Thoughts toward a sustainable future inside the neoliberal university

When I started commuting in January between my new house in Hamilton, Ontario and my job in London, Ontario I asked Facebook to tell me what podcasts I should be listening to along the way.

I got a lot of amazing suggestions, and tried many of them. There have been two standouts.

The first is the gorgeous Ear Hustle, a storytelling podcast conceived, created, and produced inside San Quentin State Prison in California. If you are not already a listener, please click on the link just above and remedy that immediately! It’s a fantastic body of work committed to making the not-visible, visible.

The second is Reasons to Be Cheerful, hosted by (the best prime minister Britain never had!) Ed Miliband, and Geoff Lloyd. Reasons to be Cheerful is an “ideas” podcast, which is another way of saying that it thinks about hard stuff to do with being alive in the (mostly, anglo-western) world today and doesn’t shy on the nuance. Enjoy that, mates.

It’s summer so I’m not commuting much (THANK THE GODDESS). But last Thursday I headed up to London for a meeting and another meeting and hanging out with my folks for a bit. And en route I heard a fantastic discussion on the latest Reasons about Donut Economics, with Donut Econ guru Kate Raworth.

WTF?

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(This post will contain a lot of photographs of amazing donuts. You are forewarned.)

Donut economics is a way of rethinking the way growth works in the existing neoliberal capitalist marketplace. Instead of imagining uninhibited, constant growth (aka cancer), Donut Econ aims for a) reasonable prosperity for all humans, within b) earth’s sustainable limits. In the wash, nobody ends up in the donut hole.

Which is a terrible place to be, if you ask me, because it contains no donut.

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(Sorry. But I warned you.)

This podcast would have resonated with me only privately had it not been for a piece I read the same morning in University Affairs about the role that tenured faculty might play in improving working conditions at universities across North America. That piece was adapted from a now-viral Twitter post by my colleague at the University of Waterloo, Aimée Morrison.

Dr Morrison is asking, I think, about how we might implement a version of Donut Economics at our universities, right now.

In other words: she wonders what it would take for us to figure out how to manage prosperity for those less immediately fortunate than We The Tenured are, within the limits of the current university climate.*

Note: this is not the same as wondering about the revolution required to fix the current university climate. (And, if you are reading this in Ontario after last week’s election, that’s a whole other post. Bear with me.)

She writes:

A lot of us with tenure are watching PhD students leave their programs without finishing, go into debt, suffer lousy adjunct jobs and destroy their mental health. We are watching our undergrad programs turned into scaled-up piecework, our administrative structures turn managerial. What can we do?

Because we, the tenured, are the ones to do it. Who else? Marginalized scholars? Contingent workers? Trustees and boards? No. If anyone has the footing, power and safety to push back, it’s tenured faculty. What are you going to do?

Yes, yes, I know: you are just one mid-level associate trying to finish your book, get that grant, grade those assignments. You’re a nobody. Except you’re a nobody with very strong job protection, a stable salary, benefits and institutional access. That is not nothing. Now what?

(There’s lots more. Please click here and keep reading.)

I read Dr Morrison over coffee and toast. I listened to Kate and Ed and Geoff in the car while drinking my smoothie.

Then I put two and two together.

What if we thought the political economy of university labour through Donut Economics?

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(Me and this kid are hungry. No donut holes will do.)

What if we believed, really believed, that we could get everyone out of the university donut hole. NOW. How? Obviously a better provincial / federal / etc funding structure would help (duh). But in the meantime we can do way better (I know I can do way better) advocating for fairer work and compensation structures within our schools, which might go some way toward mitigating the existing mess.

I get why this is hard. We get stonewalled a lot by administration / the culture / expectations about business-as-usual. We are all overworked: it’s a fact. What can those of us up the chain actually do? Our to-do lists are full!

This is, in fact, Dr. Morrison’s central question – and it’s not rhetorical. It’s the thing that I started thinking about, while driving.

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(I also think about donuts when I’m driving. My amazing local is Donut Monster. LOVE THE MONSTER!)

First, ask yourself this. What’s your position of privilege within the existing structure?

I’ll start. I was promoted to full professor with tenure two years ago at Western University. That means I have as much privilege as there is going. Unless I do something illegal and/or unconscionable, my job is secure.

I don’t actually need to publish anything else, ever.

I could perish, literally, before I perish from “publish or perish”.

Nevertheless, every year I get a small salary bump from being rather productive on the publications front. I’m good on teaching evals and service commitments, too. Together, my scores on those metrics amount to roughly $3500 added onto my base salary annually.

Not much to me.

But lots – LOTS – to somebody else.

So: what if we rethought this workload and compensation structure to be more fair?

What if, for example, permanent, tenure-track and tenured contract allocations (the standard 40/40/20 in North America) differed based on where you are in the seniority ranks?

I’m now at the top of the tenured heap, and let me tell you, I have no fucking idea how that happened. Hard work and gross luck, that’s it. That doesn’t make me special.

It makes me lucky.

So, what if we rethink 40/40/20? For those of us snuggling in the cream, I mean.

What if 40% teaching, 40% research, and 20% service shifted, for those of us already sorted, to 25% teaching, 25% research, 25% service to communities inside and outside the university, and 25% to mentorship and support of younger colleagues?

That 25% could be literally ANYTHING that supports the work of the next generation. It could be helping new colleagues find their feet in the workplace culture. It could be grant application support and mentorship for those who have never won external funding support. It could be devoting actual time, energy, and resources to those who don’t have the existing support to get the work done on time and on spec without us.

It could be advocacy work for sessional and part-time colleagues, both inside and outside union structures.

But the crux is that it would need to be incentivized in the contract, built into the labour and reward structure we currently have. (I don’t see it as “just more service” – it can’t fit into the existing 20% allotment for that. There’s too much to do.) It would need, this way, to be legitimized as essential, valuable, university labour.

This is just one potential model of Donut Economics @ Neoliberal University.

I find myself asking myself these questions:

  • do I really need more merit pay?
  • am I far enough along / up the ladder? Do I really need to get further along / up the ladder?
  • could I advocate for better / fairer metrics with the administration at my school? Could I help convince them that supporting younger colleagues deserves recognition in terms of merit scores and/or pay, as much as and/or more than another publication from me?
  • could I help a younger colleague, by actually, materially helping a younger colleague? If so, why shouldn’t I?

I find myself asking: who helped me get it done, the first time out? How were they compensated? (WERE they compensated?)

Personally, I’m profoundly grateful that I got a job. In this climate, I don’t think I’d be all that competitive.

I think I might get some interviews. Maybe.

If we have tenure, are secure, let’s actively remember our good fortune. Let’s remember that we were not that special, once.

We just had amazing timing.

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Kim

*Friends in the UK and Australasia, I get that this is a bit outside your wheelhouse. Please adapt as you see fit!

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