10 August 2015

What's Next?

Everyone around here spent the weekend reading the FOIA'ed emails on the Salaita case, the College of Medicine, and James Kilgore (not familiar with what's going on? backstory here).  Last night, my department head, Michael Rothberg, posted the following question on Facebook: "What’s next?"  
bargaining team in situ, NTFC Local 6546

Though he was crowd-sourcing the question, he also had some ideas to frame the discussion, which I quote in their entirety below, with Prof. Rothberg's permission (which is in no way meant to imply his endorsement of anything I have to say about them).  
I think it is important for those of us at UIUC to clarify what our goals are after Wise’s resignation and the release of the emails. I post these reflections as part of an open-ended, non-dogmatic effort to clarify my own thinking and to invite others to join me. 
For the purposes of this discussion, I’m leaving aside Salaita’s own claims—reinstatement and financial compensation. These are crucial, but I believe they are going to be settled in a legal forum where we have no influence. In any case, in addition to continuing to support those claims, we need to transform our local context: the UIUC campus and the Illinois university system. 
I’m curious to know what other people think our priorities should be. Here’s a first attempt to draft some priorities (I am not proposing that these are definitive or complete, and they are not meant to be in rank order): 

1. Process: Regardless of who is primarily responsible for the unhiring of Salaita, the Board of Trustees certainly seems to have played a significant role. Unless their influence is minimized we are going to continue to suffer in a variety of ways from their interference in the coming months and years. We should start by campaigning to have the BoT adopt the key, second recommendation of the Hiring Processes and Procedures Review Committee (on which I served): “The board of trustees should formally delegate its responsibility for tenured and tenure-track academic appointments that do not involve administrative positions at the level of deans and above to the president, who in turn should continue the existing policy of delegating to the chancellor and provost.” See http://www.senate.illinois.edu/sc1508.pdf 
2. The Bonus: A $400,000 bonus for a disgraced administrator who has been forced to resign is an insult to all employees on campus, especially at a moment of supposed budgetary crisis and in the face of a likely freeze on faculty salaries. We should campaign around a retraction of the bonus. 
3. Rebuilding: That $400,000 should go instead to help rebuild American Indian Studies. More broadly, a plan should be created and supported to renew AIS after the devastation it has suffered. 
4. The Provost: Ade is much more implicated in the decision-making process than he ever let on; he also seems to have been part of a scheme to evade FOIA requests by using personal email accounts. He should resign or explain why he should not have to. 
5. A Fresh Start: We need a new administrative culture. We certainly want to see top administrators drawn from the ranks of the humanities, arts, and interpretive social sciences, but, even more important, we want to see people in leadership positions who are committed to a broad liberal arts vision of education and to an understanding of the university as a site of fundamental research and critical knowledge production. 
6. Transparency: Faculty members who were secretly advising the administration while also attempting to evade FOIA requests should resign from any positions of influence in faculty governance. 
7. Beyond the Boycott: We need to figure out a way to shift the larger strategy around the case so that it applies pressure on the administration and BoT and not (inadvertently) on humanities, arts, and social sciences faculty and students. So far the boycott has hurt us and had no obvious effect on the administration. Other strategies are needed that would unite Illinois people with the movement beyond our campus. Ellen Moodie and Martin Manalansan’s essay on this topic is crucial. See http://savageminds.org/…/waiting-in-the-neoliberal-univers…/

Numbers 5 and 7 are the key points here.  Our goal, now that Wise has resigned, should be gathering up the shattered remnants of the "broad liberal arts vision of education" and putting them back at the center of the state flagship university, where they belong.  It's not just our challenge either: the idea of public liberal arts education is vanishing nationwide, so finding ways to "unite Illinois people with the movement beyond our campus" (which will involve, in part, galvanizing and organizing such a movement) is key.   

These emails, particularly the COM emails, lay bare the painful reality of the public R1.  Decisions are not being guided by the state's need for first-rate, publicly funded university education; they're being guided by the power-plays of those with money and politically motivated influence. So attenuated has the liberal arts ideal become that many good, smart people don't necessarily see a problem with that.  The idea that the university exists solely to provide economic growth is widespread among those who are in a position to be its biggest boosters.

So by all means, we should be pressing hard for the university to follow its own procedures (Number 1), to remove from positions of power anyone whose been caught back-channeling in these emails (Number 6),  and to put in power administrators who fully grasp the breadth of the academic enterprise they lead and are capable of strenuously representing the interests of all faculty on campus (Number 4).  Restoring this administrative scaffolding is crucial, but the space it protects is shrinking, and we need to focus equal energies on reclaiming it.  

We need to think bigger and more broadly, and bring our concerns to the public, not just communities of like-minded faculty: the citizens and taxpayers of Illinois, our far-flung alumni, our students and their families.  

For example: The $400K "retention bonus" is an excellent talking point (Number 2): In what universe of supply-and-demand does a "retention bonus" help to retain first-rate administrators, if you still get a staggeringly large sum of money for bowing out early under disgrace?  What else could our cash-strapped institution do with that money?  How many currently frozen wages could it thaw?  To advocate a "retraction" of the bonus, however, would be futile (no doubt it's protected by contract, which can only be broken at huge legal expense to both parties), and even if it were feasible to use the $400K to rebuild AIS (Number 3), we're a long way from having the broader public support that would see such an act of justice as viscerally satisfying in the way that we do.  

Of course, interdisciplinary programs, graduate study, tenure-stream faculty lines, and non-monetizable research are the lifeblood of what we do in the humanities and interpretive social sciences.  We can't protect them, though, by putting them at the forefront of our advocacy and public outreach.  We need to differentiate strategies that galvanize support form within the academy (e.g., the boycott) from strategies that can speak to a broader public. 

The broader public for the most part doesn't care if we have a AIS program, if talented graduate students choose to get their unmarketable Ph.D.'s elsewhere, if highly specialized disciplinary conferences fail to take place.  They do care that talented in-state students are getting priced out of a flagship education, that educating college students seems to have fallen far down the U of I's list of priorities, that university seems increasingly in thrall to wealthy alumni and business interests, that the relevance of the institution for the state's struggling middle class is not apparent.  

We need to find ways to move forward that communicate to our constituencies outside the academy that liberal arts faculty understand these concerns and want to help make the university a place that responds to them.  We need to nurture the horse of undergraduate education at the R1, so that it can pull the cart of research-centered graduate study.  We need to create the demand for well-trained tenure-stream faculty and programs like AIS, and we need to promote in our gen. ed. classrooms a widespread understanding of the role of academic freedom in first-rate undergraduate teaching.  

The one item I would add to Prof. Rothberg's list is therefore 8. Solidarity.  As liberal arts programs shrink, the front-line teaching of the humanities and interpretive social sciences is in the hands of the contingent faculty (including graduate students with teaching assignments).  Academic freedom will increasingly turn, not on high-profile tenured cases like Prof. Salaita's, but on the choices that underpaid and exploited faculty are forced to make in order to keep their jobs without the protections (much less hope) of tenure.  These are the very issues that the NTFC Local 6546 (formerly CFA Local 6546) has been pressing at the bargaining table.  Salaita's case makes headlines and generates widespread faculty support within the humanities.  The administration's intransigence in court-ordered bargaining sessions with the faculty who perform much gen. ed. and lower-level teaching has not.  

If we want "academic freedom" and "shared governance" to mean anything to the public of the future, we need to make sure all these things are on display in the classrooms where incoming freshmen get their first exposure to the life of the mind and to frames of value that cannot be bought, sold, or otherwise monetized.  We who are contemplating "next steps" need to bring into the fold of our concern and influence 
the contingent faculty who expose students to these possibilities.  As things stand, they are squarely at the center of the liberal arts that ought to be the heart of the flagship public research university.


  1. the reliance on the approval of the "broader public" is really concerning here...how the supposed concern for the broader public (which public?) supersedes a concern for the future life of indigenous studies at Illinois.

    "To advocate a "retraction" of the bonus, however, would be futile (no doubt it's protected by contract, which can only be broken at huge legal expense to both parties), and even if it were feasible to use the $400K to rebuild AIS (Number 3), we're a long way from having the broader public support that would see such an act of justice as viscerally satisfying in the way that we do."

    "The broader public for the most part doesn't care if we have a AIS program, if talented graduate students choose to get their unmarketable Ph.D.'s elsewhere, if highly specialized disciplinary conferences fail to take place."

    1. I don't think she is suggesting that it supersedes AIS, so much as she is pointing out the necessity for our own PR strategy. The large salaries for administrators is an ideal target for populist rage i.e. undergraduate and their cash-strapped families. As for PW 's raise, when she gets it I can only see that it helps our position at the bargaining table. If PW doesn't get her bonus, I am sure her supporters will be sure to say that a racial double standard is at play - didn't all the white male disgraced admin get their bonuses?

  2. @Rico. The point isn't that AIS isn't worth supporting--it's that trying to harness public outrage over Wise's retention offer to the project of rebuilding it is simply an ineffective way to support it. The same would be true of Classics, or Slavic Studies, or Art History or any small, vulnerable program. "Broader public" = taxpayers, students, their families, alumni, citizens of the state of Illinois. We need to make the case for programs like AIS by making the case for the benefits of liberal arts as a whole.