The University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) is back in the national news--for all of the wrong reasons.
The Chronicle of Higher Education, the premier source for news about colleges and universities, reports this week about UAB's ham-handed efforts to oust Glenn Feldman, a tenured professor in the School of Business.
Feldman, the author of seven books and almost 100 articles, has a stellar record as a scholar. So why does UAB want to get rid of him? As a specialist in labor economics and history, Feldman has ties to the union movement and Democratic Party politics. Apparently that interferes with UAB's efforts to appeal to a white, conservative, "pro business" market.
In both the Chronicle's main article, and a followup opinion piece, experts say they are not surprised at what Feldman is experiencing. And they say taxpayers who support public institutions should be concerned about serious threats to academic freedom. Writes Chronicle reporter Peter Schmidt:
Mr. Feldman is unusual in his zeal, but he is hardly alone in suspecting college administrators' motives and their willingness to respect tenure. William F. Trimble, a professor of history at Auburn University and president of the AAUP's Alabama state conference, argues that tenured faculty members feel especially backed into a corner in Gulf Coast states, where they watched several colleges cite the financial hardship brought on by Hurricane Katrina's devastation in 2005 as justification for jettisoning academic programs and faculty positions.
"We now have a situation where there is a budget crisis all over the country," especially at public colleges, Mr. Trimble says. "Tenured faculty members have found themselves in a vulnerable position."
Under the "leadership" of President Carol Garrison, UAB has become a breeding ground for dysfunction. We summarized the universities scandals and embarrassments in a post titled "Has UAB Become a Hotbed for Mismanagement and Corruption." A number of new embarrassments have surfaced since we wrote that post in December 2008, including three cases of academic fraud.
Feldman's problems started when David R. Klock arrived as UAB's new business dean, after a brief stay at Cal Poly Pomona. Feldman was not the only one who quickly sensed Klock's antipathy toward labor studies, the Chronicle reports:
Mr. Feldman's complaints against the university argue that it very quickly became apparent to him that the center's work was not valued by Dean Klock, a former chief executive of CompBenefits Corporation—a major health-benefits provider—who had spent the previous two-and-a-half years as dean of the college of business administration at California State Polytechnic University at Pomona.
The idea that Mr. Klock was no fan of the center's work is seconded by Marc T. Cryer, who worked under Mr. Feldman as an assistant professor and now directs the center at its new location, at Jefferson State Community College, in Birmingham. In an interview, Mr. Cryer called Mr. Klock "very business-oriented" and "certainly not a friend of labor."
"He was pretty clear that he did not feel that the labor movement had any business in academe or that academe had any business spending time on the labor movement," Mr. Cryer said.
How badly did Klock and other administrators want to get rid of Feldman and the Center for Labor Education and Research (CLEAR) that he served as director? They asked the Alabama Legislature to withdraw a $650,000 line-item appropriation and kicked away more than $3 million in federal grants by shipping the center off to Jefferson State Community College.
When the labor center was jettisoned, UAB officials said Feldman would need to take 18 hours of graduate courses to become "academically qualified" to teach economics--even though he had been teaching economics, and was academically qualified, for years. Reports the Chronicle:
Last month, Mr. Trimble of the state AAUP sent university officials a letter disputing the idea that accreditors would deem Mr. Feldman academically unqualified to teach economics. He called the university's request that the professor obtain graduate credits in that field "at best curious," asserting that Mr. Feldman had already long taught economics courses and has "an impressive publication record."
A number of commenters at the Chronicle's Web site were astonished by UAB's actions. Wrote one:
This may be the first time in history that a public university asked a state legislature to cut its funding. And the notion that a full professor in the business school must take the equivalent of a year's worth of full-time classes in order to be qualified to teach is completely unprecedented. I've never heard of that happening anywhere.
As has become their practice, UAB administrators went into hiding when serious questions were raised. Klock, President Carol Garrison, and Provost Eli Capilouto apparently declined to be interviewed for the Chronicle article. Instead they trotted out public-relations chief Dale Turnbough to issue a statement, saying UAB "disputes what Professor Feldman alleges."
On what grounds does UAB dispute Feldman's allegations? What specifically about them is not accurate? Turnbough doesn't say because she, too, apparently is not taking questions. That's why UAB likes to issue "statements"--to avoid pesky questions.
Marc Bousquet, a prominent writer on academic issues, says in a piece titled "The United States of Alabama" that Feldman's situation is a sign of broader problems across the country. Bousquet, the author of the Web site howtheuniversityworks.com, writes:
. . . the UAB business-school dean (Klock) responsible for pushing first practiced his hatcheting ways here in California. It's not a regional issue at all or even restricted to higher-education workplaces.
The many things that should concern us about Feldman's experience in Alabama are all things happening in schools at every level across the country:
+ Administrator pro-business bias
+ Consolidation of administrator power
+ Declining faculty power and declining faculty solidarity
+ Abuse of credentialing (UAB has demanded that full-professor Feldman go back to school and earn a year's worth of credits to retain his tenure)
+ Ever-closer ties between corporations, politics, and the campus
+ Business influence on curriculum
+ The culture-struggle practice of administration, designed to produce compliant subjectivities and expel dissenters
+ A growing legal web that muzzles faculty governance speech at public institutions
+ The abuse of standards of civility and collegiality to paint an understandably upset victim as unreasonable, a tendency in which I have to say that Peter Schmidt's reporting unfortunately participates (though to be fair to Schmidt I haven't seen the documents he characterizes).
Bousquet closes by siding with a commenter who goes by the handle "mchag12":
"The relationship with the faculty at public universities is just becoming untenable as faculty are treated as line items to be dispensed with at will by high paid administrators. What would you do, azprof, if your department was slated for demolition and your university actually asked the state legislature to defund it? Back out of the room shuffling and bowing and repeating thank you, thank you? If you think you are safe, you're not."
That last line by mchag says it all.