Welcome, new faculty, to the University of Amazon.com

As expected, the selection of a new president of the University of Iowa is sparking plenty of thoughful analysis, hand-wringing and bloviating about the choice of a former corporate chieftain with relatively little academic experience as the institution’s new leader.

Are we who decry this choice being fair?  Or is ours a knee-jerk reaction to a decision that could bring necessary and helpful changes to one of our leading universities?

weekend

Thanks to Political Loudmouth for sharing this (click picture for page).

A couple of fine pieces of interpretation have come from former University of Iowa professor Steve Kuusisto.  Kuusisto’s blog Planet of the blind: It’s not as dark as you think has perhaps the best quick summary, at least from a common academic perspective, of the political background of the selection.

Kuusisto’s characterization of Iowa regents is none too kind, which raises the question I asked myself both before and after my own short post Friday criticizing the selection.

Taking a step back and approaching issues with as much objectivity as possible are two hallmarks of both science and journalism, my own area of teaching and research. So is interpretation. I’ve thought about my own Friday post a bit this weekend, as it was a clearly pessimistic and skeptical take on Bruce Herreld’s selection.

The question of fairness to Herreld and Iowa’s leadership is too complex to answer in a single blog post.  For most observers, it’s not one that can be answered with anything close to public agreement until we’ve had the benefit of looking back on Herreld’s presidency after a suitable period of time.

But skepticism, which is just a little farther to the negative side of a continuum from hopeful to despairing, is a proper response for academics, journalists and others to this selection.

University work is public-service work.  While it contributes to the economy and economic development, it’s also about ethics, philosophy, governance, social cohesion, the arts, human communication and many other aspects of life that have less to do with business and profit in their most basic forms. Our leaders need to understand, accept and protect these ideals.

It’s legitimate to question whether a person like Herreld, with so little experience in the public-service sector, will be the kind of leader that universities need. Maybe he’ll be a fantastic fundraiser and competent public face of the university in times of crisis, but will he help maintain rigor and integrity in academic and research endeavors?  Will he respect non-economic purposes of the university and needs of the public?

And, as those tasked with the everyday functioning of the university, will rank-and-file faculty members — whose governance role is clearly crumbling in many ways — be treated more like for-hire soldiers of efficiency and economic profit, ordered to graduate more people, more quickly, with even greater capabilities and competencies?  And, simultaneously, goaded to do more rapid-fire research of clear economic value, more service, more advising, more retention work,  and more recruitment of more diverse audiences to take classes offered both at more dispersed distances and through more times of the day and night, in addition to those we already handle at traditional times and places?

And that’s not to mention more documentation and certification that they’re doing all these things.

Faculty members will be among the first to bemoan inefficiencies and bottlenecks in our institutions.  There are ways a good manager, maybe even a non-traditional one like Herreld, could lead us to improvement in meeting educational goals — with the emphasis being on “could” and “educational” here.  We can’t sell our souls just to be more efficient and economical.

Faculty, being those closest to the daily tensions between helping students through the system and assuring their ability to demonstrate basic competencies, have the right to be skeptical of someone who hasn’t been subjected to the constant pressures of juggling all these competing interests of modern university educations.  That University of Iowa faculty are so overwhelmingly skeptical in this case is not a good sign.

And it really can’t be stated enough: graduating lots of people efficiently and ensuring their competence are the two goals that are most often in direct opposition to one another.  It’s tough to maintain educational standards when there’s exorbitant political pressure to have more graduates and decreased “time to degree,” especially with consumerist teaching evaluations that often focus far more on how students feel than what they learned.  All that in an environment of dramatically decreased public funding, pressure to enroll more students and lower tuition, and substantial political derision toward faculty.

The answers to the questions five paragraphs above are already clear.  Faculty members are already being asked to meet all these goals and handle all these often-incompatible tasks.  In the final weeks of the spring, I heard administrators at my university publically state that we’ll “just have to work harder” and that, even though we may have difficulty attracting new faculty throughout the UW system, administrative pay is difficult to cut because it has to remain competitive to attract the best administrators.

Apparently that could mean more administrators like Herreld and more attempts by politicians and their appointees to control administrators.  Folks in Wisconsin don’t have to look much past our own borders to be suspicious of that, as many of our top-level administrators have received raises in recent years when working-class faculty haven’t. Again, we have a right to be skeptical.

But when we do  look beyone our borders, what do we see?

Iowa.

On Labor Day weekend, the spectacle in Iowa combines with the specter of a new working world, perhaps best typified by issues we see raised in the New York TimesAug. 15 exploration of workplace culture at Amazon.com.  It was a fantastic piece, highlighting questions of efficiency and worker commitment in making Amazon profitable, as well as worker health and happiness, workplace dignity, and consumer complicity.  The anecdotes of post-midnight supervisor e-mail and texts are especially provocative.

As we in Wisconsin look back on our own labor history, it’s important to remember that those who came before us were among the leaders in basic labor-rights movements.  Labor Day should remind us of that long-ago May Day protest that led to seven Wisconsinites being killed in the Bay View Massacre while advocating for an 8-hour day.

While we take for granted ideas like the weekend and the 40-hour week, they seem, in some ways, like laughable or naive concepts.

To many faculty, especially those on the tenure track but not yet tenured, the weekends and evenings remain simply a time of working at home (if they’re lucky) under slightly less pressured conditions, or maybe just differently pressured.  We have a few more family and personal options than in normal weekday work.  But they’re accompanied by the added pressures everyone has, like taking care of our houses and families and maybe even stuff we ordered on Amazon, some of which brings on angst over our roles as cogs in the consumer economy.

Will future faculty weekends see a greater diminishment in whatever quality of life they have had? Will advancement, or mere survival, mean those midnight student e-mail pleas that we decide not to answer will result in 1 a.m. calls from associate vice under-deans of “student success” gently suggesting that we consider the ramifications of our choice to go to bed?

Not that the dean is saying we absolutely must, mind you.  But, please, can’t we think of the consequences of losing said students to the University of Amazon.com, whose time-to-degree ratio is the envy of state legislatures everywhere from the land of the University of Alabama/Mercedes-Benz to the home of the University of Wisconsin/Johnsonville Brats?

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