Who’s Leaving Who? #Smackademics for Higher Ed

Photo credit: Brook Ward, "Abandoned School Classroom," Flickr

Editor’s Note: This is the first post from Kevin Mahoney’s new blog, #Smackademics – commentary, analysis, and reflection on the politics of democratic praxis in higher education. You can visit #Smackademics or check out all the posts right here on Raging Chicken Press. 

“Maybe this university is not right for you.”

“I think the problem is that you chose to work in the wrong university.”

“If you don’t like working here, then you should consider going somewhere else.”

I’ve been working at my current university, we’ll call it “OhMyU,” for the purposes of this blog, for over 13 years. Lucky 13. The first time I was told that OhMyU was “maybe not right for me” was my second year on the job. The person who told me that was my faculty union president. You see, at OhMyU we’re a unionize faculty and I am as union as they come. It was not a question of whether I would become involved in our faculty union, it was just a matter of finding out where and when I could attend my first meeting. One of the first calls I made when I got to campus was to the union office. I asked when the first general membership meeting was. I was told that there were no general membership meetings. That there was a union congress of sorts, a representative council. So, I waited until the spring semester to put my name in to run as a department representative. And since no one in my department at the time really wanted to serve, I easily “won” election.

I was so excited to attend my first meeting. I blew off “advice” from more senior colleagues to “bring papers to grade, because the meetings are so boring.” But when I attended my first representative council meeting, a good chunk of the representatives were there, grading papers as the union president paced the front of the room as if he were giving a lecture to a class filled with students who didn’t really want to be there. There were a few class favorites who would laugh at inside jokes or ask softball questions to which he or she already knew the answers (these good students were members of the union leadership, I would learn). That first meeting was 180 degrees from what I thought my first union meeting would be like.

You see, I had been an adjunct and had worked on a union organizing drive for adjuncts and graduate student teachers for a few years before landing a tenure-track gig. I even did a summer stint at the national offices of one of the biggest academic labor unions in the country. I came from a union family – my mother, step-father, and step-mother were all union teachers. My father was a negotiator for a teachers union. When I imagined actually being part of a union, not fighting to get one, I imagined that I would be working alongside other union members who knew that there was power in a union to do so much more than make sure we make a decent living. I would be surrounded by people who knew that together, collectively, we formed a fighting force defending higher education. We could collectively fight off moves to corporatize and privatize higher education. When administrators and state higher education boards tried to institute policies that undercut the quality of education, we would fight back. We would stand with students to ensure that class sizes remained small and that the state adequately funded our university so students wouldn’t be saddled with debt. I might be romanticizing my newbie mindset, but I would be lying if I said that my imagination didn’t go in those directions at the time.

Instead, people graded papers, half-listening to what was being said.

I was lucky, though. I was not the only new faculty member who had union experience and was looking forward to being an active union member. One guy had been the president of his graduate student union. Several newbies also came from union families. Other did not have union backgrounds, but they had been activists or advocates. We found each other pretty quickly and shared our disappointment with that first meeting and several meetings after that. Instead of despairing, however, our conversations quickly turned to what we were going to do about it. We read by-laws and realized that the representative council was the policy making body of the union, not the guy standing at the front of the room. We learned that the only thing that was standing between us making proposals to become a more active union was our willingness to make those proposals and do the work to make our proposals a reality. We did just that. And in a little over a year several of us had been elected to be on our local’s executive committee. I hadn’t really gone out of my way to befriend our existing union leadership. No, I challenged them, pushed them, argued with them. That tends to be my default mode – with all the good and bad that entails. So, it was not all that surprising when my union president got pissed off at me in an executive committee meeting for criticizing our union’s lack of action on some issues. Frustrated and angry he looked right at me and said, “maybe this university is not right for you.”

Since those early days of conflict with our union’s former leadership (our little newbie group and some faculty who had already been working to build a stronger union, eventually became the majority of our union’s leadership), I’ve been told some version of “maybe this university is not right for you,” by the university president, a few administrators, and at least two faculty members in my department. I’ve been told I am a “rather divisive figure.” True enough. I’ve been told that I need to be more patient. Also, probably true, but I’ll argue that point. While these kind of things are never nice to hear, I know it comes with the territory. If you push for change and challenge “the way things are” or the “way things have always been done,” well, you should expect to piss some people off.

Until recently, I still had the belief – and I don’t think I really understood how much this kept me going – that the fight was worth it and that most of us, most faculty members, were on the same page about the mission of higher education and the need to defend it. I came to terms with the fact that not every faculty member will be “on the front lines,” so to speak, that some of us would risk more than others and be more vocal than others. Got that. My newbie self has been tempered by practice.

But as so many stories go, then something happened. Or, maybe more correctly I should say that something happened that has caused me to adjust some of my assumptions about what’s happening in higher education and our ability – and willingness – to do what is necessary to defend it.

In 2010, in line with the Tea Party sweeps of the mid-term elections, my adopted home state of Pennsylvania elected Tom Corbett – a governor as right-wing, if less competent, than “star” Tea Party Governors like Scott Walker of Wisconsin or Rick Snyder of Michigan. Corbett preached from the Koch-Brothers Austerity Playbook, not waiting a moment to call for devastating cuts in the public sector – especially education. His first budget called for more than $1 billion in cuts to public education and a 50 percent cut in funding to Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) of which my university is part. When all was said and done in that first year, most of the $1 billion in cuts to public education and close to 20 percent of the cuts to PASSHE were signed into law. Not only was it clear to anyone paying attention that public education seemed to be Corbett’s public enemy #1, it should have sent of alarm bells in every faculty members office that business as usual could not continue…that if any of us cared about public higher education, we were going to have to stand up for it and fight back. And we did. For a while.

Our faculty union mobilized like never before to resist Corbett’s cuts. There were daily trips to the Capitol by our union’s staff and representatives to lobby legislators. There were buses organized for large rallies on the Capitol steps. But even more importantly, I believe, was that our union leadership was pretty clear that our union needed to change. Our union needed to become more active, more organized, more…well…more like a real fighting union and less like an association of academics. I was and am proud of my union and of the steps we have taken to become an organization devoted to fighting for public higher education.

As I became more involved in my local and state union, I began to feel a gap growing between how I understood my role as a faculty member and how many of my colleagues see their role. I’ve come to understand that I tend to think systemically…that in order for us to have a vibrant system of public higher education, we must defend it. That if we are to fulfill our mission as faculty at a public university to not only train students for careers, but also for their roles as active, engaged citizens, then our curriculum, our courses, our professional practices should be models of such engagement.

However, it should be said, that most faculty are not trained to behave in that way. Most of us are trained to be focused on our own, narrow area of research and/or teaching. Many of us were trained in graduate school to act as isolated individuals – protective of our turf, competitive to a fault. It’s weird if you think about it. Or, more accurately, it’s weird for me.

This semester I get a little break from the day-to-day of my university. I am on sabbatical working on my second book, Gettin’ Dirty: Activist Rhetorics for the Long Haul. It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to devote a significant amount of time to research (especially with two little kids at home). But this sabbatical is also giving me an opportunity to really think about where I go from here. I’ve always had a tense relationship with academia. Perhaps this was inevitable given the pedestal on which I put higher education since I was quite young. For all the craziness of academe, I continue to feel that it’s one of the few remaining spaces in which we get to practice democracy – to critically engage, to solve problems collaboratively, to be pushed beyond our comfort zones, and to pass on that passionate pursuit to our students and communities.

This blog is my limited attempt to assess where I go from here in my academic career, how to be a better advocate for education for democracy, and document some of the problematic patterns of academe and academics. I come at these questions with a commitment to critical teaching, equitable labor relations, and a commitment to education for their role as critically and publicly engaged individuals in a democracy. Yes, I know all of these things will raise the banner of critique. That’s fine.

It’s taken me a long time to write this post. Not because I’m saying something particularly difficult, but because I recognize as I write that I am still trying to wrap words around my experience. So, enough delay…time to post this and see where we go.

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3 Comments on Who’s Leaving Who? #Smackademics for Higher Ed

  1. Looking forward to your book! I’m doing a speech on the PA 2015 budget impasse in three weeks. I hope you will have the opportunity to be creative as opposed to defending the turf with the new governor and union efforts.

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