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Two 800-pound Gorillas

February 28, 2008, 06:04 PM ET

Crush Them, Gigantor!

Crossposted from howtheuniversityworks.com

In our abortive exchange, Stephen Trachtenberg a) repeatedly ignored my very polite request to talk about the circumstances of the overwhelming majority of faculty, those who serve contingently; b) said I could leave the academy if I didn’t like it; c) affected that I was a tricky fellow using rhetoric and d) ran even farther away from the conversation after his own crude ad hominem attack opened the door to my asking him to discuss the well-documented facts of his own record with the majority contingent faculty during his administration.

This begs further analysis, insofar as Stephen accuses me of ending a conversation that—in reality—he refused to start.

Tomorrow I’ll publish a companion post that deals with the issues and not personalities, as I prefer and as I invited Stephen to proceed. If you find Stephen’s reduction of issues to personalities and ridiculous claims of occupying a personal rhetoric-free zone distasteful, as I do, please skip this post and read tomorrow’s post instead.

The key points to be made here are first, that Stephen is a rhetorician, too—it may be very poor, classically fallacious rhetoric, but it sure isn’t divine revelation.

Second, we’ll talk about the facts that Stephen is ignoring, particularly those of the nearly 60% faculty majority at his home institution, who averaged $18,000 annually for a full-time courseload of 6 classes a year—moonlighting in food service to pay their bills—while he jacked tuition through the roof and whacked away millions in personal compensation.

Third, we’ll evaluate the credibility of his claim that he refuses to speak about contingency because of other people’s rhetoric (rather than, for instance, as a continuation of his extended illegal refusal to bargain with the legal representative of the majority contingent faculty on his campus).

On the first point, Stephen’s rhetoric. Far from occupying a reasonable and rhetoric-free zone, as he claims (“Rhetoric prevents useful ideas being discussed.”), Stephen’s own rhetorical strategies are the two most incendiary and dishonest of all rhetorical fallacies, the “straw man”—aggressively mis-stating your opponent’s position—and the ad hominem attack.

Specifically, Stephen repeatedly straw-manned my question—what kind of security do you support for contingent faculty? Never addressing this question, he repeatedly “answered” me by converting the invitation into an opportunity to defend himself against personal charges that I hadn’t made: “it is not anti-tenure to acknowledge that and ask if there might not be a way to assist those in pain,” eg. His self-aggrandizing rhetoric casts himself as a veritable Florence Nightingale, ministering to the tenured “in pain,” while—he fantasizes—I fling charges against his saintly person. He may well be “anti-tenure,” but I didn’t bring it up, nor was it what I suggested we discuss. Similarly, he may well deserve to be cast as a devil or in a black hat, or as a gluttonous administrator, but I didn’t do it for him.

In actual fact, it was Stephen who went ad hominem, using a classic form of abuse hurled by those whom a situation advantages against those it does not: “If you don’t like how we do it here in the good old USA, why doncha leave?”

Likewise he excuses his own continuing refusal to say a word about the majority of faculty serving contingently with an ad hominem swipe: ie, it’s Bousquet’s rhetoric that shut the conversation down, when in reality he was already refusing to answer, a refusal that it seems is part of a long history of refusal to speak to the reality of the lives of faculty serving contingently.

Stephen personalized both sides of the conversation, speaking about me, and acting as if I had spoken about him instead of to him.

Second—in the related issues-not-persons post I’ll present some facts about the contingent majority faculty and some testimony from them regarding their working lives at a variety of institutions.

These contrast markedly with the tenured security and generous pay of the administrators who receive performance bonuses for imposing contingency on everyone else.

But here I’ll focus on GWU.

The Progressive Students Union described the facts of life for contingent faculty who rose to form 60% of the faculty under Trachtenberg’s 19-year administration, earning $18,000 for a six-course load without healthcare or retirement contributions, while “Trachtenberg’s salary increased from $493,000 in 1999/2000 to $571,000 in 2002 [over $700,000 by 2006]. He lives in a University-owned mansion near Embassy Row,” and subsequently, under Stephen’s leadership, “the NLRB found GW in violation of the law” for its refusal to bargain with faculty.

Interestingly, Trachtenberg is something of an expert on presidential compensation, and has been consistently among the highest paid of university presidents, while earning additional income for board memberships. He justifies his own compensation by claiming that it leads to more generous faculty compensation:

… it’s not an issue of what you pay presidents. It’s an issue of what you pay people in the academy. If the presidents are paid well, it follows, or it should follow, that the professor will be celebrated and honored and also fairly compensated. Paying your president reasonably is a good investment on the part of the faculty. They should want properly paid presidents. This does not mean egregiously paid presidents. (1)

But here’s what according to the GW student paper, the life of the majority contingent faculty became under Trachtenberg’s administration. The paper uses an example of a GW faculty member who also earned his PhD from G-Dub:

Tod Ramlow who joined the group of adjuncts who want to share the “horrible experience of [their] condition,” left the meeting early to “go wait tables.” Ramlow has a PhD from GW and is a professor of English and Women’s Studies. He has a course schedule equivalent to full-time faculty and is only paid $15,000 a year. Ramlow makes $32,000 a year waiting tables part time.

The reality, according to the contingent faculty union, is that over a six year period—1999 to 2005, GW senior administrator salaries rose 64%, while tenure track salaries rose 21% and the majority contingent faculty salaries were held constant. Against inflation, that means tenure track salaries rose 8% in six years, while the majority serving contingently lost 15% on their pittance. In the same period, tuition almost doubled, to nearly$40,000, and the endowment reached nearly a billion dollars, with lavish spending on infrastructure.

Finally, Trachtenberg blames me for ending a conversation that he refused to start, claiming that I employ melodramatic rhetoric. I’ll save a detailed reply to this for later. As a student of melodrama, I have quite a bit to say on the subject.

In essence, I’ll note that concern about melodramatic rhetoric is justified when it comes from above—from state power, as when George Bush talks about a “war on evil,” or when administrators demonize the faculty in their crude, bullying, and overtly dominative “change” and “quality” discourses.

But I’ll also point out that melodrama emerges in the French revolution as a rhetoric from below. The grammar of “black hats” comes from naming the aristocratic oppressor (wearing the cape and top hat of the opera-goer), and assigning heroism to the wearer of the undyed toque and simple shirt of the working class.

That is, sometimes melodrama continues to serve as a worthy, justifiable and honest rhetoric from below, naming the oppressor and encouraging solidarity in response. Saying “melodrama is bad,” in fact, is a melodramatic simplification.

So, Stephen, if the black hat fits….

You responded to a request to deal with the lousy reality of the majority of the faculty—a reality you helped to create in three decades of “leadership”—with an invitation to leave the academy and then a hands-in-pockets stroll through the New York art world. That certainly sounds like the sort of thing a cheerful oppressor in an opera hat would do.

If you want to stay ad hominem, Stephen, we can talk on this thread.

However, if you agree with me that we can talk about the issues without introjecting personalities, I’ll happily meet you in my next post–issues only.

Let’s not have the million-dollar administrator with a long history of hardball with an impoverished faculty playing the victimized, fainting ingenue next time!

Notes 1. June, Audrey. “Why Presidents Are Paid So Much More Than Professors.” The Chronicle of Higher Education: November 16, 2007, 12.

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