Riches of Embarrassment

There has been much consternation as well a strong, negative emotional response among CSU faculty to the Board of Regents opening proposals for the AAUP contract. Faculty, who once viewed the Board of Regents as merely bumbling and incompetent now view them angrily and as the enemy. That is an unfortunate development and will surely make reasoned negotiations between the BOR and AAUP more difficult.

My personal sentiment, however, not so much centered upon the BORs bumbling and incompetence. Nor am I angry or do I see them as the enemy. Instead, I am simply embarrassed by their proposals and how others nation-wide view the BOR and the CSU system. The BOR presented themselves as ill-informed amateur administrators, not as knowledgeable higher education professionals. It reflects poorly on both them and our Governor, and it is disappointing to think of them as the leaders of our university system.

I am embarrassed because the BOR negotiating team, in the first five sessions, reveals many important things that they do not understand but should understand such as: the mission of public higher education; what tenure is and what it is not; effect of class size on student learning and student success; the practical impact of faculty re-assignment to sister institutions; process for modifying or eliminating academic programs (including low enrollment programs); of a code of conduct that is impractical; the difference in work responsibilities between full-time faculty and part-time faculty; the needs of part-time faculty; and staffing required to provide student services related to academics. Their level of ignorance of the basics is alarming, and is likely the same or worse among the “powers that be” and the “higher ups” that the negotiating team reports to.

I am embarrassed because the BOR failed to comprehend the ramifications of their proposals. Specifically with respect to accreditation of the university as a whole, as well as its various undergraduate and graduate programs, which the BOR needs as much as students do and employers want.

Faculty and staff understand that the BOR wants to be fiscally responsible and save money. So, tell us what the annual savings target is and we will work with you to see how much of that can be achieved and by what means. But, please recognize that CSU faculty are underpaid relative to both industry and other public and private universities. All parties must recognize that a faculty labor contract is only one of many expenses where savings might be achieved. The BOR must commit to taxpayers that it will be equally diligent in scrutinizing administrative labor cost, benefits for top administrators, supply contracts, athletic programs (1, 2, 3) as well as academic programs, the many bad processes that generate high costs, and so on.

The BOR desires flexibility to add or discontinue academic programs, and re-locate or laying off faculty. There are two things to recognize in pursuit of such seemingly desirable flexibility:

  • Full-time faculty have four job responsibilities: teaching, research, service to the university and service to the profession. The purpose of these four job responsibilities is to build our knowledge steadily over time so that we can more effectively build student’s knowledge. While the BOR may desire professors’ jobs to be easily eliminated or replaced with technology, the reality is that knowledge is a construction project that never ends. This benefits our students, the vast majority of whom remain in-state, as well as society. Re-locating or laying off faculty by fiat is the type of penny-wise, pound-foolish decision that that so often plagues business thinking and causes many more problems than it solves. I should know, I experienced such folly when I worked in industry, and for 10 years I have taught a unique graduate course that analyzes the failed decisions of senior managers in dozens of organizations.
  • There is a practical, established process for discontinuing old academic programs and adding new ones. It is part of the system of “shared governance” (a.k.a. teamwork) that helps us avoid making stupid and costly mistakes. Faculty realize that programs with low enrollment are in trouble and they either work to increase enrollments, discontinue the program, or replace it with a new one that better fits the times. We can work with the BOR on this in the future, just as we have always done in the past.

Unfortunately, the cost driver for public higher education is the tremendous growth in high-paying administrative positions, new buildings, and campus amenities – not faculty whose salaries have remained flat with inflation for 30 years and whose numbers of full-time positions has declined by half. As a former manager in industry, I am embarrassed that the BOR does not recognize its cost-drivers, as any business leader would, and focus on those, while also challenging faculty to achieve sensible programmatic goals through proven approaches such as shared governance and process improvement – all for the benefit of students.

It is common knowledge that public education in general, and public higher education in particular, is a Governor’s piggy bank for funding tax breaks and incentives for private industry. This two-decade, taxpayer-funded tax break and incentive spree is finally on the decline because the data shows that the return on investment is terrible* – far worse than investing in public education – which Connecticut’s senior elected and appointed leaders apparently have yet to grasp. I’m embarrassed by this too.

Recent Connecticut governors have created a billion dollar-plus budget problem as a result of these generous tax breaks and incentives to private industry, and then, in turn, demand wage cuts from state employees and funding cuts to necessary state programs. It is foolish of our elected leaders to forsake a long-term public trust such as higher education for the fickle, short-term interests of industry.

On behalf of all CSU faculty, I give our new BOR president, Mr. Mark Ojakian, a homework assignment: read The Higher Learning in America: A Memorandum on the Conduct of Universities by Business Men, by Thorstein Veblen (Annotated Edition, John Hopkins University Press, 2015). This will inform Mr. Ojakian of the valid concerns of faculty, and how they relate to the distinct mission of higher education, student success, and society as a whole. As the leader of our state university system, he should gladly accept and complete this assignment.

* See “UNITED STATES OF SUBSIDIES: A series examining business incentives and their impact on jobs and local economies.”

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