On Riffraff

Dear Coach Creighton,

I don’t think we’ve met, not in person. I sent you a welcome to EMU email a few years ago when you accepted the position of head football coach, noting that I remembered you from your time in the early 2000s at Ottawa University (Kansas) because I was in Kansas City, working as NAIA Region V information officer, among other things.

I’m faculty at EMU now, where I’ve worked since 2009 and where I am beginning my fourth year as Director of the First-year Writing Program. It’s a large program, one of the largest cohesive academic programs insofar as we are responsible for curriculum and staffing of over 150 sections of WRTG120 and WRTG121 per year, sections that reach approximately 3,000 EMU students each year.

Early this morning I read about your media day press conference. Here’s the article: Eastern Michigan football survives rumors, with plans for progress. And then I went on a run, just a few miles around the neighborhood where I live three miles from campus. It was a great morning for a run; there is much to love about living in this area and about working at EMU.

As I ran, though, I was nagged by something you said on media day, something that was quoted in the Free Press article. For context, here’s the longer section where it appeared:

Athletic director Heather Lyke has broached the situation with open arms, fielding questions from concerned students and alumni, as has former interim President Donald Loppnow, current President James Smith and the Regents.

But Creighton said support from alumni and former players has been even better.

“It’s been the response to the riffraff in April from alumni that has been awesome,” he said. “People love this school and people love this football program.

“Guys put four, five years into playing college football. There’s life changing values, lessons, teammates, discipline, commitment, teamwork, overcoming adversity — it changes you.”

When you referred to “riffraff,” it comes as a poke, a finger in the chest of people like me, my colleagues, the students we work with. I want you to know I read it as such: a jab, an unkind instigation. When you say “riffraff,” it seems like you are referring to people who participated in campus dialogue in April about EMU’s subsidizing athletics at the university with 26 million dollars annually from the General Fund. In those dialogues, students expressed surprise at more than 10% of their tuition dollars underwriting athletics. And many faculty voiced concerns about that level of spending–what appears to many to be an unchecked and unquestioned rate of expenditure, calling questions of whether it is ethical, much less sustainable at a modest regional, public university like ours. Twenty-six million dollars a year is $500,000 per week. Not many universities–even the wealthiest–can afford to spend that kind of money for long.

Riffraff names “undesirable” people. It is a pejorative term, akin to name calling. Are we really riffraff for speaking openly and freely about what concerns us at the university? Maybe you would be willing to say more about who you are referring to? I hesitate–with great concern–to think you are talking about others whose work at EMU directly relates to teaching and to supporting student academically, or to the students themselves.

I’ll spare you idealistic platitudes about how open dialogue is vital to our institutional mission, or about the importance of noticing when some units at the university, such as yours, are supported by resources that far and away exceed units like the one I am responsible for. For perspective, consider this. The tuition dollars from the First-year Writing Program generate approximately 2.7 million USD per year for the General Fund. With last year’s 7.8% tuition hike, credit hours in this program alone brought an additional $260,000 to the university. We had a budget of approximately $15,200, which underwrites things like pizza lunches, the biannual Celebration of Student Writing, and $50 stipends for all in the program who attend a full-day professional development workshop in mid-August, our only such event of the year. We underspent that $15,200 by more than 25%, which is to say with a modest measure of pride that we are a frugal program and that we have been resourceful. Our new graduate assistants–there are thirteen this fall who will be teaching WRTG120, which some of your football student-athletes very well may be enrolled in–spend two weeks on campus in August without any compensation for their time besides parking vouchers and lunches for one week donated by a textbook publisher. And even though every section is full this fall, even though our program is nationally recognized as thoughtfully designed and even innovative, we just learned that we may be facing a 54% budget cut for the year ahead due to flawed budgetary projects. Granted, the current budget situation affects all of EMU (doesn’t it? I’m not sure whether you are hearing about 54% budget cuts in your program this year). And it points to only a tiny sliver of all we might say about how the expenditures and investments disfavor academic units, generally.

This message has already gone on too long, and although there are myriad other examples, illustrations, and anecdotes to point out, about our part-time lecturers not being paid until after a full month of classes, about how poorly paid are our graduate assistants who are entrusted with full responsibility for teaching classes, about aging technology infrastructure and declining support for the maintenance and refresh of the one laptop cart shared by our entire program–what I set out to convey to you, above all, amounts to two points.

First, I hope you’ll reconsider your characterization of those who are bold enough to call the question of EMU’s athletic spending as “riffraff.” Your program is the beneficiary of considerable institutional support, and as such, a degree of modesty and self-awareness would go a long way to improving goodwill. As a former student-athlete myself and as someone who worked in athletics administration at another university for seven years, I tend to be in support of athletics and all that it can offer. But this is incredibly difficult to do at EMU when what we see is a kind of spending-be-damned hubris. Whatever else can be said about the strengths and limitations of the programs we are responsible for, if we are colleagues, and if our respective goals are commensurable, then we need to do better than to name-call.

Second, it is incredibly, incredibly difficult to keep morale high in an environment like we have in EMU, where the two-tiered haves and have-nots are sitting side by side in a classroom. This dynamic reaches well beyond campus, as well, into community spaces, as well, where character and integrity circulate, not always favorably though oftentimes warranting notice and even raising questions. After one of my daughter’s soccer matches early this summer, I sat down with my dad and her at The Bomber for lunch. A group of football student-athletes, coaching staff, and eventually you along with your son, came in, sat down within earshot. Just before you arrived, some of the discussion loudly enough expressed for us to overhear was about drinking the night before, about how great it would be if The Bomber would serve up a pitcher of bloody marys. My daughter, who is now ten, gave me a hard look and asked what those were, why someone would want them with Saturday brunch. You see, there is consequence to the ways we conduct ourselves on campus and away from it, particularly when attired in (institutionally underwritten) green and white, when acting as agents of the university, when forgetting even for a moment that we are implicated in something bigger.

Just as you will, I will continue to do my work–to go to campus and be a professional, to boost morale, encourage and support top-shelf instruction in an aspirational if modest academic program, and to ask questions, sometimes hard questions, of the university I work for. I’ll urge everyone at EMU to do the same. And I am idealistic enough to think the university will be better for it. But I’m also idealistic enough to think we’ll all do better to undertake this if we are not, when we encounter dissent, willing to jab at those whose views differ from our own.

Sincerely,

Derek Mueller

Corrections:

08.21.2016 (7:52 p.m.) Moments after I posted this, I caught one minor typo and made the change right away. I also reworded the description of the experience at The Bomber so as to be clearer that I was there with my dad and daughter. This is significant because I was direct witness to the remarks; they are not second-hand.

I received a note from an EMU administrator on Sunday calling attention to two factual errors. The first is that part-time lecturers this fall will be paid on September 15. My description of that problem was based on the way things were handled last fall, when part-time lecturers were not paid until after the first full month of classes. I am encouraged to know that this has been addressed and improved.

And finally, the budget cut I noted applies to one department’s SSM operating budget. What does this mean? For starters it means that budgets are being cut unevenly across the institution right now. This entry does not in any way mean to establish that a campus-wide or uniform budget cut of 54% is a certainty. -DM

EMU and Real Sports

We’re in an interesting, important moment at EMU these days due to greater and greater concern about the institution’s budgetary condition and the sieve units on campus most prone to runaway spending. Ever since an HBO Real Sports segment, “Arms Race,” aired just over a week ago, the volume of these issues has climbed. In local and regional media, we’re catching various castings almost every day, many of them quoting regents, administrators, students, and Howard Bunsis, Professor of Accounting and faculty union leader, who has been among the most vocal proponents of more transparent and responsible spending. The most pointed details circulating are that over the past two years, athletics has operated on deficit (or General Fund dependency) of $52 million. Here’s a screen shot posted to Instagram from the report delivered to the Board of Regents that details how that deficit implicates all EMU students in patterned spending that obligates many of them to long-term payback via student loans. Each student who completes a four-year degree at EMU, the report says, contributes approximately $3600 to athletics, whether or not they attend a single event.

With this in mind, I wanted to note a couple of impressions:

  • It’s difficult, a heavy chore to call for less of anything, to call for less spending on athletics or on any university venture that involves people we work alongside, because there is always a risk of it seeming a personal attack. I mention this as a former student-athlete, myself, and also as someone who worked in higher ed athletics administration for seven years. These discussions of change, particularly dollar-wise change, are fraught, intensely emotional on all sides of the issues, and therefore incredibly difficult to reduce to clear causes much less clear solutions.
  • There are lingering narratives about underdogs (EMU is down but not out), about almosts (what if this is our breakthrough year?!), about unification (we’re all in this together), and about proportion (athletics is but a small sliver of the institution’s overall spending). These circulate as commonplaces, or readymade arguments that expedite, skipping over the nuance and subtlety, side-stepping the stickier work of correcting the problems. And as such, these are the sorts of snippets that tend to circulate in the news accounts because they are reportorially convenient.
  • It is always to admit failure, particularly for those in the mix (e.g., an AD or particularly supportive regents) who themselves have sports backgrounds because the allure of sports is in part its continuous progress trope: always improving, always getting better, no obstacle too grand, etc. But this thinking is especially dangerous if it manifests as an expensive hubris or megalomania, an inflexible insistence on staying the course when there is abundant and costly evidence that it is not going well. Could EMU make a change and therefore save money? Sure it could. But there are people in this mix who hold power and who are beneficiaries of the runaway spending. As these conditions solidify, we return to the familiar patterns of a growing, better-and-better-paid administrative class, rising tuition, and institutional inertia–conditions for inflexibility that cannot help but compromise the quality of academic programs while reaching as deeply as possible into the pockets of those who are most cheated–students.
  • For these issues to continue circulating, for them to become unstuck and for EMU to take up the hard work of institutional change will require more (and more public) faculty voices than Bunsis’. Discontent has been building for at least a few years, and it makes athletics difficult to really get behind, while sapping the morale in academic units on campus (where in some very specific cases, none of last year’s 7.8% tuition increase landed).
  • I’ve attended at least one football game every year since I was hired seven years ago. Ron English was the coach back then, and I recall that faculty (perhaps only new faculty) were provided season tickets for home games free of charge. But this has not happened since. This season, for the first time, I purchased season basketball tickets for both men’s and women’s programs. I went to maybe 20 home games, total. I noticed at the football game–season opener–that tickets cost considerably more than in past years, enough to make me pause and wonder whether at that price point I would return. Exiting the stadium after that game, I walked with two colleagues, and we found that half of the stadium was not only vacant but that many of the exits were locked. The Convocation Center, where basketball and a few other indoor sports compete, tends to feel better occupied for home events, but the entire upper deck of the stadium (much like the entire away side of Rynearson) is blocked off with tarps that prohibit anyone from sitting there. These are expensive tarps, too, elaborate in their printing and designed to condense the facility’s attendees, mitigate the traffic areas for cleaning, and so on.  There are numerous minor details to point out about the experience of attending these events that I won’t go into, but suffice it to say that these small details, such as the merchandise shop rarely being open during home basketball games, resonates with an overall impression of flagging institutional investment in the fan experience. That is, the investment is purely financial; it doesn’t show up as a more compelling experience at the events themselves.
  • Finally (for now), I’ll reiterate that without pointing a finger at anyone or calling into question the wisdom of university leadership in such matters, wherever that responsibility might fall, football in particular has been implicated in some questionable and expensive choices lately, from extravagant uniforms whose digital readout-like letterforms made it impossible to distinguish sevens and ones to efforts to rebrand Rynearson Stadium as “The Factory”–a move that to this day is an unsettlingly absurd turn of events. With concession stands called “Assembly Line,” gray artificial turf, hard hats, a quitting time whistle upon major in-game events, and promotional gimmicks that put real sledge hammers in the hands of football players so they can pose as if about to swing away at loose-stacked cinder block, “The Factory” is downright embarrassing–a conceptual fumble whose oh-no-not-again weight is heavier than all of the real football team’s real turnovers (punts included) for the last decade. I’d better not go on. But I sure would hope that investing bags of money in a wobbly enterprise would take greater care than to put good, long-loaned tuition dollars behind such an unconscionable rebranding effort as that.

This is enough for today, enough for now. I’ll end with one last quotation from a news article circulating in Mlive today, “EMU AD Lyke: ‘no question’ football must improve, wants to stay in MAC“:

In addition, a report, issued by members of the Faculty Senate Budget and Resources Committee, the EMU-AAUP and the student body, points to an increase in the total full time equivalent athletic staff from 64 in 2006-07 to 85 in 2015-16. Staff salaries doubled from $3.2 million to $6.4 million as the department saw 10 more coaching positions and more than 11 “athletic personnel” added during the same time period. During that same time period, the report indicates EMU’s entire faculty increased by just 15.78 full-time equivalent personnel.

Here is where the frustration builds most pointedly: in the quiet, whispered truths like this that are uncomfortable to circulate because they amount to breathing lungfuls day in and day out of some fetid campus wind. In rates of personnel growth like this comes the disproportionately burdensome long-term investment that sets the university and its most vulnerable academic programs on a (possibly) disastrous course–unchecked spending justified by bizarre attachments to notions that ESPN broadcasts will compel, what? droves of new students? more ad revenue for activities not on ESPN? sudden national interest or relevance? I don’t know. But I will continue to pay attention as this plays out and try to make some sense of it in an occasional entry.

WIDE-EMU Phase II

Here’s my brief teaser for phase two of the upcoming WIDE-EMU Conference. I’ve titled my short talk, “The Hyper-Circumference of Effectiveness in 3..2..1.. FTL Jumps.” Since the teaser-trailer is right here for viewing, there’s no need for me to say much more about it. I was impressed that Google’s auto-transcript (beta) process translated “hyper-circumference” as “high pressure conference,” though, as if it’s some kind of auto-complete algorithm tapped straightaway into the deep recesses of my WIDE-EMU subconscious. Or, maybe I was never really thinking about hyper-circumference in the first place. Jump!

Added: Just noticed the translation calls Burke’s 1978 essay something like “Questions and Answers about the Pant Ad.”

WIDE-EMU Update

We’ve concluded the first phase of WIDE-EMU Conference logothe WIDE-EMU Conference—Propose, which yielded 38 proposals from 56 conference participants. Proposals arrived from four states (Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky), fourteen colleges or universities, two high schools, and three National Writing Project sites. The planning team met via Google Hangout yesterday afternoon to discuss Phase Two and delegate various tasks to prepare for the October 15 unconference. For example, we will contact all participants soon with an explanation of Phase Two, provide examples of the online pieces due between now and Oct. 1, and draft a schedule for the day of the event.

We also looked at the summary data from the form-fed Google Spreadsheet. The automatic tallies helped us quickly plot the number of rooms we will need. The spreadsheet summary isn’t as of yet especially easy to share online, but here are cropped sections representative of the graphic elements.

Proposal type pie chart
Student status pie chart
Proposal influx graph

The last graph shows when the proposals arrived. I speculated that the graph probably follows a law of calls (for conferences or CFPs), and Bill pointed out that in the final 36 hours we received the same number of proposals we’d received since we opened the call. So that would suggest the number of proposals in the final x days equals the number of proposals in the final x hours (there are barriers operating here, e.g., the number of proposals received in the last 1 day are not equal to the number received in the final 1 hour; the function remains murky). I don’t know of any other public datasets on proposal submission distributions in time, though, so somebody will either have to point me to those or we’ll have to wait until the next WIDE-EMU Conference to run the experiment. Come to think of it, for how much is made of acceptance rates, it would be interesting to see acceptance rates cross-referenced with the proposal influx, wouldn’t it?

Law of calls or not, that’s the latest.

Out of Office

Emptying Hoyt 810

Dropped by Hoyt Hall Friday afternoon to pick up a couple of final items and help a colleague move a table. Others needed a hand with a chair, too, which turned into an impressive feat, considering the only way to fit the base of the recliner into the truck cab was to leave the window rolled down. In any case, the College of Arts and Sciences is officially in a transitional phase, boxed and binned somewhere between the dormitory where we’ve held office since May 2010 and the new, improved Pray-Harrold.

I am sure the new digs will be better than the temporary ones, but I already know I am returning to PH612M, the same office I was in before the renovations. The bad of it is that I will be giving up the light of day, running water, in-office toilet, a window that opens, and roughly 40% of the square footage I enjoyed in the dorm. The good of the transition is that the window that opened and let in light also leaked water when torrents of rain washed against the NW face of the building, assorted carpet odors, in-office toilet, and climate control that doesn’t involve opening a window in the dead of winter. I’m sure the good will outweigh the bad, ultimately, but visual confirmation has to wait until August 24th, the day when we are welcome to reunite with our stuff in the old-now-new building.

It’s too soon to say whether I will one day feel sad about never returning to Hoyt 810. I spent a lot of time in that office–five days a week without interruption for the better part of 14 months, and I got some important work done there. I also had room for all of my books, which I unfortunately don’t expect to be the case in the new office.

Among All the Steps

When I was driving to Pray-Hoyt around 11:30 a.m. to drop off a piece of furniture, put a letter of rec. on letterhead, and print an ms. for reviewing, an Ann Arbor radio station played this one.

Associating it with Kenneth Burke, I misremembered something like this:

Imagine that you arrive at a parlor. You stand outside, unable to decide whether to enter unannounced, to knock, or to ring the doorbell. You decide on the doorbell, but you have come late, and somehow the moment does not seem quite right. ‘When ya gonna ring it, when ya gonna ring it.’ Etc.

A variation of

Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress. (PLF 110)

This fall marks 20 years since Kenneth Burke’s time at Eastern Michigan University as a McAndless Scholar in 1990–an anniversary worthy of a few of blog entries, some informal conversations with colleagues who were here at the time, and perhaps even some kind of reading or parlor event. Our usual building, Pray-Harrold, is since May closed for renovations. Still, I wonder which office was KB’s and whether he spent much time in it.

Student Center

EMU Student Center

I am enjoying a few minutes of light computing in the Student Center at Eastern Michigan University right now: coffee, sunlight, email, Google Reader, Fantasy Football results. I try to spend an hour in the Student Center every Tuesday. The weekly, non-essential outing contributes to my New Faculty Continuing Orientation Plan. Basically, the NFCOP goes like this: leave your office every so often, develop a feel for the place. Frequently I run into students or colleagues as I make my way across campus, and we talk. Also, I walk alternative routes, get to know the landscape, the distances. These semi-strategic excursions are refreshingly ordinary, far less in the vein of anthropological scrutiny (a la Marc Augé) than in slow, deep, you-are-here mapping (a la William Least Heat-Moon). Walks less motivated by ground-truthing this "rhetorical country" than in walking, being here.

Continue reading →

Gym

Rec-IM Eastward

I took this Friday just before 10 a.m. as I wrapped up a short workout in Olds-Robb, or Rec-IM (this second one is the better-known of the building’s names, I’m told). The photo is East-facing, a view of Pray-Harrold and other structures on either side whose names I don’t know (education on the far right; health services, I think, on the near left). I opted for a day-pass on Tuesday to try out the facility and found the small satellite fitness cove on the fourth floor was exactly what I was looking for. The weight equipment is slightly worn, but it works. It is heavy. And the cardio options are adequate, even a cut above adequate. A row of bikes, ellipticals, and treadmills face East, which means I can see all of Pray-Harrold (pictured). Pray-Harrold: my office is there, my department, the classroom where I teach this semester.

Friday I signed up for a year-long membership and took as a gift of appreciation a sturdy green umbrella. The full year membership ensures that I’ll be back, back for the Tuesday-Thursday faculty-staff noon-time pick-up games or for a couple of laps in the 50-meter pool or for yet another circuit on the fourth floor.

New Faculty Orientation

I’ve been pleasantly surprised–impressed, even–by EMU’s new faculty orientation. Monday and Tuesday consisted of optional workshops: one- and two-hour sessions put on by everyone from librarians and IT folks to faculty and human resources staff. The required two-day orientation started today and runs through tomorrow. I would guess much of the program is similar at other universities. We (26 new faculty) met and talked with the president and provost, worked through a stack of HR materials (benefits, direct deposit, flex accounts, and so on), looked at couple of FERPA scenarios with assistant general counsel, mingled with various department chairs, board of regents members, and new colleagues during a mid-day social hour, snaked through the EMU information fair booths, and ended the day with a 40-minute co-created theater production called C2 Close Up Classroom in which faculty and students enacted various teaching scenarios. As I walked over to the auditorium, I have to admit that my expectations were somewhat medium-low, that I was beginning to feel tired (now carrying five+ pounds of paper collected throughout the day), and that it didn’t seem possible to top what for the entire day had been exceptionally well-done orientation programming. The thing is, I might even go so far as to report that I was stunned by the quality of the production. I mean, this thing was really, really smartly done. After the 40-minute performance, we talked about EMU, about its students, and about teaching for another hour. Ended the day unexpectedly energized, just after 4:30 p.m.