15 Ways to Take Your Furlough/Voluntary Pay Cut #14a

Sunday, April 11, 2010

[The latest additions to the Unit for Criticism's "15 Ways to Take Your Furlough/Voluntary Paycut" series on higher education are by Zsuzsa Gille, associate professor of sociology, writing on university administration from the perspective of neoliberalism, and James Treat, associate professor of religion, waxing lyrical (below)]

"Ratemyadministrators.com or, Finding a point of intervention in the neoliberal catch-22"

Written by Zsuzsa Gille (Sociology)

As we continue expressing our critique of how the University of Illinois deals with its fiscal crisis, it is important to see this moment as part of a longer and larger project. I am no expert in educational policies; I am a sociologist who studies globalization and neoliberalism, and it is that vantage point which I recommend for our consideration.

There are two key parts to the neoliberal agenda which have been implemented in U.S. public education. Both are self-generating, so I will call them vicious circle #1 and #2.

Vicious circle #1: The making of the irrelevant faculty class.

We have seen an intensificaton and acceleration of what Mario Tronti calls the withdrawal of capital from the class relationship.

Since the late 1980s a rapidly increasing portion of profit has come to derive not from actual production of useful commodities but from speculative ventures like the credit devices responsible for the current global financial crisis. In a similar move, our university has also started to seek out non-productive sources of profit, such as real estate development and the idea of hosting private corporations in its research park.

New technologies make possible the fast turnover of global finance capital as well as the “deskilling” of labor, so that employees in any given firm become more easily replaceable. In academia, we have seen the spread of “labor-saving” technologies, such as online (scantron-like) assessments, digital libraries, and PowerPoint presentations. I myself have embraced some of these technologies because they saved time I could dedicate to research.

But since these technologies enable the further growth of class size, they quickly transition from a “how-to” technique for saving time, to a “have-to” device for coping with an expanded workload. Increasingly their tendency is to justify a view of teaching as simply the operation of technologies: the plugging-in of existing digital and online platforms, templates and data-bases. The Global Campus initiative was the logical outcome of these technologies, which would have employed select faculty to develop standardized courses that anyone with some college education could then use—that is, sell—anywhere and at any time. Under current social conditions, online education of the kind now pursued by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, for example, ends up, no matter how noble its intentions, making faculty labor ever more irrelevant for the generation of academic revenues.

Vicious circle #2: Neoliberalism as cause and as solution to the present crisis.

The other trend has been the intentional under-development and de-funding of the public sector, resulting in colossal disasters, human tragedy, and economic crisis, to which, ironically, further privatization then becomes the only logical solution.

Think of Hurricane Katrina, the gravity of which was exacerbated by reduction of public funding for the maintenance of levees and emergency services. Think of the collapsed bridges, roads, and electric grids in different parts of the country resulting from the underfunding of public infrastructure. And think of the recent fiscal crisis, which in part resulted from of the dismantling of the regulatory apparatus for Wall Street.

While many academics conclude from these debacles that the public sector needs more funding, Republicans, and too often Democrats as well, conclude that it is best to give up on the public sector altogether and either eliminate or contract out an increasing number of state services and duties. Through this ingenious trick, the neoliberal reforms that cause these crises also become the solution to it. The University of Illinois’ current economic problems have been caused by public de-funding, but also by the channeling of dwindling funds to private entrepreneurial projects and to administrators who earn ever higher salaries. Although expanding administration, privatization and entrepreneurialism have demonstrably caused financial problems—like the creation of Global Campus–we are now expected to seek out more of the same to redress our crisis.

One way in which our administrators have gone about realizing this dubious agenda is by implementing an increasing set of quantitative measures aimed to discipline faculty labor. I believe it was in the 1990s that administrators started demanding that departments increase their rankings on a series of indexes, such as the students/FTE or majors/FTE ratios.

More recently, they started measuring not only departmental but also individual faculty performance, not by the quality of that faculty member’s teaching or research, but by the money the university spends on student per faculty. Such assessment calculates the “worth” of a faculty member by measuring his/her cost-effectiveness in producing instructional units. While public access to this data is partial at best, my own observations suggest that actual scoring has little effect on either the number of lines given to a department or a faculty member’s salary. Ironically, then, these metrics, while yielding a desired disciplinary effect, do not make the university’s economic foundation any sounder—even by the dubious calculus defines sound economy as the efficient production of instructional units.

What these metrics did was to legitimate administrative decisions by a) making them look scientific, and b) making low-performing units and faculty accept the view of themselves as unworthy—further eroding their ability to mobilize against inequality, attacks on academic freedom, and other grievances. These indexes also pit departments against departments, schools against schools, thus preventing faculty solidarity from developing.

Where does that leave us in terms of our tasks? While I think we must work at different scales, from federal through state to local—and the Campus Faculty Association is certainly doing the latter two, while AAUP is active at the federal level as well—one so-far neglected entry-point into both vicious circles I identified above is that of our lower-level administration: provosts, associate provosts, college deans, associate deans, and, yes, even department heads.

I recommend that faculty get together (perhaps on some future furlough day?) to create a webpage and scoring device on the analogy of the popular student website, ratemyprofessors.com. With too few exceptions, administrators at these levels have not only devised and imposed the above-mentioned metrics but have also used them to attest to their marketability in the ever more lucrative academic administrator job market. How many administrators have we lost just in the last three years who after wreaking havoc in several units were catapulted into even higher positions at other colleges exactly because they could boast such “success”?

If we created an alternative set of indices for administrators we could provide not only a more balanced evaluation of their performance but also turn the Panopticon back on them: let them fear us as much as they fear the people who appointed them. Let us then share their scoring with students, their parents, and the electorate. This is one way in which we can stop collaborating in their agenda of making faculty labor ever more irrelevant.

What are the metrics we should use for evaluating our mid-level administrations? How about the number of low-income students admitted, retained, and/or funded; the number of faculty positions created and retained? How about evaluating their effectiveness in keeping a high ratio of faculty to students or of keeping administrative salaries comparable to those of faculty?

No doubt, we need more creativity here. And here’s the cream of this pudding: while we are engaging in this creative politics we are also building solidarity and, dare I say, class culture without which, according to E.P. Thompson, there is no class politics, and certainly no viable faculty union.


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Bruce Rosenstock said...

Another metric that could be used to evaluate administrators is success of retention efforts. If there is anything that is obviously an economic loss to the university, it is mentoring a junior faculty through tenure, then losing that tenured faculty member the minute he or she achieves a national (or international) reputation in her field. I can think of recent successes, but I fear that the upper administration may be shortsighted enough to imagine that loss of tenured faculty may be just another way to cut costs. This is another example of what happens when power is taken away from the dean (who is, of course, not infallible) and placed in the hands of the provost, a most distressing development.

Unknown said...

For what it is worth, I just completed some empirical research showing that faculty and staff should have a very direct interest in how university endowments are invested. When the endowments take a hit, it is the faculty and staff that absorb it.

If you would like to read more about the study, and if you don't mind me shamelessly refering to my own university of illinois blog, you can find a post at:


Unit for Criticism said...

We do not mind at all, JB. Thanks very much for posting this interesting piece.