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.

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.

Why I Will Vote YES on Prop 2

Why I Am Voting YES on Michigan’s Proposal 2
(and How I Came to My Union Consciousness)

My worlds have been colliding in some interesting ways lately. Back in August of this year, I started writing this blog (which I began cross-posting at Daily Kos in September). I have always been interested in progressive issues and social justice, an orientation that very much informs how I make my way in the world and has led me to pursue the kind of career in which I believed (and still believe) it could be possible to make a real difference in people’s lives, preferably for the better.

My day job is professor of linguistics, and my particular interests are in language variation and the history of the English language. (I write a linguistics blog on these topics called Functional Shift, although I’ve been a bit slack about keeping it up since I started writing Alevei.) Because language can be such a powerful force for good but can also be wielded in ways that can cause great harm, my approaches to research and teaching assume that linguistic justice is social justice. I will write more on that topic in a forthcoming post, because it has been on my mind even more than usual lately, but for now, I will just say that I consider all teaching and academic scholarship to be political acts in themselves, which is to say that I am aware that this is the case and acknowledge it, even though many who are engaged in academic work do not acknowledge it, and a lot of them probably don’t even realize that it is or would not admit it that it is. Of course, we are not all working from the same political orientations or toward the same ends. There is actually far more intellectual diversity in the profession than the popular stereotype of the “typical” academic as politically liberal would suggest.

Anyway, this post isn’t really about the day-to-day work of professoring, although that is definitely relevant here in a couple of ways. I started this post by saying that my worlds have been colliding in recent weeks. The epicenter of that collision is my candidacy for the vice presidency of my faculty union in an election that is now underway and that thus coincides with the “real” election coming up this week. Here in Michigan, the “real” election will include several ballot initiatives, including Proposal 2, which would amend the state constitution to add language that guarantees the right to collective bargaining.

Over the course of thinking about the upcoming presidential election, my own campaign, and Prop 2, I have had occasion to think about how I came to my union consciousness. I wrote an essay on that topic for my campaign blog, and in the process of doing that, I realized that (1.) even most of the people to whom I am closest don’t know that story, although it is central to who I am today, and (2.) perhaps more important, it might be helpful in making a case in support of Prop 2. In the latter spirit, I thought I’d share it here, with a few revisions as appropriate for the different audiences.

I am a professor at Western Michigan University (WMU), an institution that is a collective-bargaining chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). I have written previously (here and here) about the business of higher education and the financial prospects of faculty at non-elite colleges and universities, so if you are familiar with my earlier posts on that topic, you are already aware that anything that most people would consider “wealth” is pretty much out of the question for most of us here among the WMU faculty. However, we are very fortunate indeed to enjoy a solid middle-class existence and the possibility of continuing upward mobility over the course of our careers here. This good fortune is largely thanks to our union affiliation.

However, with the recent shift in public sentiment in the U.S. toward public-sector workers and unions have come stagnating wages and serious questions as to whether it will be possible for workers in Michigan, including professors like me as well as everyone else who has to work for a living, to achieve or maintain a middle-class existence in the near future. This attitudinal shift was of course engineered by well-financed union-busting politicians and their corporate sponsors, and one result is that even in traditionally worker-friendly states like Michigan, so-called “right-to-work” laws are being taken up by state legislatures. In Michigan, both our state house and senate are Republican-controlled, and we have a Republican governor.

The text of Proposal 2 states that

“No existing or future law of the State or its political subdivisions shall abridge, impair or limit” the rights of public- and private-sector workers to bargain collectively.

At a time when collective bargaining rights are far from secure, even in Michigan of all places, a state whose long stretch of prosperity through most of the 20th century is thanks largely to a strong union culture, Proposal 2 is a pre-emptive strike against passage of a right-to-work law in Michigan and against the nationwide GOP attack on unions, a product of that party’s desire for the permanent majority of Karl Rove’s dreams and of their apparent outrage at the idea that working people might actually be able to prosper in this country again someday and that upward mobility might once again be possible even for people weren’t born rich.

When I joined the faculty at Western Michigan University in 2004, I was thrilled to have landed not only a tenure-track job that was about as close to a perfect fit for me as there could be but also that this job was at a strong union campus. The fellow who was chair of my department in those days, a local legend around these parts name of Arnie Johnston, handed me a copy of the 2002-05 WMU-AAUP Agreement as we got into his car to drive to the airport at the end of my campus visit. During the drive, Arnie offered me the position here and strongly encouraged me to read the Agreement carefully as I was considering my options. I had already been offered another position that I was considering seriously, and I had been up front with Arnie about that in our phone conversations preceding my visit. In the car that day, he emphasized the advantages of a union campus.

But I did not need any convincing on that topic. That WMU is a bargaining-unit chapter of the AAUP was an extremely attractive feature of the job and a key factor in my ultimately accepting Arnie’s offer to come here. To this day, there is absolutely no question in my mind that I made the right decision by choosing WMU. There is also no question but that Arnie was 100% correct when he said that there is no comparison between working as a member of a collective-bargaining unit and working on a non-union campus. But of course Arnie was right about pretty much everything union-related: In his 42 years at WMU, he served on the contract negotiation team four times (three times as chief negotiator) and even served on the team that negotiated the very first WMU-AAUP Agreement. In other words, he knew what he was talking about.

And what Arnie said to me on a snowy February day in 2004 as we drove to the airport is just as true today. As tough as things have gotten around here lately, those of us who have worked on non-union campuses or have friends and colleagues who don’t have bargaining units on their campuses know that the situation is far more dire at non-union institutions.

A lot of us know that first hand. I came to WMU after two years in a postdoctoral fellowship at a prestigious public university in Georgia. My experience there was fantastic in many ways, but in Georgia, public university faculties often go for years without any kind of raise, a situation common to all state employees. And that was back when the national economy was considerably stronger than it is now. This was especially true in sunbelt states like Georgia in the late 1990s and early 2000s, in part because many employers were (and still are) attracted by the inexpensive, nonunion workforce (Georgia has a so-called “right-to-work” law). And that workforce is skilled and well educated. (Since 1993, college tuition has been free in Georgia to in-state students who have maintained a B average or better in high school and continue to do so in college through the Hope Scholarship program.)

Before I went back to school in 1998 to begin my doctoral work, having finished my master’s degree in 1991, I spent several years working as a research consultant for environmental and civil rights law firms, and I also taught college-level writing and literature part time, first in the Washington, D.C., area and later at several institutions in Georgia and North Carolina. I grew up in south Florida, where organized labor is far from the norm and which has had a “right-to-work” clause in the state constitution since 1944. My parents were not union members, and neither were the parents of most if not all of my friends. So the years between the completion of my master’s degree and my return to school to pursue a Ph.D. were thus critical to my developing union consciousness, especially the two years I spent in North Carolina (1996-98).

During the years I spent working as an adjunct faculty member in North Carolina, a state whose hostility to public-sector collective bargaining is not only palpable in the daily experiences of many workers there but also codified in a 1959 law that directly prohibits public-sector employees from collective bargaining, I became so frustrated with the low pay, disrespectful treatment from employers, and poor working conditions for part-time faculty that I organized a movement to demand improved wages and working conditions on the two campuses where I taught, a community college and a branch of the state university system. I also published what I thought was going to be a one-time fact sheet for about 25 or 30 part-time colleagues, with information about things like how to get cheap dental cleanings (at the community college clinic) and basic medical care (at Planned Parenthood and a local Christian charitable organization that ran a clinic and whose help we qualified for because our income levels came in well below their threshold), but it quickly grew to a monthly newsletter with a circulation of over 600 part-time and full-time faculty at community colleges and universities throughout western North Carolina.

Not only were adjunct faculty members like me exploited ridiculously in North Carolina and elsewhere (and not much has changed for the better since that time), and not only was this also at the expense of the tenure-line hires the schools weren’t making as long as they had us part-timers to do so much of the work for next to nothing, but the tenured and tenure-track faculty at the campuses where I taught were also paid well below the national averages for jobs like theirs in peer institutions, a finding which held across academic disciplines and across all academic ranks. (Interestingly, salaries for administrators at the community college were in every case considerably higher than the national averages for their jobs.)

By “exploited ridiculously,” I mean that the community college where I taught had no qualms about assigning adjunct instructors, or “part-timers,” to teach as many as five courses per academic quarter, meaning that we were “part-timers” in name only. And at a rate of pay of $976 per class per quarter, people who were trying to make a living by adjuncting (like me) had no choice but to accept all the assignments they were offered. One memorable quarter, I taught seven classes: five at the community college, with three different course preps, and two at the university (at $1620 per class). By “memorable” I mean that I was so buried the entire time that I actually remember almost nothing from that period of my life, during which I also waited tables at a local restaurant. My gross earnings that year (1997) were just over $17,000. One thing I do remember is that it was during that seven-course quarter that my grandpa died, and I returned to work after his funeral to an invoice in my campus mailbox at the community college. I was personally responsible for paying the substitute instructors who had met my classes while I was gone.

Not surprisingly, my advocacy got me into some trouble with the administrations at both institutions where I taught, and especially at the community college. The occasion that stands out the most for me was when I published a chart of administrator salaries in my newsletter. Of course this was all public information, so I thought I was actually being tactful when I decided not actually to name the individuals in print. I just listed the administrative titles. I didn’t even identify the institutions; I just labeled the data charts “representative university in North Carolina” and “representative community college,” which I thought made sense because the newsletter went to six or seven other schools besides the two where I taught.

A few days after that edition of the newsletter was published, I arrived at a campus-wide faculty meeting at the community college, having driven straight over after my shift serving lunch at the restaurant where I also worked, just in time to be harangued in front of the entire faculty by the college president, who took exception to my publication of his salary (and in the process outed himself as the “representative community college president” on my chart). I stood there trying to smile politely as a guy who was paid more than ten times what I earned working three jobs thundered at me from the stage. I still had on my waitress uniform. I don’t think the irony was lost on anyone there, except maybe the president. He did not seem aware of anything beyond his own righteous indignation.

As difficult and demoralizing as those two years in North Carolina were, they were also highly instructive. My experience of having to work three jobs in return for near-poverty wages and no benefits, as well as the experience of researching for my newsletter and connecting with other activists at that time who generously shared their knowledge and experience with me, helped to cement my conviction that workers in all sectors have little to no hope for upward mobility without the ability to organize. We simply can’t count on our employers to do right by us out of the goodness of their hearts.

Fast-forward to spring 2007, my third year at WMU, when I joined the WMU-AAUP Association Council as one of our three department representatives. From the beginning, I loved the work and the collegiality that came with being a member of the AC, and I found our meetings to be highly educational not only about labor issues but also about campus issues more generally. And after nearly six years of this work, I am running now for the position of chapter vice president because I still believe strongly that the best hope for protecting and improving the quality of life for faculty at WMU is a strong, robust, and active union. There have been some problems with the chapter leadership in recent years, with the unfortunate consequence that a lot of my colleagues are feeling alienated from their own union. I completely understand and actually share their frustration. It would definitely be easier to walk away, as so many of my colleagues have already done or have been tempted to do.

But a situation in which the faculty feels frustrated by the way things have been going and feels alienated from its union isn’t good for any of us. We have to do something about that. The faculty is the union. Period. Every single bargaining-unit member has an enormous stake in the direction of the chapter and therefore has the right as well as compelling reasons to participate in determining that direction.

I also believe that our best possible defense against the ill political winds that are blowing off-campus is a strong and united faculty on-campus. That means a faculty who is engaged, ready to get involved, and prepared to mobilize when the time comes. And that time is coming. Actually, it is already here.

And those ill political winds aren’t just about a bunch of professors, and so neither is Prop 2. It’s about everyone who has to work for a living. That is why Prop 2 has been endorsed by hundreds of Michigan businesses, religious leaders, and lawmakers.

So if you live in Michigan, please vote YES on Proposal 2 next Tuesday, and please do everything you can to impress upon your friends and family and everyone else you know who is registered to vote in Michigan to do the same. Michigan prospered when we had a strong union culture. The union workers who came before us built this state and led us to prosperity. We have no chance of getting that standard of living back and restoring a real possibility of upward mobility for working people in Michigan if we do not stand together. That is how unions work. That is why they work. We need to do everything we can to try to restore that culture and go from there. Passing Prop 2 is a good start, so please vote YES!

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.

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.

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.”