Blaise Pascal, Penseé 347: “Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapor, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this. All our dignity consists, then, in thought. By it we must elevate ourselves, and not by space and time which we cannot fill. Let us endeavor, then, to think well; this is the principle of morality.”

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Reading President Welty's Reply to the Faculty Open Letter

I have read and reread President Welty’s response to the Faculty Open Letter before making this response. I hope in the following I have been fair and honest. This is my response to the letter, and I don’t offer it as anything more. I do make some predictions about faculty opinion and judgment, but they are my best guesses. I’m not claiming to speak for the faculty.

President Welty’s stated commitment to shared governance and consultation is encouraging, as is his willingness to talk to the faculty. I am all for a continuing dialog, because I think there is a lot to say. That dialog should start at this Friday's Academic Assembly. The university is in the midst of a fundamental course change, and no doubt diminished state allocations have a lot to do with it. The faculty is the ultimate watchdog when it comes to the quality of education given to students. The university is now so oriented toward marketing itself that the substance of what we do as teachers and researchers is becoming threatened. That is what worries me.

President Welty’s response addressed consultation as an overall faculty concern as it applied to the logo, the destruction of the trees in parking lots A & J, cohort hiring, and the budget task force. He acknowledged that he could not address all the issues, which is understandable, but I do want to point out what hasn’t been addressed. Here are my thoughts, item by item.

The Main Problem with the Logo

The principle objections in the Senate to the new logo were professional ones. Senators did not think the Bulldog spirit paw print was an appropriate logo for use in professional correspondence. 

President Welty notes that, “I did respond to the Academic Senate resolution,” with regard to use of the logo, and has provided for “the use of the seal on stationery for correspondence internationally, and with academic societies, publishers, and for reference letters.” This is good news. The response occurred at the end of last semester and I did not know about it until seeing President Welty's response to the open letter.

I am happy that President Welty listened to what the senators were telling him and addressed the senate resolution. He has given us a good result. The language quoted above is contained in a letter from President Welty to Academic Senate Chair, Lynn Williams, dated May 23; it can be accessed through the “Campus Branding Standards" link referenced in President Welty's response.

Consultation Regarding the Logo

I was much less happy with President Welty's assertion that adequate consultation regarding the logo took place before it was unveiled. The argument is a familiar one: focus groups were used that included faculty and even senators.

Focus groups are a fine way to do marketing research--but they are not elected by the faculty for the specific purpose of consultation, and who was solicited to be on them or that they contained some members of the senate doesn't dispose of the consultation problem. What matters is that final consultation happen through the Senate. Had that rule been followed before adoption of the logo—had there been discussion in appropriate committees and on the senate floor, we could have avoided a divisive controversy: Bulldog boosters would have gotten their logo; the faculty would have had appropriate letterhead.

There is a simple principle here. Departments are connected to university decision-making through the senate. Good senators get advice from their departments about issues coming before the senate, i.e., they represent their departments. Consultation has not occurred if there is not full department representation through the senate, and this does not happen when "focus groups" are used as a substitute. Once again, it is hard to escape the conclusion that, given a history of senate resistance to using “Fresno State” rather than “California State University,” the administration really did not want consultation on this issue.

Query: Will the administration now order two letterheads and continue to supply departments with professional letterhead?

The Substance of the Decision to Cut the Trees in Lots A and J.

The loss of the trees as an aesthetic and educational asset is not addressed in the President's letter. The string of falsehoods which was published to justify the cutting of the trees is not addressed: they were old, diseased, needed irrigation it was said to the media, but all of this was untrue. Through its spokesmen, the university lied to the public about these matters. It is said we needed 500 more parking spaces, yet our student body is shrinking. How does this add up?

There seems to be a great gap between what the faculty and wider campus community values, and what the administration values, and this is one of the most troubling elements in today's Fresno State. The cutting of the trees is emblematic of this problem .No sense of loss is recognized in the letter—no recognition that something of human value will be gone for many, many years. 

Consultation Regarding the Cutting the Trees in Lots A and J

Regarding the destruction of the trees in Parking Lots A and J, President Welty's letter suggests that there was a faculty default in committee participation, so that lack of consultation was not totally the fault of the administration—it was, at least in part, the faculty's fault. For instance, the removal of the trees was introduced at one FACEL meeting on February 1, at which no faculty attended and at which minutes were not taken. (In February, we should remind ourselves, faculty were desperately trying to stop a merger between the Schools Arts and Humanities and Social Science and to prevent the dismantling of the School of Science and Mathematics. Many of us were quite occupied.) President Welty says that the Master Plan included a parking structure to be built on Lot J: "Obviously, construction of a parking structure would require the removal of trees." Well, yes, but all of the trees? All 164 healthy trees in Lots A and J? of the beautiful pistache trees that framed the entrance to the Peters Building?  Finally, a finger is pointed at faculty for not providing members to the Campus Planning Committee (CPC), "despite numerous requests from the Office of the Vice President for Administrative Services" and indicates there were no faculty representatives at "the" meeting of the Campus Planning Committee where tree removal was considered.

Perhaps faculty participation on committees is an issue that needs to be addressed. But as President Welty himself notes, there has been "a dramatic disinvestment" in the CSU. I have watched the faculty steadily shrink since 1991. We are spread rather thin, and since our most important commitments are to teaching larger and larger numbers of more and more remedial students, spread even thinner. Then there's writing and research, if we can get at it.

I take some comfort in the following lines from President Welty: "After reviewing the process followed on the reconstruction of these lots, I agree that there should have been more faculty participation in the discussion about these lots. However, the facts do not support a conclusion that faculty were ignored. There is shared responsibility in this matter, and clearly our governance processes did not function adequately. . . . I am confident we can establish systems which will assure significant faculty participation in the future. I apologize that this process did not meet the standards of consultation that I believe are important for our University community." 

I'm happy that steps are being taken to make sure immense reconstruction projects don't fall through the administrative / faculty cracks, so that they simply happen without discussion. But I don't think it is an overstatement to say the faculty was ignored in this instance. Lack of faculty participation was obvious. The charitable response to the problem would have been to seek other avenues of consultation. It would have been so easy to go to the Executive Committee about this, and one would think an obvious thing to do, given the impact of the project. Again, I cannot ignore the possibility that the decision to cut the trees was “blown by” the faculty because it would have encountered a storm of protest. Perhaps this is ungenerous, but it is hard to believe the parking lot renovation would have survived a senate discussion or that our decision-makers did not understand that.

The Budget Task Force Recommendations

President Welty writes: "This process did get the attention of our University community, but it did not result in productive recommendations for the University Budget Committee to consider. I believe the process did tell us what would not be acceptable to the community." I can only agree, and only speculate on how many schools we'd have today had there not been a storm of protest from faculty and donors.

What disturbed me most about this episode was the lack of budget information provided to the community and that proposals to eliminate two schools would be given serious consideration by the administration. The on-line budget books were very late in being published. They indicated a carry-forward from the previous year of $65 million, an astonishing amount. Even the Budget Task Force did not know about this. President Welty does not address the issue of why the budget books were not made available earlier, or why there was a $65 million carry-forward, or why even the Task Force didn't get this information. I know very little about what happened within the black box of the Budget Task Force, but given the magnitude of their proposals, and their publication to the university, one has to conclude that the administration was initially behind them. Their implementation would have done enormous damage to the liberal arts core of the university: humanities, art, social science, science, mathematics. 

Does the administration care about the liberal core of education, or is it managing with the objective of offering whatever it thinks it can market? Given the ever-constricting state allocations, I can truly understand why the managers of the CSU are thinking in terms of branding, marketing, and consumers. But what can be marketed and what constitutes a real education do not necessarily coincide. Students are not the same thing as consumers and branding is not more important than substance. This is the biggest issue the university has to face, and I believe management's objectives and the faculty's commitment to education do not line up. President Welty's letter is encouragingly open to dialog, and we need a wide-open and candid discussion of where education at Fresno State is going. 

Cohort Hiring: The Substantive Issue

Cohort Hiring, when mandated by the Provost, restricts department hiring choices and transfers some power over hiring and therefore the curriculum to the provost. Departments have always had the option to get together, generate a cohort idea, and hire accordingly—but until the last two years, cohort hiring has never been mandated as a portion of university hiring. That it has become a portion of faculty hiring during a "hiring freeze"--or more accurately, a period of diminished hiring—makes it all that more significant proportionally.

The problem here is simply one of diminished department choice. To the extent that a department has a line-up of hiring preferences which do not coincide with a cohort hiring category, their chances of hiring who they want and what they need are diminished. The temptation, then, is to transmogrify what the department wants into a cohort hire, with problems down the road in retention, tenure, and promotion decisions for people hired in cohorts who may be a better fit for the cohort than the department.

I believe that if cohort hiring were put to the faculty for a vote that it would lose by about the same margin it did in the senate, which was over 75% against.

Part of the "sell" of cohort hiring is that money is being taken from central funding to get these hires that otherwise would not be funded. I don't see the funding source as significant. Given our desperate need for more faculty, if money is available, distribute that money and let hiring continue as before, without cohorts. If the money is available for hiring, it ought to be used for hiring without the new restrictions. (The question of what pulling money from central funding will do to the financial structure of the university remains an open issue.)

As I have said many times on this blog, curriculum is traditionally the primary responsibility of the faculty. To the extent that hiring is controlled by the provost through cohorts, the faculty loses control over the curriculum. I think that this administration wants to send Fresno State into significantly different curricular territory because it wants more control over marketing and what gets marketed, hence the attempt at more control over hiring. (It also looks good on the provost's vita.) I think this is part of a new university that is being cobbled together under our noses, course by course, from parking lots to logos. Cohort hiring may be the most significant issue that faculty will continue to confront because it is to closely connected to the administration's idea about Fresno State's future "brand" and the faculty's vision about education and its own identity. "Buy into my marketing and rebranding plan and I'll give you the world." That's the temptation to faculty who get whisked up to the fourth floor.

Consultation Regarding Cohort Hiring 

President Welty's letter indicates that he will address cohort hiring in a separate document to be posted to the Academic Senate website and that the senate discussion was based on major misconceptions. I would make a modest suggestion: it would be better to put something of this importance out to the entire faculty by email, just as, I believe, it would have been better to put the news out about the change in logo policy to the faculty by email. Few of us have the time to regularly canvas the bulletin board or the Senate website--and especially not at the beginning and ending of semesters, when teaching duties have our full attention. We need better and more communication about important issues, including, for instance, logging off parking lots or being blacklisted by Google or Comcast or Yahoo. I do not think the demands on faculty time are appreciated or the time-budgeting decisions that we have to make as teachers, researchers, and writers.

Although consultation with regard to cohort hiring was not specifically addressed by the President, he did make a suggestive comment: "All requests for cohort hires for 2012-13 originated with the Department Chairs and Deans, before being authorized by the Provost." First, the cohort-hiring concept itself originated with the provost. He put it to the deans, who said yes. The deans then presented cohort-hiring to the departments as a fait accompli. There was no significant consultation on the idea of cohort hiring, and this is a separate issue from whether there was consultation on cohort designations.

Many senators spoke up in the senate about their department's lack of choice in specifying cohort positions and the lack of consultation. A nuanced discussion of the problems of cohort hiring took place. See the entry on this blog:  Senate Meeting of April 9, Part 2 which provides a transcript of the meeting. Put cohort hiring to a vote by the entire faculty later in the year, after all arguments have been fully aired and re-aired. Barring some major news in the President's promised document, I am confident in predicting that it will go down to defeat in a landslide. (And by the way, it is good news to hear that Lynn Williams plans to schedule weekly meetings of the Academic Senate as business demands. Last year, the Senate did not have enough time.)

In conclusion, a full, candid, continuing dialog is a necessity. I have never seen a greater distance between faculty and administration in the 24 years I've been here. Last February's publication of an open letter in the Bee, signed by 141 faculty members, and the July "Open Letter" to which the President has responded are the best evidence of faculty frustration, not just about substantive issues but about being heard at all. In this context, President Welty's response and invitation to talk is a step in the right direction.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent analysis. The divide between faculty's concept of the university and the administration's is getting wider and wider, as you point out, Craig, and that is the source of the crisis. As faculty, we must define for ourselves, from our perspective, what that concept of our university is and how it needs to be changing; otherwise, the administration's commercial vision of education being a "product" to be marketed and the university a company to be run by CEOs will prevail. Our time and attention are always divided between work in our disciplines (teaching, research) and administrative issues, whereas the 4th floor can concentrate their full attention on running us, creating "visions" for us, marketing us, etc. In this coming academic year we must keep a keen eye on admin issues and give our time and energy to what's supposed to constitute "shared governance." We cannot be re-active only; we must come up with our own "vision," articulate it and work toward fulfilling it.