Friday, September 11, 2009

"Death Panels"

Has push come to shove? Are the gloves coming off?
President Shelton, in his memo of Sept. 9: “Across the board cuts would be the quickest route to mediocrity.”
We agree.
But who are you going to let define “mediocrity”? Meredith Hay?
Has she now clawed her way up to mediocre? By what standards? By what evidence? World-class university provosts are distinguished by their qualities of leadership.
President Shelton in his memo of Sept. 9: “From the very beginning, our commitment as a campus has been to ensure that in these dire financial times we protect and strengthen the University of Arizona's world-class programs. That principle has provided the underpinning for all our budget decisions."
We agree. Who could disagree with protecting world-class programs and, we would add, world-class scholars, even if they’re housed, as is often the case, in programs that may, overall, fall short of world-class.
But who do we let decide what qualifies as world-class, mediocre, and everything in-between?
Shelton and Hay tell us “You decide.” Meaning us. The decisions should be made, we are told, at the level of each academic unit in consultation with its dean.
A Death Panel in every department.
A panel to review the files and say, “This one is terminally mediocre; he has to go.” Or “This one is borderline; we’ll give her a year to show signs of life or we’ll have to pull the plug.”

Horrible idea? Guess what, it’s already in effect. It’s called Annual Performance Review and Post-Tenure Review. The law is there, it just hasn’t been applied.
Don’t ask for peer-review, don’t ask for shared governance, if you’re afraid to use it. Meredith and Gail are not afraid to take over the power we’re afraid to exercise and defend.

Solid, objective assessment standards do exist. We have them in our university-wide guidelines for P&T and annual performance review. Those standards have been worked out with all the clarity, detail and faculty input you could ask for. We just don’t apply them.
Or sometimes we don’t. And sometimes we apply them badly. We find excuses to disqualify standard assessment criteria, or make exceptions, or substitute bogus criteria for real ones. Take the example of Suzie (not her real name).
“Suzie was elected President (by a small clique of mutually-supportive mediocrities) of a prestigious professional society (that no one ever heard of) on the basis of her outstanding research and publications (that no one has read, not even her mom, anymore), published in the most respected venues in her discipline (but which have had no impact on anything—except her career management).
Instead of pulling the plug on Suzie, she gets a promotion, a raise, and eventually maybe a high administrative post.

In contrast, the UA really does have plenty of genuine world-class programs and authentically world-class scholars, measured by authentic standards, the only ones that count – external standards which overlap with the internal ones (referred to above), national and international standards and even the global standards of the ARWU (Academic Ratings of World Universities).
So when they ask for volunteers to the Death Panel in your department, go for it. Just don’t call it a Death Panel – call it a Sustainability Panel, because that’s really what we’re talking about.
After review at the department or program level, files go to the next level up (dean’s-level committees in most cases) where peer-review can be more exacting and more objective.

But wait. What’s wrong with this picture?

Hold on. Before you sign up for service in Sustainability or waste management or whatever you want to call it, we need consistency and reciprocity if this exercise in shared governance is to have credibility and teeth. If Robert Shelton’s and Meredith Hay’s criterion for program “protection” at the UA is world-class quality, then before buying into their plan, we must insist that they, too, submit themselves to the same criteria and the same standards.
And that they provide world-class leadership.
Not the mediocrity of acquiescence papered over and whitewashed, but excellence.
Excellence measured by evidence, results, and positive outcomes.
Positive outcomes means gains, not losses – losses measured in how much you give up, how much you give back, how much you cut.
Cutting is the easy way out. Don’t quibble about differential cuts or cuts across the board; losing is losing.
World-class presidents and provosts are the ones who don’t lose – or who lose the least.

[The views expressed in this post are those of one member of Team Evelyn and do not necessarily represent those of the whole Team.]

PS. This post was written before we saw the opinion piece in the Arizona Star by Regents Professor Oscar Martínez entitled "Poor Leadership, funding is bringing down the UA."
  • Click here for Prof. Martínez's statement.
  • Click here for the Tucson Citizen blog (Renee Schaefer Horton) reporting on that story.
  • Click here for the view of the UA Graduate Student organization "Gradstudents for Change in Arizona.
  • Click here for the Arizona Daily Wildcat update (9/11). Brian Roy and Shain Bergan (Managing editor of the DW) have published a podcast on the "UA's budget crisis, unrest within the faculty, and a vote of 'no confidence' in Shelton and Hay that staff have said may come in the near future."
  • And here for light on the story from the Arizona Desert Lamp, written by Evan Lisull, a UA undergraduate and former columnist for the Arizona Daily Wildcat.
Postscript 9/14. We have been informed that a Faculty Senate colleague, whose opinion we respect, considers the title of this post to be not in the best of taste. As we are not morbid by nature (and though one recent comment refers to "deadwood" and no one doubts that the business at hand is deadly serious), we have added hedge-quotes to our title, in deference to our readers' right to disagree.

Post-postscript 9/15. Evan Lisull has posted a rare photo of an actual UA Death Panel. Read his commentary here.


  1. ARWU rankings are flawed, but is nevertheless probably the strongest global ranking system for academic (especially research) standing (

    Here's how the UA stacked up in 07 in broad disciplinary categories:
    Nat. Sci. - 45
    Soc. Sci. - 51-76
    Clin. Med/Pharm. - 52-75.
    Life Sci. - 74
    Eng. & Comp. Sci. - Not ranked

    Note1: UA does better in ARWU than in US News b/c student retention, GPA/SAT, and reputation are not included.

    Note2: The Arts and Humanities are not ranked by ARUW; the discourse excluding these disciplines is widespread.

    Based on these data, if the transformation was designed to protect the university's world class units, as is claimed by the senior administration, then the social sciences, life sciences, and Medicine should receive about the same amount of support, while the life sciences should be supported at lower levels and engineering/comp. science should be left to the ravages of declining resources.

    This is clearly a simplistic account, but no more simplistic than the one Shelton and Hay presented in the Sept. 9 memo, and perhaps less contradictory. For example, one of the main criteria for supporting colleges and units identified by in the memo was impact/contact with the state's population. It could be argued that education touches the people of the state as least as directly as any other college, yet education was not mentioned in the memo.

    So perhaps these retrenchment decisions (which I admit are necessary) weren't based rational cost/benefit analysis, even by the criteria identified by Shelton and Hay.

    Maybe another theory of retrenchment explains what's happening - that is, perhaps it was simply easiest to cut the social sciences, arts, humanities, et al. because they have less political clout, fewer constituents in key positions, and offered less opposition to initial retrenchment plans, have weaker external allies, and chose not to participate (

    Or, perhaps this was an ideologically driven process where fields close the market, rewarded in prestige economies like ARWU, and dominated by men were a priori privileged over others; the evidence and bloodshed be dammed ( / .

  2. I like this provocative post because it gets at the heart of faculty governance.

    I would say in response to this post and the previous post that faculty governance is dead and has been dead for a long time. I have been here 9 years, so it has been DOA at least that long. An argument in behalf of this statement could go on for pages. On the one hand, I don't really need to make the argument because most of the faculty are living in the details of all that I would cite. They know I am right. But in the 9 years I have been here, money has been spent on this campus, but NOT on faculty and NOT on instruction. We hear the arguments that money has different sources, but we all know that argument only goes so far. Buildings get built, expensive ten million dollars studies are done (science center), the sports complex grows like a malignant tumor, and teaching and instruction wither. The public does not understand this and frankly neither do I.

    There is a two class system among the faculty--a minority of faculty, an extreme minority (and not the people doing all the teaching), benefit from the changes that have taken place. Everyone else is sinking into a swamp. One senior administrator recently said to a professor in my department: Look, if you can get out of here, get out now. A lot of this bad news comes about as a result of the economy, but I have been here 9 years as a professor and things have gotten worse every year.

    Now some would say that in those 9 years the state has cut us back and that we have had to make strategic cuts. I know this is true. But there is no shared governance in terms of where the cuts are made and where the money we do have gets spent. The weakest people-the students and the faculty in SBS, COH and ARTS (half the university!) have gotten screwed out of a voice for years and they know it.

    We all know a handful of people are making these decisions in an authoritarian enviroment and that the faculty senate is totally ineffectual or bought off.

    The only alternative, however unattractive, is to have a union. A lot of faculty have resisted this because of the idea of faculty governance, but the more faculty realize that faculty governance is a sham--the more they realize that most of us are being treated like cattle, the more a union seems like the only way to defend education at this instituion. How long will it take for the faculty to reach the breaking point? Seminars of 2000 students? No raises for 8 years, 10 years? In some ways, why wouldn't the leadership push as far as they can when they can get more ground with little resistance? Too many faculty on this campus are sheep, hiding in their holes protecting themselves, hoping it will blow over or they can retire. When this bull happened at Harvard, the faculty rose up and got rid of the monster. It is no wonder that every faculty member I know who is not about to retire (including deans and yes, our own Meredith Hay) is looking for another job.

  3. Thank you, Francis. Regarding your idea of the faculty rising up to take action, please see Michael's response to Lynn Nadel this afternoon (9/11 at 4:39 pm under "Is Faculty Governance Dead").

  4. Comment 2 above:
    Meredith Hay is looking for another job? Wow! I hope she gets it.

  5. Hello, I want to respond to Anon at the top of the page re: why the humanities, arts and other programs in sbs are targeted for major cuts. As francis said above, these folks are the easiest to pick on. Yes, they do not bring in the money, but also they do not have allies, they do not have clout, and they are relatively undefended (thus, the uadefender).

    I think it is really this simple: the leadership wants to protect big research and big money and the programs that are protected by big money and power. In addition they are creating a bunch of little lectures and administrative dog and pony shows around campus and at the arizona inn to the tune of multiple millions in order to make themselves look good and to try to keep a good face on this mess.

    As Anon said, should teaching our kids to read, write and think be a central part of the university's mission and its service to the state? The answer to that seems obvious. Not, apparently, to this leadership which is destroying the value of education at this institution.

    Just for the heck of it, I decided to make a quick list of things that, it seems to me, are not or should not be CENTRAL TO THE MISSION OF THIS STATE UNIVERSITY based on these criteria: educate our children, develop important research, and keep the university afloat financially:

    Big Sports: I don't care if they support themselves. What about charging ten percent of every donation from misguided morons giving money to the new stadium. How can they do that when we are turning out the lights on teaching? We could use that money to save our kids?

    UA South: This operation costs TONS of money and they cannot even fill their classes. They only exist because of some back room deals with people in power who want it there. In our department at the UA we have to tell our kids that not only do their dollars go to subsidize UA South but if they want the courses they need they will have to drive a couple hours south to get them.

    Science Center: Please, great idea, but please, please, no more buildings you can brag about but can't afford to fill with employees! This thing has already sucked up millions upon millions of dollars.

    Local advertising: All the billboards and etc trying to recruit local students claiming things like we invented Pima cotton? Do people think this actually helps anything or gets people to come here?

    All the minions and VPs hired to be in charge of operations like the one described above. One day on campus last spring I watched a UA film crew follow these kids on skateboards. I have a friend who works with the crew, and she told me that the guy in charge of this operation, her boss, made about 175 thousand a year. He had a boss who made more. In this case the whole video crew spent four hours and who knows how many thousands of dollars so they could put this kid and his skateboard on YouTube for what purpose exactly? Promote the university.

    Like the rest of corporate america, the idea here is to suck the quality out of the product by spending the resources on promoting the quality that no longer exists! Sound familiar?

    --I would venture that given the long term decline of the university, we never should have invested in that medical school operation which is not even in our city. Of course, that is complicated, but if we can't put teachers in front of our students, how was that a good idea? And we were in trouble already when that decision was made.

    These are just some of the obvious things to me.

  6. Here is another way of looking at our situation: if we are in such bad shape that we are cutting SBS COH and Arts by 7% after years and years of cuts so that we will be firing teachers and closing down classes and significantly downgrading the quality of education, then we are in a REAL financial crisis and the leadership should start acting as if we are. Let's take the furloughs, let's take the phones out of professors' offices, let's cancel all travel funds, let's turn down the AC, let's shut down the junkets and start, in a number of other ways, to come together and act like it is a crisis--act together for the purpose of protecting the quality of education (and yes, research, too) at this university that many of us care about. I don't want to take another job and go somewhere else. But this leadership is not bringing us together in the spirit of sacrifice and vision. They are dividing and demoralizing most people and making them want to be somewhere else.

    Many years ago the University of Michigan faced a similar crisis. They had been relying on state dollars and then realized they had to become self reliant. The leadership at that time laid out a vision for making a better stronger university. In the spirit of shared governance and sacrifice they moved forward to become one of the best public universities in the nation--they now take about 7% of their budget from the state, if I am correct, so they are free of the whackos. Clearly, that is what we need to do, but we need strong uniting leadership to move there without tearing us to pieces or driving every decent professor to another university.

    In many ways Shelton is stating what needs to be done (and I have always liked the man), but it is like watching John Kerry run for president! These dry official statements that role out do not do it, especially when combined with the authoritarian methods of Meredith Hay and her bullies. It is toxic and the wrong way to go about this.

  7. To all those who read the previous comment, This Bud's for you!

  8. Death Panels: I have thought a lot about this idea of having departments and colleges root out their unproductive professors in order to make them teach more. Quite frankly, it will not work and it is poor idea. I should be more specific: it will not produce the desired results. Here is why: 1) there are just not that many unproductive (lazy) professors around anymore. Most of the ones I have encountered are very near retirement, so if we do pick on them they will likely retire right away or within a few years. Consequently, we will not suddenly be able to teach more than a few extra classes each semester with the resources we have. 2) The internal witch hunt will tear the colleges and departments to pieces. Go up to the post on death panels above and read about Suzie. I know for a fact that there just are not that many Suzie professors out there. The cost of making a few of them teach 1 or 2 more classes a year will be enormous to the morale of the faculty, and not worth it in terms of the efficiency that might be gained. How can I dismiss the idea of differential teaching loads based on productivity ? Because, as I said, we only realize gains of a few classes a semester.

    The plan, as conceived by the central administration, for us to set up our own death panels, does have an obvious motive on their part. We have seen this motive in almost everything they have done: Meredith Hay wants the departments and colleges to turn on themselves rather than turn on her and the central administration. Then they can more easily manipulate things: it is crowd control 101. I would contradict what the Death Panel comment said above: Meredith and Burd ARE afraid to take over the responsibility of the death panels because if they did the ire of the faculty would focus on them more than it already has, people would unite more than they have, and we would find ways of resisting a common threat. If they were not afraid, they would not have to act like bullies, by the way.

    We should not take the dagger from the central administration and turn on ourselves. The professor we suspect of working ten hours a week less than the rest of us is not the enemy, and seeking out and punishing that person is not the solution. If a professor is horribly negligent, let us deal with them through post tenure review, but we cannot go to a place where we are all looking over our shoulders and peeking around corners to see who is working enough. Let us stand together and force the people who have cooked up these misguided witch hunts to hold the knife themselves. If we stand together, I doubt they will have the power to use it.

  9. "Grimreaper" makes some good points, and is probably right in saying that we should not internalize the Constant-Threat approach (the Hay-Burd approach); rather, we should reject the scare tactics of overly-stringent readings of assessment guidelines and not turn them against ourselves and each other. So - I was just about to write "so this is probably true" when I realized that it is totally true, and my hesitation is just a symptom of how much I have allowed myself to be brainwashed by those people who have actually made me believe that enough is never enough. And that makes me very angry.

  10. Death Panels: The whole death panel thing was put to me this way by one of the people who cooked it up: we either 1) accept it and do it to ourselves 2) let the admin do it to us or 3) we will end up with adjuncts teaching all the classes.

    Like grimreaper and Melissa, I will not participate in number 1. And, as grimreaper says above, the whole idea is a bad idea. My discussions with certain admin people who are promoting it only confirm that it will not work. There is only one way in post tenure review to evaluate the value of a professor's research and that is through peer review by people in the same field. Death Pale person in the original post above suggests that reviewers at higher levels -- the dean's level-- will be more objective. Maybe when it comes to P and T, where you have outside letters from PEER REVIEWERS, but not in the yearly APR, which has always been done by peers in the department. There is only one practical way to continue the APR and that is through peer review in the departments. You could tighten those up a little, but not enough, as grimreaper says, to produce more SCH/FTE in each unit. The only way it would work is if you spare 2-3 people out of a 10 professor unit and say to those three people: your research is the most valuable than the other 7 people--we will protect you. Yeah, that's not going to work. It would, however, have the effect Meredith HAy desires: our ire would be focused on our peers and not on her.

    And in terms of "letting them do it to us." I would like to see the Provost Office try to evaluate someone from sculpture or dance--give me a break. Again, some professors might not be towing their load, but there are not many of them, and so it will just turn into a ridiculous witch hunt.

    They will just have to impose across the board teaching load increases or hire a bizillion adjuncts. What are we trying to save through the death panel/witch hunt process? The quality of instruction, the integrity of research, the quality of our jobs? Under any of these criteria, I argue we would be better off going for the across the board increases or adjuncts rather than witch hunting ourselves. At the very least, with increased teaching loads or adjunct hires, the administration will have to take responsibility for the underfunding that resulted in those decisions. I would prefer that rather than becoming suspicious of or resentful of other professors in my department, which would be the only result of death panels.

  11. The posters so far are lucky people, having no deadwood or only about-to-retire deadwood in their departments. I'm in a department with one certifiable deadwood who's a tenured Associate Professor. Several other faculty in the same department reduce their teaching or research or service loads in cleverer ways. My point is it's not that hard to find people pulling in decent salaries and outputting very little of value to the university's central mission. I think we DO need to look at ourselves more critically. As workers in this country, we are fortunate. And I think we sometimes forget that. Lest readers interpret my call for self-evaluation as approval of Hay's tactics, it is not. I'd like instead to see us hone those annual reviews. They're better now than they were some years ago. But they have a long way to go, and we should be cautious about rejecting self-evaluation out of hand.

  12. well, death panels are a bad idea but it is true that deadwood is all over campus making way too much money... the other problem with post-tenure review etc is that the deans and heads do not enforce it when they should... in many cases heads simply don't give a damn, or they "protect" the deadwood because the deadwood (in particular at the very senior level) protects the head when needed... so it does become a vicious circle... I can give you a few examples in a couple of colleges of folks that make you wonder what is X or Y doing in a research 1 university? what do they do besides patroling the halls? what do they publish?(not a whole lot) what do they teach/ (the same old obsolete courses, using the same 20 year-old syllabi from the Pleistocene epoch) and yet this Quaternary folks make a lot more than younger folks working away...
    so mydeadbody et al refuse to participate in this as a process, but wouldn't they agree that these folks (deadwood) are also part of the problem we face?
    I hope they do...

  13. Some of the wood (both dead and alive) is making a lot of money. I learned some years ago that department and program heads here can elect, when they return to being regular faculty, to return the salary increase they got while in administrative positions ... or not. Amazing! At other institutions, there's no choice. It's my understanding that the typical arrangement leaves some portion of the increase with the person who does indeed have value added because of the administrative work, but not all. That is, most of the salary increase goes back into the pot. Not here! Isn't that nutty? We could save money by changing THAT policy, and some our deadwood would be earning less too. Two flies with one flick!