22 August 2015

Do the Math; or, It's Not about the Money

A tale of two majors: English and psychology.  The number of English majors has been precipitously declining; the number of psychology majors has been rising.  It's true on my campus and it seems to be true a lot of places.

But why?

The knee-jerk explanation for the decline of English majors is their putative unemployability, as the memes at the left would suggest.  That canard is a subject for another post.  But it would then follow that the growing numbers of psychology majors reflect an abundance of lucrative jobs for new graduates.
Except that's not what the numbers say.

According to the spring 2015 Salary Survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, there's no starting-salary advantage to majoring in psychology.  None.  In fact, English majors do ever so slightly better.  The mean starting salary for English majors, based on the reported actual earnings of class of 2014 graduates, was $33.236.  The mean starting salary for psychology majors: $33,192.  Granted, among the 45,000 students surveyed, only 763 of them were psychology majors, and only 317 were English majors.  Still, more than twice as many students saw fit to earn low-ball starting salaries with an psychology degree than an English degree, though it's hard to see why from the numbers alone.

The fact that the numbers are equally damning for both majors compels me to point out that liberal arts students of all varieties are less well-served by "first-destination" surveys than are students coming out of preprofessional college programs.  Students emerging with valuable transferable skills often need time post-graduation to figure out where and how they want to transfer those skills.  Their departments don't, as a matter of course, have the resources for corporate engagement and active placement programs.

Still, for students weighing a choice between a preprofessional major and a liberal arts major, the choice of psychology over English is not self-evidently prudent.  So why are so many students making it?

I have some thoughts, but they await a future post.

16 August 2015


For those keeping score at home, as of today, Steven Salaita's lawsuit against the University of Illinois is going forward, but the University is NOT being simultaneously sued by Phyllis Wise, because she is stepping into a $300K/year faculty position and foregoing her oddly named $400K retention bonus.  And we all wait to see what happens next.

At a behemoth public R1, everyone is backchanneling.  It's the only way to get anything done in an environment where legitimate procedures are often palimpsests of every crisis that has gone before.  Some backchannels become recognized as a desire paths and get paved and maintained accordingly.  Others eventually disappear having served a brief but unremarkable purpose.  And of course there are those that, when exposed to light, reveal malfeasance and bad faith and get shut down by the ensuing outrage and kerfuffle.  It would be better if some backchannels were front channels: the frank acknowledgment of bachkchanneling is often a clear sign that neither channel is working as it should and the whole enterprise is moribund.

It's also likely that everyone has conducted some work-related business by means other than their university email or telephone.   Google (and other third party) apps are often more user-friendly and accessible than their institutional equivalents--but they often require use of a gmail account.  Social media is increasingly the way to circulate information and publicize events, but some social media platforms (Instagram) are most easily used by cellphone.  Work of all kinds is increasingly done by cell phone or tablet, maintaining firewalls between different accounts on one's personal doodads gets complicated, and no one that I know of gets a university-issued mobile device.

Let me also note that picking up a phone to do underhanded business is less simple than it once was. My university's new phone system is unusable for faculty who don't have their own individual office computers (which is most contingent faculty) or who are unwilling to download the phone-system software onto their personal devices.  Even for those who have access to office phone technology, calling outside our area code is impossible, which means that such straightforward business as returning calls from students (who generally don't have cellphone numbers with the local area code) or collaborating with a colleague at another institution has to take place from one's cell phone.

Many people, then, cope with the inevitable appearance of impropriety by the simple expedient of (a) not drawing attention to it and (b) refraining from doing things that would embarrass them if exposed.

Here's a good way to tell whether the thing you are about to do, the email you are about to send, the conversation you are having in real time is a bad idea or not:

1.  Are you doing the thing because it advances the teaching, research, and service mission of your job or because it will be to your personal benefit (glory, prestige, access to power)?
2.  If it will be to your personal benefit (broadly construed), does that benefit come at the expense of the teaching, research, and service mission of your job?

Obviously, it's a slippery standard and one that's likely to encourage laughable and contorted exercises in self-justification.


Think how different the present moment would be if the FOIA'ed emails contained some--ANY--discussion of how the program in American Indian Studies could be supported in its teaching, research and service despite the apparent necessity of "unhiring" Steven Salaita.  At no point do we read any discussion of the effects that this decision is having on American Indian Studies at the U of I, much less of how those effects might be mitigated.

These particular backchannels destroyed one campus unit's ability to fulfill the university's mission in teaching, research, and service, apparently without taking any note of the fact, so isolated was the conversation from these legitimate concerns about a university program.

One other thing.  Let it be noted that my assertion, throughout this one, of "teaching, research, and service" as the university's mission is anachronistic.  Our mission statement adds a fourth term: "The University of Illinois is among the preeminent public universities of the nation and strives constantly to sustain and enhance its quality in teaching, research, public service and economic development." In more than ten years here, I have seen no meaningful, institution-driven discussion, by any channel, of how to make this fourth addition to the traditional mission of higher education consistent with the aims of the liberal arts.  Yet there it is, framing everything we do.

11 August 2015


It needs to be said more loudly than it has: the program in American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign did nothing wrong.  You may question their decision to hire Steven Salaita, you may be puzzled by the program's plan to morph into a program in global indigenous studies, you may wish that the traditional academic disciplines gave enough attention to indigenous people to eliminate the need for a separate program.  Sure. Fine. Whatever.  Every innovative academic program has its naysayers. The fact remains: the procedure by which Salaita was selected and vetted was above board, by the book, subject to every procedural check-and-balance the academy has to offer.
Don't believe me?  It's safe to assume that if there were procedural oversights or irregularities, they would have been splashed all over the front page of the Champaign Urbana News-Gazette by now. But go ahead and FOIA them.  They've been FOIA'ed repeatedly on the matter this year, so the relevant documents are all queued up and ready to go.  

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): 

08 August 2015

Want to Be My Provost or Chancellor? Quote a Poem I Don't Already Know by Heart.

When I first started blogging about Salaita, one of several questions that baffled me was why STEM faculty seemed so indifferent to the issues raised by his unhiring.  It seemed continuous with a humanities/STEM divide that had emerged in the course of faculty unionizing, but it was also different in important ways: different stakes, different consequences, different collective action.  I expended a lot of bandwidth trying out different formulations: dead canaries, boiled frogs, competing polarities.

A year has passed since the unhiring news broke.  My job duties have changed, and I now spend more time with administrative professionals from various campus units, less with fellow humanities faculty.  The issue now looks much more straightforward to me, but also much bleaker.  The corporate university has won.  The humanities and interpretive social sciences linger on as quaint vestiges of the ways things used to be done, but nobody who isn't us really knows why they're still here or what they're for, apart from supplying certain service courses.

After any meeting with my non-LAS counterparts, I find myself feeling as if I'm living in an inverted, nightmarish, gruesomely distorted version of Plato's cave: my tenure-stream colleagues, inside the cave, continue to watch their shadows on the wall, blissfully unaware that the cave is about to be razed to create a techno-shopping-R&D-corporate park, where a Liberal Arts Museum Boutique will allow some of them to continue to play with their shadows.

No Downside

The dream of an engineering-based medical school on the Urbana campus of the University of Illinois has been around for a while now.  For a long time, my reflections on the issue looked something like this: Sure, some of our aspirational-peer-institutions don't have medical schools (looking at you, Princeton); yeah, it is a little odd to have a state flagship that only houses the offshoot of a prestigious medical program housed elsewhere.  Be nice not to have to travel to St. Louis or Chicago if I or my loved ones came down with some grave or complicated illness. Whatever. Smart folks who know more about the relevant factors than me are figuring it out.

Then I found myself at a campuswide faculty meeting last fall.  Can't remember which one--there were several.  I was there for the debate about the Salaita un-hiring, union issues, and racism on campus, but I stayed for the rest, so I was there when our provost, Ilesanmi Adesida took the stage.  I had anticipated that only my "it's rude to leave a meeting halfway through" instincts would keep me there, but his astonishingly tone-deaf greeting immediately pinned me to my seat.  To a roomful of people seared by the impassioned commentary from the floor that we'd just heard and the impassive response of the administrators they were speaking to, Ade's enormous smile and "It's a GREAT day for Illinois!" were just--unfathomable.  Had he been listening to anything?  Apparently not.  With no acknowledgement of the hostility, anger, and incomprehension radiating from the faculty whom he is supposed to lead, with no recognition that entire departments and programs were reeling from an administrative body-blow, he told us about the plans for the engineering-based medical school.  We were invited to meditate on that term "engineering-based medical school"--and presumably let its glory fill our souls.