Thursday, September 24, 2009

Two higher ed stories on NPR

On my drive home from work yesterday, I caught two higher ed stories on All Things Considered. That's quite a feat, considering that my commute is only 7-8 minutes (I had to have a "driveway moment" to catch the end of the second story). The first story was about the resignation of Joseph White, the soon-to-be former president of the University of Illinois system. You may have heard that UI has been wracked by a scandal over the admission of politically-connected students, whose names were forwarded by legislators and other government officials to a special UI admissions list. While the university's press release didn't explicitly mention the scandal, it's quite clear that it played a role in White's resignation.

We all know that Illinois is a hotbed of political corruption (witness former Governor Rod Blagojevich's attempt to sell President Obama's senate seat), but is what went on at U. Illinois unique or standard practice at more public universities than we'd expect? I suspect that politically-connected admissions occur at many of these institutions, though probably not as blatantly as with a special list as existed at UI. More likely it occurs in a quiet phone call from a legislative or executive office to the government relations office in a university. Undoubtedly, many of these young men and women would have qualified for admission on their own, but the phone call is placed just to ensure that everything goes smoothly.

This reminds me of a situation I encountered in my own career; the circumstances are somewhat different, but it still speaks to the role of political influence over institutions. I won't say at which institution this occurred, but you can check my CV to get the list of four public universities at which I've taught. I will provide the caveat that some of this information came to me second hand, but from a reliable source. I had a state representative as a non-degree student in one of my classes, and after that semester he applied to the doctoral program in which I was teaching. But the program had a certain set of requirements that this individual did not fulfill, so he was turned down for admission. A short time after the notification was sent out, a phone call came from the campus chief executive's office indicating that the state representative should be admitted, which he subsequently was.

The second story was the one that kept me in the driveway to hear the ending. The story described the faculty walkout scheduled for today at the ten campuses of the U. of California to protest the furloughs, budget cuts, and tuition increases imposed by the UC system. UC employees are being furloughed for 11-26 days (which equates to a 4% to 10% pay cut) [corrected after original posting], and faculty have been told they can't take their furlough on days they are teaching. The faculty want the right to be able to distribute the furlough days over their three main areas of service: teaching, research, and service. The argument is that by allowing some classes to be missed, the impact will be more obvious to students and administrators.

I believe that the organizers of the walkout honestly do have the interests of students and the quality of education they receive at heart, and in the NPR story one of the organizers did a good job articulating this. But I suspect that their perspective will engender little sympathy from the general public, most of whom likely have an image of faculty - especially those at UC, who are on average the most highly-paid among the three public sectors in California - as being well compensated for the work they do. Given what others outside of the academy are facing in the economic downturn, I doubt that few of them will be marching behind the UC faculty.

While the term "professor" is very broad-ranging in this country, including everything from very well-compensated, tenured professors at elite research universities, to "beltway bandit" adjuncts who struggle to make a living teaching five or more courses a semester across multiple institutions, it is likely the former image that most of the general public have in their minds when they think about "professors." We probably have to do a better job of public relations if we hope to garner additional support for higher education among the general public, and an even better job if we want more support for faculty working conditions in general.


  1. Good post, Don. One slight correction (not sure if it was an NPR misunderstanding and you're just relaying) - the furloughs are actually for 11 to 26 days, and corresponding 4% to 10% paycut.

    As to your point about better PR for faculty, that is an excellent one. Scan thru the reader comments of a typical SF Chronicle, LA Time or SD Union-Trib story (on-line version) and you'll see the low regard with which professors are held. We all know the reality, of course. And some commenters chime in with good points. What's especially missing from the debate is how poor the pay is for entry-level ladder-rank faculty who live in high-CoL areas like the Bay Area.


  2. You're absolutely right, Greg -- it's 4% to 10%, I'll correct the post.

  3. One of the things that troubles me about the furlough idea (they did them here in SC at Clemson, but thankfully, here at USC) is that if you are tenure-track but untenured, you're not exactly going to take these days off. You're still going to keep working to get your work published. Are they going to postpone your tenure calendar by 11 or 26 days? Of course not. And even many tenured professors aren't going to take those days "off."

  4. And meanwhile, while the faculty and us staff took pay-cuts...

    Unconscionable. Tone-deaf and unconscionable.

  5. Hmmm, seems like most of these execs will have little difficulty dealing with the cost-of-living issues in Bay Area or LA. Especially the ones who get mortgage assistance in addition to their salaries.