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The Point: Academic (Dis)Continuity


Greetings, Colleagues,

Last week The Point raised some questions about the flow of information on campus: among other things, we asked about how you get your news about issues of major importance to all of us.  The questions raised last week only gain salience when we zoom in—sorry for using that dreaded verb!—for an extreme close-up on our own campus.  How is your department or unit weathering the storm of austerity? While we might all try to “shelter in place” as a strategy to flatten the curve of COVID-19, there is no safe place to ride out the tempest afflicting the core functions of the university. How is all of this playing out on the grounds of our own labor?

The short and obvious answer, as some of our colleagues at University of California, San Diego suggested early in this crisis, is that the most vulnerable among us will be the most regularly and profoundly exploited. Writing in April, they predicted that “lecturer employments will be further reduced while faculty are furloughed—leading to larger course sizes”; they also noted that universities would likely use the pandemic as an opportunity to make a long-desired pivot to more online offerings. 

While furloughs have not yet reached us at UMB (though they are being implemented at our sibling campuses), the rest of the UCSD predictive text scans as documentary: over 300 colleagues received non-reappointment letters in May, course caps are quietly being increased, and our just-departed interim chancellor has been using her Beacon megaphone to amplify the work of her next job—organized around the idea that online education will be the magical solution to longstanding class- and race-based educational inequities.

Increased course caps will have an immediate baleful effect on those inequities.  Non-tenure track faculty are particularly likely to face increased workload in courses they will have only recently been (re)assigned to, and our most vulnerable students—perhaps those in introductory courses above all?—will face the greatest challenges to accessing quality education.  (Think about this: for at least some departments, upwards of 75% of students currently enrolled have no idea who their instructor will be for fall courses.)  The bureaucratic protocols of increasing course caps are hidden, like so many campus processes, behind a veil of administrative practices that the FSU Executive Committee, working in concert with the Department Chairs’ Union (DCU), will continue to try to make more visible and less compulsory. 

These rising enrollments give the lie to the dire forecasting that led to all those non-reappointment letters going out in May in the first place.  While many of these affected colleagues are just now being offered courses to teach in the fall, this slapdash approach does not much contribute to what you might as well call “academic continuity.” As a faculty representative serving on the Academic Continuity Taskforce convened by the interim provost, I have at once been heartened by the good work we are doing, but also a bit stunned that questions of staffing continuity do not seem to fall under our purview.

Enrollment caps are, of course, only one indicator of how the politics of the coronavirus pandemic and austerity are playing out on our campus.  Shaun Ossei-Owusu reminds us that COVID-19 “is not discriminatory as a biological matter, but history and available accounts indicate that epidemiological fallout will be weighty and uneven.”  Our own colleague Professor Abiola Farinde-Wu urged us back in May, in Inside Higher Ed, to think about the “long-term effects of this pandemic on faculty career trajectories, with considerations of race and gender” centered. The important investigative and analytical work called for by Professor Farinde-Wu will, of course, have to be carried out by faculty.

Today we welcome Marcelo Suárez-Orozco to campus as our new chancellor and we have real optimism that he brings a commitment to social justice and equity to the job. But we will do well not to rely too much on the best intentions of one upper administrator. Scholars and teachers working in the field that has come to be known as Critical University Studies (including stalwart FSU members Professor Emilio Sauri and Professor Alex Mueller who recently taught an English department course on the subject) frequently remind us that, as Martin Kich has put it, the “corporatization of the university, the monetization of just about everything within the institution, and the lack of meaningful shared governance have seriously compromised the core things that have allowed great universities to survive.” 

The nationwide failure of leadership on the part of university administrators during the pandemic may well be a feature of the modern system, and not a bug. François Furstenberg has recently asked a cogent series of questions on just this front: “Are university presidents, their cabinets, and their hand-picked boards of trustees — all of them so detached from the day-to-day work of teaching and research — in a position to confront the hard choices that lie ahead with wisdom and prudence? Can they act with their eye to the long term? Can they resist using the current crisis to enact further assaults on the university’s central mission and its norms of governance? If not, are we prepared to advocate for a change?”

(Mixed metaphor alert): Rising course caps might seem like a small hill to make a mountain out of but they may also be a canary in a coal mine, reminding us to resist all austerity measures that hurt the students likely to be already suffering the most in the current crisis.

This is your union: please tell us at what you are seeing with respect to course size and what kind of changes you envision on campus that would improve your work experience and the educational experience of our students.


Jeffrey Melnick

Graduate Program Director, American Studies Department

Communications Director, Faculty Staff Union Executive Committee

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