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 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.

Confessions of a Job-Creator

I am a public-sector employee, a professor at a state university, a member of a labor union. The work I do has been described by a presidential candidate as “indoctrination.” I subscribe to the New York Times, I’m a member of the ACLU, I support my NPR member station, and I drive a foreign car. I supported President Obama’s campaign in 2008 after voting proudly for Hillary Clinton in the primary, and I am supporting him again this year.

In other words, some people think I represent a lot of what is wrong with this country.

But here is something they don’t know about me:

I am a job creator.

Some people think they know some things about us job creators. The guy whose job it is supposed to be to represent me in the U.S. House of Representatives, Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), who has of course been featured before on these pages, thinks he knows some things about us job creators. He sent me an email the other day, like he likes to do sometimes, to make sure I didn’t miss his latest op-ed, which ran August 30 in his favorite small-town, low-circulation weekly, which apparently lets him publish whatever disingenuous propaganda he thinks his corporate overlords might want to read. The title of his latest is “Survey Highlights Top Concerns of U.S. Job Creators,” and you can read it in its entirety here.

For openers, Rep. Upton observes that “small business owners continue to lead the way for our economic recovery here in Michigan and throughout the United States.” He adds that “They not only embody the entrepreneurial spirit of our free market economy, but play a vitally important role when it comes to job creation, innovation, and local growth.”

It’s true. The stopped clock is right this time. Not to worry, though. It doesn’t last. The rest of the column is more of the usual BS we have come to expect from Rep. Upton, God love him. His response to concerns about energy costs cited by the “job creators” in the survey is to go on about some ditch-digging jobs that he says will save the U.S. economy. He addresses concerns about healthcare costs by announcing that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) hurts small businesses because it “does nothing to actually address the cost side of the equation.”

You’d think a member of Congress who spends so much time obsessing about health care in general and the ACA in particular would be aware of factual information about legislation that passed his chamber while he was in office, such as that the ACA contains no requirement that actual small businesses (as in the kind with 50 or fewer employees) provide insurance for their employees, that it includes no penalty for those who decline to do so, and that it actually offers incentives in the form of tax credits for small businesses who opt (yes opt, as in do something voluntarily) to provide coverage for their employees. You’d think Rep. Upton would know about that. [1]

And you are probably as surprised as I am to learn that the generous flow of profits to the job-creating healthcare industry, i.e. the “cost side of the equation,” which as Rep. Upton rightly notes, the ACA unfortunately does little to correct, is somehow not something that he can get behind. As Richard S. Levick put it in an article in Fast Company in July, “5 Ways Insurers Can Position Themselves To Win Under The ACA“:

It’s not every day that an industry has as many as 46 million new customers delivered to its doorstep. But when the U.S. Supreme Court voted 5-4 to uphold the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and the controversial individual mandate last week, that’s precisely what happened for health insurance companies across the country.

Somehow this is not good enough for Rep. Upton, whose congressional career functions effectively as a wholly owned subsidiary of the industry?

OK, I exaggerate. “Wholly owned” probably isn’t fair. I mean, it isn’t fair to the oil and gaselectric utilities, and mining industries who are also major stakeholders in the Upton enterprise.

But we were talking about job creators, weren’t we? All right. Here’s my story:

In 2007, I invested $23,000 in a small-business start-up. That was all the money I had in the world. It was actually more than all the money I had in the world, because $15,000 of it was a cash advance I took out on my Visa card, which because it was 2007 I could do at a rate of 3.9%. The business was an automotive repair shop that Mr. Alevei was starting. He would run the business and fix the cars. I would keep my day job, help with the books, and do some web design. There was no question in my mind but that this would be a good investment. (Spoiler alert: It has been.)

Once Mr. Alevei decided to go for it, we got to work on researching and writing his business plan, looking for a location for what would be his new shop, and trying to figure out how we were going to pay for everything that needed to happen to get him up and running. Writing the business plan was a project that turned out to be an excellent fit for many of the skills I have acquired over the years, not in business but in academia. A business plan is like scholarly research. It makes an argument and supports it with evidence. It requires a ton of research and a compelling narrative. Basic English-major stuff. It has to make the case to lenders and other potential investors that the proposed business will be a solid investment.

In order to make our case, we had to conduct a market analysis, develop viable sales and marketing strategies, articulate both a mission and a vision (not the same thing, it turns out), analyze our position in relation to the shops and dealerships who would be our competitors, develop and articulate a brand identity, and of course spell out our projected start-up costs, operating costs, and revenue assumptions, all of which then had to be connected to the overall market and presented – and justified – in excruciating and itemized detail. Our start-up costs included things like capital purchases (the equipment and supplies Mr. Alevei would need to start working on cars initially and projections for additional capital investments over time), real estate costs, insurance, permits and inspections, and personnel, although at the beginning it was just Mr. Alevei on the clock something like 80 hours a week and me making a hash of the books on Saturdays.

I handled a lot of the research and analysis and wrote the narrative. Mr. Alevei created the spreadsheets that outlined our cost and revenue assumptions and projections, producing multiple versions that explored and applied several possible cost and revenue permutations and contingencies and made predictions about cashflow and about profit and loss through the first twelve months. He drew up balance sheets and we prepared personal financial statements. We estimated labor costs, average sales, profit margins for parts, taxes and fees. I was happier to be finished with the business plan than I was when I finished my doctoral dissertation five years earlier.

In other words, we totally built that.

And in the process, we were very fortunate to have access to quite a few publicly funded resources, including our local library, which offers seminars and mentoring opportunities for people interested in starting new businesses and also has a large collection of relevant books and other media. Mr. Alevei took a course on business planning and was in every way the brains behind our many spreadsheets. We met with a mentor from SCORE, a nonprofit association funded by the Small Business Administration to support entrepreneurship. On a completely volunteer basis, our SCORE mentor took the time read our business plan and give us feedback.

Our biggest break of all came in the summer of 2007, when Mr. Alevei called the Michigan Small Business and Technology Development Center (MI-SBTDC), which is also supported by federal (SBA) funding to help new and growing businesses. The MI-SBTDC set us up with a mentor, although guardian angel might be a better description. Our mentor provided numerous hours of hands-on support, including extensive assistance as Mr. Alevei wrangled with those spreadsheets, as well as moral support, helping to keep our spirits up during some difficult times, such as when we were worried that we would not get financing, could not find an appropriate and affordable location for the shop, did not see how we were ever going to be able to make it happen. That mentor has become a dear and beloved friend, and he is still an invaluable source of knowledge and support to Mr. Alevei. All the services and support he provided to us were available at zero cost to us.

So yeah, we built it. But we did not do it by ourselves. We couldn’t have.

Mr. Alevei opened his shop on November 1, 2007. We are really looking forward to celebrating his five years in business two months from now. I could not be more proud of Mr. Alevei, who over the past five years has worked until 2 a.m. more times than I can count, sometimes coming home and sleeping only three hours before getting up to do it all over again. He deserves all the credit for the thriving and still-growing business he has built. No one could have worked harder or been smarter, more resourceful, or more determined. And today, in addition to himself, he also employs two full-time technicians, a full-time service manager, a part-time accountant, and a part-time support staffer.

Mr. Alevei created those jobs. And as he would be the first to agree, so did I.

Yes, my $23,000 investment in the company is part of it (an investment that has been paid back in full, by the way), and my work on that excruciating business plan is too. And yes, there was also the labor I contributed for the first six months, when I kept the books. Sure, I did this work badly, but I would point out here that (a.) I did it badly for free, and (b.) sucking at it made the it even more difficult and unpleasant. (On the plus side, the experience was heartening for me in its clear affirmation of my decision at age 18 not to major in accounting.)

But here’s the part they really don’t teach you in school or anywhere else when you’re trying to start a business (and I mean the kind business that requires significant outlays of capital, the kind that really does create jobs): Even if you are ridiculously fortunate and your business does well right out of the gate (alevei!), it is still almost certainly going to take some time before it generates enough profit for you to take home a paycheck at all, let alone before you can take home a paycheck that’s anywhere near enough to live on. So if you don’t have a lot of savings that you can live on and that somehow does not have to go into the business, or if you can’t get the kind of business loan and line of credit (which Mr. Alevei and I can tell you can be very hard to get at start-up) that makes it possible for you to survive for as long as it takes for the business to establish itself and start earning you a living, you’re going to be looking at the possibility of some very hard times. [2]

And so it is the case that sometimes even businesses that are doing OK, even businesses that are doing well, don’t make it. They don’t make it for no other reason than that their owners aren’t making it. It’s not because they aren’t working hard enough and it doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t doing it right. But if an individual’s livelihood or a family’s livelihood has to be staked entirely on the business, it is going to be very, very difficult for the individual or the family to buy itself the time that any new business is going to need to start making a living for anyone.

And that’s where this New York Times-subscribing, NPR-listening, Hillary Clinton-loving, foreign-car-driving, Obama-supporting, state employee public sector union professor comes in.

Because it was my paycheck (the one some people don’t think I deserve) and my health insurance (which some people criticize as overly generous) that made it possible for my family to keep a roof over our heads, food on our table, and clothes on our backs (not to mention keeping the student-loan kneecap-busting brigade away from our door while I kept up the outrageous monthly payments that will add up to triple what I borrowed before it’s all over).

It was my paycheck – my below-market state employee’s paycheck – that bought the shop the time it needed, bought Mr. Alevei and me the time we needed so that he could have the chance to put everything he had into making his business the success it is today. There is simply no way that we could have survived long enough without my paycheck for the shop to succeed and to create those five good-paying, secure jobs that did not exist in 2007. And even with this level of success, I still could not possibly consider quitting my day job any time soon.

So let’s hear it for the job-creators, all of them, not just those lucky few who are well connected and/or amply capitalized and/or create jobs only if they absolutely have to and/or don’t actually create any jobs, not just the “job creators” who really do seem to believe that they built that all by themselves.

And anyone who thinks that state employees are a drain on the system, that we don’t deserve the middle-class existence we are fortunate to enjoy (for the time being, anyway), that our belowmarket salaries are still somehow a bad investment of public funds should know this: The percentage of state university budgets that actually comes from state appropriations is at an all-time low nationwide as state legislatures increasingly divert public money away from public education.

So, not only did I work my ass off for those (semi-)state-funded paychecks in a demanding full-time job that I am actually pretty damn good at, but the contributions to actual, tangible job creation that this public-sector union-member has made have not depended on any government grants or loans or contracts. This is in contrast to every single “I built that” bullshit artist who took the stage at the Republican National Convention last week to support Mitt Romney‘s campaign and proclaim their self-righteous, rugged-individualist, free-market, all-by-myself bootstrap delusions to anyone delusional enough to fall for them.

Rep. Upton concludes his op-ed thusly:

A responsible general would never lead an army into battle without the weapons and resources needed for victory.  In the fight for our economic recovery, we can no less give our employers the certainty and resources they need to succeed.

I wonder if he is talking about “employers” like Mr. Alevei and me. But given that the federal tax rate we pay here in the Alevei household is twice the “job creator” rate that GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney says he pays, and I don’t see Rep. Upton, his party, or their presidential nominee making a case that Mr. Alevei and I deserve a big tax break or really any kind of break at all, I have to say I doubt it.


Notes:

[1] See “Employer Responsibility Under the Affordable Care Act,” an analysis and report by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. You might as well take a look at it, because there’s a good chance that your House representative hasn’t.

[2] And don’t forget that you are somehow going to have to start making the payments on those loans and lines of credit right out of the gate. And so although it left us pretty significantly undercapitalized, we ultimately decided against taking out a start-up loan or line of credit, and instead decided to make a go of it on my $15,000 cash advance, Mr. Alevei’s cashed-in 401K, and $8,000 that I inherited from my grandma, for the following reasons:

a. No bank would consider lending us less than $40,000 and most preferred to make loans larger than even that.

b. The interest rates quoted to us even during those pre-crash halcyon days of summer 2007 were astronomical – double digits. Those were the rates reserved for people like us, i.e. people without a lot of savings or family money, just starting out in business.

c. Repayment of the start-up loan would be tied to the length of our commercial property lease, which was three years.

d. The monthly payment on a $40,000 loan at 12% to be paid back within three years was more than our monthly mortgage payment. A lot more. We knew there would be no way we could possibly make those payments, living as we would be on a single paycheck.