Thursday, June 11, 2009

Kafka-land, Florida (academics only), part 2

Well, the comments stream for the Chronicle of Higher Education's article on Our Fair University's peremptory firing of five tenured faculty members has metastasized, & some really ugly name-calling has started – no doubt simply reflecting the overall morale of faculty here. At a Board of Trustees meeting today, Our Maximum Leader (ie the President of OFU) gave us the short version: OFU
respects tenure as much as any other state university..... As president of this university I want that quote to be entered into the record in a way that cannot be misunderstood and shouldn't be accepted as anything but what I mean it to be. This university supports tenure. That's a fact.
Well, that's always nice to hear, but is it borne out by what's been going down? Five tenured faculty, all of them with more than 15 years' service here, given pink slips & told to clean out their offices by August – not even the one academic year's notice mandated by the collective bargaining agreement.

What really boggles me about all this is how it was done. The College of Engineering went thru a massive restructuring this spring (with one suspects absolutely minimal faculty input). Several departments were merged, among them Computer Science & Electrical Engineering. But on top of that fairly common merging activity, the following arcane horizontal structure was cross-cut over the three remaining departments ("Ocean/Mechanical," "Computer/Electrical/Computer Science," & "Civil/Environmental/Geomatica" –dig those snazzy names)*:

Yes, that's right: every faculty member, of every rank from instructor thru full professor, belongs not merely to a department but to a "Functional Unit" as well, based one assumes on her or his "function" within the college. (Those units, in case you can't read 'em, are "Pre-professional Program," "Innovation Leadership Honors Program" [huh?], "Undergraduate Programs," and "Graduate Programs/Research.")

If the administration wanted to lay off a handful of faculty from a given department, by the terms of the collective bargaining agreement they'd be obliged to lay them off in order of seniority, instructors & assistant professors first. But lo & behold, by some unaccountable fluke, it turns out that the "Functional Unit" devoted to "Undergraduate Programs" consists of nothing but tenured faculty. So they're slicing the pie, not in a traditional department-based direction, but on the basis of a set of "Functional Units" whose precedent I've never seen in the academy. (Feel free to enlighten me, by the way.)

If one were paranoid & distrustful of authority, one might suspect that the "Functional Units" were expressly established to rid the college of a handful of highly-paid tenured faculty.

But Maximum Leader has told us that "This university supports tenure." And I believe, just as I believe we have always been at war with Eurasia.

*If you're a glutton for punishment, the entire presentation from which this snippet is drawn can be yawned thru here.

UPDATE, via the Palm Beach Post education news blog:

The President's full statement (dig the 3rd person):
This president respects tenure as much as he did when he arrived. I need to go on the record saying that because I think if it will be a negative impact on this university it will be brought about by the rhetoric of those making the statement that this is an attack on tenure. The fact is it’s not, period. So the suspicions are misguided. FAU respects tenure as much as any other state university. As president of this university I want that quote entered into the record in a way that cannot be misunderstood and shouldn’t be accepted as anything but what I mean it to be. This university supports tenure. That’s a fact.
(Thas a fact, Jack.) Now I don't wanna get all Orwellian, but it's kinda fun (once you've sorted out the grammar) to parse the logic of that there 2nd sentence.


Ross Brighton said...

God Damn. I see what you mean about Kafka. And I thought we had it bad, restructuring wise (Film merged with Literature, with a statement to the effect that Arts academics are interchangeable, and no more Lit staff would be hired because the amalgamation had boosted numbers in the dept). But this is even more sneaky and underhanded. I don't know what to say!

Bradley said...

It seems to me that this grand experiment in getting rid of tenure will be politically popular in the short-term-- Governor Crist has been an enemy of higher education for a long time-- but will eventually blow up in their faces. Sure, some of the voters will like to see the state universities suffer, thinking that it will somehow lower their taxes, but Floridians with teenaged children are going to quickly realize that any school that's willing to fire some of its most accomplished professors is not a place they want to send their kids.

Those who want to "run the college like a business" have it wrong, of course, but they have it wrong in an interesting way. The business model might work if we all agreed that "the product" is knowledgeable graduates-- that, I think, is how most faculty see the issue. But too many administrators see "the product" as graduates with degrees. Not exactly the same thing, obviously. One gets the impression that if they could, these administrators would get rid of faculty-- tenure-track and contingency alike-- in favor of a more streamlined process-- student writes a check for $50,000, student gets degree.

The problem with viewing the degree as the goal is that the degree is only valuable in the sense that it indicates that the degree-holder has acquired knowledge. But if you begin to replace the most-accomplished faculty with overworked, underpaid, uninsured contingency labor with no shared governance opportunities, the quality of education is going to go down, which means the degree becomes devalued to the point of meaninglessness.

That's not to insult those who find themselves in contingency positions, of course. But let's be honest-- are you a better teacher when you have 50 students and feel relatively secure financially, or when you have 100 and can't sleep at night because you don't know where you're going to find the money to pay for the back surgery you desperately need?

Nicholas Manning said...

Mark, that 2nd sentence from the All Powerful is indeed an orwellian masterpiece. I believe I could analyze it all day, if it weren't for all the sobbing.

Su said...

I have to say 'ditto' to Bradley's comment. When people ask me why I resigned from OFU, I tell them that I was misinformed when I took the position. I thought I was working for an institution of higher education, not a drive-thru diploma store.