24 September 2016

About that Abyss that's Gazing Back at Us

According to the editorial board of our student newspaper, "too much homework has real post-graduation consequences," and they respectfully suggest that professors assign less "homework."

The editorial neatly sketches the abyss into which public higher education is teetering:

1. A college education exists to help you get a good job after graduation.
2. Anything you do while going to college that will help you get a good job after graduation is worth spending time on.
3. Anything you do in college that doesn't help you get a good job is a potential waste of time.
4. Most college courses do not train you for a job. 
5. The things that you do outside the classroom in order to learn the content of your courses (e.g., "homework") are a waste of time.
6. Therefore, the work of learning the content of your courses should be subordinated to the things that will get you a job, like extracurricular activities, internships, and part-time paid employment (which also helps to alleviate your student debt burdens).

Of course, as the students point out, the abyss also looks like this:
Often, students must take on extra jobs and excel in multiple internships to be competitive candidates in their desired fields.From a financial perspective, students often need to work one or more part-time jobs. About 30 percent of students at the University work one or more of these jobs because of the high price of college.With the hefty costs of tuition in mind, students need to maximize their time at the University so that their jobs after graduation can pay enough to help repay their debts.
In my current position, helping English and Creative Writing majors prepare for post-graduation employment, I'm often the one nudging students towards this abyss, urging them to pick up jobs or activities that will help them build their applicable skills and demonstrate them to employers. Our alumni generally seem to get good jobs that they like, but it can take them a few years of floundering first, and our students are more likely to get good jobs upon graduation if they do some of that floundering while they are here.

So my dismay is not directed at the students who are trying to live in this world. It's not even directed at the forces (public divestment in education, funding gaps that are increasingly filled by corporate encroachment, exploitative student debt practices) that have created that world. I've been dismayed by those for a long time, as any reader of this blog knows.

Rather, this editorial gets under my skin as evidence of how lousy public higher education in Illinois has been at pushing back against those forces, how little scope we've given the students--even at the state's flagship institution--to recognize that colleges and universities exist to do anything other than train an entry-level workforce. The DI editorial board has internalized an understanding of higher education that the university itself increasingly puts forward. That's the abyss.

09 September 2016

Leading the Losers in the Academic Arcade

Timothy Killeen, the president of the University of Illinois, was just awarded a $100K bonus for doing his job for the past year.

It feels churlish to begrudge him it.  He did reject a $225K bonus early on in his tenure here, citing the campus's ongoing budget problems and his brief--sustaining the glory of the institution when the state budget is in free-fall--is an impossible one.  For what it's worth, his salary (base + bonus) is dwarfed by the sums granted to academic luminaries like the U of I golf coach and Lovie Smith.

And, to be fair, he was set a series of challenges by the board, all of which he apparently met. Some items on the list, however, sound less like "goals" and more like a particularly detailed job description:
b. Work to ensure effective capital and maintenance programs, and appropriate facilities and infrastructure for all campuses 
c. Foster research opportunities to enhance teaching/learning strategies to improve academic programming 
a. Increase and enhance the visibility and positive reputation and ‘brand’ of the University at large 
b. Promote the University of Illinois at civic and other organizational meetings when possible; give more than 15 presentations to community and civic groups 
c. Engage key constituencies through targeted communications to increase advocacy efforts on behalf of the University 
d. Work with University of Illinois Foundation and University of Illinois Alumni Association to increase collaboration and cultivation opportunities with key donors, potential donors and alumni 
 There's also a lot of "seeking"--hard to know how the Board of Trustees decided how much "seeking" was enough to justify the money.

In today's paper, trustee Patrick Fitzgerald explains the video-game logic behind the payout. Don't call it a bonus!

Trustee Patrick Fitzgerald emphasized that Killeen’s award is “not a bonus. It’s something that’s earned.” 
“At least from my perspective, he’s earned every dollar of it. When you look at the leadership he’s shown, the leadership shown by the chancellors this year ... I think we’re headed in the right direction.”

I'm happy to have a president who can level up rather than bringing scandal to the university. That is, indeed, a step in the right direction. But isn't that level of leadership what the base salary is for? One might expect Fitzgerald, of all people, to understand that the rewards of excellent public service are not monetary.  His achievements as a federal prosecutor took down corrupt public servants ranging from former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich to Scooter Libby, Dick Cheney's chief of staff.  He did that work, presumably because it needed to be done and he was in a position to do it, not because someone dangled shiny financial incentives in front of him.

The University of Illinois, like many public institutions, runs on the willingness of people to do better in their jobs all the time, not because their efforts will result in a payout, but because the work needs to be done.

  • Advisors in my department and adjacent departments who have worked hard to reverse declines in enrollment. No one has threatened to fire them in they fail, nor do they get remunerated for the increase--but it's obviously the thing that needs to be done, so they come up with effective ways to do it. 
  • Faculty, both those with the job security of tenure and those without, who have radically changed their teaching in order to engage more students--not because their jobs depended on it, but because the students did. 
  • A colleague who wrote 1000 words before lunch every day over the summer in order to get her new book project well underway (she's already full professor, so doesn't need it for promotion; nor is she particularly unusual in her dedication--it's what research faculty do). 
  • Staff and faculty tacitly adding "social media management" to their job descriptions so as to foster a sense of collegiality in their units and make their colleagues' work available to a wider audience--not because they get more money for expanding their duties.   
  • Rhetoric instructors who diligently sustain the programs of writing and research that energizes their teaching, even though they get no institutional recognition for that work. 
  • Office staff and building and service workers who take on whole new unremunerated realms of job responsibility to keep the university moving forward in a hiring freeze.

(Sometimes faculty continue to strive for excellence, even though the incentives they are promised are not forthcoming. Campus-wide teaching awards are supposed to bring with them a salary bump. Several of my colleagues who have won these awards have seen the salary bonus withdrawn, not because they failed in their teaching, but because the administration decided that other one-time institution-wide salary increases invalidated those bonuses.)

The point is not that ALL superlative performance should be compensated financially--it's that the Board of Trustees is trying to lead through an incentive structure that has nothing to do with the way the work of the university gets done. Sure: everyone I know would like more money, but if money were what drove us towards excellence in our jobs, we'd be doing something else. If those of us doing the work of the university are dependent on chief executives who only do their jobs well in pursuit of financial incentives, then we're being led by people who don't understand the institution at all.