3.8.06

THE VALUE OF RESERVE CAPABILITIES. Last month, I suggested that Wisconsin's hiring of conspiracy buff Kevin Barrett was evidence of sloppiness in their hiring. The writers at ACTA Online expand the argument.

The discussion about University of Wisconsin lecturer Kevin Barrett has rightly swung away from academic freedom to issues of hiring and internal review: Ringing evocations of academic freedom in Barrett's case both misconstrue academic freedom--which is not the freedom to push political viewpoints or junk science in class, and which is not the freedom to teach whatever one wants however one wants--and deflect attention away from the real issue at hand, which is how Barrett came to be hired in the first place. UW clearly needs to pay more attention to its hiring processes, and it needs to pay particular care to its mechanisms for evaluating applicants for part-time teaching jobs of the sort Barrett has. Instead, it has issued ringing endorsements of academic freedom: "We cannot allow political pressure from critics of unpopular ideas to inhibit the free exchange of ideas," says Provost Patrick Farrell. "That classroom interaction is central to this university's mission and to the expansion of knowledge. Silencing that exchange now would only open the door to more onerous and sweeping restrictions."

But UW is not alone in either its casual approach to hiring adjunct lecturers or its apparent lack of established procedures for assessing what teachers are teaching and whether they are teaching well. Nor is it alone in its willingness to fall back on hollow evocations of academic freedom when weaknesses in its present personnel practices are exposed.

The statement has elements of a Complex Proposition. On one hand, Wisconsin, like every other large university, often finds itself having to cover a class or three on short notice. Each department chairman (often, the department administrator on the chairman's authority) probably has a list, an extra board if you will, of people who would be willing to pick up a class on short notice. And for the most part, those appointments are quite satisfactory, and the adjunct faculty members have considerable rapport with the students. (Those followings develop all too frequently as those people are filling in on a variety of courses over the year or two that a cohort of majors spends in-department.) On the other hand, the post hints at the possibility that the real problem is with the existence of the extra board. Perhaps the trustees and administrators ought take another look at the consequences of their calls for cost-cutting and for reducing the tenure-depth of departments. If departments are not allowed to offer tenure-track and tenure lines, despite being "enrollment-impacted," but are authorized the use of the extra board, does it come as a surprise that every so often someone who does not measure up will be called off the extra board? On the other hand, to formally investigate the extent of the extra board might raise the possibility that James Michener hinted at in Kent State: What Happened and Why? years ago, namely that the universities (whether it's our MAC rival Kent or Northern Illinois or Wisconsin or Yale) are using sweated labor.

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel ran a guest column by ACTA's Charles Mitchell that trots out the usual nostrums, rather than address the extra board itself.
ACTA proposed that course of action in a July 17 letter to the UW Board of Regents and several administrators. Our letter encouraged them to perform an institutional self-study of the classroom environment, institute post-tenure review of faculty, assess hiring and promotion practices to ensure that quality of research and teaching - not ideological litmus tests - are the criteria for job security, incorporate intellectual diversity concerns in guidelines on teaching and include intellectual diversity issues on course evaluations.
If Mr Barrett is called off the extra board at a per-class fee that is less than a month's gross pay for a senior professor, and never placed on the tenure track, what good will the post-tenure review be? Why not review the expense-preferense behavior of administrators and trustees that puts departments in the position of having to go to the extra board? Designing a course evaluation to include "intellectual diversity issues" sounds like an exercise in wheel-spinning in the making.

And replacing a Complex Proposition with a False Dichotomy doesn't help matters.
So if UW-Madison wants to avoid the kind of headlines it is getting right now, its leaders have a choice: They can bet that no one else on the faculty will ever again say anything to raise the ire of a state legislator, or they can implement some simple and proactive reforms to show they care about the education students are receiving.
You mean there isn't an efficient level of legislative discontent? Or that keeping Madison enrollments sufficiently small that the university relies less on the extra board might not produce headlines of a different kind?

SECOND SECTION. Inside Higher Ed's look at the academic job market.
Faculty members have for years been complaining that the higher education job market is growing the most in part-time positions. Data released by the Education Department Wednesday back up that contention. While the figures aren’t new, the department’s 10-year look at college and university employees shows that employment growth has been uneven — in some cases dramatically so.
And yes, dear reader, your perception of a proliferation of administrators and functionaries is correct.

No comments: