Power, Part I

There have been a few moments that have floored me recently. And I like to think that I’m rarely floored. My intent is to discuss one at a time until I run out. In trying to figure out if there’s any recurring theme to these moments, I have determined there is. That commonality is “power.” In particular:

Why do faculty believe they have power?

Pandemic chic. I found a dress to match the gloves.

The first instance that made me ask this question involves universities’ decisions regarding telework, hybrid, in-person instruction for the spring (or even this last fall). Admin makes some proclamation, and it’s not popular with a large number of faculty and so many professors, well, profess. I have heard via chats, and seen online in social media, so many instances—not just in math departments—where faculty say “We need to band together” or “I’m going to quit if they make me [return to the classroom/teach hybrid/go online]!” The University of Florida, which has BOTH faculty and students protesting returning in-person in the spring, are being told “No” by the state and by the Board of Trustees. And that’s an instance of faculty working WITH students. UNC Chapel Hill had an op-ed published in the local paper by a small group of faculty (small = around 50-75 professors on a campus that boasts around 4000 faculty members). But I honestly doubt anything will come of that.

Because let’s be real: unless you are in a position to say “I retire” or “I take unpaid leave” you are highly UNLIKELY to go against your university’s decision. Depending upon who you ask, we are at high risk to soon enter a recession or depression. Unless you were applying for jobs in September, and assuming there are even jobs to be had (#budgetcuts), you’re basically saying goodbye to academia. While non-academia would pay more, if you’re currently an academic the learning curve in marketing yourself, in forming a network and connections, in buying a new wardrobe and establishing a new routine…it’s a lot, even without a pandemic. And then many colleagues broadly defined have these things called families, often with dependents called “children.” When you leave a job through retirement or quitting or unpaid leaving, you lose your salary. You often lose your benefits too. If you don’t have a second person in your household who could contribute to those fronts, leaving a job during a pandemic/financial crisis losing both income and health insurance doesn’t seem like the wisest life decision.

And admin knows this. Let’s assume a group of faculty is capable of “banding together” (it rarely happens even at the department level, but we’ll suppose it’s happened for argument’s sake). Admin will, and honestly should, call the faculty bluff. Why? Because there’s a line out the door of younger, cheaper applicants willing, wanting, and waiting to replace these moaners and groaners. And that’s assuming they won’t take faculty leaving as a way to downsize and save more money down the road. Even pre-pandemic, I know that with one of my former jobs with my leaving the line was discontinued.

So suggestions I’ve seen about faculty striking, or faculty teleworking regardless of university policy just make my eyes roll. Go ahead and strike. You know you don’t get paid when you strike, right? Go ahead and don’t teach hybrid/in-person/online like you’re being told to. You know teleworking when your university hasn’t approved it is basically grounds for dismissal?

If you start arguing about your special contribution to your department/college, I’m going to quote Queen Bey: don’t you ever for a second get to thinking you’re irreplaceable. There are great teachers everywhere, if that’s what you think you contribute; someone else could redesign a course, or coach a Putnam team, or whatever it is you do on that front. If you have grant money, it really doesn’t matter how much: does it compare to the amount of money the students, alums, parents, state/federal government, and endowment bring in? Doubtful. While I wasn’t using it as a bargaining chip, I’ve actually seen first-hand with former employers that they really do not care much or at all about the money you bring to their table.

The number of academics who actually have pull is unbelievably small. Chances are, you’re not in that group. Chances are, a collection of faculty who individually aren’t in that group also isn’t equivalent to one in that group.

So, then…if faculty don’t really have power, who does? This shouldn’t be a newsflash, but the answer is:


Money has power. Many colleges, even those that were online exclusively in the fall, are saying in-person in the spring…or at the very least, bring the students back to dorms. There’s a very simple reason for that: money. Colleges that didn’t have students in the dorms and using meal plans and shopping at the student union were hemorrhaging funds. And if prior to this many schools were in financial trouble this certainly didn’t help. The average board and room (not tuition) costs $\$8000$ a year for community colleges, $\$10,500$ at public colleges, and $\$12,000$ at private colleges. Multiply that by even 1000 students and you’re talking upwards of $\$12$ MILLION—and that’s really low-balling at a lot of colleges because that only estimated 1000 living on campus. Does your grant give the college $\$12$ million or more? Then add to this a fear/reality of dropping enrollments, the volatility of the market causing losses in endowments, the lack of college sports and fans throwing money at the school, the at-wits’-end feeling of the general public that craves a return to “normalcy”, the fact that you leaving because you’re unhappy about your working conditions means either closing an expensive line or getting someone cheaper to take your place.

Go ahead and protest. Go ahead and strike. Go ahead and put admin in their place.

Dare ya.

My recommendations? Either keep your mouth shut and buy some PPE or learn to use the technology you have, because the complaining makes you look intolerable, or go where the money is. Forget about “banding together” with other faculty or even with current students: get the president of the alumni association on your side. Get a trustee on your side. THEN tell admin what to do, where to go, and what you want.

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