Campus Cops vs. University Professors

Cross-posted at DailyKos.

WMU faculty rally on September 5, 2014. (Photos by Larry J. Simon.)

WMU faculty rally on September 5, 2014. (Photos by Larry J. Simon.)

On occasion on these pages, I have written about higher education and about labor rights, mostly in the context of the abysmal state of affairs when it comes to the political climate here in Michigan. I write from the perspective of university professor, president of our faculty union, and engaged citizen. And usually I write about things that happen to other people. But today, I have a story to tell about something that happened at my university, something that helped to clarify some things for me in a new way, about cultural problems on my campus and in our society more widely.

This story is about how the administration of my university called the campus police on a bunch of professors as if they believed we might riot and how the campus police behaved when they responded to that call.

Since April, our faculty union, a collective-bargaining chapter of the American Association of University Professors, has been negotiating a new contract to replace the three-year contract that would (and did) expire at 12:01 a.m. on September 6. As anyone who has ever served on a negotiation team well knows, collective bargaining is an interesting exercise in asymmetry. In all workplaces, including universities, the management side has all the resources and all the money and therefore most of the power. Yet if there is a union in the workplace, the side with all the resources and all the money and most of the power has no choice but to sit down with the people on the other side. They can’t just dictate. They have to try to get us to agree to what they want. And they have to hear us out. But still, the management side has a considerable advantage. They have access to resources and money and a claim to authority. That’s a lot of leverage, even with a union in the workplace. (Without a union, of course, management can do pretty much whatever it wants, whenever it wants.)

On the other hand, our chapter of the AAUP has over 800 members, many of whom followed the negotiation process closely. As chapter president, part of my job has been to remind my colleagues that our strength is in our numbers. Since we kicked off our contract campaign last fall, I have worked with the other chapter leaders, including our officers, our 12 executive committee members, and our 57 departmental reps, to make the case to our colleagues that the success of our team at the table would depend in large part on the active, vocal, and visible support of the faculty. To that end, we sponsored a series of events beginning in the fall of 2013 through the summer of 2014. We had decent turnout for all these events, although our local media outlets seem to make a point of ignoring most of what we say or do, and it was clear that momentum had been building steadily since last fall as more and more of our faculty colleagues came forward to stand with our bargaining team.

At the end of August, as the contract expiration loomed, the situation became more urgent, as it will when the contract expiration date is nigh. The administration increased its pressure on our team, and things occasionally got fairly tense at the table. But our team refused to knuckle under and remained firm in their resolve. There was talk around campus of a possible impasse and speculation about whether the contract would expire before we reached a tentative agreement.

On August 28, the week before classes started, a time when many of our colleagues were not yet back on campus for the new academic year (a lot of people don’t realize that most professors don’t actually get paid in the summer), 150 faculty members rallied in front of the administration building, along with students, alumni, and retired colleagues. Our signs and chants expressed our concerns about the priorities of the university’s senior administrators, whose financing decisions in recent years suggest a declining interest in providing robust support for the instruction and research that are our raison d’être and a growing interest in investment in athletics, swanky (and expensive) new residence halls, and administrative hiring, bonuses, and perks.

The rally on August 28 was not covered by any of our local media. And at the bargaining table later that day, the administration’s team members pretended not to know anything about it, although this was clearly disingenuous on their part. And just as clearly, they were not happy about it.

Faculty rally at WMU on August 28, 2014. (Photo by David Topping.)

Faculty rally at WMU on August 28, 2014. (Photo by David Topping.)

 
Progress continued to be made at the table in fits and starts in bargaining sessions on the 28th and on Friday the 29th, but things were also getting heated and occasionally even ugly. Because time was running out on the contract, the two teams agreed to meet for a special Labor Day session on Monday, September 1. It was of course a no-brainer for us to organize a Labor Day rally.
Meanwhile, the administration continued to send out negotiation updates from their perspective to an unknown group of recipients they addressed as “Campus Colleagues” (and yes, they capitalized “Campus” and “Colleagues” for some reason that also remains unknown to us). They disseminated this information via their exclusive access to campus-wide email lists, e-newsletters delivered to all employees of the university, and other official university communication media.
On the morning of September 1, Labor Day, I wrote an email to the university’s communication director, copied to two of the lead administrators on their negotiation team and to the president of the university, in which I requested that they “discontinue the practice of presenting the administration’s negotiation updates in university communications as if they are objective reports of progress at the table, which they are not.” I also copied the message to the WMU-AAUP office staff. The full text of my letter can be read here, but this was its central point:

The administration may be eager to take advantage of its access to university resources and to use them to try to frame the issues according to their own interests, simply because that possibility is available to them. However, because Western Michigan University is an institution of higher learning, we are all held to a higher standard. All of us who are engaged in this enterprise are obliged to promote and model the practices and values that are fundamental to our common mission. These include collaboration, the promotion of free inquiry, and the advancement of human knowledge and understanding. As tempting as access to official university mouthpieces and publications might be for the administration, using those media to present a one-sided view of the negotiation process, and especially without identifying it as such, conflicts with the values and principles we are all obliged to uphold. By deliberately representing as fact that which is very much a subjective point of view, as well as by excluding alternative viewpoints, the core academic values we all share in common are subverted.

After I sent this message, I posted it on the chapter blog, linked it to our Facebook page and Twitter account, and headed over to Montague House, our union headquarters, for our Labor Day rally. Over 130 colleagues also showed up, and after walking our team across the street to the building where their sessions were held, the rest of us stayed outside for another 20 or 25 minutes or so, chanting and displaying our signs to the administrators inside the bargaining room, which is conveniently located on the ground floor and features nice big windows.

Later that day, I guess during a break in the bargaining action, a member of the administration’s team sent a response to the email I had sent that morning. She didn’t mean for me to see the reply, I don’t think, because she took me off the list of recipients before she sent it. However, she apparently did not realize that I had copied the WMU-AAUP office staff when I sent it, because they were copied on the reply, which reads thusly:

Do you think this bears responding to? Were you planning to respond? Is there anything I could do? We’re at the table this morning; a small contingent (40 max?) of mostly [College of Arts and Sciences] faculty chanted and yelled for the first 15 minutes, but they’ve since gone home. Best regards

That is my emphasis added. (For now I will ignore the part about why it might matter to her if there were a lot of faculty in attendance from what is by far the largest college on campus.) Of course, from where she was sitting inside the conference room, she could not possibly have seen everyone, which could explain why her count was off by almost 100 people. And I realize that of course she was attempting to put a brave face on an event that by all accounts made the administrative team uncomfortable.

Faculty rally at WMU on September 1, 2014. (Photo by Chris Nagel.)

Faculty rally at WMU on September 1, 2014. (Photo by Chris Nagel.)

Still, her email suggested to me that our message was still not getting across. The administration did not seem to hear us when we showed up first on August 28 or when we came out again on September 1, on Labor Day, to say that the faculty is behind its team, that a university that brags about its “top 100 national university” designation is hypocritical when its faculty salaries rank “far below median,” according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, and that we were not going to tolerate moving any further behind in our next contract, especially while our university president is pulling down a cool $776,000 in salary and bonuses. He is now the 18th-highest paid public university president in the country, while his faculty languish in 342nd place, and he doesn’t seem to have the good grace even to pretend to be embarrassed about that appalling discrepancy.

Faculty rally at WMU on September 1, 2014. (Photo by Mary-Louise Totton.)

Faculty rally at WMU on September 1, 2014.

 
Faculty rally at WMU on September 1, 2014. (Photo by Mary-Louise Totton.)

Faculty rally at WMU on September 1, 2014.

Meanwhile, faculty concerns about the dearth of tenure-track hires are routinely brushed off and contradicted, but the numbers don’t lie. Part-time faculty are increasingly used to cover faculty vacancies, at working-poor salaries any college president making three quarters of a mil ought to be ashamed of. Senior colleagues delay retirement because they know they won’t be replaced and worry that academic programs they have spent decades building will simply disappear when they are gone. Massive, multi-year administrative pet projects bury all of us in extra work on endless committees, task forces, “project management teams,” and “tactical action communities,” all of these in addition to our already full workloads. Legitimate faculty grievances are routinely denied, often with little more than “Because we say so” as an explanation. Every faculty mistake, large or small, real or imagined, is treated like a capital crime, yet no administrator is held accountable even for the most egregious violations of the contract or unprofessional behavior. Faculty members are treated with barely disguised (or undisguised) contempt by some of our senior administrators. A colleague with 40 years of service to the university recently told me he can’t remember ever feeling so disrespected by the administration. All the while, we fall farther and farther behind not only our peer institutions but even those institutions for whom our university is aspirational.

Anyway, with our contract scheduled to expire at a minute after midnight on Friday, September 5, we scheduled a chapter meeting for Friday afternoon so that the faculty could come together to talk about where we were, what they wanted us to do, and what they were willing to do to support our team. “Depending on what happens in the next few days,” I wrote to my faculty colleagues in an email inviting them to the chapter meeting, “we may need also to make our feelings known in a more public way immediately following the chapter meeting, so please be prepared for that possibility on Friday afternoon.

We had a wonderful chapter meeting on September 5, with a huge turnout that filled to capacity (and probably beyond capacity) our large meeting room in the student center. Building staffers wheeled in stack after stack of additional chairs. Every new seat was immediately filled. And probably a hundred or more faculty colleagues remained standing throughout the meeting simply because there was nowhere left to sit. There may have been a violation of a fire code or two. The discussion was lively, spirited, intense, and upbeat. True to our usual character as a university faculty, we were not all in agreement on everything. But the consensus on the big-picture issues and challenges facing us quickly emerged: We could not go backwards in the new contract – we would not. Colleagues from departments and colleges all over campus spoke up. Their words were wise, thoughtful, and passionate. We applauded and cheered and felt empowered by the words that were spoken, by the friends and colleagues who had spoken them, and by the resulting positive energy and power in the room.

WMU-AAUP chapter meeting on September 5, 2014. (Photo by Brian Tripp.)

WMU-AAUP chapter meeting on September 5, 2014. (Photo by Brian Tripp.)

WMU-AAUP chapter meeting on September 5, 2014. (Photo by Allison Hart-Young.)

WMU-AAUP chapter meeting on September 5, 2014. (Photo by Allison Hart-Young.)

With the contract set to expire in about nine hours, I asked my colleagues if they were ready to march with me in support of our team, if they would march through a major event that happened to be getting underway on campus right about that time, and if they would continue to the administration building. “Only this time,” I added, “why don’t we go inside? This is our university, too. We shouldn’t always have to stay outside.” After a few more minutes of discussion, a colleague stood up to say he thought it was time we headed out to begin our demonstration. The room erupted in cheers. I closed the meeting by saying to my colleagues: “Your negotiation team has heard you. Your chapter leadership has heard you. Now it’s time for the administration to hear you!” And with that, we grabbed our signs and our solidarity banner, and we went outside.
 
WMU-AAUP solidarity banner. (Photo by Kent Baldner.)

WMU-AAUP solidarity banner. (Photo by Kent Baldner.)

The event they call Bronco Bash is a huge welcome-back party for the campus community that is said to attract about 20,000 people each year, mostly WMU students. It includes live music, activities, and booths where student organizations do their things and local businesses do theirs, and it’s just a big, loud, fun party to celebrate the new school year. It happens every year on the campus of Western Michigan University, on the Friday at the end of the first week of classes. This year, that happened to be September 5.

Things were just getting into full swing at Bronco Bash when our long, long parade of WMU professors, several hundred strong, marched out of our chapter meeting in the student center and into the plaza, which was already jammed with students and booths and activities. The WMU marching band was performing down at the far end of the plaza, so we decided not to head too far down in that direction, quickly passing the word among our parading colleagues that we would not disrupt any student performances or activities (which of course none of us would ever dream of doing). We carried signs, moved through the crowds, and chanted our simple call and response: “What do want?” “A fair contract!” “When do we want it?” “Now!”

One thing I did not think to anticipate was how many students would immediately pull out their phones and start taking photos and videos of a few hundred of their dorky old professors dusting the chalk off our moth-eaten cardigans and raising a little hell on a blazingly sunny and gorgeous (and hot!) afternoon at an event where our presence probably immediately upped the median age by at least a decade or two. I wish I could see their footage, but because these are university students, they are all way too cool to be hanging out on the social media where their profs hang out, so I haven’t seen much of it so far. (Their parents probably have, though.)

WMU faculty rally on September 5, 2014. (Photo by Chris Nagel.)

WMU faculty rally on September 5, 2014. (Photo by Chris Nagel.)

It is hard to describe the feeling as we walked through the plaza and saw and heard our students cheering us on and raising their hands in the air as we went by. Some of them joined us to march for a while, others cheered as we passed by, and occasionally a student would call out to an individual faculty member (“Go, Dr. Al!”). All in all, the students we encountered were tremendously supportive and absolutely wonderful. But then, that is who they are all the time and why professors do what we do.

After we made our loop through Bronco Bash, we circled around toward the administration building. We queued up on the wide walkway out front as the rest of our party caught up. It was a long, long, line of professors out there, and it took a few minutes for us all to reconvene. At that point, we decided to follow through with our original plan and go inside.

 
WMU faculty rally on September 5, 2014. (Photo by Patricia Villalobos Echeverría.)

WMU faculty rally on September 5, 2014. (Photo by Patricia Villalobos Echeverría.)

The faculty continued to chant loudly as they approached the doors to the building, but polite professors that they are, everyone kind of just automatically took it down a couple of notches as we entered the building. The student receptionist at the front desk looked up, a bit startled, as the first among us walked in, but then she immediately smiled and said hello. We returned the greeting and moved into the stairwell to go up to the next floor to the senior administrative office suite.

Another student greeted us when we got there and began to enter through the glass doors leading to the suite. But immediately after that, a senior administrator came storming down the corridor toward us, looking furious and not speaking to or making eye contact with any of us, even though many of us were of course known to him (including me, and I was at the front of the crowd and would have been hard to miss).

He began gesturing to the student workers and members of the office staff who were present, although it appeared to be something of a skeleton crew, which was not surprising given that it was Friday afternoon and there was a big, loud party with 20,000 attendees going on right outside. One young staff member was holding out his iPhone toward us, although it wasn’t clear whether he was attempting to photograph us with it or whether someone was on the phone wanting to know what in tarnation was going on. There was a bit of scurrying about and then some slamming of doors, as most of the staff on the scene disappeared into a conference room.

Faculty continued to file in, probably over 200 of us, and we filled the outer office area of the administrative suite. We did not enter any private offices or cubicles. We did not touch anything, break anything, or stand or sit on anything. We stayed in the public area and continued to chant for another maybe 10 minutes. The president did not seem to be around, nor did any other administrator, apart from the angry one who had met us upon arrival but who had since disappeared, probably into the conference room he seemed to be ordering everyone into. The president’s receptionist and executive assistant were in their offices, however, and they will both always hold a special place in my heart because neither of these two lovely women closed their doors to us for as long as we were there. I won’t claim they were thrilled to see us (or to hear us), because they probably could have done quite nicely without our visit, but at no point did they treat us as though we didn’t belong there or behave as though they believed they were in danger, and we appreciate that.

 
WMU faculty rally on September 5, 2014. (Photo by Allison Hart-Young.)

WMU faculty rally on September 5, 2014. (Photo by Allison Hart-Young.)

WMU faculty rally on September 5, 2014. (Photo by Brian Tripp.)

WMU faculty rally on September 5, 2014. (Photo by Brian Tripp.)

WMU faculty rally on September 5, 2014. (Photo by Brian Tripp.)

WMU faculty rally on September 5, 2014. (Photo by Brian Tripp.)

After we had chanted for a while, a few colleagues raised a cheer to signal to everyone that we should take a break. When everyone had quieted down, there were a few good-natured comments and jokes, and then one of my colleagues called out to me: “Lisa, what do you want us to do next?” I called back, “Let’s take a few minutes and enjoy the air conditioning, and then we’ll go back outside.” I noticed that I was near a water fountain at that point, so I added, “And I’m going to refill my water bottle while we’re here.”
I had just screwed the top of my bottle back on when the campus police arrived on the scene.

I want to stress that the behavior of most of the police officers was professional and respectful as they carried out the task of removing us from this building on our university campus at what was already pretty much the end of our demonstration.

Unfortunately, several other officers behaved aggressively and disrespectfully, storming into the administrative suite and ordering us to leave immediately. They appeared angry and emotionally charged from the moment they arrived on the scene, treating us with considerable hostility and threatening us with arrest if we did not get out. With raised voices, they ordered us to leave immediately and yelled at us that we were disrupting the business of the university. When a faculty member asked one of them what law we were breaking, he was informed that he would be taken to jail if he didn’t get out immediately.

Even more unfortunately, the worst behavior was that of the chief of campus police. He was not in uniform and did not identify himself to us when he arrived on the scene. He simply yelled and threatened and acted like a bully. That was the example he set for his officers. And because he was not in uniform, we had no idea who he was or what right he thought he had to order faculty members out of a building on our university campus.

Several other officers unfortunately followed his example and raised their voices to us and otherwise acted like bullies as they circulated among us ordered us out.

When they told us to leave, we complied. No one resisted. Everyone moved in an orderly fashion toward the exit. I mean, we’re professors. We’re pretty non-threatening. But there were probably still over 200 of us, so it took a few minutes for everyone to get out the door and down the stairwell. But everyone complied.

Because I was the first one in when we arrived, I was at the far end of the suite for most of the time we were there and therefore among the last to leave. As I was walking out through the glass doors toward the stairwell, I heard a woman’s voice just to my right say, “Get your hands off me!”

I stopped then and turned toward the colleague who had spoken. She was barely five feet tall (and, I found out later, 67 years old) and she was glaring at the big, angry guy who had been behind her, who was not in uniform.

He responded by ordering her to get out. His tone and posture were hostile and aggressive. He was at least a foot taller than she was and probably had nearly a hundred pounds on her. She told him to keep his hands off her and demanded his name. I wish I could remember the exact words of his response, because he did not deny having put his hands on her and essentially said that he would do it again and arrest her if she didn’t get out. She continued to insist that he tell her his name and informed him that she would be filing charges against him. He said he was the chief of police. She replied, “I didn’t ask your job title. I asked you for your name.” He finally told her his name and then threatened her again with arrest if we didn’t get out.

She and I turned to go, and I ended up walking next to one of the other officers on the steps going down. “What exactly were we doing that is illegal?” I asked the officer, whom I had seen around campus many times before and who is not at all a jerk and did not behave like one that day. “It was disruptive,” she replied. “What we were doing is constitutionally protected,” I said. “We were exercising our rights to free speech and peaceable assembly.” She gave me a look like she got that, but all she said was, “It was disruptive.” I thanked her for maintaining a calm and professional demeanor and went outside.

Once we were all outside, the word came around that the president of the university would be arriving at 4 p.m. for a scheduled meet-and-greet and photo op with students as part of the Bronco Bash activities. It was about 3:20. I decided that even if no one else wanted to hang around for that long in the blazing heat, I needed to stay to tell him what had just happened: that a loud but clearly peaceful protest by a bunch of professors with a median age of about 57 and a combined length of service to this university of about 3,000 years had been met with a ridiculous overreaction on the part of the ranking administrator on the scene (who seemed to be drawing on training for what to do in an active-shooter situation) and an even more ridiculous overreaction on the part of the campus police, including an incident in which a big, angry chief of police shoved a petite 67-year-old professor from the College of Education.

WMU faculty rally on September 5, 2014. (Photo by Brian Tripp.)

WMU faculty rally on September 5, 2014. (Photo by Brian Tripp.)

But it turned out that almost everyone else also wanted to stay. So we decided to wait for the president in front of the administration building. However, we were immediately ordered off the sidewalk and onto the grass by some of the officers, several of whom then staked themselves out around our (still pretty large) group, photographing us and recording video as we hung out, looked for shade, and waited for the president to show up. I’m sure their footage is very exciting. The rest of the officers positioned themselves in front of the entrance to the building, as if anyone in their right mind could have possibly believed we might be thinking about trying to storm it.
WMU faculty rally on September 5, 2014. (Photo by Brian Tripp.)

WMU faculty rally on September 5, 2014. (Photo by Brian Tripp.)

WMU faculty rally on September 5, 2014. (Photos by Larry J. Simon.)

WMU faculty rally on September 5, 2014. (Photos by Larry J. Simon.)

The president showed up at 4:00, as promised, and he staked out his position under his photo-op tent. I was standing with the colleague who had been pushed by the police chief, and I told her that I thought he needed to know what had just happened, meaning the general overreaction and hostility with which we had all been treated but also what had specifically happened to her. She agreed and said that she wanted to tell him that part herself. We walked together over to the tent and got in line to wait our turn, still carrying our signs from the demonstration. When it was her turn, I stepped out of the line and off to the side to join other colleagues who were still holding up their signs and talking with students. As I was walking away, I could hear the president, who had his arm around her for the photo, say to her that he was sorry about what had happened to her.
WMU faculty rally on September 5, 2014. (Photos by Larry J. Simon.)

WMU faculty rally on September 5, 2014. (Photos by Larry J. Simon.)

Meanwhile, the negotiation teams had gone back to the table at 3:30. The rest of us talked about gathering outside the bargaining room at 6 p.m. and making an evening of it, hanging out, ordering pizza, and supporting our team. But the weather did not cooperate with that plan, and severe storms began blowing through town at about 5:45. A bunch of us decided to hang out at the union HQ, where we ordered pizza, planned our long game, and exchanged texts with members of our team during their caucuses. Unbeknownst to all of us, trees and powerlines were down all over town from the storms and power was out for thousands of local residents. I sent everyone home at 11:15. What happened between 11:15 and midnight was dramatic and tense and exciting and and infuriating and awesome and all kinds of other things, but I am already committed to one long story here, so in order to avoid getting into another, I will just say that the teams reached a tentative agreement by midnight, when our old contract expired, and that it was a much better contract than I believe we would have gotten had the faculty not made its feelings known so clearly and unequivocally earlier in the day.

This has been a very long story, I realize, and maybe some of you are hoping that there will be teargas or at least pepper spray at the end of it. There isn’t. There wasn’t. (Not for us, anyway.) Rather, this is just a story about over-the-top hostility toward the faculty of my university by its administration and by the police force they deployed on their behalf.

Understand that in no way do I delude myself by thinking that this incident compares in any way to the devastating violence and dehumanizing treatment that police behaving inappropriately have unfortunately visited on far too many of our citizens in this country. It does not.

But still, it suggests some disturbing things.

1. If the highest-ranking member of the campus police at my university, along with his subordinates, go directly into jackbooted-bully mode to respond to a peaceful (if loud) faculty demonstration, where the participants are mostly white, mostly middle aged, and all professors who are well known on campus and in this community, it troubles me deeply to imagine how our students are treated in incidents that involve interactions with these same police. For what I think must be obvious reasons, I am especially fearful for our young male students of color.

2. In my privileged experience as an educated white woman, for most of my life I have had no firsthand knowledge of something many of my fellow citizens have long known all too well, and that is how the demeanor and behavior of police can escalate a situation if they mishandle it by confronting citizens with anger, hostility, and intimidation. The campus police arrived on the scene of a peaceful protest that was already winding down before they got there, but by the time their work was done, a lot of my professorial-type colleagues were pretty righteously pissed off. The behavior of the officers not only did absolutely nothing to defuse the situation, but it went a long way toward making many of us very, very angry. If we had been anything but completely nonthreatening and nonconfrontational, which is what we were (and you can see for yourself in the video of the demonstration linked here), I can’t imagine what might have happened.

3. The officer who identified himself as the chief of police failed to remain calm or conduct himself professionally in his interaction with the faculty of the university that employs all of us. In addition to his unprofessional and inappropriate interaction with the colleague whom he allegedly pushed, his overall demeanor toward all of us was hostile and disrespectful from the moment he arrived. His emotionally charged response was completely inappropriate and unprofessional, and several of the officers under his command unfortunately followed his example. Once again, if this was his response to a peaceful protest involving a bunch of middle-aged professors, I can only imagine what might happen when he is called to respond to a situation involving our students.

Over the past two weeks, colleagues have been sharing photos that they took that day, and in every one the police chief appears in, his body language and facial expressions are aggressive and angry. (Some of these pictures are included in the diary. You can see more pictures here.) His demeanor on Friday and the way he treated and spoke to us should raise serious questions about his fitness for such an important position at our university. I hope the senior university leadership is exploring these questions and taking them seriously. If they are not, the faculty and the campus community deserve an explanation as to why they are not.

However, I am not optimistic. A colleague texted me on Thursday from where she was having lunch at the student center to say that she had just overheard a campus police officer tell an administrative staffer that the faculty union “entrapped” the campus police at the protest. The staffer replied that she thought “those images of the police were obviously Photoshopped.” Such is the culture of denial on my campus.

4. Was the approach the chief used with us on September 5 condoned by the university’s senior administration? We don’t know. The student newspaper covered the incident but no administrators are quoted in their story, which is so far the only coverage the incident has received. The faculty member who was pushed has filed her complaint about the officer, and so now the administration is probably circling its legal wagons and clamming up. Until and unless the administration says or does something (convincing) to the contrary, the overreaction to our peaceful protest unfortunately suggests some disturbing things about how faculty are viewed by the administration (and apparently also by the campus police), about our campus culture, and about the university’s overall leadership style. Their actions – administration and campus police – should raise serious questions with the university’s board of trustees and in the community about what is going on with the university’s leadership and with the increasingly toxic culture at WMU for faculty, staff, and most importantly, for our students.

(Sadly, it probably won’t. There are a lot of heads stuck in a lot of sand round these parts. And as I’ve mentioned, there is no local media to pressure the administration to come clean and do any real soul-searching.

5. As we’ve seen in the news lately, campus police around the country are now being provided with military weapons, including M-16s and grenade launchers, by the Department of Defense. Can I just say what a breathtakingly stupid and dangerous idea that is?

I have a few additional thoughts, but I think this is already way longer than anyone’s got the patience to read all the way through, so I’m going to stop where I am and just leave it where it is.

College Presidents Selling Out to Gov. Rick Snyder?

Cross-posted at Daily Kos.

Those of us who live in the United States are fortunate to live in a country in which we are all free to speak our minds, including with respect to the political candidates and causes we choose to support. This is America, and that is how it is supposed to work. (Theoretically, at least. Some citizens are certainly freer to be heard than others.)

However, for each of us, there is a difference between supporting and endorsing political causes and candidates as a private citizen and doing so as a representative of an institution. This difference is especially critical if the institution is publicly funded or financed with student tuition dollars or with the support of alumni or other donors or any or all of the above.

For example, if you are, say, the president of a college or university, and you are thinking of exercising your rights as a citizen to participate in a public way in the political process, you should probably keep in mind that you answer, as they used to say in the old Hebrew National hotdog commercials, to a higher authority, namely your students, alumni, faculty, and staff.

This topic is on my mind because recently my job-creator husband received an invitation to a campaign fundraiser to be held on Monday, November 11, on behalf of the governor of our fine state, the population of which deserves a lot better than Gov. Rick Snyder (R-MakeItStop), which is who we’ve got and who is in what appears to be an increasingly tight race for re-election next year. I am not sure how Mr. Alevei ended up on this particular mailing list, although job-creating business owner that he is, he has been known to end up on strange mailing lists before.

Anyway, the invitation includes a list of notables with whom, for a monetary contribution to an outfit name of “Rick Snyder for Michigan” (no link — deal with it), attendees can ostensibly schmooze. I was surprised to see that two such notables are presidents of local colleges: Kalamazoo College‘s Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran and Kalamazoo Valley Community College‘s Marilyn Schlack, will be lending their considerable credibility to the Snyder campaign by appearing at the event on Monday, dubbed “NerdFest 2013.”

I would link here to news articles reporting on “NerdFest 2013,” but I can’t, because it turns out that there aren’t any, at least not so far. When I had occasion to mention “NerdFest” to a local reporter earlier today, she had not heard anything about it, even though the event is coming up just two days from now. There is nothing about it on Rick Snyder’s campaign website (like I said, no link) or on the site of the venue where it is being held. This invisibility is puzzling, since it seems to me that an event featuring the governor and a panel of prominent leaders in the arts, business, education, healthcare, and agriculture — what the invitation calls “Special Guest Panel Representatives” — would be newsworthy. The reporter I mentioned it to earlier this afternoon seemed to agree.

Not only is the event itself newsworthy, but so especially is the participation of the two college presidents. By agreeing to appear at a candidate’s fundraiser, and as you can see from the enlargement of the text below, it is clear from the invitation that this is not merely a conference of ideas but an actual campaign fundraising event, Presidents Wilson-Oyelaran and Schlack appear essentially to be endorsing Gov. Snyder’s candidacy for re-election.

Now, that would be perfectly fine if they were doing so as private citizens, but they are not. They are identified in the invitation as presidents of their respective institutions (although it actually gets the name of Kalamazoo Valley Community College wrong), which is to say that the two women are participating specifically and deliberately as representatives of their respective institutions.

I have to wonder what the students, alumni, faculty, and staff of Kalamazoo College and KVCC might think about all this, or whether they even know about it. The apparent circumspection with which the event is being treated by the campaign (no press releases, no mention of the event on the campaign website) suggest that it is not public knowledge at this point.

According to the invitation, “This event is a gathering of the minds to discuss, debate, and dictate the direction of your group or industry for the future. Your support helps ensure that our great [sic] Governor helps Michigan stay on the path to success for another four years.” (Emphasis added.)

Now, my personal feelings about Gov. Snyder are fairly well known to regular readers of these pages, especially those who follow Michigan politics, and his many weaknesses and failings are also well documented by other members of the DKos community.

So it is no secret that in my view, Gov. Snyder and his cronies are among the last people on the planet Earth who should be in a position to dictate the direction of anything. The governor has shown himself to lack courage as well as any real leadership skill, traits that unfortunately lead him to resort to waffling or to flat-out dishonesty at times. He also seems to be rather a shady operator as well as something of an anti-democratic power-grabber, and he has proven over the course of his first (and I pray to God only) term to be particularly hostile to education, especially public education, whether we are talking about K-12 or higher ed, which he apparently thinks is overrated (except for people like him, apparently, since he’s had plenty).

Especially in that context, college presidents in this state ought to be among the very last people to allow themselves to be co-opted by the governor’s re-election campaign, especially since the candidate upon whom Presidents Wilson-Oyelaran and Schlack are bestowing their considerable influence and public standing is doing everything he can to try to decimate public education in this state and to try to circumvent the democratic process.

And yet that is not really the context that matters. The issue is not that these highly respected local leaders are lending the esteem in which they are held in this community to support a candidate I don’t like. Rather, the issue is that they are using it to endorse a candidate at all.

As I said at the beginning of this diary, all individuals have the right to support the political causes and candidates of their choice. However, I have to question the appropriateness of college presidents agreeing to appear at a candidate’s fundraiser and thereby endorsing said candidate, not as private citizens but as representatives of their respective institutions. Click on the photos of the invitation so you can see the text in its entirety and see for yourself. There is no question but that this event is a political fundraiser on behalf of Gov. Snyder.

President Wilson-Oyelaran has a fine record in terms of her commitment to social justice and has more than earned her bona fides as an active proponent of diversity and inclusion, including in her role as the leader of a college that emphasizes service to others as integral to citizenship and intellectual growth. (And according to the K College web page, “Social Justice leadership is at the heart of a Kalamazoo College experience.”) It is likely to seem inexplicable to many of her colleagues and neighbors here in Kalamazoo (when they eventually find out about it) that she would either deliberately support Gov. Snyder’s re-election campaign or allow herself to be co-opted into appearing at a forum that perhaps was not clearly identified to her as a campaign event.

I know less about President Schlack’s background, although I do know that adjunct faculty at KVCC are treated quite abominably, even by the pitiful standards according to which most institutions, sadly, treat part-time faculty. One particularly egregious example is the delay of adjunct faculty paychecks, a situation that has occurred more than once at that institution. I also seem to remember some of President Schlack’s designees speaking publicly in a kind of astonishingly and appallingly tone deaf way in the wake of the most recent paycheck delays. As far as I am concerned, when it comes to the actions and words of college administrator, especially when those words are spoken to the press, the buck stops with the president.

In sum, the concerns here are not about whether individual citizens have the right to support the political causes and candidates of their choice. They absolutely do. The issue is whether it is appropriate for individuals entrusted with leading institutions of higher learning to participate — not as private citizens but as leaders and representatives of their respective institutions —  in fundraising campaigns on behalf of candidates, causes, or parties. Whether it is their intent or not, the participation of Presidents Wilson-Oyelaran and Schlack in Gov. Snyder’s fundraiser clearly suggests an endorsement of his campaign for re-election.

The issue is also not about any particular candidate whom they might choose to support, although it is certainly surprising that they would be willing to appear on behalf of a governor whose commitment to higher education and to public institutions in general is very much in question.

The real problem is with the endorsement of any candidate. The two presidents need to be cognizant of the message their endorsements of Gov. Snyder are likely to send to the students, alumni, faculty, and staff of their institutions as well as to the community that is home to both schools. Their endorsements are potentially highly divisive, and it is inexplicable that this somehow did not occur to Presidents Wilson-Oyelaran and Schlack before they made the decision to participate in Gov. Snyder’s event.

I do have one positive note on which to close. As president of the faculty union at Western Michigan University, which like KVCC and K College is located in Kalamazoo, I don’t often have the opportunity to make public statements in support of our institutional leadership (which many of my colleagues and I find lacking in any number of ways), but I have to say that I really appreciate that WMU President John Dunn is not on the program for Gov. Snyder’s soiree on Monday night. He definitely made the right call this time.

It is astonishing that two other college presidents in Kalamazoo did not. If the organizers were less than transparent with them in making it clear that Monday’s “NerdFest” is in fact a campaign fundraiser, then shame on the organizers. But even if that is the case, critical thinking and due diligence are the stock in trade of higher education, which is something about which even college presidents might occasionally need reminding.

The Vernacular of Privilege

Cross-posted to FunctionalShift (my linguistics blog) and Daily Kos.

This post is adapted from a presentation I gave recently as part of the Race Matters Lyceum Lecture Series at the Lee Honors College, Western Michigan University. The presentation was titled Language Variation and Language Attitudes: Race, Class, and Standard-Language Ideology.

Rachel Jeantel testifies at the trial of George Zimmerman (July 2013)

Rachel Jeantel testifies at the trial of George Zimmerman (July 2013)

Let’s start off with some basics. First, language is by its nature variable and in a constant state of flux. That means the normal states of affairs for language is variation and change. That’s because human beings do things to language when we use it. Some of the things we do to it go unnoticed and unremarked upon. Other things attract our attention: She says pop; he says soda. You say to-may-to; I say to-mah-to. (I don’t, really, but you know.) He says the car needs washed; she says it needs to be washed.

Language variation is an interesting phenomenon to study because language has a way of tricking us into thinking that it has an existence that is independent of its users. It doesn’t. You can theorize about language – a lot of scholars of linguistics do – but if you are interested in analyzing actual language, you are going to need speakers. Speakers bring language into being. All speakers of all languages have this power. This means that every speaker has a strong claim to ownership rights when it comes to the language or languages they speak.

But it is the nature of certain ideological orientations to assert claims of ownership that exclude certain people, certain groups. My position is that these claims are illegitimate.

Before we get into why I think that, let’s get back to our overview of what we talk about when we talk about variation.

How you talk has to do with who you are. And the way you talk is shaped by the people around you and the ways they talk. For most people, their first and most immediate influences are members of their family, the people who take care of them when they are babies and children. Over time, as our spheres widen, so do our linguistic repertoires, the inventory of ways of speaking that each individual speaker has available.

Think about all the different ways of being you have, all the different facets of your personality, the different settings and contexts within which you interact as you move through your days, the various ways you communicate and shift your style depending on where you are, who you’re talking to, what the situation is. Think about how skilled you are at drawing on the right way of being and the corresponding way of speaking in most situations. You do it all the time, shifting easily between styles – and some of you shift between languages – and you do it mostly without even thinking about it.

Your linguistic repertoire is like language itself: variable and in a constant state of change. And it expands as it adapts to new situations in which you find yourself and have to figure out how to be, linguistically and otherwise. You build it over a lifetime, from earliest childhood. As you get older, your world widens. Maybe you start hanging out with some cool kids at school. You may begin to share some of their ways of speaking and develop new linguistic norms collaboratively, often without even realizing you’re doing it. And then later on maybe you get a job, let’s say waiting tables in a restaurant. You learn the language of restaurant work and the in-group styles and terminology of the people you work with. And you also develop a game face, your style for interacting with customers. All these experiences add to your linguistic repertoire, which you will continue to build over time.

Everyone has a linguistic repertoire, although not everyone has the same languages, varieties, or linguistic features in their inventories. Linguists call the external (that is, social) factors that affect the way people talk independent variables. Independent variables are characteristics of individual speakers that interact with language and cause variation.

Some independent variables that interact with language:

  • region/geography
  • race/ethnicity
  • socioeconomic status
  • age
  • educational background
  • communities of practice

Communities of practice are cultural/familial/social/professional communities to which speakers belong and contribute, like the cool kids at school or the restaurant workers we were talking about earlier but they also also include your family, your cohort at school, colleagues at work, the WMU marching band if you are a member of that community, your sorority, people in your neighborhood, place of worship, etc.

When independent variables interact with language, we get what a lot of people think of as dialect. I prefer the term language variation to dialect because I think dialect suggests a closed, discrete way of speaking. This person speaks this dialect (and only this dialect); that person speaks that dialect (and only that dialect). I don’t think that is a good way of thinking about variation because variation tends not to distribute itself into neat categories and groups of speakers that we can draw lines around. Unlike some of my colleagues in the profession, I don’t believe there are such things as dialect boundaries. I don’t even find it that helpful to use the idea of dialect boundaries metaphorically. And I think there are more interesting and useful ways of thinking about variation, its patterns, and its distribution.

But for the sake of argument, let’s consider the idea of dialect for a minute. A common understanding of what dialect is seems to be something that other people speak. In other words, a lot of mainstream speakers define dialect in relation to themselves, meaning that they don’t think of themselves as speaking a dialect. As it turns out, they’re wrong about that.

Of course, there are some people who know they speak a dialect. These are almost always speakers who are aware that the way they talk is stigmatized. They’ve been hearing all their lives how wrong they are.

But the reality is that every speaker of a language speaks a dialect. There is no dialect-free version of a language. As the linguists Walt Wolfram and Natalie Schilling have put it, “To speak a language is to speak a dialect of that language.”

Remember what we said before about how people do things to language simply by using it? Well, all those independent variables and all those life experiences that add to your linguistic repertoire factor into the processes of doing things to the language. All these things cause variation. They are not the only causes – there are internal, physiological, and other causes – but independent variables are the causes that are among the most interesting to linguists who study language in interaction.

Now, just because everyone speaks a dialect doesn’t mean that all ways of speaking are created equal. Far from it. As everyone in this room well knows, some language varieties and the linguistic features associated with them are valued more highly than others. That is to say some dialects are valued more highly than others.

When we say some varieties of language (or some linguistic features) are valued more highly than others, what we are saying is that there are some ways of speaking that are privileged compared to other ways of speaking. Linguists are likely to explain this by saying there is a prestige dialect that is held as the preferred way of speaking and that other ways of speaking are stigmatized in relation to that prestige variety. Other folks who aren’t linguists might say that there is “correct” speech and then there is everything else: “incorrect speech,” “bad grammar,” “broken English.” There is unfortunately often an explicit value judgment that goes along with these observations.

But languages, language varieties, and linguistic features themselves have no intrinsic status. They do not have greater or lesser linguistic value or validity in relation to other features or varieties. in reality, though, it is hard to separate a linguistic feature, set of features, or language variety from the social status of the speakers who use it. And that is really the issue here: The status of the speakers determines the status of the speech. When speakers are not valued by the wider mainstream culture, the way they speak is often stigmatized as a result. And so judgments about “correctness” are often more about the social value of the speakers than about the linguistic qualities of the speech, even though the judgments profess to be about language and even though those making the judgments often believe that to be so. In other words, the relative value of language varieties – and by extension, of their speakers – is socially imposed.

Conversely, linguists are interested in observing and documenting the ways languages and language varieties actually work. Languages, varieties, and linguistic features that don’t meet the communicative needs of their users don’t survive for very long. This is one way in which the language bends to the will of its users, which is exactly what it’s supposed to do. A feature either does what its users need it to do – say, mark past tense or possession, for example – or the feature will not stay in use. The survival of ways of speaking, whether we’re talking about individual features or language varieties, is itself, in the view of linguistic researchers, evidence of their effectiveness.

Linguists understand all human languages and varieties as rule-governed, which is to say that a given language functions according to a system. Not all systems are the same. What may look ungrammatical about one system to users of another system may be working smashingly for its own users. One system is not more or less “correct” than other systems. Linguistically, that kind of value judgment doesn’t make any sense. In other words, there is no correctness continuum; there is a value continuum that is created perceptually; that is, by way of people’s perceptions and attitudes about features, varieties, and speakers. And the attitudes about the features and varieties derive from attitudes toward the speakers. It really is that simple.

In other words, we humans have a bad habit of interpreting things and assigning value in relation to what we’re used to, and that includes what we’re used to hearing and saying. And mainstream cultures in many societies – including this one – have institutionalized these interpretations into widely acceptable and highly powerful ideologies. One of these is the ideology of standardness.

A good definition of standardization is institutionalization of prestige variety of a language (‘institutionalization’ meaning to establish as norm or convention).

Standardization is often supported by authorities like dictionaries, grammar and usage manuals, English teachers, curmudgeonly newspaper columnists, and other commentators who claim the language is deteriorating at the hands of (some of) its users. More recently, a genre of Facebook memes about language use, some of them incredibly hostile toward certain groups of speakers, have joined in on the unhealthy fun of self-proclaimed language authoritarianism.

For example, there is this:

Visual representation of mean language attitudes.

Note: This is unkind.

And this:

Visual expression of mean language attitudes.

Note: This is also unkind as well as ill-informed. (Linguistics: Knowing the difference between grammar and orthography.)

In the U.S., we have an interesting situation, which is that in American English, the prestige varieties have a negative definition. That is, Standard(ized) American English (SAE) is identifiable by what is missing from it rather than than by any specific identifying features it contains. In other words, for American English, the prestige variety is one in which there are no (or few) features that are socially branded as nonstandard: SAE is a variety with no stigmatized features. At least theoretically. I say “theoretically” because no one speaks SAE without ever producing any stigmatized features. No one.

Lots of Americans speak what mainstream speakers (that is, speakers of what is perceived as SAE) would consider nonstandard varieties. For example, think about how the speech of the Southern U.S. tends to be perceived and represented by the wider American culture. When the linguist Dennis Preston asked research participants to illustrate on maps where they imagined dialect areas to exist in the U.S., many singled out the southeastern U.S. as not only a salient dialect area but as one they perceived negatively.

This may suggest that the attitudes at issue have to do with regional variation, but there is more to it than geography. Similarly, New York City speech tends to score low in measures of language attitudes, but again, there is something more going on here. As we’ve noted, the attitudes aren’t really about language at all but about speakers. Attitudes about Southern speech may be more about judgments about rural speakers, perceived lack of education of these speakers, and perceived low social status. For New York City speech, perceptions about ethnicity and class are clearly implicated. For example, negative attitudes about New York City speech tend to focus on features produced by working-class speakers and by those perceived as “ethnic,” such as Italian-Americans, Jewish Americans, Irish-Americans, African Americans, Latin Americans, etc.

Looking into language attitudes goes beyond simply observing and describing linguistic differences. It focuses attention on the social dimensions of variation, including what social and ethnic variation can reflect about differential access to resources, power, and status and about the role of language in maintaining social, racial, and ethnic hierarchies. These emphases are particularly important for variationists working in education, and it is important for teachers – and education majors, future teachers – to learn about them so that they will be well equipped to meet the needs of all the students who populate the diverse classrooms that await them. Teachers are on the front lines of this issue.

Our lyceum topic this semester is Race Matters, so let’s talk now specifically about the ways in which race does matter when it comes to attitudes about language in American culture. Let’s talk about language in the African American community.

First, some definitions of what I am going to refer to as African American English (AAE). [1]

Here’s one definition I like a lot:

Lisa Green (2004: 77):

African American English is “a linguistic system of communication governed by well defined rules and used by some African Americans (but not all) across different geographical regions of the USA and across a full range of age groups.”

“Characterizing features of the variety are uniquely related to the history, culture, and experiences of [African Americans] although the variety shares many features with other varieties of English.”

Here’s another good one:

John Baugh (2004: 305-6):

African American English is “the linguistic legacy of the slave trade.” Speakers are descendants of those “historically deprived of access to schools and to equal justice under law.”

These definitions engage the question of whether African American English is characterized by the linguistic features used by its speakers or by the identities of the speakers themselves. In these definitions, Green and Baugh suggest that it is about both: AAE is characterized by features, or more precisely clusters of features, as well as by independent variables that for many speakers cluster as well, resulting in shared — although not identical — experiences. We’re still talking about individual speakers.

AAE has a grammar and it has rules that govern it. As we have discussed, all productive varieties of all languages are rule-governed and systematic. If they didn’t, speakers would not be able to understand one another and the variety would therefore cease to exist. These rules apply to phonology (pronunciation), grammar, and vocabulary. Speakers have to adhere to these generative rules to communicate effectively. The rules that govern AAE and other stigmatized varieties are differentially valued externally — socially and politically — but there is nothing linguistically “wrong” or “ungrammatical” about these varieties. The system is just different. Different doesn’t mean wrong.

AAE is probably the most stigmatized variety of American English, and you better believe its speakers know it. Yet AAE persists and in fact thrives, with tens of millions of speakers nationwide, despite the overt stigmatization its speakers are subjected to and despite decades of eradication attempts through misguided educational policies that are themselves the results of misconceptions about language diversity that unfortunately persist today.

Since the 1960s, when researchers first began to turn their attention to it, AAE has become the most studied variety of American English.

AAE also continues to be linguistically healthy, adaptable, and fully capable of meeting the communicative needs of its speakers. When it doesn’t meet their needs, speakers adapt it so that it does. That is how language works. Its continuing success as a long-thriving language variety suggests that speakers clearly value it for reasons that its critics can’t understand or don’t respect. It suggests that AAE is culturally valuable and helps to build and maintain community and solidarity. It may also appeal to speakers who are not interested in trying to talk like people who seem not to like or value them very much. Linguistically, AAE is a resounding success. Politically, on the other hand, it is a target.

A widely held attitude about AAE views its use as a linguistic deficit. This view assumes that AAE reflects lack of linguistic competence or even intelligence on the part of its speakers. This view is simply not linguistically valid. For one thing, AAE speakers, like speakers of all other varieties of language, are a highly diverse community of individuals. For another, there is no correlation between the language variety (or varieties) spoken and intelligence.

To believe otherwise is a prejudice.

Attitudes about AAE and the value of its speakers have real-life consequences. When you have schoolchildren who are written off by their teachers who assume that students are uneducable because of the way they talk, educational outcomes are going to be severely compromised, which means that economic well-being is likely to be significantly compromised as well. Beyond the educational experience, speakers of stigmatized varieties also experience job discrimination, and their testimony in legal cases is even sometimes seen as less credible, including in the recent trial of George Zimmerman, who was acquitted in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.

John Rickford and others have commented on the treatment of Rachel Jeantel, the 19-year-old friend of Trayvon Martin who was on the phone with him until shortly before he died and who testified for the prosecution in Zimmerman’s trial. As Rickford notes, “a torrent of invidious commentary” dominated the public reaction to Ms. Jeantel’s testimony, and much of it was “grotesquely racist, misogynistic and dehumanizing.”

Rickford also points out that in her post-trial interview with Anderson Cooper, juror B-37 said she thought that “because of her education and communication skills,” Ms. Jeantel “just wasn’t a good witness.” As Rickford observes, “it’s clear that Juror B37 was clueless about the role of race.”

“She didn’t notice, for instance, what Anderson Cooper did—how completely she identified with Zimmerman’s perspective, and how her references to Jeantel and Trayvon (“the way THEY talk . . . the type of life THEY live”) distanced them,” Rickford writes.

He also asks whether “jurors were also prejudiced against Jeantel’s vernacular, like those who pilloried her on social networks as stupid, not realizing that her speech is a complex, rule-governed system that linguists have been studying for decades” and suggests that if juror B-37 (and possibly other members of the jury as well) had found Ms. Jeantel “incomprehensible and not credible,” it was possible that “race, credibility, communication and misperceived ‘evidence’ perhaps influenced the verdict.”

If you have a strong stomach, check out Sherri Williams’s compilation of “good, bad, and ugly tweets about Rachel Jeantel,” including quite a few that focused on the way she talks. As Williams notes, “Instead of focusing on her testimony social media erupted w/criticism about her speech, looks, mannerisms, race & education.”

I said earlier that I think that ideological orientations that position some speakers as owners of the language and others as answerable to those self-appointed owners are illegitimate. Here is why I think that: It is because language ideologies based on unequal ownership of the language and a hierarchy based on an arbitrary notion of “correctness” are inherently racist and classist. Look at the speakers whose speech is stigmatized: Is it wealthy white folks? Of course not. It is people of color, poor and working-class people, “ethnic” people. Coincidence? Please.

Another ideological problem is that a lot of people seem to think that there are only two possible options: inflexible policing of standard-language ideology (although that’s not what they call it, of course) or total linguistic anarchy, which is what some of my English-professor colleagues sometimes accuse me of advocating. (And they say it like it’s a bad thing.)

But this is a false dichotomy. Racism and classism, including the linguistic kind, aren’t just going to go away by themselves. This means that not only do students from nonstandard-speaking backgrounds need serious language and literacy instruction in the privileged ways of speaking and writing but also that all speakers, including standard speakers, need equally serious instruction in the understanding that the privileged ways of speaking and writing are just that — privileged — as well as in the understanding of language variation and change and of the existence and functions of linguistic attitudes and ideologies.

Focusing on this is a way for those of us who are educators – and those of you who are future educators – to start doing some of the hard work of shifting cultural discourses and practices so that more of the burden of confronting discriminatory language ideologies might someday begin to fall on those doing the oppressing (whether unwittingly or not) rather than keeping that burden solely and squarely on the oppressed.

Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of us never actually get this kind of instruction (correction is not instruction, by the way), in considerable part because many elementary and secondary English teachers simply don’t ever get any rigorous instruction in linguistics as part of their coursework or training. This means that teachers are without the tools they need for understanding and responding to language variation in their classrooms, which is a serious barrier to teaching language and literacy effectively to diverse student populations.

The teachers and education majors I know care passionately about students and are highly motivated to act in their best interests. That is what drives them to pursue the work of teaching in the first place. But without an understanding of language and how it works, along with an understanding of variation and what it means, they not only can’t fix any of this but they – often unwittingly – exacerbate it. And while we dither, serious harm comes to generation upon generation of children who come to school speaking something other than a preferred variety (like standard English) as their language of nurture. They don’t get the instruction they need and have a right to because the teachers not only often don’t know how to do it but they also often harbor negative attitudes developed over a lifetime of exposure to the pervasive ideology of standardness. And their standard-speaking classmates never learn how unjust and damaging the language attitudes that dominate educational institutions as well as the wider culture really are. And so the cycle continues.

Some of you may already know that much of my teaching involves the training of undergraduate education majors. Students in my classes are called upon to do considerable work in the critical analysis of language ideologies. This work begins with the assumption that all students are entitled to be treated with respect, including linguistically, regardless of the relative esteem in which their languages and varieties of nurture are held. As many of our graduates go on to discover as teachers in their own classrooms, not stigmatizing nonstandard speakers in the process of privileging the way some but not all of the kids speak is a lot more effective than sending nonstandard speakers the message, from day one and in a million different ways, both overt and subtle, that the way they talk is bad and wrong and they just need to start talking right already. Because believe me, that is what a lot of kids are still hearing in their K-12 classrooms, even in 2013. Sadly, they are sometimes still hearing it in their college classrooms as well.

And while we’re on the subject of reality, here is another one: Those who come to school speaking standard English as their language of nurture are in fact really nothing more than lucky. They are the possessors of a privilege that is just as insidious and just as invisible to most of them as the advantage of their own whiteness is to many white students and the advantage of their social status is to many middle- and upper-class students. And it is in just as desperate need of critical inquiry.

The suggestion that a linguistic variant that functions effectively in a speech community but is considered nonstandard by mainstream speakers is a “linguistic error committed out of ignorance,” as a colleague who teaches literature at another university recently wrote on a Facebook thread on this topic is itself an error committed out of ignorance. It suggests ignorance of the way languages actually work; ignorance of the history of the English language, including its ideological history but also its lexical, grammatical, and phonological development; ignorance of the role of prescriptive grammar and the ideology of standardness in maintaining and reinforcing social and racial stratification. Saddest of all, it suggests ignorance of the unspeakable and incalculable damage the attitudes it springs from do to real people who start to learn beginning on their first day of kindergarten that not only do the people with power and authority over them think that they themselves are “wrong” and “incorrect” and “ignorant” but that so is everyone they love.

Imagine having to sit there and listen to that every day of your life. Now think about the millions of kids who experience that as their reality. Maybe you were one of them. Maybe your child is now. Now think about the parents, many of whom endured the same thing. And the grandparents. When you consider how many lives this kind of thinking has had the power to define and to thwart, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that it is an intellectual crime against humanity.

Linguistically, nonstandard variants are only “incorrect” from the perspective of speakers of privileged varieties. It is an inherently biased perspective that deserves to be challenged, but it is often defended by the very people — teachers, professors – who have the best shot at shifting the paradigm and helping the rest of us to move beyond this persistent prejudice. Because that is what it is: a prejudice. Language varieties work according to their internal structures and they respond to the communicative needs of their users. The structures and systems don’t all work the same way. A variety that works differently from how yours works or how mine works is just different. That’s all. The so-called “standard” isn’t better or purer or more correct or more of any of the other ideologically driven characterizations that so many standard speakers believe and have been so successful at convincing nonstandard speakers to go along with. It’s just the variety with the most power and status. That’s all.

So instead of being high-handed about it and thinking that there is something inherently superior about the standard and inferior about everything else, and therefore that standard-speakers are somehow ordained with the right to pass judgment upon those who didn’t get to be born as lucky, I think the more humane and just thing to do, for those of us who got lucky by being born into standard-speaking families or who have subsequently learned and acquired the prestige variety, is to try working a little harder — make that a lot harder — to think about the effects of our language beliefs and attitudes on the lives of the real live human beings who are hurt by them and to try to stop it already.

There is so little at stake for people like us when standard ideologies are challenged in serious and systematic ways, and there is so much at stake for many, many people who aren’t nearly as lucky as the people in this room. I am talking especially to my faculty colleagues who are hearing this today and to the future teachers. Rather than perpetuating the generations of inequity to which these stubborn, irrational, and incredibly damaging language attitudes have contributed, let’s use the power that comes with our great good fortune to work for justice, acceptance, fairness, and empathy.

Notes:

[1] Linguists generally use the terms African American English, African American Language, and African American Vernacular English for the large group of related varieties of language used in African American communities. The term ‘Ebonics’ is still used in some contexts, but it has been so politicized and stigmatized, especially after the controversy surrounding the school board Ebonics resolution in Oakland, California (which the linguist John Rockford has written about extensively), in 1996 that many linguists have now abandoned it.

See also:

 

The Quasi-Sentient Professor

stepford

Cross-posted at Daily Kos.

A few weeks ago, a friend and colleague who works in a creative discipline at the very fine but underfunded non-flagship state university where I work as a professor of linguistics told me about a recent conversation she’d had with a senior administrator at our institution, in which he had explained to her with apparent enthusiasm that the university will have computers that will be able to do her job in 10 to 15 years.

A day or two later, another friend who is also an academic, although unlike me she is at a small, decently funded private liberal-arts college, posted a status on Facebook expressing her frustration over a lengthy outage of her college’s online Learning Management System, or LMS (a phrase that I use here with all due mockery). The outage interfered with the ability of her students to submit their assignments on time as well as with her ability to access their work, respond to it, and provide grades and feedback according to the schedule she had set out.

And then last Thursday, this article showed up in the New York Times, unironically titled “Essay-Grading Software Offers Professors a Break.” It caught my eye initially because of the unintentionally if grimly hilarious headline. I thought the idea of a potentially permanent “break” for professors from doing our, you know, jobs had to be a joke, with a punchline that probably involved the unemployment line.

As I read about this magical software, especially in the context of those two exchanges with my colleagues and some other recent developments in educational technology, it got me thinking once again about the future of higher education in this country, a topic I take up every so often in this space, only this time the result is what I hope turns out to be nothing more than a particularly vivid paranoid fantasy on my part.

(Note: In my defense, there have been times when things have in fact come to pass that I also thought — hoped — were merely paranoid fantasies.)

As you are undoubtedly aware, there’s been a lot of buzz and a lot of enthusiasm out there recently about a new model for higher education in the form of online course offerings designed to serve tens of thousands of students at a time, with the ostensible goal of bringing higher education to the masses by offering free enrollment to virtually (see what I did there?) everyone on the planet with an internet connection. While it is only fair to point out that some of the enthusiasm is coming from known yutzes who enjoy well-earned reputations for being wrong about pretty much everything, there is also plenty from people who ought to know better.

Known in the EduBiz as “MOOCs,” which in education parlance stands for Massive Open Online Courses (to distinguish it from how it is understood in other parlances), these mass-enrollment courses are already being offered by several elite universities (elite as in highly selective and jaw-droppingly expensive), which are developing and offering the courses in partnership with what I am going to call content vendors, all of them privateand some of them for-profit. The enrollees get what they are paying for in terms of the credit hours they earn, which is to say they earn none, at least for now.

As a professor, I’ve had occasion to think quite a lot about MOOCs lately (not to mention about the mooks who are helping the industry with its marketing). And as a professor, but also as a citizen and taxpayer, I have some thoughts about what these developments in the brave new world of online higher education might come to mean for the old-school kind of higher education, the kind in which actual students attend actual classes at an actual university and interact with actual faculty.

I am pretty skeptical that significant cost savings for states and institutions are likely to result from the increasing emphasis on online “education.” What seems far more likely is more shifting of support away from students and public institutions as public money is diverted into private pockets. (As of this writing, the California state legislature is considering a bill to require public universities in that state to accept credits from online courses offered by for-profit vendors. As Jon Wiener put it in a March 14 article in The Nation, “Here’s how California treats its public colleges and universities: first, cut public funds, and thus classes; then wait for over-enrollment, as students are unable to get the classes they need to graduate; finally, shift classes online, for profit.”)

The well-funded march toward significantly expanded roles in higher education for MOOCs and other educational technologies is likely to come at enormous cost to the students, faculty, and staff at non-elite institutions, which serve 97% of college students in the U.S., by reducing the non-virtual options for them (but not for the affluent), thereby exacerbating an already highly problematic two-Americas class divide in higher education. In a December 2012 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Scott Carlson and Goldie Blumenstyk make this pointed observation about some of the “MOOC revolution‘s” most visible fanboys:

The pundits and disrupters, many of whom enjoyed liberal-arts educations at elite colleges, herald a revolution in higher education that is not for people like them or their children, but for others: less-wealthy, less-prepared students who are increasingly cut off from the dream of a traditional college education.

Carlson and Blumenstyk quote David Stavens, one of the founders of the for-profit ed-tech start-up Udacity, who earned his undergraduate degree at Princeton and graduate degrees at Stanford, and who told Time magazine last October that “there’s a magic that goes on inside a university campus that, if you can afford to live inside that bubble, is wonderful.”

“But if you can’t,” say Carlson and Blumenstyk,

entrepreneurs like [Stavens] are creating an industrialized version of higher education that the most fervent disruptionists predict could replace mid-sized state institutions or less-selective private colleges.

The ubiquity of the practically evangelical zeal for the MOOC as the answer to the “problem”of higher education, which of course is not at all the problem they think it is, and the increasing emphasis on and expectation that faculty and students will use LMSs that in the experience of lot of their users so far seem to be little more than obnoxious, cumbersome “solutions” to a problem that doesn’t exist, unless you count the entrepreneurial problem of how to find new ways to make money by squeezing it out of struggling students and underfunded colleges and universities like mine.

Of course I am well aware that MOOCs and Learning Management Systems are not the same thing. But the connections are clear and obvious. Let’s see if I can parse them out.

I’ll start with the LMS my institution uses, which touts its products and services thusly:

Breaking down barriers to education, obsessing over the learning and instructor experience, and focusing on an open and extensible platform, we have built a tightly integrated suite of products that is providing a more engaging, intuitive and personalized learning experience than ever before. We provide a seamless experience for creation, delivery and management of courses, allowing users to collaborate and connect around content and activities. From simple to sophisticated, we support a variety of learning environments limited only by the vision of the educational institution.

I think most professors consider “providing an engaging, intuitive and personalized learning experience” to be very much a part of our job descriptions. In addition to the scholarly work those of us at research universities are also obliged to do, the “creation, delivery and management of courses” describes precisely a significant component of what professors do for a living. And yet we seem to be farming that work out to a company that does not actually seem to be doing it. (If they’re “obsessing” over my experience, this is the first I am hearing about it.)

The sentiment my friend expressed in her Facebook post in response to the crash of her institution’s Learning Management System at a critical time was nothing unusual. A lot of us in what is becoming the EduBiz can recount similar and numerous examples of platform failures and the ensuing angst on the parts of students and faculty.

Oh, have I mentioned that my friend’s class is not an “online” course? And that neither are most of the courses my colleagues and I teach but for which we are expected to use LMSs? Our classes meet in the traditional way, meaning in a classroom on a regular schedule, with students and a professor in the same place at the same time.

And so what (finally) struck me after years of hearing frequent and similar technological tales of woe from students and from colleagues was that whether we’re talking about my friend’s decently funded private liberal arts college or my perpetually underfunded nonflagship state university, even our old-school, “traditional,” in-person courses, as distinct from courses that are taught partly or completely online, are moving toward models in which we — students and instructors — are increasingly expected to participate in electronic interfaces in order to submit course work (students), access student work (us), provide feedback and grades (us), and access said feedback and grades (students). We’ve added an extra layer to our own workloads, or rather, had one added, and to the workloads of our students by imposing the online submission-and-feedback platform on them and between us. And our universities are both paying private vendors a boatload of money for the pleasure.

So, what is the LMS for? Why are we using it? Why are we using technologies that intrude into our interactions with students without reducing anyone’s workload but rather adding to it in the form of often user-unfriendly, stress-inducing, time-wasting frustrations, and surveillance-enabling systems that hardly anyone on my campus seems to like except for administrators who don’t actually have to use them? Where is the evidence that these systems are actually improving instructional quality or learning experiences or outcomes in any demonstrable, documentable ways, that this is something other than just the latest look-busy, look-like-you’re-fixing-some-problem administrative/private-sector boondoggle?

It is hard not to imagine that we are all, students and faculty alike, essentially functioning as unwitting, uncompensated, and non-consenting participants in massive beta testing of commercial online platforms, the most successful of which are venture-capitalized, with return on investment (and then some) anticipated to come via student tuition dollars, even if some (but by no means all) of the products are “free” for the time being.

This brings us back to the magic grading software, brought to a college near you by EdX, a private non-profit which if you’ve been following developments in educational technology you’ll recognize as one of the “big three” MOOC developers. The machine-scoring software “uses artificial intelligence to grade student essays and short written answers.” But human beings are not quite obsolete in the process of responding to student writing. The NYT reports:

The EdX assessment tool requires human teachers, or graders, to first grade 100 essays or essay questions. The system then uses a variety of machine-learning techniques to train itself to be able to grade any number of essays or answers automatically and almost instantaneously.

In other words, the software needs to be “trained” by sentient beings, who initially do the work themselves until the application catches on and and can do the work itself. That must be what the senior administrator who announced to my colleague that a computer would be able to do her job in a decade or so meant when he said computer would learn its trade — make that my colleague’s trade — from the colleague who would be training it (and perhaps ultimately herself out of a job).

The other money quote is this one:

EdX, the nonprofit enterprise founded by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to offer courses on the Internet, has just introduced such a system and will make its automated software available free on the Web to any institution that wants to use it.

I have strong feelings of my own about the efficacy and ethics of machine scoring (as do many others), but at the moment they are peripheral to the cause of my larger unease. I promised a paranoid fantasy, and I intend to deliver. Here it is:

The magical grading software is described in the NYT article as a tool for “freeing professors for other tasks” (such as filing for unemployment benefits?). Everyone who’s ever taught knows how labor-intensive, time-consuming, and draining it can be to engage with student writing, at least if you’re doing it right, and I would not blame anyone who has to do it on a regular basis for being tempted by the possibility that there might be software that could help to ease a workload that can quickly become overwhelming. Leaving aside for the moment the humanistic and ethical arguments against the use of machine scoring, which are legitimate and compelling, there is another serious ethical question, and it has to do with what the developers might be getting in return.

I’m talking about data: the data that students and instructors generate in the course of using these products and platforms, including MOOCs, LMSs, machine-grading software, and whatever else might be coming next. These platforms need human input to work and to improve. The senior administrator told my colleague that the software he was all excited about would learn to do her job because she would teach it to do her job. EdX’s grading software needs instructors to teach it to grade. Of course it’s free. How in the hell else would they get anyone to use it and, in the process, provide all this free labor to EdX?

I don’t mean to single out EdX, because they’re all doing it. The machine-scoring software is just a particularly obvious example of how the knowledge and labor of instructors is being expropriated without their knowledge or consent, let alone any compensation. It is also an example of how student work is similarly being pirated.

And don’t even get me started on these insane surveillance-enabled e-books now being tested at Texas A&M. According to an article in Tuesday’s New York Times, professors using the new digital-book technology can monitor the extent to which students in their classes are doing the assigned reading:

They know when students are skipping pages, failing to highlight significant passages, not bothering to take notes — or simply not opening the book at all.They, along with colleagues at eight other colleges, are testing technology from a Silicon Valley start-up, CourseSmart, that allows them to track their students’ progress with digital textbooks.

Major publishers in higher education have already been collecting data from millions of students who use their digital materials. But CourseSmart goes further by individually packaging for each professor information on all the students in a class — a bold effort that is already beginning to affect how teachers present material and how students respond to it, even as critics question how well it measures learning. The plan is to introduce the program broadly this fall.

OK, never mind that I exactly ZERO interest in trying to micromanage how and when the students in my classes do the reading and whether they highlight or not or anything else that is inappropriately invasive, not to mention that it would be one more massive time-suck for instructors to contend with. Instead, can I just say please make this stop already? I started writing this post on Sunday, and today is Thursday, and I can’t get it finished because every day there is some new announcement of some new kind of intrusion into the work that students and instructors are trying to get done if these bastards would just leave us the hell alone already and get over their obsession with how we are doing it and when we are doing it and how they can monetize it even more! and at this rate, I am at serious risk of becoming the blogging equivalent of the contractor who got the Winchester House bid if the line doesn’t get drawn somehow, preferably now-ish. (But no.)

Anyway, I am not talking about personal information or privacy issues, necessarily (although there are potentially serious issues with that as well). I am talking about private companies appropriating the intellectual property of college students, in the form of their uploaded coursework and online interactions, using data-collection instruments that include but are not limited to machine-scorers, LMSs, plagiarism-detection programs, MOOCs, and whatever else might be headed our way, and using data that rightly belongs to the students, not to Coursera or EdX or Udacity or whoever else comes along looking for a piece of this lucrative action, all of it collected without informed consent or compensationhowever they choose and in ways that none of us really has the slightest idea about.

And I am talking about private companies collecting and using for their own interests, again without informed consent or compensation, data that belongs to instructors and that is the product of their expertise, experience, and labor. In its most obvious form, that data comes out of the instructor responses to those first 100 papers that they must grade in order to “train” the machine-scoring software to take over that job. But why wouldn’t all our online interactions with students be collected and analyzed in ways that benefit the companies who collect them, whether via MOOCs, LMSs, or any other proprietary platforms?

The whole thing is starting to remind me of how the good ol’ boys of Stepford had their wives read long lists of words into tape recorders so that the voices of the compliant robots with which the actual human women would soon be replaced would sound authentic. The robots looked just like the original humanoids, only with 100% less feminist consciousness and no backtalk.

Coursera, one of the major for-profit MOOC companies, announces on its website that they

envision a future where the top universities are educating not only thousands of students, but millions. Our technology enables the best professors to teach tens or hundreds of thousands of students.

Through this, we hope to give everyone access to the world-class education that has so far been available only to a select few.

If it weren’t for all that pesky interaction with students and engagement with their work, one professor could indeed teach “not only thousands of students, but millions.” At the very least, we could certainly generate a lot more student credit hours than we possibly can now. This is something our institutions seem to want.

Of course, there is a catch, and it is kind of a big one. According to a March 2012 report in Inside Higher Ed by Ry Rivard, self-explanatorily titled “Coursera’s Contractual Elitism,” Coursera is “contractually obliged to turn away the vast majority of American universities” because it has committed to offer courses exclusively in partnership with 62 “elite” universities in the U.S. EdX, Rivard reports, is also known for its “exclusivity” and will work with only 12 elite institutions. “Scores of universities have sought to partner with Coursera or edX,” he notes. “Most, of course, have been denied.” He concludes that “Most liberal arts colleges, community colleges and regional public universities could never join — and many public research universities haven’t been asked either.”

In other words, if these trends continue in the implementation of “disruptive” educational technologies (so named by the kind of people whose kids’ educations are unlikely to be disrupted, because disruption is for commoners), and with the money and power they’ve got behind them, the odds are in their favor, there is pretty much no chance that it will ever be any of my colleagues at this very fine but perpetually underfunded non-flagship state university (including me) in front of those “tens or hundred of thousands of students at a time.”

Maybe computerized grading of student work will eventually be seen as deal-breakingly problematic, even in the world of for-profit educational content providers, in the ways its critics have delineated and/or in other ways, and human interaction will eventually triumph as something that matters.

But whether that realization ever comes to pass or not will make little difference in the lives of most professors, regardless of their status today as tenured, tenure-track, or contingent, because when you’ve got rock-star professors from Harvard and Stanford and MIT whose brilliance will be beamed all over the world to “not only thousands of students, but millions” at a time, the best we chumps can hope for is to be the ones to do the do the engaging with and responding to the writing of all those thousands or millions of students, that is, if we haven’t by then interfaced ourselves into obsolescence via those LMSs and machine-scorers and whatever might be coming next, by donating our knowledge, skills, experience, and labor to corporate entities who are all too willing to take that from us without informed consent, without compensation, and without a word of acknowledgment or thanks.

I realize this is a horribly dystopic vision, and I hope to God I am completely wrong about all of it.

Update: Please, please make it stop.

I Woke Up This Morning in a “Right-to-Work” State

It really happened. And in Michigan, of all places.

snyder_divider

On December 6, 2012, Republicans in the Michigan state legislature rammed through two so-called “right to work” (RTW) bills during a lame-duck session with the potential (and, arguably, the intent) to decimate organized labor in a state whose prosperity through the better part of the 20th century was built on unionism, a tradition that was hard fought and bravely won.

On December 11, 2012, GOP Governor Rick Snyder signed these bills into law.

Because the lame-duck GOP could not muster the two-thirds majority required for the acts to take effect immediately, there was a constitutionally mandated waiting period of 90 days from the end of the session at which the measure was enacted.

That 90 days is up today, March 28, 2013, a date that is sure to go down as one of the darkest for people in Michigan who have to work for a living, which is of course the overwhelming majority of us. It is also likely to have repercussions for working people nationwide.

I am writing this post as a citizen. I also happen to be the vice president of the faculty union at the university where I am employed as a professor of linguistics. In my capacity as VP of our chapter of the American Association of University Professors, I write a blog about labor issues of interest to my faculty colleagues, and at some point in the near future, I will write a post to address some of the issues I am getting into here.

But right now, I want to write simply in my capacity as a pissed-off citizen of a once-great state with a once-thriving middle class where upward mobility was for a long time during the last century a real possibility for regular people who weren’t born rich and who have to work for a living.

I say “rammed through,” because the GOP-controlled legislature bypassed the standard committee hearing process and was closed to public comment. Citizens were literally locked out of the Capitol while the bills were debated and voted on. “You’re doing this in lame duck because you know next session, you won’t have the votes,” objected Rep. Brandon Dillon (D-Grand Rapids). “This is an outrage.”

It was indeed, in all kinds of ways. Police, who along with firefighters are exempted from RTW initially claimed that the building was over capacity but later changed their story to claim that there were safety concerns over fears that the crowd would become “unruly.” Peaceful protestors – also known as citizens and taxpayers — were arrested and maced during demonstrations that drew thousands on December 6, the day the legislature took up the bills.

I thought it would seem obvious to any thinking person that when people living off the fat of the state payroll abuse their positions in ways that threaten people’s livelihoods and economic well-being, said people are likely to get pretty righteously pissed off.

As egregious and anti-democratic as this whole fiasco was, what is even worse is that the sponsors of the bills made sure to include an appropriations provision in order to make them referendum-proof and therefore repeal-proof. Lame-duck session. No public hearings. No chance for referendum.

According to the Lansing State Journal:

Republicans, who are ushering right to work through the Legislature during the lame-duck session, said the appropriation is nothing unusual.Democrats and union leaders say it’s a political tactic aimed at minimizing dissent on the controversial legislation.

Each of the right-to-work bills includes language to give the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs $1 million for this fiscal year. According to the bills, the funding would be earmarked for administrative costs associated with implementing and enforcing right to work and educating the public about the labor law. (My emphasis.)

That’s right: A million dollars in each bill.  Two million dollars for “administrative costs associated with implementing and enforcing right to work and educating the public about the labor law.” That’s two million dollars of the taxpayers’ money to spend on promoting highly unpopular legislation signed into law by an increasingly unpopular governor. Two million dollars that won’t be going to improve Michigan’s badly deteriorating infrastructures, or to bolster education, or to createjobs. Apparently, Michigan can afford to spend $2 million on “right-to-work” propaganda on behalf of the deep pockets who bought and paid for these bills in the first place by buying themselves a state legislature. Of course they can afford to pay for the propaganda themselves. It’s not like they haven’t done it before. But why should they, when they can mooch off the rest of us?

Thousands of protestors returned to Lansing on December 11, the day the governor was expected to sign the bills into law. The crowd included a lot of faculty and staff from my university. We have long been a strong union campus with seven employee bargaining units in all, including local chapters of the American Association of University Professors, AFSCME, and two affiliates of the American Federation of Teachers representing part-time faculty and graduate teaching assistants. And alongside instructional staff were landscape workers, maintenance workers, technicians of all stripes, food-service workers, and custodial workers.

RTW_protest

We joined thousands of friends, colleagues, and neighbors. We marched alongside nurses, auto workers, K-12 teachers, electricians, construction workers. The UAW was there, and so were the Teamsters, the United Farm Workers, and the United Food and Commercial Workers, the Service Workers International, the Building and Trades Council, and many others. Thousands of us marched in Lansing on that frigid, windy December day. Thousands more phoned and emailed the governor to try to get him to listen to reason, to implore him not to sign the bills.

Like many others that day, I was taking pictures with my phone and posting updates to Facebook:

Cops in riot gear seem to want us out of here. This is our house!
2:29 p.m. on December 11, 2012.

Gov. hasn’t signed anything yet acc to Capitol staff. Call him now and tell him to veto the RTW bills!
3:01 p.m. on December 11, 2012.

Some time later, a friend posted this comment on my thread:

I don’t know where you were. They gassed and arrested a bunch of people outside the Romney building…totally unprovoked. I was right there.
4:52 p.m. on December 11, 2012.

And finally, I posted my last update of the day:

Damn him. He signed the bills. Damn him.
6:01 p.m. on December 11, 2012.

Gov. Snyder had previously said on numerous occasions that RTW “wasn’t a priority” because he felt (rightly) that it was “too divisive an issue in difficult economic times.” As recently as September 2012, he said that RTW “is not on my agenda.” When he pledged to sign the lame-duck bills, the Detroit Free Press called him out in a scathing and right-on-the-money editorial, under the headline “A Failure of Leadership: Snyder’s About-Face on Right-to-Work Betrays Voters”:

Two years ago, a newly elected Rick Snyder told the Free Press editorial board he was determined to be a new kind of governor — a pragmatist focused like a laser on initiatives that promised to raise standards of living for all Michiganders.And until last week, we believed him.

[…]

Watching Snyder explain his right-to-work reversal was disturbing on several levels.

His insistence that the legislation was designed to promote the interests of unionized workers and “bring Michiganders together” was grotesquely disingenuous; even as he spoke, security personnel were locking down the capital in anticipation of protests by angry unionists.

Snyder’s ostensible rationale for embracing right-to-work legislation — it was, he insisted, a matter of preserving workers’ freedom of association — was equally dishonest.

The real motive of Michigan’s right-to-work champions, as former GOP legislator Bill Ballenger ruefully observed, is “pure greed” — the determination to emasculate, once and for all, the Democratic Party’s most reliable source of financial and organizational support.

[…]

Snyder’s closest brush with candor came when he suggested that his endorsement of right-to-work was less than voluntary — a decision “that was on the table whether I wanted it to be on the table or not.”

But that is less an excuse than a confession that Michigan’s governor has abdicated his leadership responsibilities to Republican legislators bent on vengeance.

On MSNBC the evening of December 11, Sen. Gretchen Whitmer (D-Lansing) spoke for a lot of us in the Great Lakes state:

“It is absolutely repulsive,” said Whitmer, “that this governor is such a coward he had to announce it from behind locked doors, cut off debate, lock people out of the capitol, and now he`s signed it behind a wall of armed police officers. You know why he`s doing that? Because he knows the public disagrees on this one and he is dead wrong.”

That was then.

And now 90 days have passed, and RTW is now the law in Michigan.

A lot of my colleagues are asking what RTW is going to mean for us. Our current contract expires on September 6, 2014, and on that day, the board-appointed faculty at Western Michigan University will after 38 years no longer have an agency shop. The other unions on our campus will lose their agency-shop status as their contracts expire over the next three years.

I don’t have good answers to their questions yet. I don’t know that anyone does. Lawyers and labor experts have yet to figure out what all this is eventually going to mean for workers in Michigan and beyond. But the outlook isn’t good.

In the meantime, lawsuits have been filed and the fight goes on.

I am going to stop writing now, even though I still have not said what I came here to say, even though by now it was yesterday morning when I woke up in a “right-to-work” state.

I came here to write about RTW in the specific context of the destructive legislative manipulationinterference, and flat-out blackmail now being visited upon public universities in this state.

I came to write about the constitutional right of these universities to institutional autonomy, vested in our boards of trustees, and how the state constitution is being subverted by those who are sworn to uphold it.

I came to write about the pettiness and the hypocrisy and the thoughtless and mean-spirited actions of people whose abuses of power threaten the economic survival of the people of this state.

I came here to write about how 2014 starts now, and how we can’t let these bastards destroy everything that the people who came before us risked their lives for and what they won for all of us.

I came here to write about how we have to stand up to these control-freak bullies and how we must stand up alongside the brave people who are fighting hard to do what’s right.

I came here to write about how we need to get to work on doing everything we can to dismantle a corrupt system that has made it possible for ignorant, thoughtless assholes to run this magnificent state into the ground, all the while enjoying seats in the legislature that are safe until the sun goes supernova, in a state that is gerrymandered to within inches of its life, bankrolled by heartless assholes who don’t give a damn about anyone but themselves.

I will come back and say all of those things and a lot more very soon. But tonight I am just too sad.

University of I’ve-Got-Mine

In a recent post, I set out to discuss a proposal by the University of Chicago economist Luigi Zingales that advocated equity financing of higher education, which he outlined in a June 2012 New York Times op-ed, but reconsidered that project when I realized that Zingales’s political connections, including his close association with GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, made for a more interesting story, especially in light of the author’s coyness with respect to his political motivations, about which the Times article and accompanying author bio are silent. In making his pitch for equity funding of higher education, he presents himself strictly as a professor and an economist, situating his authority and credibility on the topic entirely in that context. He is of course a professor of economics, but there is no question that his position is also very much informed by his political affiliations, which he does not disclose. As my own position is also political, I have no objection to hearing out the positions of others who come to their beliefs by way of their politics, including when theirs are different from mine. But I think it is important to be forthright about political orientation and values if we intend a healthy debate, and Zingales was not at all forthright in those respects in his presentation to readers.

In this post, I revisit the op-ed, but not because I think his idea deserves to be taken seriously. It doesn’t. Zingales has established precisely zero credibility for one of his central claims, in which he attributes the decreasing affordability of higher education to “crony capitalism,” which he further claims enriches professors at the expense of “everyone else.” As I discussed previously, his unwillingness or inability to acknowledge that the overwhelming majority of professors in the U.S. are not pulling down anywhere near as much bank as he is seems disingenuous. As I also observed, his credibility is further challenged by an impressive tolerance for cognitive dissonance that enables him to give bestie Paul Ryan and his family a pass despite their extensive record of self-enrichment via federal generosity, which I guess is somehow not “crony capitalism” but rather just good old-fashioned free-market capitalism the way God intended.

Rather, I have reconsidered because that op-ed was read and taken seriously by a lot of people, meaning that it has become part of the mainstream of public discourse on the very real problem of college affordability for American students, and especially because it is a fine example of what is so incredibly wrong with the assumptions that inform a lot of that discourse.

Zingales proposes that “Investors could finance students’ education with equity rather than debt. In exchange for their capital, the investors would receive a fraction of a student’s future income — or, even better, a fraction of the increase in her income that derives from college attendance.” According to the author, “Equity contracts would diversify the risk of failure, with highly compensated superstars helping to finance the educations of less successful college graduates,” although it is not at all clear how that would work.

He further claims that the contracts will somehow “avoid pushing graduates into lucrative jobs just to pay off debt,” which sounds great in theory, but I don’t think it could possibly be true in practice. I don’t see how such an arrangement wouldn’t push graduates toward “lucrative jobs,” including by initially pushing them towards undergraduate majors that are considered more likely to lead to such jobs. I doubt Dr. Zingales is naive enough to believe otherwise, and since he provides no evidence to support his claim, I suspect that he is being disingenuous, especially when he adds this part:

Most important, these contracts would provide financiers with an incentive to counsel students wisely, as financiers would profit from good educational investments and lose from bad onesThis would create more informed demand for the schools, exerting pressure on them to contain costs and improve quality.

Leaving aside for now the suggestion that improved quality is somehow a logical result to expect from budget cuts, I am wondering what “good educational investments” that would result in “profit” for the “financiers” might look like. The specifics are left to our collective imagination. But the focus of media attention to the topic suggests that the operative definition of a good educational investment is one that maximizes future earnings in relation to tuition investment, on the assumption that a good investment is definable in exclusively economic — and exclusively individual — terms.

One influential study of “return on investment” (ROI) conducted by PayScale (a company that collects and analyzes salary and other career-related data) ranked 853 U.S. colleges and universities according to the extent to which “what you pay to attend” is worth “what you get back in lifetime earnings.” You probably won’t be surprised to find that of the top 20 schools with the highest ROIs, all but two are private, six are Ivies, and the total tuition at all but three tops $200K. Apparently even that astronomical tuition investment is totally worth it because of the “projected net return on investment” over 30 years: $800K for the #20 college on the list (Rensselaer Polytechnic) and over $1M for the institutions ranked 1-9.

Thankfully, as of course we all know, the playing field for admission even to elite universities is completely level, and so there is no object whatsoever for any student who would like to attend a high-ROI institution. (Alevei![1]

There is also the role of undergraduate major in calculating ROI. U.S. News recommends “College Majors with the Best Return on Investment,” and Fortune reveals “The 15 College Majors with the Biggest Payoffs.” Kiplinger offers a helpful list of the “Worst College Majors for Your Career” and Time outlines the “20 Best- and Worst-Paid College Majors.” The “best ROI” majors include (pre-)medicine, engineering (looks like any kind will do), economics, finance, or anything that leads to a career in the pharmaceutical industry. Selecting one of these financially promising majors, according one expert, will justify going to a more expensive school” because “there’s more job opportunities” and these jobs “pay better.”

So, is majoring in philosophy (Kiplinger‘s 4th “worst major”) at Stanford (4th highest institutional ROI) a good educational investment or a bad one? Can a high-ROI school compensate for a low-ROI major, or vice versa? Is it still a good investment to pursue a high-ROI major, like electrical engineering (5th “best major”), even if it’s at a low-ROI institution?

And which is the better investment: $200K in tuition for an anthropology major (#1 “worst major”) at a high-ROI institution or at a lower-ROI university at half or even a third of the cost? Will equity financiers want to invest in anthropology majors at all? Might their “wise counsel” include discouraging students from pursuing low-ROI majors? Should anthropology and all other low-ROI majors then be reserved exclusively for those students who can pay their own way?

Will financiers support students who want to attend higher-cost high-ROI institutions if they pursue low-ROI majors? Will they support students at low-ROI colleges at all? Is a low-ROI major and/or attendance at a low-ROI institution a bad investment? Is it a better investment not to go to school at all?

Zingales doesn’t address these issues, not a surprise since he never even gets around to defining “good educational investments” beyond announcing that “financiers would profit” from them and “lose from bad ones.” But it does seem like a free-market guy like him would be totally down with the ROI-rankings game. By the way, his own institution offers “far above median” faculty salaries and enjoys considerable renown, despite its less-than-stellar institutional ROI ranking (#78).

And while Zingales offers no evidence for his claim that somehow equity financing will “avoid pushing graduates into lucrative jobs just to pay off debt,” the framing of his proposal in relation to the investor’s incentive for profit suggests that in the system he envisions, the “wise counsel” of the “financiers who would profit from good educational investments” may well steer students toward high-ROI majors if not compel high-ROI major selection as a condition of funding.

I would love for this to be nothing more than some slippery-slope paranoia on my part, but I don’t think it is. For one thing, there is just no evidence that Zingales’s formulation assumes any kind of educational or cultural value beyond the individual ROI model for the student and “profit” for the “financier.” For another, the ubiquity of ROI as the central assumption of recent public discourse on the topic of the value of higher education suggests that it is not. And for yet another, programs that tie eligibility to very specific kinds of “educational investments” are already part of the discussion. For example, the Amazon Career Choice Program for warehouse employees of the behemoth online bookseller (and everything-else seller) is, according to its FAQ page, “unlike traditional tuition reimbursement programs” in that they “exclusively fund education only in areas that are well-paying and in high demand.” (Those are my italics, but it was not my idea to use “exclusively” and “only” redundantly. Thanks to my low-ROI undergraduate major, today I can easily recognize such graceless syntactic constructions, and the satisfaction I take in doing so is what they pay me with instead of money.)

But none of this quite gets at the real problems with the discourse in general and the Zingales proposal in particular, one of which is this: There is no cultural consensus that students will make the best educational decisions when they base those decisions primarily (if not solely) on the basis of expected individual financial ROI. Should we accept that assumption as a logical guiding principle for any serious discussion of higher education? The case has not been made convincingly or really at all that this kind of thinking is the wisest course for our society, and I have a pretty strong suspicion that it is not. [2]

And speaking of unconvincing arguments, Zingales insists that despite how all this looks, what he is advocating “is not a modern form of indentured servitude.” In his pre-emptive defense against the charge, which he is right to anticipate, he reveals another problematic ideological stance that has gone mostly (but not entirely) unchallenged in the wider public debate of whether college is “worth it.” Zingales says that what he is proposing is not indentured servitude but rather

a voluntary form of taxation, one that would make only the beneficiaries of a college education — not all taxpayers — pay for the costs of it.

I could not agree more that the beneficiaries of a college education should absolutely be paying for it. Where Zingales and I disagree is in our respective understandings of who the beneficiaries really are.

The problem is not that we have a system in which those who are not “the beneficiaries” of higher education are somehow the ones paying for it. The problem is that too many of the beneficiaries are not paying anywhere near enough for it, too many of them resent what little they do pay, and too many of them would like to pay even less.

This is at least in part because a lot of people honestly don’t see themselves as beneficiaries of the education of other people, which I have to agree is a logical conclusion in the context of the dominant ideology that informs popular opinion on the topic of higher ed, which is (say it with me) that it is all about individual financial ROI. In that context, why would people see themselves as beneficiaries of any education but their own?

But they are. We all are. That a whole lot more people benefit from the education of a single individual than merely the individual and that these benefits are cumulative and span generations is indisputable. We are incredibly fortunate to live in a mostly safe, mostly civilized, and relatively prosperous society with extraordinary rights and resources that are foundational for anyone who wants to build anything. That Americans have achieved so much that is truly extraordinary — think moon-landing extraordinary, Internet extraordinary — is a direct result of the high cultural value that we the people have placed on education in general and higher education in particular, in which we have invested accordingly. In this sense, and I want to make clear that I think this is the sense that matters most, higher education is not merely or even primarily an investment in an individual.

But somehow the idea that it is has become a powerful cultural assumption. Yes, the individual benefit of a college education is undeniable, but it makes no sense to assume (or to try to dictate) that it is valuable only in terms of the financial return to the individual (and to the “financier” who pays for it). What an incredibly cynical, short-sighted, and unimaginative view that is.

Imagine what our society might look like if Americans had always thought that way. Imagine a United States with no G.I. bill, no Claiborne Pell, no cultural tradition of education as a public good. How many valuable advances and innovations in the sciences, technology, medicine, and yes, the arts and the humanities, would never have happened if only affluent people could access a quality university education, if the only higher education open to most Americans was training to be good little worker bees in jobs that are some billionaire’s idea of what is best for us?

The debt that a student takes on is all too individual, but the benefit of that individual’s education is collective. And until we can find a better way to make higher education more affordable and more accessible, we ought to be working harder to support individuals for whom student loans are the only option, even the ones who don’t opt for high-ROI majors and those for whom high-ROI institutions are out of reach. Students who choose alternatives to financial self-enrichment, who choose to pursue work in areas that make life worth living not only for themselves but also for others — and that includes pre-school teachersartistsanthropologists, and philosophers, as well as doctors and engineers — are good educational investments even if “financiers” don’t ever recoup a dime of “profit” off them.

I guess it’s easy to blame the student debt crisis on college students and graduates and professors and administrators, or to propose a funding scheme like Zingales’s that does nothing to address the real causes of increasing college unaffordability, starting with the national disgrace that is the systematic public divestment from state universities. I guess that’s easier than taking on the devastating consequences of student-loan debt on individuals and on the U.S. economy in any meaningful way.

It is hard not to be discouraged at the moment, especially given the possibility that the nation might elect a smirking, dishonest presidential candidate whose idea of fiscal responsibility is disparaging poor people and stashing millions in overseas accounts to avoid paying his taxes. And never mind his equally dishonest, free-marketeer, I-built-that running mate, whose own accumulation of wealth via government subsidies entitles him to a description so many times stronger than hypocrite that even this low-ROI English major can’t think of one that rises to the occasion.

But I hope that the cynical ideology that an educational investment is (and ought to be) an individual thing, that the point of education is an exclusively individual benefit, that the benefit can only be measured as a return on investment that can be counted only in dollars, and that any notion of a “greater good” is socialism and therefore bad does not discourage and even prevent people from pursuing educational goals that aren’t an obvious fast track to generating big revenue for themselves (and “profit” for their “financiers”). The last thing we need in this country is to continue to celebrate and reward the ideology of greed that has gotten us into so many of the messes that we are collectively in today. If we allow that ideology to continue to define our education policy, it is not going to be a win for most of us.


Notes:

[1] Of course it is not at all clear that factors that have nothing to do with quality of education, such as the socioeconomic privilege and social advantages that many high-institutional-ROI students and alumni enjoy, can be ruled out as significant influences on a high-ranking institution’s ROI. That is, such a return may not be a function of the institution itself but rather reflective of the relative privilege of the students most likely to be admitted. On a related note, see Thomas Edsall’s March 2012 New York Times article “The Reproduction of Privilege,” which  identifies “anti-democratic trends” in the admissions policies of the “most competitive” colleges, many of which are of course also high-ROI institutions.

[2] And don’t even get me started on how all this institutional ROI business does absolutely nothing to address the highly problematic role of elite colleges and universities in perpetuating social inequality. In discussions of ROI, that function goes completely unremarked even though it a key feature of what makes a high-ROI institution such a “good educational investment” in the first place. These institutions actually exacerbate the class divide, as Thomas Edsall observes in “The Reproduction of Privilege,” cited in Note 1 and linked again here.

The Companies They Keep

On Crony Capitalism, Partisan Hackery, and Higher Education

The economist Luigi Zingales published an interesting op-ed in the New York Times on June 13 titled “The College Graduate as Collateral,” in which he proposes a financial aid program in which venture capitalists would finance college attendance for students who can’t afford to pay for it themselves. “In exchange for their capital,” Zingales writes, “the investors would receive a fraction of a student’s future income,” which would be collected on behalf of the investor by the IRS. After my initial reaction (i.e. what could possibly go wrong? ), I decided to give what he’s suggesting a little more consideration because heaven knows we need some creative alternatives ASAP for helping non-affluent students pay for college without the risk of indebting themselves (and/or their loved ones) for the rest of their lives.

Zingales, the Robert C. McCormack Professor of Entrepreneurship and Finance and David G. Booth Faculty Fellow at the University of Chicago, is critical of the “crony capitalism” that he (rightly) sees as driving the U.S. economy into the ground and threatening democracy in this country in the process. In June, he published a new book on that topic, A Capitalism for the People: Recapturing the Lost Genius of American Prosperity (Basic Books, 2012). The equity-financing idea he discusses in the op-ed as a means for paying for college is explored in greater detail in the book. (Reviews here and here. Fairly generous preview here.)

Time out here to say that what I initially planned as no more than a minor digression at this stage of the post, which was going to be about the ways that we as a society fund and value higher education, ended up as a total derail. In my defense, there is no question in my mind that really all this stuff is ultimately about the same kind of thing.

Anyway, when I saw that A Capitalism for the People, a book whose central argument is (as Zingales puts it in an interview with the Independent) that “Entrenched big business interests are taking the country over, while lobbyists and political insiders make millions from their personal connections to an ever-expanding federal government,” has been endorsed by 2012 Republican vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan, well, it just turned out to be the kind of information that I could not possibly deal with in the brief aside I had initially planned for it.

Ryan’s endorsement of A Capitalism for the People is interesting on oh so many levels. For one thing, just in case anyone had any question about it, the endorsement answers unequivocally that Ryan is in fact a man for whom irony, if it is not completely dead, is in a deep, deep coma or at the very least an ongoing drunken stupor. It would be a cliché to say that Ryan invented crony capitalism — for one thing, he’s a young guy and it has been around for a long time — but his activities as a member of Congress suggest that he is certainly an enthusiastic and capable student of the genre. And the guy on whom he has recently staked his own fortune (Oh, not literally, of course, ha ha. You can rest assured that he’ll keep making tons of money no matter what happens in November) is no slouch, either. They are a wonderful team for representing a party whose astonishing hypocrisy has yet to find anything close to its bounds.

Here is Ryan’s blurb for the book:

In A Capitalism for the People, Luigi Zingales exposes the pernicious collusion of big business and big government — offering the sharp analytical perspective of a world-renowned economist and the unique personal perspective of an immigrant living the American Dream. This must-read for policymakers and citizens alike serves as a lucid call to action for rediscovering what makes America exceptional. Oh, wait, did Luigi say something else besides ‘an ever-expanding federal government’? Sorry, I was busy trying to destroy Medicare as we know it. LOL!

OK, I added that last part.

But seriously, don’t let the Paul Ryan Stamp of Approval stop you from checking out A Capitalism for the People. Might as well know what we’re dealing with here, although I can definitely empathize with any reluctance you might be feeling if your mother raised you as mine did, i.e. to understand the extent to which we are all judged by the company we keep.

Anyway, I have heard that Ryan actually does read (which as we all know is not a prerequisite for the job of vice presidential candidate), so he might actually have read A Capitalism for the People. If he did, my hat is off to whatever mad skillz he would have had to muster in order to negotiate like the champ he is the cognitive dissonance that any normal human being in his position would experience in response to an actual critique of crony capitalism. It’s probably a lot easier if you think of “crony capitalism” as something that people like Barack Obama engage in. (Republicans, by contrast, create synergies in smart public-private partnerships. See the difference? You’re welcome.)

But back to Zingales. After reading few of his articles in the mainstream press in addition to the Times piece, I decided to hear him out on his idea for equity financing of higher ed. While my survey of his work is far from exhaustive, on the basis of what I read, I figured I would let him slide and give him the benefit of the doubt and not immediately write him off as one of those “let ’em eat indentured servitude” types who can’t wait to dismantle the public funding of higher education or public education in general or public everything else or all of the above. But his association with Paul Ryan is obviously troubling, as is his affiliation with the Manhattan Institute, the conservative think tank that published A Capitalism for the People and for which Zingales serves as a contributing editor for the Institute’s City Journal (alongside such luminaries as the former New York Times reporter and Iraq war propagandist Judith “the aspens are turning” Miller). The Manhattan Institute even has its very own Center for the American University (CAU), so they can concentrate on this kind of thing full time. And just today, the CAU proclaimed that “Ryan’s Plan Is Good for Higher Ed,” which might give you an idea of where they’re coming from.

Which brings us to the June 2011 article that Zingales published in the City Journal, “The GOP’s Strongest Candidate,” which concludes thusly:

Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan says that he’s not running, and I assume he means it, but the GOP clearly needs a candidate more like Ryan than like Mitt Romney, currently the party’s leading candidate and a favorite of the establishment. A candidate in Ryan’s mold, from the Jack Kemp tradition of libertarian conservatives who helped make the GOP great, would be a strong believer in free markets who is not beholden to the bailout-addicted big-business establishment. This kind of candidate, if the GOP could only find him, could win in 2012 and help get the nation’s economy back on track.

Oh, if they could only find him! But you probably see the problem here: He doesn’t exist. That’s why they can’t find him.

I will concede that Paul Ryan meets the criteria for “a candidate in Ryan’s mold,” but that’s as far as I would be willing to go. However, I would be happy to dispute any claim or even a polite suggestion that a candidate in that “mold” (and perhaps especially including Ryan himself) is somehow something other than “beholden to the bailout-addicted big-business establishment,” because come on.

What, you want evidence? OK. How about this: In another June 2011 article (published just one day after Zingales’s “Ryan, Ryan, he’s our man!” City Journal column excerpted above), Newsweek White House reporter Daniel Stone explains “Ryan’s Shrewd Budget Payday” for us:

When House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan unveiled the GOP blueprint for cutting government spending, he asked Americans to make sacrifices on everything from Medicare to education, while preserving lucrative tax subsidies for the booming oil, mining and energy industries.

This sure looks like it could be an example of beholden-ness. But no! It turns out that this part of Ryan’s proposed budget has absolutely nothing! to do with doing any favors for Big Oil. As Stone reveals, it is just about a man trying to provide for his family, like anyone would do!

It turns out a constituency within his own personal investments stood to benefit from those tax breaks, Newsweek and The Daily Beast have learned. The financial disclosure report Ryan filed with Congress last month and made public this week shows he and his wife, Janna, own stakes in four family companies that lease land in Texas and Oklahoma to the very energy companies that benefit from the tax subsidies in Ryan’s budget plan.

[….]

Aside from the land-lease income, Ryan could also personally benefit from the package of subsidies and incentives he has fought to protect. According to a report from the Joint Committee on Taxation, Ryan himself would be eligible to recover money from the government for investments the four family companies might make in such things as machines and maintenance if they didn’t pan out on the properties and failed to generate revenue.

See? He wasn’t trying to help the oil companies in any way ! So take that, haters.

(And I am sure I don’t have to point out that having his investments guaranteed by the federal government should in no way be taken as an endorsement of “big government!” By that I mean it shouldn’t be taken as an endorsement of the kind of “big government” that might help other people’s families.)

But wait. Stone has more:

Ryan’s office says the congressman wasn’t thinking about himself or the oil companies that lease his land when he drafted the budget blueprint that extended the energy tax breaks. “These are properties that Congressman Ryan married into*,” spokesman Kevin Seifert said. “It’s not something he has a lot of control over.”

(*Editor’s note : Back in the olden days, they used to call that kind of thing “sleeping your way to the top.” I mean, that’s what they would have called it if a woman did it. LOL!)

But now I’m confused. Not thinking about oil companies? Not trying to provide for his family? Who was he thinking about, then? I mean, we’re talking about a hugely expensive provision that ought to have been an easy target in a proposed budget that slashes pretty much everything else. So are we to believe that it just sort of happened, miraculously and serendipitously, without any kind of thought or planning or intent, that the oil subsidies somehow escaped becoming one of Rep. Ryan’s tough choices ?

Yes! That’s right! It is just a lucky, happy coincidence that sparing these enormous tax breaks for the oil, mining, and other energy industries (as long as they aren’t green) would just accidentally happen to result in the continuation of lucrative benefits to the budget’s author and several industries to which he is no way beholden! Alevei!

So I have to say, this all leaves me with some questions about Zingales’s judgment. And now that I have a better idea about the kinds of characters with whom he associates, it is much more clear to me why in the Times op-ed that this post was originally going to be about, he had to go and resort to a completely bogus and unoriginal party-line characterization of career academics (a group which, as he does point out, includes himself, although there is more to say about that and I will say a bunch of it below).

And who could be more credible than an actual professor when it comes to helping to disseminate the kinds of facepalminducing stereotypes of professors in which some on the right seem to delight in trafficking?

Specifically, Zingales does this by suggesting that student financial aid in the form of Pell grants (direct aid to students that does not have to be paid back) and subsidies that support federally guaranteed student loans (by keeping interest rates relatively low — although I’d like to introduce you to mine sometime — and paying the interest as it accrues on behalf of students while they are still in school) constitutes “an undue subsidy for the producers (universities)” that results in “the creation of a privileged class (professors like me) at the expense of everybody else (students and taxpayers).”

You know, because professors are exempt from federal taxes! (Wait, you didn’t know that?) And we are a completely distinct class of citizens from students because we were never students ourselves! (Pay no attention to all those diplomas we had to get in order to get hired by a university.) And we never needed financial aid! And even if we did, none of us are still paying back our student loans! And even if we are, it’s not like any of us have been paying them back for 10 years and have already paid back twice what we borrowed in the first place and still aren’t there yet!

Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, Zingales and that “privileged class” of professors.

In the AAUP’s 2012 survey of faculty salaries at 1,251 U.S. colleges and universities, Zingales’s employer, the University of Chicago, ties with Columbia University for the #2 spot in the rankings of Average Faculty Salaries by institution for 2011-12. (Harvard edged ’em out for the #1 spot by just $600 at the full-professor rank. That’s gotta hurt.) The AAUP reports the average salary for full professors (Zingales’s rank) at Chicago as $197,800, which if you have ever met any professors, you probably will not be surprised to learn (or maybe you will be, I don’t know anymore) is enough to earn Chicago the enviable designation of “far above median,” reserved for institutions whose faculty salaries are in the 99th percentile nationwide.

I hope it is obvious from this that not all professors are “professors like” Zingales when it comes to their earnings and that most professors (i.e. the 99% of all U.S. professors who are not at institutions with salaries that are “far above median”) are in fact not at all like him in terms of salary or membership in the “privileged class” in which he correctly acknowledges his own position.

And let’s make it clear that I am making the case for his unique privilege among faculty members in the U.S. solely on the basis of the published median at his rank at Chicago, meaning that I am not factoring in the additional earnings that Zingales enjoys as compensation for his professional activities outside the university, which also serve to differentiate him from most of the rest of us. Additionally, I am also not factoring in his status as the holder at Chicago of a named chair as well as a named fellowship (“named” indicating that these positions are funded by endowments) — as I mentioned above, he is the Robert C. McCormack Professor of Entrepreneurship and Finance and David G. Booth Faculty Fellow — which suggests that his salary is likely to be greater than the median for full professors at his institution, most of whom presumably do not hold an endowed chair or fellowship, let alone one of each.

In the AAUP analysis, faculty salaries at Western Michigan University, the very fine state university where I am a faculty member, are classified as “far below median” for all academic ranks, including mine: associate professor. Associate professor salaries at WMU are in the 18th percentile, which even an English major like I was can easily see is indeed “far below median” (We’re #339! We’re #339!) and which is of course to say that

The average associate professor at 82% of U.S. colleges and universities earns more than the average associate professor at Western Michigan University.

(I highlighted that because seriously.)

So you’ll have to forgive me for thinking that it is really something for Zingales to imply that professors in general are central to the budget problems associated with higher education (rising tuition costs, increasing student debt) because we are pulling down so much bank, which please. I mean, it is really something if that is in fact what he’s saying. His phrase — “a privileged class (professors like me)” — is ambiguous as to whether he means that most or all professors are “like” him by virtue of our simply being professors, or whether he means to designate specifically and exclusively the few who are “like” him by virtue of their high salaries (by academic standards, anyway), which are actually quite rare in a profession in which salaries are overall relatively ungenerous when you consider that an expert with a doctoral degree at the absolute top of their game and the height of their career is considered to earn “far above median” with an annual salary that doesn’t even crack $200K.

Still, within the academic world, as in most of the rest of the world, $200K is one hell of a lot of money, so if what he means is that we’re all in it with him by virtue of our simply being professors, then it’s a pretty disingenuous statement, since 99% of us will never get anywhere near the mythic “far above median” world that he enjoys. Even if he does not mean to imply that his extremely privileged situation is even remotely like the average experience of postsecondary faculty nationwide — and the AAUP numbers and I can both tell you it is not — that is a distinction that is going to be lost on a lot of his readers. (“After all,” he says, “how can we scholars criticize crony capitalism when we benefit from it?” We scholars. Even a lot of professors who aren’t far above median –professors like me are scholars.) It would be kind of adorable if so many people didn’t already believe that we’re all pulling down six figures and working maybe two hours a week and didn’t already resent the living hell out of us for it. As prolific and celebrated a writer as this guy seems to be, he could have easily avoided that kind of ambiguity if he’d wanted to.

Zingales calls higher education “the least competitive and most subsidized industry of all.” As an example of that, he notes that “Nearly eight million students received Pell grants in 2010, costing $28 billion.” He does not mention that the maximum award is $5,500 for an individual student in an academic year or that the average award in 2011-12 was $3,711. Given that tuition and fees at public universities are usually in the neighborhood of about $10,000 [1] per year for in-state students (a figure that does not include room and board, estimated at about another $10K annually by several of the schools whose cost data I consulted on this topic), the Pell grant program may be costly, but the grants don’t go very far when we’re talking about actual students. As Thomas B. Edsall recently pointed out, “In 1979-80, the maximum Pell Grant covered 99 percent of the cost of a community college, 77 percent at a public four-year college and 36 percent at a private four-year college. By 2010-11, these percentages had dropped to 62, 36 and 15 percent respectively.”

(Zingales also doesn’t mention that if his favorite not-beholden strong believer in free markets had his way, the Pell problem would be even worse, as Richard Kogan and Kelsey Merrick report in their April 2012 analysis, “President’s Budget Would Reduce Pell Grant Shortfall; Ryan Budget Would Nearly Triple It.”)

And Zingales asserts that “Just as subsidies for homeownership have increased the price of houses, so have education subsidies contributed to the soaring price of college. Between 1977 and 2009 the real average cost of university tuition more than doubled.” That sounds a lot like what I read yesterday in the Chronicle of Higher Education, which reports that “Mr. Ryan has been vocal in saying he thinks that increasing federal student aid enables institutions to continue to raise tuition.”

So, is Zingales Ryan’s point man on higher ed? You know what? I actually don’t care whether he is in any official way or not. It’s just the same old partisan hackery whether Zingales is an official campaign surrogate or not, only in this case it’s dressed up as intellectual discourse and as such it represents a less-than-transparent attempt to legitimize Ryan’s appalling budget proposal and his candidacy. No thanks.

For that reason, I decline to engage in an analysis of the relative merit of his proposal for equity financing of higher education, although my original intent was to take his proposal in good faith and engage with it accordingly. There is no question that my position on this topic is political, so I don’t have a problem with his position also being political. The difference is that I do not pretend mine isn’t. [2]

If you would like to read more on the equity-funding idea, please check out Matt Yglesias‘s far more concise take on what’s wrong with the proposition than mine would have been.

To close, I am going to turn things over to another economist, one whose judgment of character and command of the issues as they affect most Americans who are not wealthy has in my view a lot more to recommend it. Dr. Paul Krugman has this to say about Zingales’s golden boy:

Like Bush in 2000, Ryan has a completely undeserved reputation in the media as a bluff, honest guy, in Ryan’s case supplemented by a reputation as a serious policy wonk. None of this has any basis in reality; Ryan’s much-touted plan, far from being a real solution, relies crucially on stuff that is just pulled out of thin air — huge revenue increases from closing unspecified loopholes, huge spending cuts achieved in ways not mentioned.

Read Krugman’s whole article. It’s good.

To summarize: Some guys who have got theirs don’t want anyone else to have what they have. You’ll have to forgive me for getting tricked temporarily into thinking that there might actually be something new and worth talking about in Zingales’s op-ed. But no. Nothing to see here.


[1] The $10K figure is an approximation made on the basis of published tuition and fee schedules at nine state universities in various regions of the country surveyed for this post. The numbers in parentheses given for each school on the list below represent the total tuition and fees for one academic year (not including summer) and do not include costs for books and supplies, room and board, other living expenses, or any additional fees that may be required for particular majors or programs of study.

Arizona State University, Tempe ($9,724)

The University of Georgia, Athens ($9,842)

The University of Iowa, Iowa City ($8,057)

Kansas State University, Manhattan ($7,195)

The University of Maine, Orono ($10,594)

Rutgers University (NJ), New Brunswick ($13,073)

The University of South Carolina, Columbia ($10,488)

Washington State University, Pullman ($11,386)

Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo ($9,138)

[2] Here in its entirety is the information about Zingales that accompanies “The College Graduate as Collateral,” his June 13 New York Times op-ed:

Luigi Zingales, a professor of entrepreneurship and finance at the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago, is the author of “A Capitalism for the People: Recapturing the Lost Genius of American Prosperity.”