24 October 2010

Where is diversity going?

One change in the proposed Gen Ed curriculum would replace the Diversity requirement with something vaguely and disingenuously called “civic engagement.” The proposal’s definition of civic engagement is even more vague and elusive than  the name itself, and so effectively this change would mean that many of our white students—the numbers and percentages will surely increase—will experience an entire four-year degree program without taking classes taught by faculty of color or classes in which they are actually in a minority.  Recently WSU created a Faculty Diversity Committee, charged with boosting recruitment and retention of “diverse” faculty. This committee is not charged with influencing the undergraduate curriculum, but there is a clear connection between “diversity” courses and a diverse faculty, and so we can only hope that the committee is voicing its protest against the Gen Ed proposal. Prospective faculty of color would surely rather work in a school with a “diversity” requirement than in a school without one.  More important, in these times of extreme and vicious polarities in our nation’s and region’s political discourse, now is no time to eliminate courses that require undergraduates to learn the histories of race and racism, gender and sexism.    

John Streamas

17 October 2010

Funding Priorities in Hard Times

A while back, in writing a satirical lexicon of terms for university procedures and institutions, I defined a university as:
University, n. (1) (arch.) collection of people paid to engage in research, teaching, learning and service for the benefit of the larger community; (2) structured set of positions (temporarily filled by people); (3) collection of buildings continually being torn down and rebuilt, usually surrounded by trees and insufficient parking.
Unfortunately, I think this reflects more truth than I would have liked to believe when I wrote it. In a rational world, it should be clear that if a university is place to create and share knowledge the only crucial parts of it are people: people as students, as teachers and often simultaneously as researchers or artists.

A university (or any school really) is only a school when people are thinking and talking and trying to get closer to what best accounts for how the world works and how best to represent the concerns of humanity and share that with others. That can be done in brand-new, beautiful, well-equipped buildings or in tents. When the society as a whole is doing well, it can and should invest in beautiful and useful buildings, complex and useful technology, and convenient and well-planned landscapes. But when money is tight, the focus of spending in a university should be on the people--on making the university run. A university that is not teaching students is not a university. A university that is not supporting people to think and discover and share is not a university. No matter how beautiful the buildings, no matter how thoroughly equipped they may be, a university is the people in it.

We would be unwise to fail in our duty of maintenance for the physical body of the university, its buildings and grounds, but we would be far more unwise to fail in our duty to our faculty and students in supporting them in learning and teaching. We fail our students when we increase the cost of tuition and fees every year--as though educating students is only a profitable to the individual, not to the entire community. We fail our students when we decrease the time they have with teachers. We fail our faculty when we reduce their numbers and do not recognize their dual functions of pursuing knowledge and of sharing knowledge and therefore their need for the community of other students and teachers. We fail the university when we pretend it is the buildings. We fail the university when we act as though building new buildings is more important than keeping up those we already have and more important than supporting faculty and students in creation and discovery and sharing of knowledge.

It has been noted that when we move out of these hard times, we will be grateful for the money spent on new stuff—new buildings or equipment. Maybe. Maybe we will consider it already out of date. It is easier to build buildings than to build or maintain faculty and students. In times like these, we must again consider what a university is. The other day I heard someone refer to the university as its administration only. That is wrong--a university is all its people--its students and its faculty and those who work to make the work of the students and faculty more effective.

What does that mean from practical point of view? It means that in bad economic times the primary function of university funding should be to make the university operate. The accounting convenience of separating the budget into a capital budget and an operating budget and then allocating money to the capital budget while slashing the operating budget is wrong. We have to stop thinking of things as permanent and people as transitory.

New buildings can wait.

Education should not.

Lynn Gordon

15 October 2010

Everything is on the table

How many of us have heard this from the dean of our college or the provost?  Lots of us, but clearly not all of us.  Because, in fact, not everything is on the table.  A small number of things are on the table--things the administration doesn't think are "exciting" or "innovative", but which exist at the core of education.  Teaching itself is on the table.  Foreign languages are on the table.  Writing is on the table.  Any course with fewer than a hundred students is on the table.  Service to the rural community is on the table.  

It has been pointed out repeatedly that the overwhelming majority of the university operating budget is in salaries, as if this is not as it should be.  Education is primarily a human activity; creation of knowledge and art is a human activity.  What else should the overwhelming majority of the budget be spent on?  

But back to "everything is on the table", even when it isn't.  Why does that keep being said?   No one is proposing the innovative idea of trying to run universities without presidents or provosts or deans.  No one is proposing an experiment with a flatter administrative model.   No one is proposing that administrative salaries be linked directly to faculty salaries. These things are not on the table.  I'm not suggesting that they should be, but as long as they are not, everything is not on the table.  

However if we keep being told that everything is on the table, there must be a perceived value to that claim.   If someone does the same thing repeatedly and it has the same effect, ultimately one must assume that the effect is desired.  

The primary effect of saying "Everything is on the table" is to intimidate the audience--it translates as "Your job, your field, your teaching, your department, your program of research is on the table.  Justify it.  Prove not just that it is productive and useful and of general cultural value--prove that it is better than his or hers.  Show us change--we can't do business as usual.  If your program is working--you and your colleagues are producing research or art, your students are completing their work in ways that show that they are learning, your majors are getting jobs or getting into graduate school--that is not enough.  Things must change.  What is enough?  Everything is on the table.  And anything we don't like or aren't interested in or perceive as too labor intensive--that is going to go."  And when that happens, everyone else, all the survivors, breathe a sigh of relief quietly and submissively, because everything was on the table and their thing maybe got reduced, maybe got burned, but survived.  

To infer the goal from the effect, isn't the goal a smaller, quieter, even more submissive faculty, not merely cheaper, but easier to "lead"?

Be honest.  

Some things are on the table.  Most things aren't. 

But a compliant faculty is priceless.

Lynn Gordon

12 October 2010

Where did faculty oversight go?

I'm worried by the development of this idea of "service" credit classes (see the proposal for the new ULRs) for a number of reasons.

Reason 1 --- we're being asked to take on a responsibility (the development of a sense of "community" and an understanding of the value of "service") that really belongs with the parents, churches, and other civic organizations.

Reason 2 -- I've seen how WSU integrates new ideas into the curriculum --- and it's frequently a sloppy job. Lots of promises about how great this will be --- but let's get real --- big pieces of the undergraduate curriculum are taught by temporary faculty. This is just ONE more thing that we'll have on our checklist to do.

Reason 3 -- As a regular volunteer for several local social service organizations, I promise you --- students doing this kind of service will inundate the limited social services of the community, all creating havoc as they try to get their mandatory hours of service done for some class --- possibly a class which has no connection whatsoever to the service organization they are "helping." JUST THIS WEEK, I had to help a coordinator of a service I assist with to find "placements" for 20 students each of whom had to do 5-10 hours of service for various classes. Can you spell MAKE WORK? That is exactly what we did. Frankly, we don't need their help that badly.

Reason 4--- And this is the one that should bother you --- who is going to oversee this service credit requirement? The Center for Civic Engagement seems like the logical possibility --- but I can't see any direct tenured faculty oversight of this program. And I REALLY don't want WSU to invest in some major curricular change without a tenured faculty person there to directly oversee it and fight for it. Otherwise, it smacks of yet one more misguided curricular effort being sent our way by an administration that thinks it's okay to gut the Gen Ed requirements and fill them with WHAT?

Liz Siler

06 October 2010

The Budget (in Hard Times?)

The operating budget of Washington State University for 2010 was $604, 811, 000 of which $196,277,000 came from the state general fund.*  This is approximately half a million dollars less than the operating budget of 2008.  (The first year of each biennium has a noticeably smaller budget than the second so we should compare 2010 to 2008, rather than 2009.  If, however, we choose to compare 2010 to 2009, the operating budget for 2010 is 3.6% less than the operating budget for 2009--a total of approximately 23 million dollars--most of which was the reduction of money from the general fund.) 

As of now, the posted operating budget for 2011 is $624,901,000.  This includes the supplementary reduction of $13,480,000 from the general fund allocation.  This represents an increase of 3.3% over the operating budget of 2010 and a reduction of approximately two and a half million (less than .5%)  from the operating budget of 2009.  If the budget for 2011 were reduced another 10%  from the general fund, that would mean that the general fund contribution would be $179,712,000 and the operating budget would be $604,933,000 (i.e. slightly larger than 2010 operating budget), a reduction of 3.2% from the $624,901,000 currently budgeted.

I would not argue that this reduction is a good thing--I would however argue that it is NOT a catastrophe.  It is not a situation that requires massive changes to the way the university conducts its operations.  I wonder why we are instead responding to this situation as though 'no good crisis should go to waste.'

Lynn Gordon