Monthly Archives: August 2019

Public, Regional, Urban, Comprehensive

In 1995 I moved to Cleveland, Ohio to take up a position as an Instructor in the History Department at Cleveland State University (CSU).  For someone who had gotten her BA in the rarified atmosphere of a small liberal arts college and her MA and (soon to be PhD) at a Big Ten campus, CSU was a bit of a revelation.  I was young and ill-informed about the landscape of higher education and hadn’t really given much thought to urban, public regional campuses like CSU.  I had visited campus in February (not Cleveland’s best month) and my campus tour had consisted of a mad dash through hulking buildings that gave new meaning to brutalist architecture.  My job offer letter included language specifying that I would be expected to regularly teach in the evening and on weekends—at that time CSU had a particularly vigorous array of courses available to adult learners who worked full-time and needed the flexibility of such a schedule.  And so I taught at night.  And during the day.  And I taught students who were many years older than me.  After eight years or so in fairly bucolic and decidedly un-urban settings, I reveled in returning to a city (I grew up in Atlanta).  Cleveland was in the midst of one of its renaissances then and colleagues delighted in telling me about new restaurants and other amenities while introducing me to the city’s stalwart institutions like the Cleveland Museum of Art—that was in the words of its founders “for the benefit of all the people, forever,” and where the world-class permanent collection is free.  I endured the jokes of those from outside Cleveland who didn’t know better and thought I had moved to a rust-belt wasteland (they could not have been more wrong).

And I stayed.  My then-boyfriend moved here.  We got married.  We bought a house.  I found a dentist.  Got a library card.  I got tenure.   We did what I had hungered to do my last few years in graduate school: we put down roots.

And all the while I forged a relationship with the institution where I worked.  With each passing semester my respect for my students—who juggled jobs, family, debt, and food insecurity—deepened.  I became passionate about public education.  I got involved in faculty governance; I served on curriculum committees, faculty senate, faculty job search committees.  I made a commitment to this institution and its future.  I dipped a toe in administrative waters at the invitation of the the then-president of the university.  I liked the work so I took on a different administrative role.  I became department chair.  And then I took a bigger leap and applied and was fortunate enough to be chosen to be the dean of our honors college.

And I continued to teach, at all levels of our program: survey courses, upper-level courses for majors, and courses in our MA program.  I told anyone who would listen that our students were easily the best part of the job.  I loved watching the interactions between eighteen-year olds, new to university life, and returning adult students.  My best students routinely blew me out of the water with their insights and ideas.  My struggling students challenged me but typically worked hard and were determined to improve.  All of my students enriched my teaching with their life experiences and perspectives.

All the while I worked alongside amazing people.  As I moved into administration I connected with a broader cross-section of the university that included staff in academic advising, student life, and student support services.  I came to have a much greater appreciation of their tireless advocacy for our students.

And then suddenly (or so it seemed) I had been here twenty-four years.  I have served under four presidents, and at least twice as many provosts.  Is everything perfect here?  Of course not.  State funding for higher education has declined precipitously during that time.  There are many things we could do better.  But as administrators come and go and various faculty union and faculty governance battles are fought, we still, as an institution, have an important role to play.  Our mission remains unchanged.  Forty percent of our students are first-gen.  And the most striking part of this statistic for me is how little it has changed in my time here—there is plenty of work yet to be done.  Places like Cleveland State account for over a third of all the undergraduate students enrolled in four-year institutions.  So clearly, we are still doing absolutely vital, life-changing work.

An institution like Cleveland State is known by various monikers: public, urban, regional, comprehensive.  I just call it home.

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Being There

The landscape of higher ed these days can be pretty despair-inspiring. Admissions scandals, badly-behaved administrators, shrinking budgets and the like do much to demoralize. As these challenges and crises play out on individual campuses, anxieties mount, tensions flare, and we are often not our best selves. And curiously, the structural patterns and organizing principles of higher ed do much to exacerbate this.

Perhaps ironically, given its origin story as an institution that evolved from corporations of students and teachers, the post-modern university has become a highly atomized environment. We speak of and suffer from the compartmentalization of silo-ed departments and colleges. And this fragmentation reaches all the way down to the faculty and shapes their behavior as well. A 2014 study found that faculty spent an average of 57% of their time working alone. Some of this isolation derives from where and how we work—on weekends, in coffee shops. Some of it derives from our academic disciplines: my own, history, is driven by the model of the solo researcher (though that is slowly changing). And further, as a system, higher ed encourages faculty to think in highly individualized terms. Faculty talk in terms of “my course” and “my syllabus” and “my research.” I am currently reading Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Generous Thinking and part of her thesis is how the competitive funding structure and tenure and promotion processes of academe pit us against one another in potentially unproductive ways.

Some of this independence or separation has its place and serves worthy functions. But I do believe that in times of crisis it doesn’t always serve us well. If anything, I think that those who would undermine or subvert the nobler aims of higher education (educating and empowering students, creating knowledge, faculty governance, etc) benefit from, and perhaps sometimes even capitalize on, our atomization and separation from one another. It is easier to drive a wedge when there is space between people or units where that wedge can fit.

With that in mind, I believe there are small steps we can take to push back against a system that would isolate us and turn us into competitors with each other. I am going to put aside—for the moment—large-scale ideas about big projects where we can and should cooperate and collaborate and systemic changes that would work against a competitive rewards system.  Instead, I am going to say that we should just show up and be there for one another.

Obvious, right? Not necessarily. I read this article about supporting the emotional needs of junior faculty with a combination of head-nodding (“yes, yes, we should do this”) and head-shaking (“what the hell? Why aren’t we already doing this?”).

And I mean being here and showing up for each other in its most basic sense. Go to your colleague’s presentation at the local library. Throw someone a little party when their book gets published. Thank a staff member in a department outside your own for something they’ve done that makes your life easier. Create community where there was none before. A few years ago I started a very small online writing group with some colleagues who lived all over the country. I had some self-serving reasons: I had a writing project I needed to finish and I knew I needed accountability. But I also drew together this group of friends because I suspected they would be good for one another and benefit from the opportunity. Two and a half years later, we’re still going strong. Sometimes we touch base about writing projects, but we have also morphed into a group that offers all other kinds of professional and personal support.

And I also believe strongly that we have to extend these efforts beyond the obvious beneficiaries like the friends we already have at our institutions. Go to the retirement party of the colleague you didn’t always agree with. Send an email to congratulate the colleague you don’t know terribly well who just won an award. Treat your co-workers as people who, just like you, have complicated lives. Examine long-standing practices and traditions that may, in fact, work to the disadvantage of those on the vulnerable side of a power differential. For example, the Psychology Department at UCLA recently discontinued the unspoken expectation that PhD students bring refreshments to their dissertation defense. Build connective tissue between you and your peers. A few years ago two of my fellow deans created an opportunity for all of the deans to get together on a monthly basis. We are a group that, given the funding models and other circumstances at our institution, should be fighting with one another over resources. Instead, these gatherings have made us more collaborative and collegial. We still represent and protect our respective units, but we do so with more care and concern for each other than we might have otherwise.

Even as I write these words, I worry that they are painfully obvious. Or that you’ll think I’m being a Pollyanna. And certainly big structural change is necessary to make higher ed a better place for all of us. But, as readers of this blog will know, I also try to think about what we can do in the moment, while we fight these larger battles. And certainly, I am more inclined to slay those dragons if someone’s worked alongside me collaboratively, noticed my efforts, or just said a kind word to me.