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U. of Michigan Faculty Shouldn't Flatter New President while the Administration Busts Unions and Politicians Trash Higher Ed

Abigail McFee, a fellow in poetry in the University of Michigan’s M.F.A. program, was asked to write a poem for the inauguration of the University of Michigan’s new president, Santa Ono, celebrated on March 7 this year. She suggested “a poem about my single mother returning to college in her 40s as a nontraditional student.” The Office of University Development was unhappy: “We feel,” they told McFee by email, “that this poem should be written in honor of the president’s inauguration day, or rather, in celebration of the president … a gift to him.”

Development is a cliché machine, and its poetic sensibilities are, unsurprisingly, excruciating: “key words that might help — Michigan, he is of the people, he has been working hard to learn about campus, new beginnings, dawn of a new day, new energy on campus, uplifting.” They added, mercifully, that “the poem need not be long.” McFee, a poet of honor, declined.

This is the single most embarrassing thing I have ever read about a university president, and I say that as a former subject of Mark Schlissel, who displeased our Board of Regents to such an extent that they posted on our home page a link to his knishly yearning email correspondence with a female colleague.

The praise poem directive is instructive far beyond the visceral cringe it inflicts. Many of us have wondered for months now why public-university presidents have been silent on the extreme red-state attacks on academic freedom: the end of tenure in Texasthe erasure of entire fields of study in Florida and beyond, a prohibition of the study of racism in Louisiana, or the maliciously ludicrous bans on “divisive concepts” in Georgia and Tennessee. Every single one of these is a wrecking ball to the core mission of higher education, whose very lifeblood is the divisive concept, so you would expect that the men and women presiding over the vast enterprises that are flagship public universities would band together and call a five-alarm fire. Nobody is terribly surprised that “moderate” Ben Sasse, president of the University of Florida who once promised to “champion pluralism, curiosity, viewpoint diversity, open debate, and intellectual rigor,” is nowhere to be seen. But wouldn’t you expect the “first Asian American to lead U-M,” as the university’s public-affairs office proudly noted, to take at least mild exception to openly racist bills disfiguring public higher education in state after state?

U-M’s demand for a coronation poem that German Emperor Wilhelm II might have found a tad over the top is a clue. Liberal (or neo-liberal, if you want) administrators may not share the cultural politics of Republican governors Ron DeSantis, of Florida, or Greg Abbott, of Texas, but they do share their desire to refashion universities in the image of the American workplace, where at-will employees do what they’re told by feudal overlords who have poems commissioned in their praise.

Under Ono’s leadership, my university is threatening to withhold the paychecks of graduate-student instructors on strike for higher pay; their salary demands amount to 0.28% of our yearly revenue. When Ono was challenged by union members in a downtown restaurant, he had campus police arrest and handcuff the protesters — off campus, no less. Deans have ordered faculty to calculate and submit grades of students they have not taught, on material in which they hold no expertise, a move that has galvanized even the notoriously timid executive committee of the faculty senate into a statement demanding that the administration rescind the scabbing orders and urging faculty not to comply. I am sad to say that many of my colleagues will nonetheless do so, allowing themselves to be implicated not just in crude union-busting, but also in a system that declares student assessment a rote exercise requiring neither expertise nor familiarity with the students assessed.

Read entire article at Chronicle of Higher Education