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In Response to Pending Grad Strike at U. Oregon, Administration Urges Faculty to Make Exams Multiple Choice or Allow Students Not to Take Them

21 Nov

Graduate students at the University of Oregon are about to go on strike. A year ago, I talked on this blog about the faculty union’s effort to negotiate a fair contract. Because so many folks here and elsewhere put pressure on the administration, we helped get the faculty a good contract. Now we need to do stand in solidarity with the grad students. Joe Lowndes, who’s an associate professor of political science at the University of Oregon, wrote this guest post on the negotiations and impending strike. Read what he’s got to say—the administration really is urging full-time faculty to turn essay-based, lengthy final exams into multiple choice Scantron tests or simply to allow undergrads to forgo taking the exam altogether—and then make sure to write the folks he says to write and sign the petition he suggests we sign.

* * * * *

After a year of failed negotiations, graduate employees at the University of Oregon are about to go out on strike.

The major point of contention is a demand by the graduate union—Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation—for two weeks paid leave for illness or childbirth.

This is an important struggle for graduate students, who carry an enormous teaching, grading and research load at the university. It is also an important struggle for the faculty, which the university seeks to press into service as strikebreakers. What we are seeing here is the kind of anti-labor tactics at which institutions of higher education across the US are becoming adept. At the same time we are seeing powerful solidarity between grad students, faculty and classified staff.

The GTFF demands are modest. Indeed, Eugene, where the University of Oregon is located, is mandating sick leave benefits for all workers across the city. But because university employees are exempted, the GTFF must bargain for them.

(An irony at the heart of this labor dispute is that the interim university president, Scott Coltrane, is a sociologist whose work is focused on family leave. He has been featured in The Atlantic, on NPR and was even at the White House last June to speak about the importance of parental leave policies. Such are the corporate institutional imperatives of universities today that his administration feels compelled to oppose such policies for graduate employees. )

Late last month a secret memorandum from senior administrators was circulated to deans and directors outlining a plan to break the strike by hiring scab labor and weakening academic standards for undergraduate education. Here are a few excerpts.

For the faculty who have a union the administration recommends they be conscripted as scabs like so:

It is generally understood that supervisors [i.e., chairs] can approach represented faculty [i.e., in the bargaining unit] and engage them in a dialogue about assisting for the duration of the strike. This assistance may include, but is not limited to: teaching, grading, or participating in the hiring of replacement workers.

Keep in mind that many of these full-timers who are to be “engaged in a dialogue” are not tenured.

For faculty who are not in the bargaining unit there’s this:

Similar to represented faculty, we will be seeking volunteers from among our unrepresented faculty ranks for coverage of work previously assigned to GTFs. Unlike represented faculty, there is no ambiguity as to whether departments can explicitly assign the work should the need arise. Again, every effort should be made to find volunteers to cover the work.
Volunteers who will be assigned work. Nice.
And because we’re heading into the end of the semester, what does the administration plan for final exams?
For a strike occurring on or after finals week, departments should have a plan in place for covering finals and grading that is performed by GTFs.
1. Consider whether the final exam can be reformatted so that it can be graded easily (e.g., Scantron or multiple-choice). Please note that the reformatted final exams should have an equal level of rigor as originally planned.
2. To provide proctor coverage for exams, please use the teaching function strategies above.
3. Provide students with the following options:
a. For go the final and take the grade they had going into the final
b. Take the final, but receive an “X” (missing grade) until such time that the finals can be graded

The Administration is lining up whatever labor it can find and has posted a pay scale for anyone who wants to scab. Seemingly willing to break the strike at any cost, the university is spending more on legal and consulting fees (not to mention scab pay) than it would cost to cover paid leave.

Fortunately, the administration’s designs have been met with enormous pushback.

First, a powerful resolution was passed by the University Senate titled “Opposition to Efforts by Academic Affairs to Dilute and Degrade Academic Standards in the Event of a Graduate Teaching Fellows Strike.”

Next, twelve department heads and program directors issued a public letter to senior administrators refusing to engage in strikebreaking activities on practical, pedagogical, and moral grounds, threatening to resign their administrative positions if forced to do so.

The graduate students have a number of allies on campus, including steadfast support from our faculty and classified staff unions that are standing steadfast with them. Nevertheless, this is going to be a hard fight for the graduate students, and they will of course bear the brunt of the strike when it happens.

The strike could yet be avoided if the university administration were to offer meaningful concessions. And for that they need more pressure.

You can help by emailing President Scott Coltrane at pres@uoregon.edu and Provost Francis Bronet at provost@uoregon.edu and urging them to settle with the GTFF.

You can also sign this petition:

We—the faculty, staff, and students of the University of Oregon and the community at large—express our strong support for the Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation (the GTFF) in their current contractual negotiations with the University.

In light of the invaluable contribution GTFs make to the instruction and research missions of the University, we feel GTFs have earned a contract that provides them with fair compensation, respectful treatment, and the basic securities provided to other campus employee groups.

We demand that the University take seriously the GTFF’s bargaining proposals— a minimum wage that actually meets living expenses for graduate students in Eugene and paid parental and sick leave.

We stand beside the GTFF and call upon the University administration to take concrete and immediate steps, at the bargaining table and beyond, to provide GTFs with the fair wages, equitable benefits, and respectful working conditions they deserve.

Steven Salaita at Brooklyn College

20 Nov

Steven Salaita and Katherine Franke spoke at Brooklyn College tonight; I moderated the discussion. Three quick comments.

First, the event happened. We had an actual conversation about Israel/Palestine, BDS, Zionism, nationalism, academic freedom, civility. Students offered opposing views, tough questions were posed, thoughtful answers were proffered, multiple voices were heard, there was argument, there was reason, there was frustration, there was difficulty, there was dialogue, there was speechifying, there was back-and-forth. There was a college.

Going into the event, the usual voices mobilized against it. Politicians tried to shut it down. Alan Dershowitz complained he wasn’t invited. I told him to calm down: “In all the years that Professor Dershowitz was a professor at Harvard Law School, he and his colleagues never once invited me to speak, so I’m not exactly clear what all the fuss is about.” Outsiders called the political science department to shout at us.

But there was a difference this time: it was all fairly muted. At no point did any of us think that the administration would cancel the event. We’ve turned that corner. Even the usual suspects seem to be getting tired of their schtick. And the reason is that the event did what it was supposed to do: it created a space for conversation. Maybe we’re moving on?

Which brings me to my second point. All of us at Brooklyn College, and in the larger community, owe a debt of gratitude to the Students for Justice in Palestine. This is now the fourth or fifth (probably more) major event of its kind that they have put on at Brooklyn College since the BDS affair. And each time, they’ve managed to offer members of the College—on all sides of the Israel/Palestine issue—and the community a chance to have a thoughtful discussion. Whatever your position is on this issue, there should be little disagreement that SJP has enriched the College. Not because they advocate for justice in Palestine—though they do that, too—but because they have provided us all with a space to stretch our minds.

Which brings me to my final point. Though I was obviously sympathetic to Steven Salaita going into this event, I came out of it extraordinarily impressed by him. Not merely his character—he’s as haimish as can be—but his intellect. He has an extraordinarily agile mind. Within minutes he can move you from Cotton Mather to Franz Fanon, and throughout the ride, you know exactly where you are. You can see why he’s such a good teacher and why his students love him so much: not because he tells you what you know, but because he takes you somewhere you’ve not been. He had a brilliant riff about how it’s an old trope in colonial discourse that the native corrupts the colonizer, that it’s the native that turns the colonizer from someone who’s as pure as the driven snow into the foulest heart. And suddenly Salaita leaped to Spielberg’s Munich, and showed how it illustrated that exact principle.

This is the man the University of Illinois fired. Because, they claimed, he would be a toxin in the classroom. They have no idea what they’ve squandered.

Israel, Palestine, and the “Myth and Symbol” of American Studies

13 Nov

Lisa Duggan, president of the American Studies Association, has an excellent oped in the Los Angeles Times on the organization’s recent convention in Los Angeles and how the ASA has fared, academically and politically, in the year since it announced its boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

Lisa’s oped reminds me of a point that’s been bothering me for some time.

One of the frequent criticisms that opponents of the ASA boycott make is this: What in the world is an American Studies organization doing concerning itself with the affairs of another country? As one American Studies scholar (to whom Lisa is in part responding) put it in the LA Times:

Ostensibly devoted to the study of all things American, the 5,000-member academic cohort has ventured outside its natural borders and into the crossfire of Israeli-Palestinian politics by voting to bestow pariah status on Israel.

Other similarly inclined critics of the ASA—many of them of an older generation of scholars—often add to this claim a lament for the good old days of American Studies when scholars like Richard Slotkin (who also opposes the ASA boycott of Israel) penned learned and literate trilogies about the long and terrible career of American violence.

But here’s what seems so strange about this claim.

My sense of American Studies—admittedly from outside the field—is that it always has derived a great deal of its animating energy and intellectual purpose from the international arena (otherwise known as other countries). As Lisa’s interlocutor himself acknowledges, the early years of American Studies were shaped by the imperatives of the Cold War, and then in the 1960s and 1970s the field was reshaped by the Vietnam War, producing such canonical works as…Richard Slotkin’s learned and literate trilogy about the long and terrible career of American violence.

In order to reconcile this past of the discipline with the complaints of its contemporary critics, you have to make one of two assumptions: either that the field has another, completely different past or that Israel is not part of the foreign policy of the United States. Either way, you’re living in a fantasy land.

Once upon a time American Studies’s elders took apart the “myth and symbol” of America; now they’ve turned their field into one.

Ah, Princeton: Where the 1950s never died

21 Oct

One day I really have to write an essay on my absolutely all-time favorite magazine: Princeton Alumni Weekly.

In this week’s edition, a letter writer named Houghton Hutcheson—of course—from Bellaire, Texas—of course—writes a grumbling missive about an earlier feature on Jennifer Weiner. Weiner is the fiction writer who’s been on a campaign to broaden our definition of literature to include books often relegated to the chick lit shelf.

After the usual harrumphing about how there’s no such thing as gender in Literature, Hutcheson coughs up this hairball:

Mirroring her [Weiner's] own life experiences, many of her featured characters are “plus-size women.” Let’s be honest; do you know any men who would find this formula appealing?

I dunno. Many of Homer’s characters are strapping, bloodthirsty warriors. Many of Swift’s characters are giants or midgets. Many of Mann’s characters are phlegmatic hypochondriacs. And yet, for centuries, women have somehow managed to get past the outer trappings of these characters. So why is it so inconceivable for Houghton Hutcheson from Bellaire, Texas to get inside the mind of a plus-sized woman? Oh right: because there’s no such thing as gender in Literature.

Ah, Princeton: where the 1950s never died.

Two-Year Visiting Professor Position at Brooklyn College

4 Oct

The political science department at Brooklyn College, of which I am chair, has initiated a search for our Belle Zeller Visiting Professor, which is a two-year position in the department.

Previous holders of the Belle Zeller chair include awarding filmmaker Stanley Nelson, noted historian Genna Rae McNeil, and prominent journalists such as Gary Younge, Juan Gonzalez, and Liza Featherstone, who is our current Belle Zeller chair.

We are looking for a nationally recognized scholar, journalist, writer and/or practitioner in one or more of the following fields: labor, education, health, urban politics, environment, criminal justice, racial equality, national security, immigration, and gender and LGBTQ justice.

Review of applications to begin January 15, 2015 and will continue until the position is filled.

For information on the position and how to apply, please visit www.brooklyn.cuny.edu/facultyjobs and scroll down to 11298.Please share this post widely.

 

 

 

Is the Boycott of the University of Illinois Illiberal?

29 Sep

I’m hearing whispers that some liberal-ish academics think the boycott of UIUC is illiberal and censorious. So let me get this straight. Is the underlying idea that, as an academic, you’re obligated to accept every single speaking invitation you receive? (Let’s recall the terms of the boycott: simply that we will refuse to accept an invitation to speak, or otherwise participate in an event, at the UIUC, until Steven Salaita is reinstated.) Or is it that you’re allowed to say no if your reasons are strictly careerist—i.e., the institution is not high-prestige or the honorarium too low—but not if your reasons are moral principles? Or is it that you think careerism is not only a moral principle but the only acceptable moral principle that would justify a refusal of an invitation? Or is all this liberalism talk besides the point, and it’s just Israel Israel Israel?

It’s Not the Crime, It’s the Cover-up

28 Sep

In the latest turn in the Salaita affair, Ali Abunimah has filed a public records request with the University of Illinois, which the University has not complied with. Raising suspicions of…

Here’s Ali:

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign says it cannot find a key document that may shed light on donor pressure and organized efforts to convince top administrators to fire Steven Salaita for his criticisms of Israel.

The Electronic Intifada requested the document – a memo on Salaita’s views handed to Chancellor Phyllis Wise by a major donor – under the Freedom of Information Act.

However, an 18 September letter from the university informed The Electronic Intifada that “no records responsive to your request could be located.” Under Illinois law, Wise is required to preserve the document as a public record.

The existence of the document in question was revealed in a 24 July email (see below) Wise sent to the university’s senior fundraising staff reporting on a meeting she had with what appears to be a major donor…In the email, Wise writes (emphasis added):

He said that he knows [REDACTED] and [REDACTED] well and both have less loyalty for Illinois because of their perception of anti-Semitism. He gave me a two-pager filled with information on Steven Salaita and said how we handle this situation will be very telling.

This “two-pager” is the document that was requested by The Electronic Intifada and that the university now claims it cannot find.

Maria LaHood, senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), which is part of the legal team representing Salaita, expressed skepticism toward the university’s claim that it cannot locate the document.

“It is hard to believe that Chancellor Wise would have thrown out the two-pager on Professor Salaita given to her by a donor at a meeting that was important enough for her to email details about to top Illinois fundraising officials at midnight, unless there’s a reason she didn’t want it to be made public,” she told The Electronic Intifada.

“The two-pager might indicate a more organized effort to go after Salaita, and it will be one of the many documents we’ll seek in litigation,” LaHood added.

Under the Illinois State Records Act, documents received by Wise and the university are the property of the state. As a public official, Wise is legally required to preserve such records, which may not be disposed of except under conditions set out in the law.

The Electronic Intifada has filed a request with the Public Access Counselor at the office of the Illinois Attorney General to review the facts and law surrounding the University of Illinois’ failure to release the “two-pager” on Steven Salaita handed to Chancellor Phyllis Wise by a pro-Israel donor.

The request notes that under the Illinois State Records Act, Wise, a public officer of a state agency, is legally required to preserve the document in question and the university is legally required under the State Records Act and the Freedom of Information Act to produce the record for public inspection.

As the State Records Act states:

All records made or received by or under the authority of or coming into the custody, control or possession of public officials of this State in the course of their public duties are the property of the State and shall not be mutilated, destroyed, transferred, removed or otherwise damaged or disposed of, in whole or in part except as provided by law. Any person who knowingly and without lawful authority alters, destroys, defaces, removes, or conceals any public record commits a Class 4 felony.

Such felonies may be punishable by a term of imprisonment.

Given the facts set out in the post above and provided to the Public Access Counselor, the request asserts that “reasonable suspicion exists that a public record has been disposed of without lawful authority.”

The Public Access Counselor is an office established by law to help enforce the Illinois Freedom of Information Act and the Open Meetings Act.

“Working under the direction and supervision of the Attorney General and with a team of attorneys and professional staff, the Public Access Counselor’s mission is to help people obtain public documents and access public meetings,” according to the Attorney General’s website.

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