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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

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Volunteer Faculty: The Death Knell for Public Higher Ed

Mark the date: April 24, 2018. The day public higher ed lost.

April 25, 2018
 
 

That’s it, it’s over, we’re done. Pack up your things, move along, we’ve passed the point of resurrecting public higher ed as an institution through which people can seek and find their intellectual, social, emotional, and economic potential.

Mark the date: April 24, 2018, the day public higher education was lost.

Karen Kelsky of “The Professor Is In” has shared an email from Southern Illinois University Associate Dean for Budget, Personnel, and Research Michael Molino, putting out a call for departments to identify and recruit “qualified alumni to join the SIU Graduate Faculty in a zero-time (adjunct) status.” 

In other words, SIU is looking for volunteer faculty.

You know when you’re watching a game, and things aren’t looking good for your team, but there’s still at least some hope if things turn around really quickly, or some unexpected bit of good fortune strikes? But instead, the quarterback bounces a pass off his offensive lineman’s helmet, the ball ricocheting into the hands of a linebacker who waltzes into the end zone untouched and you think…Welp, that’s over…even though there’s like a quarter and a half to go?

This is like that.

Let’s be clear. This request as originally written is a search for free labor to stand-in for paid labor.

From the email: “While specific duties of alumni adjuncts will likely vary across academic units, examples include service on graduate student thesis committees, teaching specific graduate or undergraduate lectures in one’s area of expertise, service on departmental or university committees, and collaborations on grant proposals and research projects.”

Teaching, service, research, the work of faculty to be done on an uncompensated basis.

For their labor: “participating alumni can benefit from intellectual interactions with faculty in their respective units, as well as through collegial networking opportunities with other alumni adjuncts who will come together regularly (either in-person or via the web) to discuss best practices across campus.”

I’m assuming there will be donuts and coffee at these networking opportunities, but we can’t be 100% positive.

And the best part -- and by “best,” I mean most unintentional signal of discarding the values of the institution in the face of bureaucratic imperative -- the voluntary positions are for only three years, after which, they can be renewed.

This suggests some amount of institutional time and money will be spent assessing the quality of the free faculty labor to see if they should be allowed to work for free for an additional three years.

The Chancellor’s Office at Southern Illinois issued a response to the backlash once the email became public, saying, “This is a proposed pilot project developed in collaboration with the SIU Alumni Association to connect qualified alumni with our students as mentors to enhance – not replace – the work of our faculty.”

“The use of adjuncts is not unusual on our campus and in higher education generally. This exploratory project simply fosters the ability of academic programs to identify and connect with potential adjunct faculty already invested in the university. It benefits current faculty, students and alumni.”

I find this statement to be inconsistent with the original email (which was obviously not meant for public consumption outside the institution) in some important ways.

1. The original email described a process of identifying, screening, credentialing, and assessing candidates consistent with academic faculty appointments. Indeed, they would be given a formal title. Only those with terminal degrees qualify.

2. Volunteering to serve as “mentors, role models and future professional contacts for our graduate students” as the response describes the initiative, does not and has never required a faculty appointment. This has been a feature of higher education institutions practically since their inception. If they are merely looking for “mentors, role models, and future professional contacts,” why is the terminal degree required? In an increasingly difficult market for advanced degree holders, wouldn’t an ABD who has managed a soft landing out of academia be a potentially better role model than the PhD holder?

A mentoring program for students (undergraduates are included in the email) that only admits terminal degree recipients is just odd unless it also has other purposes.

3. The email articulates a need for a “critical mass” of nominees. Why? What does a critical mass have to do with volunteering? Why is it a program to be managed out of an administrative office at all?

4. The “response” from the chancellor’s office says the volunteers may “participate in service roles,” including, “adding expertise to thesis committees” suggesting some kind of informal, advisory role. The original email says, “serve on thesis committees,” characterizing it as a traditional faculty role filled by uncompensated labor.

Thinking charitably, this is a hamfisted attempt at involving alumni while getting a little extra help with uncovered work in short-staffed departments.

But I want people to understand how pernicious this is – even if intended without malice – this proposal puts a $0 value on a significant portion of academic labor. This is not just harmful to the individuals who may be forced to take such a position, such as foreign national PhD holders who may need it to be allowed to stay in the U.S.

This is damaging to all faculty because it signals that their labor is not worth paying for. Once a university can prove that volunteers can staff those committees and do other service work, why should paid faculty be compensated for that work? Indeed, adjunctification has already required tenurable faculty to take on additional under or uncompensated labor. This significantly accelerates that phenomenon.

I am on the left politically, but by disposition, I am conservative and therefore a believer in the power and importance of institutions to order our lives. I even believe in the necessity of institutions to which I do not belong (like church or political parties).

Much of my writing about education is aimed at trying to highlight where our practices seem out of sync with what we claim to be our institutional values. Because institutions are made up of people, and people are imperfect, institutions will frequently fall short of upholding those values. I am not naïve on this point.

But institutions are only meaningful when they respond to a falling short with an honest reckoning and attempted return to those values. Many institutions beyond public higher education appear to be going through tough times as their values are sacrificed for things like money and power. These temptations are eternal.

But the sacrificing of the values of public higher ed institutions is not rooted in this kind of corruption or venality. This is not prominent evangelical Christians embracing a serial adulterer as the most godly president of all-time as a bargain to further their political and social agenda, a craven, but ultimately explicable stance.   

Public higher education institutions are receiving no such benefits from their sacrificing of their values. I believe many in higher education would argue they’re doing what’s necessary to survive, to continue the important mission in almost impossible conditions, but they are wrong. They are bouncing the football off of the lineman’s helmet, almost with intention, at least sub-consciously.

This is an act of self-debasement which has been happening incrementally over time, until we’ve now reached the point of absurdity.

A major public higher education institution has decided that faculty labor is worth precisely nothing in economic terms.

This is simply giving up on a core value of the institution, dressed up in some fancy alumni outreach clothing. Sure, there may be a quarter and a half to go before the scoreboard reads no time left on the clock and the loss is official, but it’s over. Head for the parking lot, switch off the TV, we’re donezo.

If SIU cannot staff their graduate programs with paid, qualified faculty, absent additional funding to make that possible, they should end them. It’s really that simple.

Eighteen months ago, I wrote about the psychology of “making do” when we believe in a mission, but our ability to execute that mission is continuously eroded. I recommended at the time that a preferable response to making do is to instead admit the job can’t be done unless circumstances change for the better.

While this may seem like giving up, it’s not. It’s taking a stand. Look at the recent actions by teachers in Oklahoma, West Virginia, Arizona, and elsewhere. There were no more sacrifices to be made, no more making do.

Thanks to their bold actions and self-advocacy, change is coming, including in public opinion, as an Associated Press poll finds that 78% of Americans believe teachers are underpaid, and 50% would be okay with raising their taxes to pay teachers more. 

The road is tougher for public higher ed than public schoolteachers, with cultural and political headwinds aligned against a largely outdated caricature of Ivory Tower elites, but this is why we can’t delay any longer.

Take a stand, live the values for real, rather than making do.

I fear it’s already too late, but this is the only way to find out for sure.

 

 

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