CT prof on CSCU’s Ojakian: Scorched earth, not warm feelings

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CSCU President Mark Ojakian.

The Mirror’s recent article on CSCU President Mark Ojakian portrayed him as a good listener, a mediator, a reasonable man, and a really nice guy. But the warm feelings engendered by the Mirror’s puff piece should not be allowed to obscure the fact that the contract proposals put forward by his Board of Regents are nothing short of a scorched-earth attack on the faculty of Connecticut’s four state universities and the students they serve.

President Ojakian reportedly “laughed off” comparisons between the Malloy administration’s current attack on Connecticut state university faculty and its successful precedent by Wisconsin governor Scott Walker. But he pointedly did not propose to withdraw any of his BOR’s union-busting proposals.

Those proposals would restrict union members’ and leaders’ communications with each other by preventing the use of university email servers and addresses. They would strip faculty members of the reassigned time that they need to perform extremely time-intensive service to their universities as union leaders. And, most chillingly, they would remove tenure protections, making it possible to reassign faculty from one university to another at management’s will by removing or threatening to remove their tenure. (Don’t want to uproot yourself and your family from Willimantic to Danbury on President Ojakian’s whim? Then you lose your tenure, and you have to move anyway.)

Contrary to popular belief, tenure doesn’t exist to guarantee university professors cushy employment for life; it exists to prevent politicians and administrators from firing academics with whose ideas they may disagree. Tenure exists, in other words, to ensure that there is one place in our society where free and disinterested inquiry and speech are protected even when the results prove unpopular, where no one can be fired, disciplined, or hushed up because the “boss” doesn’t like what you say or what conclusions your research leads to. The Board of Regents’ contract proposals would enable university administrative bosses to do exactly that.

While the BOR’s immediate purpose in attacking faculty tenure may be to provide the administration with the “flexibility” to close academic programs and departments at some universities in order to consolidate them elsewhere, the effect would nonetheless be to give managers unrestricted power to terminate a faculty member’s tenure and/or employment at will.

Even if you don’t believe that our society needs a protected space for free and open inquiry no matter where the results may lead, Connecticut citizens should be deeply concerned that—despite numerous assurances to the contrary when the ill-advised administrative merger of the state universities with the community colleges was rammed through the legislature by President Ojakian and Gov. Dannel Malloy — the end result will be four “branches” of a single university rather than the four unique institutions of higher education that Connecticut students now have to choose from.

One of the many, many things that CSCU system administrators consistently fail to understand is that most CSU students choose a university based in large part on proximity. Insofar as the current attack on tenure may be part of an administrative plan to reduce perceived “redundancies” from one university to another, President Ojakian and the BOR need to understand that the vast majority of our students will not and cannot simply follow their major department from New Haven to Danbury or from New Britain to Willimantic should departments and majors be downsized or eliminated to save money. What will happen instead is that the university system will no longer serve the needs of its students, and students will no longer be able to attend their universities.

“They’re just proposals,” Ojakian says. But management never proposes to give itself powers that it doesn’t intend to use. And powers this sweeping, once granted, guarantee their eventual abuse.

A call for “flexibility” sounds disarmingly reasonable. But what it really means is unrestricted control by managers over what faculty may teach and research and say and, by extension, over what students may study and learn.

It’s bad policy, and it’s bad public higher education. Connecticut citizens and students deserve better. Contact your legislators, the governor, and President Ojakian and ask them to cease and desist their attack on your state universities and their faculty. Ask Gov. Malloy if he wants to be known as the Democratic Scott Walker.

Paul R. Petrie is a professor of English and assistant chair of the English Department at Southern Connecticut State University.

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