Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Why We Teach, Part 2

The following appeared in the Carbondale Times, Wednesday, April 20, 2011, p. 5

Why We Teach (Part 2)

Randall E. Auxier

Last week I explained my own small act of civil disobedience, the plan to teach my class on a designated “furlough day” and to dare anyone to stop me. As an update, I did receive a memorandum from my department chair (in the philosophy dept.), sent under the directive of the Dean of my college, that the administration “asserts the authority” to select furlough days for me that do not affect my “direct teaching.” This move actually contradicts the imposed language of the administration, but this administration has never worried too much about contradicting itself. If you want to read the particulars of this new imposition, go to:

The long and short of it is this: I will work, in my office, on campus, on any day the administration designates as a furlough day, and I am inviting them to remove me from campus if they think they have the authority to do that.
There are lots of legal issues associated with this overall dispute, and they are not very interesting. What I will say is that none of you would want to live in a state in which the word “contract” includes having someone else’s will forced on you. In totalitarian countries that might be a “contract,” but in the USA, a contract requires the agreement of both parties. Neither I nor anyone legally entitled to speak for me has agreed to what the SIUC administration insists upon calling a “contract.” But in fact, there is no “contract” between the administration at SIUC and any of its four IEA unions. There is only the will of a few being imposed on many, and illegally so. Even if it were true that SIUC’s finances were dire, the course of action they have taken still would be both illegal and morally unjustified.

This week I want to suggest some ideas that, in the rough and tumble of controversy, may not have occurred to some of you. One thing that is easy to forget is that the faculty (and part-time faculty, and graduate students) at most universities are not unionized. Teachers generally, and among teachers especially professors, are not inclined to see themselves as “workers” or to identify with “labor.” Professors prefer to see themselves as professionals. Their relationships with students and with colleagues and administrators are supposed to be governed by the mutual respect that characterized a fast-fading world of yesteryear in which people honored their commitments without needing contracts, in which people told the truth as a matter of principle, and in which teachers were trusted with the moral as well as academic welfare of their students. Our students of today cannot really remember that world –they were raised on Fox vs. MSNBC, and, lord help us, they think that telling “the truth” is like a game of checkers—so their confusion about our current crisis at SIUC is understandable.

In order to get professors to unionize, you really have to mistreat them in extreme ways and for a long time. Among professors, so long as the majority (or even a vocal minority) believes that there is any alternative to unionizing, it doesn’t happen. At SIUC, beginning with the arbitrary firing of 104 faculty members in the 1970s (a truly stupid move, later deemed illegal in court, from which the university and the region still suffers), the designated leaders of our university have made a string of great and small errors that is probably unequaled anywhere in American higher education. It is possible that no university has had worse leadership than SIUC during the last forty years. It has taken decades, and many thousands of bad decisions by dozens of incompetent leaders, but what once was a university anyone would be proud to serve has become a quagmire in which honorable, decent, and able people are now unwilling to serve among the leaders (there is a reason Gary Minish resigned after fifteen days; he is an honorable and truthful man).

Eventually the professors reluctantly unionized. Many of my colleagues still cannot reconcile themselves to the realities we are facing at SIUC, that dishonest and incompetent persons have a sufficient hold on the university now to destroy it completely. Being a member of a union is something I am proud of, and it has opened up new worlds to me, and has given me a reality check on my earlier conceit of thinking I wasn’t a worker. Wherever a small cadre runs the show behind closed doors, pays itself embarrassingly high salaries, hordes and guards financial information, and secludes itself from the reasonable influence of employees, you have “the bosses.” The mentality they possess, their arrogance and cluelessness, is the same in the university as on Wall Street or in the auto industry. This outlook must be resisted or it does damage, and is doing damage here and now in your community.

What damage? The current imposed offer (Article 19) allows the administration to lay off (and after two years laid off, to terminate) any faculty member it chooses for any reason –indeed, they need not even give a reason. This ends the institution of tenure at SIUC (it may continue to exist in name, but it is meaningless). With the end of tenure comes the end of academic freedom –without the protection of tenure, I can no longer speak freely in the classroom or write what I truly think without putting my job at risk (you can see that I am willing to do that, but these are extra-ordinary times). With academic freedom no longer secure, our university ceases to be a university in any meaningful sense. We have already suffered from difficulty attracting and retaining talented faculty, due principally to our chronically poor leadership, which underpaid and did not support its faculty for decades while, ever so gradually, many of the best professors who were here melted away. SIUC once had perhaps three dozen world class academic programs –good enough so that the very best professors would come here. We still possess about two dozen such programs, but it gets harder every day to maintain the illusion that a faculty position at SIUC is a prize worth seeking. The effective end of tenure is the death-blow.

Who are these administrators? Who currently thinks it would be a good idea to undermine the institution of tenure at SIUC? I can only say that this new phenomenon, the “professional administrator class” of academics, is not drawn from the best among my colleagues. Currently at SIUC (and I’m sorry to say this is true in a lot of universities), many of the administrators are people who barely survived the tenure process, whose prospects for advancement and success in their own disciplines was limited, who are very often poor or mediocre teachers, and who had no other way to advance themselves than to push paper. It is natural, I suppose, for anyone to seek some daily activity which provides a sense of having an effectual life. To our own shame, I’m afraid, those among my colleagues who had excellent prospects for success within our disciplines did not want to do the mind-numbing administrative work, and often we foolishly left it to the weakest among our colleagues.

We failed to pay attention: department chairs become associate deans, and then associate deans become deans, and so on, and after all mediocrity loves company. Within a couple of decades we had a whole hierarchy of people with slender academic gifts, and little understanding of or appreciation for the rigors of good teaching and research, people with a lot of resentment and an incredible need to feel effectual, and people willing to reinforce their need for affirmation with impressive titles, ceremonies, and salaries. And those people were somehow calling the shots. I admit that the better teachers and researchers allowed this to happen. It isn’t the fault of the public that higher education is largely in the hands of fools. The growth of our “corporate culture” has made this situation virulent and dangerous, but the germ was our own preference for teaching and research over taking a turn at chairing the department. This may seem hard to believe for those beyond academia, but I’m afraid it’s true, almost everywhere.

And such is our current leadership at SIUC. There is not a single person at the level of dean or above whose academic credentials are genuinely impressive, and for some of them, including our Chancellor, how tenure was ever achieved is a serious question. In the case of our President, he was never a serious teacher and his failures in basic research are public knowledge. One can begin to understand why such persons might under-value the institution of tenure. Those who love this region and SIUC need to be aware that the current “leadership” of your university is not only without vision, it is without accomplishment, largely without honor, without genuine respect for its students, faculty and staff (in spite of the occasional feigned public nods). Most importantly, our current leaders are without basic competence to run the institution, which is why we are constantly in financial trouble and losing enrollment. Their current plans amount to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

The only thing that stands between where we are and rock bottom for this institution, are the various unions. That is where the people who really love the school, who are committed to it, who draw their life from it, are making their stand. We are the ones who will still be here when the current group of grasping strangers now draped with grand titles is gone, and we will still be here after we have somehow emptied the administrative offices of the people we never should have tenured. I know it is difficult for the public to see us as “workers.” I have learned a lot from seeing myself as being in solidarity with workers from other sectors, people I respect very much and whose respect I also crave, but I still regret that we had to unionize. We really had no choice. And I am sorry we now have to fight them. We would really rather be teaching, believe me.


  1. Gary Minish IS an honorable and truthful person.

  2. Truer words have never been spoken....

  3. There is a lot of truth here and I agree with the general thesis. But you ignore the fact that a lot of union supporters aren't exactly meritorious themselves. And it shows in their proposal -- three-fourth of the salary increase proposal is for things completely unrelated to merit. That does as much to drive away our best faculty as does our incompetent administration. But, otherwise I agree.

  4. This is such a fantastic blog. It has really provided me with a lot of knowledge on the history of SIU's leadership which I, as a newer employee and younger person, didn't know. It puts things in perspective and is so helpful! Thank you all for doing such a fabulous job on it!


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