Academic luftmensch takes reality shower

Tomorrow is my first day teaching for the fall semester. Not my first by decades, but distinguished for me by a deeply dismaying failure of my company’s leadership and of the State of California’s political machinery. The second has been discussed exhaustively; we’ve tied a Gordian knot involving so many threads from so many mistakes that it’s very hard to see how any realistic set of actions can undo it: term limits, budgeting by initiative, safe districts, Proposition 13, supermajority requirements for tax increases and budgets, and more.

What this meltdown has done to the University of California is to leave us trying to cope with a very large reduction in state funding, partly by a hastily designed program of forced furloughs for staff and faculty, partly by fee increases for students, partly by firings and layoffs of non-tenured employees…and I guess, partly by not mowing the lawns or keeping the place in repair. Last week we were informed by our Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost by email of the details of the furlough program including the following: “The Office of the President has decided that faculty may not take their elective furlough days on those days when they are scheduled to teach.” The University has a President, lately Mark Yudof, and each campus has a Chancellor; mine is Robert Birgeneau, a physicist. The EVC&P, George Breslauer, is his number two, a sort of XO, and a faculty member, not a staffer.

Whether the furloughs should be on teaching days or, at the opposite extreme, hidden in winter and spring break periods, had been the subject of extensive debate on a listserv of concerned faculty at Cal and probably at other campuses as well. My problem is twofold. First, with this order, I’m facing an irresolvable conflict of duties. Second, complicating the decision, I’ve received no leadership whatever from the President, the Chancellor, my dean, or even the EVC&P (unless you count retailing orders down the chain as leadership). How is it possible that we have not at least scheduled a full faculty event in the football stadium of every campus, where the chancellor and the president tell us what they want us to do and why, and where they are steering the university and the campus?

On the side of protecting teaching days from furlough time is our duty to our students to teach them, an especially strong claim given that they are paying more for their education and getting bigger classes, dirtier bathrooms, burned-out lightbulbs, and all the rest of a great institution’s slow decline into crumminess. Another ‘argument’ on this side is prudential, an assertion that we should not do anything to make the legislature angry or they will hurt us again. And a third is that I have now received a legitimate order from the legitimate governance of my employer to do so.

Against this plan is our duty to our students to teach them what we believe to be true, an especially strong claim etc. Teach them what, and how? That’s where this gets complicated, especially for a public policy professor, maybe less for my chemist colleagues. What I believe to be true is that the California electorate, including my students’ parents and relatives, and including them if we don’t do something about it, is deeply ignorant and feckless about the iron laws relating taxes and government services. This ignorance has been cultivated by a succession of state senior politicians, including the current Governor who to my knowledge has never used the words “tax” and “service” in the same paragraph, maybe not in the same speech. We (citizens and leaders both) have used smoke and mirrors and borrowing and lies to help each other pretend that we can have low taxes and high services, and reality is finally having its say.

I believe it to be true that the budget of the university cannot be cut and cut without having less of what a university delivers. I believe the citizens have the right to make such cuts if they want to buy less from my store, but they don’t have the right to make me misrepresent reality in my teaching. So to conspire with this willing mendacity by doing my small part to hide the consequences of the budget cuts is to teach by example what I know not to be true, in particular that we can have the same university services without paying for it. Of course I could tell the students what I think and follow the furlough instructions, but I have to consider, when I see someone do one thing and say another, which do I believe?

It is particularly vicious and inexcusable for an organization to put its people in a situation where by following orders they violate larger duties to their society (and to the institution). Sort of like telling CIA agents to torture people, of course in a smaller and less dramatic way, actually. So I’m not having warm and loyal feelings to my authority structure at the moment. My feeling of having been abandoned by leadership is aggravated by the complete invisibility of the President and the Chancellor at this time of enormous crisis for the institution. I read the newspaper and attend to lots of other media, including my official emails, and I honestly have no idea what either of them really thinks we should be doing as a faculty.

We’ve received no discussion of the politics of protecting our state funding – would the legislature really be “angry at us”, whatever that means, or would it help us if all our students’ parents heard that Johnny had no classes this week because their reps and senators couldn’t or wouldn’t pay for it? Breslauer is a distinguished political scientist, for Pete’s sake! We’ve had absolutely no indication that campus leadership is going to use the current crisis to focus our attention on finding ways to do more, better, teaching (or anything else) with less, even though – I have some expertise in quality assurance practice – I know that we have many opportunities to do this if we would take the challenge seriously. Instead, the Chancellor terminated the position of Provost for Teaching and Learning and sent this very dedicated woman back to her normal faculty slot, without any public discussion or explanation. We’ve had no recognition whatever of the conflict among duties I describe above, something that a minimal concept of leadership would seem to put front and center.

I know teaching is a back-burner concern of the chancellor partly because of a disheartening exchange of emails I had with him several months ago. Briefly, he took me off an ad hoc promotion review committee because I had warned him that I wouldn’t again sign a report for case in which the department’s evidence on teaching effectiveness didn’t meet the minimal requirements of our Academic Procedures Manual (not the teaching, just the kinds of evidence presented to demonstrate it). He said the case was unlikely to meet my “high standards”; how the legal minimum became “high” remains mysterious to me. Teaching is not a back-burner issue for me, but the company doesn’t at all owe it to me to put my hobbyhorse at the head of the parade, not at all. What it does owe me is visibility and presence of people who are paid a lot to lead us, directing our attention to work that needs to be done, and especially so during a really critical time for the enterprise. We have had none of it, just confusion and improvisation dribbled out in mass administrative emails and unexamined orders passed down from a President’s office that is spectacularly, well, on some sort of furlough. There has been neither evidence of leadership going to bat for us against the cuts (as representatives of the organization to its authorizing environment), nor have they sought to legitimate them and explain why we should try to make them work (as representatives of the authorizing environment to us).

Putting aside my resentment at being abandoned by our officers while the ship is drifting towards the rocks, I still have to decide what to do about the furlough. My current intention is to violate the order, cancel at least one day of class, make it clear to the students what we are not covering because of the budget cuts, and to do it openly and notoriously (this is obviously another duty) by means of this post. I’d like to feel all heroic and noble, but I don’t expect to suffer any real consequences, which is actually to the further discredit of our administration. Sigh.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.