Thursday, November 05, 2009

On the current situation at work

I've been trying to be careful not to write too much about work, lest my position suddenly be Raptured by the University of California gods. But today I commented on a couple of posts and wrote one e-mail that, taken together, nicely reflect my thinking (and frustration) about working for the UC in an era of lean budgets. Here, then, are my comments; you'll see they revisit themes in my earlier post "Cloudy with a Chance of Layoffs."

I. The freshman seminar teach-for-free controversy

My comment on Tenured Radical's incisive post "And If You Give Us A Full Book Of Green Stamps, You Can Teach Macroeconomics", which responded to this article in the UC Davis student newspaper, which in turn reported that our vice provost of undergraduate studies, along with the director of the Teaching Resources Center, invited freshman seminar faculty to return their stipends to the program:

Oy. I work for the UC Davis Teaching Resources Center as a teaching consultant and programs coordinator, so you might imagine I have some thoughts about this issue.

First, please note: My comments here are mine alone, and are not intended to represent my employer's stance on any issues.

I didn't know about this letter, or the budget info mentioned in the article (that first-year seminars will be the last program cut from the unit), until I read the student newspaper this morning.

I have very mixed feelings about the vice provost's request. I don't work directly with this program, so my comments aren't as well-informed as I'd like them to be, but probably better-informed than those of people outside the unit. :)

On the one hand, the program does attract a lot of senior professors from the sciences who are excited about the opportunity to actually teach a small class that requires very high student participation--as opposed to lecture courses whose enrollment has ballooned to 900 students in at least one case (a subject for another blog post).

If the participating faculty really enjoy teaching in the program and aren't hurting for research funds, then I have no problem with them returning stipends to the program. It is a VERY lean budget year, and honestly, I'm scared the center won't be around much longer if we have further cuts--but I haven't seen the latest budget numbers, so unfortunately I can't speak with any certainty. I do know that unless we find grants to pay his salary, I'll be losing one incredibly talented and thoughtful colleague at the end of the academic year.

On the other hand, I suspect there are also lecturers and humanists (I'm one of them) who use the program as you describe--to have access to research funds they might otherwise not get, and it's not fair to apply any pressure on them, and sending out a blanket letter does, I think, pressure these faculty. For that reason, had I been asked about it, I would have advised they send the letter first to only full professors.

As it offers approximately 200 classes enrolling ~15 students each during the academic year, the program itself represents a very inexpensive way for the campus to lower its overall faculty : student ratio, so from a labor standpoint, any outrage might be better focused there.

I will say that it is an incredibly strong program, with very high quality classes taught by faculty who are passionate about teaching (too rare at any research university)--or who become passionate through the experience of engaging with first- and second-year undergraduates. The program holds faculty to rigorous pedagogical standards. For more information about it, see the first-year seminar faculty toolkit (PDF).

It's sad to see the teaching center connected with this controversy, as the Teaching Resources Center really is a fabulous resource and increasingly an intellectual hub on campus--and we run it on a shoestring budget. (We're small but mighty.) The office staff and graduate student researcher who coordinate and evaluate the first-year seminar program also do really terrific work, so it must be especially frustrating for them to see its administration depicted in an unflattering light.

II. Again with the freshman seminar controversy, but also in response to commenters' calls for reductions in administrative pay:

And then, on Eric Rauchway's post at The Edge of the American West:

Remember one of the reasons the first-year seminars are there in the first place: they provide a very inexpensive way for the university to lower its instructor : student ratio–even more cheaply than having grad students teach might.

I get a little bit antsy when people start talking about reducing “administrator” salaries, both because my own salary may or may not fall under that category and because after three years in the staff trenches, I’m keenly aware of the faculty-staff caste system.

Yes, there are many administrators whose salaries seem inflated. But the line between “administrator” and, oh, “program coordinator” (ahem) can be a blurry one. Staff like me have already had our salaries frozen for years, even as we support faculty who have continued to receive merit increases. With the furloughs, I’m now making less than when I started working at UC Davis, and 14% less than I would have made had I received my merit increases. It’s incredibly demoralizing, especially since these slights are coming from the exact university that supposedly readied me for an academic career.

I sat in a meeting w/a top HR admin at UCOP a few weeks ago, and I asked him point-blank if there would be any relief for staff soon, or if things would continue to deteriorate. His response was that “faculty attract people and resources, while staff don’t”; ergo, staff are dispensable. His remark about resources is a gross generalization, of course–it assumes, for example, staff aren’t writing grants, raising funds, or otherwise helping to recruit, support, and retain faculty.

Today a Staff Assembly e-mail claimed it’s not fair to compare staff and faculty salaries, that it’s like comparing doctors’ pay with lawyers’. But when you have countless lecturers, postdocs, and staff with similar credentials to faculty (PhDs, research agenda, publications, etc.), I don’t think that’s a fair analogy.

III. The Staff Assembly madness

As if the freshman seminar controversy wasn't enough to deal with today, UC Davis staff also received--as I reference in my comment on Eric's post--a Staff Assembly e-mail that featured a link to this article.

Needless to say, I couldn't let that stand, so I sent an e-mail to the author:

While I appreciate your reminder to staff (at that we keep our heads when all around us seem to be losing theirs, I must take issue with one of your claims: “Comparing staff compensation with faculty compensation maybe more like comparing a doctor’s compensation with a lawyer’s compensation. These are different fields with different expectations and skill sets.”

This is a terrible generalization, as there are many, many staff on campus who have the same credentials as faculty (PhDs, teaching experience, peer-reviewed publications) and the same expectations (teaching, research agendas, grant writing, committee service) and skill sets (writing, teaching, intellectual engagement with academics and the wider world), but who are paid half as much as faculty—or less. My colleagues and I in the Teaching Resources Center, for example, are expected to stay current with trends in pedagogy, research and publish, and teach--only we’re expected to do the same for far less, and to manage multiple programs and projects in addition to the responsibilities we share with faculty. I’m on at least eight committees on campus and systemwide, and I chair several of them.

A few weeks back, I was in a meeting at UCOP, and when I asked a top HR administrator if staff would continue to feel budgetary pain out of proportion to our faculty colleagues, he said, “Faculty attract people and resources, while staff don’t.” Ergo, staff are dispensable—even if we write grants and help to recruit, support, retain (and, in my and my colleagues’ case, train) faculty. To say that faculty deserve better compensation than staff because of different “expectations” is too easy; it’s a capitulation to the campus’s continued denigration of staff and contributes the UC’s erasure of the incredibly high-level work many staff are doing.

So yeah, that's about where I'm at right now. How about you?


Delamelia said...

Ouch. Sounds pretty sucky and I don't even know what that Pedogogy crap is. Well, at least I understood the rest of it. Well, if you need a job we need carriage drivers out here and there is an awfully nice university here in town. Not quite Davis, CA but Denver sure has my vote for best US city. Economy is more stable out here too! ;) Should you ever get an itch you're welcome to join me and mine out here! Hope it doesn't come to that but the offer is there!

A fan of your blog and tweets said...

I thought you might be interested in seeing this video made showing Vassar professors sounding off on how the Vassar Administration is handling the Vassar economy. Even at elite, fancy private liberal arts colleges, decision-makers are making, well, bad decisions yet still spouting off on how "we're all about the community."

S said...

My state's (Kansas) economy is also in pretty dire straits. We've already gone through 4 rounds of budget cuts and still have at least a $235 million shortfall to address. The court system statewide is looking at 6 full-week furloughs, which would mean 6 weeks of involuntary, unpaid leave for all court employees except the judges. For the legislature to fix that, though, they're going to have to take money from some other agency, which may well lead to layoffs there. It feels as though all state employees are being pitted against each other, sort of like your faculty vs. staff situation.

I always read articles about the woeful state budget with a feeling that, "Phew, at least I am safe." As a public defender, my job is one of the very few in the state that is constitutionally mandated. And as one of only two lawyers handling the death penalty appeals, I am so highly specialized and high up the food chain that there is no way my job isn't safe. But I hope that I never lose sight of the fact that I would have to fight just as hard for my support staff's survival because their work is just as vital to my clients.

I am glad I work in an office that is a little more insulated from the budget concerns that all other state agencies are facing. I can't imagine how stressed out my friends who work as court clerks are, trying to prepare for the loss of 6 weeks' pay. I do not envy you the stress of working in that atmosphere.

Bardiac said...

I don't know what to say; I'm so sad to see the school that taught me well and that I enjoyed so much having such troubles. Maybe the troubles were there when I was (or growing), but I sure wasn't aware of them at all.