Wednesday, August 03, 2005

WI state assembly introduces "student bill of rights" to regulate University information labor

Here's a state legislative proposal which, if enacted, would affect the information labor of an entire state university system -- and which, in its details, reveals both the gross misunderstanding of, and perhaps some disdain for, those who make their careers performing research and teaching service to the state.

Wisconsin State Rep. Marlin Schneider, D-Wisconsin Rapids has introduced a "Student Bill of Rights" to the Wisconsin State Assembly, co-sponsored by Rep. Rob Kreibich, R-Eau Claire (chair of the Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities), according to an article in the LaCrosse Tribune. I'd think this was merely a frivolous publicity stunt if it didn't have the chairperson's cosponsorship. Here are the details of the bill:

- Require an instructor to approve or deny a request to add a course within five days of the request.

- Require the suspension of all parking rules for the week preceding and following each semester.

- Require grades to be submitted no later than 10 days after the final examination for the course.

- Prohibit an instructor from requiring students to purchase or use a textbook the instructor has authored unless student government approves.

- Require the chancellor to revoke tenure of a faculty member or deduct six months' pay for an untenured instructor whose academic advising causes a student to be enrolled at least one semester more than he or she otherwise would have been enrolled.

- Prohibit an instructor from requiring students to complete a course evaluation until after the final examination is given.

- Requires by 2012 that audio or video recordings of all lectures and course sections be made available for downloading on the Internet.

- Require an instructor who adopts the policy of reducing the grades of a student due to illness resulting in absenteeism to state that policy in writing, and permit a student to appeal any decision based on that policy to the appropriate academic dean.

- Require an instructor to excuse the absence of a student whose family member, fiance, or fiancee dies or becomes extremely ill, and to allow a student to take any examination missed because of a funeral of a family member, fiance or fiancee.

- Require an instructor to meet with a parent or guardian who wants to discuss academic performance within a week, as long as the student approves in writing.

- Limit the work day of a medical intern to 16 hours.

- Prohibit the Board of Regents from entering into a contract that grants naming rights to a university arena, playing field or stadium.

- Direct the state Department of Public Instruction, the UW Board of Regents and the Technical College Board to adopt maximum weight standards for textbooks.

Some of these wildly unrelated proposals might sound like "common sense" at first blush. But the idea that the state assembly needs to micromanage such rules and regulations for the whole university system (including the flagship research school UW-Madison, consistently ranked in the top tier of public universities across the nation) is something of an insult. Unlike, say, regulation over privately-owned, non-democratic, secretive, individually-competing capitalist business firms, the state university system is a coordinated, cooperating, open to public scrutiny, and democratically-operating institution. Faculty serve both within departments and within the university as a whole to make policy and evaluate that policy. Paid administrators, lawyers, and human resources specialists balance those faculty decisions with professional, legal, and bureaucratic expertise. If there is anything that legislators Schneider and Kreibich -- or any of their constituents -- would like to object to with regard to the way the university works, they already have a well-functioning mechanism to make those recommendations or air those issues. Why would they choose to ignore all of these sincere information laborers and the self-regulatory structure they have taken such time and effort, over such a long history, to construct? I hope it is not in order to set a legislative precedent, using the Trojan Horse of "common sense" issues like parking, allowing the state assembly to later restrict academic freedom, speech, and research in further "common sense" bills (as is now being attempted in other state legislatures around the nation).

In particular, I must respond to one of the bill's provisions which I have some personal experience with, and which I think represents a gross misunderstanding of the practices and economics of academia. The proposed bill would "Prohibit an instructor from requiring students to purchase or use a textbook the instructor has authored unless student government approves." The assumption here seems to be that faculty who author books (a) make large royalties from these books, and (b) assign these books to their classes only to make a personal profit. Both assumptions are faulty. I have authored one book so far, for which I receive less than a 50 cent royalty per copy. I have never forced my students to purchase this book in one of my classes, but if I did require a seminar of 20 students to purchase the book, I'd make a grand total of ten bucks. I have also co-edited a collected volume of articles, which I did require my students to purchase in one semester. I did this because there was no other appropriate text on the topic available. Indeed, we want to have faculty in our universities who are publishing at the cutting edge of their field, and our students should have the benefit of this work. I receive no royalties for my editorial work on this volume, but the bill would have considered me an "author" of the book and assumed that I was up to no good in assigning it to my students. Writing such misguided and, frankly, insulting provisions into law is wrong. It sends a signal to both current and potential faculty members in Wisconsin that their state does not value their information labor -- that it considers them little better than charlatans, perhaps even criminal.

We should reject this law, and at the same time, we should not be afraid to address the issues it raises within our own internal regulatory structure. Bad policies can easily be changed by good people following proven, democratic procedures. We at the University of Wisconsin System may indeed have a few of the former, but I know we have an abundance of the latter.


Mike said...

Another case of the state legislature trying to regulate the university system in a way that has nothing to do with students' (or the staff's) best interest.

By the way, I was in J201 during the fall semester last year and thought the blog added much to the course. I wish more classes, especially in the journalism school, took better advantage of them.

Greg D. said...

Hi Mike, glad you found the blog useful! I'll be using it again when I jump back in the saddle of 201 in Spring 2006.

I should have mentioned in the post, for non-Wisconsin readers, that students at UW Madison especially have seen repeated double-digit percentage tuition increases over the last few years, as the state simultaneously cuts its funding to the university system. Any "Student Bill of Rights" should begin with the right to an affordable education.