Archive for July, 2010

Readers of the XChange may remember my post from March 25, 2010 in which I discussed PASSHE’s move to join other colleges and universities in using the current economic “crisis” to fundamentally restructure American higher education. This same dynamic is evident in a recent Inside Higher Education article, “A Critique of the Cuts.”  The article reports on a widely circulating video of professor of classical and Near East Studies, Eva von Dassow’s address to the University of Minnesota Board of Regents about continued budget cuts at the university (video below).  I won’t summarize her remarks as you can watch it below.

I do want to point out, however, that the issues that von Dassow identifies are not so different from the ones we hear coming from Kutztown’s administration or the Chancellor’s office at PASSHE.  Here’s a short excerpt from the article:

Specifically, she said that “those programs engaged in the production of knowledge that is readily turned into the money are the targets of investment while the rest are to be downsized into an efficient credit and degree factory.” She cited liberal arts programs losing faculty slots while there is money for new biomedical research professors (taking care to say that biomedical research is indeed valuable and that she was questioning only the idea that other programs aren’t worthy based on their lack of financial payoff).

Here is the video:


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And the struggle against Aramark begins.  Right on time.

Punxsutawney Spirit – Union for IUP workers hints at strike against ..Aramark.

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For a while now I’ve been wanting to write a post responding to several emails and comments I’ve received about this blog.  The specific emails and comments I have in mind have to do with concerns that the XChange is simply “preaching to the choir.”  In all but a couple of cases, these concerns were expressed by people who are invested in building a stronger union, who want to push our local and state union to be more proactive, and who are, by their own admission, part of the choir.

Anyone who has been involved in progressive politics, activism, or labor organizing is undoubtedly familiar with some version of this line of argument: progressives/ activists/ organizers/etc. spend way too much time talking to each other an not enough time trying convince those who are not already on our side.  This claim, of course, is an important one.  But I have always been troubled by an unarticulated consequence of this line of argument that devalues what I might call “rhetorics of solidarity” in favor of “public rhetorics.”  That is, an implication of the criticism that a blog like this is “preaching to the choir” is that a blog like this should strive to reach a “general public” or that the work of a blog like this is a “waste of time.”  Let me emphasize once again that I do not think that was the intention of those who took the time to write me. However, I think these criticisms are part of bigger discourse about what kind of work is valued by progressive/activist/labor communities.

One of the podcasts that I listen to is “Media Matters with Bob McChesney,” which comes out of University of Illinois Public Radio station WILL AM 580. On May 9th, McChesney had Jessica Clark and Tracy Van Slyke on the program discussing their new book, Beyond the Echo Chamber: How Networked Progressive Media Can Reshape American Politics.  Most of the discussion  was centered around the rise of what has become known as the “progressive blogosphere” and how emergent networked media is helping challenge the mainstream media’s lack of critical reporting.

At one point in the discussion McChesney raised the issue of the progressive blogosphere “preaching to the choir.”  Clark and Van Slyke were quick to take issue with the whole notion of preaching with the choir, preferring instead to foreground the concept of “assembling the choir.”  That is, Clark and Van Slyke drew attention to the importance of “rhetorics of solidarity” to a broader progressive project.  In their book, Clark and Van Slyke argue that

“preaching” is actually a false description of what many progressive projects do…it is the assembling and activating of the choir that is the critical strategy.  Just as churches, temples, or mosques serve as the hubs for those seeking to examine and fortify their beliefs, a number of media outlets have evolved into central meeting places for those looking to join, debate, and strengthen political movements (148).

A bit further on they quote from Bob Ostertag’s book, People’s Movements, People’s Press: The Journalism of Social Justice Movements about the importance of “solidarity rhetoric” to any developing social movement:

if we seek a voice in shaping our society beyond our immediate social circle, we have to step outside our daily existence into roles which we are not accustomed and for which we have little or no institutional support.  We have to band together to maximize our very limited time and resources.  Before we can do any of that, we have to find each other–identify others with the same interests who are also willing to step outside their daily lives to pursue our long-shot objectives.  We have to see who’s good at what, who else is doing what, who might rise to the occasion if given half a chance.  We have to make plans, formulate strategies, set priorities.  We have to agitate, educate, mobilize, confront, and more.  In short, we have to constitute ourselves as a political subject, a constituency, a social movement.  And if this we had done this sometime between 1830 and 2000 we would have made a newspaper.  In most cases, it would have been the first thing we did (148-9).

Clark and Van Slyke then add that “From 2000-2008, the first thing that many activists and journalists did to join and define the progressive movement was to start a blog” (149).

Frankly, I think that this work–the work of constituting ourselves as a political subject–has been glaringly absent from both our local and State union work.  This book is helping me think through some of the issues I raised in some earlier posts about the DIY ethic.  It’s that “constitutive work” that has been absent from our union work in any sustainable way.  Since I’ve been here, there have been moments of this work, but in each case it seemed as though we were constituted as a political subject by circumstances. To put it in the terms of my field, we responded to an external exigence–for example, our last contract negotiation.  The problem with that kind of dynamic is that when the exigence is gone, so is the “stuff” that helped link people together.  Some of this is unavoidable, of course.  But it is clear to me that we need more forums–not ONLY the XChange–in which this work takes place.

As the fall semester quickly approaches, so does our next round of contract negotiations and strike preparations.  Our contract expiration date, June 30, 2011, seems like a ways away at this point, but I can promise you that it will be upon us sooner that any of us would like.  And it promises to be a difficult contract negotiations year.  With the organizing we will do, will come new networks of affinity and we will once again constitute ourselves as a political subject.  The question remains as to whether or not we will consciously try and do so or if we will be constituted by circumstances.

For my part, I will continue my work on the XChange as a small piece of constitutive work.  I’m on the other side of the “preaching to the choir” criticisms, recognizing what I think is of value in this little experiment.  That does not mean that I think that the work of getting the word out to the “public,” or establishing effective communication among all of our members is not important.  In fact, I think it’s absolutely critical. And so I return to the critics.  Yes, you’re right.  We do need to do more than “assembling the choir.”

I challenge you to do it.

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Another PASSHE university given notification of possible retrenchment.

Layoffs possible for faculty at IUP – Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

I cannot resist the temptation of pairing the above article with this posting on the Indiana University web page on the same day:

PASSHE Board Recognizes Former President

You may recall that this particular former president, Tony Atwater, was given a strong vote of no confidence by the faculty.  PASSHE’s response at that point?  Give Atwater a sweetheart deal.  Here’s a bit from a June 20 article posted on the Pittsburgh Tribune Opinion page:

The embattled Indiana University of Pennsylvania president, smacked with a recent no-confidence vote by faculty, will walk away with a full year’s salary ($253,428, less payroll deductions), reimbursement for COBRA medical-coverage premiums through June 2011, payment for earned but unused leave, plum retirement contributions and up to $15,000 in moving expenses.

The Pittsburgh Tribune Editorial Board titled the article, “Atwater’s Sweet Deal: Outrageous!”  I’ll say.  But apparently that editorial and disgust at the hypocritical behavior of a PASSHE administration that claims “budget crisis” while handing over sweet deals to their buddies at the top didn’t have an impact on what they do.  Just another sign that the behavior we saw on Wall Street is not limited to stock brokers and traders.  We’ve got plenty of them right here in Pennsylvania. Enough of the deceit.

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In my March 29th post, “On Group Think and Catastrophe,” I reproduced a very pointed argument made at our local APSCUF-KU Meet and Discuss table made by former APSCUF-KU Vice President, Ken Ehrensal.  His argument called out KU Administration budget officials’ problematic use of “worst-case-scenario” logic, in particular, the logic of a budget catastrophe.  Here is an exert from that post:

Second, Ehrensal argued that the budget presentations given by Ken Long, Assistant VP of Administration and Finance, assume every catastrophic scenario.  For example, KU’s budget projections assume a 2.5% annual increase in tuition.  However, the Chancellor has been talking about a 4% increase.  If the Chancellor’s numbers hold, our “budget crisis” will be cut in half.  Long also built-in a 3.5% increase in salary for all union employees (including faculty).  However, all contracts are up for negotiation this year.  New contracts for all university unions will be in place starting July 2011.  If the salary increases are lower than 3.5%, the “budget crisis” could be cut in half (I didn’t write down the percentage that Ehrensal was working with).  Further, Long built-in to h

is analysis that the PA Legislature will not fix the problem with PSERS (PA State Employee Retirement System).  Failure to fix the problem, while possible, is not likely.  In short, the budget presentations represent a catastrophic scenario…not a likely scenario.

Despite our best efforts at the table, the administration continued to use these “catastrophic” budget projections in its presentation to faculty, staff, KU’s Board of Trustees, the Chancellor of PASSHE, and, of course, the media.  Just about every local news story about Kutztown administration’s move to retrench faculty and staff was willing to print the administration’s story of a dire budget crisis without question.  I personally reached out to a few reporters, pointed them to this blog, emailed them, and spoke to them on the phone about the problems with the Kutztown administration’s argument.  But, frankly, the adminstration’s narrative was compelling, especially since it seemed to echo that of the broader “economic crisis” narrative in the U.S. today.  In some ways, I can understand why our arguments, Ehrensal’s arguments in particular, did not gain traction.  It’s not easy to swim against the current of a dominant cultural narrative, especially when that narrative takes the form of a torrential downpour.

But just because a cultural narrative is compelling doesn’t mean that it’s accurate or true.  As a scholar and teacher of rhetoric you are taught to be very critical of cultural narratives that seem to “sweep people up” into them.  Such narratives are the ones that allow governments, businesses, con-men, and cult leaders get masses of people to do things that in “normal” times they would never do.

Well, that’s where we are folks.  KU’s administration has used the “catastrophe” narrative to cut jobs, removed fired administrators and staff from their offices with police escorts, reorganize programs, eliminate majors, all under the cover of media reports that reaffirmed what many people feared: “there’s nothing we can do.”  Well, the narrative hasn’t held.  As a matter of fact, in turned out that Ehrensal underestimated the degree to which KU’s administration was padding its numbers in order to create the appearance of crisis.  Here’s and article from yesterday’s Philadelphia Inquirer:

Pa. system approves 4.5% hike in college tuition

Undergraduate tuition at Pennsylvania’s state-owned colleges will increase $250, or 4.5 percent, under a $1.5 billion budget approved Thursday by the system’s board of governors.

Annual tuition for full-time resident undergraduates beginning this fall will be $5,804, which the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education said was the lowest among all four-year colleges and universities in the state. The system said it would receive $503.4 million in state and federal funding to support the current-year operating budget.

Resident graduate school tuition in 2010-11 will be $6,966, an increase of $300. Nonresident graduate tuition will increase $480, to $11,146. – Inquirer staff

You with me here?  Recall Ehrensal’s argument:

For example, KU’s budget projections assume a 2.5% annual increase in tuition.  However, the Chancellor has been talking about a 4% increase.  If the Chancellor’s numbers hold, our “budget crisis” will be cut in half.

Put simply, KU’s “budget crisis” has just been trimmed over 50% without a single faculty member losing her or his job, no program consolidation, no outsourcing of vehicles (yes, KU is now outsourcing to Enterprise Rent-a-Car at a cost of $41 a day.  I have heard, but haven’t yet confirmed that this is a PASSHE initiative).  So, there’s half your budget crisis.  It also looks like the PA Legislature is going to resolve the “crisis” in PSERS.  That “crisis” was supposedly going to put KU back by around $6 million.  Assuming that crisis have been averted, as predicted by Ehrensal, that cuts the “crisis” back even further.  You still following?

What this basically means is that KU’s administration and the administration at other PASSHE universities are not simply carrying out German-style austerity measures.  They are restructuring the State University system under the cover of the “budget crisis.”  As if citizens of the Commonwealth haven’t already experienced more than their share of “belt-tightening.”  Now, KU’s administration is given us all a spooky story right before bed in order to decrease citizens access to higher eduction–the very thing we’re told that is required to lift us out of this downturn.  Unjust desserts for the majority once again.

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As the fall semester quickly approaches and more PASSHE universities have announced plans to retrench over the summer, it is going to become increasingly necessary to continually ask the question: what’s the plan?

As several faculty members at Kutztown have pointed out, the administration’s retrenchment moves have seem haphazard at best.  The only organizing principle for their decision to close the Nursing program, for example, seems to have been made by rather crude accounting that the program was not currently “making money” for the university.  Yet, it would be wise for all of us  to place these “local” decisions into a a broader context.  Take, for example, this article from yesterday’s GantDaily.com.  The article discusses a recent report, “Offshorability of Pennsylvania Jobs,” issued by Penn State’s Workforce Education and Development Initiative:  Here’s a link to the article:

Penn State Experts: PA is More Susceptible to Job Offshoring | GantDaily.com.

The report points out that Pennsylvania jobs are more susceptible to offshoring compared to the rest of the nation.  That is because that many of the jobs–most of the jobs in some areas of the Commonwealth, actually–are in jobs that are considered high risk for offshoring.  What are some of the jobs that are NOT as susceptible to offshoring?  If you guessed health care jobs–in particular nursing–you’d be on the right track.

And yet, Kutztown chose to cut the nursing program.

The administration’s decisions have shown a persistent pattern of making decisions based upon short-term thinking, immediate cost-cutting, or what the magic 8-ball said.  Pennsylvanians deserve more than being treated like a number in an accountant’s ledger.  We need to demand that those people tasked with “managing” our educational lives (and lives in general!), plan for our future, not simply look for ways to wield their hatchets.  In the case of PASSHE, this means university administrations, university Boards of Trustees, the Chancellor and his staff, the PASSHE Board of Governors, our State Legislators, and the Governor (current and future).

So, if the plan involves only a hatchet with little consideration of long term planning, then maybe it’s time to “offshore” the administration and our State legislators to give all of us and our families a chance to live our lives with dignity and hope.

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