Voted-out, not fouled-out

union pic

Clock photo by Nina Weinstein

Although last week's vote was devastating for many of us, few can deny that the faculty spoke decisively in an election that had a higher turnout (95%) than any faculty election in recent memory. It may seem like cold comfort to union supporters, but I really do believe that we can be proud of the positive campaign we waged--in forums and on the listserv, we refused to make accusations, ascribe hidden motives, or question the character/abilities of our opponents. Instead, we tried to direct the conversation towards what a union could accomplish for faculty and for PSU, and to respond to questions/accusations (even when the answer was ignored and the question repeated many times).

In the last weeks of the campaign, the organizing committee assumed the attacks and accusations ("secret agendas," "retaliation" and the constant refrain that excluding contract faculty from the bargaining was somehow "dirty politics") of the most vocal anti-unionists would only resonate with those of like-mind and would either fall flat with undecided faculty or possibly even nudge a few in our direction (and, anecdotally, we did hear from three or four who were persuaded to vote YES in reaction to those tactics). In fact, we assumed that even responding to some of the most outlandish claims would make us seem as vehement (and thus irrational) as those most vocal opponents. However, if we lost as many supporters in the final weeks as it appears, we may have been wrong on both counts.

From the beginning, we certainly knew we would lose if we failed to convince our colleagues that a faculty union was right for PSU. Had the debate centered more on the merits, necessity and efficacy of unions, I suspect the loss would sit easier on many of us--we made our best case, they made their best case, faculty weighed both and decided. But that is where the takeaways from the election are unclear -- at least for me:
  • if we believe that our colleagues voted against a union in spite of the differences in tone and focus, then perhaps we need to rethink our position.
  • if, as seems to be the case, their tactics did persuade faculty who had otherwise been open to considering a union... well, how are we to react to that?
Forming a faculty union will not happen--at least not in the near-term. Rehashing what we might have done differently is useful, to a point, but only if we have the distance and perspective to question every assumption we made (and the assumptions we may be making in hindsight). That doesn't mean we can't work to make positive change, though. If we are up to it, perhaps our real challenge is finding a way to raise the level of discourse among faculty.

I had a long (and restorative) conversation with a friend who teaches at Eastern Kentucky last night. He pointed out that such tactics (even obviously fallacious tactics), and susceptibility to those tactics, are not only not rare in university discourse, but they are almost as much the norm here are as they are in the wider society.

The union discussion became mostly ugly. While I didn't exactly lose friends over it, I have less regard for a few than I once did. But attacking (or making insinuations about) the character of opponents isn't new behavior for PSU and we all share some of the blame. Every few years the faculty is called on to make some seemingly important decision: gen ed, four-credits, attendance policy, unionization.... Each time, in the midst of the more intelligent conversation, one faculty member or another rises to argue that they support position-X because they are compassionate towards students (and thus, those who hold any other position are NOT compassionate), or they oppose position-Y "because I, personally, enjoy teaching," (and thus, those who hold any other position do NOT enjoy teaching). When we simply move on to the next speaker and allow such manipulations to pass without remark we are complicit in what amounts to a discourse foul. When enough of those fouls pile up, we lose the ability to have real debate, much less dialectic (a concept that was, ironically, much invoked early in the union discussion, but mentioned more rarely when anti-union folks developed an offensive strategy).

If just one of us chooses to confront colleagues when red cardthey commit such fouls, they will almost certainly be dismissed as a sort of crank. But if enough of us make it a point to call out fallacies when we see them...well, we'll probably still be ignored by many, but we may actually create a PSU culture that encourages more colleagues to argue the merit of ideas...and to question those who rely on emotional manipulation.

And in the end, maybe THAT's one way to improve faculty engagement in governance -- more people may be more willing to do more work on more ideas if they are less likely to have their character attacked in the process.

PSU's web presence

Our CIO, Dwight Fischer, recently attended a faculty meeting where he advocated putting "dirty laundry"--such as our faculty and committee meeting minutes--behind the firewall. He makes an eloquent argument for it here. In a nutshell, Dwight's argument is that prospective students are not arriving at our site through the "front door" of www.plymouth.edu, they're coming through the attic window of Google and Yahoo! This, he argues, might make their first impression of PSU a messy one if they arrived at meeting minutes or one of the hundreds (thousands?) of other pages that are not properly vetted.

I think he's right that many of our pages are outdated, irrelevant, and even sloppy. I also agree that many people don't give a site a second chance if they arrive at a page that is confusing or unprofessional (why should they when there are so many to choose from). To that end, I'm in favor of surveying the site--including oz pages--and requesting that specific pages be updated, corrected, or even deleted. I'm sure we could program something to crawl our site periodically and automatically notify people of pages that are more than 1 yr. old (we could exempt specific pages if the owner notified ITS that those pages should stay). We should support this effort by making web-authoring courses/sessions widely available to faculty/staff/students and insisting that all student orgs, departments, etc. review their entire site periodically. In other words, if there are steps we can take to make our site better (better-produced, better-written, better-maintained, etc.) lets take them.

But let's not allow a marketing ethos to supplant our educational ethos. First, I think the Internet abilities of students have been mischaracterized. On the one hand, I think it's hype to say that a whole generation is busily blogging and podcasting and [the-next-big-thing]ing. I think young people are divided much as the rest of us. There are the bleeding-edgers (for whom blogging is already dead, replaced with vlogging), then there are the vast middle group who use technology when it's easy, sexy, and/or useful, and there are the resistors who disdain technology altogether. Once a technology meets that middle threshold, I think most of those young people become very adept, very quickly. And here's my point--Googling is no longer edgy. My students may not know how to use WebCT when they first get here, but they are already VERY adept at Googling...so much so that I strongly doubt great numbers of potential students would accidently wind up in the Athletic Council minutes when they were really looking for PSU Football tryouts.

Second, and this is my real point, as a public institution, our decision making should be open to public scrutiny. If the minutes are sloppy, we should do better. If the issues are too complex for someone who stumbles into them accidentally, we'll just have to live with that. One faculty member argued that public discovery of the fact that we had heard a presentation on a "A Culture of Peace" at the faculty meeting might fuel the controversy over a liberal professoriate. Never mind the implication that our "Culture of Peace" would only succeed if it were secret, better Jane Q. Public stumbles on it accidentally, than a good muckraker finds the same information (because they WOULD EASILY find that info...unless we hide it even from students...who are paying the bill) hidden from the public. How can we advocate knowledge for those who seek it, then hide information? I think we should invite questions about our policies and about the deliberative process that goes into them. We often make tough decisions in these meetings--we should make the record of those decisions available. In fact, I think that civility is something we should proudly proclaim: "PSU newsflash--Faculty discusses 'Culture of Peace' -- No one is called a traitor!" Transparency in government (and folks, my paycheck says I'm part of the government) is vital in a democracy.

I come from a corporate background where marketing, branding, etc. often steer the ship. In a corporate context, I don't necessarily disagree with that paradigm--after all, their bottom line is usually THE most important factor in their $urvival. I'm still trying to understand how academia balances its priorities.