Wednesday, March 17, 2010

What I Hope to See from State-Wide University Faculty Senate Leadership Today

Sometime this morning, I'm going to receive a draft letter from SUNY University Faculty Senate Chair Ken O'Brien addressed to SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher and Senior Vice Chancellor and Chief Operating Officer Monica Rimai and cc:ed to United University Professions President Phil Smith that summarizes the consensus among the Executive Board and SUNY Senators and Campus Governance Leaders who participated in our conference call yesterday afternoon on the Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act (PHEE&IA). I'm immediately going to distribute it to SUNY Fredonia University Senate officers and committee chairs, along with other active participants in our asynchronous conversation here on campus, for rapid response: comments and revision suggestions from all and an up-or-down vote from the Executive Committee on the letter itself, both of which I'll return to Ken by mid-afternoon. Once he has revised the draft, sent the final version of his letter to its addressees, and distributed it more broadly, I'll make it available on our Senate web site and ANGEL group (most of which is open to all--just drill down from "Content" to "Campus Initiatives" to "2009-2010" to "SUNY Flexibility" and download away).

Forgive me for refraining to blog on the draft letter itself--transparency does have its limits, even for me--but I'll try to make up for that by continuing to analyze the larger issues and questions raised by the PHEE&IA debates, report on responses to the UFS leadership's official letter at my campus, and explore ways of putting serious pressure on all the Albany players to do right by SUNY, individually, through the Fredonia Senate, and through the state-wide UFS.

This morning, I'll offer my own personal perspective on the PHEE&IA and on the roles SUNY UFS and campus governance bodies can play in the coming weeks. Let me start with the latter topic. Unlike campus presidents and local UUP chapter officers, who are constrained by their roles to publicly adhere to the talking points generated by their superiors (ultimately Zimpher in SUNY and Smith in UUP)--which is intended on each side to create the appearance that the dictates from Albany share wide support across the system but which in fact reinforce perceptions that SUNY is riven by labor-management/faculty-administration divides and power struggles--those involved in governance at both campus and state-wide levels are relatively free to subject both SUNY and UUP talking points and leaders to critical scrutiny, to ask difficult questions, and to withhold judgment until facts, positions, arguments, and evidence are clarified. They also have bright lines of responsibility to the constituents they were elected to represent, open lines of communication with them, and a forum that allows for some measure of deliberative democracy (should the timing of Albany politics permit campus and state-wide governance bodies to meet and vote). Finally, they have more leverage right now and in the coming days and weeks than they perhaps have ever had. This is one of those rare moments where the roles and functions of governance bodies require and enable them to enter the political realm through that good ol' "public use of reason" enlightened intellectuals are supposed to regularly provide to their societies. It's a rare case where theory and practice may coincide so neatly. If the UFS could get SUNY administrators and UUP leadership focused now at the 11th hour on what they should have been doing before the PHEE&IA was a gleam in some administrator's eye--working together, negotiating, and hammering out their differences so as to present a united front on the future of SUNY--instead of this very high-stakes game of chicken playing out in the op ed pages and letters pages of newspapers across the state, on tv and the web, and in the halls of the legislature, well, then, that would be some accomplishment.

It may not be possible. It may turn out that the differences between SUNY and UUP leadership are incommensurable. For clarification of what I mean by this term, let me turn for a moment to Michael Berube's What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts? (2006) for a lucid run-down of the Habermas-Lyotard debates and his proposed solution to the conundrum they pose. Berube patiently and vividly explains how he teaches the conflict, which to him is "looking more and more important with each passing year, and which, I think, poses such intractable problems for critical theory and political practice that our era may well be defined by them" (219).

I want to frame the Lyotard-Habermas debate as a metadebate about the purpose of debate itself, and I want to start off by impressing upon you the uncomfortable fact that, at this meta-level, we can say neither that the debate is resolvable nor that it is unresolvable. It is impossible not to take a position on this one, and worse, it is impossible not to take a position that betrays the nature of the debate.

In 1999 and 2001, this "framing" device met with a roomful of puzzled and/or exasperated looks, as well it should have. For, as I told both classes of students, it is a conundrum. It's infinitely recursive. I even wrote the form of the conundrum on the blackboard, and it went something like this: if you say the dispute between Lyotard and Habermas can in fact be resolved by principles on which both parties can ultimately agree, you are, in effect, awarding the palm to Habermas and the pro-consensus, pro-communicative action party. If, on the contrary, you give up and say that this is is simply a fundamental impasse and can't be resolved, you have in effect resolved it by awarding the palm to Lyotard and the pro-incommensurability, pro-heterogeneity party. And you can't say "neither of the above," because that too defaults to Lyotard. (229-230)

Here's Berube's rather elegant solution:

[S]ometimes the Lyotardians and the proponents of discurvive heterogeneity tend to walk away from a conflict and declare it unresolvable before they've really worked with it.... [W]hen I suggest that some postmodernists are too quick to declare a conflict unresolvable, I don't mean to reinstate the [Habermasian] demand that the ideal speech situation should be oriented toward consensus; I'm not even thinking about getting disparate parties to agree.... Instead, when I'm faced with the conflict between two parties with well-developed belief systems, I want to know one crucial thing above all: what internal protocols do they have that would enable them to change their minds about something? Do they have, for instance, an evidentiary standard, and if so, what do they admit as evidence? And what forms of authority are endowed with the capacity to decide such matters? Is there a Supreme Court, a council of elders, a parliament, a workers' collective, a Leviathan? Are there competing moral imperatives within one or the other belief system that would be likely to induce a person to reconsider his or her position on grounds that are intelligible within the belief system itself? (231-232)

Never mind that that's much more than one thing. Here's the key point:

It possible to ask any belief system something like the following: even though I cannot change your mind about X, can you tell me what conditions would have to be met in order for you to consider changing your mind about X?

This meta-question does not produce (or expect) consensus, but it does attempt to make the grounds of dissensus intelligible. In this way it manages to uphold the values of reciprocal communication without seeking to guarantee that the goal of reciprocal communication will be a form of reciprocal understanding that leads to agreement....

When two people disagree about proposition X, they may not immediately agree to disagree, but they may find the discursive grounds on which to make themselves intelligible to the other, and they may, in the process, discover the grounds on which to make intelligible any further appeal to what the other person considers a plausible reason for reconsidering his (or her) position. (232-233, 235)

So, yeah, even if the differences between Nancy Zimpher's and Phil Smith's belief systems are incommensurable, there's still a role for the UFS to play in this Lyotard-esque situation. But this may yet end up being one of those Habermasian encounters where communication leads to understanding which leads to agreement. I believe it's important to find out where we stand. If it's the latter, great. If it's the former, and Berube's dialogue-continuing questions don't resolve the impasse, then we're back to knives out: infowars for the hearts and minds of New York state citizens, taxpayers, and their elected officials.

So let's identify some of the core issues, principles, and values at stake and in play in the PHEE&IA debates. And let's advocate for what we think is right for SUNY and New Yorkers. Let's try to bring both competing parties over to our side, find principled compromises when possible, and separate controversial from non-controversial parts of the PHEE&IA out when not. Let's take advantage of the fact that both the SUNY and UUP leadership need us to legitimize their positions and try to get them both to rethink key aspects of theirs.

How about the tuition question? Here's my position in a nutshell:

  • SUNY is trying to resolve the dispute over whether the state's ceding of control over tuition to the SUNY Board of Trustees provides cover for the state to renege on its commitment to support the SUNY mission by addressing UUP's concerns in its draft Comprehensive Tuition Policy. This simply will not do. What's to stop the BOT from changing its policy once the bill is passed? No, SUNY has to sit down with UUP and negotiate amendments to Subpart A of the PHEE&IA itself, then jointly propose them to legislators on the relevant state Assembly and Senate committees. And in so doing it has to clarify the relationship between language in the bill and in the policy.
  • If SUNY is unwilling to do this, then they have another alternative that might win UUP's support. (And if they are willing to do the above, they should be willing to do what follows, too.) Within their tuition policy, they need to revise the membership of their state-wide "Working Group" to include representatives from UUP's state-wide leadership and ensure that members of the "Executive Committee/Chancellor's Cabinet" in this group come from state-wide leadership in the Student Assembly, UFS, and Faculty Council of Community Colleges. Similarly, they need to make much more robust the notion of "consultation with campus constituencies" for any campus-initiated STR proposals--rather than the administration consulting with student government and whoever else they please, rewrite the policy to require that any STR proposal first go through a campus governance process, then go through a labor-management process, then go before the student government, and finally reach the college council. Only this will ensure a proper balance between the sometimes competing values of quality and access, an effective synthesis of the highest quality with the greatest access.
  • Alternatively, SUNY might give up on a "special tuition rate" entirely--in both the bill and their policy--because of objections and concerns raised by UUP, students, and certain sectors within SUNY. Focus on what they can get this time, which is control, ending the tuition tax, and a rational tuition policy. But I still think they'll need a combination of all three of my alternatives to win a truce from UUP. And that truce is crucial to winning legislative support.
  • If that's not enough, propose some version of the new system envisioned by the PHEE&IA as a pilot, to be embarked upon for a set time (say, 5 years), the results of which are to be compared jointly by SUNY, UUP, UFS, and SA with (say) the 1990-2010 period, and presented to the BOT, DOB, GOER, and relevant committees in both houses of the legislature, all as part of a process by which the state crafts revisions to the laws governing SUNY.
My points about Subpart B (joint ventures that involve public-private partnerships, land leases, or the like) are roughly parallel to those on Subpart A. Through a combination of revisions to the PHEE&IA itself and to the draft Comprehensive Asset Management Policy, SUNY ought to clarify that all new employees hired in such ventures are public employees and pledge to hiring only union workers, commit itself to the highest sustainability standards, and ensure that at both the campus level and the state-wide "Working Group" level, all proposals are shaped and approved, or evaluated, by leaders of all relevant constituencies--student government, faculty governance, and faculty-professional and other unions, along with administrative leaders and college councils/BOT. Only this will ensure proper levels of transparency and accountability, even before approval is sought from an asset maximization board (either the existing state one or the new state university one that would be created by pages 62-64 of the PHEE&IA), much less reporting is done to the BOT or post-audits are done by the state of NY.

And without going into any details at all on the other provisions of the PHEE&IA, let me just state baldly that the key to solving any remaining disputes can be found in the preceding paragraphs, as well as in the next few.

What I want to see from SUNY leadership, in short, is a commitment to doing everything in their power to convince all concerned parties that the system and the campuses are prepared to handle the responsibility and take advantage of the opportunities the PHEE&IA would grant it. The key part of that commitment is being open to amendments to the PHEE&IA and revisions to their draft policies that enshrine such principles as collaboration across constituencies and organizations within SUNY, power-sharing from day one and ground zero across SUNY, and robust checks and balances on all involved. If this happens, I'm ok with the fact that many things would still have to be worked out in practice. Because ultimately that experience of working together in a common cause, treating disagreements as a normal condition to be addressed openly and frankly at all levels of decision-making (not as treason or disloyalty), and trying to develop revenue streams that enhance the educational, research, and service missions of SUNY without providing rationales for further cuts in state support is all preparation, to my mind, of the larger state-wide, national, and even international consideration of the following questions that SUNY can take the lead on: namely, why public universities ought to continue to exist in the 21st century and beyond, how their roles, functions, and uses ought to be defined, what their value is (in non-economic as well as economic terms), and where their financing should come from. If all of us concerned about the future of SUNY and of public higher education were to systematically revisit these fundamental questions, consider why traditional answers to them have been losing support from citizens, taxpayers, and politicians (among others), and develop new, more compelling, answers (when needed), then we might find ways of moving out of crisis mode and into growth mode. If we can't even commit to this much, what hope is there of anyone else doing it for us?

Let's be real here: the PHEE&IA is neither panacea nor Pandora's box. Neither the best-case not worst-case scenarios for its potential impact seem very convincing. It only works as a piece of a much-larger puzzle, the other pieces of which are still being assembled as I write. So, yeah, let's all hit the reset button, roll up our sleeves, join in the assembly process, and get to work. Let's treat the people of New York as adults and level with them. Let's demand more of our elected representatives, intellectually and politically. Let's put an end to Albany-politics-as-usual. Let's call UUP's many bluffs, focus on the substantive issues, and see if we can't build bridges across what may seem at first glance to be gaping chasms.

Obviously, Ken O'Brien has to be a lot more diplomatic than I'm being here. But if he's able to state, calmly and clearly, what UFS leadership needs to see happen before it will offer its support to the PHEE&IA, and patiently explain the rationale for that provisional, qualified support to anyone and everyone who will listen, he and his colleagues may be able to help achieve what may seem unimaginable to many New Yorkers right now.

[Update 1 (3/18/10, 2:24 pm): Good job interviewing Nancy Zimpher by a U of Albany journalism class.]

1 comment:

spyder said...

In all those years of negotiating the contract, my team always held the view that we knew what our BATNA would be. Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement. If you don't go into negotiating and bargaining with a BATNA, you are willing the other side to take advantage. Administrations don't really have the access to a BATNA, except to say No. And they have the public, in most cases, to answer to, regardless of the outcomes. Essentially Berube is offering a challenge to reach across interests in order to avoid the arbitrary natures inherent in the process; that is all well and good, but doesn't achieve short term results out of the interims (and, sadly, administrations only are interested in short term results)