24 March 2015

Voting in Academia: Should contingents get the same voting privileges as tenure-track faculty?

Stephen Kershnar
Who Votes? Democracy and Academia
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
March 9, 2015

A fascinating article by SUNY-Fredonia English professor Emily VanDette (“Who Gets a Vote in Departmental Decisions?” in The Chronicle of Higher Education) signals a looming battle in academia. For years, tenure-track faculty along with university administrators have decided important issues in academia, including how academic departments (such as chemistry and history) are run. They’ve done so without allowing contingent faculty a vote.    

A tenure-track professor is a professor has or likely will have a permanent position at a university. Usually, people in these positions get paid reasonably well and have strong job protection. Traditionally, they are thought to be full members of the faculty in the sense that they have all the duties and privileges traditionally associated with being a professor.

In contrast, a contingent (or adjunct) professor is a professor hired for a specific purpose or length of time and often receives only part-time pay. For example, they are often paid per class and not paid well. They are not given all the duties and privileges of full membership in the faculty. For instance, they don’t have to do research and, also, don’t get a vote and strong job protection. They get last choice in classes and, when enrollment is down, get fewer classes thereby reducing their already meager income.   

The tenure-track faculty’s role has recently been challenged in that the contingent faculty have asked for and received more of a say in how departments and universities are run. Specifically, they want a vote on what’s taught, who gets hired, and who’s in charge. VanDette’s article nicely lays out the Fredonia English Department’s divisive struggle over this issue. The problem is that contingent faculty do more of the teaching at a college than ever before and are more often than in the past making careers out of adjunct work. As of last year, contingent faculty did roughly 50% of the teaching at Fredonia, but got only about 20% of the pay given to professors.

One theory of democracy is that it is justified because it allows people govern their own lives in the sense that they can control the world around them. As adjuncts are more commonly teaching at a university for longer periods of time and increasingly making adjunct teaching a career, the self-government argument strengthens because the university becomes more important to their lives.

A second theory of democracy is that it is justified by the equal respect people can and should demand of others who are part of an organization. The equal respect can be seen in that when everyone gets a vote, people’s interests and preferences are given equal consideration.  

The problem with both theories is that they don’t apply to the workplace. Consider a small family-owned restaurant. Morally, it is owners and not employees who have the right to decide how the restaurant is run. The rights of ownership exhaust the moral rights to control the business. Of course, restaurant owners should consult its workers because the workers often know more about the day-to-day operation of the business than anyone else, including the owners.

Even if were the case that owners did not have the right to control their own restaurant, there would still be legitimate reasons to give some people more of a say than others. Cooks and servers at the restaurant who have worked there full-time, done so for decades, and who oversee the other workers likely know more and have more at stake than transitory and part-time workers. It is consistent with self-government and equal respect that these differences be taken into account by giving the full-time people more of a say.

In addition, in academia, faculty votes count as no more than advice given to the university’s administrators. As such, there is little reason to think that self-government justifies faculty voting in general, let alone granting adjuncts the same voting privileges as tenure-track professors.

The equal-respect argument is murky here in part because equal respect is consistent with different roles being assigned based on knowledge, experience, and investment in an organization.    
   
A third theory of democracy is that it is justified because voting results produce better decisions than other forms of group decision-making, such as dictatorship. The idea is that publicly vetting ideas and including more people in the decision-making allows for more information to be considered and for it to be better used. Democracy is also better because it forces the group to take more people’s interests into account. An example of this last point is economist Amartya Sen’s observation that large-scale famines don’t occur in democratic countries with a free press.

On this theory, voting works better when voters are more informed, not coerced into voting one way rather than another, and invested in the outcome (they have some skin in the game). In the academic context, tenure-track professors meet these conditions to a greater degree than do adjuncts.    

As a general matter, and there are exceptions, tenure-track members know more about their fields than contingent faculty. They beat out stiffer competition to get a tenure-track spot and are required to have an active research program prior to tenure. They also know more about the university because they sit on more committees and do more service-related work. They often have doctorates (or other terminal degree) rather than a master’s degree. 

Tenure-track faculty are less subject to pressure from the administration and other faculty because their positions and salaries are more secure. They are also more invested in the university because they are more likely to work there longer and are more financially dependent on it than are contingent professors.

The tenure-track faculty’s greater knowledge about their field, lesser vulnerability, and greater investment in the institution make it likely that their voting will achieve better results if their votes are not diluted by the votes of contingent faculty. Even the proponents of contingent seem to agree to some extent in that they rarely argue that contingent faculty should get to vote on tenure and promotion. Still, fewer proponents want graduate students to vote. This is despite the fact that their arguments support both outcomes.


This better-result argument is correct and it explains why, traditionally, only tenure-track members get a vote. It also explains this voting rule is more rigidly enforced the higher up the university on the academic food chain. Still, when contingents are not allowed to vote, it just seems disrespectful and a denial of their right to self-governance. As contingents teach an ever larger portion of classes, the challenge to traditional academic voting rules will continue, even if it is mistaken. 

18 February 2015

Colleges Overreacting to Hoaxes

Stephen Kershnar
Academics and Hoaxes
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
February 17, 2015

 Here is a prediction. There will be a high profile incident of racism or sexism on a major college campus in the next year or two and it will turn out far different from how it is portrayed in the resulting media feeding frenzy. The incident will cause wailing and gnashing of the teeth on campus, especially from the administration, but little attention will be paid once the response proves to be an overreaction. My prediction is based on the last decade.   

Exhibit A in this pattern is the infamous Duke Lacrosse case. In 2006, an African-American stripper (Crystal Gail Mangum) falsely accused three members of the Duke Lacrosse team of raping her. Duke cancelled the lacrosse team’s season and forced the coach to resign. The prosecutor (Mike Nifong) was up for reelection and he recklessly pushed the cases even as evidence of the players’ innocence piled up. Mangum’s various accounts of the evening were inconsistent, they conflicted with the other stripper’s account, two of the players had strong alibis, the DNA evidence failed to support Mangum’s story, and so on. Nifong even conspired to hide evidence that supported the players’ account. So outrageous was Nifong’s conduct that the next year (2007) the North Carolina Attorney General proclaimed the players’ innocence and labeled Nifong a rogue prosecutor. Nifong was later disbarred for his conduct and briefly did jail time for trying to hide the DNA evidence. The players sued and received a substantial payout from Duke for how it treated them. Jesse James Deconto and Joseph Neff, writing for CNN, speculate that Duke might have paid the three as much as $50 million. A few years later, Mangum stabbed a boyfriend and is now doing real time for murder. For anyone familiar with Mangum’s track record, her imprisonment is sad, but unsurprising. 

The actions of the crazy left faculty at Duke’s actions were noteworthy. Eighty eight professors at Duke (Group of 88) signed an advertisement two weeks after Mangum claimed to have been raped. The advertisement was incoherent, but it described Duke as a morass of racism and sexism. “Regardless of the results of the police investigation, what is apparent everyday now is the anger and fear of many students who know themselves to be objects of racism and sexism, who see illuminated in this moment’s extraordinary spotlight what they live with everyday … We’re turning up the volume in a moment when some of the most vulnerable among us are being asked to quiet down while we wait.” The advertisement suggested that the players were guilty (Why else release it two weeks after the incident?) and that the rape and the response to it reflected the prevalence of racism and sexism at Duke. 

The signatories were the usual suspects. More than half the faculty of three departments signed it (African and African-American Studies, Women’s Studies, and Cultural Anthropology). Foreign Languages (Romance Studies) and the English Department also had scandalously high percentages of faculty who signed. The signatories ignored statistical evidence that it is rare that white men rape black women and, in general, seemed to have little concern for the evidence.

On a side note, SUNY Fredonia invited one of the signatories (Mark Anthony Neal) to speak at Fredonia this Spring.

There have also been a string of campus hoaxes in which colleges have reacted in absurd ways. Nicely summarized by Ashley Thorne writing for the National Association of Scholars, the most absurd example occurred at Oberlin. There, a few alleged hate crimes were followed by an alleged sighting of a Klu Klux Klan member walking across campus. It was most likely a person wearing a blanket on a cold night. This sighting caused classes to be cancelled and rallies and marches to occur. Thorne points out that it later turned out that the supposed hate crimes were perpetrated by two pro-Obama students. One of them told campus police, “I’m doing it as a joke to see the college overreact to it as they have with the other racial postings that have been posted on campus.” Overreactions also occurred at other elite institutions, including Bowdoin, Dartmouth, Princeton, and Williams.

The campus administrations and faculty of some of these schools should have been wary of hoaxes. As Thorn points out, there have been a series of documented campus hoax crimes in recent years, including Trinity International University (2005), George Washington University (2007), the University of Virginia (2007), the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (2011), Central Connecticut State University (2012), University of Wisconsin at Parkside (2012), Montclair State University (2012), and Vassar College (2013). Yet none of this stopped the faculty and administration at Oberlin and elsewhere from treating the hate crimes as if they were real and dredging up tired theories of racism, sexism, and classism. 

Another side note. In Fall 1995, a cross was burned on SUNY-Fredonia’s campus. I do not know if it was a hoax.

What these cases have in common is the use of dubious incidents to push the claim that society oppresses minorities and women. When the incidents were exposed as hoaxes, this is not treated as a counterexample to oppression theory. Nor is it treated as evidence that the theory’s proponents are unreliable experts, at least when responding to particular incidents. There is also a concern about who comprise the faculty who were at the center of the Group of 88 and their peers at other elite schools. That the theories of racism and sexism are problematic just adds to the overall concern.


What would be interesting and worthwhile is if Las Vegas laid odds on the truth or falsity of the next three allegedly racist incidents on campus. There’s nothing like money to cut through the academic fog.   

07 February 2015

A Vicious Attack on the Rich

Stephen Kershnar
In Defense of the Rich
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
February 3, 2015

For President Barack Obama and the left, class warfare never ends. His latest budget plan proposes to soak the rich by raising capital-gains taxes yet again, jacking up the inheritance tax, and creating a new tax on banks. Earlier, he floated a new tax on college savings accounts, but this was embarrassing even for his fellow class warriors. He even proposed a new tax on corporation’s overseas profits. All this is on top of the new taxes included in Obamacare.

One thing is clear. Obama is a child. He has done nothing to reform federal entitlements, such as Social Security, Medicare, despite the fact that they constitute roughly half of federal spending and pose a threat to the government’s solvency. By the time he leaves office, he’ll have added almost as much public debt as all previous Presidents combined. His latest budget contains, roughly, half a trillion dollars in debt. The fact that the current deficit is not much larger is in part due to the budget sequester that the Republicans had to ram down his throat.  

It is worth considering why the rich are constantly being vilified and asked to pay more. The standard reasons given are fairness and efficiency. It is hard to see why it is fair to make the rich pay more. By analogy, consider members of a Jewish temple in rural Connecticut. The richer members pay more money ($10,000) and a higher percentage (5% of income) per year than middle class members (they pay $1,000 and 2%). Poor members go for free and their children get free instruction, books, and kosher meals. This arrangement might be a good way to allow the Jewish community there to flourish, but if poor members demand that, as a matter of fairness, the rich pay more, they are ungrateful takers. What seems most fair is that members pay the same amount.  

Similar to the rich members in the above case, in the U.S., the rich pay far more than their share. According to the Tax Foundation in 2010, their effective income tax rate was more than double that of the middle class and they pay far more in total dollars. They also pay the lion’s share of the corporate, capital gains, and inheritance taxes. Unlike the rich and middle class, the poor pay little, if any, income taxes. In fact, a significant number make money from income taxes through a welfare program called the Earned Income Tax Credit.

It is unclear why fairness demands that the rich pay more than the middle class and poor. People pay the same amount for McDonald’s hamburgers because they receive the same burgers. This seems fair. Why shouldn’t the rich pay the same amount for government services as everyone else? Arguably, fairness requires that the government should be more like McDonald’s in that people get what they pay for. 

Not only do the rich pay more in, but they likely take out less than do the middle class and poor. The poor get free or subsidized medical care, food, housing, education, utilities, and so on. These goodies are expensive. What’s more, a large portion of the bloated government would likely wither away if government officials couldn’t rationalize their job in terms of what they are doing for the poor.

The middle class also takes a lot out of the system in the form of Social Security and Medicare payments, money that is paid out of tax revenue in a pay-as-you-go system. These programs’ alleged surplus isn’t real. Rather, it consists of IOUs held by one government agency against another. Current benefits are paid out of current tax revenue. It is unclear whether the middle class is taking more out than they are putting in. 

While there are exceptions, many poor people are not deserving of large gifts of other people’s money. They are victims of their own choices. Heritage Foundation’s Robert Rector points out that if people do three things (1) graduate from high school, (2) marry before having children, and (3) hold a job, the chance of being poor is low. This can be a challenge growing up in many neighborhoods, and some people have just plain bad luck, but, for most people, it is not too much to ask.

Nor did rich people make poor people worse off by stealing from their stuff. Much of the wealth in our society is from intellectual and entrepreneurial breakthroughs concerning products and business rather than monopolizing limited natural resources. Consider, for example, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and Steve Jobs. It is not as if the rich people are Grinch-like thieves who stole from the poor while they slept.

Efficiency also does not provide a strong reason to raise taxes on the rich. Economic freedom (for example, low taxes and strong property rights) correlates with higher income. It also correlates with greater happiness and higher life expectancy, which is arguably what we should care about rather than focusing on money. Raising taxes on the wealthy reduces economic freedom and will, on average,  make us poorer and less happy. Some studies have even found that economic freedom correlates with economic equality. In any case, the gap between the rich and poor has widened during Obama’s presidency, suggesting that his punitive taxes on the rich have not had their intended effect. 


A common response to this is to concede that neither fairness nor efficiency favors raising taxes on the rich. Still, the respondent claims, basic decency requires that we be compassionate toward the less fortunate and the government redistribution wealth is one way this is done. Perhaps this is true, although I doubt it, but demanding more of the rich when they already pay at least one of every three dollars they make to the government is not compassionate. Instead, it makes the rest of us ungrateful takers.