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And If You Give Us A Full Book Of Green Stamps, You Can Teach Macroeconomics

November 6, 2009, 1:10 am

These noble bloggers provided the second notification of the evening that Patricia Turner, vice provost for the University of California Office of Undergraduate Studies (and henchman Winder McConnell, the director of teaching resources for that floundering institution) have a great new idea: get people to teach for free. The first time I saw this news on Facebook I wouldn’t have believed it, except that the source was impeccable. According to the online edition of The California Aggie, freshman seminar instructors all received a letter asking them whether they would be willing to forgo the small sum they are paid for this work, $1500-2000 that is normally deposited in their research accounts. “Though Turner could not predict how much money the salary reduction would save,” staff writer Lauren Steussy reports, “she stated that approximately 25 instructors agreed to forgo or reduce their stipend.”

Other people are outraged, but Turner is undeterred. “When we were brain storming about all of the ways of dealing, I wondered if there were more faculty who would [forgo the stipend] if they were just given the opportunity,” Turner said. “People had just done it before. So [McConnell] and I sent a letter saying that in the past, some people have declined these stipends. This is decoupled from whether or not we accept their course.” Other Facebook gossip reports that on some UC campuses there are workshops being organized by Human Resources folk to cheer people up about their “furlough days” (pay cuts) by explaining that the free time will allow them to make expansive life choices with this gift that they have been graciously granted by the State of California.

Next week, Turner might want to write a bunch of faculty to ask how they feel about signing up for life insurance policies that stipulate double indemnity in case their death results from being pushed out of a train caboose. Or she might want to find out how many faculty would be interested in taking more furlough time and using it to explore the possibility of becoming sex workers in brothels owned and operated by the provost’s office. If you can get 25 instructors to agree not to be paid for their work, anything is possible I suppose. But there is a lot of this going around. On my own campus, we are being offered the opportunity to teach an extra course and/or teach an eight week summer session for adjunct wages to help Zenith close its own budget gap. Compared to the report above, this seems positively liberal, I suppose, as does the fact that our salaries have been indefinitely frozen rather than cut. But no one raises what seems obvious to this Radical: that this pedagogical equivalent to a bake sale would, in effect, be a charitable donation to our employer — minus the tax write-off — since full time ladder faculty are paid a great deal more to teach their other regularly scheduled classes.

But there is a larger question at stake about the budget cutting measures that are starting to surface around the country: education is, and always has been, the equivalent of a loss leader at the department store. It’s something the United States has to be willing to not make a profit on — in fact, to accept large losses on — in order to create generations of young workers, artists, politicians and technicians who are the nation’s capital. Our state and federal governments have nickel and dimed higher education for so long that what remains makes no structural sense anymore, and it’s no wonder that people do stupid, offensive things to make the cuts demanded of them. Is having the liberal arts taught to freshmen by volunteers what passes for a plan to re-imagine universities to meet the challenges — economic and educational — of the twenty-first century? Is the idea that nothing has to change about our values except to ratchet up the practice institutions have long adopted towards adjunct faculty and begin working full-time faculty as hard as they can be worked for as little money as they can be paid? Will we wax enthusiastic about new forms of noblesse oblige, in which some faculty, such as UC’s Subhash Risbud, a professor of chemical engineering and material science, who has so much research money available that he is happy to teach a seminar in “his passion” (read: hobby) “of classical Indian music” for free? Are we not concerned that there are actually scholars of Indian music who might be employed to teach this field? For all we know the other twenty-four faculty who gave up their stipends are as blessed as Professor Risbud, but is this also a sacrifice expected of, say, the Chaucer scholar who intended to use that small sum to finance a research trip to England and has no other way of obtaining that money?

What is more appalling is that none of the stories that are beginning to seep out of higher education suggest that any of the measures being taken are temporary, nor is there a broader discussion about what the conditions might be that would return university teaching and scholarship to some semblance of normalcy.

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