Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Goose Test

To take the goose test, identify the figure to your right. To check your answer, click on the picture--or just keep reading.

I don't know what people tell the few new arrivals we have these days, but back in my day (I arrived in 1998), whenever anyone literate heard that you were heading to SIU, they would tell you to read Richard Russo's 1996 academic farce, Straight Man. Russo wrote the book while at SIU, and while he cunningly camouflages the setting by placing his second tier state university in the dying coal country of central Pennsylvania, there are those who believe that the book, which happens to contain elements like Faner Hall and a campus lake, may have something to do with our own beloved institution. The goose from the cover illustration alludes to the goose the protagonist, the chair of the English department, holds as he stands before the campus lake, threatening to kill one duck (sic) per day until he receives a budget from the central administration. Okay, so he was a bit drunk when he found himself in front of some TV cameras. Perhaps I should have tried that.

One of the premises of Russo's book is that anyone who spends more than two or three years at Central Pennsylvania State (or whatever he calls it) is, well, a failure. While the book is funny and smart, I thought this premise of Russo's book was false, or at least farcical. Glad to have landed a decent job in the humanities at all, finding myself among smart, well-qualified colleagues, and feeling the value of SIUC's particular mission--bringing a quality research-university education to an inclusive student body--I thought anyone who shared Russo's attitude* was a snob, or self-loathing, or at least a novelist. Here was important work to do, an important mission, many decent students, mostly strong colleagues; not an elite school, by any means, and a big state institution, with all the bureaucratic and political nonsense that entails; not the best location in the world; but a place one could make an honorable and successful career.

You'll have anticipated the next line: I'm not so sure anymore. Believe it or not, I'll try to say why without dwelling on who is responsible for the malaise around here. And I'll try to suggest what I think is a rather obvious and relatively easy step that could be taken to help lessen that malaise.

I know far too many people who may leave SIUC this year. Now SIUC has always lost and will always lose people drawn to more elite institutions or institutions in better locales, or jobs that are simply a better fit for them. And of course the vast budgetary malfeasance of the state of Illinois, from budget cuts to illegal "reforms" to our pensions, will lead to mass retirements across the state, not only at SIUC. But I think it is safe to say that the current mood on this campus will exacerbate this trend: SIUC will lose more faculty, proportionately, than other state universities in Illinois. The cases that trouble me most are those of faculty contemplating leaving SIUC in the prime of their careers, from chairs to junior colleagues. Some would of course leave even in the best of times for SIUC. Most are not leaving simply to get away from SIUC, but to get to a more attractive place. But in current conditions they are having no second thoughts; those who get offers won't even be seeking counter-offers from SIUC, I suspect. Why bother: the place is broke, and, arguably, broken.

We have already been bleeding faculty. And, at least over the last few years, we have been losing faculty far more quickly than can be explained by any decline in enrollment. Back in 2003, when the student-faculty ratio of 26:1 was first negotiated with the FA, I'm pretty sure the administration thought that ratio was beyond the realm of possibility. We were sitting at around 24:1.** But by the administration's own guesstimates for next year, we will be sitting precisely at 26 students per TT faculty member. That estimate is very conservative: we will almost certainly lose far more faculty than that.

During negotiations, the administration tried to change how the student-faculty ratio was calculated, but the FA refused. The result would have been to allow us to teach more students with fewer faculty. The administration then tried to do an end-run around the new contract, which retained the old ratio, by again changing how the ratio was figured; but the Chancellor had the good sense to realize that this was illegitimate once the FA filed a grievance.

The loss of faculty lines has hurt us in at least two ways. The first and most obvious is through the loss of experienced faculty, very few of whom have been replaced. These losses have of course not been spread evenly across campus units, but hit some far more than others, leaving some units more or less crippled even as others are more or less intact.

The second hurt has come through the absence of replacements. Walk around many departments, and you see something like a "lost generation" phenomenon: there are no young faculty. Too many units have hired few or no faculty for years. Young faculty come to us from with the latest insights from their graduate departments; they naturally have an easier time connecting with students who find them far less distant than us older folks. They can shake things up, and in a good way. Survivors walk around halls noting the absence of departed colleagues--something neither unusual nor unnatural in the normal course of retirements. But they see few or no new faculty. There's no new blood. The rest of us are left feeling old & weary.

By the time next fall rolls around, there will have been a wave of retirements and departures for other reasons. The administration will of course do its level best to find qualified replacements, emergency NTT hires to keep classes going. But next fall could be, in its way, as great a crisis as the fall before, as multiple units across campus find themselves without enough faculty, particularly enough experienced TT faculty, to continue to do quality teaching, research, and service. It is a depressing prospect.

I promised something beyond depression. Here it it, and I don't think it is very difficult, really. The administration, whether it likes it or not, is going to have to do a whole lot of TT hiring--at least if it is going to follow the FA contract. Rather than treating this as a grudging contractual duty, make it a blessing and a promise. Don't credit the FA contract if you don't want to, just talk up your commitment to replacing departing tenured and tenure-track faculty. Yes, we are going to lose many experienced faculty, thanks to slashes to pensions, among other things. But we are committed to replacing them with strong new hires. So, at least until we can replace the wave of departures that threatened our student-faculty ratio, the hiring freeze for faculty is over.

We are committed to maintaining the high quality research-university education that only TT faculty can provide. This will be a difficult transition. And some programs will need to lose faculty, while others grow. But we will protect our academic mission, and new faculty will, over time, step into the leadership roles vacated by their departing elders. We will retain our healthy student-faculty ratio; we recognize that faculty are the foundation of this campus. This will remain a good place to make an academic career.

We need, in short, to convince faculty that this is a good place for faculty if they are going to be able to convince students that this is a good place for students. The state may cut our budget, of course; but departing faculty will open up more money than we need to replace them, so, even with cuts, we should be able to replace them. We have already substantially raised the student-faculty ratio. We have been shifting money from faculty to other things. We don't need to keep doing that. Thus ending the hiring freeze in the sense I'm advocating would not break the bank--unless massive state cuts, or massive declines in enrollment, break it for us. If the state makes massive cuts to our budget, faculty will understand the need to change course. But we have for too long been living under what gets characterized as an ever worsening budgetary situation. Yet we find money for some priorities. Let us make faculty the priority, and we will find the money.

The hiring freeze for faculty is over. That's the message I'd like to find in my inbox from the Chancellor.  And who knows--perhaps in a few cases, where our friends and colleagues are mulling over retirement, or rival offers, they'll give staying at SIUC another look. 


* I suppose, to be fair, that I should say that this is the attitude of many of the characters in Russo's book. It's been too many years since I've read it for me to confidently confirm that it is Russo's own attitude.

** I hope to provide better facts and figures on faculty numbers in a subsequent post. Any readers so inclined are welcome to post such information in comments. But I'm pretty confident I've got the basics right (and this post is already long enough).


  1. Your post is "right on the money" and captures the sense of "malaise" - a word that doesn't quite capture the woe that is SIUC.

    The cynic in me would say, "the new blood merely lives in la-la land," thus diluting the older, sadder, wiser blood. The upbeat blood is that hemmorhaged to other institutions. And SIUC will always say "see what wonderful faculty we have - other schools want to poach them away!" But now people are taking offers to go to places that are lateral rather than clear upgrades. Indeed, lateral and up (or down) have lost meaning as SIUC fought desperately for Carnegie I status (when I was here in the 1990s) only to see it granted to all existing Carnegie I and II schools. Then it was "we will be in the top 75" and on and on. Self-respecting schools don't make totem climbing their aim. They simply excel and are recognized for having their act together.

    Will SIUC hire more TT faculty? I would hope so but the Springfield factor looms large: part of Quinn's plan is to shift state pension costs to the employer (i.e., SIUC). That is yet another huge "WHAM!" to this institution. You don't have to be an administration sycophant to see that the uncertainty will lead any sane budget minder to wait.

    So we wait. . .

    1. Thanks for the comment. TT faculty are a long-term commitment, so there is an "sane budget minder" argument to be made for waiting. But I think it is a weak one. Meeting it would require wading into complex and contentious budgetary issues, by pointing out that buildings are also a long-term commitment (years of student fees to pay off financing), and we don't seem to be waiting there. At any rate, Quinn has apparently backed off of his plan to force universities and school districts to pick up more of the tab, in any event (presumably because school districts would have to raise taxes to do so, and we can't have that--universities might escape here thanks to the direct taxation that funds schools).

      Do note how much of what I'm calling for is a matter of attitude, vision, or leadership--rather than firm commitment of money. We recognize there's a real problem here with faculty morale, caused both by external factors--the state budget--and internal ones [which one can prudently leave vague]. But we are committed to replacing departing faculty to the very best of our ability, and regard that as a very high budgetary priority indeed going forward.

      If we do get a WHAM from the state, we recalibrate. But living as if the wham is already here is not a rational approach--it's the approach, or pathology, of an institution that views itself as a victim and has lost the ability to defend itself. We are rather similarly jumping up and down to meet poorly designed performance funding mandates that will impact only a tiny proportion of our funding for the foreseeable future. The goal seems to be to mutilate ourselves (by cutting programs based on artificial state metrics) because we fear that the state might mutilate us at some point. Our policy--again, save for the visionary (or illusionary) construction campaigns of recent years--seems based primarily on fear.

  2. Dave, Let me begin by congratulating you concerning the difficult decision you came to to be Chair of your Department. It is a demanding role, especially in a Department that has suffered major losses in the past (and probably will incur more in the future. I know you took this decision very seriously and wish you every success in your new role.

    First Russo's novel is condescending and despicable, a cheap shot by somebody fortunate to leave SIUC and highly derogatory in terms of its demeaning and ignoring dedicated faculty in this institution.

    Secondly, many key TT positions need to be filled as soon as possible and the hiring freeze ended. But in view of the Chancellor's attitude that anybody could fill the positions of faculty who made the decision to strike and the emphasis on DL, I see this as an ideal opportunity to close down departments, end graduate programs, and turn SIUC into a "for profit" university.

    Finally, who in their right mind, would come here to fill positions in view of the attacks the State is making on pensions for present and future recipients? The State caused this problem and it should solve it rather than penalize those who chose to come here in good faith and find their very contracts now worth nothing at all. This is not a good situation and both SIUC and the state of Illinois will never recover if Madigan and his Republican allies have their way.

  3. I am depressed by the loss of colleagues in my department and by interdisciplinary colleagues interested in sustainability and environmental studies -- both retirement and the flight of the untenured are taking their toll. I know my morale on that front is low. Removing the hiring freeze and replacing lost faculty over the last few years would go a long way to making me feel like we can continue to offer viable (sustainable!) programs.

    At the same time, though, I am inspired by growing initiatives for interdisciplinary collaboration in research and (potentially) teaching. The Imagined Geographies project with its truly multi- (and sometimes even inter-) disciplinary approach to Antarctica garnered material upper administration support and a real commitment to tend to the seeds that were sown by this project.

    The resources we actually need may be a long time coming, and such scarcity will necessitate change in how we've traditionally done things. As Dave notes, some programs will shrink while others may grow. But I hope we might also address the problem not by thinking of our individual turf only, but by finding true synergy between programs on campus. The upper administration could do much to remove institutional barriers to cross-program and cross-college collaboration. And rather than getting locked in nasty fights over decreasing resources -- fights that inevitably devolve into denigrating the Otherness of epistemologies in disciplines not our own -- we might do much to embrace our diversity, acknowledge the health of alterity, and come to recognize common burdens and common cause.

    Well, even if only a little, that would do much to address my malaise. And I am thankful (even if still a bit wary) that some of these opportunities still glimmer in our uncertain future.

    1. Kudos to Jonny (again) for finding a silver lining. This is the sort of thing an enlightened administrator ought to be pushing.

      Centralization does have the upside of facilitating interdisciplinary work: where neither departments nor colleges are the end all and be all, crossing unit boundaries is much easier, and while no individual unit is likely to lavish scarce resources on an interdisciplinary program, the central administration will have no such qualms. And I agree that stressing what we can do together is a far better idea than digging in and trying to defend our individual and ever shrinking bits of turf.

      Interdisciplinary projects and teaching tend to run into bean-counting difficulties, however, especially when a state mandated program review sends everyone into a panic. It's a Catch-22: interdisciplinary work can not only be more efficient but more fertile, but as it is harder to quantify--what unit gets credit for what?--it risks losing out in the current budgetary climate.

      It will take strong central administrative leadership to foster such work by giving academic units and their faculty the confidence that interdisciplinary research and teaching will be rewarded and fostered even if it doesn't fit readily into one of the usual columns in the administrative spread sheet. It sounds like the Antartica project has garnered such support. The Humanities Forum also garnered considerable support from across campus, though I don't know if SIUC has come up with any long term support for that group.


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