A Michigan Senate subcommittee has proposed taking $500,000 away from Michigan State University's budget if it continues to run a training program for unions, The Lansing State Journal reported. Language in the budget bill would punish universities that if they “participate in any instructional activity that encourages or discourages union organizing of employees.” A number of public universities have such programs, and supporters note that most universities offer extensive programming for business leaders on a range of topics, including labor relations. The blog of the American Association of University Professors calls the budget provision a "major attack on academic freedom in Michigan."
In today’s Academic Minute, Craig Vierra, professor and assistant chair of the University of the Pacific's College of Biological Sciences, discusses his work on a way to replicate spider silk. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.
A faculty member at Lone Star College taught the wrong chemistry course for a semester, KHOU News reported. The television station told the story of an A student surprised to find she was failing introductory chemistry. But the professor eventually said that she had been teaching a more advanced course. The student said that the professor made up for the situation by raising everyone's grade. The college and professor aren't commenting, but KHOU confirmed the story with another student in the class and through an email in which a department chair said that teaching the more advanced course was not intentional.
A few weeks ago, I was having lunch with a friend who is a faculty member here at Penn State. I’d been reflecting on a question that had recently arisen in my administration and governance class about tenure and decided to pose it to him.
“Who is your boss?” I asked. His response was, “No one.”
I had heard this answer before, and it again struck me as either egotistical or a coy reinforcement of the stereotypical faculty worldview. But neither of my assumptions was true. By the end of our conversation, not only did I understand his point of view, I agreed with it.
The subject of my “interview” has been at Penn State for over a decade with the title of distinguished professor. As his honorary status would suggest, he is a well-established researcher and respected teacher. His interest in higher education goes beyond his field, however; he is also deeply interested in effective administration. He applied for department head this year with the hope of capitalizing on the multiple opportunities he sees within his department.
Our conversation was engaging and enlightening due to in large part to the time he had spent considering the issue of effective governance long before I asked him to chat. Thus, his quick answer was far from an off-the-cuff response. His thoughts were grounded in his understanding of tenured faculty as “citizens” of the university. Because of his enduring citizenship in the organization of Penn State, this professor basically reports to no one.
His metaphor of tenure as citizenship is simple enough. All citizens of the United States are entitled to some basic rights and services from the government. Unless that citizen violates established laws, he or she cannot have his or her citizenship revoked. Citizens are accountable to these basic laws but otherwise report to no one.
Even an elected official -- someone with seemingly higher citizenship standing -- has little direct power over another citizen. Were a state senator to approach one of his or her constituents and demand compliance with some personal agenda, the constituent may feel pressure to acquiesce but would not be legally forced to act. The senator’s only true power would come through passing legislation that created new laws to which citizens would have to abide.
Such is life as a tenured professor in the academy. Unless a professor violates established laws of the institution -- refusing to teach courses, or committing gross misconduct, for instance -- he or she can never be fired. Although he has to officially report to his department head on an annual basis -- something akin to a citizen filing taxes -- this accountability is minimal. Even discussions with this individual about which classes to teach are just that -- discussions.
Although this is not the case within every department, it does seem to be typical at this university. If the professor was unresponsive to these polite requests and the department head wished to force the issue, one of the few ways the administrator could require compliance would be by passing new policies in the Faculty Senate -- in a sense, creating new laws for all citizens. As a citizen of Penn State, his freedoms and privileges endure perpetually until he chooses to terminate his association with this “nation.”
This model holds up exceptionally well from certain perspectives. When discussing the possible consequences of an attempt to abolish tenure, the professor likened the move to a repression of citizens’ rights by an invasive government. The riots, political upheaval, and media onslaught that would occur in such a national situation would closely mirror the strife that would accompany such a policy decision by university administrators.
Adjunct faculty also fit into this schema, closely aligning with migrant workers in this analogy. Although they serve an important purpose in the country, they are also underpaid laborers with no citizenship rights who could be deported without warning. Additionally, his distinguished chair title is akin to minor celebrity status, drawing attention to him and his points of view but bringing no formal benefits such as salary increases or negotiating powers.
And as already indicated, administrators are the elected officials, serving an important symbolic and political role but yielding very little direct power over their constituents.
Beyond serving as an entertaining thought experiment, this model has utility for understanding the day-to-day dynamics of the organization. A few takeaways strike me as particularly meaningful, each of which deserve further elaboration:
The discrepancy between citizens (tenured faculty) and non-citizens (adjunct faculty) is severe.
Office holders (administrators) within the government (university) have significant indirect influence on citizens through policy but little direct influence.
Revoking citizenship is virtually impossible if the citizen has not violated the law. Citizenship is perpetual.
First, citizenship is a highly valued commodity, taken for granted by those who have it and longed for by those who do not. Much of the debate around adjunct professors involves acquiring the basic rights of citizenship: fair pay, health insurance, and representation, to name a few. From this perspective, it seems that tenured professors are not the entitled ones; adjuncts are simply disadvantaged.
Yet even though companies are trafficking these workers into their country to meet a workforce need, they simultaneously abdicate responsibility for their disadvantaged status as aliens. This parallel between universities and profligate corporations is simply disturbing.
Second, the power of administration is diffuse. Politicians use multiple mediums of influence to shape their constituency, such as popular media, political appointments, and legislation. Likewise, a savvy college administrator rarely uses direct orders to elicit action but instead shapes the system toward his or her intended outcomes. Placing a like-minded faculty member as the head of an important committee dramatically increases the chances that the administrator’s agenda is carried out. Restructuring a research lab can radically change the level of production within the unit or even the focus of the work being done. Although the end results of system-shaping may not be apparent for some time, this work behind the scenes has the power to influence action broadly without drawing attention (and thus, without encountering organized resistance).
Lastly, a tenured professor is a tenured professor as long as he or she wants to be. Although this point immediately brings to mind the image of a radical, unproductive kook who simply will not retire, what may be more common is the immortal administrator.
If my interviewee, the tenured professor, transitions to administration but maintains his tenure during his appointment, he may return to the professoriate long after his administrative term is up. Although I cannot imagine becoming a CEO only to have my predecessor take up an office down the hall from me, in the academy, this is not completely out of the question. As a citizen, he or she has the right to do so. This is akin to a former president of the United States who still resides in the country and is still active in politics as a “normal” citizen.
So who does our professor, the citizen, actually report to? Well, formally, the department head… but practically? No one.
And herein lies the rub. As a free-thinking citizen, he now faces a terrific choice: Will he choose to embrace the responsibilities of citizenship and actively steward the university/democracy like only an engaged, educated citizen can?
Will he simply claim his rights as a citizen, fighting for his own freedoms while turning a blind eye to the marginalized peoples in his neighborhood who have none? Or thirdly, will he forsake both of these perspectives in favor of a citizenship that extends beyond his institutional borders -- the citizenship of his professional discipline?
Any choice he makes has significant implications for his own actions, the health of the university, and the advancement of his field of inquiry. Although I would advocate for the responsibility perspective, I cannot tell him what to do. After all, he reports to no one.
Josh Wymore is a research assistant in Pennsylvania State University's Center for the Study of Higher Education and a doctoral student in the university's higher education program.
A law professor at George Mason University was teaching Wednesday when a man entered his classroom, attempted to make a citizen's arrest of him, and then pepper sprayed him, NBC News 4 reported. The man with the pepper spray then left, and was arrested by local police.
South Carolina Lieutenant Governor Glen McConnell says he can overcome the backlash that erupted after he was named the next president of the College of Charleston, a public liberal arts college. McConnell, who has been criticized for not being an academic and for his affiliation with Confederate historical causes, said time as leader of the state Senate taught him how to bring together divided constituencies. McConnell, a former student government president at the college, said students who staged a protest after his selection that was the largest in recent memory just need to get to know him. “Most of those people have never met me,” he said. ”They don’t know anything about me. They just know what somebody told them. When you operate on a misconception, then you don’t know the truth.” (McConnell did not respond to a request for an interview for the story linked to above, but reached out after it was published Wednesday.)
The student government has already taken a “no confidence” vote in the college’s trustees. The Faculty Senate is expected to take one next month. One of the concerns is that McConnell got the job through a rigged search process – he was selected despite not being one of the search committee’s finalists, according local media reports. McConnell said in a phone interview he didn’t know for sure about that.
Faculty also worry the trustees are looking to merge the college with a separate state-run medical school in Charleston. McConnell said he wants to expand the College of Charleston's research and post-graduate work to ensure that the state doesn’t force a merger. “I’m a product of a liberal arts college – the College of Charleston,” he said.
Faculty also say the board did not do enough to stick up for academic freedom after the state’s House moved to dock the college’s allowance over freshman reading material that lawmakers found to be gay-themed and therefore offensive. The book, Fun Home, is a memoir by a lesbian; it has been widely acclaimed and was recently turned into a musical. McConnell said he believes in academic freedom but would have handled the situation differently and not gotten into a tussle with House lawmakers and instead promised to take their concerns back to the faculty. But, he said, it’s not his job to tell faculty which books to assign. “Look,” he said. “I’m not qualified to tell a professor what to teach in their course.”
In December, the journal Brain Connectivity published a paper called "Short- and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain," based on a study conducted at Emory University. The researchers did MRI scans of the brains of 21 undergraduate students over a period of days before, during, and after they read a best-selling historical page-turner called Pompeii over the course of nine evenings. A significant increase of activity in "the left angular supramarginal gyri and right posterior temporal gyri" occurred during the novel-reading phase of the experiment, which fell off rapidly once they finished the book -- the gyri being, the report explained, regions of the brain "associated with perspective taking and story comprehension."
Not a big surprise; you'd figure as much. But the researchers also found that an elevated level of activity continued in the bilateral somatosensory cortex for some time after the subjects were done reading. In the novel, a young Roman aqueduct engineer visiting the ancient vacation resort of Pompeii "soon discovers that there are powerful forces at work -- both natural and man-made -- threatening to destroy him." Presumably the readers had identified with the protagonist, and parts of their brains were still running away from the volcano for up to five days after they finished the book.
So one might construe the findings, anyway. The authors are more cautious. But they raise the question of whether the experience of reading novels "is sufficiently powerful to cause a detectable reorganization of cortical networks" -- what they call a "hybrid mentalizing-narrative network configuration." Or to put it another way, a long-term rearrangement of the mind's furniture.
It isn't a work of fiction, and I am but a solitary reader without so much as access to an electroencephalograph, but A Philosophy of Walking by Frédéric Gros, a French best-seller from 2011 just published in English by Verso, seems to have been setting up its own "hybrid mentalizing-narrative network configuration" within my head over the past few days. Maybe it's the weather. After so many months of cold weather and leaden skies, Gros's evocation of the pleasures of being outside, moving freely, in no particular hurry, stirs something deep within.
The author, a professor of philosophy at the University of Paris, has, among other things, edited volumes in the posthumous edition of Michel Foucault's lectures at the College de France. But the authority Gros brings to his reflections on walking comes only in part from knowing the lives and writings of ambulatory thinkers across the millennia, beginning in ancient Greece. He is a scholar but also a connoisseur -- someone who has hiked and wandered enough in his time, over a sufficient variety of terrains, to know at first hand the range of moods (ecstasy, monotony, exhaustion) that go with long walks.
It is a work of advocacy, and of propaganda against sedentary thinking. The first of Gros's biographical essays is on Nietzsche, who took up walking in the open air while suffering from migraine headaches, eyestrain, and late-night vomiting spasms. It did not cure him, but it did transform him. He might be the one spending time at health resorts, but it was contemporary intellectual life that manifested invalidism.
"We do not belong to those who have ideas only among books, when stimulated by books," Nietzsche wrote. "It is our habit to think outdoors -- walking, leaping, climbing, dancing, preferably on lonely mountains or near the sea where even the trails become thoughtful. Our first questions about the value of a book, of a human being, or of a musical composition, are: Can they walk? Even more, can they dance?" Long, solitary hikes such as those taken by Nietzsche -- and also by Rousseau, the subject of another essay -- are only one mode of philosophical pedestrianism. The precisely timed daily constitutional that Kant took each day, so regular that his neighbors could set their watches by it, has gone down in history as an example of his extreme rigor (one easily recognized even by the layman who can't tell his an a posteriori from his elbow). Gros adds a telling detail to this otherwise commonplace biographical fact: Kant took care to walk at a measured, even pace, since he was profoundly averse to sweating.
At the other extreme was the ancient philosophical school known as the Cynics, with its cultivation of an almost violent indifference to comfort and propriety. The Cynics were homeless vagrants on principle. They denied themselves, as much as possible, every luxury, or even convenience, taken for granted by their fellow Greeks.
That included footwear: "They had done so much walking," Gros says, "that they hardly needed shoes or even sandals, the soles of their feet being much like leather." When the Cynics showed up in a town square, their constant exposure to nature's elements gave a jagged edge to the harangues in which they attacked commonplace ideas and values. Gros sees walking, then, as the foundation of the Cynics' philosophical method:
"Philosophers of the type one might call sedentary enjoy contrasting the appearance with the essence of things. Behind the curtain of tangible sights, behind the veil of visibilities, they try to identify what is pure and essential, hoping perhaps to display, above the colors of the world, the glittering, timeless transparency of their own thought…. The Cynic cut through that classic opposition. He was not out to seek or reconstruct some truth behind appearances. He would flush it out from the radical nature of immanence: just below the world's images, he was searching for what supported them. The elemental: nothing true but sun, wind, earth and sky; their truth residing in their unsurpassable vigor."
Walking is not a sport, Gros takes care to emphasize. You don't need any equipment (not even shoes, for an old-school Cynic) nor is any instruction required. The skill set is extremely limited and mastered by most people in infancy. Its practice is noncompetitive.
But in a paradox that gives the book much of its force, we don't all do it equally well. It's not just that some of us are clumsy or susceptible to blisters. Gros contrasts the experience of a group of people talking to one another while marching their way through a walking tour (an example of goal-driven and efficiency-minded behavior) and the unhurried pace of someone for whom the walk has become an end in itself, a point of access to the sublimely ordinary. And so he has been able to give the matter a lot of thought:
"Basically, walking is always the same, putting one foot in front of the other. But the secret of that monotony is that it constitutes a remedy for boredom. Boredom is immobility of the body confronted with emptiness of mind. The repetitiveness of walking eliminates boredom, for, with the body active, the mind is no longer affected by its lassitude, no longer drawn from its inertia the vague vertigo in an endless spiral.… The body's monotonous duty liberates thought. While walking, one is not obliged to think, to think this or that. During that continuous but automatic effort of the body, the mind is placed at one's disposal. It is then that thoughts can arise, surface or take shape."
As for the clumsiness and blisters, I hope they will disappear soon. It's the practice of walking, not reading about it, that makes all the difference. But no book has rewired my bilateral somatosensory cortex so thoroughly in a long while.