A Faculty Agenda for Hard Times

Thirty ways to leave higher education . . . in better shape than it is now.
By Cary Nelson

The nationwide recession has exacerbated what was already a long-term trend in public higher education—declining state support has meant shifting the revenue stream from state appropriations to more burdensome student tuition rates. Seduced by the lure of rapid profits, some institutions have made matters worse by opting for high-risk investments. Meanwhile, a growing number of faculty members on contingent appointments are not only underpaid but also cut out of most campus governance activities.

But faculty members are not powerless. Following are some steps we can take, individually and collectively, to save higher education. These involve reforming the campus; making common cause with all faculty, staff, and students; and increasing strategic public outreach. Of course, not everyone can do all of these things, but everyone can do some of them.

  1. Talk openly to your students and colleagues about higher education and the challenges it faces. This is not the time for either quiet desperation or business as usual. 
  2. Educate all members of the academic community and all external constituents about the meaning and value of academic freedom and tenure. Even faculty members need to be better informed about these topics.
  3. Become a public ambassador for the fundamental benefits of higher education. Write letters and op-eds for local, state, and national media outlets. Blog and tweet about the topic. Give lectures on it. This is a task humanities faculty can take on and use to communicate their values.
  4. Don’t beg for money when talking with legislators or reporters. It’s pointless and demeaning. Talk instead about your goals for your students and what you want to do for the public good. Emphasize the need to maintain broad access to high-quality education.
  5. Don’t try to promote your personal research or your academic discipline in public forums unless the benefits of doing so are obvious and practical. Now is not the time for special pleading.
  6. Surprise people with the range of your professional commitments. Promote another academic discipline rather than your own with colleagues, with the media, and with the public. 
  7. Consider advocating for full federal funding of public higher education. Given that annual visits to the state legislature are unlikely to produce increased appropriations either now or in the near future, it may be time to raise a more fundamental issue and argue that public higher education is a public good, one for which all citizens should be responsible. The $60 billion annual cost of fully funding public higher education is in line with other federal commitments. 
  8. Celebrate collaborative and consensual campus governance and decision making. It’s increasingly rare. Commemorate it. Encourage it. Don’t take it for granted. Collaboration can build political goodwill and stimulate best practices. 
  9. Challenge and resist all current and emerging infringements on academic freedom: counterproductive assessment and testing protocols, nonconsensual imposition of pedagogical conformity, unwarranted interference in academic affairs, repeated ad hoc program reviews amounting to harassment, gratuitous strategic planning, efforts to direct faculty research agendas, and constraints on and penalties for free expression inside or outside the classroom. Evaluate all new proposals about academic matters carefully.
  10. Highlight the absurdities and outrageous actions of centralized and arrogant administrations. When campuses imposed furloughs in 2010, for example, some administrators issued ludicrous regulations for activities on furlough days, such as “You cannot read a book or essay in your field” and “Do not talk to students or colleagues about university business.” There was an element of black comedy to such demands, but they also violated both academic freedom and people’s basic rights. More faculty members should have refused to comply with these demands. 
  11. Pursue detailed information about campus budgets and finances, including foundation accounts and internal subsidies of sponsored research, by every means possible. Identify and publicize the invisible costs of administrative demands and initiatives. Track the transfer of costs from institutions to individuals. Submit Freedom of Information Act requests, if applicable. Compare budgetary planning documents with five years of previous financial statements reporting actual expenditures. Demand financial transparency—few campuses really practice it. 
  12. Be skeptical about claims of financial crisis. Many large institutions have reserve funds or lines of credit to deal with cash-flow problems. Some administrators exaggerate financial difficulties so that they can reallocate money for unneeded building projects or for disciplines they believe can generate income. 
  13. Advocate for fair wages, benefits, and working conditions for all campus employee groups, not just for your own. Demand a living wage for all full-time campus employees and parity for part-timers. These principles are necessary not only to make the campus a just workplace but also to maintain the quality of higher education. 
  14. Resist destructive pension and health-care “reforms.” A good defined-benefit system enables modestly paid employees to have an adequately funded retirement and even to sustain their profes-sional lives. But employees able to retire at 80 percent of a $500,000 salary are arguably exploiting the system. Drawing on populist anger at the relatively small number of such examples, several recent so-called “reforms” will push lower-paid retired faculty and staff members into poverty. These distinctions need to be publicized so that fair systems can be preserved. 
  15. Insist upon full disclosure of all campus salaries and salary supplements or bonuses at both public and private institutions.
  16. Agitate to end obscenely high athletic and administrative salaries. They corrupt campus values, make the campus appear to promote inequality and unfettered personal opportunism, and discourage public respect and support for higher education.
  17. Devote one hour each semester in every course to discussing the status and character of campus labor. These issues are relevant to every discipline and every subject, no matter what the catalog course description says or what conservative polemicists claim. The AAUP’s 2007 statement Freedom in the Classroom helps define your rights as a teacher. 
  18. Support both campus and community unions in their job actions. College and K–12 faculty members should endorse each other’s job actions. Join all union picket lines and demonstrations. If you help them, they will help you. 
  19. Build alliances with student and staff groups. Initiate joint projects. Take on student and staff interests and issues, such as rising student debt and subcontracted staff work. 
  20. Choose a means to organize the faculty— whether through a traditional AAUP chapter or through collective bargaining—and spend one afternoon a week or one day a month recruiting members. Only a regular, recurring commitment will really produce results. Remember: an organized faculty negotiates; a divided faculty begs.
  21. Convince all faculty groups to incorporate the full range of AAUP policies into university statutes, union contracts, faculty handbooks, and regulations governing graduate students. Make certain that faculty, staff, and students are guaranteed the right to comment forthrightly on campus policies without fear of punishment.
  22. Demand tenure for all long-term teachers, both full time and part time. Part-time positions can be tenured at part time without affecting present salaries. Tenure for long-serving faculty members rep-resents justice with no necessary cost. But it can give teachers holding contingent appointments a measure of security and make it possible for them to strengthen shared governance and promote better working conditions for all. 
  23. Treat program closures, abolition of the faculty senate, and termination of tenured faculty members imposed without full faculty review and approval as cause for strikes, civil disobedience, legal action, and votes of no confidence. 
  24. Ensure the right of all campus groups to invite speakers of their choice. Free speech is especially important in hard times. 
  25. Oppose the imposition of campus speech codes. Dismiss frivolous hostile-environment complaints. The aim is to create a campus environment that maximizes open exchange and earns the public’s respect. 
  26. Write and enforce rules prohibiting contractual embargoes beyond three months on the dissemination of research results. Some corporations are issuing research contracts for individual faculty members or entire departments with three- to five-year restrictions on talking about or publishing research results. Such restrictions violate academic freedom and delay the public impact research can have. 
  27. Write and enforce strong policies requiring full public disclosure of faculty, staff, and administrative conflicts of interest, from consulting fees to service on corporate boards. 
  28. Embrace “the two Cs” of faculty and student identity—career and community. You can no longer pursue your career unless a community secures your rights and establishes the character of your work environment. In the corporate university, a humanist can publish and perish. 
  29. Remember that collective action can help people conquer fear. Fear is now the emotion that dominates higher education at all levels. Incredibly enough, fear has even displaced arrogance at the center of elite faculty psychology. 
  30. Pick one form of public activism, whether on or off campus, whether among those listed above or not, and make it a part of your daily life.

Cary Nelson is president of the AAUP and Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign. His career is the subject of the collection Cary Nelson and the Struggle for the University, and his most recent book is No University Is an Island. His e-mail address is [email protected].