Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Should #UCDavis faculty "walkout" from teaching to "support" students? I do not think so

There has been a call for a general student strike on Monday at UC Davis.  This is partly in relation to the pepper spraying incident but apparently more about access to education and budget cuts and such.  I just got this message from the Dean of the College of Biological Sciences regarding this
To All Faculty, Students, and Staff:

Some of you may have heard or read that there will be a general strike on Monday, November 28, 2011.  Please note that the campus is open for business as usual and students should plan to attend courses as scheduled unless they hear otherwise directly from their instructor.  This expectation applies equally to all Faculty, Lecturers, Teaching Assistants, and Associates.

Please have a safe and restful holiday break.

James E.K. Hildreth, PhD, MD
College of Biological Sciences
University of California, Davis
Well, this could be a set up for some complex interactions Monday. As many who read this blog know, I am incredibly disturbed by the pepper spray incident.  I am also very upset about the budget cuts and the challenges facing students on campus.  I am committed to working to fix the things that are broken at UC Davis and to also help students in as many ways as possible deal with tuition and fee increases.

I note, I have been attending the rallies and the protests on campus in the last few days.  I have made food donations to the OccupyUCDavis group and I plan to donate time, equipment and more food as well.  I am very supportive of their right to protest and in some of the complaints they have raised.  And I believe that it would be helpful if all faculty and staff on campus support the protests in some way as we need a show of force/solidarity in response to the pepper spray incident.

However, that does not mean I would walkout on teaching class.  I am not teaching that day, but a colleague is.  And I personally am planning on being there.  I do not think faculty should walkout and not teach Monday as this does not seem fair to students who want to go to class.  I would be fully supportive of faculty protesting, walking out on administrative activities, and doing other forms of protest.  But if I was scheduled to be teaching, most likely I would hold my class. I am open to being convinced otherwise but faculty walking out to "support" students and the challenges in access to education seems wrong.  I would love to hear people's opinions on this issue ...

Note - in 2009 there was also a proposed walkout at UC Davis.  The situation then was different - there was no horrendous pepper spraying incident, for example.  But the underlying issues were similar - fee increases, budget cuts, students suffering, etc.  So I thought it might be relevant to repost some postings from then.
Here is the text of an Editorial that I wrote for the Sacramento Bee with Winder McConnell from UC Davis:

Sacramento Bee, The (CA) 2009-09-23 EDITORIALS METRO FINAL A19    
Jonathan Eisen and Winder McConnell

Special to The Bee 

UC Davis professors 'walkout' debate: Teaching is more than just about being paid 

There's a cacophony of voices of late on the University of California, Davis, campus and in the media related to the state and UC administration's handling of recent educational budget cuts. Spurred on in particular by complaints about the UC administration's decision to furlough faculty but to not permit furloughs to occur on "instructional days," many faculty have signed on for a "walkout" scheduled Thursday.

While the proposed walkout has now expanded to include student groups, unions and others protesting a variety of issues, all this chatter has spurred the two of us to think about a couple of very basic questions that drove us to do what we do today:
Where would we be today as professors without students? And, just as important, where would those students be without us?
As each of our colleagues makes his or her personal decision as to whether to walk out Thursday, we'd like to make a case for why it's wrong for faculty to cut class.

Simply put, we see it as a moral, pragmatic and political misstep for faculty to abandon their classrooms and their students.
The two of us couldn't be more different: Jonathan is a scientist, a professor of evolution and ecology, and medical microbiology and immunology, who has been at UC Davis for 3 1/2 years after spending eight years at a private research institute. Winder is a humanist, a professor of German who has been at UC Davis for 31 years and who served as a department chair under nine deans. And yet, it's hard for either of us to imagine being more passionate about anything other than the classroom experience.

Yes, we have many time-consuming responsibilities as faculty members, including research and public service. But UC Davis has more than 31,000 students -- more than 24,000 of them undergraduates -- and we have a commitment to them, first and foremost, as educators. Our commitment to teaching is not simply because we're getting paid to work. It goes much deeper than that.
In a typical academic quarter, we have 10 weeks -- and only 10 weeks -- to interact with students in ways that could change the course of their lives and careers. In that regard, the classroom is sacrosanct. Our time there is not something that's up for negotiation. Whether to be there is not negotiable.

And so it's painful to us that much of the basis for the proposed walkout is literally that many faculty wanted to "spread the pain" to students to make a political point about the effects of furloughs on education. This is an unacceptable use of students as pawns in this high-stakes game, especially those students and their families who are already shouldering a heavy financial burden that is soon likely to get much heavier.

Indeed, what kind of message does faculty members cutting classes send out to those students and their families who work hard to afford a world-class UC education? Do we really want to add more fuel to the fire of higher education naysayers who would question, "What are they teaching out there?" and, "How many classes does a professor teach, anyway?"

We accept that the entire UC system could do a better job of communicating to Sacramento's policymakers about the "pain" and "consequences" of budget cuts, and that teaching less would be a way to show that the cuts have a real impact on education. But abandoning the classroom is the wrong way to go. It would be a horrible political move right now. California's budget could still go down next year and there could be more cuts. If UC works to build political capital in the coming year, then perhaps we will avoid some cuts next time around. But if we slash instructional time as a way to spread the pain, it will come back to bite us.

Then there is the practical or pragmatic argument. Jonathan is teaching an introductory biology course in the fall to about 700 students. The class has four lectures a week for each of two sections and coordinated labs running in parallel taught by teaching assistants. How would we redesign this class, and hundreds of others, to accommodate furlough days? We could hand out lecture notes, pile on the reading and simply tell the students, "Well, we are not going to teach as much as normal, but you are still expected to learn as much. You'll just have to do it on your own."

We know we're not alone. The independent, dues-paying Davis Faculty Association recently asked its 166 members whether the association should support the walkout. Of those who cast ballots, 65.7 percent voted "No." None of us wants these miserable budget conditions and furloughs. We all want to work together next year to impress upon policymakers in Sacramento that deeper education cuts and higher student fees are not the pathways to training California's next generation of leaders and entrepreneurs. They lead to dead ends.

So, would faculty members cutting classes help the cause? Is it something we could justify to the students themselves? The answer is "No."

Jonathan Eisen is a professor of evolution and ecology, and medical microbiology and immunology, at UC Davis.

Winder McConnell is a professor of German at UC Davis and director of its Teaching Resources Center.


  1. If I were a UC Davis student, I'd have to choose between being a conscientious student and going to class, vs. being a conscientious American and demonstrating for my first amendment rights. (I personally am more concerned about the UCs ignoring rights to peaceful assembly than the budget cuts, but that's just my opinion as an outsider.) I think many reasonable students will choose the latter. To be fair to them, maybe the professors could hold optional office hours during class time and not cover any new material.

  2. 1. Since I am not actually supposed to be teaching Monday not sure what I would have done if I had to choose

    2. I completely agree that first amendment rights are more important than one class - but if students want to learn, I think we should teach them. After all, they paid for class ...

    3. I like your idea of optional office hours and not covering new material. I am in fact supposed to have office hours Monday during the rally. I am going to reschedule that - partly so I can go ----

    4. I know many faculty are planning to hold "teach ins" of some kind, possibly during the demonstration - as a replacement for normal classes. This is a bit harder with our class which has 600+ people in two sections ...

  3. Jon,

    When considering at the issue of student fee hikes, please look at the California Master Plan for Higher Education

    From there, I quote:
    3. Reaffirmation of California's long-time commitment to the principle of tuition-free education to residents of the state. However, the 1960 Master Plan did establish the principle that students should pay fees for auxiliary costs like dormitories and recreational facilities.

    The fact that California has strayed far from this goal should be of intense concern to all faculty members and students. The attempt by senior administrators of the UC system to get around the assault by the legislature, on the education system by attempting to convert a STATE University System into de facto a PRIVATE university system is contemptible. The administrators of the UC system should be fighting in Sacramento and DC, and not attempting to apply band aids to the system by increasing the burden on the student and the parents. Student loans to offset the tuition hikes are totally inappropriate.

    The response of the faculty and administrators to the assault on Higher Education by the State legislature should be met by a unified strike on part of the students and faculty.

    The Bottom third of the population has already been totally impoverished by the 1%. It is time for the faculty to show that it cares. The only way IMO that they can show that solidarity is to go on a strike to bring to fruition the goal laid out in the Master Plan.

    If this goal cannot be met, IMO, you will be better off shutting down the State Higher Education System. At least the pretense of having a state system will not be there. And today, the California's State Higher Education System is a shadow of what it once was, and is merely pretending to serve the Public Good!

    I am speaking as one who has availed of the UC system before the decimation of the system started.

  4. Clonal - I get your argument. I will be at the rally/strike myself. But I think it is a complicated issue. The students walking out and striking - that is an individual choice where their decision does not affect others so directly. A faculty member walking out makes a choice for others - and forces the issue upon them. I am not sure that is the right thing to do here.

  5. So far I am one of the people who has been blessed enough to receive generous financial aid and stay safe from loans and the threat of not being able to afford UCD. I am striking on Monday because I am a person who still has the option of sacrificing a day of class to support those who don't anymore.

    For social change to happen I think it is crucial that those who still have their rights (in this case the right to higher education) forgo them in order to contribute to the efforts of the disenfranchised. Not only does this add participants to the movement, but it also urges those who feel they are unaffected by the changes taking place within the university to reevaluate their attitudes.

    So many students are apathetic toward taking action because they can still afford tuition in spite of fee hikes. It is important to show them that they are affected and that they have the privilege and duty of helping their fellow students who are less fortunate.

    I understand that a faculty member's position is different since you have a whole class to respond to. Maybe you could still use the lecture hall as usual but hold a 'teach-in lecture' (maybe on Open Access/Open Science) that is also announced by the General Assembly.

  6. Daniela - I am not lecturing Monday though our class does meet (Brad Shaffer is lecturing). I was already thinking of proposing an "open science' teach-in out on the quad since, well, I do not have to go to class.

    Do you know how one proposes a teach-in?

  7. Jon,

    The issue is not at all complicated. Given the master plan, there is no reason for a state university system to charge fees for educating the residents of a state.

    If you agree that it is acceptable to charge for Higher Education, then why is it not acceptable to charge the parents of each student for primary and secondary education? Why not make primary and secondary education "OPTIONAL" and start charging a hefty fees at that level also. After all attempts have already been made towards that end. The California Voucher initiative would have been a step in that direction while keeping an illusion of public education.

    As I said earlier, why not just end the California State University System and bring the ongoing charade to a stop. I think it is time for for all the faculty and students of the entire state university system to declare a strike. A refusal to pay any tuition fees by the students, and willingness on part of the faculty to continue teaching those students who have not paid the fees (even if this results in drastic pay cuts for the faculty.)

    Such a move would be in the spirit of #OWS, and very likely would produce the impact that is sorely needed today.

  8. To organize a teach-in you should contact Lauren Cockrell : lrcockrell at ucdavis dot edu

    Let me know if I can help with anything else.


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