Academic Partnerships, “False EMU” in the news, and finding a concluding “hook” to my book project

EMU is in the news once again for the wrong reasons, and interestingly enough, the latest problems are helping me find a conclusion to the book I’m working on. But before I get to that, let me try to explain a bit what’s going on here.

One of the things that happened at the end of the Fall 2016 semester (thanks in part to the knuckleheads who were in charge of the EMU-AAUP back then) was the administration entered into a deal with an operation called Academic Partnerships (AP). AP agreed to market nationally an online Bachelor of Science in Nursing program (BSN) along with an online Bachelors of “General Studies” program. In exchange, AP would collect around 50% of the tuition collected from these online students. As I wrote back in February when I went to an informational meeting on all this, I saw a lot of problems with this arrangement with AP, and the new leadership of the EMU-AAUP had LOTS of problems with the deal. The new EMU-AAUP leadership said that the arrangement with AP goes well beyond marketing and that ultimately, AP would be doing a lot of the teaching and curriculum work of these courses under the name of EMU and without faculty control, The administration has argued this isn’t happening and isn’t going to happen, that AP is just marketing.

The administration didn’t want to negotiate this at all, so the EMU-AAUP essentially took them to court: that is, a labor arbitration process where a judge/arbitrator hears the case and makes a ruling. I know that was in process, which might explain the timing of the EMU-AAUP’s PR campaign right now. So far, that campaign has been pretty effective. The Chronicle of Higher Education picked up the story here, “Faculty Members at One More University Push Back at Online Programs.”  Here’s a longish quote from that article:

As an online program manager, or OPM, Academic Partnerships has contracted with Eastern Michigan to market and recruit students for its online programs. Typically, OPMs — which also include 2U and Pearson Education — build a college’s online enrollment and bring in more revenue than the college arguably could bring in on its own. But critics argue that such partnerships can result in a lower-quality education and fewer consumer protections.

According to a recent report on the industry from the Century Foundation, “the involvement of a third-party — particularly a profit-seeking entity — in providing services so intertwined with the actual teaching and learning … presents potential risks to quality and value in the education.”

That “recent report” from the Century Foundation is perhaps something more interesting to me and my work on MOOCs than most quasi-casual observers of this arrangement with EMU, but among other things, OPMs are a lot more common and far-reaching than I thought. It’s pretty damning of the deal EMU has made, but also of the deal that many many universities have made.

Also in the press today is this piece from Michigan Public Radio, “Faculty unions fight EMU online degree contract with ads.” EMU’s spokesperson/PR guy Geoff Larcom is quoted saying that EMU won’t be using any AP “coaches,” and he went on to say this:

Larcom says initiatives like this are necessary, because Michigan’s population of college-bound students is projected to shrink over the next decade.

“Regional universities like Eastern Michigan, like our peers, are needing to think of ways to further enhance revenue,” he says.

Just as a slight tangent here: first, whenever anyone associated with the EMU administration says anything about the institution’s finances and then they don’t say anything about how much money EMU wastes on athletics– particularly football– I stop listening. The bottom line is the upper-administration and the Board of Regents cannot have it both ways. Second, universities like EMU need to recall that we are a state-operated and non-profit university and our main purpose is to educate students. We’re not about generating “revenue” generally, and if Michigan’s population of college-bound students does indeed go down over the next decade or so, then maybe EMU should think more about graceful strategies for getting smaller rather than “growing revenue.”

The story also got picked up by this piece from EdSurge, “Professors Take Out Ads Protesting Their University’s Online Degree Programs.” I came across this piece because Larcom posted a link to it on the EMUTalk Facebook page– he offered it as an example of how this article demonstrates faculty input and control in the process. I don’t think that’s what it says at all, but let me quote from the end of this article because I think this is what Larcom is referring to here:

“They wanted to know, ‘Do you really need letters of recommendation for students?’”[Ronald Flowers, Department Head of Leadership and Counseling in the College of Education] recalled. But he said he always pushes back in such situations. “Our faculty make the decisions about who gets in, and that process hasn’t changed at all.”

“There’s been a perception that Academic Partnerships has dictated some things,” he added. “But I’ve been in the room when we’ve had conversations where I’ve said, ‘This would threaten our academic integrity and we won’t go there,’ and they’ve said, ‘Fine.’”

He said that the charges made in ads placed this week by faculty groups about the university’s arrangement with Academic Partnerships are “not accurate.”

“I appreciate the concern about the nature of privatization of public education—I get it,” he said. “We don’t dispute that it’s a good conversation to have. But it shouldn’t necessarily be a conversation stopper.”

For union leaders, though, the biggest concern seem to be what might happen as these for-profit entities move closer to the academic core.

I suppose you could read Flowers’ recounting this exchange with AP as an example of how faculty (though in this case, I’d say administrators since a Department Head at EMU is technically not a faculty member but an administrator) can “push back” against AP. But the fact that this relationship with AP requires any faculty to “push back” is a huge problem. And all it would take for AP to get their way on lowering the standards is a less forceful administrator– which is why I think the EMU-AAUP’s fears are valid. It’s also the conclusion of that report the CHE article links to, “The Private Side of Public Higher Education.” One quick quote from that report relevant to this quote:

If institutions—public and nonprofit alike—are not careful to monitor these contractors, students and taxpayers who thought they were working with a relatively safe public institution may find that they have been taken advantage of by a for-profit company. More so than other contracting arrangements, OPMs represent the outsourcing of the core educational mission of public institutions of higher education, threatening the consumer-minded focus that results from the public control of schools.

But what about your MOOC book? Oh yeah, that. If you’ve read this far, I guess I can go into that a bit…

My book project has the working title “MOOCs in Context” and it’s about the rapid rise and fall of Massive Online Open Courses viewed from the instructor experience (I interviewed a bunch of people who created and taught MOOCs), the student experience (I took a bunch of MOOCs and write about that), and also from the historic experience (I compare MOOCs to previous technical innovations in distance education.)  I guess I have two basic arguments: first, there has always been a disconnect between what MOOC providers hoped/thought MOOCs could be and what MOOC students and faculty hoped/thought MOOCs were. Second, MOOCs are not “completely new” (a claim made repeatedly by MOOC providers and pundits); rather, they are part of a long history of distance learning technologies that have happened in higher education in the U.S. over the last 150 or so years.

I’ll spare the details for now, but MOOCs “failed” in the sense that they will not be altering the way that higher education works in the foreseeable future. They will not, as some pundits predicted just a few years ago, close down universities. But a lot of what I’m trying to do in the last chapter of this book is to ponder the “fuzzy future” of what comes after MOOCs. It’s obviously tricky, but one of the things I think the “MOOC moment” should teach us about the future of higher education is to be weary of the “transformative” promises of for-profit entities like AP. So from my point of view, this EMU “current event” story will fit in well with the end of my book. We’ll wait for what the arbitration says, but I hope it’s a happy ending.

 

Remember that racist vandalism at EMU? It’s Complicated

About this time last year, I posted here and here about what came to be called the “racist vandalism incidents,” which involved some spray-painting on the side of a building on campus (and some other writings in different places) the “N-word” and such. Well, now the police think they have their vandal, and it turns out to be an African-American man. He’s Eddie Curlin, he’s 29, he was a student at EMU from 2014 to 2016, and he’s currently in jail for something else. Here’s a link to the mLive article, though the Washington Post had probably a better article here.

Needless to say, this revelation complicates things.

As I wrote on Facebook, I guess it’s a good thing that the perpetrator isn’t a bent on violence and devoted white supremacist/hate group type of guy. Though when I think about it for a moment and consider some of the other racist incidents and such that have cropped up on college campuses around the country, crude graffiti hasn’t really been their M.O. It seems more common to see some variety of racist flyers or cards on campuses (we’ve had some of that at EMU and at U of M)– though I wouldn’t want to ignore the Richard Spenser-led/inspired gatherings/riots at UVa and the University of Florida recently. Scribbling “Go Home N-word!” on a wall or whatever seems more the actions of a a drunk frat boy or, in this case, some vandal seeking attention.

But as I also wrote on Facebook, I think it’s more complicated than what EMU police chief Robert Heighes said at the press conference for this. To quote:

“As far as motivation for this, it was totally self-serving,” Heighes said during a press conference Monday. “It was not driven by politics, it was not driven by race. It was an individual item done by one individual for all three of the major graffiti incidents on our campus.”

When asked what factors may have led to the acts of vandalism, Heighes said that information would come out eventually. He believes Curlin was the only perpetrator of the vandalism incidents.

“That will come out at the trial,” he said.

I don’t know Curlin’s motivations, obviously. Maybe he did this because of some deep-seated self-hatred; maybe he has the same sort of compulsions/mental illness that motivates arsonists; or maybe it’s some combination of all of the above (or, least we not presume guilt, maybe he didn’t do it).

But even if we don’t know Curlin’s motivations– even if Curlin didn’t know his motivations– Heighes is wrong that this was not about politics and race. And I don’t mean that in an academic way, as in “all language is about politics and race.” Curlin (or whoever) scrawled “Go Home N-word!” in a public space to provoke a reaction that is obviously rooted in politics and race. Curlin didn’t spray-paint “EMU sucks!” or “U of M sucks!” or “Eddie is great!” or anything else like that because he knew that no one would have cared. He picked his words carefully (well, carefully enough) to know his words and actions would get a reaction. He might not have anticipated the extent to which the EMU community reacted or the level of news coverage these incidents ended up receiving, but he knew it’d get noticed.

Worse yet is that the idea this graffiti was a “hoax” has blossomed all over the place– in the comments of the news stories I link to here, but also in predictably conservative to alt-right sorts of web sites (which I won’t be linking to here). The gist of these articles is “Here’s another example of racism that turns out to be fake news– what are these people complaining about?” As if we can all stop worrying about racism because all of these kinds of incidents have been hoaxes.

And let’s also not forget that the actual racist graffiti incidents were just the beginning of the disruptions on campus. Most notably, the EMU administration went way too far to punish students (notably black students) for protesting these racists incidents on campus. Here’s a post/video about this from early January 2017. So again, the impact and motivation of this graffiti wasn’t just self-serving, wasn’t devoid of politics and racism. It’s a lot more complicated, which might make getting past this incident all that much more difficult.

The last third

Late August/early September is the beginning of the year for academic-types. Just as summer is ending and normal people begin to think about fall and the year winding down, academic-types are thinking of starting again. Though this new school year finds me in a place where “starting again” isn’t quite what’s happening. I’m more imagining the last third of my career, give or take.

I’m not teaching this fall because I have a Faculty Research Fellowship from EMU, which is basically a “sabbatical light” sort of award. It’s a good thing and I am busy working on a book about MOOCs, but it also means I’m not getting ready to teach classes for the first time in like 29 years. Dang, I just did that math, but I think it’s right: I started teaching as an MFA student in 1988, and while I had a winter semester sabbatical and some other breaks along the way, I’m pretty sure I have taught at least one class every fall since 1988 as either a grad student, a part-time instructor, or a tenure-track faculty person. Until this year.

Plus I am beginning this semester as an “uber” or “fuller” professor. That’s not what it’s really called, but “salary adjustment promotion” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. This was one of the good things the union did a while ago (with the last contract?) that helps deal with both the problems of salary compression and motivating full professors to stay active. In a sense, it isn’t that big of a deal because everyone in my department who has done the paperwork and process for this promotion has gotten it. Like tenure and promotion more generally at EMU, it is more about “time served” than demonstrated excellence, though I think there’s a good argument to be made about why our system is both more humane and more empowering for faculty who take their scholarship seriously than what happens at most universities. But in another sense, it is a big deal because it is a significant pay raise and because it does tick off another career milestone: I’ve been a full professor now for 10 years.

Oh, and given the low bar for scholarly productivity at EMU, I’m pretty sure that the stuff I’ve done this year that didn’t count this time (presentations and a chapter in a book on MOOCs that just came out) plus my MOOC book (knocking on wooden things) will be enough in my scholarship bucket for me to get a second one of these salary adjustments in 2027, even if this MOOC book I’m working on is my last scholarly project. This assumes both the salary adjustment promotion and me are walking the earth in 2027, of course.

Plus PLUS there is the ongoing mess of course equivalencies and the generally bad and/or in-over-their-heads administrators at EMU right now, everyone from the President all the way down. I don’t have a lot of confidence in any of these people, and I don’t think my opinions about the administration are all that unusual.

Plus PLUS PLUS I turned 51 this year. I don’t know if that is that important of a milestone or not, but it seems a bigger deal to me than 50 was, maybe because of everything else that’s going on.

So the bad news is that career-wise, I probably have no choice but to ride out the storm at EMU. Never say never, but I’m too old and too senior and I don’t have the academic pedigree to compete for most of the tenured professor positions that might be coming about this year. Besides, we’re a package deal. Annette (also a tenured full professor) and I long ago decided that a “commuter marriage” wasn’t a good idea. So sure, we might look at the job market a bit more than we have in the past, but more than likely, we’re stuck.

Mind you, being “stuck” at EMU isn’t all bad. While the working conditions might be getting worse in different ways, I am pretty sure EMU isn’t going to be closing its doors in the foreseeable future. It could be a lot worse; I mean, I don’t worry about losing my job. I like my students and my colleagues. I like southeast Michigan. The pay and benefits are still pretty good (though it’ll be interesting to see what gets clawed back with the next contract). And as I’ve seen before, the working conditions at EMU (and most universities, actually) can turn from good to bad to good again on a dime. It’s bad now; it could be totally fine next fall.

But yeah, I’m not feeling particularly rosy about this new school year.

My friend and colleague Bill Hart-Davidson wrote a relentlessly positive Medium post here about his start to the new school year at Michigan State University, newly promoted to both a full professor and the Associate Dean of Research and Graduate Education in the College of Arts and Letters.  The post is called “Like an Oak Tree” because he tells the story of an oak tree he has in his front yard that appears to be dying. In reality, that tree is becoming “reborn” by providing a “home” for the various woodland creatures feeding and living on/in it while simultaneously it is healing itself with new growth.  You should read that. It’s inspiring.

But right now, I am reminded of  T-shirt slogan I have seen before, “50 isn’t old if you’re a tree.”  And as an academic who is feeling kind of “done” and pessimistic, the metaphor of “dead wood” seems somehow more fitting.

I don’t think too frequently or specifically about retirement. Usually, I think “retire from what?” I mean, I still like what I do, it’s not exactly back-breaking labor, and I’ve gotten to the point where I really can take a long break in the summers. But sometimes (especially when the morale and environment is like it is right now), I think “how soon can I get out of this?” Either way, the start of this school year has brought into sharp focus for me that I probably am entering the last third of things. Thinking about retirement doesn’t seem quite as far-fetched now as it did even a few years ago.

Anyway, my new school year resolutions:

  • Finish the MOOC book. And finish a draft of it before my FRF wraps up this fall.
  • Go to the gym more.
  • Let go and find something else “to do” besides by EMU. What I mean by this is as I unplug from various service and quasi-administrative duties and instead focus on my teaching and me, I need to find things that provide value in my life that don’t have to do with EMU and my work. I’m not entirely sure what that means yet and there are people close to me (like my wife) who say I am not going to be able to “let go.” But I got to start trying.
  • Finish the book.
  • No really, finish the book! Which (more knocking! more knocking!) really is entirely possible.
  • Stay “out of it.”
  • Plan early enough for winter teaching– though I will of course need to know what I’m teaching in the winter more than a week before classes start, which will not necessarily be the case.
  • Start writing something else that has nothing to do with my “career.”
  • Okay, have a little fun, too.

What I did in the 2016-2017 academic year: a memo for Dean TBA

I was already planning on writing something to reflect on the 2016-17 academic year, and then two things happened. First, my department head (at the request of our interim dean) sent an email to all faculty suggesting that we individually write something up to let the new dean know what it is we’ve been up to for the past year. This request didn’t come with much context, and (as far as I know) the new dean has not yet been announced. Second, I just finished reading Julie Schumacher’s very funny and too accurate academic satire Dear Committee Members.  So this post is with a small and not as funny nod toward my department head’s/dean’s assignment and Schumacher’s book written in letters of recommendation.

From: Steven D. Krause, Professor, Department of English Language and Literature

To: Dean “To Be Announced”

Re: Introducing Myself By Highlighting What I Did Last Year

Dear Dean TBA–

First, welcome to EMU (unless you are already here?)! Congratulations on your new position as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and may the gods have mercy on your soul.

My department head (really, our interim dean– who, pointedly, did not submit her own name for this position) asked faculty in the department to “showcase” accomplishments and activities from the past academic year, I suppose as a way of introduction. As I understand it, the goal is to “brag” about accomplishments and, simultaneously, demonstrate the ways in which we are worthy of resources. This strikes me as a challenge because a) if I highlight all that I accomplished without resources, then I am supporting the administration’s claim that faculty don’t require any additional resources, and b) given that you are at present only an unnamed potential, it’s difficult for me to address a specific audience. But I’ll give it a shot.

Let’s take it chronologically:

On the plus-side of things, my scholarly work got off to a great start in September when I was once again invited to Naples, Italy for a conference about MOOCs held on the Isle of Capri. Goodness, that seems like a lifetime ago. In any event, I was honored to once again participate, I was able to represent for EMU, the conference helped fuel my own MOOC book project (which is under contract/underway right now), and it was a nice trip to Italy before classes got started.

In the not so good news for EMU, September also brought with it the beginning of an ugly incident of racist vandalism that continued to hang over the rest of the academic year. Students of color were (justifiably, of course) angered and frustrated, and the administration seemed at a loss to respond. Also in not such great news: my department had yet more meetings about the equivalency mess, which is a theme I’ll be returning to again and again here.

For much of October, I settled into more routine duties. In fall 2016, I taught an online version of “444: Writing for the World Wide Web” and a face-to-face version of “328: Writing, Style, and Technology,” two courses I’ve taught many times before. Both were good groups, though one thing I noticed in my section of 328 that I hadn’t seen much of previously is student interest in (dare I say demand for?) a grading “rubric” that spelled out in exacting terms exactly what was demanded of each writing assignment. When I told my students that I didn’t think a rubric was necessary or even advisable for an advanced writing course, they seemed perplexed, wondering aloud how it was even possible to have a writing assignment without points dedicated to explicit components. I am not much to complain about the “kids today” since I have been teaching long enough to know that the early 20 somethings of 1990 have a lot more in common with the early 20 somethings of 2016 than today’s students’ parents (who were the early 20 somethings of 1990) would care to admit. Still, this demand request for codified assessment at every turn seems to me to be the main legacy of “No Child Left Behind.”

I also settled into my duties as the associate director of the First Year Writing Program. (A slight tangent and in all seriousness: there is A LOT to say about the FYWP, Dean TBA, both in terms of bragging and in terms of demonstrating the need for ongoing support. But since I am transitioning out of that role this year, I’ll leave that work to others.) As the Ass. WPA, most of my work was duties as assigned, though I did launch a large survey of students in the program for the purposes of assessment (the details of the results will come later in May or June or when I get to it, though generally speaking, students do report that they think they learned a lot in our first year writing course, and that has to count for something), and I did a lot of classroom evaluations of graduate assistants. I do have a funny story from one of those observations. I had the chance to sit in on one GA’s class that began at 8 AM– one of our better GAs too. Students shuffled in and were in place by 8. Five minutes passed and no GA; students chatted and seemed a little surprised. More time passed; I asked “is so and so often late like this?” “No, never” the class responded. More time passed and I finally called so and so and, it turns out, woke so and so up. So and so was mortified. But again, this is all something to laugh about now. I came back to visit so and so’s class later, it was great, and so and so is still one of our best and brightest. And now, so and so owns a couple of alarm clocks.

And of course, I did lots of paperwork tied to the ongoing equivalency nonsense inflicted upon us by both the EMU-AAUP and the administration. Among other things, this work included writing and rewriting documents in an effort to prove to the powers that be that our courses in written communication are indeed “Writing Intensive” and attending marathon department meetings where we tried to work out the various ways equivalencies could work for all.

At least some of my time in November was spent “campaigning” (well, blogging about at least) why faculty ought to vote out the leadership of the EMU-AAUP. Dean TBA, this might not seem like official “work” or even something to “brag” about, especially if you are not from the inside at EMU. But believe me, this was a significant accomplishment. The new leadership of the union has made some stumbles, sure, but at least it’s not the jerks who were in charge. The racial vandalism problems continued— again, maybe not exactly the sort of “accomplishment” or “brag” I’m supposed to be highlighting, but something that certainly helped fuel the poor morale on campus. And the equivalency drama continued as the outgoing leadership of the EMU-AAUP and the administration agreed to end discussion about the equivalencies, even though faculty had been explicitly told that we’d have until April to sort things out and/or make our case for additional class activities that would make our classes count as “four.”

And of course there was an unfortunate presidential election.

In December 2016, I relaunched a slightly new version of the blog I ran for the EMU community for many years, now renamed EMYoutalk.org. It hasn’t been quite as busy or important a community-building tool– at least not yet. But it gives a place for people to talk about EMU things who don’t want to do so on the EMUTalk Facebook group.

Winter 2017 (Dean TBA, we don’t have “spring semester” here at EMU; it’s winter, because it really is winter well into March in Southeast Michigan) began with lots of activity. Teaching-wise, I taught another section of “328: Writing, Style, and Technology” (this time online) and a face-to-face section of “354: Critical Digital Literacies.” 354 made at the absolute last minute– I was literally emailing my department head over Christmas break to find out if I should prepare to teach the class or not– and it turned out to be an interesting class with a very chummy and small group of students. Among other things, they developed their own regular rotation for who brings snacks.

Also in January: I was busy as a committee member for a search we were conducting for someone to (more or less) replace me as the Ass. WPA (we were able to make an offer to our top candidate, too!), busy writing up the documentation for my “salary adjustment” promotion (to the mythical rank of über-Professor or fuller-Professor), the reward ultimately being a pretty decent raise come Fall 2017.

And again, the equivalency nonsense continued, though much of the time spent in the Winter 2017 amounted to asking about the status of paperwork we thought we had completed months ago and also to asking various administrators to explain how it was they were planning on adding threes and fours together and get to twelve.

I will admit that during much of February 2017, I was immersed in depression and outrage at the turn in our national politics and the rise of Michigan’s own Besty “Grizzly Bear” DeVos as the US Secretary of Education. I do believe though that’s when I did the wrapping up/finishing touches on a chapter I have forthcoming in a collection edited by Liz Losh called MOOCs and Their Afterlives: Experiments in Scale and Access in Higher Education that’s been in the works for a while (it will come out in August 2017). And I’m sure we had some kind of mind-numbing meeting about what to do about course equivalencies.

The main highlight of March was the annual Conference for College Composition and Communication meeting (this year in Portland, Oregon), which meant I missed that month’s department meeting in which faculty discussed once again what we could not possibly know because of the many unknowns of the course equivalencies that are going to be forced upon us. In theory.

Really, March was just a bridge to the cruelest month in academia, April. So much always happens then, and this year was no different. There were the celebrations (including the last Celebration of Student Writing I am likely to have much of an organizational hand in [and since most of the logistics were handled by the very able Joe Montgomery and Laura Kovick, I didn’t have to do much]), the wrapping up of grades, the last minute and impossible administrative requests, and one of the craziest last of the year department meetings I’ve attended in my 18 years at EMU (perhaps it is best to leave out the details).

But to end on two positive notes. First, I’m not teaching this summer, which means, Dean TBA, I hope you forgive me if I don’t get back to you on your feedback on this report until August or September. Second, I was awarded a Faculty Research Fellowship for fall 2017. It does raise questions and complexities about my duties as coordinator since the equivalency mess (have I mentioned the equivalencies issue yet?) does not clarify things like “reassigned time” to do quasi-administrative work. As I have said to my colleagues and my department head, we will “muddle through” for Fall 2017 and beyond, though if the equivalency stuff doesn’t get sorted out soon, our department head is going to have to take on a lot of the details handled by the many folks in our department currently on some kind of reassigned time. But I am looking forward to more concentrated time to spend on finishing my book about MOOCs before too many people forget that MOOCs were a “thing.”

There you have it, much more detail than you could possibly imagine, Dean TBA. In Dickensian terms, the 2016-2017 school year was the best of times, the worst of times: good students as always and lots of other pleasures, but quite frankly, I think morale remains low thanks to unsolved (and swept away) problems of racist incidents on campus and the unsolvable mystery of how the equivalencies will change the way things work at EMU– if they change things at all or even go into effect. What “interesting times” to come into your position!

Again, best of luck with/I’m sorry about your new Deandom.

Yours,

Steven D. Krause

Professor of far too many details about what happened last year.

Why I’m voting for a Coalition for a New EMU-AAUP

While the national election is over (though of course the fight in many ways has just begun), there’s a very local election here at EMU that’s still going on. The election for members of the Executive Committee of the EMU-AAUP, which is the union that represents the faculty, is currently underway (the deadline for voting is November 21 at 5 pm).  Making it all the more interesting this year is it’s actually an election with a choice (I believe in the last couple of cycles, the leaders of the union were unopposed), and it’s an important one because of events on campus.

I’m voting for the “Coalition for a New EMU-AAUP:” Judy Kullberg for President; Ken Rusiniak for Vice President; and Mahmud Rahman, Charles Cunningham, and Tricia McTague for at large members of the Executive Committee (EC). I have a lot of respect for what Susan Moeller and Howard Bunsis and the rest of the incumbents have done with the EMU-AAUP over the years, but I also think it’s time for a change. I think the Coalition for a New EMU-AAUP people can bring that change.

This post gets a little wonky for anyone who is not at EMU– maybe for anyone who is not on faculty at EMU. So for any non-locals who decide to read on here, sorry about that in advance.

Continue reading “Why I’m voting for a Coalition for a New EMU-AAUP”

More Racist Vandalism at EMU and More Dumb Reactions from EMU Administrators

This afternoon, Mlive published “3 EMU students who protested racist graffiti face disciplinary action.” That’s actually a pithy summary of the whole situation, especially if you’re left asking “why would EMU punish students protesting racist graffiti?”

Read on, but here’s the short version: this is about the dumbest thing I’ve seen an EMU President (James Smith) and an EMU administration do since John Fallon et al tried to cover-up/hush-up the investigation of Laura Dickinson’s murder in 2006. I’m not suggesting this is as bad— not getting the word out to the university community about a murder is obviously lots worse, and Fallon and EMU paid a heavy price for all that. But I am saying this is in the same league of stupid and about as tone-deaf. “Let’s kick out of school some African American students for protesting against racist graffiti after hours in the student center, because hey, rules are rules.” WTF?!?

Continue reading “More Racist Vandalism at EMU and More Dumb Reactions from EMU Administrators”

Racist Vandalism at EMU– Where is EMU President James Smith?

There was an ugly racist/hate crime vandalism/graffiti incident at EMU today, which I first heard about rather indirectly in an all-campus email from EMU VP for Communication Walter Kraft. Among other things, Kraft wrote:

A short time ago, we learned that racist graffiti had been spray painted on a wall of King Hall in the courtyard area of the building. The University strongly condemns such a racist and thoughtless act, which runs completely counter to the values and welcoming environment of our highly diverse Eastern Michigan University community. Our Department of Public Safety is undertaking a full and immediate investigation and the graffiti is being quickly removed.

My initial reaction to this email was “what the hell?” Some time passed and the story emerged. Basically, some moron(s) spray painted “KKK” and “Leave N*****s” (though not with the asterisks, obviously) on the side of a King Hall.

But not to bury the lead here: at the end of the day (today, at least), where the hell is EMU’s new president James Smith? We have this controversy on campus that is attracting strong regional (if not at least some national/education press) news attention and it has obviously (and justifiably) upset a lot of students on campus, and Smith doesn’t surface to make an actual statement before the media?!? He doesn’t appear in support of one of the student protests against this?!? That’s weak. Smith needs to be a lot more invested in the EMU community (and not just the EMU Board of Regents and football team) than this.

Okay, a rundown of the basic news:

I know there has been a lot of other news stories about this too.

Anyway, this graffiti/vandalism was identified and then cleaned up in the morning several hours before I got to campus today. It was painted on the side of King Hall, which is one of several odd buildings sort of in the middle of EMU’s campus. It’s formally a dorm that has been (sort of) rehabbed into a series of office spaces– WEMU is over there. The graffiti/vandalism/hate speech itself was on one wall in the “courtyard” area, which is actually not a very visible part of the building. It’s the kind of place you’d vandalize because you thought you’d be less likely to get caught. By the time I got to campus today, the graffiti was gone and there was a small protest/vigil of African-American students at the spot.

When I went into Pray-Harrold (where I do most of my teaching and where my office is), I saw in the lobby and on the elevator a lot of flyers that kind of looked like this (though this is a picture I took later and posted on Instagram). This, combined with the student protests that happened on campus that I’ve already mentioned, suggest to me that the EMU community is very much rallying against this simpleton hate speech and rallying for African-American students and other members of the EMU community.

So I think campus will be fine. I mean, I’m concerned about all sorts of examples of hate crimes and racism and the like that seem to be rising in this country in some correlation to the rise of the hate of the Donald Trump campaign. But at EMU specifically, I think the campus community is resilient enough to respond to some idiotic and likely drunk hateful vandals and simpleton spray-painters. It’s one of the many reasons I like working here, actually.

But again, where the heck is James Smith? I appreciate that it is Walter Kraft’s job as the VP for communication to have the initial responses to this– and by the way, I think Walter is a pretty good guy. But this was the first situation that’s happened on campus since Smith arrived where he clearly should have been out in person to speak out against this. I have no idea why he didn’t do this.

Slight addendum: To be fair, Smith did finally speak about this incident after a group of protesters showed up at the EMU President’s house.  See this story.

EMU attempts to cut costs by focusing on the little things and ignoring the obvious problems (you know, like football)

Everyone at EMU received an email from interim president Don Loppnow with the subject line “Campus message: Dining services,” but what I really think this message is about is the title I have for this post. In the nutshell, one of the “budgeting by a thousand tiny cuts” measures the EMU administration has decided to take is to outsource dining services. The talk of this has been going on for quite a while now, so this is hardly a surprise.

I have to say I’m confused by the potential benefits of all this. Loppnow’s email claims that everyone that EMU now employs in dining services will remain an EMU employee in dining services with the same contracts and what-not. Plus an outside vendor will bring in all kinds of new food options– food trucks!– and do all sorts of renovations to dining halls and all of that. Well, where’s the cost savings then? It sounds more like an act of creative bookkeeping combined with a willingness on EMU’s part to give whatever outside vendor the profits from their food truck et al enterprises.

I guess what I’m saying is I don’t completely disagree with the administration’s move to outsource this stuff and there are a lot of other institutions like EMU that already do this– though Michigan prisons outsourced their food options too, and that’s worked out not so great. EMU claims an outside vendor will invest “millions” in upgrades over the course of the contract, however long that might be. But again, this move doesn’t seem like much of a budget cut in the sense of actually “saving” money; in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyplace where the administration has given an actual dollar figure on how much money EMU saves in this move.

Anyway, here’s the passage of the email (I include all of it below) that I initially skimmed past that made me spit up my coffee when I read it again this morning:

It is important to note that Eastern’s overarching institutional priority is to provide our students with a solid educational and research experience – one that will lead to successful careers upon graduation. While our current food services operation and employees do an excellent job, food services is simply not the University’s core mission. Educating students is.

LOL! LOL!LOL!LOL!LOL!LOL!LOL!LOL!LOL!LOL!LOL!LOL!LOL!LOL!LOL!LOL!LOL! LOL!LOL!LOL!LOL! LOL!LOL! LOL! LOL! LOL! LOL! LOL! LOL! LOL! LOL! LOL!

ROTFLMAO!

Hmm, I wonder what other things EMU spends too much money on that is clearly not a part of our institution’s mission to provide students with a solid educational and research experience? Who else is doing an “excellent job” but is doing work that is simply not a part of our core mission?

Jeesh.

Look, if EMU wants to outsource dining services because they think we’ll get better food for slightly less cost for us (and obviously a big profit for whatever vendor wins the contract) and if everyone actually does keep their jobs, then I have to say I’m ambivalent. The EMU-AAUP’s argument has been that dining services people will end up losing their jobs and/or not be in a bargaining unit anymore and it will result in lower quality food, the administration’s argument is the opposite. Both of these arguments are predictions.

However, a) there is absolutely no way that the overall budget savings from this plan are going to make a difference in dealing with out of control spending from sports, and b) while dining services might not be a part of the “University’s core mission,” it’s a hell of a lot closer to that mission than football.

Continue reading “EMU attempts to cut costs by focusing on the little things and ignoring the obvious problems (you know, like football)”

An Open Letter/Blog Post About Sports at EMU

Dear Interim President Loppnow, Incoming President Smith, members of the Board of Regents, Heather Lyke, and anyone else who is interested (not to mention everyone associated with EMU– students, faculty, staff, alumni, etc.– who thinks it is time to do something different with football specifically and athletics generally):

Hi, how’s it going? I’m fine, thanks.

Now that my winter semester is completely wrapped up and I’ve had a chance to catch my breath for a week or so, I thought I’d take a moment and respond to the open letter (open email?) you sent out last week (which I include in the “Read More” section at the bottom of this post), and I also thought I’d share some thoughts on the interview EMU Athletic Director Heather Lyke gave on Michigan Public Radio last Friday, April 29.

First off, let me say that I like football, I really do. I don’t love football or any sports honestly, but I do like to watch football on the weekends when it’s on, I like basketball, it’s fun to go to a Detroit Tigers game, and so forth. Second, I see the benefit of sports for students, even in college, in terms of comradery, discipline, teamwork, school spirit, and all of that stuff.  That said, I also think student athletes and their fans would get these benefits if we competed in a lower-level division or even as non-scholarship clubs. Heck, I saw these benefits for the kids when my son was playing on a soccer team in elementary school.  But I will agree there is a benefit to “the sports” in general.

Third, while the funding for sports at EMU is more lopsided than at most universities, it’s bad all over. There are only about 25 or so universities in the top division where sports is more or less a profitable or break-even proposition, and, at least according to this USA Today site on NCAA Finances, all of the schools in the MAC are subsidizing more than 50% of the cost of sports with general fund revenues. Heck, of the 231 schools listed in that USA Today page, 151 of them pay at least half the costs of stuff like football with tuition.

So yeah, in response to the HBO Real Sports special featuring EMU’s over-spending and losing ways in football, I feel your pain and I understand the administration’s and the athletic department’s desire for a full-throated defense of the program and the refusal to change. But damn, if you are going to stick to football at EMU, you need to do a better job defending it.

Your open letter, the one sent around by Loppnow et al, is completely unresponsive to the joint report presented by student government, faculty senate, and the union. I mean, I can understand why you all don’t agree with that report, but “NO NO NO NO NO NO NO” is not a counter-argument. And do some math: if we’re spending $27 million a year of tuition money on athletics, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to praise the athletic program’s success at raising $430,000 in fundraising efforts.

Then there’s that interview with Lyke. Jeesh, talk about being in a hole and thinking that the solution is to keep digging. Most of her answers were just random word salad nonsense, as in “The demand [for football] is in the belief that its a value to the university. The pride that it does bring back, and the qualities that intercollegiate athletics teaches young people, I think are irreplaceable.” Seriously, what does that mean?

I get it, there are some simple facts on the ground that are hard for Lyke to dismiss, but her inability to handle this is staggering. It turns out that the guy interviewing Lyke, Lester Graham, has a child attending EMU. At the 4:35 or so mark in that interview, Graham asks flat-out “how does my EMU student benefit” with EMU being in Division 1 athletics.

Lyke responds “What your student gets, you know… when you chose Eastern Michigan, and the time that they chose they knew they had division 1 athletics–”

“–not a factor,” Graham interrupts. “Was not a factor.”

Then Lyke, digging furiously, says something like “Correct, so it’s, um, it’s not a factor in wether or not they um they… you know, I would hope that that student find value in adding diversity to the, you know, landscape and the culture of the university. There are kids that have unbelievable talents in all sorts of things. We have an unbelievable forensics team, we have an unbelievable slam poetry team at Eastern Michigan, we have fabulous art…” and so forth.

Graham pointed out that none of these things have anything to do with support to the athletic department, and Lyke goes back to the earlier statement that we are not thinking about getting out of the MAC or football, full stop.

And then there’s this “diversity” thing, which does appear to be Lyke’s way of saying that college athletics brings a lot of African American students to EMU who otherwise wouldn’t be here. This is a particularly weird claim and it makes me think that maybe Lyke has never actually been on campus at EMU, because if you went to places on the main campus (besides the administrative building, Welch Hall, or maybe a press conference of some sort), you’d see a lot of diversity of students who have zero to do with sports.

Anyway, just to wrap this up, I’d like to make some suggestions to anyone who might be reading this.

First, if the administration, the Board of Regents, and the Lykes of the world really believe that EMU should keep spending this much money on football, then you all need to get some evidence on your side and you need to make a better argument than you’re making here. “We are going to stay in football and in the MAC because we said so” is the logic of a toddler, and people running universities and getting paid as much money as you are all being paid to do this work should know better.

If it turns out that the reason why you are all saying what you are saying is because there are no logical reasons for staying in Division 1 football (and I suspect this is the case), then I think it might be time to take a deep breath and figure out an eloquent way to exit big time sports and save face. I understand Lyke’s point about how EMU has commitments to the MAC through about 2020 so we can’t just pull the plug, but you could start talking now about the “strategic and added value” move to a different conference, to re-emphasizing different sports, and so forth.

And I have to say that if you think about this for a moment, this is potentially a huge opportunity for all of you administrators, board members, and athletic director-types. This is a chance to stand up to the “arms race” in college athletics and to finally say “enough is enough.” This is a change to do something bold, innovative, smart, and brave, and this is also a chance to truly cast EMU in a more positive light.

Finally, to the rest of the EMU community who thinks we spend too much money on sports: we can’t just let this go. If there is going to be any change at all (and that’s still a big if), we need to keep reminding whoever will listen that we’re spending too much money on this stuff. Big-time sports might make sense at the University of Michigan or Michigan State, but they don’t make sense at a place like EMU.

Thanks for reading and have a good summer,

–Steve

Continue reading “An Open Letter/Blog Post About Sports at EMU”

And one more thing about football: location matters

This is sort of a “PS” to the post I had the other day about EMU on HBO Sports:

The joint report issued by the Faculty Senate, the EMU-AAUP, and EMU Student Government is getting some ripples of attention in the mainstream media. I don’t know what the chances are that these efforts succeed, that EMU really does drop football entirely and instead joins a non-football conference like the Horizon League (if they would have us, I have no idea how that works), but I like that the fight is underway.

There was a good article in the Detroit Free Press by David Jesse, “EMU in the market for new league for football?” I wanted to specifically highlight this quote from the EMU-AAUP’s Howard Bunsis:

“Culturally and geographically, EMU football will simply never succeed from an attendance and financial standpoint… It is a losing proposition — always has been, and always will be. We hardly raise any money for football, and our attendance is the lowest in the country. Some of you believe that we are close to succeeding, if we just throw more money at the situation. This proposition is insane.

Another way of putting it: we live in the shadow of Big Blue.

Culturally, EMU is not entirely a “commuter campus” (because there are a lot of people who live on campus or within about five miles of it), but we definitely have a lot of students who drive in from one of the various Detroit suburbs and then go home. We also have a lot of students (maybe the majority? I’m not sure) from working-class backgrounds who are working too many hours to pay the bills. Go to any “service industry” kind of place in the Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti area and I’m betting that at least 25% of the people working there are students at EMU. And we also have a lot of non-traditional students, 25+ year-olds with families and kids and the like. None of these people have time for or interest in football.

Geographically, we’re around seven miles from the University of Michigan’s campus, and if you are a college football fan– even one attending EMU– there’s a better chance you will root for the Wolverines rather than for the Emus Eagles. After all, the Wolverines are one of the most successful football programs in the history of the sport, period. Why wouldn’t you root for them? (Unless you went to Iowa as an undergraduate, but I digress).

Just to give you an example of what I mean: my son is finishing up his freshman year at the University of Michigan. He could have bought student section tickets for football before school started, but he has very little interest in sports so he passed. And yet he ended up buying tickets to a couple of the early games this last fall (when tickets are comparatively easy to get), and he’s likely to get season tickets next year. Why? “Because that’s what everyone does,” he said, “everyone” meaning all of the people he has been hanging out with in his dorm.

The culture at Michigan is essentially the opposite of EMU. You’re an “outsider” oddball if you take no interest in things like football there. Even very very casual fans like my son get swept up in the excitement of it all. Plus the students who attend the University of Michigan are the most traditional of traditional college students: 18-22 year olds from upper-middle class/wealthy backgrounds who are all living very near to campus and who generally have a lot of free-time on their hands.

The point is it’s not just that EMU can’t compete in the MAC; it can’t compete in the neighborhood.

Update: Just to give you an idea about how seriously the administration and the Board of Regents is taking the recommendation of this report from the faculty and the students, here’s a copy of an open letter to the EMU community:

Open letter to the Eastern Michigan University
campus community, alumni, friends and supporters

In the past several days, there has been considerable media coverage of reports that indicate that Eastern Michigan University is considering eliminating football, or reducing support for football by dropping down to a lower division of the NCAA and by dropping out of the Mid-American Conference. These reports are not based on any solid factual information. We have absolutely no plans to eliminate football or move into any other division or conference.

We are pleased to be a member of an outstanding conference, the Mid-American Conference, where all of our sports and our talented student athletes have the opportunity to compete at the highest levels with neighboring institutions in the Midwest. Any headlines or claims that Eastern is considering dropping football, or reducing our support of the program in any way, are false.

We are 100 percent supportive of our current Athletics administration, particularly Vice President of Intercollegiate Athletics Heather Lyke. She has assembled an outstanding support team and we already have seen positive results in terms of continuing Eastern’s championship traditions in a number of our sports, as well as in many new initiatives to increase revenues. As an example, year-to-date, fundraising has increased by nearly $430,000.

Two-and-a-half years ago, she hired an outstanding football coach in Chris Creighton. Now entering his third year and with the majority of the team now made up of his recruits, we believe the best is ahead in terms of on the field and academic performance. We believe very strongly in Coach Creighton and his efforts to rebuild the program.

We want to collectively reiterate that any notion, suggestion, or headline that in any way suggests Eastern is considering eliminating football or moving into another conference or division, is absolutely false. We will remain proud members of the Mid-American Conference football family for a long, long time.

Sincerely,

Interim President Donald Loppnow
President-Elect James Smith
Mike Morris, Chair, Eastern Michigan University Board of Regents
Mary Treder Lang, Vice Chair, Eastern Michigan University Board of Regents
Michael Hawks, Chair, Athletic Affairs Committee, Eastern Michigan University Board of Regents
Dennis Beagen, Eastern Michigan University Board of Regents
Michelle Crumm, Eastern Michigan University Board of Regents
Beth Fitzsimmons, Eastern Michigan University Board of Regents
James Stapleton, Eastern Michigan University Board of Regents
James Webb, Eastern Michigan University Board of Regents