Thursday, May 11, 2017

The University of California: University Governance Gets an “F” on Trust

As part of the government’s 2017 audit of the University of California’s president’s office, California’s auditor, Elaine Howle, sent surveys to administrators at the university’s 10 campuses. The president’s staff directed administrators at the Santa Cruz, San Diego, and Irvine campuses to remove criticism of the office and give higher performance ratings in key areas. The interference was blatant, as it included even a systemwide conference call. As a result, Howle disregarded all of the results as tainted. The audit also uncovered $175 million in undisclosed reserves being held by the president’s office. Janet Napolitano, the U.C. president and former head of the U.S. Homeland Security Department, had betrayed the trust vested in her. The ineptitude likely ran higher, and lower. That is to say, the university’s governance itself was culpable.

For an office with a $686 million budget (the entire university’s budget being $31.5 billion in 2017) and nearly 1,700 employees to betray the trust of the university’s board of regents, the Government of California, and the general public is, as Assemblyman Phil Ting said, “outrageous and unbelievable.”[1] Ting compared the interference to a student who is failing “and magically the professor changes the grade and passes the student.”[2] In fact, the duplicity went beyond Napolitano’s office, for Howle had directed the administrators at the campuses to keep the surveys confidential and yet one UCSF administrator felt entitled to inform Napolitano’s staffers, who in turn began directing administrators on how to respond to the surveys. George Blumenthal, chancellor of the Santa Cruz campus, sent an email to his staff noting that the president’s office was not happy with a long paragraph, so he added, “I suggest you remove the paragraph and submit it.”[3] That a spokeswoman for the president noted that the chancellors had “not been shy in offering opposing views” to that of the president can thus be taken as yet another attempt to mislead.[4]

The irony is that California’s tax-payers had been funding “profligate” salaries of university administrators even as funding cuts mandated by the legislature had hit other areas of the university.[5] For their part, faculty members were not surprised—faculty leaders noted that cynicism had crept in for years as the university governance had increasingly sidelined their voices.[6] Considering both the healthy slush fund and the efforts to manipulate the audit’s survey, as well as the sordid reputation of the university’s administration among the ranks of faculty, the conclusion may be that the university’s board of regents had failed to provide adequate oversight. In other words, the weak link may actually run higher than into the president’s office.


[1] Nanette Asimov, “3 UC Campuses Change Responses in State Auditor’s Survey,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 10, 2017.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Mike McPhate, “California Today: A Cloud Over the University of California,” The New York Times, May 11, 2017.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Student Teaching-Assistants Hunger-Strike at Yale: Facing an Implacable Wall

During the Spring term of 2017, some graduate students at Yale began a hunger strike to pressure the administration to negotiate with their union. At the time, about 70 percent of the instructors at American colleges and universities were part-time—including adjunct instructors and graduate students working as teaching assistants. They were poorly paid and lacked “access to affordable health care, job security or a voice in their working conditions.”[1] I contend that we should not gloss over the real differences between adjunct instructors and teaching assistants, the latter contains an employment element that warrants representation by a union.

Graduate students who work as teaching assistants hunger-strike in front of Yale's administration building (to the right). Directly behind the protesters is the Commons dining hall (which I remember for the Belgium waffles...the gym being fortunately close by).  (Source: NYT)

To be sure, the position of a graduate student leading discussion sections of a professor’s course is quite different than that of an adjunct instructor teaching a class or two per term at a university. A graduate student only works as a teaching assistant for a few years, and upon graduation one can look forward to beginning a career; even if as a professor, that vocation is not merely an extension of being a teaching assistant. The unique academic properties of the teaching-assistant role are borne out by the fact that only students qualify. The compensation is a stipend, typically viewed as a form of student financial aid, and the teaching role is designed to teach the student how to teach—and even provide the student with additional knowledge.

As a teaching assistant at Yale, I jumped at the opportunity to teach the History of Modern China and the History of European Integration (e.g., the EC and the E.U.) precisely because I could learn more than what was offered in the courses I was taking. I was by no means a student—not to mention an expert!—of China or the European Union. The Yale administration held that its graduate students could aptly lead discussion sections on material outside of our main area of study because we learn so well. So it is strange that the administration during the Spring term of 2017 hired union-busting lawyers to argue “that for many of the courses [the TAs] teach, these graduate students ‘have no subject matter expertise’ and therefore don’t qualify as professors.”[2] No TA would claim to be a professor! More to the point, Yale’s position, through its lawyers, concerning the lack of subject-matter expertise is misleading, giving the learning aspect of being a teaching assistant—learning not merely how to teach but also about the content of the course. Yale’s administration can be astonishingly stubborn—and I wouldn’t be surprised if the hunger strike weren’t at least in part a reaction to the passive aggressiveness itself. I suspect that its root lies in power and felt superiority; union representation could hardly make a dent economically in such a rich university.

In August, 2016, the National Labor Relations Board had ruled that graduate students engaged in teaching at private colleges and universities are indeed employees and therefore have the right to collective bargaining. The decision reversed a ruling in 2004, which had held that TAs “are primarily students and have a primarily educational, not economic, relationship to their university.”[3] The ruling in 2016 found that the broader relationship does not mean that the teaching role—performed on a paid basis—is not work. In short, the students are also employees. A student who works in a dorm cafeteria—such as me at my first university—is an employee in that job even though being a student is the broader status at the university. To be sure, working as a teaching assistant involves learning—both how to teach and subject-content—but the tight relationship between the work-tasks and pay render the position a job, and thus entitled to be represented by a union.



[1] Jennifer Klein, “Why Yale Graduate Students Are on a Hunger Strike,” The New York Times, May 9, 2017.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Noam Scheiber, “Grad Students Win Right to Unionize in an Ivy League Case,” The New York Times, August 23, 2016.