AEP 72: Artificial Whiteness with Yarden Katz

A discussion of the book Artificial Whiteness, by Yarden Katz

Step off of the Artificial Intelligence hype train with me and my guest Yarden Katz. Yarden is the author of Artificial Whiteness: Politics and Ideology in Artificial Intelligence. AI is a squishy concept, and under scrutiny it is full of imperialist and racial assumptions. We go over some of the many ideas in this idea-packed book, which I highly recommend.

The Ossington Circle Episode 27: Science and Academic Publishing with Bjoern Brembs

The Ossington Circle Episode 27: Science and Academic Publishing with Bjoern Brembs

I talk to scientist Bjoern Brembs about the problems with proprietary journal companies control over scientific publishing. We imagine a better world of open science that is technologically feasible, discuss the German consortium negotiation with the journal companies, and think about what academics could start to do in this world about the problem.

The North American, All-Administrative University

In his 2011 book The Fall of the Faculty, Benjamin Ginsberg, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, gives an explicit institutional analysis that explains what many faculty in North America have been feeling intuitively as their institutions have changed around them. The main change in universities in recent decades, Ginsberg argues, has been the rise of administrators at the expense of the core activities of the university – research and teaching. It matters, he argues, because administrators and professors have different world views. To professors, the university is a means to certain ends, all having to do with knowledge: the creation of it, the development of it, and the sharing of it. To administrators, teaching and research are means to the institution’s ends. They are business lines, which an institution can take or leave, depending on what suits the current institutional goals (profit, or simply the expansion and growth of the administrative part of the institution). In an administrative world view, then, closing down an english department or a math department and allocating those resources to a parking lot is a perfectly rational thing to do.

The tone of Ginsberg’s book is refreshing, and I suspect very deliberately irreverent. Power in an institution depends on maintaining a mystique of insiders who attend exclusive meetings (retreats, seminars, etc.), who are aware of insider language (including particular fads and acronyms), and hierarchies of titles and authority. Ginsberg describes the administration as ‘deanlets’, and pokes fun at their principal activities, including the production of strategic plans, media relations to maintain an institution’s image, travel to seminars and workshops to meet other administrators in person (even if the topics of these workshops is the irrelevance of in-person instruction in the face of e-learning), and of course, the cultivation of relationships with wealthy donors.

The irreverent tone and the damning collection of facts, figures, and some shocking anecdotes describing the rise and effects of the all-administrative university fleshes out a core institutional analysis of how the administration came to power at the university. Ginsberg points to three key developments. First, administration used to be done by faculty who did administrative tasks for a few years before returning to their scholarly and teaching activities. Today, university administration is an alternative career track. Many scholars who go down the administrative path neither plan to nor do return to scholarship, and slowly become what they are surrounded by. Second, administration has developed independence from the faculty in two key ways: independence from faculty’s administrative work was achieved by expanding administrative staff, and independence from the university’s core mission was achieved by expanding the role of private donors. Even if public funds and student tuition still pay most of the bills, a relatively small percentage of money from private donors buys the administration, and the donors, significant control over the institution’s future.

Ginsberg concedes that faculty are far from perfect. “They can be,” he writes, “petty, foolish, venal, lazy, and quarrelsome” (pg. 201) But with administrative power comes new pathologies. Indifference to the university’s core mission means indifference to academic freedom and the possibilities for real creativity, innovation, and social progress that can result; the treatment of research and teaching as business lines comparable to other activities results in shirking, squandering, and outright fraud and corruption; an administrative philosophy emphasizes preparing students for the workplace in low-level vocational and skills-training instead of thinking of the university as a place for human development, where students can grow and challenge and change their own views and, perhaps even come to think about what in the world they could and should change for the better, with their new knowledge.

An interesting chapter, and one I did not entirely agree with, was the chapter on “Realpolitik of Race and Gender”. In it, Ginsberg argues that students from oppressed constituencies strengthen administrative control when they make alliances with administration against faculty. To Ginsberg, academic freedom includes the possibility of discussing and debating matters that may make others uncomfortable. Democratic rules of debate and discussion, as well as of academic freedom and freedom of expression, should be the guide. The administrative solution, however, is to impose such things as mandatory trainings and Student Codes of Conduct – which, having a shaky legal basis, end up being unenforceable. The fact that they are legally questionable is irrelevant, however, because university administrations only apply these codes very selectively (and, I might add, in a politicized way). My disagreement with Ginsberg in this chapter is relatively minor, but I will note it: it is only that students from oppressed constituencies are more likely to turn to (false) administrative solutions if faculty are unsupportive.

The entire discussion is about a key question: who does the university belong to? Here, we might get some help by bringing in another book, Christopher Newfield’s Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class (Harvard University Press 2008). In it, Newfield discusses the threat of vast social change posed by the possibility that everyone in society might join the middle class by universal access to higher education. To Newfield, attacks on faculty privileges, on the obscurity of today’s scholarship, on the humanities and basic sciences themselves, on the attempts to use affirmative action and other tools to make the university truly inclusive – all of these were tools to stave off the prospect of a universally educated, multicultural middle class, with the capacity to shape and change the direction of the whole society. The ideas used to help roll this possibility back included: the notion of a meritocracy, in which the talented rose to the top in a society based on competition; the acceptance of inequality as a fact of life; the notion that market and business outcomes were the final arbiter of what was worth learning and thinking about. I would argue that, to the extent that faculty accept these latter ideas, we are undermining our own autonomy, our own academic freedom, and our own ability to contribute to the development of society through our scholarship and the development of our students through our teaching.

Returning to Ginsberg, who has his own ideas about what faculty have done wrong to facilitate the rise of administrative power. First, faculty have become too comfortable allowing administration to be done by others. Too busy to go to meetings? Too busy to take a part-time administrative post for a few years? Someone else is waiting to make those decisions for you. To take control again, faculty have to become more active – at all levels, but especially on boards of trustees. Faculty have to keep control of teaching away from external and administrative bodies. Second, faculty have succumbed to pressures to produce so many PhDs that the powers and freedoms academics were able to negotiate decades ago when PhD graduates were scarce have been eroded, in part because professors lack the power they had when there was no “reserve army” for universities to rely on. Administrations know that for every tenured academic in their system, there are others with PhDs who are struggling in the part-time, by-course system without any academic freedom or the hope of tenure. Ginsberg concedes that this point, and the idea of supporting the reduction or closing of many PhD programs, constitutes “especially bitter medicine”, and he has no obvious solution, only hope that through “regular two-way communication, members of the faculty and university boards might discover a formula for abating this unacceptable state of affairs.” (pg. 215)

To Ginsberg’s suggestions about what faculty need to do differently, I would add one: as a cantakerous bunch, faculty disagree with one another about many things, from curriculum to labor relations to politics in Israel/Palestine. If faculty cannot have these debates openly and according to democratic and academic norms, and instead seek to use administrative solutions on those whose politics they abhor, they are, again, undermining their own place in the institution, as well as the core mission of the university. If we use – and model – academic principles and respect free expression in debates with those we disagree with, we will be in a much better position to defend these principles against encroachment when our own interests are attacked.

Ginsberg’s arguments were built on evidence from U.S. universities, but to anyone working in a Canadian university, almost everything he describes is eerily familiar and frightening. I have been recommending his book to everyone because, as he says, “the university can be a marvelous institution”, and one “well worth protecting” (pg. 219)

First published on TeleSUR English:

The Tuition Trap, as discussed by Christopher Newfield

I’ve been thinking about Chris Newfield’s 2008 book Unmaking the Public University a lot lately, and I wanted to reproduce one great quote from page 182, about what he calls “the tuition trap”: how by raising tuition fees, public universities undermine the case for public funding for universities, which shortfall they make up by raising tuition, undermining the case for public funding…:

“The tuition trap goes like this: The public is worried about college affordability, but its public university raises its fees. The university thus implies it does not actually depend on public funding, since it has the private resource of higher tuition at its fingertips. The university may also deepen this impression – that it can do without more public funding – by saying how good it is in spite of public funding cuts. Even worse, it may declare strong public funding a thing of the past in order to justify tuition increases or expanded fund-raising. Taxpayers then reasonably ask, if the university does not need more money, why does it keep raising fees? And since it keeps raising fees, why should we give it more public money?”

He goes on:

“If the university is just another cog in an economic system that is about getting ahead, charging as much as you can, maximizing your returns, and buying your way to the top, why should the general public pay for it?”

Both quotes from pg. 182.

Universities could be very valuable, making huge contributions to the general development of society and accessible to all. For that to happen, public universities have to get out of the tuition trap.

York strikers show the way — now let’s build a truly public university

Protracted labour dispute raises questions of post-secondary governance and funding

The strikes at York University, the University of Toronto, and elsewhere have opened a long overdue debate about student debt, precarious labour in the academy, rising tuition, and, to a lesser extent, university governance. The York University strike offers an opportunity to argue for the continuing relevance of universities as public institutions. The importance of the public in the public university is especially true for York, which, if it embraced its role as such, could tackle a new list of issues and lead the way for other educational institutions.
Precarity, debt, and defensive struggle

York’s contract faculty are the precarious academic labourers whose difficulties have been brought into some public light by the York strike and other labour actions in North America. The contract faculty settled earlier in March. The teaching assistants and graduate assistants had to battle on until the end of the month to win their objectives.

Although the strike ended in a victory, the struggle was mainly defensive. In previous contracts, the union on strike at York, CUPE 3903, won a funding package that includes work as a TA (or, for work outside the classroom, as a GA). The total package offered to a student is usually in the range of $12,000 to $18,000 for the year. Out of this, a domestic student has to pay around $6,500 tuition. International students might get the same package, but their tuition is much higher — somewhere around the size of their whole funding package.

Students are eligible for such funding only if they have full-time status. If they work more than 10 hours per week outside of their studies and on-campus jobs as TAs or GAs, they are ineligible. So, when the administration presented the claim that TAs were getting paid $52/hour, they neglected to add that this was up to a hard limit of about $9,000 for a year. In order to get this $52/hour, students had to figure out how to live on about $30/day (or, for international students, $0/day). Of course, students could take on additional debt, the implicit solution that university administrations continuously try to impose on students.

The union did not go on strike trying to get its members out of this low-wage situation. The union went on strike because management was trying to assert its right to raise tuition while maintaining the funding package at the same rate.

This is the indexation issue that management avoided discussion of for a month, the gain won by the union in previous strikes that management tried and failed to roll back. Indexation means that if the university wants to take more from TAs and GAs in tuition, it also has to pay TAs and GAs more money so that they can pay the university. Losing indexation would have meant that, rather than helping TAs and GAs subsist, their work on campus would merely give them the slightest reduction in the massive debt they would incur while studying.

The U.S. and U.K. systems, in which students at all levels incur ever more massive debt while receiving less and less, and with fewer and worse prospects after graduation, seems to be the model. The striking workers successfully held the line against that erosion.

The academic and the administrative

The York strike also highlighted the problem of a university no longer under academic control. This issue is of more public importance than it may seem on the surface.

Unlike most workplaces that are under the uncontested control of managers, at universities the struggle for academic freedom has been linked to another struggle, that for collegial governance, the idea that academic matters should be under the control of academics (faculty and also students) and not under the control of managers.

Defending collegial governance involves constant battles over policies and procedures, careful readings and debates, and can seem arcane and obscure to the non-university public. But collegial governance, like academic freedom, is an important thing for society to have, and it deserves some public attention — and protection. Let us look at it in the context of York’s strike.

The first way that the administration has strengthened itself has been by moving money. The erosion of the university’s teaching budget has been accompanied by an expansion in the administrative share of the budget. Budgets are contentious and political, and university administrations contest the notion that they are bloated at the expense of the university’s core activities. The analyses are worth looking at: Benjamin Ginsburg describes the growth of university administration at U.S. universities in his book The Fall of the Faculty, and scientist Bjorn Brembs tackles the issue in Germany in a blog post.

York’s faculty union, YUFA, did some interesting analysis of York’s financial statements. While not discussing academic and administrative budgets in detail, it does deal with how to think about the financial statements of a public institution. YUFA also produced a report that described the growth of managerialism.

The growth of the university’s administration at the expense of its academic mission is not solely a matter of money, as Ginsburg’s Fall of the Faculty documents. The growth of “student life” programs under the control of the administrative apparatus has seen students offered more programs in things like time management and study skills, while academic programs in languages, literature, or history are starved of resources. York University has a Senate that is the ultimate authority on academic matters, but the Senate does not have the power to decide what is and is not an academic matter — that is the prerogative of the administration.

Before the current strike, the York community was presented with apocalyptic budget projections (which have since been challenged by YUFA and CUPE) as well as warnings about low enrolments.

York’s administration imposed a process called the Academic and Administrative Prioritization and Review, or AAPR — another management tool that was imposed on other Canadian universities, such as Guelph and the University of Saskatchewan, to destructive effect. Several faculty councils at York repudiated the AAPR and rejected its use in academic planning. Like the strike, the AAPR ended up opening an overdue debate on administrative attacks on the academic mission of the university (see Michael Ornstein’s presentation for a fine example of applying academic criteria to a managerial exercise and Craig Heron’s essay on the consultant Robert Dickeson, whose methodology is used in AAPRs across North America).

Amazingly, in a context of enrolment and budget fears, the York administration walked into negotiations with CUPE 3903 seeking concessions that the union could not accept, and took over a month to make any movement towards an acceptable offer.

As an alternative to bargaining, the administration used a reading of the university’s policy on remediation — intended to provide guidance on how to restart the university after a disruption is over — to start remediating during the strike. The “remediation” ended up making students more uncertain, increasing physical pressure and fear of violence on the picket lines as thousands of drivers tried to cross daily to attend classes that may or may not have been proceeding.

For an administration worried about enrolment, it is difficult to imagine how this could have been anything other than a nightmare scenario — unless low enrolments themselves might provide another tool that administrators could use to discipline the academics?

York, a public university

Like every public institution, universities are changing. They are becoming more hierarchical, more corporate, less accessible, and less free. Defending their role, even expanding it, may not be possible from within their walls alone. But should the non-university-going public care?

Universities cost society massive amounts of resources, and everyone within them, from the administration to the student body, has some relative privilege compared to the many people who never get the chance to go. Scholars’ reputations for obscurity and detachment from the real world doesn’t make it easy for these same scholars to ask the public for resources or for help defending the institution. But public indifference to what is happening at universities only serves the administrators who are eroding them.

And truly public universities could be extremely socially beneficial. Take York again, and consider some 2006 figures that will not have changed much in the decade since. Located in North Toronto, York’s students come from families with a median household income of $55,881, compared to an average of $74,093 for all Ontario university families. The median household income for York students in 2006 was actually lower than the median household income for Ontario in 2005, which, at $72,734, was only slightly lower than the average for Ontario university-going families. Ryerson students came from slightly more affluent families ($56,733) and University of Toronto from slightly more affluent than that ($58,895). The contrast with universities such as Western and Queen’s, with median family incomes above $100,000, is striking.

More than 50 per cent of York’s students commute for more than 40 minutes, and 57 per cent of York’s first-year students rely on public transit to get to school, compared to 32 per cent of Ontario students. Of first-year York students, 60 per cent are female, compared to 55 per cent for Ontario. Of senior-year York students, 72 per cent work for pay off campus, compared to 46 per cent for Ontario; 43 per cent are from a visible minority compared to 29 per cent for Ontario. Where 70 per cent of Ontario students had a parent with post-secondary education, 65 per cent of York students could say the same.

For many decades in North America, universities were designed to train and prepare the ruling class and the professionals who serviced them. But starting after WWII, public universities started to open up and transform into places that potentially everyone could go. York’s demographics present a picture of that kind of public university, a place whose student body looks like the population and not like the rulers.

It may not be coincidental that at the most public of universities, there is a strong emphasis on humanities and social sciences — 53 per cent of first-year students compared to 38 per cent in Ontario, 51 per cent of senior-year students compared to 42 per cent in Ontario. I love science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and I think this type of education is both vitally important and under attack, especially under the Harper government. But social sciences and humanities — philosophy, literature, history, political science, geography, sociology, linguistics, economics — are fields that help students understand power and understand the world they live in. They are fields that give students a chance of shaping the future.

In his 2008 book Unmaking the Public University, English professor Chris Newfield of the University of California, Santa Barbara, argues that the attack on the social sciences and humanities — the devaluing of cultural knowledge — was a part of the assault on public universities and part of the assault on the North American middle class.

The idea of a public university open to everyone, where the cultural knowledge to shape and change society is taught and developed, is a dangerous idea for those who fear the public.

Who is subsidizing, and who is subsidized?

Newfield’s book is full of insights, many of which are highly relevant to Canadian universities and especially to York. One in particular relates to university budgets. Part of a professor’s job, especially in the natural sciences, is to seek external research funding. The grants that professors win in competitions bring prestige to their universities and make it possible to do research. Many believe that these grants help subsidize other parts of the university, but Newfield points out that the grants never cover the full costs of the research, and the university has to provide some matching funds for every grant.

Where do these matching funds come from? From the teaching budget from where most of the students are: the social sciences and the humanities. So, here again, what most people believe is the reverse of reality: it turns out that teaching in the social sciences and humanities subsidizes research in the natural sciences, not the other way around.

In the background of the York strike is the provincial funding formula, which has continued to erode the public part of university budgets. Universities in Ontario responded by following what was done in the United States: they have sought to squeeze more tuition out of students and more funds from private donors.

York’s administration has also sought to expand its science, technology, engineering and mathematics profile and reduce, in relative terms, its social sciences and humanities profile. The fact that the social sciences and humanities faculty and students are among the most “unruly,” the most likely to insist on collegial governance, and highly active in unions, may not be lost on the administration.
Unfortunately university administrations are all alike, and there are no models for creatively managing public institutions.

But none of these strategies will work to the competitive advantage of York, many of whose students will either receive a public education or no education at all. This puts York in an interesting position, as it makes the public option the most strategic one for the institution to survive and thrive. Unfortunately university administrations are all alike, and there are no models for creatively managing public institutions. There are only corporate models of total top-down control, privilege, and power at the top, and obedience and fear at the bottom.

York’s social sciences and humanities programs, which attract huge numbers of students and probably subsidize the rest of the university, will never be shut down. But an administrative vision would see these programs carefully controlled, delivered by insecure teachers with no union protections or academic freedom, and students who pay huge amounts to shut up and study like their instructors, who gratefully accept a tiny share of the budget for the chance to shut up and teach.

It doesn’t have to be this way, especially at York. We could try, instead, to be who we are, instead of trying to be something we are not.

What if York were to lead other universities in the aggressive pursuit of the public option? Embracing its progressive traditions, embracing its diverse and in many cases oppressed student body, and working on a whole new list of problems. What would it take to achieve free tuition? How could we speed up and open up the peer review process? How could we run the university on free software and free information? How could we ensure that everyone who works at the university has a good job at a living wage and the freedom to contribute creatively to the community and to say what they think? How could we have a totally seamless relationship with the non-university public, in which the university becomes a source of knowledge and not a place where knowledge is locked up to be accessed only by those who pay to be within its walls? These are the more interesting problems that we could work on at places such as York.

The alternative is to become another all-administrative university with cowed, indebted students taught by cowed, temporary faculty. York’s TAs, GAs, and contract faculty have shown the way, but the struggle for a truly public university will be a long one.

First published in Ricochet:

My Radical Teacher article – A summer in Islamabad, and a student view

Radical Teacher’s 101st issue is about Teaching Across Borders. In it, you can find my article about my experience teaching in Pakistan in 2008, which I’ve also written about in this blog.

Since then, I saw a new article by Aamna Shafqat, a student at IIU-I, and found the student perspective fascinating. If you want to read a bit about teaching and learning in Pakistan, I’d recommend both!