Academic Socialism

Academic Socialism

by Michael J. Bugeja



Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780914061427
Publisher: Orchises Press
Publication date: 08/01/1994
Pages: 128
Product dimensions: 5.81(w) x 8.84(h) x 1.13(d)

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Chapter One


Socialism has often given rise to a statist politics, committed to replacing mutual aid with bureaucratic benevolence. That indeed is the record o f Communist regimes, except that the bureaucrats never turn out to be benevolent.
                                                                                                     MICHAEL WALZER in The New Republic


    I've been a professor for more than 15 years, almost twice as long as I was a working journalist. Once I had an exciting, exhausting career as a reporter and editor for United Press International. That company may be out of business by the time you read this, or it may not, because UPI seems to teeter each year on the brink of collapse.

    UPI is a wire service. It owns or rents a string of bureaus throughout the world. Reporters file news items around the clock. The typical reporter for a major newspaper like The New York Times might do a story or two per week; wire service reporters fileseveral dozen. Our motto at UPI was: "Get it first, get it fast, get it right."

    We were a profit-making organization, although we seldom made a profit. Our chief competitor was the Associated Press, a non-profit company, which usually outspent and outstaffed us. For instance, I was a bureau manager in charge of two huge states, North and South Dakota, and was outstaffed by the AP 13 to 3. But we kept pace. We did so by working 60-hour weeks on average, violating union rules, receiving no overtime. Managers like me promised "comp time"—or an hour off for every one worked without pay over forty per week. No one got comp time, of course; oh, an hour or a day or two sporadically, perhaps, if there was a family emergency or illness that coincided with a lull in the news. We all knew that comp time was a joke.

    Because the AP didn't have to make a profit, it could offer reporters easier hours and better raises than ours. Some years we did not have any raise at all. Simply, there was no money. We were continually on "downhold," which meant holding down costs. Toward the end of my UPI career, I could no longer afford to pay a journalism student minimum wage to take high school scores on Friday and Saturday nights. I had to come in to work then, after laboring my 60 hours. I also had to come in on weekday mornings at 4 a.m. to file cattle markets and weather advisories. At the end of the month, I would try to pay bills and meet my budget. On occasion I did so by paying half of my telephone bills, daring Ma Bell to sue UPI; she never did.

    Our AP counterparts questioned why we worked so hard under such terrible conditions.

    The answer was simple: to beat you, dummy.

    We were the few, the proud, the "UniPressers." Our mascot was "The Stringer," an underpaid radio jock or weekly newspaper hack who wanted a byline with our logo and who would call in stories from around the state, receiving $1 per each edited inch of copy. After a stringer would file his or her story, we would thank them profusely and make them feel that they were as famous as Peter Jennings or as sharp as Ellen Goodman.

    Good managers treated their reporters with similar respect. When an employee like Melanie Rigney, an editor now at Ad Age, would find the time to write and file a feature story on her one day off in ten, I would spend an extra hour at the bureau, polishing her piece and then pulling rank on the copy desk person in New York, convincing him or her to run it on the national wire so that Melanie would have a chance at appearing in the Sunday Times. At any rate, managers in cities like Boston or Chicago or Los Angeles would clip her story from local newspapers and send them to her in Sioux Falls with cheery notes of congratulations. Reporters across the country would send "kudos" on the message wire. Melanie's morale would increase and offset some of her stress.

    In sum, UPI management knew that morale was the chief reason that the company was still in business. Our top executives then—H.L. Stevenson, editor-in-chief, and Don Reed, managing editor—were as busy as bureau managers and reporters, trying to keep us out of bankruptcy court. Yet they, too, took time to send us a personal thank-you letter or critique our copy on the message wire. (I cherish a thank-you letter from Stevenson complimenting me for disclosing that the swine flu shot in 1976 was causing paralysis—the top story of my career.)

    Sure, UniPressers complained about their salaries. Sure, they whined or threatened to strike when faced with another year of token or no raises. And yes, some of us burned out or lost husbands or wives to divorce or got ill with the stress and the long hours. These are moral, not morale, problems.

    But my UPI experience taught me important lessons about morale. I learned that employees want to be appreciated at least as much as they want to be paid. UniPressers actually believed that the free world would suffer if our company went out of business, allowing the AP to monopolize the news. We were protectors of the Republic, defenders of the faith.

    We relied on teamwork to beat our opponent. Each night when Don Reed sent out the "logs"—a scorecard that tallied the daily saga between UPI and AP—our hearts beat a little faster with the tickertape: Bugeja, swine flu, 19.0. (This log meant that newspapers subscribing to both wires used my story in a shut-out of the AP.) Logs also bolstered morale. We measured ourselves by those numbers the way brokers do portfolios by the Dow. When our numbers went down, our resolve went up. We competed with the AP and ourselves.

    One either married UPI or a person.

    I quit the wire service in 1979 to marry Diane Sears, a part-time UPI photographer and full-time social worker. We both agreed that our erratic hours would doom a relationship. So we left Sioux Falls and headed south to Oklahoma State University.


    I took a $5,500 pay cut and a job as adviser to the campus newspaper. Diane enrolled in the Graduate Program in the Journalism School, where I also taught part-time. I already had a master's in mass communications from South Dakota State, so I entered the doctoral program in English. By 1986 I had my Ph.D. in creative writing and was tenured and promoted in my home department.

    The transition did not go smoothly, however. The state of Oklahoma was coming off the oil boom of the late 1970s and in the early 1980s crashed economically. As happened during my employment at UPI, there were token or no raises for several years. Professors were working long hours, teaching more classes or ones with higher enrollments. My director, Marlan Nelson, tried as hard as he could to keep up morale, but lacked support from the university administration and the Legislature. In fact, a few lawmakers justified cuts in higher education by accusing professors of being underworked and overpaid.

    That message went over well with taxpayers. They couldn't afford higher taxes anyway, given their own frozen wages or worse—unemployment—so politicians in Oklahoma City bore down hard on academe. Soon professors themselves were accusing each other, wanting to be appreciated for their contributions, but doing so at their colleagues' expense. Some elevated research over teaching or publications over service or extension over student evaluations, vying for a symbolic 1 percent merit raise. Reputations were damaged, friendships lost, for a few hundred dollars.

    I had had enough. Unable to tolerate another summer without employment, one morning in late May I strode to the "hanging file," an appropriate metaphor: a clip board on the wall announcing job opportunities at other universities. I tore off the first listing: a journalism professorship at Ohio University. I applied and got the post and relocated to Athens two months later.

    By now I was desperate. For seven years I had struggled to feed my family between June 1 and October 1, months without pay. So I took the Ohio position with a $500 pay cut at the associate rank, but with the promise of regular summer employment. That meant a net $4,000 more per year. I was told that I couldn't receive a higher salary because my appointment might run into problems at Affirmative Action. (Two women also were being hired at the assistant professor rank for similarly low salaries.) Yet Ohio would not be like Oklahoma, I was assured. Professors here were receiving annual raises between 6 and 8 percent, so in the long run I would be better off in Athens than in Stillwater. Moreover, the E.W. Scripps School was one of the top journalism programs in the country (according, ironically, to the Associated Press).

    For the most part, the rosy forecast held between 1986 and 1988. Raises were regular. Morale at the Scripps School was good. Faculty meetings went smoothly and everyone contributed as a team. OU reminded me of UPI. Everyone praised each other or at least made jokes about each other when we disapproved of a colleague's easy hours or impossible standards.

    Then the economy caught up with Ohio. Raises sank to 3 and then 2 percent and finally to nothing. Our governor and Legislature began attacking academe, as lawmakers had done in Oklahoma, to justify budget cuts to the overtaxed and underemployed public.

    Morale at the Journalism School sank as it had at Oklahoma. A few colleagues began bickering with each other, elevating research above teaching or advising above service, gossiping about each other and politicking in the halls. Some years annual reviews made little sense, with a few profs getting fair marks for publishing when they hadn't published at all and others getting poor marks for publishing when they had (but not on the right topics).

    Our attitude changed from good to bad with the economy. Instead of lauding each other's contributions, celebrating the diversity of ideas that had won awards for our school, some of us turned on each other. This was happening across campus, across the state. We didn't need politicians to bash us because we were bashing ourselves. But our timing was convenient for legislators in Columbus who wanted to freeze taxes and our salaries and work us harder than before.

    Our spirits sank as class enrollments rose.

    Once more, I remembered UPI. It occurred to me that our governor and other politicians, so fond of comparing business to education, would be terrible CEOs, running their corporations into the ground—or bankruptcy court—with their negativism. I began to appreciate my management experience and the corporate emphasis on merit and morale.

    I did library research to determine whether what I saw at Oklahoma State and later at Ohio University applied to other institutions across the country. I clipped dozens of articles from publications like Chronicle of Higher Education, which reported decreased funding for higher education in many states and increased emphasis on accountability. As noted earlier in my acknowledgements, I also interviewed colleagues at other institutions. Because I am a creative writer and journalist, I often am invited to give presentations at private and public colleges; this gave me a broader perspective as I spoke to professors about other merit systems and morale problems. Soon I began writing about education reform and received more information and support from readers of literary magazines. Thus, while many of my examples in this book are drawn from personal experience at two fine institutions—one my alma mater and the other, my place of employment—I have chosen topics carefully. This is not a book about merit and morale problems in Oklahoma and Ohio but about academic problems that appear to be widespread. Moreover, in the second half of this book, dozens of educators and business and government leaders often substantiate—and sometimes dispute—my stance and opinions.

    In sum, the goal of this book is not to accuse any institution but to redirect the education reform debate so that it focuses on administrative accountability and the impact of an inadequate merit system. I maintain that this system (or variations thereof) exists on many campuses and contributes to low productivity and morale.

    These are the issues that I will raise in this book.


    The term has a history. I conceived "academic socialism" in the mid-1980s during the financial crisis at Oklahoma State University but refined the idea while at Ohio University, publishing an essay by that title in the Fall 1992 edition of The Midwest Quarterly.

    I'll define "academic socialism" by quoting from that piece:"[M]any professors allow their administrators to treat them under a system not unlike socialism: when times are good, so are the five-year plans. When times are bad, everyone is average.

    "This is the core of the cancer in the typical American college. Merit and motivation are paradigms lost. Just as a socialist government puts interests of the state before the citizen, academic socialism puts the system before the individual. Administrators embrace a philosophy that rewards or punishes across the board, that takes the easiest route, that sells out to industry and forgets tradition, ruining young adults and putting our nation at risk."

    I believe our academic system is in need of an overhaul. But unlike authors of other education books promoting similar notions, I will recommend reforms that are not only easily put into place but that also do not require more taxation and funding. They do demand courage and a change in attitude. Moreover, the reforms concern morale and merit rooted in business practice without surrendering to entrepreneurialism and so jeopardizing educational values.

    Metaphorically, business—as opposed to government—is linked to education. It is time that educators acknowledge this relationship and understand how business methods have evolved in our rapidly changing world (while education, for the most part, has remained stagnant). For instance, few scholars will argue that the university system is patterned after the factory model of the 19th Century. Charles W. Anderson, in his book Prescribing the Life of the Mind, bluntly states: "Fundamentally, the America university thinks of itself as a knowledge factory. It was created to rationalize and systematize, in effect to industrialize, the pursuit of knowledge."

    As I write, however, fewer than 1 in 12 Americans work in a factory. Automation and computerization have seen to that. Competition has increased because of communications technology, free trade agreements, and better access to global markets. As a result, management practices have also changed, emphasizing quality control and customer service and satisfaction. The old UPI motto— "Get it first, get it fast, get it right"—can apply now to any successful enterprise, Fortune 500 to the corner Kinko's. Undergirding the business world and its bottom line, the profit margin, is a reform that has nothing to do with profit but what executives believe is the means to it: employee morale.

    Conversely, education and the state government that funds it have forgotten the importance of the healthy attitude. It amuses me to see administrators and legislators wearing those mini-American flag pins on their lapels and pinafores when often the hammer and sickle would be more appropriate.

    I know these are harsh words. They shouldn't apply to all administrators and legislators, of course. But there is also truth in that satire. In a comprehensive review of poor productivity and morale in the old Soviet work force, Guy Standing writes in International Labor Review: "Low wages affect work motivation and thus productivity, both directly and by raising labor turnover. Soviet workers are said to rank wages rather low in the factors they look for in a job. For example, a factory study in Zhdanov in 1977 reported that only about 10 per cent of the workers perceived wages to be more important than job content in their choice of job.... Perhaps more significantly, most workers in a recent survey admitted that they worked below capacity, were dissatisfied with their wages (and were much more inclined to be dissatisfied than were workers in a comparable survey 12 years earlier), and felt that if wages were raised their productivity would increase."

    Standing goes on to document the poor Communist economy in which, in essence, every worker had tenure along with similar pay checks and low morale. To adjust for those factors, Standing states, many workers coveted "job status" [his emphasis]. Finally he mentions the poor evaluation system under which Soviet workers were reviewed; their wages largely were fixed and their benefits guaranteed by the state: "one must question whether an effective, flexible and sophisticated job evaluation scheme is feasible in the Soviet Union at this stage."

    The unproductive Soviet worker—with fixed wages and low morale—mirrors the tenured American professor. Typically, he or she knows that they cannot do much to change their salaries under the current merit system and so place a high value on job status: academic title (honorary such as "writer in residence" or earned such as "Regents Professor"), choice committee or teaching assignments, parking (no small matter in academe), and other trappings of rank. When unable to earn enough money or be rewarded fairly via annual reviews, the professor either becomes unproductive ... or moves to a greener campus.

    How would such professors have been received in the USSR? The Communist response to low productivity and morale was eerily similar to that of today's education-bashing U.S. legislators. As noted by Yuri Grafsky in his Soviet Life article, "Theater of the Economic Absurd": "The Committee for Statistics argues that the main thing is that modern-day workers are not hard-working enough."

    Perhaps the politicians here are right and the same is true with the typical tenured professor. But the system that demoralizes him or her is to blame, I posit, and needs to be assessed by analyzing yet another socialist model. In a lament about the failed promises of socialism, and the necessary reform needed to revive those promises, Michael Walzer writes in The New Republic: "It would look first to the social infrastructure to reinforce all those networks, fellowships, neighborhoods, service organizations, communities of faith and interest within which people help and support and care for one another. Socialism has often given rise to statist politics, committed to replacing mutual aid with bureaucratic benevolence. That indeed is the record of Communist regimes, except that the bureaucrats never turn out to be benevolent."

    Indeed. What we need now more than ever in academe is fellowship, service, faith, help, support, care, mutual aid—all morale-builders; what we don't need are more administrators or benevolent-sounding legislators to fix problems in our infrastructure.

    I will try to make that case in the opening chapters of this book. Then I will test my theories and assumptions by sharing the results of surveys to business and education leaders and governor's aides.

    CEOs, professors, and aides will make some startling observations.

    Here is a sampling:

—"Higher education is really pretty much a business when it comes to the financial aspects of the endeavor. This is particularly true for private institutions. However, most of the academics who teach either can't or won't accept this fact. As a result, there is little concern as to who the real customer is (often the ignored undergraduate) and little attempt to get costs in line with the growth or lack thereof in the economy in general.

"I'll predict that higher education will follow the health industry in being 'helped' by the U.S. government." (CEO, major U.S. defense contractor)

—"The system of renumeration that creates the best morale gives everyone who does a satisfactory job a small increase, and then allows everyone who believes s/he deserves a merit increase to apply for one. The application is clear and simple. Applications are ranked by peer committees & sent out to the dean, who has a fund for merit and one for equity/compensation. (This system was in place at Old Dominion University in Norfolk when I was there in the mid-80s.)

"Here in Alaska, increases are either across-the-board percentages or market-driven, both of which sleight the humanities and arts, every time. Morale's awful." (Peggy Shumaker, English professor, Univ. of Alaska-Fairbanks)

—"Individual merit pay provides an incentive for competent teachers—or any employee—to operate independently and to achieve at the expense of his or her peers. There would be no incentive for a good teacher to spend time to assist a poor teacher and make that teacher better. Merit pay should be on a school-wide basis at least to foster a spirit of teamwork, cooperation and mentoring that will ensure every teacher becomes better and that every student benefits...." (Governor's education aide, Wyoming)

    After stating my case and presenting ideas about reform, I will make conclusions based on collective views and recommend changes in academe.

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