Associate Professor of English, University of Michigan-Flint. I research and teach rhetoric and writing.
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Analysis: UM – Flint wrestling with implications of Strategic Transformation effort: will liberal arts — or the campus itself — survive?

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By Jan Worth-Nelson

Pressed by a complex mix of serious financial issues, declining enrollment, momentum to supply expected workforce needs, effects of the pandemic, and even socio-cultural shifts, the University of Michigan – Flint is grappling with the likelihood of major changes in its character and institutional design.

It appears the new era is already underway, with the launch in 2021 of the new College of innovation and Technology (CIT)  which offers eight degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM)-based programs, along with an intensely market-driven attempt to attract students in fields where data suggests  demand is greatest or growth is predicted.

(Graphic source:

The looming changes are ringing alarm bells for purveyors of traditional liberal arts and humanities, once a source of pride at UM – Flint, who in the present climate find themselves targets for what many fear will be austerity measures threatening to axe anything not in a growth phase.

Both the process and content of what is happening on the downtown campus, in a broad-based effort called Strategic Transformation,  are proving tumultuous  and controversial —  especially among the faculty from the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) the largest of the University’s six colleges and the bulwark of the liberal arts and humanities.

One place where change already is visible is the English Department, once a reliably large-scale generator of credit hour dollars and majors.  Because of enrollment declines, shifts in demand and other factors, it has gradually shrunk to a double handful of tenured professors and untenured lecturers, with almost all of them teaching business communication along with or instead of their disciplinary specialties such as literature or rhetoric. The dwindled department has been folded into a new combination, called the Department of Language and Communications, along with Communications and Foreign Language and Literature.

Some faculty, along with top administration officials, are lauding the efforts underway and see them as essential for the UM – Flint’s survival, but a far more vocal group are criticizing the use of a consultant, Huron Consulting Group, with a “slash and burn” reputation and suggesting that the community comment period underway is merely window-dressing for decisions that have already been made on the Ann Arbor campus.

It is not just a philosophical issue for the CAS faculty;  based on what has happened at other universities where Huron Consulting has run “market analyses,” as well as the drift of early assessments and actions already undertaken, they fear not just that their concerns are not being heard, but that they actually will lose their jobs.

UM-Flint campus – (Photo source UM-Flint Facebook page)

At the New School in New York City, for example, 20 percent of the staff were laid off in the wake of  a Huron Consulting contract — including many faculty in the humanities — in favor of a more online “corporatized” model.

At the University of Wisconsin — Stevens Point, according to an October, 2020 report in The Nation, “In addition to laying off a hundred employees, reducing employment for non-tenure-track staff, and forcibly reassigning tenured faculty, Huron’s plan shuttered thriving programs in humanities and social sciences and drove mass faculty layoffs.”

But university officials up and down the power grid acknowledge changes at UM – Flint must be made and are coming.

In the Aug. 29  “charge letter”  officially initiating what the university has labeled a Strategic Transformation, then-interim UM president Mary Sue Coleman made it clear minor adjustments would not be enough to “reverse any of these negative trends” on the Flint campus.

She said the need to implement bold changes was based on “a realistic description of the financial realities facing UM-Flint”  provided to top UM management and the Board of Regents by UM – Flint Chancellor Debasish Dutta, since his arrival as UM-Flint’s eighth Chancellor in August, 2019.

Coleman, who had come back to lead the university after the firing of former UM President Mark Schlissel, set a December, 2022 deadline for the plan to be completed.

She also wrote,  “At the end of this study and with the approval of the President, a one-time financial investment (which will be dispersed as milestones are achieved) will be committed by the University.”

What that amount is and how it might be distributed is the carrot dangling before the Flint campus.

In the meantime, the new UM president, Santa J. Ono, came into office Oct. 14, and has indicated in visits to UM – Flint and various public statements that he fully supports efforts to achieve “a robust transformation that results in a viable financial model and a strong, attractive brand that conveys a clear and nimble institutional focus that meets the immediate career needs of students, coupled with current and future employment needs of businesses and supports the local community,” as Coleman put it.

“We are striving to remain positive’

“It’s obvious from the town hall [held Sept. 23 to launch the Strategic Transformation effort] and some of the communications since then,  this isn’t something that faculty necessarily requested,” according to James Schirmer, associate professor of English and the lone representative of CAS on the Innovation and Transformation Advisory Council (ITAC).

 “But faculty, and staff , and students are very much involved,”  he said.  “We are striving to remain positive. The amount of ideas that are being generated and are being shared is incredible —  about what do we mean by “strategic,” about what do we mean by “transformation”?

ITAC is one of two official groups meeting every other week receiving data from Huron Consulting, and   preparing to advise University administration  as the process plays out.

ITAC  is composed of 11 representatives from each of UMF’s six colleges as well as the staff and libraries.

French Hall on the UM-Flint campus in downtown Flint. (Photo by Tom Travis)

The second group, the Strategic Transformation steering committee, includes the UMF cabinet — Provost Sonja Feist-Price along with the four other vice-chancellors and the deans of all six colleges.

Data is flooding in, Schirmer said, at all levels — in meetings at the unit level, the  college level, surveys, interviews, focus groups and small-group meetings with the Chancellor.

“For me,”  Schirmer said, “what remains a concern is how and where and to what degree all of this stuff being generated is feeding into and being filtered through Huron Consultants and the Chancellors’ office.  It’s not clear how all of that is coloring or balancing things like the market analysis.

“I worry that those two things  are not going to complement each other, and that they will show contrasting visions.”

He said a lot of the ideas emerging are “revolutionary” — still grounded in disciplinary knowledge and expertise, but designed around the skills that come through those courses that can prepare students for what they might need.  It’s a shift in perspective he said he thinks is positive.

A 70-page draft report dated Nov. 7, titled a ‘Market Analysis’ from Huron Consultants,”    depicts data supporting a realignment prioritizing technical degrees and rethinking or repositioning liberal arts degrees like English, psychology and economics.

Two days after the release of that draft,  Nov. 9, a special meeting for CAS faculty was conducted on Zoom with Huron Consultants representatives.  Participants were given three minutes each to share ideas about how to achieve “Strategic Transformation.”

“There were lots of great ideas put forward that day,”  one faculty member reported, “but now we wait  — we have some concerns about whether any of those ideas will see the light of day.”

Draft report emphasizes market demand, growth predictions

The Nov. 7  document,  identified and offered to faculty and staff  as a “preliminary analysis,” is heavy on bureaucratic language, and it raises many questions and issues which await the final report.  But its six chapters can yield some suggestions about how the process is organized and what the data is showing so far.   Taking each of UM-Flint’s colleges one at a time, it clearly emphasizes market demand for various degrees and attempts to predict growth in various markets.

It  compares UM – Flint to a “comparator set” of five other institutions:  Eastern Michigan University, Wayne State University, Oakland University, Saginaw Valley State University, and Mott Community College.

Missing in that set is Kettering University, a high-tech institution in UM – Flint’s own neighborhood.

While all involved stress the report is a draft,  it indicates that analyses of student demand, employer demand, and what the report labels “demand intensity”  are 100 percent complete, while studies of the competitive environment and conclusions from the market analysis are 75 percent done.  These last two categories, the report makes clear, rely on “synthesizing findings and insights from primary research and community input” — the latter category clearly underway as feedback continues to come in.

The report “infers demand for educational attainment” based on trends in the number of jobs, trends in degrees conferred across the disciplines, and trends in population demographics.”

According to the report,  the ten fastest declining occupations, for complicated reasons,  include three that have been supplied by UM – Flint’s degree options for decades: elementary teachers, secondary teachers, and middle school teachers.  The other seven are buying/purchasing agents, pharmacists, computer programmers,  computer user support specialists, and computer systems analyst.

The ten fastest growing occupations, according to the report, are home health aide, software development, general manager, market research analysis, health services manager, financial manager, manager, nurse practitioner, logistician, and load officer.

“Jobs in healthcare, business and tech  are growing and transforming,”  the report states, while the education workforce is expected to contract.  These trends have implications for academic program focus, content, and modality.”

In analyzing and developing hypotheses about which disciplines may be ripe for growth or investment, the report states that “demand intensity” is greater in nursing, engineering, business and computer science-related programs, and that the five “comparator institutions” are prioritizing these market-driven programs , while Flint has a low market share except in nursing.

Growth trends favor programs in business, health and technology, the report asserts, which it says comprises “all the top ten fastest growing professions in the region.”

The report says it aims  “To determine how UM – Flint should  go about investment in and structure of its core portfolio, which may include programs with objectives beyond direct skills/market alignment, e.g. positive externalities.”

One seeming anomaly is that it notes UM – Flint’s master’s in mechanical engineering is “in moratorium” due to declining local demand.

And it states that “Flint’s recent investments in programs such as cybersecurity are well-positioned to benefit from market forces, while “other components of the Flint portfolio such as business administration and liberal arts should be considered in light of degree conferrals and workforce trends.”

“Market intervention, such as recent actions by the state of Michigan to address education-related workforce shortages, may impact student demand in certain fields.”  Later the report hypothesizes that the institution might “align education programs with student demand, unique market opportunities and the provider landscape.”

In a section titled “emerging hypotheses,” the report suggests that UM – Flint “leverage liberal arts strengths to empower and differentiate tech and health programs,” a suggestion that got the attention of some in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Faculty begin to respond

“On some level I’m advocating on behalf of my unit,”  Schirmer said of his role in the ITAC group,  “but I also want whatever sort of transformative ideas we bring forward to benefit the university as a whole. I would hope that the transformation would lift everybody – I’m trying to be more of a believer in “both/and.”  He said he hopes the thinking about transformation is not exclusively about growth.

“Unfortunately from the draft, my take is that it’s very much growth focused,”  he said.  “We can read the writing on the wall…are the liberal arts a growth area right now?  No, they’re not…what seems to be the omission of certain fields from the draft market analysis gives me pause.  I’m hoping we will do what we do to not just grow.  How do we also answer and change the declines that we’ve seen in enrollment?  At some level we’re coming up against social and emotional forces.”

Schirmer said he’s seeing that effect  it in his communications in business classes  — a class required of all business majors.

“So many, 85 to 90 percent of the students, are saying, well, I’m majoring in business, but my real joy is photography, or literature, or my real passion is travel —  there is a widening gap between what students think they have to do to get a job and what they really want to do.”

For his part, Dutta has provided regular updates to the campus and on the Strategic Transformation website, the latest posted Nov. 16.

In that update, Dutta said feedback has poured in from faculty, staff, students, alumni and community leaders through ” three surveys, multiple focus groups, 30-plus small group meetings” with him.

A request from EVM  for specifics about that feedback was turned down by Robb King, UM – Flint director of marketing and communications, who said a presentation would be made public to the campus on UM’s own timeline —  likely in December.  In a similar response, CIT Dean Chris Pearson declined to comment, stating, “As you are aware, the university is in the information-gathering stage with its constituents, and with no decisions having been made, for me to comment at this time would be premature.” King directed readers to the Strategic Transformation website for as updates become is available and noted feedback still can be provided there.

Responding in part to concerns about the fate of liberal arts programs, Dutta wrote,

“Themes are emerging from the feedback, and I would like to share a few of those with you. Some are very positive, like UM-Flint’s distinctive high-touch offerings and the hands-on nature of so many academic programs that are keeping students engaged in their learning. We are also hearing that you believe there is a need for increased marketing and advertising to tell the compelling stories of UM-Flint’s educational value. At the same time, we are hearing concerns about the future of liberal arts programs. This is all to say that – and I want to emphasize this to everyone – we are intently listening to all that is being shared with us. As I have emphasized, no decisions have been made and therefore your feedback throughout the process is important.”

“We are very excited and energized”

One faculty member happy with the process and likely changes is Mojtaba Vaziri, a physics faculty member of 32 years, who addressed Regents at their Oct. 20 meeting.  He was one of the faculty  moved into the College of Innovation and Technology (CIT) from the College of Arts and Sciences this summer.

“Right now we are all fully engaged in a college-wide discussion on curriculum and how to enhance them to better serve our students and community,”  Vaziri said.  “We are fully invested in making UM-Flint a great destination for prospective students.

“In my 32 years here, I have witnessed many changes and initiatives – but nothing at this level,”  Vaziri concluded, thanking Dutta and Provost Sonja Feist-Price. “But I also recognize that additional change is needed to transform UM-Flint towards a healthy future.”

Another  faculty member however,  Associate Professor of English Mary Jo Kietzman, called the draft report “concerning.” Among many critiques, she lamented that the report does not describe or mention specifics of the Flint community and its significant history — and that UM – Flint’s longstanding commitment to liberal arts establishes it as unique and distinctive in the region.

Commenting on the statement that “Liberal Arts should be considered in light of declining [degree] conferrals and workforce trends,”  Kietzman is skeptical. “There is plenty of data that shows all kinds of companies need a literate workforce, capable of researching, writing, and managing digital platforms for communication.”

Teaching students for resilience

Kietzman continued, “There is NO foolproof way to design a school based on the market.  We need to teach and train students for resilience:  basic skills, thinking, coping with ambiguity and alternatives, and preparing them to be lifelong learners.  They’ll have to be with the employment landscape shifting so rapidly.”

In addition to the basics of the transformation discussions is a recent donnybrook centered around psychology professor Susan Gano Phillips, fired as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences in June.  Gano Phillips delivered a heated commentary at the October Regents meeting in Flint,   Her comments and others that day, led to a letter of concern from 21 emeritus faculty to UM President Santa J. Ono,  and a reply from UM saying the allegations had been received and that the UM had “responded appropriately.”

Gano Phillips  said she is not satisfied with the UM’s response and that formal complaints of administrative practices of bullying and intimidation of those disagreeing with the Chancellor  — “dozens of incidents,” she said —  have been met with inadequate or no action by Ann Arbor.  She said she and six other former high level administrators have repeatedly requested meetings with Ono and the Regents, but have been ignored.  A lengthy letter enlarging on Gano Phillips’ Regents comments was sent to Ono this week.

The ongoing turmoil around Dutta’s approach, which some in contact with EVM have characterized as “authoritarian,”  “volatile” and “intolerant of disagreement,”  has led one UMF campus leader — one sympathetic to the Strategic Transformation process —  to declare anonymously, “Maybe this is right for UM – Flint, but with the wrong leaders.”

Political science professor Jason Kosnoski , who has called on UM to “fire Huron Consultants,” described the Nov. 7 preliminary report as “a cut and paste mad libs report that they fill in the blanks with.”

And like many others, Kosnoski stated he worries “Faculty will have next to no influence in this process, especially if Huron has any say.  Although the administration says that they are just collecting information, the original charge letter from Mary Sue Coleman says Huron will collect data and make ‘evidence based suggestions’ on what transformational plan we should implement.  We are all incredibly worried.

“Another worrying aspect of this,” Kosnoski said, “is that although the Chancellor is having ‘listening sessions’  around town, none of this input was in the Huron draft report.  Furthermore, these listening sessions are invitation only,” he stated.

To try to  counteract that, three faculty-based organizations and others have put together an independent community listening session set for 5 p.m. Nov. 29 in the Happenings Room at University Center.  Kosnoski said he hopes it will draw  “people who really care about equal educational opportunities and making sure that students from Flint get the same options as the students get in Ann Arbor.”

So, with the deadline for completion of the plan fast approaching, c0nstituents at the downtown campus are trying to figure out the degree to which they will have a say in what happens, how they will benefit or lose from what some think was decided long ago in Ann Arbor,  and what the changes, if they occur, will do for students, potential students, and the whole Flint community that has been home to UM’s northernmost campus since 1956.

“I haven’t heard or understood any conversations against transformation,”  James Schirmer said in summarizing his sense of the campus efforts. “There is broad agreement that the way things are going, we do need to change.

UM-Flint Professor James Shirmer. (Photo source:

“We want this to be a welcoming place, a good place,”  he said. “Nobody on ITAC is against transformation — but how is it all going to look?  Even for those that are skeptical about Huron’s influence —  they’re still participating. We want a better future for the campus.”

On request, Chancellor Dutta has agreed to an interview with EVM, and the outcome of that meeting will be reported.   Requests to UM Regent Chair Paul Brown and recently re-elected Regent Mike Behm, who lives in Grand Blanc and practices law in Flint, have not yielded a response. The UM – Flint stories are complex  — no one piece can cover all of them — and we will continue our reporting as the Strategic Transformation process evolves. 

EVM Consulting Editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at  Worth-Nelson worked for UM – Flint from 1987-2013, most of those years as writing faculty in the English Department, and retiring as director of the Thompson Center for Learning and Teaching.

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When the worst people in the world keep winning


Since my return to active blogging, I have been reluctant to post about politics, choosing instead to retreat into aestheticism. Today I feel I have to respond to the overturning of Roe v. Wade in some way, because I feel implicated in the decision as a former evangelical. My church and family were never particularly politically active, and I was mercifully spared the lifelong shame of attending an anti-abortion protest or harrassing women outside a clinic. But it was the one absolutely unquestionable goal — the one trump card that meant conservatives always had the moral high ground against liberals. What could possibly be more important than stopping the genocide against the unborn?

For such an absolute axiom, however, we never seemed to place much weight on it. We never seemed to ask, for example, what the liberals thought they were achieving by condoning the murder of infants. To the extent that anyone tried to explain it, they tended toward obviously crazy theories — basically, that liberals love evil for its own sake, that they glory in the destruction of life just to piss God off. As my dad once said to me out of nowhere, “Liberalism is a religion and abortion is its sacrament.” Since almost none of us knew any liberals well and obviously none of us were in a position to have a rational exchange of views with them if we did, those extreme statements were weirdly free-floating, attaching to people who were by definition outside our circle. We also never seemed to ponder whether we really thought that “abortion is murder,” which is to say that terminating a pregnancy holds the same moral weight as killing a post-born individual. The way we thought about the women involved certainly didn’t indicate that we did — until recently, the idea of actively punishing the wicked abortive mother was not really on the agenda. A woman who understood what was happening couldn’t really want to kill her child! That was insane! It had to be the doctors misleading and seducing them, they’re really to blame.

As with all conservative projection, the truth was that the pro-life view is insane. Abortion is not murder. Developing embryos and fetuses, especially in the very early stages of pregnancy, are not morally important entities unless the woman bearing them decides they are. Early term abortion is a morally indifferent act, and late-term abortion would only be chosen under the most urgent circumstances, by both the woman and her doctor. Believing otherwise is crazy. It breaks your brain. Spending your whole life trying to wrap your mind around such a ludicrous, insane belief distorts your personality. It warps your capacity for human sympathy by accustoming you to value hypothetical “persons” no one has ever met over the woman standing right in front of you. It deadens your moral sense by teaching you that lying and cheating and maybe even occasionally killing is justified in the battle to “save” the lumps of flesh hidden within a full-grown human being you cannot allow yourself to treat as such.

And look at the people who handed down this decision! Clarence Thomas is operating under a heavier load of cognitive dissonance than almost any man alive — the only Black person on the Supreme Court for decades, today he argued for emptying the Fourteenth Amendment of all meaning and enforceability. Brett Kavanagh screamed and yelled and vowed vengeance on the floor of the Senate, on national television, because he couldn’t admit that he did something really bad when he was black-out drunk. Amy Coney Barrett play-acted the Handmaid’s Tale in a creepy cult and gladly seized the seat of the most outspoken feminist in the history of the Court in order to personally destroy her legacy. As for the three men who have made themselves a vessel for cheap talking points of the kind that the typical intellectually curious teenager quickly gets bored with, the less said the better. Two unrepentant sexual assailants, two people who very actively chose to symbolically betray the members of their demographic, five people who accepted nomination by presidents who initially took office against the popular will — this rogue’s gallery gets to decide on our human rights.

They’re the champions the evangelicals deserve — people who spend their lives in a sad bubble surrounded by Jesus-branded tchotchkes, who get goosebumps from simplistic repetitive songs meant to emotionally manipulate teenagers, who can’t have a genuinely honest discussion of any important issue without clamming up or lashing out in defensiveness, people who see again and again and again that their thing is breaking people, that their children can’t stand to be a part of it, that their fellow citizens distrust and resent them, and say: this shows we’re right. These are God’s chosen people. These are the ones who arrogate to themselves the right to decide on our behalf.

It’s a cliché to say that the worst people on earth have deep conviction while the good are wishy-washy — but they do not seem to have the courage of their convictions. Neither “courage” nor “conviction” comes to mind when we think of the typical evangelical, or the typical conservative. Someone who really believes, really knows that they are on the side of right isn’t so prickly, so irritable, so habitually dishonest and deflecting. They can’t take yes for an answer because they don’t know what they want, don’t know what their supposedly deeply-held beliefs even mean. They’ve destroyed their own minds, their own consciences, their own structure of basic emotional responses — on purpose, over and over, day after day for years and years, until they know nothing else. Except they do know something else: they know, deep down, that this isn’t it, this can’t be all there is, this can’t be worth their one single precious life on this earth. It is to unknow this indisputable fact, to squelch this unanswerable question at the core of their being, that they keep going back to their lies and conspiracy theories and sad bromides, like a dog returning to its own vomit.

Their salvation is the least of our worries, but if we save ourselves from them, we will also be saving them from themselves. They need us to take their power away, they need us to break this unbearable winning streak that is only making things worse and worse — for us primarily, but also for them. No one should have to live like they do. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.

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On the exodus of faculty

A lot of folks, with tenured positions, are choosing to get out of the university game to do other kinds of work. A recent issue of Nature has a particularly strong piece of journalism that dives into “the great resignation.” This article has resonated with a lot of people. Perhaps we’ve only seen the the…

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Weekly Review

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The United States Senate confirmed to the Supreme Court Ketanji Brown Jackson, and a former Republican National Committee aide who once requested and enthusiastically responded to a video of a baby being raped was sentenced to over 12 years in prison for receipt of child pornography.1 2 3 “I was honored to have his endorsement in PA. Twice. But I’m disappointed by this,” tweeted Sean Parnell, who ended his Senate campaign after his wife publicly accused him of abuse, in response to Donald Trump’s endorsement of Mehmet Oz.4 5 “Oz is the antithesis of everything that made Trump the best president of my lifetime.” Pakistan’s parliament ousted Prime Minister Imran Khan, a former cricket star, in a vote of no confidence, and the right-wing incumbent Emmanuel Macron and far-right politician Marine Le Pen received the most votes in the first round of France’s elections.6 7 Viktor Orbán, who was recently reelected as Hungary’s prime minister, announced that he would break ranks with the European Union by purchasing Russian gas with rubles, and climate activists rallied outside the United States Postal Service’s headquarters in support of transitioning to a fleet of electric mail trucks.8 9 An assailant poured red paint on Dmitry Muratov, the Nobel Peace Prize–winning editor of the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, as he rode a train in Russia, and an investigation revealed that violence against journalists reached record levels in Mexico, with 25 murders since President Andrés Manuel López Obrador took office in 2018, an 85 percent increase from his predecessor’s tenure.10 11 It was reported that Israel is currently holding 10 Palestinian journalists in jail for “incitement.”12

Shortly after defending the New York Police Department’s increased arrests for low-level offenses, New York mayor Eric Adams, a former cop, attended a dinner party for the haute couture fashion brand Valentino, and then contracted COVID-19.13 14 15 The NYPD destroyed homeless encampments across the city, opened fire on a getaway car, and with a police van killed a man who was asking for money in Brooklyn.16 17 18 19 With updates to its death chamber now complete, South Carolina announced that it would give people sentenced to death the choice of whether to be killed by firing squad, the electric chair, or lethal injection, depending on availability.20 In Oregon, the trial of Nancy Crampton Brophy, a woman charged with murdering her husband after self-publishing an essay titled “How to Murder Your Husband,” began, and in Florida, a woman was dismissed from jury duty for the sentencing of the Parkland school shooter after asserting that she is too occupied with her husband and her sugar daddy.21 22 Ammon Bundy was sent to jail for contempt of court after arguing that his campaign for governor should count toward his required 40 hours of community service.23 A woman was fired from a strip club after it was revealed she had merely pretended to be related to a boy who died after falling from an amusement park ride.24 “You could smell it a block away,” said the owner of Barney Greengrass, the famed smoked-fish store, after an arsonist burned down its dining shed.25

Mark Zuckerberg claimed that employees of his company “lovingly” refer to him as the Eye of Sauron.26 “We really want this to become the most famous, iconic statue in the world,” said John Bartleman, the CEO of TradeStation, referring to a 3,000-pound robotic bull without testicles that was unveiled in Miami, which is meant to represent the cryptocurrency market.27 In accordance with tradition, the Canadian finance minister purchased a new pair of shoes before the nation’s budget was announced, and the family of a deceased rapper defended their decision to stand his corpse on the stage of a Washington, D.C., nightclub.28 29 “We’re worried about how professional this has become,” said Theo Dekker, the chairman of a Dutch dairy interest group, after thieves pulled off a cheese heist in the Netherlands and an employee of a mattress shop in Middlesbrough, England, expressed concern that proposed bike lanes would provide shoplifters with “a clear getaway.”30 31 A man in Germany received up to 90 COVID-19 booster shots, and scientists announced evidence that invertebrates feel many emotions, especially when shaken or injected with acid.32 33Sam Needleman

The post Weekly Review first appeared on Harper's Magazine.
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Why I Left Libraries. Spoiler: I was broke, and job… | by Allison Jai O'Dell | Apr, 2022


Spoiler: I was broke, and job insecurity in the academy needs to change.

For almost a decade, I worked in special collections — flitting from one library to the next, taking on a series of temporary, grant-funded positions. I moved from DC to Baltimore to Philadelphia to Miami to Gainesville to Los Angeles in response to job offers. I never once planned a vacation, because, a) I couldn’t afford it, and b) I never knew what airport I was going to need to fly out of in six months.

My salaries ranged from $32,000 annually to $45 hourly (part time, without benefits). I spent most of that money moving to new cities and traveling to yet other cities for professional conferences and workshops. I spent the rest buying suits and bibliophilic society memberships to help me appear more affluent, hoping to be accepted by the antiquarian gentleman’s club.

While I was never able to accumulate wealth, switching jobs every 18 months did help me develop a wide range of skills and perspectives on data management — proficiencies that I would later realize were coveted (read:$$$) outside of the library profession.

In 2016, as I was finally relaxing into a long-sought and, so I thought, well-deserved tenure-track position at the University of Florida, I learned that my department was under threat of imminent re-organization. I was faced, yet again, with the prospect of moving to protect my income.

At this point in my career, I’d invested the following into the goal of working as a rare book librarian:

  • Two master’s degrees (and their respective student loan repayment bills);
  • Three romantic relationships (dead upon relocation);
  • The blood, sweat, and booze involved in producing 12 peer-reviewed articles and 1 single-author monograph;
  • Enough red-eye flights, iPads, and pant-suits to sustain 36 conference presentations, 39 committee appointments, and 1 Software Carpentry side hustle.

I was tired. I was broke. And I was feeling broken.

I could have picked up my cardigans, donned some sensible shoes, and gone back on the academic job market.

Or, I could decide to f*ck it all and earn some real money in the tech sector. I chose the latter.

At the 2021 RBMS Conference, I co-presented a session on the “impacts” (read: detriments) of the gig economy in special collections with Katharine Chandler, Lori Birrell, Courtney Dean, and Tamar Evangelista-Dougherty. Their insights ranged from the loss of institutional knowledge when temporary staff leave, to the loss of permanent staff energies when re-filling (re-recruiting, re-training) soft-money positions every year.

For my part, I dug into the financial and logistical reasons why someone who had devoted seven years to graduate school and a decade to special collections might want to renounce their reputation as a book historian and develop CRM databases, instead.

My reasons for abandoning an entire career in libraries were two-fold:

  1. The toxic and competitive culture in the academy left me emotionally and physically exhausted — but hey, that’s a topic for another day;
  2. I easy doubled my salary for half the work.

Academic jobs are never 9-to-5. If you aren’t working, then you’re teaching, and if you aren’t teaching, then you’re researching, and if you aren’t researching, then you’re writing, and if you aren’t writing, then you’re networking, and if you aren’t networking, then you’re on a plane going somewhere to network, and then, maybe then, you’ll catch a bit of sleep.

Normal people jobs, it turns out, have start and stop times. Normal people get to do their dishes more than once a quarter. Normal people get to take their family to the beach in July. (Read: normal people get to have families.) Normal people get to buy furniture without immediately wondering how they’ll fit it onto the moving truck.

During the “Gig Economy” session, I compared earning potential in academic libraries to earning potential on the whole for various technical services functions. If you’re in a dead-end academic cycle, I hope that these figures inspire you to consider how your portfolio may be applicable outside of special collections.

Below, I’ll recap the figures given in this presentation. I reference average salaries for position titles and keywords in the city of Los Angeles. These data were taken from Glassdoor, current as of June 2021.

As a baseline, the average salary for a Librarian in Los Angeles was $62,120 annually (with a salary range of $42K to $92K).

Data Architecture: I was an active member of the RBMS Bibliographic Standards Committee, the ARLIS/NA Artists’ Books Thesaurus project, and an OCLC initiative on Web archiving metadata. I used to contribute to development of international schemas, controlled vocabularies, and content standards for free, as a service activity. Meanwhile, I could have earned $134,677 as a data architect.

Web Development: I developed applications and customized discovery layers to help library patrons find resources. I learned several markup and scripting languages in order to take on this extra work for the library, in the hot-hot pursuit of grant funding to list on my CV. I could have earned $88,285 as a front-end developer (the folks who use HTML, CSS, and JavaScript to build the parts of a website that you see), or $101,021 as a back-end developer (the folks who work with APIs, and transfer data to/from databases).

Data Engineering: Libraries are constantly integrating data from publishers, digitization projects, legacy catalogs, union catalogs, and more. I became a whizz at data wrangling and transformation. I developed countless data pipelines and ETL processes to combine disparate data streams. I should have been earning $112,935 as a data engineer.

User Experience Research: To inform cataloging guidelines, and to better design catalogs and finding aids to meet user needs, I spent a lot of time in libraries researching information-seeking behaviors. I became intimately familiar with Google Analytics and Google Tag Manager. I ran focus groups, conducted usability tests, and led card-sorting exercises in order to gather insights on how to improve our discovery interfaces and their navigation. As a user experience researcher outside of libraries, I could have earned $140,985.

Fundraising: As a special collections professional, I was routinely asked to give tours and host events, with the goal of building relationships with donors. I cultivated skills in storytelling, and learned to quickly craft narratives about my projects’ efficacy and impact. As an academic and a gig worker, I helped develop numerous grant applications, and served as a principal investigator on several large-sum projects. Overall, I honed techniques that are crucial to fundraising and philanthropy. In the nonprofit sector, I could have earned between $98,765 as a development manager and $102,546 as a director of development.

Project Management: In libraries, I never had less than five major projects going at once. I oversaw several large-scale database and website migrations, making sure that each of my team members’ contributions were completed in sequence and on time, while I myself served as a project contributor. In the tech sector, I could have been working as a project manager — someone whose sole job is to hold others accountable to the development timeline — and earned $87,086.

You might be part of the problem. If the grant project padding your CV has generated a term-limited position, you’re not creating opportunity for new professionals, you’re creating instability for the entire workforce. Shuffling from gig to gig, special collections professionals take their talent, institutional knowledge, and anxiety with them on each hop.

The solution lay in your budgets. Work with your own fundraising teams to create permanent positions with competitive salaries. Ensure pay equity and advancement schedules for the staff you already have. Don’t drive your colleagues to quit just so they know where and how they’ll make rent next year.

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238 days ago
238 days ago
Washington, DC
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Capitalism normalizes death: From COVID-19 to the threat of nuclear war

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The utter casualness and recklessness with which the US political establishment is treating the prospect of a war that threatens to escalate into a full-scale nuclear exchange must be seen in context of the ruling elite’s indifference to mass death in the pandemic.
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241 days ago
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