Monday, February 28, 2011

Freeing or flogging flagships

As a denizen of big state schools, most of whom would be considered Flagship Institutions (and don't you forget to capitalize those, sir!), I am increasingly interested in two warring approaches to these venerable schools.

On one side, we have the Biddy Martin/U Michigan/screw-the-system approach: one that says that, as much is expected of the Flagship U (in terms of research dollars, educating many undergrad and graduate students, and contributing to the well-being of the state economy), much should be given to these behemoths in the way of independence and autonomy. Martin's bid to create the University of Wisconsin at Madison as a new kind of governmental entity, separate from the rest of the UW system and the Board of Regents, is seen as a slap in the face by the rest of the UW schools and the Board. But one can understand both Martin's argument and Gov. Walker's interest in setting the campus free (and further reducing state financial contributions to the campus).

On the other side of the same coin is a move by Governors and legislators in states as diverse as Connecticut and Kansas to nickle-and-dime state schools as regards their non-faculty hiring. Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy "wants to require that all non-teaching hiring at the state's public colleges and universities be approved by his budget office." Why? Well, an article in the Connecticut Mirror explains:
Non-faculty staff--which includes administration, maintenance, health service, public safety, financial services and information technology staff--comprise nearly 70 percent of full-time employees at the University of Connecticut. At the Connecticut State University System and the state's 12-campus community college system, the faculty-staff ratio is closer to 50-50, according to a State Department of Higher Education report.
"We've seen a lot of growth in non-faculty. Some of it is understandable but given the track record we've seen in the last 20 years, a little more engagement on position control is worth it," said Higher Education Commissioner Michael Meotti.
They explain this added measure of reviewing every new non-teaching hire, which they swear would not be a burden or add time to the hiring process (I am laughing out loud now), as saying that patrolling non-faculty hiring would make sure faculty didn't have to be laid off (laughing even louder now).

In Kansas, the state House has passed a bill to study outsourcing government services, including campus services. Now, this isn't uncommon, as many state schools outsource janitorial services, food services, and campus bookstores. But Kansas legislators, like Rep. McLeland, want to join the move to outsource even more, like residence halls.
For example, he said, there are hotel chains that are experts in housing. Perhaps, he said, dorms could be sold or leased to them.

State Rep. Barbara Ballard [who works at University of Kansas], D-Lawrence, opposed McLeland’s amendment. She said residence halls are more than places for students to sleep. They are homes for students where they participate in programs and can receive help. “Sometimes, privatizing will not quite do that,” she said.
As someone who worked for residence life as a grad student, I am VERY clear about the ways in which dorms are NOT hotels. The idea of treating dorms like hotels is kind of nuts to me. And many institutions have found that outsourcing is not necessarily the big money-saver they had hoped it would be. But that really isn't the purpose behind this post.

The larger question here is about the relationship between state governments and their institutions of higher education. As states reduce the amount of funding they give to their public colleges and universities, some state governments are moving towards less control over these institutions, while others are moving towards greater (some might say "micromanaging") control. It is difficult to say which trend will win, and which ought to win. Not every state school can handle being released to make its own way, and the outsourcing/micromanaging trend is sure to bring its own set of unintended consequences that will show up in the paper sooner or later, such as protests over low wages for workers, poor compliance with expected standards, rising costs of contracts, divisions among university and contract workers, and failure of contract entities to work well with university systems.

The goals of both approaches are much the same: reduce costs to the taxpayers and, reportedly, maintain strong public schools. The devil is in the details... and the definitions of what we mean by "strong public schools."

Monday, February 21, 2011

Publisher extras for instructors

Okay, this is just a short post to bitch about publisher extras for instructors. I actually appreciate the supplemental materials that can come with textbooks, such as PowerPoint presentations, glossaries of terms and definitions, quizzes and testbanks, in-class exercises, etc. I seldom use them without tweaking them a little bit, but they can really help me think about the important concepts I want students to understand, new ways to help students get into the material, etc.

That said, who does the editing for these things? The PowerPoints are the worst: always incredibly ugly templates, poorly laid out on the screen, and lacking notes and other resources that make PPT lecture materials useful. One might even build in examples and questions that would break up an especially boring lecture, the way real lecturers do! Exercises can be very unclear, and quizzes and tests can include questions on the most mundane topics, completely bypassing the central topics being discussed in the chapter.

If you are going to ask authors to spend time creating these supplemental materials, make them worthwhile! Have someone edit these materials as well.

**Walks away grumbling to continue editing the PPT for class. 

Friday, February 11, 2011

University employees: Activate!

Let's hear it for the Arizona universities employees and other state employees who are participating in a federal lawsuit to maintain domestic partner health insurance benefits, charging that Governor Brewer's mean-spirited bill (House Bill 2013) to remove these benefits is discriminatory. They won the right to a hearing and an injunction from stopping the insurance in U.S. District Court, and the case will be heard by the Ninth District Court of Appeals.

The best part? The hearing is being held on February 14th: Valentine's Day! Now that is a great way to celebrate love and commitment!

In finding for the plaintiffs, the District Judge cited equal protection claims, writing, "the Ninth Circuit has recognized there is 'an inherent inequality' in allowing some employees to participate fully in the State's health plan, while expecting other employees to rely on other sources, such as private insurance or Medicaid. 'This back of the bus' treatment relegates plaintiffs to a second-class status by imposing inferior workplace treatment on them, inflicting serious constitutional and dignitary harms that after-the-fact damages cannot adequately address."

When the state tried to argue that maintaining these benefits would cost others the denial of important services because of a budget shortfall, the judge rejected the argument, writing, "Contrary to the state's suggestion, it is not equitable to lay the burden of the state's budgetary shortfall on homosexual employees, any more than on any other distinct class, such as employees with green eyes or red hair."

Lambda Legal is representing the plaintiffs in this case, which they see as very important on a national scale for determining the rights of same-sex couples. Kudos to these academics who are stepping into the limelight and taking a stand for civil rights of same-sex couples.