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.
People often ask me why I serve on so many committees. I usually tell them a story about my grandfather. When I was a young child, I often saw him in a T-shirt that read, “Don’t ask me, I’m not on a committee.” Beneath this motto was a trail of enigmatic paw prints. To my young eyes, the paw prints seemed to indicate a level of playfulness and mischief, but also perhaps an element of dehumanization. Even before I knew what a committee was, I made up my mind that I wouldn’t make the same mistake. I would be on a committee.
For most of my life, this thought remained dormant. All that changed, however, when I finished my M.A. at Chicago Theological Seminary, having submitted a translation and commentary on an essay Derrida added to the French edition of The Gift of Death, and made the decision to stay for my Ph.D. as well. Perhaps unexpectedly, given the connotations that a “seminary” calls to mind, my motive in staying there was the intellectual freedom provided by the interdisciplinary Ph.D. program, which would allow me to pursue my interest in contemporary continental philosophy and to seek out resources in the Christian tradition that would resonate with the interest in St. Paul shown by Badiou, Agamben, and others. (My interest has since shifted somewhat, but of course that is one of the benefits of intellectual freedom.)
Having made a significant commitment to the institution, I decided that I would become more involved. The easiest way to do that seemed to be to volunteer as a student representative to Academic Council. I was one of several student representatives, and though there was a place on the agenda for us to bring up matters of student concern, we most often had very little to contribute. I attended very faithfully, though, as a way of getting a feel for how faculty self-governance works in an independent seminary.
The following fall I signed up for a second term on Academic Council. Starting the previous spring and continuing into the fall, there was considerable controversy at the seminary about the decision to convert student housing into a commercial rental property, and I worked with some of my fellow students to attempt to put together an “open letter” from the student representatives to the Academic Council and the leaders of student groups to the Board of Trustees, expressing our concern about the situation. Due to my involvement, the dean named me as one of two student representatives to Academic and Student Affairs Committee of the Board of Trustees.
My service on Academic Council also made me eligible to serve on the search committee for an open faculty position in New Testament. That same year, I began a two-year term as the seminary’s student liaison to the American Academy of Religion, which required submitting various reports and -- of course -- serving on a committee at the national meeting, which that year largely served as an opportunity for us to ask a high-ranking administrator in the academy questions about the organization and its future.
As I reflect on the events of the last year, then, one thing seems pretty obvious: I’ve served on a lot of committees. Now that I am making the transition toward my comprehensive exams and dissertation, I am planning on retiring from student leadership (with the exception of serving the remainder of my term as student liaison), and this seems like an appropriate time to reflect on what I’ve done in the course of serving on these committees. First, I’ve become acquainted with some of the routine tasks of faculty self-governance and with the role of the board of trustees. I couldn’t have chosen a better time to be involved -- the seminary was in the process of adopting a new strategic plan and going through its periodic re-accreditation. I’ve also served my primary professional organization at the national level and seen a faculty search from the inside. The search committee in particular was truly a great opportunity for me. I got to look through applicants’ files, giving me a chance to see what kinds of qualifications applicants for a competitive position generally have, to assess what seemed to be effective cover letters, and to see what kinds of things recommenders say. Beyond that, I was able to sit in on a few informal interviews with our most promising candidates at the national meeting of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature.
All of this was very valuable experience, and although it sounds like a lot of work, it really wasn’t. Much of the actual decision-making, for both the faculty and the board, took place in the closed executive sessions. Thus the responsibilities of students, and so also the expectations of outside preparation work, were limited: Our primary role was to allow student voices to be involved in the conversation. Even at the peak of my involvement, I was averaging under two hours a week, and most of the time it was considerably less. Since I was in my coursework stage, I was normally on campus anyway on the days when the committees met.
Several of my fellow student representatives complained that Academic Council seemed to be a waste of time because we never “did” anything, but I came to view it as a kind of informal apprenticeship, somewhat similar to the two teaching assistantships that I held that same year. Unlike at some institutions, where the TA is expected basically to teach the entire class, I served as a true assistant, taking care of grading and other clerical tasks and also attending all the class sessions. At first, I viewed the class sessions as a boring ordeal, but gradually my perspective changed and I realized that it was a great opportunity to shift my focus away from the course content and observe the professor’s teaching style -- what works, what doesn’t, what I’d want to adopt, what I’d do differently.
In addition to providing a service to the professor, then, the teaching assistantship helped me to shift gradually from the mindset of a student to that of a teacher. Most grad students are aware of the need for this process, but few seem to be very conscious of the fact that teaching and research are not the entirety of what an academic does -- the nuts and bolts of administration are a major factor as well. Certainly few pursue an academic career because they want to do committee work, but it is an integral part of what it means to be part of a self-governing faculty. Taking the opportunity to participate, by necessity largely as an observer, in the various administrative processes was a very helpful way of getting a realistic view of what the professional life of an academic is really like.
A big part of that for me was simply observing how much time faculty had to devote to meetings and to preparing for them, particularly during the re-accreditation process. Perhaps more important, though, was the kind of informal “ethnography” of committees that I developed over time -- the politics of what is said and what remains unsaid, the role of the moderator in keeping the meeting moving and setting the tone, and a whole variety of other factors that an observer is able to pick up on in a way that someone suddenly thrown into the midst as a more active participant might not be able to.
Above all, I became convinced that patience and a sense of humor are the most important qualities to have in committee work. Patience allows one to see the value in the function of periodic meetings as a way of checking in and making sure that even matters that might be taken for granted are explicitly addressed -- that is, to appreciate the role of regular committees as helping to make sure that things continue to function smoothly and the way that not having to “do” anything can often be a positive sign. A sense of humor works to help maintain that level of patience by keeping what can easily become a tedious process from becoming too burdensome.
For my part, I often found humor in observing the small details of what was going on -- the way that certain seemingly simple decisions could be indefinitely deferred, the people who seemed to enjoy the sound of their own voice and the people who made it their goal to say as little as possible in each meeting, the occasional surreptitious piece of reading material smuggled into the meeting. Much of the time, these small observations served only as an occasion to chuckle to myself, but on rare occasions, I have experienced moments that approach the sublime.
The best such moment came in the course of the meeting of the student liaisons at the AAR. The administrator who had come to our meeting was discussing concerns about how certain institutions were conducting their interview processes, including meeting in inappropriate settings, asking inappropriate questions (particularly about sexual orientation), and basically engaging in a wide panoply of inappropriate behaviors. He assured us all that the AAR was doing everything possible to crack down on such behavior among the users of its job listing service, and speaking on behalf of the AAR more generally, he said, “We are committed to being appropriate.”
“We are committed to being appropriate” -- it is a line I have treasured in my heart and meditated upon ever since. Perhaps I should make a T-shirt.
As written in Genesis, Esau, exhausted from his labors and faint from hunger, sells his birthright for a pottage of red lentils. We are reminded of Esau’s bargain through the seemingly unending revelations of distasteful contracts between higher education and the corporate world. These contractual relationships raise the question: Has the modern university, in its quest for resources, likewise sold its birthright?
It is a question not easily answered, for the concept of a higher education birthright is nebulous. Yet it is clear that society, through elected representatives, personal philanthropy, and religious authorities, has accorded to the Academy great autonomy, and deferred to the judgment of faculty and administrators on weighty issues expressed in policies, programs and the tenets of academic freedom. The public’s support of the Academy is rooted in its belief that colleges and universities are altruistically motivated and have at heart the best interests of students and society.
It is that premise that has been shaken by revelations that several student financial aid offices have sacrificed the best interests of students for operating dollars and personal aggrandizement, and that some alumni affairs offices have sold student and graduate addresses to credit card companies and loan consolidators. To many it appears that university officials have abused the public’s trust.
Three recent news stories, months removed from the New York attorney general’s revealing investigations, illustrate higher education problems. The president of Iowa State University acted forthrightly in calling for an end to the practice of selling undergraduate names and addresses to Bank of America’s credit card marketing division. For this and other contractual considerations, including higher credit card interest rates for students than for alumni, Bank of America annually gives the Alumni Association $500,000 and a guaranteed $40,000 to the University. Not surprisingly, none of the $40,000 goes for student financial aid; the full amount is directed to intercollegiate athletics.
In contrast to Iowa State’s call for corrective action, University of Miami officials seek to justify the university's transmission of private student information (including Social Security and driver’s license data) to the Sallie Mae Corporation, which in turn personalized student loan applications and mailed them to incoming students. Miami steadfastly has refused to reveal the financial compensation it receives from Sallie Mae for facilitating this marketing ploy, except to acknowledge that the firm controls approximately $70 million or 95 percent of the University’s federal loan business.
Now comes the NCAA with a proposal to permit companies contracting with collegiate athletic programs to use images of individual student athletes for commercial usage. Of course, none of the revenues or royalties from these contracts will reach student athletes, but will undoubtedly benefit their coaches, athletic officials, and conference coffers. NCAA officials shamelessly deny that the proposal constitutes an exploitation of student-athletes -- which, of course, is precisely what it is.
Rather than bringing this controversial proposal to a January vote, it has now been referred to a committee of presidents for additional study. It may or may not surface again, but the fact it had the support of the NCAA Academic and Eligibility Committee in order to provide “greater flexibility in developing relationships with commercial entities” bespeaks the values dominating the current state of intercollegiate athletics. Esau may have favored a pottage of red lentils, but today’s preference is green.
We have not arrived at this ethical crossroads through greed or mal-intent. Economic pressures born of diminishing revenue streams, the counsel of Boards and advisory bodies to be more entrepreneurial, and the desire to enhance the stature of institutions we serve have facilitated higher education’s commercial embrace. We are now paying the price for imprudent decisions, ineffective oversight, and diminished commitment to serving students and society.
Rebuilding the public’s confidence and trust in our institutions must occur in the same settings where that confidence and trust were eroded: on individual campuses and through higher education’s governing structures. The historic values of the Academy must be reaffirmed both by governing boards and by campus presidents and chancellors. Comprehensive, clearly enunciated conflict of interest policies are part of the answer, but in a larger sense those who work for and those who work with our colleges and universities need to inculcate ethical guidelines and community values and see them reflected in decision-making throughout the University. Processes by which proposed contracts and agreements, particularly with external vendors, can be reviewed prior to effectuation, and an enhanced internal auditing function will likewise be needed. Of course, institutional funding must be found for those important functions which have become financially dependent on questionable external arrangements.
Most importantly, each college and university will need to clarify its priorities and reaffirm its core values. I would expect that most institutions will incorporate three principles in its credo. First, transactions and relationships with external entities must be public and transparent. It is not enough for the public to have access to information, external relationships should be explicated in a way that salient information is readily recognized and understood—and presented in a manner that permits knowledgeable discussion and accountable decision-making.
Secondly, affirmation is needed to insure that the best interests of students will be a primary consideration in all external arrangements. (One could persuasively argue that this principle should be extended to faculty and staff as well, though it is clear there is a special relationship born of tradition and public expectations between the college or university and its students.) Formal agreements and informal arrangements which adversely impact students presumptively should be eschewed. It is difficult to justify any external agreement which consciously increases student costs, limits student choices, disseminates private records, or exploits individual students for individual or corporate gain.
Lastly, there must be a recognition that the integrity of the decision-making process and an institution’s reputation are intertwined. Irrespective of whether the college or university is public or independent, its foundation is built on public trust. The institution should never engage in any activity or execute any external agreement which erodes the public’s conviction that the Academy has society’s best interests at heart and so conducts its affairs.
Reclaiming the public’s trust (truly the Academy’s historic birthright) should be an overarching goal for all higher education.
Constantine W. Curris
Constantine W. Curris is president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.
I’d like to nominate the term "faculty-driven" as a candidate for disinvestment and elimination.
After serving as a director of composition and as the coordinator of a general education program at universities in the Midwest, I am beginning my second year as department head here at a university in West Texas. At our first all-faculty meeting of the year, it was announced that we are on the verge of two major academic initiatives that will require a substantial commitment of institutional time and energy. The first is a program review process, and the second is a quality enhancement project required by our accreditor.
Both of these efforts are necessary and, I suspect, will result in needed improvements. I have faith in the best practices upon which we will model our efforts. I also believe in the goodwill and good intentions of our academic leadership.
I just wish our administrative team would stop saying these efforts will be "faculty-driven." It’s a term that has little, if any, persuasive power. It may in fact, for many faculty, have the opposite effect. Rather than sweetening the pot, it may just as likely leave a bitter taste.
It's possible academic leaders inside higher ed believe that "faculty-driven" is synonymous with “shared governance” (another term I’d nominate for the trash bin) or "grassroots consensus-building." However, these terms only mask how power actually circulates in academe.
Let me be clear: I’m not opposed to how power functions in colleges and universities. I think the decision-making hierarchy in my university is appropriate and benefits faculty, staff, and students. And it’s quite evident who has authority and who doesn’t. Our operational policies tell the story of power and process quite well, and our organizational chart clearly illustrates the verticality of institutional authority.
I'm only saying that academic leaders should be more careful about how they talk about what we do. Faculty don’t drive processes that come down from accrediting agencies or the administration. They execute them. That’s why a better term is "faculty-executed."
Faculty members are directed to execute program review. Faculty are directed to execute a quality enhancement process. Faculty are directed to develop and assess student learning outcomes. Faculty are directed to appear at convocation and commencement. It may be that faculty don’t like to follow and execute these directives, but that’s really beside the point .
Let me share with you to the last two stanzas of a poem I like very much by William Stafford called “A Ritual to Read to Each Other.”
And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy, a remote important region in all who talk: though we could fool each other, we should consider -- lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.
For it is important that awake people be awake, or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep; the signals we give -- yes or no, or maybe -- should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.
We may fool each other even when it’s not our intention. So we should take as much care as we can. We should use language that clearly depicts institutional power and its supporting policies and processes. And "faculty-driven" is a smudge.
If faculty drive anything, it’s student learning — the central ritual of any academic enterprise. Certainly, there's many an institutional directive that drive faculty away from that focus. But what drives faculty to distraction even more is language that misses the opportunity to do good work.
My preference is that academic leadership should talk straight about the parade of our mutual life. Leaders should tell faculty what they want faculty to do and, just as importantly, they should tell them why. And tell them often. Not fly-by mission statements and core values on overhead slides. But in public and in person, boots on the ground. Follow me. This way. Here we go.
I would also urge faculty to remind themselves of our larger enterprise more frequently. We can all make the easy case of how overworked we are. But we’re not running backhoes or bouncing along on the back of garbage trucks. We’re lucky enough to work in fields of our own choosing.
From my perspective, program review and enhancement projects offer us the opportunity to make the case for values and valuing, a chance not only to remind ourselves of why we do what we do, but also to remind others — especially those above us in the vertical leap — of our unique and vital contributions to the knowledge pie.
(And we should be beating that drum in our classrooms, too!)
Many faculty think they are undervalued or have no voice in the scheme of things. Why then would we resist a directive to tell our story? Otherwise, the line that threads through all we do may become loose, unravel, or, worse yet, break.
I believe very good and persuasive reasons often exist for why faculty should execute what we are directed to do. But there’s a difference between giving directives and giving directions. The first is a means; the second, an end. But they can be easily confused. And frequently are. When directives become ends in themselves, we lose our way in the dark.
Please take out the directions and read them again.
Laurence Musgrove is a professor and chair of English at Angelo State University, in San Angelo, Texas, where he teaches composition, literature, creative writing, graphic narrative, and visual thinking. His work has previously appeared in Inside Higher Ed, Southern Indiana Review, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Concho River Review and Journal for Expanded Perspectives on Learning. He blogs at www.theillustratedprofessor.com.
If Lawrence H. Summers needs a support group, he could easily find other presidents who watched their faculties vote "no confidence" in them -- and survived.
However humiliating and damaging Tuesday's vote may have been to Harvard's president -- and experts agree that it was both of those things -- he may well keep his job for years to come. The Harvard Corporation, the university's board, issued a statement backing Summers. And many think that board backing is the norm after such a vote.