#realacademicbios Deserve Real Reform

Since January 23, 2016, the viral hashtag #realacademicbios has not only raised worldwide awareness about academic institutional failures, but also highlighted the dearth of well-known reform proposals that can reverse the increasing diversion of public funds away from education and research.

Begun by UC – Davis Ancient Judaism scholar Eva Mroczek as a pile-on retort to the biographical genre surfacing in the oddly idealized scholarly press forewords thanking selfless slaving spouses, the hashtag soon elicited reminiscences from authors who had written formulaic forewords in the middle of tense divorces.

Then, stuff started getting real.

Many tweets from the global phenomenon could be cited on everything from counterproductive employment instability to abusive tenure-track faculty, but perhaps the realest came from Temple University Hebrew Bible scholar Nyasha Junior:

“‘You’re out of time,’ said her dissertation advisor & her gynecologist.

Replied Mroczek, “DAMN.”

As a telling sign of its success, the hashtag soon drew trolls, most of whom sent out chipper bursts about rewarding careers.

Trolls aren’t always entirely wrong, however, and one harshly phrased comment in particular leaps out, that the conversations were full of “hopeless whining” and that “a tech tag” would have as “every third tweet… a proposed solution.”

Besides a handful of references to unionization, solutions were definitely in short supply, due partly to the hashtag’s biographic focus, but mostly to a lack of currency of real reform proposals.

Let’s be honest about the situation:

Contrary to popular opinion, higher ed subsidies are at an all-time high, and as education and research are starved and students are increasingly indebted, all that money is piling into administrative overhead.

Even worse, most universities are set up as de facto oligarchies run by self-appointing or politically-appointed trustees. That is, so long as institutions respect the incredibly minimal oversight requirements of non-profit laws, destructive trends can only currently be addressed through intermittent, unpredictable bursts of protest.

Although faculty unionization can help halt the so-called “badmin” liquidation of stable instruction, unions can currently only provide a platform from which more consistent shame can be broadcast.

Furthermore, the almost-equivalent Sanders and Clinton reform plans for affordable public college degrees are not only either silent or under-detailed on reduction of wasteful expenditures, but also leave out so-called “private” universities, who couldn’t balance their budgets without federal loan and research dollars.

Get our government involved in education and spend more money?

Face the facts, we’re already intimately involved, but the issue is that the money’s misapplied towards the Wall Street-inspired bureaucrats who’ve inspired the widespread label of “corporatization”.

Perhaps as with mainstream bipartisan plans to leverage our public money against exploitative drug companies, then, we should recognize how much money we’re spending, and then claim it. Because universities are such financial dependents on public funds, they quite simply would have no honest negotiating power against substantive legislative demands for more oversight to ensure that more money goes towards mission.

What would this oversight look like?

Some would look like achievements of faculty unionization – that is, living wages and longer-term contracts that prevent the counterproductive “churning” of educators and researchers.

Most, however, would focus on what’s almost never talked about, a bundle of measures that could reverse inefficient use of public dollars.

For one, college bureaucrats are our nation’s civil service, considering how their schools couldn’t survive without our money, so the requirement of civil service pay scales in place of CEO salaries would be a good place to start.

For another, the sector suffers from contracts with high-level conflicts of interest that have not yet received sufficient publicity, apart from the odd story that rockets to nationwide attention amidst the typical press silence of higher ed’s “scrutiny gap”.

For a third, at least some high profile institutions use taxpayer-funded “in house PR firms” to paper over wastefulness and poor decision-making, a wider trend more acutely apparent in Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s police killing cover-up and Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s deception around the easily preventable lead poisoning of Flint’s children.

In addition, the reform would also mandate simple transparency and accountability mechanisms.

Most immediately, any university receiving public monies in the forms of student loan or research dollars should be subject to Freedom of Information Act-like “sunlight” laws, albeit updated for the information age and against loopholes exploited in the past. In a very limited application to community policing responsibilities of so-called “private” universities, such measures have enjoyed bipartisan support, passing in Texas and Ohio and even receiving a unanimous 108 – 0 vote in Illinois before dying in committee.

More importantly, broader sunlight laws would add heat to apparently unskilled and often untouchable administrators.

Such laws led to the resignation of University of Illinois – Champaign Chancellor Phyllis Wise and would likely lead to the appropriate firing of other misguided malfeasants like the University of Chicago’s President Robert Zimmer, who not only topped the Chronicle of Higher Education’s 2013 list for highest compensation, but also tolerated and perhaps instigated that in his presence stairs be used by uniformed employees, including a locksmith who had received two hip replacements.

Tellingly, the Bain-trained Mount St. Mary’s President Simon Newman told professors to “put a Glock” to the heads of struggling students, but Trustee Chairman John E. Coyne III instead condemned leaked emails and termed that action “quite frankly irresponsible” – an odd position highlighting the clear and often thwarted public interest in competency at the institutions that it bankrolls.

In conjunction with sunlight laws, a small but important step would be opening up trustees to election by a honed, personally invested body like alumni and frontline researchers and educators. Trustees like Mount St. Mary’s Coyne should be held accountable for decisions like the defense of presidential advocacy for Glocked students, and it’s almost certain that most well-composed electorates would choose someone more representative of most people’s intuitive professional instincts.

Remember, if trustees and the administrators that they choose are making good decisions, no-one should fear facing election.

In total, then, what would this reform look like?

Under simple efficiency mechanisms, existing public monies would channel away from blatantly wasteful administrative spending and insidious crony contracts, and go more towards the intended destination of education and research.

Of course, these public money-linked initiatives wouldn’t displace other reform methods like faculty unionization, institution-specific protests and drives for reform, or even wise, underpublicized pushes to include adjunctification in college rankings.

Rather, such initiatives seem like the larger “next step” that so many people feel is needed but rarely reflect on or articulate.

Additionally, further investment in education isn’t precluded, but postponed as a later question, once existing money is getting spent better, whether for research and instruction or to make tuition more affordable.

Individuals talking isn’t sufficient, given that policy measures usually bounce around think tanks before reaching representatives and eventually the mainstream press in an increasing feedback loop.

Yet, people talking is a start, and is necessary, and is especially productive when through means like #realacademicbios international attention is sympathetically turned towards citizens like professors who are granted more of an audience than most.

Everything starts somewhere, and everyone knows that the current path of higher education is unsustainable.

David Mihalyfy (@mihalyfy) is a Lecturer at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago. His work has appeared in Inside Higher EdJacobinReligion DispatchesSightings, and the jtr bulletin, and has received coverage in the Dish and blogs of the Chronicle of Higher Education and the National Review.