Can You Calculate the ROI of Academic Freedom and The Public Good?

Angela Davis at UCLA in 1969

On Monday UC-AFT Unit 17 Librarians ratified a tentative agreement on a new contract with UC. I’ve talked about the contract campaign a lot on here, social media, and the local media. Also on Monday, UC issued a proposed new policy on academic freedom for non-faculty academic appointees – librarians, researchers, clinicians, and more. This came about partially because UC-AFT raised the issue in bargaining, and it became clear that all non-faculty academics needed some process for adjudicating issues around academic freedom. The proposed policy does that. (And yet another example of union power… kind of…)

Last night I went to a discussion about academic freedom with Joan Scott, who spoke about her book Knowledge, Power and Academic Freedom, Hank Reichman, who spoke about his brand new book The Future of Academic Freedom, Wendy Brown (tenured faculty), Khalid Kadir (contingent faculty) and I-Wei Wang (librarian and a member of the UC-AFT Unit 17 table team). It was a very interesting discussion that imparted a sense of action and urgency – academic freedom will only exist if we continue to fight for and defend it. Particularly as the notion of the public good has eroded over time, and the creation of knowledge is measured and valued in economic terms.

I flew to Philadelphia today to attend a meeting, and I took the opportunity on the flight to read Scott’s book. It’s a very tight collection of essays exploring the history and different facets of academic freedom, and what it means in today’s Trumpian world. It’s clear that the more things change in this regard, the more they stay the same. The essay about academic freedom and the state (Chapter 4) resonated with me the most, because it touched upon many topics that I’ve been particularly concerned with, given the tension between research in academic settings and funders, and how that influences the production of knowledge. Academic freedom is supposed to reflect the separation of academia from the state (funders). One of the early examples of academic freedom Scott presents is that of Edward Ross at Stanford in 1900 – who was fired for making remarks criticizing the practice of importing workers from China and calling for the municipalization of the railroads. Leland Stanford, who started the university and was at one point a governor of California, made his fortune building railroads in the western United States with cheap Chinese labor. Ross’ comments were too much for Stanford’s widow Jane, who called for his resignation. He was fired, faculty protested and this eventually lead to the creation of the AAUP. I use this example to show how long this has been happening (and also because people who know me, know I despise the legacy of Leland Stanford and the Big Four).

Another, more recent example is that of Angela Davis at UCLA in 1969 (as pictured above). She was a member of the Communist Party, and then Governor Reagan urged the UC Regents to fire her and they did. Students and faculty protested, citing a violation of academic freedom. There was a lawsuit. She was allowed to teach a few classes in the 69-70 academic year. I think this part of her story is usually obscured by what came next. This example hits close to home because it is the UC Regents interfering at the request of the governor (particularly one who actively tried to dismantle the growth of UC under Brown/Kerr!), something that worries me still.

And given today’s state of public higher education and research, and the lack of autonomy for academia because state funding comes with clear and explicit strings, it’s hard to see how academic freedom isn’t being defined and dictated by the state. Knowledge production is regarded as a means to the end of productivity. Students are in school to get jobs, to feed back into the economy. Research is measured by its impact in society, but largely that impact can be distilled into economic factors. (But also remember, Thatcher famously said “there’s no such thing as society“.) Inquiry, research, critical thinking, and the collective notion of the public good are becoming after thoughts to the neoliberal need to have an ROI. This is evident by the politicization of research topics, and became very clear how high the stakes were during the transition from Obama to Trump. Many federally funded programs and projects looking at ways to protect the environment, moving to clean energy, were soon gutted. Programs had to shift their focus, not because the facts and science called for it. No. It was because that was how they could get funding from those programs. Funding they desperately need since guaranteed, baseline state funding doesn’t really exist anymore. This makes me think that despite the new UC proposed policy, academic researchers will never really have academic freedom as long as they need to keep pleasing funders with an eye on the next grant. I’m not arguing that there should be no accountability in how public money is spent on research, but that it shouldn’t be focused on bottom line ROI with the greater good as an after thought (if it’s mentioned at all).

But I don’t think this is really news to anybody. It’s important to keep that in your mind as we all fight for scraps.

I’m going to read Reichman’s book tomorrow on my flight home, so expect another post next week.

Many names means many access points.

Howard Jarvis eating a sandwich

A personal anecdote before we get to the meat of this post – At home we’re teaching the kid about names and how you can call people different things and all of them are correct. Like I am Kendra and mommy. Or they are Eddie or Edmund (despite their fierce protests). It’s a hard concept for a toddler to grasp, which is kind of cool to see unfold and try to explain.

This week I’ve been thinking about the mess of talking about government legislation and rules because the names are either too generic to be useful, repeated and therefore confusing, or have multiple names that shift overtime. Not every piece of legislation can be ISTEA (sounds like “ice tea”). When my editor asked me to clarify what I meant when talking about SB1 in a recent thing I wrote, I realized that though I could call it the Road Repair and Accountability Act nobody really does. It’s SB1. Like there will never be another piece of legislation in California called SB1.

And you can’t confuse AB375 from 2018, the California Consumer Privacy Act of 2018 and SB375 from 2008, the Transportation and Land Use Planning and the California Environmental Quality Act. (That’s kind of meta since it’s an act that references another act!)

Last week somebody asked me for material related to the Transportation Development Act of 1971, which was SB325 but also frequently called the Mills-Alquist-Deddeh Act. So looking for it requires a few different avenues and hoping people get it right. That’s easy.

This reminds me of some confusion I had recently when reading contemporary sources about California politics in the 1970s. They kept talking about the danger looming about “Jarvis Gann” in terms of the state’s finances. A little bit of context and knowledge of history makes it clear they’re talking about the 1978 ballot proposition Proposition 13 (colloquially known now as just Prop 13, there is only one Prop 13). But of course, growing up in a California where Prop 13 has been around the entire time, Howard Jarvis (seen above eating a big sandwich) and Paul Gann are sometimes obscured by it. (Prop. 13 did just turn 40, and it still is messing with the state is so many ways. The current teachers strike in Oakland is a symptom of it.)

I think there was a hope that linked data and semantic searching would make this all so easy. So that you wouldn’t have to know if you want the full discourse around Prop 13 in the mid to late 70s, you need to search “Jarvis Gann”. Or that if you want to know more about TDA before it passed that “Mills-Alquist-Deddeh” was the ticket (it rolls off the tongue). This leads me to a passion project I would love to tackle: Using text mining to curate resource guides and bibliographies on topics with evolving terminology.

Stay tuned.

Helping the next generation stand your shoulders: Pay it forward for the profession


Tor197, Cragside School, Heaton, Newcastle upon Tyne, 1969 flickr photo by Newcastle Libraries shared into the public domain using Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication (CC0)

I’ve been feeling old lately. I have a kid. Things from my youth are cool again, but in an ironic nostalgia kind of way. I find myself listening to jazz semi-regularly. I’m mid-career. I’m management. I’m in a position to help new professionals get a foothold. I have wisdom about life to dispense. For somebody who was usually the youngest person in the room, it’s been kind of weird. But it’s also been kind of gratifying. I’m not an angry young upstart anymore, but I’m in a position to support and give a platform to angry young upstarts. It’s the circle of life. I appreciate it.

I’ve been ruminating on this for a while since I’m turning in my promotion packet this week – making the leap from Associate Librarian to full Librarian. It’s forced me to look back at my career and see how far I’ve come and evolved in the last decade. It also forced me to reach out to colleagues and ask for external letters of support. I didn’t approach people lightly, since I recognize it’s asking for a limited resource (their time) with abstract compensation (feeding the academic reputation machine). Most the people I approached to be considered understood the system, and were happy to help me out. Not everybody did though… and this is where I got annoyed.

I’m not annoyed they didn’t write the letter – while my promotion case seems like the center of my universe (actually, so many other work things are the center of my universe), I don’t expect it to be a priority for others. I’m annoyed that they flaked, that they said they’d write a letter and then didn’t. I’m annoyed that these people want to be regarded as respected members of the professional community, that we should look to them for wisdom and guidance, that their opinion matters because of their stature, but then they won’t take an hour of time to help another member of that community. This sort of behavior is especially galling from other academics who rely on the social and professional capital of others to climb the ranks, but then don’t return the favor for others. And while the peer-review process for promotion has gigantic problems, we are still stuck playing the game. So yeah – this week when I handed over my promotion packet to my boss, I am pretty annoyed with some of my colleagues that I asked to write letters who I’m pretty certain flaked.

And this is where instead of stewing in my ire, I’m going to put out the call for us to do better. If you are in a position of power, authority, leadership, prestige, remember how you got there. Remember how many people helped you out along the way. People who wrote letters of recommendation or support for you. People who nominated you for awards. People who served as references on job applications. People who appointed you to committees. People who took you out for coffee and listened to you figure stuff out, and maybe gave you some advice. You did not get to where you are in your career alone. It took a community. So when you are asked to give back to that community in small ways, like write a letter of support, you really should do it if you can. Don’t pull up the ladder and cut off opportunities for future generations just because you made it. If you want to be regarded as a leader in the profession, it means taking some time to give back to others. It’s vital for the next generation to have a chance to make their mark.

And hey – if you ever want me to write a letter of support or recommendation for you? Just ask. If my calendar isn’t too slammed, I’m happy to do it. If I don’t have time to do it, I’ll give you a sincere, apologetic decline.

And to everybody who has taken time over the years to help me out in a variety of ways, you have my eternal thanks and deepest respect. I have been fortunate to work with awesome people around the globe.

Acknowledging the wear of uncertainty.

This week’s midterm elections were a rollercoaster for the US. There was a ballot proposition in California that was was really close to home for my library: Proposition 6, which if pass would have repealed the recently enacted gas tax (SB1). The $5.1 billion raised from the the higher gas tax will go to repair and maintain transportation infrastructure across California. The institute my library is a part of gets a fraction of a percent of the money raised from that tax to perform research, an often overlooked and necessary component of any big program. If Prop. 6 passed, a steady form of funding for the institute and my library would disappear overnight. As soon as SB1 was signed into law, we had muted celebrations because it seemed politically certain that a proposition to repeal it would be on the November ballot. As I started developing new services and expanding operations for the library to help track and disseminate our research, I knew that we couldn’t fully commit or plan until the election and we had a better idea of our available resources. It became clear that until this week, that there would be limited financial commitments because we needed to see the result. The voters in California rejected Prop. 6 and the gas tax repeat by a 10 point margin, transportation in the state is valued, and I brought in a dozen donuts to the library to celebrate. (And if you’re not from California, you might not fully understand the California proposition system, which can be interesting. C.f: The infamous Prop. 13, the less infamous Prop. 187, Prop. 209, and Prop. 8.)

So now I have a better idea of a path forward and can start doing things that had to be put on hold until we knew the budget situation. Thanks, California voters!

My particular example is pretty acute and extreme. Most people’s work mission isn’t hanging in the balance of a voter initiative (and we’ve learned never assume anything about an election until the votes have been counted), but it seems like the current trend in workplaces is agility because you need to respond to priorities that might drastically shift in a moment’s notice. In a recent workshop on librarian peer review here at Berkeley the question was raised, how do you account for not accomplishing tangible things with deliverables because the mission changed? (The answer was note that.) And while my mission changes with political shifts that often lead to funding or research priority changes, this kind of continual change seems to be rampant all over. For libraries, it makes long term planning and thinking extremely difficult which is a major part of our core mission. That big idea you have to improve instruction? Put that on hold because you’re going to be a liaison to a new subject since that librarian just left. Have a research idea about publishing models and digitization? That’s great, but right now the focus is on assessment. (I’m making these examples up, FYI.)

More stable, less capricious funding models would make it easier to plan, but that’s not how things happen in 2018. It seems like dealing with constantly evolving missions, regular crises for new funding sources, and all the requisite competition (in terms of actual fighting for funding and balancing priorities) is just the way things are for now. It’s time we open acknowledge it and that it’s exhausting to work like that at times. It’s wearing. And since we’re a society (and profession) hell bent on quantitative metrics, recognize that these impacts are super hard to measure because it’s a kind of void.

Putting the U in unions: The power in a union is people.

I started this post when I was in a membership meeting for my union local. I’ve been thinking unions a lot since there’s been a lot of energy in the air: The recent AFSCME/UPTE strike across UC, which received support from several other unions. I helped organize a demonstration for my union, which included a march to the Chancellor’s Office. (In case you didn’t know, my union went out of contract in October.)

Last week American Libraries published an article called Unions 101. It starts with my union’s struggle for a new contract and then goes into why libraries need unions. The one quote that really stood out to me was from Aliqae Geraci:

“If you think the local union is bad, if the leadership is incompetent, there’s only one way to change that, and it’s to participate in the democratic process.”

I’ve seen (and participated in) how much work it takes to democratize a union, but it is more or less the same work needed to democratize government. When people talk about “grassroots”, they mean people – the rank and file, your neighbors, citizens, whatever. It’s you. You are the grassroots.

One of the things that’s become painfully clear to me since I got really active in my union is that they are an important mechanism for feedback within your workplace and community. Have concerns about some institutional policy? Unions are a great mechanism to address them in a way that has more traction and influence than an individual. One recent example is when ATU Local 689 workers shutdown the notion of special trains to protect racists at the Unite The Right rally in DC. There’s an established process and relationship between unions and workplaces, which can be effective if members are engaged. I think it’s something that people take for granted or ignore, which is why many unions are faltering. They might be bureaucratic or calcified, which means they need democracy more than ever. (Kind of like the USA…) When people say, “What can the union do? It has no power.” I fight everything in my being not to yell back, “NOT WITH THAT ATTITUDE!”

And unions are just one mechanism for engagement that feeds into others like community groups, religious organizations, professional groups, or political parties. Want to make a change and help canvas, get out the vote, or whatever? Unions are doing that. Don’t like the political stance your union takes? Let them know and get involved in the process making those endorsements. It will carry more weight and influence than a social media post. (I finally joined the Sierra Club just to help push out their weird pro-parking agenda and go for something actually green.) Unions, like the other groups, are part of the whole system and I feel like that’s something that people forget. My union, UC-AFT, cares deeply about higher education and lots of other policies that affect higher education – like housing and taxation.

And in closing, all this union stuff has made me think more about the role of professional associations and what I need or want to get from them. I’ve talked before about my feelings on SLA’s lack of advocacy when it comes to the profession. I’ve kind of cooled my enthusiasm for SLA because of that and because I realize that union activism and agitation can also support and defend the profession. We talk about wanting to make librarianship more diverse, but a concrete action to take for that is fighting for a new contract for 300 librarians that pays enough so that single people with student debt don’t have to work side jobs to be able to afford to work here. Our asking for academic freedom in our contract has demonstrated why this is an issue for all academics, and shouldn’t be taken for granted. (Please sign our petition if you support academic freedom for academic workers!) We talk about the need to advocate for new publishing models, and unions can work together to push legislation like the recent AB2192 to do that. I think worker/union solidarity is a very important part of supporting your institution, particularly the public sector. Again… if you are concerned about the segregation of racial and economic classes in the Bay Area because of the housing crisis, supporting local unions fighting for fare wages and access to housing is an actionable step to that end. Unions, unlike professional associations, are bound to support the individual collectively – the worker. Professional associations never seem to figure out if they are for the individual or for the institution, which can at times be problematic.

There’s definitely room for all groups, but I think some people who are disaffected, frustrated, and want change should really consider getting involved with their union (if they have one – or start one if they don’t) because that’s where change can really start. And of course if you’re in the USA and a citizen, you voted today because that’s one of the most important steps to change. I’ll talk about that tomorrow.

We’re all in this together.