Ever since the attacks on public sector unions, working families, and public education in Wisconsin that began just over two years ago, my own writing has changed. It’s become less…well, “academic.” I find myself more interested in plowing through company SEC filings on Lexis-Nexis than some of the newest scholarship in my field. Don’t get me wrong, I am not knocking scholarship…there are days I wish I could carve out several hours to peruse the latest journals in my field of rhetoric and composition. Right now it just feels like the relentless attacks against education and the public sphere more broadly, is an exigence I cannot ignore. That’s one of the good things about being a rhetorician, I guess. There are times when you actually have to practice being a rhetor.
I posted a version of this piece earlier today on Raging Chicken Press, but very much wanted to engage in this space as well. There is something that I want to say here that is not quite fleshed out. Something about the kind of research into our own institutions that seems absolutely critical now. I will have to return to that which I do not articulate.
Today feels like a milestone for faculty in Pennsylvania, especially faculty in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, or PASSHE. Here’s why.
Na, Na, Na, Na – Hey, John! Goodbye
Today, Thursday, February 28th, Chancellor John Cavanaugh will bid farewell to his stepping-stone job as head of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education after unexpectedly announcing his departure this past December. His announcement came in the middle of the most contentious contract negotiations with the faculty union, APSCUF, in the history of the State System; negotiations had dragged on for over two years and faculty worked without a contract for 20 months. Cavanaugh was understood to be the driving force behind an attempt to move the majority of faculty into part-time, contingent positions and destroy significant areas of shared governance. His abrupt departure has been seen as one of the key reasons that the State System shifted course in early 2013, abandoned most of their “bargaining objectives,” and sought a settlement. In the end, the contract agreement that will go to APSCUF members next week for a ratification vote is a better contract for faculty than anyone could have expected. Cavanaugh will give up his $327, 500 position for a presumably more lucrative job as the head of the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area in DC. While there are some sighs of relief as Cavanaugh prepares to leave his post, it does not look like the assault on public higher education and APSCUF will cease anytime soon. If anything, some new information should keep defenders of public higher education in Pennsylvania on readiness alert.
A Story of What Wasn’t
When John Cavanaugh was hired as PASSHE Chancellor in 2008, there was some cautious optimism that he might be better to work with than the out-going Chancellor, Judy Hample, who was pretty much universally despised as much for her demeaning and dismissive manner as her union-busting, budget squeezing, anti-faculty approach to higher education management. I remember his first visit to our faculty union’s Legislative Assembly shortly after he took office. He faced a skeptical audience, answered direct and pointed questions openly. He did not try to win over the room by telling us all what he thought we wanted to hear, but he certainly came across as being up front with his evidence-based approach and vision for PASSHE. One thing that stood out in that visit was that he said that PASSHE was going to have a much stronger presence in the Capitol buildings of both Harrisburg and D.C. In a 2009 commentary piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education (3/13/2009), he seemed to be leaning in the direction of that same evidence-based approach to leadership. The piece, “Cost Reductions and Tuition Restraint: Been There, Done That,” concluded this way:
As we sink deeper into this economic quagmire, critics of higher education will undoubtedly get more airtime. State legislators will be under enormous pressure to reduce expenditures to balance budgets in the face of plummeting revenues. The first of our two challenges is to keep elected officials focused on long-term solutions and on what public higher education has already accomplished fiscally. We must emphasize that investing in public higher education pays a high return. In our system, for example, 80 percent of the undergraduates who receive degrees take their first jobs in Pennsylvania.
Our second challenge is far more daunting. We must get legislators to take into account what public higher education has already accomplished fiscally when setting any new targets for cost reductions or tuition controls. If they do not, and if they declare the 2010 fiscal year as “year one” for target-reduction purposes, then institutions like ours will be put into an untenable situation.
Two courses of action are most apparent. First, public higher education can join the increasing ranks of companies that are laying off workers in droves. The consequent reductions in educational quality would have a significant negative impact on students, ultimately cheapening their degrees. Alternatively, legislators and public higher-education officials can work together on a rational plan for giving credit for past accomplishments and developing new strategies based on those accomplishments. Our system has been highly successful in creating a financing formula based on institutional performance. State legislatures could and should do the same, taking into full account all of the successful outcomes that public colleges and universities have achieved through previous efforts, and working with them to continue that record of achievement.
Continued cost reduction for its own sake in public higher education is neither a sustainable long-term business model nor a smart political strategy. What we need is an informed dialogue between legislators and public higher education that pays attention to and learns from systems, such as ours, that have increased quality while reducing operating costs and limiting tuition increases. To do otherwise would be irresponsible.
We know now, of course, that the election of Tom Corbett and a herd of far-right Republicans as part of the wave of Tea Party victories in the 2010 mid-term elections signaled that Pennsylvania would pursue the “cost reduction for its own sake” approach despite Cavanaugh’s warning that such a policy would be “neither a sustainable long-term business model nor a smart political strategy.” Cavanaugh would have to face the question: What would he do when asked to take part in an approach to higher education that was “irresponsible,” unsustainable,” and bad political strategy. As APSCUF has learned over the past two plus years of negotiations, while Cavanaugh might be willing to articulate his “smart” approach to higher education policy when the stakes are relatively low and he can command an approving spotlight, when faced with a Governor and state legislature who would rather pursue the irresponsible and unsustainable policies, he was more than willing to be team captain, ensuring his own professional pursuits for a more prominent, national role. And now he has one.
Sheriff of Nottingham? Tony Blair? Or…Red Shirt?
I have to say that when I set out to write this article, my intention was to provide a mini-dossier on our departing chancellor that might prove useful for friends, colleagues, brothers and sisters in the D.C. area. I was an adjunct at both the George Washington University and George Mason University for several years and many of my good friends and colleagues are still there. A little activist reconnaissance, I thought that might provide a heads up as to who this guy was. I began reading everything John C. Cavanaugh had written about higher education.
The more I read, the more something didn’t sit right (hint: the kicker is at the end of this article). In a recent article, I referred to Cavanaugh as the “Shock Doctrinaire leader” behind PASSHE negotiators’ attempts to fundamentally “transform”the 14 university State System, turning at least 60% of faculty into academic piece workers, and turning curriculum over to “market forces.” Don’t get me wrong, there was plenty of evidence pointing in this direction. On November 30, 2012, Chancellor Cavanaugh released a document to all PASSHE employees called “PASSHE Transformation,” which was approved at October 2012 PASSHE Board of Governors meeting. PASSHE’s “vision,” Cavanaugh wrote,
includes four major components, all grounded in the need for transformation: (a) how, when, and where learning occurs; (b) how the resources necessary to ensure learning are pursued, retained, and sustained; (c) how our universities relate to their various communities; and (d) how we partner with the Commonwealth to create and deliver a shared vision for the future. Only through transformation, grounded in a thoughtful reexamination of our historic emphasis on high quality student learning opportunities, will our success be assured during these very difficult economic times [bold in original].
Anyone paying attention to what was and is going on in higher education policy, especially in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis, saw the coded language consistent with those seeking to privatize and profitize education at all levels. Take, for example, language from the Broad Foundation, founded by Eli Broad – #157 on the Forbes Billionaire list with a personal net worth of $6.3 billion. A major contributor to Democratic Party candidates with close associations with Democrats favoring anti-labor, Michelle Rhee-type “reforms” to public education. At the center of the Broad Foundation agenda is, you guessed it, “transformation” of public education. Cavanaugh’s “PASSHE Transformation” memo seemed to signal the austerity to come, squeezing PAASHE’s limited resources and striking a blow to our 6,000+ member union.
There were signs that Cavanaugh seemed to be moving in this direction months before he issued the “PASSHE Transformation” memo. Posting to his blog in September 2010, Seth Kahn, a faculty member at West Chester University, union activist, and friend, drew a connection between an Institute for Policy Studies report, “CEO Pay and the Great Recession,” and PASSHE’s insistence upon laying off faculty – many of them from my university. The IPS report found,
The nation’s biggest job-cutting companies paid their top executives an average of $12 million last year, according to a report released today.
The 50 U.S. chief executives who laid off the most employees between November 2008 and April 2010 eliminated a total of 531,363 jobs, according to the Institute for Policy Studies, a research group that works for social justice and against wealth concentration.
Of the connection with PASSSHE, the Chancellor’s Office in particular, Kahn wrote:
Apparently, the PASSHE Office of the Chancellor subscribes to the same logic as its corporate brethren (yes, that’s gendered on purpose). To cut costs, fire the people who do the work and therefore earn actual pay.
The problem, of course, is that many of the campuses have seen (and continue to project) GROWING enrollments; that is, what PASSHE is doing is EVEN WORSE than the corporate sphere. Not only is PASSHE shedding jobs, but they’re asking faculty to cover the work of the faculty who get retrenched, and to do more work by teaching more students, all with fewer people and for less money…
… The Chancellor of PASSHE published an opinion essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education a while back in which he made the case, clearly and correctly, that public universities simply should not and cannot be the battlegrounds on which budget battles get fought. We’ve compressed, economized, and austerity-fied ourselves to the bone already, and any more cuts will come at the expense of quality. At the time, he was exactly right. Now, the situation is even worse. Quality is already going by the wayside, and these continued cuts, accompanied by shamefully dishonest rhetoric about how dire the budget situation really is, threatens our ability to do anything other than survive–until our management pulls it collective head out of its collective you-know-where and puts its money where its mouth is.
From 2010 right up until the close of APSCUF’s two plus years of contract negotiations, there wasn’t much evidence to suggest anything other than Cavanaugh had distanced himself from a defense of public higher education that was so prominent in his 2009 Chronicle of Higher Education commentary.
One thing that was odd, though, was the relative silence by PA Governor Corbett and the PASSHE Board of Governors throughout APSCUF’s long negotiations. It wasn’t until fairly late in negotiations that the the Board of Governors sent out Gary Dent, PASSHE’s Vice Chancellor of Human Resources and Labor Relations (a guy who, by the way, cut his human resources teeth at General Motors, not any higher education institution), to attack APSCUF and attempt to paint PASSHE as reasonable. I mean, put it in perspective. Gov. Corbett and his administration has been a rabid advocate for the privatization of public education. He is openly anti-union, has gutted public assistance programs, and hands out multi-million dollar tax-breaks to corporations like they were mints. It seemed weird that Corbett maintained radio silence on PASSHE-APSCUF negotiations given the fact that PASSHE’s “bargaining objectives” seemed ripped out of some ALEC strategy brief on how to break higher education unions. But it seemed plausible that Corbett maintained his distance because he had a good warrior in Chancellor Cavanaugh. Corbett could send out someone who had a much more moderate – if not “liberal” – biography to push his agenda. Someone to play Tony Blair to his George Bush.
But as I continue to read Cavanaugh’s writing on higher education, there’s a notable inconsistency between what he wrote and what he did over the past three years. I was thinking back to Board of Governor’s meeting in October 2012 at which I was invited to briefly speak as part of an APSCUF delegation urging PASSHE and the Chancellor to negotiate in good faith. Following our comments, the Board of Governors moved on to their agenda with no response to any of the issues that APSCUF raised. Two PASSHE universities were making their cases before the Board to have new Masters programs approved. What took me back a bit at the time was that most of the discussion among Board members focused on the on-line components of the programs. Board members praised the programs for meeting its demand for significant portions of new Masters programs to be on-line – 80% online in one case.
Earlier this week, I came across a 2006 article co-authored by Cavanaugh and his wife Christine, “Franchising Higher Education.” The article is a cautionary tale about what could happen to higher education: higher ed could end up being franchised out like Starbucks with lower paid faculty in China or developing countries “delivering” courses. They argued that American higher education could very well be outsourced like every other American industry:
Both legislators and the public are demanding that colleges and universities operate more like businesses, reminding us that every other sector of the economy has had to deal with controlling costs and the realities of the global economy. Witness the drastic decline in jobs in the sectors of manufacturing and support services, they say.
And that’s what chilled us in the Taipei Starbucks. American higher education may be forced to face the same reality of global competition that American businesses have already met. Interestingly, although that reality is taught in every business school in America, few college and university leaders have discussed it. As a result, the most serious challenge to American postsecondary education might be coming soon to a university near you, if it is pushed to leverage its ties to foreign institutions.
Here’s Cavanaugh warning what could happen to higher education, calling it the “greatest threat we face,” in 2006. Then there he sites at that October 2012 Board of Governors meeting providing his silent assent to the first step toward the franchise model he warned about. Just weird – but we have more examples than we need of public officials speaking out of both sides of their mouths.
Then I heard a rumor that piqued my interest. The rumor was that the reason Cavanaugh’s departure was so abrupt and seemed to take even his own people by surprise, was that he was fed up with PA Republicans and the Governor’s people and had been looking for a way to get the hell out of Dodge. I have no idea if there is any merit to this rumor, but it got me looking at the issue of his departure in a different way. What if he wasn’t the Sheriff of Nottingham or a Tony Blair-lapdog? What if he was a Redshirt? Redshirts were those characters on the Star Trek that were constantly being killed off. Whenever Captain Kirk, Spock, and Dr. McCoy beamed down to the surface of a strange planet with a couple of red-shirted security personnel you could pretty much count on the fact that at least one of them was getting whacked. Given Cavanaugh’s self-proclaimed love of Star Trek, I thought it was worth at least a thought experiment. What if Cavanaugh was a key character in keeping the right-wing story line going by fulfilling the role as an expendable? Could be. Redshirts, afterall, were not dupes. They were not acting as tools for Kirk and his officers. They had their own reasons for putting on the uniform. But their role in the story was to get killed off. I am sure that Cavanaugh has his own Star Trek inflected version of his time at PASSHE. Frankly, I’d like to hear it.
I decided to do some background research on members of the PASSHE Board of Governors, especially since APSCUF and other organizations raised some concerns about conflicts of interest on the Board over the past two years. For example, the Vice Chair of the Board of Governors is Aaron Walton, according to PASSHE’s web page is a ” retired senior vice president of Highmark Inc. of Pittsburgh. He was responsible for administering Highmark’s public relations and social mission strategy and overseeing the departments of Community Affairs, Community Health and Strategic Health Initiatives.” Highmark is, naturally, the health insurance company for APSCUF members. Vice Chair Mary Conley, was “the director for the Pennsylvania delegation to the 2000, 2004 and 2008 Republican National Conventions.” Board of Governor member Ronald Henry, “served as chairman of the Corbett-Cawley Budget, Revenue and Pensions Transition Committee.” At the very least, when you go down the list it is clear that there are several Corbett Loyalists who might be exerting significant influence concerning the direction of PASSHE.
But the biggest surprise came when I was doing some background research on the Chair of the PASSHE Board of Governors, Guido Pichini. Here’s his bio on PASSHE’s web page:
Mr. Pichini is president of Security Guards Inc. and its subsidiaries, WSK and Associates Consulting Group and Vigilant Security Services, all of Wyomissing. He is a member of the Council of Trustees at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, and former chair of the Pennsylvania Association of Councils of Trustees (PACT). He is a member of the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Postsecondary Education and the Executive Committee of the Pennsylvania Workforce Investment Board. Mr. Pichini graduated from Kutztown University with a degree in education/political science, and completed graduate studies in public administration at Kutztown. He also graduated from Wilson College with certification in the minor judiciary, attaining the highest grade in the history of Pennsylvania.
None of that is unexpected. However, there are some lingering questions about the relationship between Pichini’s business interests and his role in PASSHE governance. In 2001, Kutztown University outsourced its parking attendants, ticket writers, and dispatchers to Pichini’s security company, Security Guards, Inc. There have been questions since then about conflicts of interest since he has served on Kutztown University Council of Trustees during the time the contract was awarded. Security Guards, Inc. also provides security services to two other PASSHE universities, Millersville and Bloomsburg. According to a June 2012 Pittsburgh Tribune-Review investigation of state records, these security contracts with PASSHE universities are worth $4.5 million.
The bigger news came from the 2010 Heritage Foundation Annual report. In 2010, Guido M. Pichini is listed as a Heritage Foundation Associate. In order to be listed as an Associate, you have to cut a check for AT LEAST $10,000. The next membership level begins at $25,000. Why is this significant? The Heritage Foundation is one of the oldest and most powerful right-wing think tanks in the country. Founded in 1973, the Heritage Foundation is funded by a who’s who in right-wing donors, including the now infamous Koch brothers, the John M. Olin Foundation, and the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation. Pichini’s 2010 contribution also took place during the election cycle that saw huge electoral victories of the Tea Party and far right-wing candidates. The more I find out about Pichini, the more it seems we have a much more likely leader behind PASSHE’s turn toward the same kind of right-wing, anti-union, privatization agenda we’ve seen over the past several years.
At the very least, it is pretty clear that anyone invested in public higher education better not let their guard down. And, as PASSHE begins to search for a new Chancellor, APSCUF and other higher education advocates must scrutinize all the candidates.
So long, John
If Cavanaugh’s abrupt departure from PASSHE is useful for anything, it may be that it opened up a space to critically examine the current composition of PASSHE’s Board of Governors and drive home the point that APSCUF and its allies must deepen organizing efforts and prepare to fight-back for the long haul. I am not sure which version of Cavanaugh is worse – the guy who was the leading force behind PASSHE’s attacks against faculty and public higher ed; or, the guy who played his role to help further his professional climb, despite the fact that his orders ran in direct opposition to his values and commitments. Maybe once he gets settled in D.C., he’ll be willing to tell his version of the story. Or, maybe, he’ll just put his head down and continue his professional climb. Good bye, John.