Tea Party groups expect influence in elections for Michigan's public university governing boards

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Tea Party groups expect to influence statewide elections to pick new members of Michigan's higher education governing boards.

Feeling the Heat

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At a time community colleges are getting lots of attention, trustees share the scrutiny -- and experts wonder if they are all sufficiently prepared.

The Leadership Gap to Come

Richard A. Skinner offers advice to college and university board members on how they need to prepare.

A Faculty (Led) Search

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The University of Wisconsin System gives uncommon authority to professors in chancellor searches.

Freedom at a Price

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Ohio governor's plan to deregulate state universities could spark another round of divisive debates.

'The Fall of the Faculty'

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Faculty members feeling besieged by, well, take your pick -- increased scrutiny of their productivity and the relevance of their research; broadsides against tenure; attacks on their

'Congratulations, I Think'

I was elected president of our college's faculty senate last spring semester. One colleague’s response nicely captures the gist of the responses I received then:

"Congratulations, I think."

Others just gave me a look. Depending upon the cynicism index of the faculty member, it meant either "Fool!" or "Well done!"

Last Week's English Department Meeting


Minutes of the English Department Meeting, April 23, 2005

Meeting begins at 4:15 instead of 4:00 as scheduled because somebody forgot the keys to the faculty lounge. 

The chair, Professor Bigley, brings the meeting to order.

Professor Twistwhistle, our Renaissance scholar, remarks that today is Shakespeare’s birthday.

Question posed by Professor Durrell: Why do we have to attend these time-wasting meetings?
Seconded by Professor Aarondale.
Professor Bigley asks if this is an issue we intend to vote on.
Professor Durrell says something not worth repeating, then repeats it.

The chair brings the meeting to order again.

Main business:

Discussion of library subscription cuts: because of budgetary deficits, necessary to suspend at least a dozen periodicals.
Suggestions by Professor Smythe: Modern Philology, Ancient Philology and that semiotics journal requested by the assistant professor who left for Rutgers last year.
Professor Kzykak: Why keep up Pop. Cult. Review? Only idiots who can’t read like that journal.
Professor Smythe begs to differ.
Professor Kzykak: Beg all you want.
Professor Aaronson: What about Critical Inquiry or PMLA? General hilarity.
The chair brings the meeting to order again. Will put list of periodicals in faculty mailboxes, and please mark off 12.

New course proposal, put forth by Professor Smythe: English 3XX, Women and Vampires, cross-listed with Gender Studies.
Questions: Where is the reading list on the proposal? Why is there no final exam? What the hell has cultural studies done to academic standards, anyway? (Kzykak)
Professor Smythe begs to punch Professor Kzykak in the nose.
The chair brings the meeting to order again.
Vote taken. English 3XX defeated 6-4.

Professor Kzykak suggests we hire a bailiff for these meetings. Ms. Cunningham, our administrative assistant, comes in with Girl Scout thin mints left over from her daughter’s cookie drive. Five-minute time-out.

Professor Twistwhistle hints that today is somebody important’s birthday.

Report from Professor Bowdler for the committee on undergraduate electives. Professor Bowdler not present.
Need volunteer to act as judge for this year’s Quiz Bowl. Professor Bowdler elected in absentia by unanimous vote.

Proposal from the dean to establish a teaching-observation protocol.
Discussion of McCarthyism.
Professor Dale, our theory person, wishes to discuss the impossibility of objectivity.
Professor Aaronson: Right. You can’t judge my teaching. It’s too subjective.
Professor Smythe: Not any more than some anonymous clown in Kalamazoo assessing my research.
Professor Aaronson: Are you referring to—?
Professor Smythe: Yes, but never mind. Let’s keep my spouse’s unsuccessful promotion review out of it.
Professor Dale refers to the post-subjective subject.
Professor Aarondale: What about this [deleted] administration?
Delegate Professor Aarondale to draft counter-proposal for observation of dean’s office.

Not on agenda, but Professor Ernesto wants to talk about plagiarism in student papers. Floor open.
Questions: Is there really a problem here? (Smythe)
Professor Ernesto: What’s the percentage of student work that’s suspect? Really, that high? Why don’t we just castrate their damn laptops? That’s obviously where it’s coming from.
Professor Dale notes that the act of appropriation may sometimes be an homage.
Professor Ernesto grabs Professor Dale’s briefcase and shakes out all the papers. Yells, "This is an act of appropriation, not an homage!"
Professor Dale threatens to deconstruct Professor Ernesto.
The chair brings the meeting to order again. Directs task force of Professors Dale and Ernesto to look jointly into student plagiarism.

Professor Twistwhistle hums "Happy Birthday."

Brief ad hoc discussion of faculty retirement. Questions: What does it take to break tenure, anyway? Will the dean consider funding a new Renaissance line?

Meeting adjourned at 5:00, an enjoyable time had by all. Thank God the responsibility for taking down these minutes is rotating, and it’s Professor Aarondale next month. Hear that, Aarondale?

David Galef
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David Galef is a professor of English and administrator of the M.F.A. program in creative writing at the University of Mississippi. His latest book is the short story collection Laugh Track (2002).

Trustees and Tenure

Tenure conversations, those hardy perennials, spring up among public university trustees on somewhat predictable cycles, provoking a ritual engagement well known to veteran academic administrators.

The cycle often begins when a new trustee looks carefully at the bundle of tenure recommendations that come from the campus, or multiple campuses of university systems, each year. These carefully crafted recommendations look remarkably similar. The recommendations praise all candidates for their excellence in teaching, research and service; all candidate files have glowing excerpts from letters solicited from outside reviewers; and the recommendations always outline the candidates’ publications, teaching accomplishments and service achievements.  

In addition, in most public university settings, this summary includes other information on the process, including the vote totals for and against each candidate at the department, college and university levels.  Although on some occasions there may be a split vote, most tenure recommendations come forward with very large majorities in favor at all levels.

Trustees do not quite know what to make of these summaries. Should they try to understand the careers of the people proposed for tenure? Should they worry that all the recommendations say almost exactly the same things in the same ways, implying perhaps a routine approval process rather than a rigorous review? What is their responsibility as trustees in approving these tenure recommendations, which usually imply 25 to 30 years of continuing institutional financial obligation? How can trustees have a useful opinion when they have not participated in the process and do not see the full dossiers? What would be the consequences of failing to approve a tenure recommendation endorsed by the president?

Uncomfortable with the rubber stamp character of these decisions, the new trustee will typically put the question of the entire tenure process up for discussion. While a few may actually challenge the concept of tenure, most trustees, whether they like it or not, recognize that a frontal attack on this core concept of the American academy is a futile exercise. Even so, they think, “Well, maybe we must have tenure, but if these campuses never turn anyone down, maybe we need to make the process more rigorous.” So they ask for data on how many candidates the campus rejects and on the percent of a department’s faculty that is already tenured. They ask how it is that everyone’s file they see has excellent ratings.

University administrators respond in similarly predictable ritual fashion. “We are very rigorous,” they say. “We wash out the weak cases before they get to the tenure decision, by advising those who perform below our standards that they should seek employment elsewhere.” In most universities, some form of annual review of all non-tenured faculty exists, and these reviews, we tell the trustees, ensure that only the best candidates for tenure survive. “This rigorous prior screening,” we say, “explains why we approve almost all those who come up for tenure.”

When the concerned trustee expresses some skepticism about this rationale for the high success of candidates for tenure and asks for data on the failure rate, the administration falls back to a comprehensive review of the process by which institutions acquire faculty. The screening, they say, begins with a national recruitment of only the best candidates. So the campus starts out with presumptive winners and has already rejected most of the potential losers.  

Clever administrators calculate the failure rate for tenure by counting from the time of first hiring, especially if the campus uses the lecturer as an entry-level position sometimes converted to tenure track assistant professor. They demonstrate that of all those with Ph.D.’s or almost Ph.D.’s hired for teaching purposes, quite a few never make it to the tenure decision point.

The administration outlines the elaborate bureaucracy and review processes that allow only the best to survive the ordeal and provides reams of information on the process. Department-specific criteria (articles matter in some departments, books in others, for example) produce multiple versions of guidelines used throughout the institution. Examples of the documentation required by the college or school and the paperwork sent to the provost and then on to the president fill the package provided the trustees. With a final flourish, the campus hands over the elaborate campuswide description of promotion and tenure guidelines established by faculty committees and approved by presidents and often the board of trustees itself.

The determined trustee may ask for a policy discussion by the board, and the board usually agrees. A meeting takes place, and in systems, there can be many provosts and chancellors or presidents, as well as a battery of system officials, all who bring expertise, experience, data, and perspectives.

In the discussion, the trustee learns that the process is complicated and that the decisions reflect expert judgments. In a nice way, the assembled administrators gently inform the trustee that in general board members do not know enough to evaluate the full dossiers of the candidates because the subject matter is well beyond trustee expertise in most cases (as it is beyond the expertise of most administrators as well). 

The administrators make clear that absent this tenure process conducted as it is, replicated with minor variations at almost all competing public institutions of higher education, no campus can compete for good faculty because good faculty will only come to a place that does tenure exactly the way the university does it. Finally, someone mumbles about lawsuits, union contracts and other nasty consequences of failing to sustain the status quo.

At the end of the meeting, everyone agrees that tenure is a complicated and essential thing. They agree that the institution must be conscientious and careful because the investment implied by a tenure decision is a major commitment. They agree that it is not good for a department to be filled entirely by tenured or non-tenured faculty, but they also allow that it is a bad idea to have rigid tenure quotas. The trustees leave the meeting recognizing that this is beyond their ability to control, frustrated that they cannot get a grip on the process, concerned that the institution may not be doing the right thing in a rigorous enough way, but completely without any mechanism to address the issue.

The administrators go home, having spent great amounts of time and killed many trees for the paperwork, and report to their faculty that they have once again held off the trustee philistines who would have destroyed, absent the strong stance of the administration, that most cherished characteristic of academic appointment, the permanent tenured professorship.

The hardy perennial has once again flowered and died, to lie dormant until the next season of trustee discontent.

John V. Lombardi
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Motivation and Its Discontents

Lately I have been following the discussion of “motivation” taking place at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Word of the matter came my way via salty blogger Margaret Soltan, a professor of English at George Washington University. The debate is a purely local matter. It probably won’t reach the wires services, though it has certainly livened up The Daily Egyptian, SIUC’s student-run paper. But the whole matter is quite interesting as a standoff in the other culture war -- not the conflict between left and right, but the clash of values between old-school academe and corporate American.

According to the Egyptian, a recent marketing report described SIUC’s faculty and staff as “prideless.” Even though pride is one of the seven deadly sins, this finding was not cause for celebration. Administrators decided to make an investment in morale by spending $20,000 on a series of programs of an uplifting nature.

A speaker named Steve Beck -- the president of Beck and Associates Corporate Training Solutions -- came to the campus last week to give a series of presentations on the theme “Making a Difference: It Begins With You.” The chancellor, John Dunn, announced the series to faculty and staff in an advertisement that included the line, “Please plan to attend.” (A sentence it is hard not to read as having a polite yet firm tone.)  

Audio and video clips at Beck’s Web site convey his fundamental message: a positive attitude is vital for improving customer satisfaction. At SIUC, he offered a “series of activities and anecdotes” covering “the importance of taking time when answering the phone and thinking about the way people greet one another,” according to a report in the Egyptian. “He also said listening and giving things full attention could help improve relations.”

The attitude that education is, when you get right down to it, one more service industry.... this does not warm the academic heart, somehow. About 10 percent of faculty and staff actually showed up.

Now, a friend who is wise in the ways of administration/faculty relations tells me that getting 10 percent of the professoriate at a given university actually to show up for anything is about par for the course. But that figure bitterly disappointed someone at the Egyptian. It was the perfect opportunity to worry aloud about the moral example set by SIUC's educators.

“The faculty had a lecture to go to,” an editorialist opined last Wednesday. “It wasn't mandatory, but it was recommended. And valuable information -- ways to improve the quality of the university's product -- was discussed. Most of the faculty and staff decided not to attend.... Our careers as students would falter if we didn't attend long, boring lectures. The same argument applies to the employees of this university.... As students, we give the faculty and staff an F.”

That must have been fun to write. Discharging aggression against people with power over you (in this case, professors) usually is. But the editorial is also interesting for how it mimics management-speak. A motivational speaker provides “valuable information ... to improve the quality of the university’s product.” Not a hint of skepticism about the corporate rhetoric. No questioning at all of the idea that Iearning to answer the telephone in a pleasing manner will contribute to the manufacture of skilled and well-informed students.

Then again, the editorialist also seems to imply that “the university’s product” is actually “long, boring lectures.” Wouldn’t a motivational speaker increase productivity in ways that students might not appreciate -- inspiring professors to give longer, even more boring lectures?

For his part, at least, Steve Beck is anything but dull. The samples of his talks available online are ebullient, emphatic, full of gumption. The reports that he spoke “flamboyantly” at SUIC. He gave, in short, a rhetorical performance in keeping with the standards of what has now become a well-developed cultural industry -- one that now has ambitions to professionalize itself.

The closest thing to an accrediting agency for motivators is an organization called the National Speakers Association, of which Beck is a member. Its rolls now includes some 5,000 people who work full-time at it, making between $3,500 and $50,000 per speech while making the circuit of workshops, corporate retreats, and weekend seminars -- not counting the additional revenue available from creating branded lines of books, videos, and inspirational audio recordings for drivers stuck in traffic.

Still larger fees go to superstars such as Tony Robbins, whose infomercials have made his dazzlingly expansive smile and ability to walk on fire known to millions. (The fee Steve Beck accepted for 10 performances suggests that he is, as yet, an up-and-comer. Either that or $20k counts as pro bono.)

And for every motivational speaker working full-time, there may be a dozen aspirants looking for their big break. The subculture has now become enough of a fact of life to have passed into pop culture satire.  Last year’s comedy “Little Miss Sunshine,” which just won the Oscar for best screenplay, includes a character who is certain his nine-step “Refuse to Lose” program will be the next big thing in the motivational field, even though it hasn’t actually helped him all that much.

It sounds like fertile territory for ethnographers and cultural historians to explore. There is already a considerable scholarly literature on the topic of self-help – not to mention the established field of Oprah studies. The world of motivational speaking might be the next frontier.

But for now, we have a recent book called Yes You Can! Behind the Hype and Hustle of the Motivational Biz (Bloomsbury, 2006) by the former Playboy editor Jonathan Black -- an entertaining and well-researched survey of the workings of the industry by a participant observer. Cobbling together bits of inspirational boilerplate and some anecdotes from his own experience, he even achieves some modest success at the bush-league level of motivationalism.  

Apart from his descriptions of the process of salesmanship-of-self on display at a meeting of the National Speakers Association, Black’s account offers a look at the implicit cultural politics of the inspiration biz. It often sounds as if motivational speakers always have the same message. They are, in effect, ministers of the secular gospel of positive thinking, preaching that the one true sin is failing to believe in yourself. But the market for that message changes from time to time, and so does the message itself.

“For much of the eighties and nineties,” writes Black, “the motivation business was all about making it, self-propulsion, getting rich quick. Athletic coaches ruled, because winning wasn’t everything – it was the only thing. The lecture circuit starred corporate titans like Malcolm Forbes, Lee Iacocca, and Ted Turner.” The ethos of this period was summed up by a pace-setting speaker named Zig Ziglar (something like the Stanley Fish of the motivation world) when he titled one of his books See You at the Top.

Around the turn of the century, though, something happened -- several things, in fact. The tech bubble burst. Dubious business practices eroded corporate prestige. Murderous fanatics showed that globalization would not be all about getting and spending in peace and comfort. The old motivational messages started sounding hollow, and the market took a hit.

But not for long. “The speaker business is a hydra-headed monster,” says Black. “Lop off one topic and six new ones appear.”  

The new message was more serious. “It was time to get real,” as Black puts it, “to think about values. The good boss was the sensitive boss. Ziglar’s new book, The View from the Top, was all about being ethical and praying to God. Suffering wasn’t a blight on success, it was a badge of honor, a common experience to bind humanity.”

That phase has passed, too, it seems. The perennial theme of cheering up and taking control of your life – of making friends and influencing people – is back in full effect, as exemplified by a t-shirt Black spots while making the rounds among professional and amateur motivators: Get Your ‘But’ Out of the Way.

Words to live by, surely. And yet the question remains whether there is any significant return on the investment when a company (or university, for that matter) pays to bring in a motivational speaker. Some people in an audience may feel a little uplift -- whether from the message itself, or the vaguely standup-comedy demeanor common throughout the industry, or simply from doing something diverting during work hours. But proof that speakers actually make any difference over the long term is just not there. It seems you cannot actually buy inspiration. The most you can do is rent it.

In fact, Black cites the work of a prominent business speaker named Jason Jennings, author of a book called Less is More, who finds no relationship at all between morale and “hired” motivation.

"He and his research team have come up with an interesting fact,” notes Black. “After studying four thousand companies and rating the ten most ‘productive’ -- based on various criteria from revenue per employee to cash flow -- they found that none spent much money motivating their workers..... What works to motivate workers, he believes, is ‘an authentic cause that becomes the culture of the company.' " One example Jennings offers is IKEA, with its proclaimed devotion to "furniture for the many – not for the few, not for the rich, not for design magazines." The company’s president takes just two weeks of vacation a year, and stays at Motel 6 when he travels.

I don’t have statistics at hand about how many chancellors or provosts stay at Motel 6. It would hardly be surprising to learn that most do not. That sort of change might not be the solution to "pridelessness" or academic anomie. But there’s certainly no evidence that motivational bromides are, either.

A forceful letter appearing in the Daily Egyptian last week suggests an alternative. Responding to the news that one session by Steve Beck drew an audience of about 50, Justin Bell, a doctoral student in the philosophy department, wrote:
“Spending $20,000 on motivational speakers is absurd in the face of so many laid-off graduate assistants and deferred facilities maintenance. Let's look at what $20,000 could do that would make a difference in the actual education of students. On my estimation, it could hire two half-time graduate assistants, purchase 31 new Dell computers (assuming no discount) or pay for any number of books. I suspect we could even make a big bonfire with money that would draw more than 50 people..... All this occurs in the face of raising fees and tuition on incoming freshmen and graduate students.”

Bell goes on to write, “I am someone who feels that being a student at a university is a type of citizenship, not a type of business relationship.”

His language here is not the same as that of Jason Jennings, a corporate consultant, when the latter calls high morale the product of “an authentic cause" animating "the culture of the company.” But the sentiment is similar enough: Treat people like citizens, not like hired help -- and motivation will take care of itself. The lesson is simple, inspiring even.

Scott McLemee
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