a message from WMU-AAUP President Cathryn Bailey
Many Western Michigan University professors exist only because, decades ago, a new emphasis on acquiring research intensive status transformed lots of humble land grant normal schools into fully-fledged universities. At far flung institutions, in cornfields and river valleys across the U.S., first-generation college students like me drifted into the classrooms of inspiring poets, passionate sociologists, brilliant engineers, and dedicated chemists, eventually becoming professors ourselves at former regional comprehensives like WMU. Unfortunately, the drive to populate U.S. universities with researchers and creatives has proceded unevenly, and now some of these institutions seem to see professors as a drain on their budgets. It should come as no surprise then, that, during the pandemic, some universities have been quietly transitioning back into undergraduate, teaching-focused institutions, while perhaps still touting their research and grad student missions and charging research-intensive tuition.
As someone who sprang from a working-class family with skepticism about intellectualism bred into its bones, ambivalence about scholars and scholarship is neither new or strange to me. But like lots of blue collar families, mine valued education, and at the humble Midwestern university I felt privileged to attend, I stumbled into the classrooms of professors whose passion for original, creative scholarship was contagious, conveying to young adults like me that we too could be creators of knowledge, technology, and art. Ultimately, through some combination of race privilege, good fortune, and hard work, I got a PhD in my 20s and my first professor gig just a few months later.
As a professor, I have simultaneously taught and engaged in my own investigations, solving problems and exploring curiosities together with my students. I’ve been honored and challenged by colleagues in dialogue with my writing and by countless students over the decades, especially those for whom, like me, education has been a lifeline. But during the pandemic, some universities’ commitment to an affordable, accessible public higher education rooted in original research, scholarship, and creativity has wavered. The fallout has been disturbing: exhausted professors, exploited part-time instructors, terminated staff colleagues, and stressed out students. Even when it is financially healthy — as Western demonstrably is — a university may disinvest in its academic core, and fail to address administrative bloat, placing its very mission as an accessible research-intensive regional public university at risk.
To speak from my own experience, I was hired at WMU, in part, because of how my intellectual engagement fueled my teaching. It has been jarring, then, to have heard from administrators in recent years that my scholarly work, and that of countless WMU colleagues, has suddenly become irrelevant. In recent years, WMU professors have increasingly reported being threatened with the “punishment” of additional teaching — an insult to both students and instructors — if their scholarly production failed to rise to some administrative standard that was often unclear, arbitrary, and ever elusive. Under the murky cover of the pandemic, however, the message to many WMU professors seems to have shifted again: Faculty must teach as many students as possible, as cheaply as possible, and with original scholarly exploration now regarded as a hobby to be indulged in their leisure hours. In recent months, WMU officials have even stated that research need not be an assigned part of a tenure track faculty member’s workload because “tenure is not required for employment.”
Most elite institutions will emerge from the pandemic with their research missions and brain trusts intact, but for other sectors of public higher education, the democratization of the professoriate, and commitment to affordable, high quality higher education, seems to be in grave danger. As the AAUP has reported, some of these institutions have even been violating policy and principles of shared governance in a race to close academic programs and eliminate professors and staff. It isn’t necessarily that administrators suddenly doubt the value for students of working with knowledge-creators, of course, but that such academic investment has been deemed too expensive, even as gargantuan athletics and administrative budgets may remain comparatively intact.
At the same time, how many of these universities are remarketing themselves to reflect their diminished commitment to supporting faculty research? For example, despite its apparent demotion of faculty research and creative activity, doesn’t WMU still highlight its research prowess, eager to distinguish itself from nearby community colleges and four-year schools? In short, the shift away from research-intensive missions seems to be happening quietly, incrementally, behind the scenes, driven by the gradual, often unilateral, decisions of individual administrators rather than by transparent, collaborative decision-making about the collective identity of the institution. To me, it sometimes seems as if such universities are assuming that working-class families like the one I came from, many sending a child to college for the first time, won’t be savvy enough to notice the difference.
Of course, none of this is meant to cast doubt on the value of four-year schools focused solely on undergraduate education, or, for that matter, on community colleges. They play a critical role in higher education and are to be respected. But no university should neglect or abandon its research mission without a long, serious, and transparent conversation, a structured process that includes professors, staff, students and their families. Certainly, any university that is reversing course needs to be forthright about that and figure out an honest way to attract both new students and new professors. As it stands now, some universities seem to be betting that prospective working-class students and their families simply won’t notice that they’re being expected to pay research university tuition even as the scholars necessary to fulfill such promises are being picked off, chased away, or gobbled up by unreasonable service demands.