Supervision and PhD completion

Two days ago I posted a tweet thread that has been bouncing around quite a bit and generating much more of a reaction than I expected.

That comment was provoked by something I was reading at that moment, in which the author mentioned ways of reducing PhD times to completion. But I didn’t want to speak only to that specific article or post it, because my point was about what I see more generally in op-eds and white papers, where “recommendations” never seem to have much to do with supervision (yes, many people pointed out to me –and I was aware – that funding usually isn’t mentioned either; I’ve seen it come up in other areas of discussion, such as critiques of contingent academic labour).

I was surprised this tweet got so much attention – it’s no different from what I’ve been arguing in my blog. Given the response to what I said, I thought I would put up a quick post with some links to other information and to a few things I’ve written about this issue in the past.

Here are a few blog posts I’ve written:

Related posts on the lack of data available for Canada:

A few years ago I also posted a bibliography of research on graduate education, it’s badly in need of an update but it’s a start if you’re interested (the link’s here).

This is really only the tip of the iceberg because it’s only what I happen to have written about; there are (of course!) hundreds of other articles and posts out there. Also, many others responded with stories and good points to add to what I was saying, for example several people raised the issue of supporting, mentoring, and compensating faculty supervisors so they can do better at this work. But I hope some of what I’ve shared here is helpful for those who’ve been asking for more information.

Bibliography: Working class and first-generation academics

At the moment I’m reading a number of academic articles relating to a longer post in the works, which will be focussed on class and academia, with an emphasis on how class operates in graduate education and the (academic) job-seeking process.

Here I thought I’d share this bibliography of sources relating to “first generation” and working class graduate students and academics, which I’ve been putting together while I looked at some of the literature on this subject. And here is a link to a Google Docs copy where you can add a resource if you know of a good one that hasn’t been included yet. Cheers!

Bibliography: Bullying, mobbing and workplace harassment in PSE institutions

I’ve compiled a short bibliography of sources about workplace harassment in academia; this is what I had saved in Zotero, and I’m sharing it because there’s a recent University Affairs article on the topic that’s getting a fair bit of attention. I’ve looked into this for dissertation research, so I thought I’d post my sources here. Cheers!

Some links relating to contract faculty

Special Issue: Understanding the New Majority of Non-Tenure-Track Faculty in Higher Education—Demographics, Experiences, and Plans of Action. Adrianna Kezar and Cecile Sam. 2010.
“This monograph provides a portrait of non-tenure-track faculty, describes studies of their experiences, and proposes plans of action. Much of the research, particularly early on, tried to provide a picture and description of this faculty that have been largely invisible for years.”

The University of Stockholm Syndrome. Ian Bogost. August 18, 2010.

An underclass is educating your children. Rob Faunce, Chronicle of Higher Education. September 2, 2010.
“I think we’ve all heard that refrain before, but perhaps it’s time to hear it again, and to think about the conditions of our younger peers as we move on into mythical jobs and mythical tenure.”

Solidarity vs. contingency. Cary Nelson, Inside Higher Ed. September 7, 2010.
“The only true solidarity among current faculty members requires granting tenure to all long-term contingent faculty members. […] The only goal worth fighting for is full justice for all who teach.”

Undocumented and unsung-Growing worldwide dependence on part-time faculty.
Liz Reisberg, Inside Higher Ed. November 8, 2010.
“Among the most interesting were the very large gaps in available data about who is teaching and the remuneration they receive. In most countries national data are collected and compiled by the Ministry of Education, but they are generally incomplete. One consistent pattern in all of the country studies was that there has been a dramatic increase in part-time contracts but with virtually no national data available about their number, profile or remuneration. As a result we are left to guess at what percentage of the teaching faculty is part-time, who they are, and how they are compensated.”

Conditions imposed on part-time adjuncts threaten quality of teaching, researchers say. Peter Schmidt, Chronicle of Higher Education. November 30, 2010.
“The two Michigan State University researchers who conducted the study […] stressed in an interview this week that they fault the conditions part-time instructors work under, and not the instructors themselves, for their failure to use effective teaching methods more often.”

Whatever happened to tenure? Stephanie Findlay, Maclean’s. January 17, 2010.

Documenting adjuncts’ pay gap. Scott Jaschik, Inside Higher Ed. January 20, 2011.

Loyalty or desperation? Lee Skallerup Bessette, Inside Higher Ed. February 16, 2011.
“I was told upfront that I would never get a full-time job there because my specialty and interests were not a priority. Can I help it if I adapt as mercenary an approach to being an adjunct as they take towards adjuncts? Nothing personal, just business.”

Review of “The Faculty Lounges”. Dan Berrett, Inside Higher Ed. June 8, 2011.

Taking the leap. Janet G. Casey, Inside Higher Ed. November 21, 2011.

The time is now: Report from the New Faculty Majority Summit. Lee Bessette, Inside Higher Ed. January 30, 2012.

A call to action. Kaustuv Basu, Inside Higher Ed. January 30, 2012.

The ‘new majority’ of contingent faculty try to get heard. Léo Charbonneau, University Affairs. February 14, 2012.

Rhetoric and Composition: Academic capitalism and cheap teachers. Ann Larson, Education, Class, Politics. March 3, 2012.

The adjunct problem is every professor’s problem. Jonathan Rees. March 20, 2012.

Data storm. Kaustuv Basu, Inside Higher Ed. April 2, 2012.

The disposable professor crisis. s.e. smith, Salon (originally at Alternet). April 4, 2012.

Just not that into you. Kate Bowles, Music for Deckchairs. June 10, 2012.

Original sin: What responsibility do tenure track faculty have for the rise of adjuncts? Jonathan Rees. June 18, 2012.

The adjunct scramble. Kaustuv Basu, Inside Higher Ed. August 23, 2012.

Working for change in higher education: The abysmal state of adjunct teacher pay. Jeffrey Nall, Truthout. November 25, 2012.

Making the case for adjuncts. Colleen Flaherty, Inside Higher Ed. January 9, 2013.

Sessionals, up close. Moira MacDonald, University Affairs. January 9, 2013.

Chart of the Day: Overwhelmingly female adjunct staff face low pay and few employment protections Kay Steiger. January 9, 2013.

Quit! L.S. Powers, The Adjunct Project. January 28, 2013.

Why are so many academics on short-term contracts for years? Anna Fazackerley, Guardian. February 4, 2013.

The academic graveyard shift. Andrew Lounder, Education Policy. February 11, 2013.

Profiles: The faces of precarious work. Laura Kane, Toronto Star. February 23, 2013.

Academia’s indentured servants. Sarah Kendzior, Al Jazeera. April 11, 2013.

Tackling the cap. Carl Straumsheim, Inside Higher Ed. April 24, 2013.

When tenure-track faculty take on the problem of adjunctification. Jennifer Ruth, Remaking the University. May 25, 2013.

The pink collar workforce of academia. Kay Steiger, The Nation. July 11, 2013.

Who teaches university students? Contract teachers. Craig McFarlane, The Globe & Mail. June 21, 2013.

Don’t cheer the rise of the adjunct. Jonathan Marks, Minding the Campus. September 16, 2013.

Zero hours in universities: ‘You never know if it’ll be enough to survive’. Harriet Swain, Guardian. September 16, 2013.

Death of an adjunct. Daniel Kovalik, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. September 18, 2013.

Zero opportunity employers. Sarah Kendzior, Aljazeera. September 23, 2013.

Sifting through the scant data on contingent faculty. Léo Charbonneau, Margin Notes. October 29, 2013.

What does the national data say about adjuncts? Matt Bruenig. December 4, 2013.

Adjuncts and theories of politics. Fredrick deBoer. January 3, 2014.

Thinking beyond ourselves: The “crisis” in academic work. Melonie Fullick, Speculative Diction. January 10, 2014.

False statistic: 76 percent of American faculty are adjuncts. Matt Bruenig. January 14, 2014.
“The article says tenured or tenure-track professors make up 24 percent of the workforce. The remainder are not all adjuncts. They are a mix of adjuncts and all these other kinds of employees who the Times distinguishes from adjuncts.” [Read the comments on this one.]

The new old labor crisis. Tressie McMillan Cottom, Slate. January 24, 2014.
“Think being an adjunct professor is hard? Try being a black adjunct professor…to be clear, there’s been a labor crisis in higher ed for a long time. It just hasn’t always been a crisis for everyone in higher ed.”

The Just-In-Time Professor. House Committee on Education and the Workforce
Democratic Staff. January, 2014.

An ‘alarming snapshot’ of adjunct labor. Sydni Dunn, Chronicle Vitae. January 24, 2014.

Congress takes note. Colleen Flaherty, Inside Higher Ed. January 24, 2014.

Invisible hands: Making academic labour visible. Christina Turner, rabble. January 24, 2014.
“…while [in Canada] the average salary for a full professor in 2010-11 was $138,853, contract instructors make $4000-8000 per course and have no benefits or job security and little academic freedom.”

The income gap between tenure faculty & adjunct contract professors in Canadian universities. The Current, CBC. January 27, 2014.

Representing the new faculty majority. Stephen Slemon, ACCUTE. January 30, 2014.
“We still don’t have competent statistics about contract academic faculty numbers within the Canadian postsecondary industry, a fact that speaks volumes in support of the hypothesis that ignorance is motivated. We do know that the numbers are growing.”

Sessionals. Alex Usher, One Thought Blog. March 6, 2014.
“Basically, no one “decided” to create an academic underclass of sessionals. Rather, they are an emergent property of a system where universities mostly earn money for teaching, but spend a hell of a lot of it doing research.”

Remaking the Public U’s professoriate. Jennifer Ruth, Remaking the Public University. April 2, 2015.

The new normal. Kate Bowles, CASA. April 12, 2015.

The adjunct revolt: How poor professors are fighting back. Elizabeth Segran, The Atlantic. April 28, 2014.

Slavery should never be a metaphor. Tressie McMillan Cottom, The Adjunct Project. May 5, 2014.

Casualisation, (dis)ability and academia. Carla Barrett and Natalie Osborne, CASA. May 15, 2014.

I was a liberal adjunct professor. My liberal students didn’t scare me at all. Amanda Taub, Vox. June 5, 2015.

The teaching class. Rachel Riederer, Guernica. June 16, 2014.

The plight of hidden academics. The Agenda, TVO. June 24, 2014.

Sessional instructors: what we know so far. Léo Charbonneau, Margin Notes. July 16, 2014.

The opposite of good fortune is bad fortune. Ian Bogost. July 20, 2014.

New move in union-busting? Colleen Flaherty, Inside Higher Ed. August 5, 2015.
“…union members are saying [Duquesne University] has hit an unprecedented low in the fight, threatening in a legal brief to fire adjuncts who participated in the unionization process.”

I used to be a good teacher. Alice Umber, Chronicle Vitae. August 20, 2014.

Is that whining adjunct someone we want teaching our young? Catherine Stukel, Chronicle of Higher Education. August 25, 2014.

Offensive letter justifies oppressive system that hurts both faculty and students. Marc Bousquet, Chronicle of Higher Education. August 29, 2014.

‘Traditional’ academics are an endangered species. Geoff Maslen, University World News. September 9, 2014.

Calling it out. Kate Bowles, Music for Deckchairs. September 10, 2014.

No country for old adjuncts. Colleen Flaherty, Inside Higher Ed. September 24, 2014.

First Amendment rights for adjuncts. Colleen Flaherty, Inside Higher Ed. October 31, 2014.

Your waitress, your professor. Brittany Bronson, The New York Times. December 18, 2014.

Adjunct to tenure track. Scott Jaschik, Inside Higher Ed. January 12, 2015.

A day without adjuncts. Colleen Flaherty, Inside Higher Ed. January 27, 2015.

The woman behind #NAWD. Colleen Flaherty, Inside Higher Ed. March 5, 2015.

Academia has to stop eating its young. Showey Yazdanian, The Globe and Mail. March 5, 2015.

More contract work in post-secondary education – a former bastion of secure work. Mary Wiens, CBC. March 5, 2015.

Academia’s 1 percent. Sarah Kendzior, Chronicle Vitae. March 6, 2015.
“No amount of publishing, teaching excellence, or grants can compensate for an affiliation that is less than favorable in the eyes of a search committee. The fate of aspiring professors is sealed not with job applications but with graduate-school applications.”

Crisis in academic labour puts Canadian universities on the brink. Erin Wunker, rabble. March 10, 2015.

Past is prologue when it comes to contract faculty. Melonie Fullick, Speculative Diction. March 11, 2015.

At universities, who is going the teaching? Editorial, The Globe and Mail. March 13 2015.
“Those superstar professors and public intellectuals who bring High-Ranked U. its global stature? They’re preoccupied with producing research, the university’s reward for greatness, and increasingly the university’s measure of greatness.”

What next for #NAWD? Lee Kottner, University of Venus. March 23, 2015.

O adjunct, my adjunct! Carmen Maria Machado, The New Yorker. March 25, 2015.

“Most students couldn’t afford to live on what we make”: The grim reality of MUN’s contractual faculty. Laura Howells, The Muse. April 2, 2015.

The professor divide at American universities and How to Fix It — The Case for a teaching-intensive tenure track. Jennifer Ruth, LSE Impact Blog. April 10, 2015.
“In our forthcoming book, The Humanities, Higher Education and Academic Freedom: Three Necessary Arguments, Michael Bérubé and I propose that universities and colleges put the professoriate back together again by building teaching-intensive tenure tracks.”

The cost of an adjunct. Laura McKenna, The Atlantic. May 26, 2015.

Zero-hours contracts and precarious academic work in the UK. Jonathan White, Academic Matters. Spring—Summer 2015.
“In the UK there are tens of thousands of people working on zero-hours contracts with no guarantee of work from semester to semester. Many of them are students, recruited into doctoral programmes by universities hungry for their course fees and then used to teach fee-paying undergraduates.”

Gratis. Kate Bowles, Music for Deckchairs. June 10, 2015.

I am an adjunct professor who teaches five classes. I earn less than a pet-sitter. Lee Hall, Guardian. June 22, 2015.

Contingent faculty aren’t working in the minors. John Warner, Just Visiting. July 9, 2015.

Employment (in)security and shame: Working hard on soft money. The Smart Casual. July 15, 2015.

Landmark court case win by NTEU, voids Swinburne anti-worker EBA. Josh Cullinan. National Tertiary Education Union. July 17, 2015.

Solidarity to Save Jobs. Jacqueline Thomsen, Inside Higher Ed. August 6, 2015.

The economic inequality in academia. Richard Goldin, Counterpunch. August 13, 2015.
“The reinforcement of professorial class privilege begins with the hiring process for the few available tenure-track jobs. Excellence in teaching, without academic publications, will rarely qualify an applicant for a university level tenure-track position.”

‘Sessional’ Instructors: Return of the Penniless Scholar? Katie Hyslop, The Tyee. September 21, 2015.

In Search of Solidarity for Sessional Instructors. John-Henry Harter, Briarpatch. September 2, 2015.

Fed up with precarious work, academic staff speak out for fair and full employment. CAUT. October 7, 2015.

Silence on campus: Contingent work and free speech. Alex Press and StudentNation, The Nation. February 17, 2016.

The uses of care

(Here is a link to the original post published on December 16, 2015 at University Affairs: The uses of care.)

Recently on Twitter and Facebook I’ve seen more articles on taking care of ourselves and the practice of “self-care” in academe, which makes a lot of sense at a time of year when (in the Northern hemisphere) the combination of colder weather, anxiety and exhaustion at the end of the semester—and the potential added stress of the holiday season—means that many academics and students are feeling worn out and in need of a break.

But when I see these articles and blog posts that take up the concept of self-care, I can’t help also thinking of (and comparing to) the articles from business publications that frame some of the same activities in a completely different way: from the viewpoint of employers, where our wellness is too easily seen as valuable only if it leads to improved productivity and an increase to the bottom line. These latter “advice” pieces are also regularly shared on social media.

In this post I’m going to look at the issue of how those very different “framings” overlap and intersect: what’s the connection between self-care and the “care work” that is done every day, often invisibly and without compensation? How does all this care work happen in the context of managerial governance with its imperative to productivity—and in a competitive academic culture? Is it also possible that “wellness” and related practices can work more in the interests of employers than employees, transferring the responsibility to change problems in the workplace and its culture?

For a start, care is work, as an entire body of academic research can attest; this work is also gendered, disproportionately performed by women. Women are already engaging in this “extra” work both in professional settings and in their personal lives, because it’s what’s expected of them. Tina Barnes-Powell and Gayle Letherby write that “[b]oth in the wider community and in the communities of higher education (whether provided by women or men), ‘care’ is feminized and undervalued.” Care work is often invisible and informal work, present and necessary but largely unacknowledged in everyday life.

For scholars who hail from groups traditionally marginalized in academe, (mutual) care is even more crucial, since working in the institution so often feels more like trying to work against it—both for themselves and for their students. That accumulation of daily experiences is a process of sedimentation, a psychological, emotional and physical burden generated by the structural gaps those scholars are expected to work to fill in themselves. If “diversity work” is also care work—work that can’t be done by committee or accomplished with a policy—it is beyond the logic of institutional rewards.

The concept self care used in this context has its roots in Black feminist thought, exemplified in the well-known words of Audre Lorde: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” As Sara Ahmed explains in her post on “Self-care as warfare”, this is radical because it involves caring for one’s self when the (social) world daily denies one access to that care. The elements of race and gender are key to the analysis, because of the performance of care for others that is expected of Black women, the discrimination they face, and the low value placed on their lives and work: “some of us, Audre Lorde notes were never meant to survive.”

Lorde’s work shows “how structural inequalities are deflected by being made the responsibility of individuals,” and we can see this pattern also in current discourses about workplace stress and mental health. For example, I wrote “Beyond puppies and yoga” to critique the tendency to individualize the “solutions” for the effects of systemic changes to (and problems with) how we live and work, including in academic institutions; in another previous post I discussed how this individualistic framing is reflected and reinforced in media coverage and advice columns about mental health. No amount of tending to the self can adequately compensate for the broader lack of access to mental health resources for those who need them, or indeed for the effects of discrimination and economic inequality on people’s health.

In the media articles we see now, this care for the self is re-articulated through the overarching, individualized logic of productivity. Examples show that a certain level of stress and anxiety is deemed to be fair and “natural,” but that we can manage it ourselves by taking control with advice and adopting appropriate practices. Naps, we’re told, are a good thing because they increase productivity (and sleeping close to your work has never been easier!)—while the debate about how much sleep we “need” rages on, because sleep, of course, is not (in itself) productive. Happiness itself can be calculated as another part of the equation that leads to more productivity. The Onion’s parody of the advice of “wellness experts” only works because we’re so familiar with the content and tone of said advice and the context in which it’s offered.

A useful example of this is the concept of “mindfulness” that is now regularly discussed in business magazines and mainstream media advice columns, having developed as a trend after gaining popularity in Silicon Valley. Zoë Krupka writes that “pasteurised versions of the ancient practice of mindfulness are now big business,” but they are about fixing “not so much what ails you, but what is ailing those who depend on you.” Using mindfulness as a tool to manage stress and increase innovation and productivity doesn’t get at the underlying problem, which is where the stress is coming from, why the work is so stressful, and how much stress people have to deal with (a few more critiques, if you’re interested, hereherehere and here). The strategic application of mindfulness is not a way to address overwork and unhealthy conditions in the workplace, and it places the responsibility for sustaining those conditions directly onto individuals.

These examples show how something that has a great deal of potential to be positive, can be reinterpreted through the lens of economization and enfolded in its logic. Mindfulness really does have benefits; and sleep, healthy food, exercise, and so on, are things we need in order to be healthy, things that improve our lives. It’s more the conflation of our lives and health with the needs of our employers that is potentially a problem, one that’s particularly prevalent in academe, but certainly not only there.

Robin James gets to the heart of this problem by making a distinction between “self-care as surplus-value producing work” or “resilience,” and “guerrilla self-care” (I recommend you read her post on this). The former, argues James, “is not about personal healing: resilient self-care is just another, upgraded way of instrumentalizing the same people” in the service of the same structures that caused them stress in the first place. It’s not “about cultivating what you need, it’s about adapting to dominant notions of success.” Guerrilla self-care, like the “subversive self-care” discussed here by Shanesha Brooks-Tatum, is a means of pushing back against destructive systemic problems as well as alleviating their effects on us.

This is why it’s important that we acknowledge care as work, which is a fundamental element of relationships and organizations, yet exists outside the “value” that matters in a market. The issue with care work, for the self and others, is not that it needs to be done at all but more that some people are expected to do it or compelled to do it—while others can take it for granted that the work will be done for them (by the institution or by other people in their lives). This is also why each of us needs to think through our unique position in relation to these institutions, their histories and their current priorities. Each of us will be able to do different things to contribute in this context. For example, learning to “say no” to extra uncompensated work is a lauded practice, but not everyone is in a position to do this without negative consequences. Those who can, need to make sure the work they say “no” to is not simply downloaded onto others who can’t refuse.

In this context it is radical to resist working on ourselves for the sole purpose of producing value for a “greedy institution,” in a competitive market for stable paid employment. Can care work become radical, resistant, in a system that attributes no value to it yet cannot function without it? Instead of (ironically) individualizing our problems and expecting people to deal with them through technologies of self-management, we need to acknowledge — and keep re-acknowledging — structural problems including those that create stressful, unhealthy workplaces. We also need to de-individualize our means of response so that the burden does not fall, as it has done and still does, on those already most affected by systemic injustices; otherwise we’re merely re-inscribing the things we claim to critique, both to our own detriment and to other people’s.

UBC, WTF?

If there’s a lesson to be learned from the recent events at UBC, it’s that silence can say more than words, whether you’re withholding information or telling someone else to keep quiet. That probably sounds obvious, but the university’s announcement of Arvind Gupta’s resignation—and its handling of the events that followed—reflect some problematic assumptions about who should be able to speak, when, and what should be said.

What was it that triggered UBC’s current public crisis? Gupta’s July 31 departure was announced publicly on August 7 in classic “Friday Afternoon News Dump” fashion: UBC published a news release, which was tweeted shortly after 4pm EDT. In a news release where roughly 50% of the text was devoted to celebratory prose about the incoming interim president (Dr. Martha Piper), UBC gave no explanation for Gupta’s resignation except that he had “decided he can best contribute to the university and lead Canada’s innovation agenda by resuming his academic career and leadership roles in the business and research community”.

Additionally, a Globe and Mail article was published around 5pm, containing interview quotes from UBC Board of Governors (BoG) Chair John Montalbano. Rather than clarifying the situation, this article only exacerbated the impression that the university hoped to bury the issue as quickly as possible. Gupta’s quoted comments—restricted by the NDAs that had been signed—were equally unhelpful, referring back to the university’s statement. Montalbano appears completely unfazed, stating “I don’t believe we will miss a beat”.

That article highlights what’s been so provocative about the UBC case, i.e. the “cone of silence” approach taken by the university’s administration, even as the BoG Chair seemed to have been saying quite a lot (more on this below). While there was a press release, it was immediately treated as an incomplete account because in the context of Gupta’s five-year term ending abruptly after only one year, the information UBC provided wasn’t “enough”. An (apparently) partial message suggests that there’s something to hide. This much should have been obvious at the outset, but UBC’s communication has remained unbendingly evasive; even their Twitter feed contained nothing helpful when I checked, beyond a single tweet with their press release on August 7.

Because of this suddenness and silence, public speculation began immediately. Why was Gupta resigning after only a year? Was it a health problem or some other personal issue? Was it a disagreement with the Board or opposition from senior administrators (the remaining ones, anyway)? The pressure of financial challenges? Gupta had no real experience in administration; was the position simply too much for him—or was he perhaps not living up to his promise? If it was the latter, one year seems like a pretty short trial period. If this was a “smouldering crisis”, it didn’t take long for the flames to be fanned—and it certainly wasn’t visible or predictable to everyone in the institution. UBC Faculty Association President Mark MacLean wrote in a public letter on August 10: “this news came as a complete surprise to me, and I have spent the weekend trying to make sense of it”.

UBC faculty members were among those who produced blog posts and columns offering their own interpretations of events (examples from the past few weeks include E. Wayne Ross, Nassif Ghoussoub, Stephen Petrina, Christopher Rea, James Tansey, and Charles Menzies). Which brings us to the second thread in this story. On August 9, Dr. Jennifer Berdahl—a full professor who holds the Montalbano Professorship in Leadership Studies: Women and Diversity in the Sauder School of Business—published a blog post about Gupta’s resignation, in which she described her “personal observations and experiences” with him. She placed these observations squarely in the context of her research on diversity and workplace dynamics.

Of Gupta, Berdahl wrote that “he exhibited all the traits of a humble leader: one who listens to arguments and weighs their logic and information, instead of displaying and rewarding bravado as a proxy for competence”; and that “UBC either failed in selecting, or in supporting, him as president” (a position she wasn’t alone in holding). More controversially, she described the culture of leadership at UBC as a “masculinity contest” in which Gupta did not fit, and where his strengths were not sufficiently valued.

Berdahl’s post soon came to the attention of BoG Chair John Montalbano, who went so far as to express disapproval to her in a phone call the day after it was published. Montalbano, who is CEO of RBC Global Asset Management, also happens to be the donor whose funds support Berdahl’s professorship. According to Berdahl, he chastised her for bringing negative attention to the Sauder School and UBC, describing her words as “hurtful” and “unfair to the Board” and repeatedly mentioning both the RBC funding and related conversations that he was having with other administrators. This was followed by further communications from Berdahl’s Division Chair; the Associate Dean of Faculty; and perhaps most ironically, the Associate Dean of Equity and Diversity. Their message was clear: the blog post had done “reputational damage” and was upsetting to a powerful donor who was also Chair of the Board.

Berdahl’s account of these experiences, which she posted on August 16, brought a whole new dimension to the UBC situation. What she described was an unequivocal breach of academic protocol, and it generated outrage far beyond UBC and beyond the group that had initially been concerned about Gupta’s resignation. It also changed the focus of the story and helped to further position Montalbano as the chief villain in it. Even those who were more sanguine about Gupta’s departure and/or had viewed Berdahl’s earlier post with skepticism, were happy to leap to her defence over an issue of academic freedom.

Berdahl’s experience has raised again a key issue with regards to the definition of academic freedom: should professors’ commentary be limited to their “area of expertise” or to what is required for teaching and research, or should it be applicable to more general matters of university governance? Even for those who think that comment should be limited to a faculty member’s research area, Berdahl’s position is unique this regard; her research is in fact about organizational dynamics. Surely then she is qualified to speak critically about the dynamics in her own institution, based on what she’s observed first-hand? The post states fairly clearly that Berdahl is speaking from her own experience and framing this through the theoretical lens that she uses in her work. This approach was of course criticised for a variety of reasons, but being critical of what someone said is not the same as telling them to stop saying it.

I wasn’t hugely surprised at the points Berdahl was making, because the gender issue here isn’t a new one. It’s a point I’ve seen raised, usually off-the-record (and not by women), during the course of my dissertation research. It’s something that Julie Cafley of Canada’s Public Policy Forum, who wrote a dissertation on Canadian universities’ presidential departures, is also pointing out as significant. Another factor to keep in mind are the gender dynamics of public expertise, which favour a particular performance of masculinity (one that intersects with perceptions relating to race). So is there not a connection between these issues and the points raised in Berdahl’s blog post on this topic? Why were so many people—university faculty included—so quick to dismiss the legitimacy and relevance of what she said, along with her right to say it?

For some people, the problem was the quality of the writing and the analysis in the post; it wasn’t written either with the rigour of an academic article, or the clarity of a post intended for a broad audience. Others disagreed with the conclusions indicated therein, which were interpreted as accusations of racism and sexism. But if the question here is whether the post was covered by UBC’s existing policies on academic freedom, to me it looks like the answer is “yes”.

That’s why, whatever Berdahl’s analysis pointed to, in his reaction to it Montalbano stepped over a line that would have been clear to anyone familiar with academic work and the policies that govern it. The outcome was that after denying the allegations, Montalbano still faced public pressure to step down as BoG Chair—which he did, on August 25. Former B.C. Supreme Court Justice Lynn Smith will “undertake [a] fact-finding process” on the incident, to culminate in a report by October 7. Meanwhile, UBC has provided no further information about Gupta’s resignation, which clearly hasn’t stopped major media outlets from publishing further commentary.

I can see at least two stories being told here: one of them is about accountability, and the other is about academic freedom. They’re both stories about the ethics of (crisis) communication—on the one hand, a major, sudden change occurred and not enough information was provided. On the other hand, when a faculty member wrote a public interpretation of that change, she was shushed by the BoG Chair and others.

Accountability is significantly about communicating with those who have an interest in the outcome of a situation. Even when there’s information that for legal reasons can’t be disclosed, there are ways of handling it appropriately. The rampant speculation (and subsequent calls for transparency) should have been entirely predictable given that UBC is one of the country’s top universities, that there was widespread publicity about Gupta’s appointment (and presidential searches cost money), and that the resignation happened after just 13 months. Those gaps left between expectations and actual communication were filled in with assumptions generated by context: that something very bad must have happened, since no-one could talk about it. Would things have turned out differently had the university taken a different path at the outset, or are the rules governing such situations inherently troubling for public academic institutions?

Academic freedom, too, is a communication issue as well as one of intellectual integrity; there’s a reason it’s so often conflated with “freedom of speech”. It’s what professors are saying—what they’re communicating and to whom—that’s often framed as a (political) problem, as was the case with Jennifer Berdahl’s blog posts. This reaction to her words only confirmed the initial impression that something worth hiding must have happened, since a faculty member was being pressured to tone it down.

What will happen next at UBC? In an August 9 post at Inside Higher Ed, Kris Olds wrote that “a crisis is a wonderful teaching and learning moment. Use it, and be prepared to see it used, for this is what a university is all about”. Only time will tell whether the lessons from this crisis will be put to good use. UBC will need to tend to reputational damage, but even more so, the damage done to internal trust within the university. One sign of how the university plans to proceed is provided in Martha Piper’s op-ed in the Vancouver Sun. Piper’s piece, whether you agree with her perspective or not, is probably better written than anything else produced by UBC representatives during the past month; but it’s clear that the university is trying to maintain the same upbeat tone that failed so badly at the outset. If (as some have argued) there’s a deeper, ongoing problem with the culture of governance at UBC, it’s going to take not only time but also some honesty to address it appropriately.

Bibliography: Research on Contract Faculty

In light of the recent strikes at York University and University of Toronto, linked below is a list of some of the sources I’ve tracked down relating to PhD ‘demand’, the academic job market, contract faculty, and labour unions. The focus is on Canada – and it’s by no means exhaustive – but there are some references here from other countries as well. I’ve also tried to include a range of perspectives on the issues. Here’s the link:
Sources on contract faculty and academic unions in Canada.

Beyond puppies and yoga

While the past decade has brought a great deal of discussion about mental health in Canadian higher education, these issues are usually framed and discussed as individual rather than systemic, and as problems that PSE institutions should be able to resolve with more supports. But universities and colleges can only do so much, and when services and supports are radically under-funded in the broader health system, we are failing not just students but everyone else who relies on the public system for care. Here is a link to the original post published on January 14, 2014 at University Affairs: Beyond puppies and yoga.

Last October was Mental Health Awareness Month in Ontario (October 10 is World Mental Health Day), and as part of the province’s mental health and addictions strategy, there was much fanfare over the launch of new initiatives for postsecondary students bolstered by $27 million in funding. This is an important and positive step, because there’s been an increasing demand for the limited support services available on campuses, and the problem has been worsening for at least a decade.

Unfortunately, what students experience is part of a much bigger problem. Universities and colleges, as much as they may try, cannot plug the yawning gap in our system that is an issue far beyond the campus. There are many people in Ontario who need help with mental health issues and may be seeking it actively – but can’t get it. Why? Because the system is reactive. It’s designed to deal with short-term problems and with extremes and crises, rather than to help us prevent them, or help us to live with long-term conditions. This matters because ultimately, the services on campuses have to mesh with off-campus services in or connected to the healthcare system.

This is a system in which, without a formal diagnosis, you cannot gain access to accommodations in postsecondary institutions (or elsewhere). Yet to obtain this diagnosis, you have to find the right way in to the system and obtain the right help once you get there. The process can take anywhere from a few months to a year (or longer), depending on how much you know and whether you have an advocate.

For example, an assessment for learning disabilities costs $1,500 to $3,500. Some universities have assessment services, but these refer students to external testing (some of which may be covered, depending on circumstances). You still have to be a registered student to access these, or to have costs partially covered through student loan eligibility; otherwise, you or your parents will be paying. If you’ve had to de-register because of your problems, then you’re out of luck. The same goes for therapy; talk clearly isn’t cheap, in fact it costs $80 or more per hour unless you can use university counselling services – where there is a limit on the number of sessions each student can access. All this is based on the assumption that problems will be short-term and can be “fixed”; wait times for long-term services are often very lengthy.

Of course if you have the resources available, you can simply buy what you need. You can see a therapist of your choice, without waiting months to be told whether you are eligible. You, or your family, can pay for expensive assessments so that problems can be uncovered and named, and help can be obtained. The more fortunate students don’t need most of the university’s services and also don’t have to rely on the government, because they have other forms of support.

Clearly it’s still the disadvantaged students – and less-privileged people in general – who are falling through the cracks in this system. We need to ask, who receives the necessary supports and who does not? Who can step forward and say “I think I have a problem”, without fear of repercussions? Who has the resilience and stamina to pursue a solution that can take so long, and can be so draining, both to discover and to put into practice?

The current system continues to privilege not just people with existing resources but also those who are secure enough to speak about the unmentionable, in spite of the lack of awareness that even those who suffer from such problems may experience themselves. For example, the Council of Ontario Universities held a competition to encourage students to come up with the best mental health “social media strategy”. But the best strategy would be a collective one, informed by (and actively soliciting) the input of those who cannot or will not speak in the public eye. The best process would actively seek out criticism from those most affected, not just the more easily marketable solutions.

University initiatives that gain the most positive media attention often conflate short-term, seasonal stress relating to events like exams, with long-term problems like clinical depression and anxiety disorders (as well as focusing on undergraduate students). Yet it’s the exam period “puppy rooms” that make the news, not the underlying issues that are so much harder to address and resolve, like wait times for “assessments” at university counselling clinics, the lack of privacy many students feel when they go there, the difficulty of having to describe one’s situation repeatedly in the process of trying to find help, and the exhaustion produced by having to negotiate (with) a bureaucracy while simultaneously dealing with the effects of one’s condition.

Giving attention to answers that work well in a PR pitch means depoliticizing our context, and this is a serious mistake. It makes it too easy to forget about all those gaps in the system, and also about factors like poverty, abuse, and discrimination based on race, gender, disability, sexuality, and nationality; it makes it easier to individualize both the problems and the solutions, reducing the answers to “lifestyle choices”. It means we downplay the context in which students are living their lives, and how they bring this to the university when they step onto the campus. That context is part of what enriches teaching and learning, but it also has to be addressed in terms of the problems students experience both on- and off-campus, and how we can help them. Universities alone can’t fix these systemic problems, but perhaps they can bring attention to them, and that would be a great start.

The role of communication in governance – Universities and (new) media

I’ve had a short essay published in the Journal of Professional Communication. The essay is about the role of communication in organizational governance, and takes the university as an example of how new media are affecting organizations’ public relations practices and the kind of work that must be done by/through communication.

The journal home page is here, and my essay is in Volume 2, Issue 2.

The link to a PDF of my piece is here.