Union advocates applauded two decisions by the National Labor Relations Board last week, one of which protects the right of employees using work email for union communications. The other decision revises rules for union elections and could shorten the union election process. In the first case, that of Purple Communications and Communications Workers of America, the board ruled that employees communicating with each other on work computers – but not on work time – are free to discuss union activity. The decision did not address communication with non-employees, however.
Aaron Nisenson, chief counsel for the American Association of University Professors, said via email that the decision as it pertains to higher education has particular relevance to faculty members, who frequently communicate via email. “The ability to use email to communicate is essential to faculty, particularly contingent faculty, who are often dispersed and may not be able to speak directly to each other regularly,” he added.
Referring to the second decision, in which the NLRB issued a final rule to modernize representation-case procedures, Nisenson said: “Given the speed at which elections will be conducted under the revised election rules, the ability to communicate via email is extremely important to ensuring that faculty members are fully informed.” The new rule, which takes effect in April, provides for electronic filing and transmission of election petitions, requires that contact information for all eligible voters be included in voter lists – which is especially important for contingent faculty members – and attempts to streamline others aspects of the election process.
“Previously, the results of elections could be tied up for years in pointless litigation, delaying the results of a democratic process, a situation that would be intolerable in any other context,” Nisenson said.
William Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions, housed at Hunter College of the City University of New York, said both decisions were “good for advocates and union members,” although he said that tenure-track faculty members at private institutions are generally unprotected from the email decision under current case law emanating from the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1980 decision in NLRB v. Yeshiva University. According to that decisions, tenure-line faculty members at private institutions have managerial responsibilities and therefore are limited in their ability to form unions.
Deborah O'Connor, a senior lecturer at Florida State University, has resigned after using a slur in a Facebook post, The Tallahassee Democrat reported. O'Connor said she was urged to resign but not forced to do so. She made the comment on the Facebook page of a consultant who has praised the Justice Department for investigating a police shooting of a 12-year-old black boy. The newspaper account of the comments, some of which are left out: "Take your Northern [anti-gay slur] elitism and shove it up your [expletive]. I teach at a university, you [expletive]. What do you do? You are an intellectual fraud, just like your Messiah. Obama has single-handedly turned our once great society into a Ghetto Culture, rivaling that of Europe."
She said of the incident: "I've learned my lesson about Facebook; let's just leave it at that. I decided to resign because I didn't think it was feasible to drag myself and Florida State through this kind of mud."
I will never forget the advice that the late and great Rev. Peter Gomes of Harvard University gave to me after my appointment as university chaplain. I expressed my concerns about being only 29 years old in this position and my fears about not being respected by older administrators. He told me that he too had been appointed to his position at a very young age. He then encouraged me to never forget that “Any time an older president, provost, dean, or professor gives you a hard time, remember that you will eulogize them all!”
He was, of course, with his trademark irreverent-yet-holy brilliance, reminding me that the academic and ministerial vocational journey is more marathon than it is sprint, and that all challenges eventually pass. I missed, somehow, the literal truth to what he was saying. A large and important part of the work of college and university chaplaincy is the planning of and the presiding over memorial services for faculty, staff and administrators. And I have found that these memorials are about more than remembering and honoring departed colleagues. They are also an opportunity for us to pause and consider what our own legacies will be.
Even at smaller colleges and universities, it is difficult to imagine knowing the entire faculty or all the members of the staff and administration. In my case there are some members of our community whom I have known since my undergraduate days here. Others I know only by reputation. Some I only meet via the memories and stories that I hear at their memorial services.
These services are as profound as they are simple. As healing as they are grief-filled.
Serving as a chaplain at a nonsectarian university, I help to craft a service that is accessible for all who will attend while simultaneously being true to the individual we are remembering. Sometimes an individual was a person of faith and sometimes not.
This points to what I think is the first difference between a funeral and a memorial service. Funerals tend to be driven more by the family of the deceased and by any last wishes left behind. A funeral service is more likely to be a religious service reflecting one’s faith or the faith of the family. A memorial service at a college usually reflects the institution where one taught. That does not mean a service is devoid of faith or religion, but rather it is not the driving theme of the service. Likewise funerals, particularly religious ones, incorporate an element of ritual or certain rites. Memorials tend to emphasize remembrances rather than rites.
Most of the memorial services that I have seen on college campuses seem to follow a similar format. There is an opening of some sort and this is traditionally done by a chaplain or department chair. After that, an administrator will offer remarks. Following the president or dean, several colleagues from the department and sometimes from other institutions will speak. And, when appropriate, current or former students share their experiences working or studying with an individual. We’ve found that it’s important to offer some type of musical interlude at events like this, and often that music is the accompaniment to a slide show compiled with the assistance of the family.
After the music and slideshow we open the program up to anyone else who was not on the program and would like to offer remarks. Some share hilarious stories. Others shed tears and can barely get a word out. But it’s important for people to have an opportunity to share.
And that’s really what these events are for. The director of our university counseling center likes to remind us how important memorial services are for a campus community. Ceremonies like funerals and memorials are an important part of the grief process for many people. They allow a community to formally say goodbye. They provide us with an opportunity to be together, support one another. Hug each other while we cry. They're also an opportunity to celebrate a life well-lived and the great blessing it is to journey through life with each other.
I have noticed something at these services. When the speakers come to the front, they identify themselves not simply as department colleagues or fellow researchers in a lab, but as friends. And their remarks may offer a sentence or two about one’s “influence on the field,” “contributions as a scholar” or “excellence in the classroom” but almost to a person, the words offered at memorial services are stories about and testimonies to the character of the individual being memorialized that day. While intellect and professional accomplishments are respected and certainly acknowledged, this is not what those who rise to speak hold on to. If one’s C.V. is the predominant subject matter at one’s memorial service, then something went terribly wrong along the way.
It seems that the legacies that we leave as scholars and as higher education professionals are threefold. We of course will leave behind professional and scholarly contributions in the form of texts and articles written, courses taught, research opportunities, or programs that left deep impressions on our students, as well as faithful work in the service of the institutions that we serve.
Along with our professional and scholarly one, it turns out that we also leave a legacy established by our character. The way we treat our colleagues and coworkers seems to be just as if not more important than the academic and professional work that we offer. Junior colleagues often recall in memoriam how they were recruited to a place, or mentored during their first semesters. They remember how they were treated during their tenure review or in other potentially stressful moments in their career. The department staff will often speak to the simple courtesies and daily decency of an individual. This is what is most talked about at memorials.
Sometimes, before I return to the podium to close the service a member of the family rises and asks to say a few brief words. With tear-soaked faces that express gratitude for the kind stories – many of which they had never heard – about their husband, wife, partner, or parent. They then share a facet of the individual that most of us knew little of. They talk about the fun-loving parent who read stories to them as a child and coached their little league team. Or the gentle grandparent who spoiled their little grandkids. We hear about the quirky hobbies that occupied their time away from the lab or office. We hear about someone who was never called “Doctor” or “Professor” at home, but instead “Honey,” “Mommy,” or “Pop-Pop."
After the service ends some of us dare to imagine what our own memorial service will someday be like.
It is a grim thought that probably shouldn’t be dwelled on too long, but these moments of reflection challenge us to consider just how we will be remembered. What will our colleagues say about us? Will they say that we were kind and supportive? Will they be proud to have worked with us? Will our former students point to us and say that we recognized gifts in them and affirmed them in a meaningful way?
And will our kids and partners stand at our services and smile at our colleagues? Or will they remain seated with resentment toward a job that made their parents miss so much of their lives?
Our legacy should never be the motivation for our work. Worrying about our image can lead to poor decision-making, a preoccupation with oneself, and a lack of courage. Yet it is healthy, I think, from time to time to consider how we are treating those around us. The ripples of our love and kindness will carry on long after our books are out of print and long after our seasons in higher education have passed.
Rev. Charles L. Howard is university chaplain at the University of Pennsylvania.
For a rising generation of administrators in higher education, the heart of education is innovative technology -- and faculty get in the way.
In a recent speech, the new president of Carnegie Mellon University, Subra Suresh, intimated his administrative philosophy, remarking that, “the French politician Georges Clemenceau once said that, ‘War is too important to be left to the generals.’ Some would argue learning is too important to be left to professors and teachers.”
The speech opened the inaugural meeting of the Global Learning Council (GLC), held at Carnegie Mellon in September. The GLC brings together a group of high-level university administrators, government officials, and corporate executives who aspire to be an at-large advisory group, akin to the National Research Council, for higher education.
Suresh could have used the help of an English professor to unpack the analogy. Presidents and provosts would be generals, not faculty, who are the soldiers in the trenches, so the fitting parallel would actually be “education is too important to be left to administrators.”
On that count, I agree.
Suresh’s phrasing was not a slip but a frank statement — for him, faculty have little place in decision-making. And I think that it captures the leaning of many current initiatives touting innovation and technology.
The classic definition of the university is that it represents the corporate body of the faculty. Like the protagonist of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, who wants to establish the Church of Christ without Christ, the New Leaders of higher education want to establish education without educators. Or more precisely, they want to call the shots and faculty to do what they're told, like proper employees. To wit, at the conference there were few regular faculty member in attendance (even if some of the administrators had started as or occasionally did guest spots as professors, it’s probably been a while since they devoted much of their work time to that realm), and there was certainly no social or cultural critic of higher education scheduled to speak. Rather than engaging much criticism or debate — which, after all, is a mission of the university, testing ideas — it had the character more of an infomercial.
The focus of the conference was to install technology in higher education as fast as possible, and the speakers included high-level figures from Google, Kaplan, edX, and various other companies with a financial interest in the changeover.
The only speaker who raised doubts about technology was a military person, Frank C. DiGiovanni, director of force readiness and training in the U.S. Office of the Undersecretary of Defense. In his talk he said that he found that, to be effective, education needs to “stimulate the five senses,” which does not happen with devices. In fact, he noted that there was a “loss of humanity” with them. He added in subsequent discussion: “I worry about technology taking over. The center of gravity is the human mind.”
It seemed a little ironic to me that the only person reminding us of a humanistic perspective was the military man, though it was clear that DiGiovanni had a good deal of experience with how people actually learned and that he cared about it.
The innovation mantra has been most prominently expressed by the business guru Clayton Christensen, who coined the phrase “disruptive innovation.” It has been the credo especially of tech companies, who come out with ever-new products each year. The theory is that businesses like the American steel industry have failed because they were set in their ways, doing things that were successful before. Instead, even if successful, they should disrupt what they’re doing. Hence, while Apple was making very good laptops, they went to the iPhone. Then to the iPad. Then to the Apple Watch.
Christensen has extended his theory to academe, in articles and his 2011 book, The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out (co-written with Henry Eyring). He basically sees higher education as set in its ways (hence the DNA metaphor) and ripe for a takeover by technology, and he holds up universities such as BYU-Idaho and the for-profit DeVry University as models for the future. He admits that Harvard University is still top of the line, but not everyone can go to Harvard, so, in cheery rhetoric (some of which is taken from the promotional literature of the colleges themselves), he sees these other schools doing what Walmart did to retail.
Christensen’s theory of innovation has been rebutted by Jill Lepore in a recent piece in The New Yorker,“The Disruption Machine.” She points out that most companies succeed because of sustainable innovation, not disruptive. Apple, after all, still makes laptops, and US Steel is still the largest steel company in the US. In addition, she goes on to demonstrate that a good deal of Christensen’s evidence is thin, not to mention that many of his examples of success have gone belly-up.
Besides holes in the general theory, it’s also questionable whether the kind of innovation that applies to technological or commodity products is readily translatable to education. Cognitivists have shown that education largely works affectively, through empathy, which requires live people in front of you. One learns by imaginatively inhabiting another’s point of view.
Moreover, most institutions of higher education have a different role than businesses — more like churches, which in fact is the analogy that helped establish their independent legal status in the 1819 Dartmouth decision of the U.S. Supreme Court. Something other than consuming goes on at universities, which gets lost in the ommercial model of higher ed.
Think of it this way: while I like to shop at Macy’s and hope it stays in business, I would not donate any money to it, whereas I have to universities and churches. Of course universities should use best business practices, but if they act primarily as a business, with a saleable product and positioning students as customers, then they abnegate this other role. This is an inherent contradiction that vexes the push to commercialize higher education.
This is not to say that there is no use for technology. The Online Learning Initiative, a project studying statistics pedagogy at Carnegie Mellon, shows that some online segments work better than large lecture sessions. But, if you read their reports, it’s clear that the experiment essentially offers a flipped classroom, and in fact students probably gain more faculty contact than in the lecture model. It’s more like a return to a tutorial model. Who knew students do better with professors?
What the rush for innovation is really about, as Christopher Newfield, a leading critic of higher education, has pointed out, is not a better theory of change but a theory of governance. As Newfield puts it, “it isn’t about what people actually do to innovate better, faster, and cheaper, but about what executives must do to control innovative institutions.” It’s all about top-down plans of action, with the executive issuing a plan to disrupt what you’re doing, and subordinates to carry it out. Hence Suresh’s brushing aside those pesky faculty, who traditionally decide the way that education should be. That might be O.K. for a corporation, but it violates any standard idea of shared governance and academic freedom, which holds that faculty decide the direction of education.
It’s also about politics. The vision of higher education that the New Leaders of higher education would like to install is not a traditional horizontal institution, in which faculty are generally of equal power. (For instance, I’m a professor at Carnegie Mellon like Suresh, so technically I have the same faculty rights and determine the content of my courses and research, not him — and fortunately I have tenure, so he can’t fire me for writing this, which he could if it were a regular corporation.) Rather, it has become an oligarchical institution, reliant on business deals and donations. Business corporations, after all, are not democracies but oligarchies, with decisions running from the owners and executives downhill.
The oligarchical leaning of the New Leadership became clear to me in a talk by Luis van Ahn, a young computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon and MacArthur Award winner. Van Ahn was animated and funny, bringing fresh energy to the proceedings. He evidently had made a killing in developing CAPTCHAs, those difficult-to-decipher wavy letters to verify you’re a human and not a bot online (in his PowerPoint he showed a picture of a man lying in a bed of money, which drew a lot of laughs).
Since then, he has developed and is CEO of Duolingo, a nonprofit designed to bring language training to people for free (or more precisely for their labor). It’s all online, and it’s self-funding: Duolingo sells crowdsourced translations from students to CNN or other businesses in need of them, and the money keeps the company going.
Van Ahn had several tenets of education, the first of which was that “the best education money can buy should be free.” I was with him on that, but I was not so sure about the rest.
One was that the best education should, “Be in your pocket, not in some building.” Again, if education relies on social contact and empathy, then we need a place for it other than the shallow contact of a screen. Think of it from the bottom up: children learn from the synesthesia of sociality, and those who are regularly read to by parents learn to read the soonest. What would a child be like if you locked him or her in a room with a device?
Moreover, while a program like Duolingo might be good for picking up a reading knowledge of a foreign language, I wonder about its transposition to speaking. While van Ahn attests to good testing results online, languages, after all, are not formulae but social. Anyone who has learned a foreign language knows that it’s a much different experience when you’re there, in front of live people.
Still, Duolingo seems like a good thing and an exemplary use of online. However, van Ahn had another tenet: that learning should be through a corporation, not through a government. He said that you cannot trust governments (most “suck” and “other people’s funding usually comes with other people’s ideas and influences”), which he drew from personal experience as an immigrant from Guatemala. That might be understandable in his individual case, but is deeply troubling to anyone who has a Jeffersonian sense of higher education and believes that it should be a public right and to cultivate citizens.
It boggles the mind to think that corporations would be better. What are the guarantees that they would be more free from “other people’s ideas and influences,” particularly of just a few people?
Perhaps if van Ahn is running them. (And still, he sold his previous project to Google, and one might question Google’s proprietorial policies, which we have little recourse to alter.) Governments presumably are based on the will of the people, whereas corporations are based on the will of their owners, boards, and executives, oriented toward gaining the most advantage for themselves. A poor government might fail to represent the will of its people, but the problem then is the lack of democracy. By definition, corporations represent a small, self-interested group.
While van Ahn seems like an admirable person and has put some of his money into good causes, his statement was the credo of plutocracy: the rich and powerful should rule, and their good effects might trickle down. But I don’t trust corporations as much as he does, particularly since they have brought us our current world of severe inequality.
American higher education was conceived as a remedy to inequality in the period after World War II, with policy documents like the 1947 Truman Commission Report setting out a plan to fight inequality “in so fundamental a right as education,” spurring state and federal funding to expand high-quality public colleges and universities and allow a greater number of citizens to attend them for minimal tuition.
The new technology reinstalls inequality, with the wealthy (and a few high-scoring poor) receiving bespoke higher education at elite schools, but most of the rest getting theirs on a screen — with great graphics! like a game!
The Graduate Workers of Columbia on Friday told Columbia University that a majority of teaching assistants and research assistants have signed cards asking that the United Auto Workers local be recognized as a union. A statement from the union noted that if the university does not voluntarily agree to collective bargaining, the UAW could ask the National Labor Relations Board to conduct an election and (assuming a majority of the graduate students back the UAW) certify the union. A Columbia spokesman said that the university was not commenting on the UAW request.
In 2004, the NLRB ruled that graduate teaching assistants could not unionize at private universities. (State laws, which vary, govern the unionization of T.A.s at public universities, and many such unions have existed for a long time.) Supporters of graduate student unions have been looking for a test case -- particularly with an NLRB that is more friendly to unions than the board was in 2004 -- to reverse that ruling. A UAW unit at New York University was headed toward being the test case, but NYU agreed last year to a union election, and the case was withdrawn.