This guest post was written by Michael DeCesare, a Sociologist at Merrimack College.
With the new academic year waiting around the corner, I’m reminded of a popular motto from the 1980s: “Just Say No.”
The story of the saying’s origin goes like this: At a meeting with schoolchildren in Oakland, then-First Lady Nancy Reagan was asked by a little girl what she should do if someone were to offer her drugs. “Well,” Mrs. Reagan answered, “you should just say no.” The First Lady’s brief off-the-cuff advice caught on, eventually morphing into the motto for the national anti-drug campaign of her husband’s second administration.
“Just say no.” Mrs. Reagan offered those three simple words as an honest answer to a child’s deceptively complex question. Roughly 30 years later, I offer them as an equally honest response to the American professoriate’s increasingly complex burden.
More and more is being demanded of professors. We are told that we must standardize our syllabi and textbook selections; that we must satisfy those aspects of teaching on which the institution was “dinged” by the accrediting body; that we must earn approval from the local institutional review board for any and all research projects, even those that do not involve human subjects; that we must assess virtually everything that we and our students do; and that we must [insert your favorite personal example here]. In short, we must do whatever administrators want us to do.
All of these administrative “musts” come on top of the traditional, truly important job requirements in the areas of instruction, scholarship, and service; namely, teach effectively, present and publish important research, and serve our institution, discipline, and profession. The list of additional “musts,” which seems to be generated annually by administrators, cuts deeply across all three of the traditional areas of faculty responsibility. What eludes most faculty members is that administrators’ requests are often only that—requests. They are rarely “musts.”
“Just say no,” therefore, seems an apt motto for every local, faculty-led revolt against administrative/corporate thought and behavior.
Admittedly, refusing a request from a dean, a provost, or a president is difficult for some tenured professors and seldom advisable for probationary and contingent faculty. Other means of less visible and less vocal resistance are, however, available to everyone. In some ways, in fact, contingent faculty, more than probationary faculty, can effectively gum up the increasingly complex administrative works.
But it is tenured faculty members with whom I am concerned here. Put simply, we need to refuse to submit to ridiculous, arbitrary, and just plain wrong-headed administrative demands much more often than we currently do. We must realize that just saying “no” is an important action, both symbolically and practically. On a symbolic level, it conveys the crucial message to less outspoken faculty, as well as to probationary and contingent faculty, that while administrators are free to ask us to do this, that, or the other thing, we are just as free to balk, hesitate, and object. That realization alone is an important message for our faculty colleagues to internalize. In practical terms, simply saying “no” more often should stunt the rapid growth of the list of administrative demands placed upon faculty; ultimately, refusing to comply might even shorten that list, and reduce the time and energy we devote to nonsensical “work.” Saying “no,” in other words, is a simple and direct tactic of opposition in what increasingly resembles a war with administrators.
On the Academe blog, Aaron Barlow recently pointed out the increasing timidity of tenure-track (and, I would add, tenured) faculty. The only way to counter growing timidity, he wrote, is “to support and utilize faculty unions and other organizations—vocally.” I couldn’t agree more. But mobilizing organizations first requires action on the part of individuals. And individual action can be as simple as saying “no.” Each of us must be vocal not only in our support of faculty unions and AAUP advocacy chapters but in our opposition to the increasingly frequent and absurd demands of administrators.
The next time an administrator on your campus demands immediate action, you know what to do: “Just Say No.”