Wednesday, July 7, 2010

What the heck happened to the English Department?

Dr. Brenda Aghahowa has allowed me to post her letter to the faculty of the English, Communications,Media&Theatre Department on CEO Watson's disregard of unanimous faculty support for her election as department chair. She outlines and contextualizes in strong language the reasons for this namely: retaliation compounded by weak and "powerless" administrators.

Before we permit the furtherance of an imperial (and imperious), not to mention corporatized, presidency at CSU, I hope our faculty contract negotiators will take notice of the need to have real, not sham, shared governance embedded into the contract they are negotiating this summer. If a faculty's voice is not even "granted" consideration on the department level, then university governance is broken. The current view that on every university decision "faculty are advisory only" must come to an end. This is imperative especially if senior administrators, deans and higher, are going to be mere bobbleheads to the executive authority on campus.

Dr. Aghahowa's letter follows.

To: All Faculty in English, Communications, Media Arts and Theatre
From: Dr. Brenda Eatman Aghahowa
Department Chairperson
Re: New Direction for the Department
Date: Wednesday, June 30, 2010

It is with mixed emotions that I share momentous news for our department. As I expected (and predicted during recent department meetings), the University President, Dr. Wayne D. Watson, has asked me to step down as Department Chairperson. As a tenured faculty member, I am entitled to return to the classroom, and that is what I will do after August 16th. I pledge to perform my duties with the same characteristic diligence and warmth.

As background, I received what appeared to be a cold, form letter in the U.S. mail at home in early June. The letter acknowledged the recommendations of our department faculty and of the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences that I continue serving for another three-year term. Nevertheless, he stated, he has decided to set aside those recommendations so that he can go in a “new direction,” with the leadership of the department, as he put it. For the record, during the Department Chairperson’s Election held in April, the vote by eligible, tenured and tenure-track (Unit A) English and Communications faculty was ten yes, zero nay, and one abstention – a strong mandate from voting faculty that I continue. No one ran against me. As someone I know would say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t break it.”

Both the Dean’s recommendation and the department’s vote indicating that I should serve another three years are in writing and easily documented by both CAS Dean Dr. Rachel W. Lindsey and Dr. Forrest Hazard (our most senior English faculty member and the one prescribed by our by-laws as the person who should supervise the Department Chair election process). There would have been an eleventh “yes” vote, but Prof. Haki Madhubuti (who was unjustly forced into early retirement by the President and now has landed a plum position at Depaul University) was unable to vote. This is because our by-laws state that only continuing faculty members may vote for the Chair. Baba Haki, as many of us affectionately call him, was present during the meeting, however, and spoke kind and compelling words to support my bid to serve another term.
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New Department Chairperson; What the President’s Decision RepresentsNevertheless, the President has decided to totally disregard the informed input of relevant parties, as well as the customary University process for Chair elections (this appears to be his usual M.O. with regard to many decisions he makes here at the University), and to appoint our television production faculty member, Dr. Christine List, as the new Chairperson. While Chris and I have had a warm working relationship over many years, and I expect that that will continue, there are no words that adequately describe the sheer idiocy, poor administrative judgment, vindictiveness, and retaliation that this decision represents.

Here’s why I say that. With the resignation of Prof. Artisia Green of Theatre and the Fall Semester maternity leave of Prof. Kamesha Khan in Theatre, there now remains in the CMAT division of our department only one tenured faculty member (Prof. Songodina Ifatunji), one full-time Unit B Lecturer (Prof. Marilyn Olson), and several part-time adjuncts and a few studio production staff, this during what is a critical time of transition. I do not know who the new Coordinator of CMAT will be and the last I heard, new hiring had been frozen here at the University. During the Spring Semester, persons were interviewed and selected by our department’s Search Committee to fill two CMAT vacancies. Those persons are desperately needed. Of note, the President has instituted a new initiative that will bring Kennedy-King College (KKC) students to CSU’s campus to use our teaching TV studio while our CMAT TV specialists will use the KKC state-of-the-art television studio for classes. On the surface, that is a great idea, but not so if there are inadequate numbers of faculty to cope with all the new KKC students we anticipate. This influx of KKC students obviously will place additional demands on CMAT faculty and facilities, and on the department in general. Unless those who have been interviewed and recommended to the CAS Dean ultimately are hired, there will be complete chaos in CMAT.

Clearly, though, English is the leading division within ECMAT. Even after personnel changes I anticipate this fall (related to possible terminations I am not at liberty to discuss, the departure of Prof. Sterling Plumpp, who will no longer be compensated for his contribution to the Gwendolyn Brooks Center, and the retirement of Dr. Jacqueline Imani Bryant, who is moving to Texas to be closer to her parents and to accept a Visiting Professorship), there will remain at least seven full-time English tenured and tenure-track faculty and roughly twenty full-time Unit B lecturers and part-time adjuncts. Prof. Quraysh Ali Lansana, a tenured faculty member who directs CSU’s Gwendolyn Brooks Center for Black Literature and Creative Writing, also serves as faculty support for our MFA Program in Creative Writing.

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Further, English is the department that supports the entire campus by providing basic composi-tion and writing courses for all students in all majors. Our department (ECMAT), which also serves the entire campus with its basic public speaking courses, possibly has the highest credit-hour production of any department on campus. Only Math and Psychology might be higher in credit-hour production.

Yet, the person selected to lead the department is a television and communications specialist. This is not to bash Chris, who is caught in the middle here and is well respected in her own field. Leadership of what is essentially an English department, however, requires a Chair with serious scholarly background in at least one of the following areas: rhetoric, composition theory, American Literature, British Literature, European Literature/World Masterpieces, Third World Literature, African American Literature, Literary Criticism, English Education, Linguistics, Print Journalism or any other specialties taught within English. While Chris’ leadership of the CMAT division has been commendable, it does not in my view provide her the administrative background that would lend itself to efficient and effective supervision of the day-to-day operations of a department of this size. The tasks of crisis troubleshooting and course scheduling for CSU students in every major are challenging even for a seasoned English Chair, let alone someone from outside the department’s primary discipline.

The President does not seem to have the department’s (or CSU students’) best interests at heart. If he really had pure motives for going in a new direction and for failing to honor the recommendations of the department’s faculty and of the CAS Dean, he would have taken one of the following options: 1) selected another CSU tenured English faculty member with the requisite administrative and people skills for the job or 2) selected someone from the outside with the relevant scholarly and administrative background. While I seriously doubt that any CSU tenured English faculty members would have taken the position if it had been offered to them, given the questionable circumstances of vindictiveness involved, I must state (with no offense intended to Chris) that many of these tenured English faculty members would have made a far better choice for Chair, given program need of what is largely an English department. Given the following considerations (i.e., that I have made it crystal clear to both Dean Lindsey and to Chris that I will not participate in my own victimization by training my former subordinate, and also that they are on their own to develop their own “new direction,” since my direction of the department was not appreciated), the President’s decision is a recipe for disaster.

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As was the President’s decision to force out Prof. Madhubuti (because this eminent faculty member had written an open letter to the Chicago community justifiably decrying the bogus selection process by which Watson was forced upon this campus), this latest decision was made out of vindictiveness and retaliation. It was designed to hurt and humiliate the Chairperson who has supported Prof. Madhubuti unfailingly and unflinchingly, and who has given gracious but strong push-back, as it were, during these initial months of the President’s tenure on a variety of issues and proposed initiatives that would adversely impact our department and the University’s students at large. As best as I can tell, Watson has no real experience running a four-year university, and it shows. At least CSU’s former President, Dr. Elnora D. Daniel, whom I dearly love and respect, had been second in command at the prestigious four-year school from which she came, Hampton University. In my judgment, she had far more administrative skill and a far more personable approach with people. Without question, she made many stellar accomplish-ments while leading Chicago State University. Consider, for example, the opening of the Jones Convocation Center and of the New Academic Library, both of which were constructed on her watch.

For the past 13 years, I have represented the university well in a variety of venues, including the Oxford Round Table in England, as I have pursued diligent and significant scholarly work, scholarship related primarily to the oratory of the late Texas Congresswoman Barbara Charline Jordan. (As all of you may recall, the related book, Grace Under Fire: Barbara Jordan’s Rhetoric of Watergate, Patriotism, and Equality, was just pre-released by Chicago’s Third World Press in April of this year during CSU’s 20th Annual Gwendolyn Brooks Black Writers’ Conference. A splashy, full release will be made in the fall.) For the past six years, by various objective measures, I have served capably and caringly as a Department Chairperson. To the best of my ability, I have tried to carry out my multi-faceted responsibilities in a manner that respects the dignity of each student, faculty member, staffer, parent, and campus visitor with whom I have interacted. Yet, the letter I received in the mail seemed to send this message: “Step down, shut up, and train your former subordinate while you’re at it.”

As one CSU colleague aptly noted, no one had the “testicular fortitude or the ovarian fortitude” to meet with me face to face about the decision – not the President, not the Provost (Dr. Sandra Westbrooks), not the Contract Administrator (Dr. Debrah Jefferson), and not our CAS Dean, who may or may not have even known about the decision, given how things have gone since the new President began his work here last October.

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Unfortunately, Deans on this campus (as well as other key administrators who generally are quite close to retirement age) seem to have been reduced to powerless pawns in this whole pitiful mess that we have on campus right now. They just simply cannot afford to make any real waves lest they lose their jobs and their livelihoods at this late stage in their careers. Their gentle suggestions, for instance, that there are too many new initiatives being established on campus all at once, have fallen on the President’s deaf ears and gone unheeded. It seems that, at the end of his five-year contract, the President wants to be able to point to an inordinate number of new initiatives he established and directed, regardless of the cost in stress and burn-out to those in the trenches who actually have to make those initiatives work while he is attempting so self-actualize.

I am no psychologist, but I do have some certification in pastoral care and counseling, and I know that there is only so much change that the human spirit can absorb all at once. In many cases, CSU faculty and staff have simply shut down emotionally and professionally, refusing to engage in any substantive or lasting productivity. Let many tell it, they are doing the least that they can get away with while biding their time either until retirement or until they can find something better. This is no way to run a university – creating a climate in which people are not inspired to do their best, but rather are intimidated and burned out into doing their least.

Everyone agrees that since Watson came, our campus is now permeated with an atmosphere that is charged by fear and intimidation. He came in creating fear by denying approval of sabbaticals and research compensation CUEs (cost-cutting measures, he said), and by denying some faculty members tenure and retention, for frivolous reasons in some cases. Obviously, some of us do not scare easily (or at all) because we are spiritually clear about who ultimately is in charge of our lives and of our futures, and (news flash!) it is not Wayne Watson or any other human person. Whatever happens, my Christian life experience has taught me that I will land on my feet firmly and successfully, and that whatever comes after a transition of this type will be infinitely better than what preceded it.

The low morale on campus, troubles me, though. The poisonous and unhealthy atmosphere here at CSU has led one CSU colleague, who shall remain nameless, to dub our school, “Coon State University,” meaning that CSU has become a professional plantation (one, in this case, with a Black slave master who behaves in a manner that is dictatorial and tyrannical). The person expresses the feeling of countless administrators, faculty, and staff on campus who feel CSU has become a plantation where “slaves” can only survive if they act like step-and-fetch-its, continually saying, “Yassuh, massuh,” to everything Watson says or proposes. God help Chris if

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she ever has to disagree strongly with the President on any issue of importance to English or CMAT faculty.

The Future (The Department’s and Mine)
As I say, I am not certain what the future holds for our department since the new Chair has no real background that prepares her to serve as lead administrator for what is undeniably the most important department on campus, and as the lead person of what is essentially an English Department with a communications and theatre division. Given the personnel changes that likely will occur in English this fall, everyone needs to expect many schedule changes as the fall approaches.

At present, there are many uncovered sections of classes for many reasons. After learning from higher administration who is allowed to return, I normally would spend all of mid July through mid August, carefully handling the intricate, painstaking, detailed work involved with ensuring that each and every English class will be covered by a faculty member on the first day of class. Prof. Mary Ann Ryan, the department’s former(?) scheduling assistant (who is ABD in British Literature and expecting to finish her dissertation this coming academic year) then would ably collaborate with me in finalizing the schedule during Registration Week in August. None of this will occur, this summer, of course. It is likely that neither of us will be involved with course scheduling going forward.

Mary Ann likely will not be involved first of all because it is summer and she is not required to be on campus again until the week of August 16th, but more importantly because the University’s Contract Administrator, citing the University’s financial trouble, has removed CUEs (compensation) for various coordinator positions from all departments. It is unclear at this moment whether or not Mary Ann will return as sour cheduling assistant. If the CUEs we have requested for her to serve in this capacity ultimately are not approved, this will mean that Mary Ann, who is especially skilled and knowledgeable with respect to the handling of course scheduling (scheduling related to the more than 130 sections of classes our English department offers each long semester), effectively and unfairly will have been fired from that job. As the Dean and Chris work to finalize the schedule in early August (doing so, in all likelihood, without the benefit of input from those of us who really know English scheduling), I sincerely hope that the result will be that each section will be covered with an instructor on the first day of class so that students will not be sitting in classrooms without teachers.

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My second, three-year-term ends today (June 30th), and Dr. List does not begin as the new Chair until August 1st. Dr. List will handle emergency ECMAT business only, while completing a book she is writing at home. (Congrats on the book, Chris!) While the Chair’s duties will not be totally uncovered, this means there will be no Chair in place in the office on a day-to-day basis for the entire month of July, a questionable customer service move on the University’s part. It seems to me that for whatever length of time relevant parties have known that I was going to be asked to step down as Chair, that is the same length of time they should have been training someone to handle the ECMAT Chair’s responsibilities on a day-to-day basis during July and beyond.

While I am unhappy about the possible fate of the department, I am happy for myself. Do not cry or feel sorry for me. While I would not have made the decision myself to step down as Chair at this critical juncture in the department’s life (especially not with NCATE/NCA accreditation visits so close upon us), and while I would have preferred to have continued to serve as a strong voice of advocacy for our individual and collective interests, now that the decision has been made for me, I am at peace. I know I must expose the injustice I have suffered, this in order to help ensure that the same thing does not happen in quite this way to anyone else at CSU in the future, but the decision to have me return to the classroom is answered prayer.

If I may put on my other hat of ordained minister and pastor for a moment, I must confess that I have been praying for some time about the overall quality of my life. Due to CSU’s poor leadership at the top, administrative jobs like that of Chairperson (i.e., middle management positions that involve a great deal of responsibility but that afford no real authority to get anything done) force one to live one’s life out of balance, force one to have to squeeze out limited amounts of time for the things that are truly important in life because of the enormous of amount of time that is required by the position. It has been my experience that the working conditions of CSU administrators often are inhumane. For instance, the person who wants to use his or her accrued vacation time is frowned on and receives flak if that well-deserved and much-needed time off is taken during a period that makes sense personally but represents bad timing for the institution’s needs. Some in CSU’s higher administration act as if it is supposed to be “normal” or routine to forfeit and/or forego vacation time.

Ask me sometime about what happened and what was said this past February when I used well-earned and much-needed vacation time to take a combination personal business/pleasure trip to the Miami-Ft. Lauderdale area during Super Bowl Week. (Lord, have mercy!) CSU admini-

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strators constantly are bothered with telephone calls from the University and must take their laptops to handle projects while on what is ostensibly vacation. In my view, outside of a job as the U.S. President or as a physician, there is no job that should require one to be on call or available 24/7. Balance and undisturbed rest are absolutely necessary for any individual’s (including a U.S. President’s or medical doctor’s) physical and emotional well-being, and for the leading of a happy and fulfilled life. The person who is on vacation should really be on vacation and have total rest of mind and spirit from anything work related. This is a pastor speaking, of course, but I suspect that credentialed psychologists and many other relevant professionals would agree. I suspect that many of you who are reading this would agree.

For about two years now (and especially since Dr. Watson was brought to the campus last fall as its lead executive by a Board of Trustees’ process that was corrupt), I have been asking God to help me re-design my life so that I might daily honor these priorities, in this order: God first, family second, then work, church, and everything and everybody else after that. Well, as I often jokingly say to friends and church members, “Be careful what you pray for because you just might get it!” 

By allowing this transition from administration back to the classroom, God has freed me up to shape my life in the way that I believe will best honor God and in a way that I desire. In my holy imagination, I hear the voice of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. intoning, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, [I am] free at last!” Hallelujah! The transition has freed me to create a life of balance – one that will involve far fewer hours related to work, far fewer headaches connected with work, and also the time, energy, and flexibility of scheduling to pursue interests and activities that are far more lucrative and far more fulfilling than all the three-hour administrative meetings and the endless report writing that go with the job of Department Chairperson. While on the surface, the return to the classroom represents a 25 percent cut in my salary (because I will be paid for nine months and not twelve), in actuality it represents the potential for a major increase in pay as I use my valuable skill set as an editorial consultant and grant writer during my expanded spare time. From a spiritual, biblical perspective, Joseph of the Old Testament said it best: What Satan meant for harm, God has used for good in my life as a spiritually mature believer. In short, the whole situation is, again, actually a blessing in disguise.

Thanks for All of the Great Years; Let’s Stay Connected
I apologize for the length of this communication, but it is my last magnum opus, as it were, to my beloved faculty after many terrific years of pursuing the department’s interests and goals together as a team. I know that I am well within my American, First Amendment rights of free
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speech to say whatever I want to say to my faculty members and colleagues as I exit the Chair’s position, and to take my time and be thorough in doing so. Please forgive any type-os or other glitches that may appear here. I have re-read this memo several times, and we who are English educators and experienced proofreaders and editors know what that means (i.e., after awhile it is difficult to see the errors, if any).

As I pen these last words, memories of countless wonderful moments flood my mind. There are mental images of morale-building events and parties I spearheaded over the years related to retirements, the Christmas holidays, and the end of the academic year, for instance. (Even show my Director of Composition, clerical assistants, and student aides appreciation and, as I later learned, they had been “plotting” to surprise me and show me appreciation as well. I have been blessed with a fantastic team of faculty, staff, and student workers these past six years. What a group! You’re the best! I thank each and every one of you profusely, and I also thank God! At first when I mentioned the idea of a party, those in the office said that they did not feel much like celebrating under the circumstances, and I certainly understand that. In the end, however, we had one heck of a blow-out celebration yesterday, one that also included many persons who work in the Science Building but not in our specific department.

As I look back over the years, in my mind’s eye I see myself at the church funerals and home repasts of faculty members who have lost parents or other loved ones since July 2004. Mentally, I see myself in the department’s outer office and corridors, bending over strollers, cooing into the faces of many precious and cute-as-a-button infants (some of them twins!) – little ones who are the children and grandchildren of faculty members and students. I see myself, in spite of the crush of paperwork and meetings, taking the time to helpfully counsel and encourage students who have wanted to give up on the University (because of all the red tape and all the run-around they have experienced). Certainly, I see myself taking the time to tap on staff and faculty members’ doors and pop my head into their offices to ask with genuine interest how that conference presentation in California was received or how the dissertation work is coming along or how the family reunion in Georgia went or how that exotic vacation in the Caribbean (or wherever) was enjoyed.

I know that as God considers not only the administrative effort and skill I have invested in my work as Chair, but also the love I have invested (and sometimes it had to be tough love), God stands in heaven saying, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant. You have been faithful in a few things. I will make you ruler over much.” God also stands ready to execute whatever judgment and justice are required by the injustice I have suffered. As I pray the whole thing

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through, I am clear that God’s direction to me to refusel to participate in my own victimization is part of that justice, and that such refusal constitutes God-directed civil disobedience, with which the Bible is filled, of course. Obviously, the Christian’s role model for life practice, Jesus Christ Himself, was the number one rabble rouser in the Bible. 

I have no idea what God fully intends as consequences for the adverse and unfair actions that have been taken against me. God’s Spirit has directed me to simply speak out to help others, to step back and do nothing other than that to vindicate myself, and then to watch God’s justice and vengeance unfold. I can do that. I am spiritually strong enough to follow the Spirit’s lead in this regard, and I will do that. I get the sense that the persons who are responsible for this action have been running roughshod over people for many years with impunity, but they picked on the wrong one this time. God has allowed the rope with which they will hang themselves to become very long.

While I no longer will be leading the department’s parties (if any) or signing off on Travel Authorizations and Vacation Requests, all of you who are part of my CSU family still can expect me as your colleague to share in your life struggles and celebrations to the greatest extent possible. It has been my distinct privilege and pleasure to serve as your Department Chairperson and “adopted” family member these past six years. Let’s stay connected! See you around the campus and around the classroom buildings. Blessings!

Friday, July 2, 2010

Another take on shared governance

So let me own my bias up front about how organizations function. When I was in the military, the core function of each service is its combat arms units. In the Air Force, there were airplanes, missiles and space operators. They made up a small portion of the service. The larger portion was the support functions; administration, personnel, supply, transportation, etc. I bring that experience into my understanding of all organizations. There is a core activity and a group or people responsible for that core activity. The rest of the people in the organization are there to support that activity and those people.
In academe, the core activity is the academic function. Everything else is support. This doesn’t make one more important than the others. I realize in our modern world of ‘don’t hurt anyone’s self esteem’ everyone is important. Importance and spatial relationships are separate issues. Conflation of those two issues misrepresents my point. If those in support are not supportive, it is likely that either they don’t understand the concept of the core activity or are so arrogant they believe they are the core activity. From an outsider’s perspective it seems as if the perpetual meetings and reports and committees are used as justification for the importance of the support function. Instead of asking those being supported how best to support them, educational administrators plod along often without regard to the core activity or the impact of their behavior on that core function. There is a process in the Academy whereby those at the center and those on the periphery work together to support the mission of the institution. That process is called shared governance. It isn’t about who makes decisions. Quite frankly, I don’t want to make administrative decisions and I will if it is too difficult for those administrators to collaborate with faculty to reach a sound outcome. Many administrators I have had conversations with seem to believe there is an inability of faculty to perform administrative functions. This may be the result of the professionalization of higher education administration. It is actually reversed. Unless an administrator has some disciplinary expertise and the credentials of a terminal degree, they can’t do my job. I most certainly can learn in a short period of time to do their job. Instead of focusing on who is better positioned to do someone else’s job, shared governance is about there being full disclosure and participation by the core with the periphery; with those who execute the mission and those who support them.
Rather than viewing the core as obstructionists or cats in need of herding, they (we) could be viewed as vital to the healthy functioning of the university. That would include having conversations at the front end of an idea, not 8 months later e.g. Senior Thesis. That would include putting requests in writing and creating a paper trail to prevent misunderstandings. Most academics I have worked with have very orderly minds and work better when things are thought through. They work less effectively with ill-conceived or unprepared ideas. Ideas that do not pass muster of the intellectual rigor of academics are likely to be unsound ideas and should be dismissed out of hand.
Formal communication could alleviate those challenges and allow fuller participation in the life of the institution. I find it strange that our university would still be pursuing a West Side campus when the faculty have not weighed in, been heard and been responded to about their concerns. It appears to be administrative hubris once again, believing that administration is the core function that is to be supported by everyone else.
As an intellectual construction, shared governance is an excellent and meaningful tool and process. In practice it is like a relationship. It takes work, commitment and communication to be successful. We haven’t quite mastered it here at CSU and until we do, we will never accomplish what we otherwise could.