Making progress as a community

Professor Diane MorrisonI came to the University of Washington in 1976 as a graduate student, and began doing research here after I earned my degree. Over the past forty years I’ve seen UW slowly – and in recently years, very quickly – become more corporate in its outlook.

This corporate mindset, and the cultural changes it brings with it for faculty and students, is one of the main reasons I joined the voluntary faculty union.

An example is the shift that’s happened in how UW recognizes and rewards academic progress.

Today, UW’s outlook is ‘you need to be a superstar and be constantly producing the next breakthrough in your field.’

This concept of academia is oriented towards what’s marketable, and it subverts the approach of scientific progress: the gains that are made from toiling in the trenches using the scientific method, and learning sometimes as much from failures as successes.

I see my PhD students absorbing this message from the UW environment; that they need to perform within a narrowly defined range in order to succeed in their field, and it worries me.

UW faculty meet with Governor Jay Inslee, Fall 2015On the role for UW faculty in steering the ship

I’ve been a member of the American Association of University Professors for a long time, and the UW chapter has discussed unionizing for many years. The UW Faculty Forward movement began from those conversations and SEIU’s interest in helping us to get there.

In years past, the concept of shared faculty governance seemed to have more teeth. I served on the faculty senate for six years and on governance committees and I’ve been the director of a PhD program and an associate dean. Today I feel that I and many other faculty involved in university governance have input in an advisory capacity only.

My unit, the School of Social Work, functions well overall, and has good opportunities for faculty to steer its direction, but through the process of working within a union movement I see that other faculty across UW are not so lucky. What’s happening to them can easily happen elsewhere within the university.

Sometimes we don’t really think of ourselves as a body of faculty, but as disconnected individuals engaged in academic work.  To make progress I think we need to focus on what we share, what we can learn from each other, and what we need from each other as a community.

UPassAction_300x300.jpgSome of the jargon we find ourselves using a lot is around ‘breaking silos’ – but it’s very true that the UW Faculty Forward movement has given me more contact with faculty across the Seattle campus, as well as branch campuses, that I might never have spoken or collaborated with.

If we want to resume our role in university governance, we need the richness of other fields in the mix beyond our own silos.

On breaking down the corporate culture at UW

UW faculty should ask themselves to what extent the university’s interests are tied to its expectation that its future lies in continued commercialization.

In some ways, it’s natural to say “well, if the State isn’t going to support us, we’re going to capitalize on the assets we do have.”

But one of the biggest problems of this corporate mindset is reliance on private income decreases the university’s interest in and appetite for lobbying the State for public support.  It also focuses us toward research directed by donor’s interests.  This leaves less room for truly independent scholarship.

We are a public institution, and we should be publically supported as a resource for all.

Red Square, University of WashingtonOn being a public resource

The University of Washington’s Seattle campus is not really a welcoming place for the residents of the adjacent University District neighborhood. Why can’t the university help the neighborhood take advantage of the open space it provides?

At one time, I believe there was a proposal for a childcare center during the day in Husky Stadium, which is brilliant. A sports stadium is a pretty good space to care for kids – most of its space is unused during parts of the day, and it’s safely cordoned off from the street. But it didn’t happen – why?

Why isn’t the University District Farmer’s Market in the Red Square on campus? Waive parking fees for the market on Saturday mornings, and take advantage of this unused space on campus to benefit having healthy local food in this local neighborhood!

People who live in the University District and adjacent neighborhoods should be able to get something out of being proximate to a publically funded institution like the UW, whether they go to school here or not.

Diane Morrison is a Professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Washington (Seattle).

All UW photographs by Curtis Cronn and subject to CC-licenses as indicated on Flickr

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