Tag Archives: Scott Walker

Why Tenure Makes Teaching Better

It’s impossible not to notice a contradiction on the pages of Minding the Campus. My friend Bill Voegeli seems to be saying that tenure makes teaching in our colleges and universities worse (“Tenure, Kipnis and the PC University,” June 22). The shameful goings on at Northwestern over Kipnis show that tenure doesn’t really protect the intellectual freedom of professors from the tyrannical political correctness emanating from administrators. And so tenure has been exposed as nothing but a job protection racket.

Bill has been writing in support of Governor Scott Walker’s scheme to end tenure in the Wisconsin state system. That would give administrators better control over the self-indulgent behavior of the tenured, allowing them, for example, to force lazy teachers to teach more and surrender the “release time” they received for their trivial articles and books that no one reads and no one in the free market actually would pay for. Let’s make professors work 40-hour weeks! And let’s fire them if they’re not serious and effective in their primary responsibility of teaching. The closer our campuses come to the “right-to-fire” situation we find in our more entrepreneurial states, the better.

Offend No Student

The invariably astute George Leef shows us (“Student Ratings Bait Profs into Lowering Standards,” June 24), although that surely wasn’t his main intention, that tenure makes teaching better. He makes the point that untenured faculty–that includes those on a tenure tack, temporaries, and adjuncts–have little choice but to be pretty obsessive when it comes to getting good student evaluations. Given our administrators’ misguided (but deeply rooted) tendency to identify “the good” with “the measurable,” a good set of evaluations has become one on which virtually every student gives the instructor the highest possible scores. So “being good” means to have produced no evidence that any student was offended or disturbed or unduly burdened by the instructor.

This situation seduces faculty into being more entertaining, more affirming, and less challenging than concerned about student learning or even student habituation (say, for the 21st century global competitive marketplace). It seems cruel (and contrary to everything we learn from the science of economics) to blame faculty for the way they’re being incentivized. Faculty would rather not suck up to the students, but what real choice do they have if they want to remain on the faculty?

Student evaluations can’t be made much better by experts trying to refine them with subtle questions that allegedly actually measure student effort and student learning. The more questions there are–and the more complicated they are–the less likely it is that students will actually read them. And as Leef rather wittily reminds us, the real goal of the faculty member is that students not read them at all, but automatically assign the highest score all the way down the line. That’s why (and I’ve noticed this first-hand) there’s an emerging science of getting students in a euphoric mood on evaluation day, to get them to surrender their critical faculties on a doughnut high or through a feel-good exercise in collective self-affirmation. After all, even if a student realizes that he or she has learned much, had a transformative emotional/intellectual experience, and feels the love and respect from a particular instructor, it’s very unlikely, if he or she deploys his or her critical faculties, that the result would be top marks all the way down the line.  The untenured faculty member wants the student to be feeling (feeling good, of course), not thinking, when evaluating.

Students Free to Choose

The incentive here, as Leef says, is to get the student to fill out the evaluation quickly and happily and without taking time to write comments. The numbers do the talking, the thought is, and the comments are bound to be ambiguous and subjective. Now, at my college, there’s a kind of doubling down on this incentivizing by an administrative concern. Our students are free to fill out the evaluations online whenever they please in a two-week period.  Left to their own devices, even with numerous emails of encouragement, a clear majority of them choose not to bother. For myself, I think they should be free to choose, and there might be some honor in refusing to evaluate someone anonymously.

It seems the administration is too consumer sensitive to develop some mechanism to compel compliance. So the burden falls on faculty (with, in principle, our accreditation on the line!) to get students to fill them out. And the one and only time I was judged by some administrator to be deficient on my evaluations is when my turnout was pretty low, and it was suggested to me that there was the rumor out there that I tell students the evaluation process is stupid. (I actually do say, when teaching the Republic, that Socrates says that a weakness of democracy is that it’s so relativistic that students even get to evaluate teachers. But I now add that we live in a democracy so you can’t blame Berry College, do your duty as a democratic citizen and fill the bleepin’ thing out.)

The trouble with low turnout for untenured faculty, of course, is that either it can become a reason to discount their high scores or leave their scores too much to chance by allowing the negative feedback of one disgruntled customer to count too much.  It also can curtail their academic freedom, at least a little, by keeping them from turning student evaluations into a teachable moment about a great text. One method faculty use to increase turnout is to have all the students pull out their smart phones (or tablets and laptops, but at Berry most students don’t bring computers to classrooms–yet another reason why your kids should come here) and fill out the evaluations in class. Well, talk about a comment-suppressing method! Nobody likes to type on those touchy keyboards.

A More Reliable Guide

I never do that. But when I did remind those in my con law class to man up (in the nonsexist sense) and do their evaluative duty, one woman five minutes later thanked me for the reminder and told me she had just filled out the evaluations for all five of her classes.  I’m guessing there were a bunch of fives (the highest score) and no comments, as she is a classy and charitable person.

The truth is that the comments, although far from foolproof, are a much more reliable guide to the quality of instruction. From my view, a really impressive set of evaluations has comments about what was actually learned, complaints (mostly ironic or appreciative) about the amount of work required, some feeling of love, in many cases, for the books read, and a good deal of affirmation of how smart, hard-working, informed, and fair the instructor is.

Comments that are somewhat hostile about the irksome requirements or strange perspectives of the class should also be regarded as positive.  And much better than a vaguely positive vibe from everyone is lots of evidence that some students really loved the class for the right reasons, but not all of them and maybe far from all of them. So there is, in truth, only a loose correlation between genuinely excellent evaluations and really high numbers. One reason is that there’s no denying that some faculty become adept at generating the numbers by prioritizing them over the learning.

The untenured faculty member, especially at a fairly large institution, can’t count on anyone reading the comments with the appropriate discernment and rightly fears being unpopular or even controversial for any reason. So he or she operates with the cynicism that accompanies the observation that virtue is not rewarded.

Virtuous Un-cynical Teachers

That means tenured faculty members typically have more incentive to be good–that is, authentically virtuous and un-cynical–teachers. They have less reason to be concerned about blips in evaluation numbers and often become confident that their reputation as teachers, developed over the years, trumps the quantitative data. It’s true that tenure protects some cynical teachers too, but it does less than the absence of tenure to facilitate excessively consumer-sensitive behavior.

Now there are some who say that if we got rid of tenure, we could break what many experts perceive as the corrupt bargain between students and faculty that leads to both grade inflation and very high scores on the evaluation. I’ll give you high marks for no good reason if you do the same for me. The main priority could be firing instructors who don’t grade with the measurable intention of whipping inflation now. But, to instructively over-generalize, we can see that the main priority of most of our institutions is enrollment and retention, and the main fact, especially among residential colleges, is the almost cutthroat competition for the increasingly scarce resource of the student.

When Princeton, for example, decided to get a little tougher (to improve its reputation) in its grading (getting the average GPA below 3.5!), it quickly decided that that point of distinction was an unacceptable competitive hindrance in the marketplace for the best and the brightest. So at most places most of the time, there’s not nearly enough reason for untenured faculty to risk low or even mediocre evaluations by getting tougher. That’s the type of experiment that might more reasonably be performed after tenure.

Let me conclude by mentioning the most inconvenient truth for those who oppose tenure.  At most of our colleges and universities (most private residential colleges and regional state universities), the teaching load is pretty demanding and salaries aren’t so great. Anyone who dedicates his or her life to teaching in such a place is a sucker–a sucker we should believe in.

It’s said that a downside of tenure is that it keeps faculty from being entrepreneurial by making them feel too secure.  The value of a good teacher in the marketplace goes down over time, and that’s one reason for the (probably somewhat avoidable) salary compression. Everyone really in the know knows that excellent teaching is nearly impossible to measure–or at least that the people doing the measuring don’t know what they’re doing. Not only that, teaching excellence is, in part, contextual–a teacher can flourish one place but not another for a variety of reasons. So when an experienced teacher looks for another job, he or she finds out that all the devoted and effective teaching he or she has done doesn’t count for much.

What does count in the marketplace (far more than it should at the undergraduate level) is publication.  The kind of excellence displayed in publication is easy to see and for many even easy to quantify. So the entrepreneurial professor at a small college has the incentive to get the teaching on the kind of auto-pilot that reliably generates the scores on the evaluation and spend most quality time on publishing. Tenure provides the kind of security (if often not the kind of money) that discourages that kind of behavior.

Contrary to Voegeli’s suggestion, a really good way to have a topflight undergraduate teaching institution is to make sure that most faculty have tenure, so that most faculty are devoted to spending most of their time helping students get what they most need. Tenure certainly discourages a career deformed by the behavior of mechanically generating marginal articles just to produce a more marketable resume, a behavior Voegeli rightly outed as often a trivial pursuit not worthy of support by either the taxpayers or the student’s tuition dollars.

 

I think it’s easy to see that the best teaching is going on at small colleges where most faculty are tenured and almost all are tenure track. Send your kids to one of them! The faculty members at my college are remarkably un-cynical about the secure career the institution offers good teachers, whatever they might think about other administrative initiatives. But nationwide, the number of credit hours generated by tenured and tenure-track faculty shrinks as the number generated by adjuncts and temporary faculty explodes. I hope nobody really believes that it’s good for genuinely higher education that our “instructional workforce” takes on many of the qualities of a proletariat. It’s not even good for cost control, but that’s an issue for another day.

SCOTT WALKER VS. THE UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN

Scott Walker made himself into a presidential candidate with his victory over the minions of Madison, Wisconsin. Despite the howling demonstrations inside and outside the state capital building, Walker succeeded in passing ACT 10.  It stripped the public sector unions of their most powerful organizing tool — the dues check-off, by which unions fees were automatically deducted from paychecks.

Walker has also benefited from a marked improved in the states job climate since he became governor in 2011. He ought to be reaping the political rewards of that success. But, he isn’t resting on his laurels. Walker has ambitious plans to revamp the University of Wisconsin higher education system. But opposition to his college reforms have helped push his state approval ratings into a skid.

The University of Wisconsin system tries to educate 181,000 students at 13 community colleges and 13 four-year universities including the famed University of Wisconsin in Madison. Its annual budget comes to 5.6 billion dollars. The system was shaken in 2013 with a report of a massive slush fund system that rose from a quarter billion to over a billion dollars, according to different estimates. Part of the surplus/slush money came from 5.5% annual tuition increases over the six prior years.

Republican State Representative Steve Nass, chair of the Assembly Colleges and Universities Committee,called system officials “educational crooks” and “con artists.” The system president Kevin Reilly was forced to resign. Walker called initially for a tuition freeze but that then began to talk of reforms to reshape the entire system. It seemed like an opportunity to revamp the self-serving academics and administrators who are at the very heart of the Wisconsin Democratic Party.

In February of this years, Walker proposed changes for the 2015-17 budget which would free the university system and its 35,000 employees from direct state government control.  The university system would become a semi-autonomous public authority. Walker would reduce direct state aid by 150 million a year, he argued, in return for this new system which would give the colleges and universities the flexibility to reform themselves. “If they were able to get out from underneath the thumb of statue bureaucracy, they could be very effective in saving money for the UW System,” argued Governor Walker.

Walker, referring to the reform, which curtailed collective bargain rights for state employees, called the plan an “Act 10 for the UW System.”

Walker notes that at a salary $144,000 a year, he receives less compensation than 407 University of Wisconsin system employees.  Moreover he suggested that he hoped to see additional teaching hours for full-time faculty, a reduction in the number of administrators and an enhanced relationship with local business for the two-year colleges.

Politically, Walker’s plan to freeze tuition and get more output from underworked and overpaid academics seemed appealing. But he’s met considerable opposition from Republican state representatives who don’t think the colleges are capable of reforming themselves. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester), insisted “that autonomy doesn’t make sense because regents don’t want to make changes and they could use their new authority to dramatically increase tuition.”

Walker’s plan isn’t dead yet but it’s on life support.  Prominent Republicans suggest that he will have to compromise and reduce planned cuts to higher education to win final budget approval. It’s not clear how the outcome will effect Walker’s presidential plans. He’s supposed to formally announce his candidacy in July after the state budget has been achieved. A hard-fought victory could sap his strength at home.


Fred Siegel is the author of Revolt Against the Masses, just reissued in an updated paperback edition.

A Campus Dress Rehearsal for McCarthyism?

radosh article.jpgThe American Association of University Professors (AAUP) made its name as a respectable association dedicated to promoting the interests of the academy and protecting the academic freedom of professors. Now, judging from its regular publications, it has morphed into something quite different—an association dedicated to promoting the agenda of the academic left.

The July-August issue of  the AAUP’s regular publication, Academe, reads like a straightforward and one-sided primer for leftist activism. It includes an article on “How to Radicalize Students,” and another endorsing the recent protests in Madison, Wisconsin against Governor Scott Walker. But the most troubling article in the issue is “The Dress Rehearsal for McCarthyism” by one Carol Smith, identified only as a retired faculty member at The City College of New York-CUNY. The would-be dress rehearsal, Ms. Smith argues, took place in the mid-1930’s, and revolved around what Smith says was “a conservative backlash against the political gains of the New Deal and against labor unions,” carried out under the guise of an investigation of so-called “Communist subversion at the public colleges.”

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The GOP Was Wrong–So Was the Historical Association

By now, most people who follow either politics or higher education know the story of William Cronon. The University of Wisconsin professor published a lengthy post critiquing the policies of Governor Scott Walker, and a week later penned a New York Times op-ed raising similar themes. In between the dates of the two essays, the Wisconsin Republican Party filed an open records request demanding any and all e-mails from Cronon’s university account that mentioned Republicans, several public employee unions, and the GOP state senators targeted for recall. When Cronon publicized the Open Records Law request, the state GOP received reams of criticism, both nationally and within Wisconsin; it seemed as if the Republicans’ chief motive was to intimidate–or at least badly inconvenience–a state employee who had criticized them publicly.

In the end, the Wisconsin Republicans got what they deserved. They hoped that what amounted to a bad-faith act would serve them well politically, and instead their decision backfired. If anyone will be deterred from future actions based on this event, it’s likely to be the Wisconsin GOP, not Governor Walker’s critics in the academy. To paraphrase Brandeis, sunlight–in this instance, Cronon’s publicizing the GOP’s Open Records Law filing–proved the best disinfectant.

Continue reading The GOP Was Wrong–So Was the Historical Association

No Longer Academic: When Activism Is on the Curriculum

howard_zinn.jpgHoward Zinn, the late self-described “socialist anarchist” history professor and mentor to the New Left, would have been proud of the way the Wisconsin protests rolled along.  The weeks-long sit-in of the Wisconsin state capitol building–heavily populated by teachers and students–exemplified the kind of “participatory democracy” his associate Tom Hayden promoted in the Port Huron Statement, the manifesto of the SDS.  For Zinn, education was a key component of  “guerilla warfare with the system,” as he wrote in SNCC: The New Abolitionists in 1964.  In 2009, he told students at the University of Wisconsin, “the best kind of education you can get is when you’re involved in social struggles for a cause.”  Zinn himself acted as provocateur to his students at Spelman and Boston University, encouraging them to act as subversives to the U.S. government and to their school’s administration.
 
Much of the public may want to leave the New Left to ancient history and simply cast their work in the humanities as the activities of eccentrics with little impact on day-to-day life.  Politicians and citizen groups leave curriculum development to the credentialed.  But behind ivy-covered walls changes instituted in the intervening decades were played out in Madison.  The standards of scholarship have been overturned, with overt political agendas replacing scholarly academic subjects, and “direct action” replacing scholarly modes of inquiry.  As a result, students today feel they are on a moral mission; they follow the lead of activist professors who flatter them with the idea that they are “critical thinkers,” while they guide them into mandatory “civic engagement” activities.  The new pedagogy of foundationless (anarchic) “critical thinking” and (democratic) “collaborative learning” make disrupting the legislative process seem like part of the school day.   
 
A guest post titled “From the Occupied Capitol,” by University of Illinois-Champagne graduate student Michael Verderame, in the Chronicle of Higher Education provided an apt example of the New Left’s influence.  Verderame joined a hundred other Illinois Graduate Employees Unions members in Wisconsin.  His post from inside the capitol resonated with the self-righteousness and self-congratulation of memoirs of 1960s veterans, especially Bill Ayers in Fugitive Days. “We went there in support not just of public workers in Wisconsin, but of the very idea of collective bargaining,” Verderame wrote.  He and fellow protestors wanted to “build on [the] energy” already in the occupied capitol, to support “union brothers’ and sisters’ rights.”  They formed a human chain around the capitol building.  He had scrawled a contact number on his arm in case of arrest, “a surreal experience for someone who’s never had a speeding ticket.”  At the end of the protest day, some protestors choose to leave, but several stay inside, “understanding that they were risking their own liberty to do so.”  Starvation was averted: “we were heartened to see food and supplies go in, as well as additional press.”  Word came at 7:00 p.m. that no one would be arrested–another close call.  Such melodrama reflected protest signs in Wisconsin as well as those I’ve seen in Atlanta, likening Governor Scott Walker to Mubarak and Hitler. 

Continue reading No Longer Academic: When Activism Is on the Curriculum

Signs of Campus Dissent in Madison

Not surprisingly, the University of Wisconsin at Madison has been deeply affected by the important labor dispute that has consumed the state, its capitol, and the nation the last two weeks. Passions are high, especially over the part of Governor Scott Walker’s budget proposal that will drastically limit collective bargaining by state employees covered by unions. The budget proposal also requires public employees to contribute substantially more to their healthcare and pensions. But the collective bargaining provision has generated the most heat.

Libertarian thinker Alvaro Vargos Llosa has remarked that Wisconsin’s debate over collective bargaining is of “planetary” significance, while Walter Russell Mead of The American Interest claims that the standoff constitutes a “watershed” event in American history, as the nation vies over the size and scope of public finances.

At an overflow law school forum on the issue on February 23, I stated that the conflict is an example of what the great political scientist Samuel Huntington called “creedal passion” in American Politics and the Promise of Disharmony. Creedal passion involves the intense conflict that periodically erupts over which fundamental values will shape public policy and philosophy.  As Huntington wrote, “The history of American politics is the repetition of new beginnings and flawed outcomes, promise and disillusion, reform and reaction. American history is the history of the efforts of groups to promote their interests by realizing American ideals.” In the Wisconsin case, the creedal debate concerns the proper balance and arrangement between the private and public sectors in an era of crippling debt.

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Higher-Ed Unions and the Shortcomings of Public Employee Organizations

The activities of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker have brought unusually high public attention to the status of public employee unions. Few, if any, public employee unions could withstand intense media focus less han those representing higher education: too often these unions provide a caricature of the critics’ vision—organizations that seek to use the public dime to fund mediocrity. A good example comes in a recent dispute, profiled in Inside Higher Ed, in Washington state. The basics: the state’s academic union had championed a bill to regularize the funding stream for raises–guaranteed annual raises– for full-time faculty members. Such a move seemed like a normal activity for an academic union, though I suspect that most taxpayers could respond with a reasonable question: why should a tenured professor who hasn’t published anything recently, and whose teaching is mediocre, receive the same raise as a tenured professor hired the same year who had just published a major monograph and whose teaching is first-rate? For union official Jack Longmate, however, this one-size-fits-all approach didn’t go far enough, and he testified against the bill. Longmate, an adjunct at Olympic College, demanded that the state also guarantee seniority-based raises for adjuncts; otherwise, he argued, the bill should be rejected altogether, since adjuncts do the same teaching as full-time faculty. This line of reasoning makes perfect sense from a hard-line union perspective: qualifications of instructors are irrelevant, and everyone should make the same salary. But given that by any definable measurement—they’re not hired through national searches, they have no expectation of scholarship—adjuncts are less qualified than full-time faculty, it’s hard to see how such a viewpoint is politically or financially defensible. Continue reading Higher-Ed Unions and the Shortcomings of Public Employee Organizations