Friday, June 18, 2010

Loyalty, Disloyalty, and Non-Reciprocity

Or, We Regret to Inform You There is No More Blood You Can Squeeze from This Turnip

Fascinating conversations are taking place on some of our favorite academic blogs in the wake of an Inside Higher Ed story earlier this week on a (female) provost fired by a (male) president in the Cal State system for refusing to withdraw from a search for a provostship at another Cal State school. The president of Cal State Los Angeles, James M. Rosser, told the provost, Desdemona Cardoza, that going forward as a finalist for the position at Cal State Long Beach would be evidence of disloyalty to the school where she had served as a faculty member and administrator for 22 years. Cardoza had hopes of becoming president at Cal State, LA, when Rosser -- president since 1979 -- stepped aside, but she thought a move to Long Beach would give her valuable experience in working under a different president and on a larger campus. True to his word, Rosser fired Cardoza when she refused to withdraw from the search. She subsequently did not get the Long Beach job. After a 6-month leave, she will return to CSULA as a faculty member. Won't that be fun?

NB: IHE's account of these events comes from Cardoza. Rosser refused to be interviewed about a personnel matter.

Historiann has done two posts on this sordid tale of female ambition punished. They are here and here. Read them both as well as the long, thoughtful comments by her smarty-pants readers. Dr. Crazy weighed in yesterday with an angry post about being hit up for a donation by her employing institution, which hasn't given her a raise in two years. Among other sources of low morale and indignation, she notes that she now has to pay $300 a year for the privilege of parking on her campus, which is really an occupational necessity, given the absence of nearby off-campus parking and the lack of public transportation. Both Historiann and Dr. Crazy reject the notion that faculty owe loyalty to their institutions, though Historiann is quick to declare strong loyalties to her profession, her colleagues, and her students. Dr. Crazy points out that loyalty has to be a two-way street and that institutions have done little recently to deserve it from their faculty members.

Dogs keep coming up in these conversations as exemplars of loyalty, so we figured it was time for us to get in on the action. Also, the English profs of Roxie's World are of a slightly older academic generation than Historiann, Dr. Crazy, and many of their commenters, which may give them a somewhat different experience of and relationship to the issue of institutional loyalty. Forgive us while we think out loud for a few minutes to see if we might open up a different angle of attention on the subject.

I first started musing on this topic in a comment I left yesterday over at Historiann's:
I wonder if there wasn’t a time, not so very long ago, when loyalty to an academic institution made more sense than it does now. The moms are a little older (both over 50) and feel the tug of loyalty to QTU, but perhaps that’s just because, all in all, the place has been pretty good to them. Or is it that they came of age professionally when traditions of shared governance and a less top-down model of administration really gave them a different sense of relationship to the institution?
The moms feel incredibly fortunate to be a dual-career academic couple with secure positions in an R1 school in a, to them, highly desirable location. That in itself earns QTU a certain amount of loyalty, though it's important to note that they weren't hired as a couple. Moose -- as the much, much younger partner in the relationship -- was hired six years after Goose and had to go through two national searches to get her position. Still, they've had opportunities to leave over the years and have chosen to stay. Do they stay because they are loyal, lazy, or on the whole satisfied with where they are? That is a hard question to answer. Can they imagine opportunities that would lure the happy turtles out of their shells? Yes.

More interesting than the cushiness of the moms' particular situation and its tendency to engender loyalty (or lethargy?) is the question of how structural and economic changes over the last few decades have made it far less likely that faculty will feel a strong sense of loyalty to the institutions that employ them. As we have noted before, the moms were trained by some of the original Tenured Radicals, brave souls who passionately believed that the university, however resistant it might be, could be a catalyst for social change. Their mentors invented and institutionalized new disciplines like women's studies and feminist criticism and in many cases set aside their own research agendas to take on administrative roles because they recognized opportunities to reform curricula and transform the academy -- and eventually the world.

For all their flaws, universities were, by and large, humane places to work, and faculty could feel a strong sense of agency in an enterprise that was often collective and collaborative and within a structure in which power was decentralized. The moms, too, were idealists and institution-builders. Part of their loyalty to QTU developed out of years of happy experience working with others to turn radical dreams into institutional realities. If you had a good idea and were persistent, you could probably find a way to make it happen. Administrators were generally allies, not obstacles, to the realization of those dreams.

Cary Nelson's new book, No University Is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom, is an essential tool to understanding why that sense of loyalty and shared purpose seems so quaint, if not downright delusional, on most campuses these days. (There are many other books we could recommend on this subject -- for example, this one or this one -- but Nelson speaks directly to the generational differences that we think inform these conversations about loyalty.) We highly recommend the book, especially to academic professionals under, say, 40 who entered universities after the transition to the corporate, neoliberal model was largely complete. For that generation, tenure has been weakened because far fewer people have it, and shared governance seems like the practice of an ancient civilization that grows more remote with every memo ordering compliance on everything from book orders to learning outcomes.

The book is unabashedly polemical, and one of its goals is clearly to boost the membership rolls of the American Association of University Professors, of which Nelson is currently president. Nonetheless, Nelson offers a compelling case that the "three-legged stool" of academic freedom, shared governance, and tenure hasn't yet collapsed, though it's gotten awfully rickety under the many threats (he enumerates 16 in the book's second chapter) posed by the forces of corporatization on campus. He is clear-eyed about the nature and the scale of the challenge we face, but he remains confident that resistance is possible and that faculty "have the power they need to save higher education's key roles if they choose to exercise it collectively" (77). He has good, practical suggestions about what faculty can do, together, to make their campuses better workplaces and to revitalize the university's mission of "educating students to be critical participants in a democracy" (77).

Read this book, and then look around on your own campus for opportunities to participate in the sometimes thankless yet crucial work of shared governance. Is your campus senate an effective check on administrative power? If not, could you help make it stronger? Is there a faculty association that serves to communicate and advocate for faculty independently of the senate and the administration? If not, is it time to look into establishing one?

It's true that under the corporate model the interests of faculty and administration are often at odds, even if the relationship doesn't feel fully or even especially adversarial. One solution to such asymmetries and the many examples of non-reciprocity evident in the top-down world we now inhabit is to declare oneself, as GayProf does in a comment at Historiann's, an independent contractor seeking to "extract every ounce possible" from the university/employer and willing to move on if the compensation for services ceases to be adequate. Without denying that faculty should be free to pursue new opportunities -- and they should be able to do so without, like Desdemona Cardoza, being punished for "disloyalty" -- we think it's also worth considering Cary Nelson's group-based solution to the challenges we face. Especially as hiring slows to a trickle and competition for what few opportunities there are grows fiercer, we need to commit -- or recommit -- ourselves to activism and collectivism because the alternative is acquiescence to conditions we should refuse to tolerate.

Don't think of it as loyalty if that strikes you as naive or anachronistic. Think of it as a way to keep yourself from going quietly insane. You're not being true to your school. You are declaring yourself a soldier in the war on corporate power. You're not being a team player. You are being a subversive super hero, in the company of hundreds of other rebels.

Solidarity, comrades. It's our last, best hope. Yes, dogs are loyal, but they are also pack animals. PAWS UP to working together to improve the lot of everybody in the pack. Peace out.


  1. 'tis the much, MUCH older Goose here. While I understand where he who is urging folks to become independent contractors is coming from (or think I do), that is one element of what got us into this mess to begin with. Many are already acting as independent contractors, and there's little solidarity, and, well, divided we are falling. I wholeheartedly agree agree that "Especially as hiring slows to a trickle and competition for what few opportunities there are grows fiercer, we need to commit -- or recommit -- ourselves to activism and collectivism because the alternative is acquiescence to conditions we should refuse to tolerate." Only working together can we prevail and strengthen and save the three-legged stool of academic freedom, shared governance, and tenure, which are all key to knowledge production, dissemination, and preserving fields for creativity.

    Way to go, Rox. We need more of us speaking up, thinking how to work together, formulating creative responses to cut, cut, cut 'cause there aren't jobs. There aren't jobs because folks have been cutting, cutting, cutting, with a few getting a lot and most getting little at all.

    And the way women are treated in this is truly astonishing. I believed in the early 80s that we wouldn't be seeing the kind of sexist demonizing we continue to see (remember the Chronicle's piece a couple of weeks back about how no one likes an amibitious woman?).

    Here's to improving the lot of the pack -- amen!

  2. I actually agree a ton with what you have to say regarding the necessity for faculty to invest in shared governance and in really exerting their power to check corporate interests in and models for education. Actually, that is for me perhaps the *most significant* thing that tenure gives us - the freedom to shape our institutions. At least, that's what I've found so liberating about earning tenure - not anything at all to do with research or much to do with teaching - the freedom to USE my tenure to create the kind of university at which I want to work. (Well, or that's the end goal. It's slow going :) )

    I will say that I have little faith in the power of the AAUP or the AFT to do much to change higher education - if they had that kind of power it's unclear to me what they've been doing for, oh, the past 30-something years while everything's been going to hell in a hand-basket. Perhaps that's cynical of me, but I feel about the AAUP much the way I feel about the MLA - that they talk the good talk but they don't really fight the good fight. I want action - not position statements - and I see that happening in places like curriculum committees, faculty senates, search committees, etc., and so that's where I choose to spend my time and my energy.

  3. You may be right about both the AAUP and the MLA, Dr. C., though it's been heartening to see the MLA get more aggressive around employment issues and just generally moving into the 21st century. (I mean, heck, Rosemary Feal is on Twitter!) The past year has made us think seriously about the issue of unionization for faculty. Given the threats to tenure and academic freedom, it may be time for faculty on a lot of campuses to move in that direction, if they can.

    With you, too, on the importance of putting in the time on committees. Good things can still happen on that level, certainly.

  4. From my experience on a couple of the largest corporate islands I can confirm that the best way to run a non-unionised ship is to divide and conquer your workforce.

    That means on the one hand convincing every indvidual that he or she is essential to the success of the organization as a whole, while working to maintain groups n which no-one is indispensable. Secrecy is key; threaten to fire people who disclose details of their employment to colleagues, and reinforce that with a competitive, zero-sum environment in which employees know that their success depends upon another team member's failure. Deny the remunerative bell curve. If necessary, create a fictional notion of the successful employee to which no-one can live up. Oh -- and if employees do seem to be forming too much of a pack -- reorganize.

  5. Is that AAUP shit for real? I always thought it was just some fucking spammer sending me a bajillion unsolicited e-mails trying to get me to pony up a "membership" fee.

  6. Thanks for your further thoughts on this, Roxie. I think you do a great job parsing the generational conflict you nailed in your comment originally last week, and you've convinced me that I need to throw Cary Nelson's book on my summer reading list.

    Richard's comments are sobering, but at a public uni, our salaries are public information, and there's only so much secrecy that can exist in an environment like that. (People at private unis don't have this benefit.) But, as you say Roxie, scholars in the 40-ish and under crowd have adapted to survive in a particular organizational framework at a particular point in history of American universities. (I'm just over 40, but I'll count myself among them, particularly because I've seen and felt the institutional backlash myself.) I wonder how "loyal" GayProf might feel had he not ended up at a university that tried to derail his career and diminished and insulted his field of study?

    I take your comments about generations and institutional history to heart. But I also think that GayProf and I (to name two examples) reject institutional loyalty because we have been badly treated by our employers. Whereas Comrade PhysioProf said in his comments on my post that he's been treated well and even generosly by his employer, so he feels loyal. So, I'm left to wonder: to what extent is the absence of loyalty among my generation of scholars the result of experiencing or witnessing bad actions by institutions, actions that may well be the logical result of the corporatization of the university?

  7. Spot on, Historiann, and your comment gets at something that has been bugging my typist ever since this post went up. We intended no judgment of faculty who feel little loyalty to their employers these days, precisely because, as you suggest, a lot of folks have been treated awfully badly. Loyalty in such circumstances would be foolish and unhealthy!

    Aside from nostalgia for the more humane structure and atmosphere of the pre-corporate era on campuses, I think the post was arguing not so much for institutional loyalty perhaps as for faculty making use of the power they still have to effect change (or limit damage?) at their schools -- the kind of thing Dr. Crazy gets at in her comment above.

    Loyalty may not really be the best word for what we're hoping for -- Critical engagement might be more accurate. That's why Nelson found his way into the post, I think, and his book is worth a read -- especially the first few chapters.

  8. Anonymous12:31 PM EDT

    Critical engagement, that's a good term. Great post (I came from Historiann; I'll read the book, I like Cary Nelson).

    I'm 50 and from an academic family so that makes me older still in terms of my experience of institutions.

    I never found the independent contractor attitude (as I used to have interpret it, anyway) incompatible with loyalty to the the principles of one's field and the profession and to one's university, insofar as one is working for it, so should do a good job, and insofar as the faculty and staff, the library, and the students are in a sense oneself; one has to be loyal to them!

    Being "loyal" in the sense of obedience to the upper administration, tithing, boosting your athletic team (unless you feel like it, of course), and not going on the market is all bogus -- authoritarian b.s. nobody should swallow.

    Yes the AAUP seems sometimes like ... the Women's Christian Temperance Society? ... but on academic freedom and such they are the go-to people and Nelson is much more of an activist than many presidents they've had. One may not have felt one needed them in the past but I think now's the time.

    (One also needs UNIONS, etc., but that isn't likely in all states or with all faculties.)

  9. I'm with you on the critical engagement front, Roxie.

    sptc makes a lot of good points.

    I can't wait to read Nelson!

  10. Let's unionize! I am persuaded we need it now.


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