future. That means entering into real conversation, which is the really hard part. This is not easy, because you can only do this if you let go of the narrative that tells you that our world is divided into "us" and "them"--the north of Green and the south of Green; the faculty and the administrators; the grant-getters and the Humanists.

Last Thursday night, I witnessed a lovely example of the possibilities of the kind of dialogue that can occur when at least one of those binaries is relinquished, at the forum on the University's core mission that the CFA sponsored. Faculty from all over campus described their disciplinary worlds--their turfs--for colleagues, and I witnessed some real listening and sharing. Today, I spent nearly five hours listening and speaking to students, to faculty colleagues from all over campus, and to Swanlund administrators, which is another kind of fence-squashing--the kind that shared governance is based on. At both events, I think we came closer to solving some problems that we ALL wanted to solve, to protect our SHARED turf. (Thanks, Lauren, for showing me the greater possibilities of tweaking that metaphor!)

Unit for Criticism said...

Thanks, Joyce, for taking the time to reply to everyone, including me. I really appreciate the energy that's involved! Yes, the "shared turf" we are defending is affordable public education; the kind that recognizes the value of a wide range of knowledges, theoretical and humanistic as well as practical and professional.

I agree that an us/them mentality is unhelpful and also that squabbles among disciplines or campus units are counterproductive. The fact remains, however, that whenever you set out to change something--particularly when your goal or need is to make it less costly--there are likely to be winners and losers. (This actually came up in just those terms at a very productive meeting I had with a business professor yesterday.) And there are a variety of inequities already built into the status quo. So I'm not excusing anyone who refuses to come to a particular table. But what I would say is that right now the tables are few, the guests are often pre-selected, and the outcomes at times appear to be overdetermined or constrained to a particular set of metrics to which some parties at the table never agreed.

You are right that the answer to that situation has to be more than apathy or criticism from a distance. Perhaps others taking part in this discussion will have more to say about how we might best use the "power we have right now."

Thanks again. Lauren G.

KBHC said...

I think it also makes sense to note that the budget meetings are not exactly practicing the kinds of active learning we strive to use in our own classrooms: they are top-down. The people being selected for committees and task forces are mostly already administrators. I'd like to know how they were selected also. So if I am talked at in budget meetings, and not selected for any committees or task forces, what table, exactly, am I not coming to?

Anonymous said...

Right, KBHC. The whole table metaphor is misleading. There is no table.