Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Why We Teach, Part 4

This article originally appeared in the Carbondale Times, May 4-10, 2011, p. 5.

Apparently the way to get a response from our administration is to put something in the national press. After months of requests for an explanation of Article 19 in the administration’s imposed language, finally the Chancellor publicly answered the question about whether this Article undermines the institution of tenure at SIUC. It gives the administration the power to lay off anyone for any reason, and indeed no reason needs to be given. After two years, the laid off person is terminated. The Chancellor finally said the Article is not intended to undermine tenure, and that it doesn’t contradict Board policy. What she didn’t say is that this new Article does reduce the existence of tenure at SIUC to a Board policy, and of course the Board controls its own policy –that is, there is nothing to stop the Board from exercising its lay-off rights regardless of tenure if it decides to do so.

The imposed language would be valuable if the aim was to bait people into striking, “lay off” those who do strike, and then never reinstate their “positions.” If one believed the unions were weak, one could get rid of the trouble-makers this way. If one were wrong about their being weak, one could damage the university quite a lot in a failed attempt to get rid of the unions. It is a fact that the administration has retained the services of one D. Shane Jones, and presumably our current quagmire is his brainchild. Look him up:

Whether the way forward for SIUC absolutely requires the trauma that is in store for this community in the coming fall is a question that should be asked by all who make their permanent homes here. A strike, regardless of how it may turn out, will certainly render it impossible for anyone who works at our university ever to feel secure or to trust the leadership. Trust is easy to destroy and very difficult to rebuild.

No serious effort to build trust has been made during my eleven years here. Gosh, not even so much as a gesture in that direction has been tried by any of the principal leaders. Never do they speak of showing they are worthy of the trust of students, staff and faculty. Never does it cross their minds that in all the verbiage they release to the press, just once they might say that the solution to these problems lies in rebuilding trust, and that they intend to lead by example, to trust us in order to show us that we can afford to trust them.

Trust is something teachers know a lot about. The relation between student and teacher is a relationship built on trust. One of the wisest things I ever heard was said by a high school principal under whom I had the privilege to serve, as a part-time teacher, between 1996 and 2000. At the teacher’s meeting that began the school year, he reminded us all that “you have to establish your credibility with these kids before you can attempt to establish your authority. If you try to establish your authority before you establish your credibility, you’ll never have either one.” He went on to say that establishing credibility, for a teacher, is relatively simple. Only two things are needed: (1) you have to know something; and (2) you have to convince the kids that you care about them enough to teach them the things you know. Kids can sniff out a faker on either one of these points.

Successful teachers know all this already, even if they never quite thought of it in these terms. This is the basis of trust in an educational relationship. If you have credibility, your kids will give you the authority you need to maintain the classroom. They will even exert a kind of constructive pressure on each other to make way for you to teach, finding ways to prevent the kids who don’t follow from ruining what you do, as a teacher, for others.

It has been a long time since SIUC had administrative leadership that attempted to establish its credibility with students, faculty, and staff. Rather, they arrogate to themselves whatever authority they may desire and justify it with their titles. This is mere abstract authority, which is inherited from the memory and records of others who performed their service well. It is not moral authority, which must be earned by one’s own deeds and the strength of one’s own character. Moral authority can be attained, but it cannot be commanded. Our current leadership has shown no awareness at all that this is an important part of running any school effectively. They do not lead by example, they do not ask us questions, they do not listen when we ask them questions, and they manufacture an atmosphere of secrecy and mistrust. The students, staff and faculty respond by doubting their credibility and questioning their authority.

Right now “trust” at SIUC is being treated like an unwanted step-child. Yet, that child is the only one who could grow up to be our true leader. Things have been worse than they are now in living memory, but the current trajectory is for an all-time low to be achieved this coming fall, as the unions do what they must do. It is not possible to return to the negotiating table right now because the SIUC administration stubbornly insists on the illusion that their imposed language is the current “contract” and that negotiations must resume on a successor to that “contract.” This is not the truth. It is not a contract, and when negotiations resume, it will be to discuss a genuine successor to the legitimate contracts we had before.

I don’t know what D. Shane Jones may be telling our administration, but I do know that we will never return to the table so long as they continue to pretend that their imposed language is the place where the discussion must begin. We love to teach, but we can’t teach under people we can’t trust. I will certainly find a way to symbolize this mistreatment of the institution of trust at graduation on Friday the 13th, when I am supposedly “on furlough.” I will do that in a way that causes no harm to the achievements of our students, but a symbol is not much without a willingness to interpret it sincerely on all sides. We are headed for a disaster. It will affect you, personally, in all likelihood. The disaster is unnecessary. Preventing it does involve putting public pressure on the leadership of SIUC, especially on the Board of Trustees. I encourage all of you to consider expressing your views to the Board, whatever your views may be. I do not believe SIUC has the internal resources to avert the coming meltdown. .


  1. This is great! Right on the mark!

  2. Following upon this lovely piece(and those that preceded it), and also on the earlier posts (and responses) about a strike, I'd like to extend the discussion of trust a bit. I begin from a concern that in the current environment of insecurity that most people in our society face, we can come off looking like a bunch of pampered ivory tower types--especially when we threaten to strike over the loss of tenure, in a country where unemployment is rampant. On a practical level, too, there is a significant risk in calling a strike because there are many here who simply cannot strike: who cannot risk their livelihoods due to obligations (legal and ethical) to others in their care. I am one such, but this doesn't mean I want to remain passive, either.

    Thus, my question/suggestion: can we find other very visible ways to take action that will both make the power of the collective visible, while also building relationships with our on-campus and local community? Can we, for example, organize teach-ins and learn together about how collective action has changed the world in the past, and why we should be turning to it now--not just for SIUC faculty but for all who desperately need decent employment and affordable child care, education, and health care? Can we organize demonstrations and come together to exercise our right of free speech to bring these issues into the public discussion--not just for ourselves, but for our society?

    In short, can we try to turn this into an opportunity to enter into solidarity with others, and not just to advocate more effectively for ourselves?

  3. To Anon #2,

    Unions need to be careful about taking on broader social issues. We may not all agree on how the nation's health care system should be operated for example. Raising such issues can be divisive. (This does not mean individuals cannot make these broader connections. Why not form a Progressive Faculty Caucus?) I think the FA can be clear that our priority is to provide the public with high quality well educated graduates, meaningful research and other forms of public service. Quality faculty will be harder to recruit and retain under the imposed terms than a fair contract. (Truth be told, SIUC's biggest problem is that we can't seem to recruit high quality administrators!)

    On striking: I do not know your personal circumstances, but there comes a time when we all have to put up or shut up. Struggles for labor rights and civil right get harsh sometimes. History is not always a smooth ride. I hope we don't have a strike, but without the credible threat of a strike I don't see why the BOT would back down.


  4. Anonymous 2: I suggest you write a series of articles for a local publication. Mine is finished, and speaking out doesn't require you to strike :)

    On the other hand, just because you think you "can't" strike because others depend on your livelihood seems to me to betray the very attitude you want to discourage in the public. Fortunately, your right to strike in this state is legally protected, but the idea that you can't risk anything to go on strike is just the sort of thing that makes us look like we don't have a real union. I don't think that unions would exist at all in this country is everyone who had someone else depending on his/her income refused (for that reason) to strike. Our families and our dependents are in the same boat we are. Sit down and talk to your family, save all you can for the next few months, make intelligent preparations, and when the time comes, strike with the union. You very much can do it. Life doesn't come with guarantees, and some principles are worth defending, even at personal risk to oneself and one's family.

  5. Unions often do provide income support during strikes. I don't know if the unions at SIUC have the resources for this. Does anyone know?

  6. My understanding is that the IEA provides interest-free loans for dues-paying members. The union would also aim to get lost wages returned (presumably be rescheduling classes later in the semester), but that of course would be only occur were the administration to agree to it in bargaining.


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