Friday, November 17, 2006


There are only two blogs I read that address academic affairs in anything more than a tangential way – Michael Bérubé's and University Diaries, by the Joyce scholar Margaret Soltan. I have a love-hate thing with UD: Soltan drives me nuts with her right-leaning politics, her retrograde aesthetic judgments, & her tendency towards William Bennett-like laments over "what's happened to the humanities" (y'know, theory, jargon, political correctness, all that); on the other hand, she writes beautifully and she's continually raking the muck around what's wrong with the US university system (her big bêtes noires are overpaid administrators, metastasizing atheletic programs, & diploma mills).

Both Bérubé & Soltan teach at respectable – if not unquestionably first-rank – departments of English (Penn State & George Washington respectively). They can afford to kvetch about David Horowitz's crusade against academic freedom, or someone's pricey new football stadium, from within a kind of happy insulated bubble. Things are a little grimmer from the trenches – the 2nd, 3rd, & 4th tier institutions where most of the graduates of the top-rated programs actually end up teaching (take note, grad student bloggers).

Take, for instance, the juxtaposition of texts I came upon yesterday. On the home page of my university webmail account, Our President gleefully announced Our University's latest bid for the big time:
Now, in accordance with our Strategic Plan, we are working to make [Our University] a "first-choice" institution for even more students who seek the traditional American college experience. Achieving this goal hinges on our ability to enhance the quality of campus life in ways that are especially attractive to this age group. This is the primary motivating force behind the proposal to add Innovation Village to our [Main Campus] facilities.

Every traditional university has a campus hub, where friendships are forged and memories are made. The Innovation Village complex, which would include student housing and retail space as well as athletic facilities, would provide just such a hub for [OU], quickly becoming a gathering place for students, alumni, faculty and staff as well as visitors from the greater community.

Major, long-term benefits to the University are expected to include substantial improvement of our freshman retention and overall graduation rates, more successful recruitment of top-flight students, faculty and staff, and enhancement of the University's economic development capability and visibility throughout South Florida. All of this adds up to a stronger, better university for [OU] students of all ages.
(Note the insinuation that somehow "Innovation Village" will somehow help to recruit "top-flight faculty.")

And then in my department mailbox was the newsletter from the faculty union, which among other things – like the shabby fact that OU's students, according to which measure of academic excellence you look at, are either 11th among 15 Florida institutions or 15th among 19 – devoted much space to bemoaning the fact that the administration was balking at various plans it had proposed to make up for the fact that faculty salaries at OU seem to be lagging behind those of almost every other school in the state system. The budget, it seems, won't cover the raises that had been tentatively proposed; nor can it even be stretched to cover free tuition for faculty spouses & children.

The administration keeps talking about wanting to become a top-flight research institution, but the reality is that the entire operation is driven by the most short-sighted budget considerations. They want higher quality students, & they want faculty that produce more research; the solution?: they propose higher production quotas in the classroom (ie larger class sizes or higher teaching loads), a proposal which has absolutely NOTHING to do either with better instruction or more research (which indeed is inimical to those goals), but which serves to better balance the budget.

A wakeup call I hope someone will deliver our President: I don't know a single faculty member who gives a fast flier about "Innovation Village," nor can I imagine any young scholar/academic on the job market who could give a f.f. as to whether their potential employer has a "campus hub" that combines student housing with athletic facilities & retail space (we've already got a Starbucks, Barnes & Noble, & Einstein Bros, thank you very much – how about a real bookstore, or a real library?). "Top-flight" faculty want competitive salaries; they want to be treated as real partners in labor negotiations, rather than as troublesome serfs; they want research budgets; they want to work in an environment where every damned thing isn't keyed to a constant demeaning number-crunching.

I spent a couple hours at the pub last night listening to some junior colleagues in the social sciences (which are bunged into the same college with the humanities here). Another wakeup call to OP: the vast majority of junior faculty here view this job as a stepping-stone to something better, or as a holding pattern until a more promising position opens up somewhere else. If you want to hold on to the "top-flight" people for more than a couple years – or if you want to keep them from becoming minimal-output, disaffected, & cynical tenured faculty – you'd better give some thought to something a little more substantive than "Innovation Village."

I'm doing my best not to be one of those "minimal-output, disaffected, & cynical tenured faculty" – or at least I'm not any more cynical than I've ever been. I like my colleagues: they're a far more lively and talented bunch than a school on this tier could have dreamed of acquiring before the bottom dropped out of the academic job market. And I'm very fond of my students. But golly, as Simon Dedalus says, this administration – "Agonizing Christ, wouldn't it give you a heartburn on your arse?"

Phew – got that off my chest! Back to poetry, or music, or something a bit more fun next time.

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