August 2023

Retrenchment, Day 29

I got my official notice of my retrenchment yesterday, from the president of the university. It turns out I was slightly wrong about my last day of employment, which will be May 7th, 2024 and not the tenth. So this is day 29 since I was notified by my union, day two since notification by management, and there are 249 days to go. One bright spot is that my family will apparently continue to receive insurance coverage and tuition benefits for the year following my layoff. I assume that means on the same terms I'm getting these benefits now, and not eligibility to buy COBRA coverage. That's good news, which I wasn't expecting.

There was also quite a long email that went out from the president's office to faculty and staff, welcoming everyone back to campus and talking about the energy and excitement he feels from interactions, mostly with students, during the startup weeks. He mentioned that BSU and NTC are the number one university and college in the system in new student enrollment growth. He thanked "all the professionals in enrollment management" and "all members of our community" for this growth. As someone who has over a dozen high school students in my class who didn't have to come to BSU for their PSEO classes, you're welcome. They could have stuck with their AP US at their high school, taken the concurrent enrollment course in the high school, or taken another Minnesota State course online, but they enrolled in mine. Yes, I know we're only getting 80% of what we'd earn on a full-time undergrad. But there are actually fifteen of them. So I'll still challenge any of the professionals in enrollment management to point to a dozen new students they brought to BSU. And I have met and talked with -- physically sat down with -- the people who teach history at the two Community Colleges to our north, Northland CC and Minnesota North College as well as Red Lake Tribal College. So tell me what you're doing, enrollment management professionals. Oh, AND I supervise a concurrent enrollment class up in International Falls and visit there regularly as a visible representative of BSU. But that's not significant enough to keep me around, when we have enrollment management professionals on the job.

The president also remarked on the "spirit of collaboration" he sees "on both our campuses." He says that "Rather than turning to polarization, I see people working together in extremely difficult times to build a foundation for growth." He mentions that Northern Technical College has recorded a "30% new student enrollment surge" and promises that as soon as he receives "final feedback" through the survey and engages in some "shared governance consultations", he "will unveil our two-year strategic direction plan for both BSU and NTC."

Link to Youtube:

Retrenchment, Day 28

Update on something I talked about yesterday. It turns out, students are pretty much unaware anything is happening at all. I began my Women in World History class by asking if they had any questions or concerns about what's happening at BSU. Aside from one student whom I had already talked about the issue with before (because he is in the Student Senate), they all just stared back at me in complete confusion. I was a bit taken aback that no one had a clue that anything was different this fall.

I hadn't planned to be the whistle-blower in this situation, but at that point I didn't feel like I could just say, "okay, never mind." So I told them about the university's financial crisis and the retrenchment. Responses ranged from, "The administration never tells us anything!" to "How is it possible that people didn't see this coming?" I explained that the major issue was enrollment declines that were exacerbated by COVID but have not turned around since then, until this semester (preliminary numbers suggest that fall enrollment is better than projected). I also said that I think students are important stakeholders in the university who may have different perspectives and priorities than the faculty or administration, which could contribute to the discussion. I hope students will get involved, even if they're not invited.

We talked about it for about ten to fifteen minutes, then got on with our discussion of women in Ancient Egypt. It was a pretty interesting discussion and participation was good, suggesting people were not all checked out and had really been pretty surprised by the previous topic. I guess I have to assume from this that not only have students not heard about this from the administration, but that faculty have been largely quiet about it as well. That seems a bit odd to me.

I'm not suggesting that faculty should be trying to alarm students and get them all worked up. And it's early in the semester. So people may be thinking it would be better to say something when we know more. Or, perhaps people are just avoiding an uncomfortable conversation. For those of us who are being retrenched, there may be an effort to avoid making ourselves the center of attention. I didn't focus on the effect this is having on me personally, I don't think that's the point. And for faculty who were not retrenched, maybe they're hoping this will be the end of it and life will go on relatively the same as before.

Maybe it will. I think the point is that students who are not only paying (or going into debt) to attend BSU but who are investing their time and energy deserve to know what's up. It's not quite the same as not telling them the building is on fire. But 15% of the faculty
is being eliminated and maybe some majors and programs too. So it's at least a grease-fire in the kitchen.

am I the only person who thinks it might be valuable to understand rather than just assume what is going to be important to students in this process? As I've already mentioned, my colleague called the administration's recent "strategic priorities" questionnaire a push-poll. The implication was that management was not only disrespecting the faculty and staff, but was missing an opportunity to gain some potentially valuable insights and perspectives. I think the same applies to students. It's unfortunate that for all its talk of shared governance, my faculty union has not really formed an effective alliance with the student senate, in the six years I've been working. Seems like there might be some missed opportunities there.

Link to YouTube:

Retrenchment, Day 27

One of the things I have wondered about, especially since classes began, is what students think about all the chaos at BSU. I haven’t hid the fact that I’m being retrenched, but I haven’t gone out of my way to talk about it, either. I had a chat after class a few days ago with a student who is part of the Student Senate. I asked whether and what students (or at least student government) had been told about the situation. It didn’t sound like much.

A colleague of mine mentioned a day or so ago that students in his classes seemed a bit less energized and sharp for the first week of classes. I’m not sure about my students yet. We had good attendance in the US I survey, but people didn’t really catch on to what I asked them to do regarding annotating primary sources and discussing them on Friday. This week will be a better indication of that, I think.

Meanwhile, I don’t think the administration has really reached out to the student body as a unit and explained what’s going on. Maybe I’m wrong. After all, they claimed to have had students in their focus groups that led to what my colleague called the “push-poll” that came out recently. Although who knows, maybe they were Northern Technical College (NTC) students rather than BSU. Their opinions about the future aren’t irrelevant, especially if we’ll eventually be merging. But NTC is not retrenching.

As I’ve said before, I think at least existing students should be considered members of the BSU community and stakeholders, rather than just a market to be sold the product of our classes. At the very least, they should be apprised of what the situation looks like from an administrative perspective. They are trusting BSU to be around long enough for them to complete their programs. And who knows, they might have a different perspective on the issues and even about possible solutions and “strategic priorities”.

I’ve been a salesman in the past, in the full-on Glengarry Glen Ross type office. I understand how the job is so grueling and horrible that you start thinking of the prospect as an adversary or even an enemy. Even if you’re not trying to defraud them and rip them off. And I know marketing is a bit different from direct selling. You are casting a much wider net, so you can afford to be a little less focused on the “close” and put more effort into giving a lot of people an opportunity to buy rather than jamming your foot into every door that opens an trying to force an outcome. However, when the situation becomes dire, even marketers can become desperate. I think the lack of an effective marketing campaign over the last several years may have driven BSU’s marketers to that point, in addition to making them a bit rusty on how to do it at all.

But on the other hand, I wouldn’t exactly want their job right now. What are they supposed to tell prospective students about the university? What programs should they promote? Which ones could they confidently say will definitely exist long enough for a student to get a bachelors degree? I can think of a couple that will almost certainly survive. But what type of campus experience could they promise? It’s a tough question and a difficult job. I’m not an expert on it. I’m not making six figures by claiming to be competent to figure it out. But someone is, while I’m getting retrenched. It’s time for them to get to work!

Link to YouTube:

Retrenchment, Day 26

One of the things I started doing as soon as I was retrenched was moving my books out of my office on campus. Initially I'll admit, this was partly an emotional reaction. If BSU is in chaos and if it doesn't value my contribution enough to figure a way to keep me, why would I spend a lot of time there, was my thought. And I used to spend a lot of time in my office, way beyond the office hours required of faculty. I made a bunch of videos in my office, and I brought a large monitor to plug into my notebook. I also brought a coffee maker and lot of plants in, so it was a very comfortable space. I used to even go there on weekends, when I wanted to do a block of work in a quiet place with no interruptions.

Now I'll do that in my own office at home, with my cats. It isn't quite as serene at times, due to the cats and also to the fact that upstairs is our home gym and my daughter is beginning to work out daily. But it's super comfortable and I'm very lucky to have a space like this.

This weekend I spent some time sorting through all the books I brought back, to determine which ones I want to keep. If I'm not going to be a history professor anymore, there are some books I can jettison. Even if I am going to teach a bit, the combination of things I'll teach will probably not be the same. I picked up some teaching responsibilities when I took the job at BSU that were based on the portfolio of the professor I replaced. So I held onto a bunch of her books that she kindly left for me, and added some more on topics I was less familiar with. But since it's doubtful I'll teach History of World Religions or Women in History again, there are whole shelves I can leave behind for the next person (if any) who teaches these courses at BSU.

As a result of this culling, I've created a whole pile of books that it will take me several days to bag up and return to campus. I'll offer them to my colleagues, and the ones that they don't take, after a while I'll probably offer to students. Maybe I'll leave my office door unlocked and put a sign outside that says, "Free Books". I'll take home my coffee maker and the big monitor before I do that, but as I said, I'm not going into the campus office to do work anymore. So I could use that monitor at home.

It's still not entirely clear to me which projects I'll be able to keep alive and which I'll need to de-emphasize, as this change happens. It will depend a lot on what I'm doing and where, I suppose. We have things holding the family here, right now. So I don't think if I find some work that's far away that everyone will pick up and move immediately. But in any case, if we do move, lightening the load of nonessential books will be helpful.

Link to YouTube:

Retrenchment, Day 25

As I've had more time to think about this survey and these "strategic priorities" the administration is trying to roll out to the world using the disguise of asking for our feedback, something has occurred to me. The clue was in the survey's title, "Strategic Direction and Campus Marketing". As I thought about it, I started getting angry again.

For at least a decade, Bemidji State has basically failed to market itself as Northern Minnesota's university. That's what we are, after all. Moorhead is 125 miles west-southwest alongside Fargo, where North Dakota State University is located. And Duluth (where there's a University of Minnesota campus) is 150 miles east-southeast. BSU really occupies a prime location to own Higher Ed in the northern third of Minnesota. So what's the problem?

The problem is, BSU's Marketing and Admissions departments have been abject failures at their jobs. They have been unable to articulate (maybe to understand) BSU's value proposition as not only a place where students can gain vocational skills to take into the workplace, but a place where young people become thoughtful, responsible, balanced adults. Where they learn life skills of thinking and discernment that will not only make them healthier and happier human beings, but will also provide them with the *resilience to adapt* to changes in job markets in an increasingly uncertain employment future. There are so many examples of this, but let's just consider a recently-emerged challenge. Remember ChatGPT? It is going to do to the white collar world what robotics and offshoring did to blue collar America. So maybe this isn't the best time to be abandoning the Humanities to focus on vocational training?

But our Marketing and Admissions people don't see this. They have failed to articulate the value of a university education to people in Northern Minnesota for a decade or more. And now, when we're faced with a population that doesn't understand the value of a university, what does the administration do? They blame it on the university. They assume the people are right, and a university education really has no value. They blame BSU for having no value and eliminate teachers, programs, maybe even departments.

So basically they're getting a free pass to define the problems as "structural". That means no one who was responsible for communicating the university's value to the public (Marketing) or to prospective students (Admissions) needs to take any responsibility or face any consequences. Better yet, they can keep doing whatever it is they've been doing, and it won't be their fault when it continues to fail to attract public support or student enrollment.

Link to YouTube:

Retrenchment, Day 24

The president of BSU sent out a "Strategic Direction and Campus Marketing" survey to the faculty and staff email list. He said it builds on summer work done by students, faculty, staff, alumni, and community partners. I wasn't aware that such a group had been convened, and I was around all summer. So I'm curious how many people participated -- and who.

The survey asked people to rate how sever they believed a series of external threats were to the university. I assume the choices on the list reflected the feedback the administration received from its summer participants. I didn't actually think any of them were either "Very Important" or "Extremely Important". The only one I thought was "Moderately Important" was the increasing cost of delivering high-quality education to students. But even that is relative -- costs are only challenging when they can't be met by revenues. Two of the options (eroding public respect for Higher Ed and changes in the business model) seemed slightly relevant as external challenges. Two more (NCAA policy and intolerance) struck me as irrelevant -- although I thought it was significant that some people in the group that formulated the questions consider racism and sexism at BSU to be an existential challenge.

As far as external opportunities go, I think the growth of adult learners and nontraditional students is very important. But I thought several of the "opportunity" questions seemed to be too focused on local and regional businesses. Even the couple that weren't specifically about contracting to deliver customized "job training" educational programs. The implication seems to be that someone wants to hitch BSU's wagon very explicitly to training students for specific work at specific businesses.

The questions demonstrate the preferences of the administrators. I almost said prejudices, because these seem to be opinions they arrived on campus with, months or years ago, that they don't seem to have modified -- even in light of evidence that doesn't align. These biases they continue to confirm include commitments to "Engaging Place", DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion), and the idea that if we would just tell our story better, students would come. The one "strategic priority" that seems really important to me is aligning the university's efforts with enrollment, retention, and student success. This is so obvious, but it doesn't seem like the administration is actually asking students. It still seems like they're saying, "we're going to do these things we come up with and we'll measure the results using these metrics."

Although the introduction said equal time would be devoted to polling people on the strategies and the marketing, the progress bar only looked like I had advanced between a quarter and a third of the way through the survey before we had dispensed with that pretense and I was being asked to assume the priorities the administration had chosen and help them figure out how to best market these.

Some of these pages were very obviously telling the survey-taker that there's a plan to try to get deeply embedded with local business and industry. Creating a master academic plan that knuckles under and makes BSU a vocational college doesn't seem to me like an answer. Later in the survey, when respondents were asked to pick descriptive words for both BSU and NTC (Northern Technical College), the survey makers neglected to change the follow-up questions for NTC about our thoughts regarding the "ideal Regional University". Is this a clue that BSU and NTC are merging? When I mentioned this to a colleague, his response was, "well, NTC is in the black."

Link to YouTube:

Retrenchment, Day 23

Rumors are beginning to swirl about programs possibly being cancelled or merged. On the one hand, this may seem obvious and expected. If you're down to two faculty, as many programs now are, it is very difficult to offer enough courses in the appropriate order for a student starting in any given semester to find a viable four-year degree path. Even so, that doesn't mean people were expecting it. In fact, the administration has been going to great lengths to try to reassure everybody who is left that they would try not to reduce programs and majors. Now, three weeks and a couple of days into the retrenchment, the administration is apparently beginning to talk along these lines. Or is preparing to talk along these lines. Or has hinted along these lines -- enough for people on campus to be talking about it with alarm.

A question I would ask, if I was looking at making plans for a post-retrenchment BSU, might be when is the administration going to actually come clean? If programs are going to need to be merged and some majors cancelled (as seems likely), and they are in fact gradually beginning to talk about this, what does this suggest? There seem to be two options. First, they didn't know this was going to happen and are just as surprised as faculty that BSU has to go there. Second, that they are trying to control the message and let the bad news arrive in small doses.

In the first option, doesn't that suggest the administration still doesn't understand the university's financial situation? This seems unlikely to me. It hasn't changed since they made the first set of decisions, that included getting rid of me and 26 other faculty. The second option, which seems more likely to me, suggests that the faculty isn't being treated as a partner in the process, but that it is being managed. A less positive term might be, played. This approach would include doing something like saying "we hope and we'll work hard to insure that programs and majors are not affected", which implies this is a possibility. Then, after the shock of the first bad news has diminished a bit, saying something like, "wow, it really seems like you're going to have trouble maintaining that program with the faculty you have left. Maybe you should merge it with this other small program." As if that wasn't the plan all along.

In addition to this being dishonest and manipulative in a way that seems likely to create even more distrust and resentment and result in less cooperation at a time when it is most needed, this approach would be another example of the administration managing from the executive suite without consulting with people who should be their partners. And that's not just faculty. It seems to me that student voices are being ignored also. I've had some brief conversations with people in student government, and although the situation at BSU arguably affects them the most, it doesn't sound like they have been invited to the table. Apparently, the administration considers our students to be a "market" rather than a group of young (and some older) adults who are also stakeholders. You don't consult with the customer when you're thinking of changing the formula for the soap, I know. But is that the appropriate model for this situation?

Link to YouTube:

Retrenchment, Day 22

In addition to retrenching tenured and tenure track faculty like me, BSU has also opted not to renew the contracts of fixed term and adjunct faculty. They had to do this in the rosters where they wanted to retrench, or contractually they would not have been able to eliminate positions. This too will have an effect. I don't think I worked less hard when I was a contingent instructor than I do now. Also, as I've mentioned previously, the retrenchments in June followed a cut in March that let go 23 people in a combination of early retirement incentives and layoffs. This has also had an effect on campus.

Unlike Twitter, BSU can't lose large numbers of workers and continue to function as if nothing happened. An example: as it turned out, the connection from the projector wasn't working when I got to class on Wednesday morning. Luckily the connection to the document camera was. So I put my notebook under the doc cam and ran my PowerPoint through it. My friend in IT Services rushed over to help, and figured it out while I was doing the doc cam lecture and after class we verified her theory that it wasn't the entire control box that was broken, but only the port the HDMI cable from that connected to my notebook was plugged into. If it doesn't get fixed, I'll be able to unplug the cable to the doc cam and plug that into my computer next time.

The unreadiness of this large lecture hall in the science building for normal operation at the beginning of a semester is directly related to the financial crisis at BSU, it turns out, because IT Services is now shorthanded. One of their senior support people took the early retirement incentive when it was offered last spring, and she was not replaced. Now that I think of it, I think the CIO left as well. A guy who used to manage servers is now doing classroom tech support, and my friend who rushed over is a senior person in her department. With everybody wearing extra hats, we're probably lucky anything works!

In another unforced error, a couple of my students in Women in World History had to borrow the book from me in order to do this week's work. The bookstore "ran out" and people either ordered the book there or went on line. In either case, they'll have to wait up to a week more to receive their copies. This is a problem I haven't encountered recently, because I rarely require books students need to purchase. But even though the two volumes I've assigned aren't that expensive, I'd say there's something broken in a system where students don't get their books until the end of week two, more than 10% into the semester.

Part of this issue may relate to an uptick in students enrolled in the last couple of days before classes began. A colleague had his course cancelled because enrollment wasn't high enough, and I think I picked up some of his students. But even so, with 23 students I was only a little over 50% of my cap. You would think the bookstore might have been able to handle this. I'll be visiting today or tomorrow to chat with the manager and get her perspective.

These are the types of problems that have been fairly common at BSU, but now may become more frequent. In the past, faculty and students have sort-of powered through them. Will a change in morale make that more difficult? I'll admit I was a bit more annoyed when the projector failed on the second day after I had been promised it would be fixed. I held it together, for the most part. But there are a lot of people under unusually high levels of stress on campus right now. Could be a problem, if the machine starts to break down.

Link to YouTube:

Retrenchment, Day 21

No retrenchment news today, which is a bit of a relief. It's the third day of classes -- hopefully the controller that drives the projector in the lecture hall I'll be using at ten has been fixed or reprogrammed as promised. I'll go a bit early to make sure. Did not get an email from IT Services as promised, letting me know of the outcome. If it isn't working, I will tell my students to watch the lecture video that I include in the section header of the ebook. And I will raise a little hell. Since I'm a short-timer, I suppose I'm a bit less concerned about stepping on toes.

But on a positive note, I've been trading emails with my friend in Mankato about planning what I'll talk about at the meeting in late September. I sent my travel request for OE Global to my Department Chair. And I followed the example my friend Chris Aldrich and decided to own my own web identity. So I bought a domain ( and a current copy of Rapidweaver, and I'll be putting up my own website in the near future. I'm going to continue posting stuff on Substack and YouTube, but I'll give it a permanent home, too.

An interesting and fun element of this was that when I downloaded the updated Rapidweaver (which is ironically now called "Classic") I was able to open all the old website folders I have made over the years. Holy crap! I have written a lot of book and article reviews and blog posts about the state of Higher Ed and all kinds of other topics, over the years. It's kind of cool to look at them again and see what ideas I've been working on for a longer time than I remembered. And how some ideas have developed and changed over time. I'll probably create some type of archive for some of this content, so people don't have to find it on the wayback machine. I'll be using the pages to remind myself of things I had identified as interesting topics for later (you may have noticed I sometimes say that in my book reviews). A lot of these notes are not part of my note-making content, so I'll also probably begin adding some of this info to my Obsidian vault. So you'll probably be seeing the results of this in both the Historiography and in the Note-making sections.

Link to YouTube:

Retrenchment, Day 20

Yesterday's first day of classes went pretty well for me. There were some snags, of course. The technology in the room I was teaching in didn't work, so I was not able to project from my notebook computer to the big screen. While a technician from IT Services worked for the entire period trying unsuccessfully to get it to work (using my computer), I talked off the top of my head. I think it went pretty well. Hopefully the controller in the cabinet, which he said he was going to need to reprogram or replace, is fixed by the next class on Wednesday morning, because I need to project a set of PowerPoint slides for my first lecture.

I had an hour-long discussion on Zoom with my friend who runs the faculty Learning Circles I've been attending for the last couple of years, writing open textbooks (OER) and redesigning courses. We talked about how we might move forward together on this zero-textbook-cost Z-Degree program, not only for BSU but for the entire system. The situation at Bemidji is complicated and they may not be ready to undertake developing pathways through majors that are free of textbook expense. But that doesn't mean the system shouldn't move forward. And there's really nothing preventing me from offering my services to other institutions that want to pursue this goal.

And I've been invited by the university at Mankato to do that: to participate in a couple of workshops at the end of September focused on developing, assessing, and communicating about textbook affordability. That will be a great opportunity to share what I've been working on and thinking about, and discover how others are approaching the issues. I also finalized my registration and travel plans in mid-October, to the next OE Global conference. I went to the 2019 meeting in Milan, just before COVID began. This one is in Edmonton, so I'm actually going to drive to it.

So that's the news from yesterday and this morning. I think this Retrenchment Diary is helping me stay focussed on doing something every day to address my predicament. Today I have another fist meeting of a fall class, and I'm looking forward to greeting the students. It's an elective, so I have had several of them before. But I'll also be working on the bigger picture, and I'll report on that tomorrow.

Link to YouTube:

Retrenchment, Day 19

It's the first day of classes, so I'm not really focused on the future or the retrenchment right now. I'm writing this anyway, to remind myself. I want to avoid being lulled into complacency by the idea that losing my job is still months away. I'm excited about my classes that are beginning, but I shouldn't let that distract me from the reality of my situation. As good as it's going to feel to be in front of students today, both in person and on video, I think I need the daily discipline of this Retrenchment Diary to keep me focused on solving this problem. Because it is not going to solve itself.

Link to YouTube:

Retrenchment, Day 18

It's day 18 of the Retrenchment and tomorrow will be the first day of classes. I think I've already adequately expressed my feelings about as well as my differences of opinion with the upper management that if they have not gotten us into this mess have at least dropped the ball (completely!) on responding to our issues in any positive or proactive way. I'm not going to dwell on that today. Because although I'm going to continue to analyze and criticize this crisis and people's responses to it, I'm putting that aside for the moment to get ready to greet students in my three classes beginning tomorrow.

I'm only teaching three courses rather than four this semester because I decided to devote a "three-credit release" to the Z-Degree Exploration, funded by the grant I got to do that. Two of the courses I have this fall are in person: US History I and Women in World History. The third, American Environmental History, is an online asynchronous course, which means that although I will be having individual meetings in person or on Zoom with students, there will be no "synchronous" class meetings. This distinguishes this type of class from "Hybrid" courses where there is still a class-time that students are expected to show up for, if only online, to listen to a lecture, participate in discussion, or take a quiz or test.

There are some complexities involved in making an asynchronous online course engaging and valuable, which can be considered challenges or opportunities, depending on the instructor's attitude. Since I prefer to be the disruptor than the disrupted (pretty ironic given the current situation, I know!), I have tried to think of the online course as a way to explore new techniques and technologies to try to make my American Environmental History content more engaging, interesting, and relevant to the students' understanding of the world we live in today. In the past, when I have taught this in person at BSU, I have received good student evaluations. And when I first developed this course as an online elective for UMass (when I was still an ABD grad student), students said things like, "This was my first semester and this course has created an incredible first impression. If all the courses are this good, I am going to really enjoy my time here. The course has changed the way I look at the world."

The curriculum for the course the student was reviewing became my OER textbook. I'm using it again this semester and adding a new chapter that will try to deal directly with complexity and evolving worldviews. So I have to say, I'm looking forward to sort-of wrapping myself in that "dialogue-with-students" energy and forgetting my retrenchment problems a bit. I think it's important to get away from dwelling on this calamity too much, at least some of the time. It's also valuable to be reminded of why we do this work, anyway. It's not the institutional accolades, and it's certainly not the money. It's the students.

It's funny, though. I mentioned recently that some of the talks about reorganization were devolving into little squabbles about things like who is contractually authorized to read faculty members' Professional Development Plans (PDPs) and Reports (PDRs). I think I surprised some people, when this came up in our first department meeting last Thursday and I said that personally, I think the PDP/PDR process is bullshit (in the sense David Graeber used the term in
Bullshit Jobs). The university has replaced live, realtime mentoring and discussion of what and how we plan to teach our students or conduct our research and writing or do service, with these semi-annual documents that typically run to tens of thousands of words, leading ultimately to tenure and promotion applications that can balloon to hundreds of thousands (yes, instead of writing a tenure book, most faculty at BSU write a bureaucratic document of similar length!). I don't mind bragging about my accomplishments in the five "Criteria" on which I'm judged. But I don't really see a lot of value in this process where I say, "I did this, this, and this" and a couple of months later I get a response from the Dean that says, "Yep, you did". I'm not really getting a lot of guidance and coaching in this process. There are other opportunities for this, and I have a good relationship with my Dean and Department Chair in which we talk about what I want to pursue and they give e valuable feedback. But that's exactly the point. The official process fails to do that, so we find workarounds.

And yet, so much of the focus of day to day life at BSU
and of the conversation in this crisis is on these meaningless formal structures. Finding a way to abide by the contract in the PDP/PDR process after the reorganization -- or even finding ways to do the PDPs and PDRs more efficiently -- is the wrong goal. It distracts us from what we should really be doing, which is focusing on the students. And now, having vented a bit about that, I'm going to spend the rest of my morning launching my courses for my students.

Link to YouTube:

Retrenchment, Day 17

It's Saturday before the first week of classes. It's going to be sunny and hot, so the family is going to float down the Mississippi this afternoon. I'm going to stay home and get my courses buttoned up for next week. That includes populating the learning management system (LMS) and updating the syllabi. I have taught all these courses before, and although I am making some adjustments to content and assessment (the things I'm grading students on), I don't need to write completely new syllabi or "course shells" this semester.

One thing I won't miss, once my time at BSU ends, is the way syllabi have become bloated over the years. They used to be descriptions of the courses and schedules of what we were covering and when. When the exams were. Due dates for papers. That sort of thing. Now they've become little booklets of legal boilerplate and disclaimers. A few years ago I ran into an idea promoted by the social annotation app,
Hypothesis, that made marking up the syllabus the first shared annotation assignment of the semester. I thought it was interesting, but I'd be embarrassed to force my students to annotate the documents I'm required to call syllabi.

Another thing I'm looking forward to abandoning is the antiquated learning management software we use. Also a few years ago, I met the Moodler at OE Global in Milan. Martin Dougiamas, the leather-jacketed Australian who founded and who runs Moodle, was already adding really cool collaborative and Open Education-related features in 2019. As we transition to a 21st-century education ecosystem, I think a learning platform could enable and support learning and collaboration, both between students in a class and educators globally. The LMS we use at BSU is a dinosaur, but the "sunk costs" are a deterrent to change. And the time and effort people have devoted to making it minimally useable.

But I wonder, at what point does it make sense to say "
sunk costs are no costs"? This was a famous dictum of my Agricultural Economics professor at UMass back in the 1980s. He was an old farmer, so some students scoffed at the counterintuitive advice. He had hard experience as well as theory to back up his claim, though. So I often hear his voice in my head when I see people hanging on too tenaciously to things we've invested in or to the way we used to do things. It's going to be even harder for my university to avoid that tendency, when BSU is eliminating so many of the faculty in the early stages of their careers in favor of folks many of whom have been there for two, three, or four decades. I'm not saying you can't teach an old dog -- I'm living proof you can. But it's hard work, and the sunk costs are much greater.

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Retrenchment, Day 16

The Deans had their follow-up meeting after the rollout of their reorganization plan, yesterday afternoon. I went and listened, since it's something the people remaining will need to work out, and not myself. I threw in a couple of observations, many of them reiterating things I had said in a long department meeting we had earlier in the day. I don't feel it's my place to tell my colleagues how they should try to organize themselves in my absence next year, or what courses of mine they ought to let lapse and which ones they should continue, etc. There may be some feedback from my students as the semesters progress; and if that's the case I will pass it on.

The all-faculty meeting was similar. In some ways, it went better than I expected, I think. There was not a lot of acrimony. I saw a lot of the other retrenched faculty in the crowd, but no one made a scene or really even spoke up at all. The Provost was in the room, but this time he didn't say anything and the Deans led the discussion. The plan they had outlined is not designed to be the one that finally gets adopted. It's supposed to be a starting point, from which faculty put something together that they can support and that might work. That's the strength and the weakness of the plan.

I sat in roughly the middle of the lecture hall, listening to three or four of the nearest small-group breakouts that were happening on all sides. Some of them discussed high-level issues like creating a timetable for milestones in a plan to develop the reorganization over a series of administration/faculty-union "meet and confer" sessions. Others seemed to almost immediately get stuck in the weeds of issues like, does the contract allow department heads rather than Deans to evaluate faculty "Professional Development Reports"? Beginning by fighting over details like that, I think, is a danger to coming up with a plan. So while there's a possibility the university will come up with a really cool and innovative way to reorganize themselves to meet the challenges of Higher Ed in the 21st century, they definitely have their work cut out for them.

I want to switch gears for a moment, a bit, and comment on something else I've been hearing during startup week. There has been some talk that I would almost call blaming, about the challenges BSU is facing, having to do with how we're "losing students" that "ought" to be ours. The culprits, apparently, are programs that allow high schoolers to earn college credits.

Now I'm getting this second hand, since I didn't attend the President's or the Provost's talks earlier in the week. But what I've heard is that PSEO was targeted as an example of these types of programs for high schoolers "eating our lunch". And I wanted to respond to that. PSEO is the Post-Secondary Enrollment Option, which is a state-funded program that allows high school juniors and seniors to enroll in college sources (typically general education surveys but sometimes upper-level electives with permission), either in person or online. The students get a taste of the college experience, do work that might be a little harder and more comprehensive than what they'd get in a high school class, and earn credits that transfer anywhere in the Minnesota State system and in most cases to other colleges and universities.

The issue, according to criticism leveled by the administration, is that BSU only gets paid 80% of what we'd get from an "actual" undergraduate and they're "stealing seats" from our "real" students. I have a problem with both those objections. First, I don't see why we couldn't consider these students as incremental business which we wouldn't otherwise get, and be happy Minnesota offers a benefit that students in other places don't receive. Second, we don't build our courses (or course caps) based on whether the students in seats are undergrads or high schoolers. I have 14 PSEO students in my US History I survey this semester, out of a total of 54. There are also four sophomores, one senior, and 35 first-year students. And six open seats. If BSU wants more undergrads in this class, they need to attract more people to enroll at Bemidji. The 14 high schoolers have not crowded out people who want to take this class. In any case, that would be a great problem to have. If there were 100 students wanting this course, we could redesign the course and raise the cap a bit, or offer another section.

I think there's also, in the backs of some people's minds, a resentment against the PSEO students, which shows up in the nearly complete lack of focus on PSEO students on campus. These high schoolers are basically not welcome, they're tolerated; and they feel it. Is it because although some do ultimately matriculate at BSU or another Minnesota State institution, most go on to other, more competitive schools? Some administrators seem to think we're preparing these bright students to become overachievers at "better" universities. I guess we are. But we're also getting the benefit of having them in our classes, contributing in and improving learning and discussion that benefits all the students. Every semester, some of the students with the highest final grades in my surveys are PSEO. And we're getting paid for it! We're getting a chance to temporarily teach students who would otherwise be going directly from high school to a different college or university. And in any case, let's get over ourselves. The high school doesn't resent students who go to college because they're not ending their educations with a diploma. Undergraduate programs don't resent students who go on to grad school.

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Retrenchment, Day 15

Yesterday I spent about 11 hours in the car taking my son Gio to move into the dorms at Minnesota State University at Mankato. While I was there, I had a cup of coffee with a friend who had been my professor in my first ever Historiography class, and who is now the Dean of the Library and Learning at Mankato. They are doing some really cool and interesting work building a learning community for 21st-century students.

Long story short (but I’ll elaborate on the longer part of the story over the next days and weeks), I wrote/talked yesterday about entrepreneurs in small businesses who try to understand what their customer wants and needs, and what they can contribute. Then they design a response (a product or service) that adds value and craft a message that articulates that value-add. The implication, of course, was that I thought BSU ought to be more like a responsive, nimble entrepreneur responding to changing customer needs and less like those “dinosaur” executives who drink their own kool-aid (mixing metaphors here) and try to force the market to go where they want, because they know better.

This applies to me too, of course. My discovery (I’m getting to the point here, finally) yesterday was that I had been thinking of myself as a History Professor who happened to write some Open Educational Resources. What I learned was that, much as I love the content I teach and the topics I research, I’m actually an open education guy who happens to do history.

I suspect this will inform my thinking and my actions, moving forward.

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Retrenchment, Day 14

I generally dislike and mistrust arguments suggesting that academia needs to be "more like business". To a great extent I suspect that comes from spending 20 years in business, including a bit of time in business school seeing what they teach there (I took some courses including the undergraduate capstone in the University of Minnesota's management track). I was a bit impressed by Michael Porter's case studies, which always seemed to illustrate some interesting insight he wanted to teach. I always suspected there might be more going on than Porter's narratives highlighted, but they were inspiring stories.

I didn't see a lot of evidence of even that level of thinking, though, in my actual experience working in businesses; either in the securities and insurance industries or in high tech. Lots of ego. Lots of kool-aid drinking. Lots of wishful thinking. Occasionally, a manager or executive was humble enough to try to really understand what customers preferred and what the market was telling them. These people generally had a lot of skin in the game, in small start-ups that would disappear if they failed. They are usually obsessed with understanding what their customers want and developing and articulating a value proposition. I rarely saw a highly-compensated manager or executive second-guess a decision or strategy, once they had publicly committed to it.

If you're sensing that I'm about to segue back to Higher Ed, you're right. As much as fans of academia might object, today's colleges and universities are run like businesses. They are not citizen-owned or even government-owned entities that are operated for the public interest using public expenditures. Even "public" institutions like those in the Minnesota State system are expected to "pay their way". While they may receive substantial funding and grants from government (state, federal), at the end of the year, they are expected to balance their books. Deficits created by spending more than they take in are not covered. No one says, "well, you were doing the right things but enrollment is down, so here's a check to make you whole."

Of course, one could (and I have) argue that BSU has not been doing the right things. This is one of the ironies of our current situation. The university is expected to operate like a business, but we don't really want to put businesspeople in charge of business tasks and decisions. Our executives are sort-of hybrids. Often they are semi-successful academics who have moved into "administration" without really demonstrating they are adequately prepared. Being a somewhat remote, Northern Minnesota campus probably adds to the difficulty, since it is hard to attract candidates and we like to promote from within our community.

But this is not always the case. We ran a national search for our new president. He presented himself (and the announcement of his appointment presented him) as an expert on "Educational Leadership" with a PhD and teaching experience in the subject. The chancellor touted his devotion to diversity, equity, and inclusion and his success as a fund-raiser. These are qualities that could be very helpful to BSU. Unfortunately, in the present crisis these attributes are beginning to seem more like frosting rather than cake. And if there's no cake, there's nothing to frost.

My biggest issue, as I mentioned yesterday, is that it was the three Deans, and not the upper-level administration, that worked all summer on a plan to try to reorganize the university to be more sustainable and maybe even grow. The Deans are actual hybrids, half academic and half administrator. At many schools, they even sometimes teach. The administrators above them are the ones who are supposed to be able to run the business of the university. So far, the only contribution they've made is the plan to cut our way to profitability.

So what happened in the Deans' meeting. It began with a request for the current department chairs to "celebrate" achievements in the spring or summer. Most of them had to do with someone receiving a big grant. Then the Deans named and congratulated all the faculty who had received tenure or promotion. At least one of those people they were congratulating had also been retrenched. Then came a justification for the reorganization (and for the retrenchment that preceded it). The Provost showed that spending in Academic Affairs had increased 15% for instruction. This is a problem. A bigger problem, that went sort-of unaddressed, was that non-instructional Academic Affairs spending increased 35%. Maybe instead of cutting quite so many faculty, we ought to be asking the Provost to reduce his non-instructional spending a bit.

The Deans' proposal was to reduce from three colleges to two (eliminating one Dean) and reorganizing 22 departments into 7 schools. This would save about 90 credits of reassigned time and hundreds of duty days, since department chairs get a six credit release and 28 duty days. And it might create synergies and interesting interdisciplinary opportunities. The Deans also mentioned it would reduce some redundancy, since there is some overlap between the topics different programs teach. I'm not that convinced of that, because some of my courses (Decolonization, Women in History, History of World Religions) are more or less duplicated by courses in programs that won't become part of my school. Of course that's just an example. This doesn't apply to me at all since I won't be there.

When I looked around the room, I saw a lot of set jaws and stony expressions. Even from -- maybe even particularly from -- people who are not getting retrenched. I came away from the meeting thinking resistance (especially passive resistance) might be the thing that kills this plan. If that's the case, there's not much hope. The Deans said at the beginning of their presentation that they're being tasked with reducing their budget for academic year 2025-26 by $4 to $5 million. If things don't change and they default to management's solution of cutting faculty, that's over 40 people. There will be only 141 left after the current retrenchment.

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Retrenchment, Day 13

Today is startup day at Bemidji State University and day 13 of my Retrenchment Odyssey. 268 days until my position is eliminated. I'm going to avoid the President's kick-off breakfast meeting and the Provost's academic affairs update, which will free up my entire morning. In the afternoon, I will be attending the Deans' reorganization meeting. So I'll see a lot of colleagues and I'll hear how the university might be altered in a way that makes it more sustainable. The Dean's hope, which she expressed to me at breakfast a few days ago, is that these changes might save retrenched jobs like mine. I appreciate the sentiment, although I'm skeptical that a turnaround could happen that rapidly. Even so, I'm looking forward to hearing more about the plan and to seeing other faculty (the ones who will be around to implement it or not) react to it.

I do think it's significant and worth mentioning that the plan for this reorganization was apparently developed almost entirely by the three Deans. I haven't heard that there was really any collaboration or support or sharing of the work on this, by the executive-level administration. Or, now that I'm mentioning it, from the faculty union. It certainly seems to me that the administration above the Dean level, which costs BSU over $3 million annually, is a bit behind the curve on suggesting positive changes in addition to retrenching faculty. And the union is always talking about shared governance. I think it means a bit more than veto power.

In any case, I'm looking forward to seeing what the Deans have come up with and I hope it's good and that people get behind it. We need changes, that's obvious. I'll let you know what I find out.

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Retrenchment, Day 12

I mentioned yesterday that the concurrent enrollment "College in the High School" classes offered by the local school and some others in Northern Minnesota were sort of an issue unto themselves. Today I thought I'd elaborate, because they are relevant to the situation at BSU.

College in the High School is just what it sounds like: an opportunity for secondary students to earn college credit taking a "supercharged" course that meets the learning objectives of a similar course in a college setting. The courses are taught by high school teachers and supervised by college faculty. I'm supervising a World History course up at Falls HS in International Falls, on the Minnesota-Ontario border. That means when the teacher was developing the course, I consulted on the syllabus. And I go up at least once each school year (but typically once per semester) to observe the class. This oversight is designed to insure the students at the Falls get a course that resembles what they would get from me.

Although students receiving college credit in high school courses reduces the number of credits they have to take at college, the hope is that the head-start will help propel more students into a college prep track and ultimately result in more people getting college educations. There are other ways students can get college credit before matriculating, of course. They can take AP courses and exams. Or they can do PSEO, the Post-Secondary Enrollment Option, where the state of Minnesota pays for their tuition and books when they take actual college courses. In some semesters as many as 25% of the students in my US History surveys have been PSEO high schoolers. Many of them were among the top students in the class.

So there are a lot of ways in which entering first-year undergrads can already have a lot of credits on their transcripts. This isn't entirely new. When I matriculated at UMass over forty years ago, I entered with a semester's worth of credits from an AP exam, a summer spent at Cornell, and a German proficiency exam. When my son begins at Mankato State next week, he will already have abut 60 credits on his transcript, from two years of PSEO he did at BSU instead of high school. There are even some programs that offer credit for prior work or life experience. So there are lots of ways that people can receive credit toward a Bemidji State degree, other than by taking classes at BSU.

There has been a lot of talk among faculty and administration, about the effects of these programs on enrollment and the university's finances. While the concerns people have expressed are not irrelevant, I think we're looking at the situation upside down. The cart is before the horse. The point is not really, how do these ways students learn and earn credits effect BSU. The more appropriate question is, how can BSU best help students learn and earn degrees?

There's all kinds of data available suggesting that on average, people who have a bachelors or higher degree will earn twice as much during their lifetimes than people with a high school diploma. The assumptions behind this statistic are rarely examined. I'm not even 100% certain what they are. But I suspect they have to do with the relative numbers of people with each credential. In other words, if half of Americans have a high school diploma and half have a degree, then the degree holders get the better jobs. There can even be jobs that require a bachelors or higher, to even apply for -- even if the job doesn't require specific skills acquired in college. There's an understanding that a college education provides some basic thinking and learning skills, and having the degree demonstrates a person has learned (or at least has been exposed to) these, and has had the discipline and commitment to complete a degree.

But what happens if 75% or 90% or 100% of people have degrees? I think we can all agree that this would be a positive change for the individuals and probably a good thing for society. But what happens to labor markets? Specifically, what happens to the half of the economy that existed because employers could tap into a low-wage workforce? Maybe people will all shift to "better" jobs and automation will do more of the lower value work. I hope so. My point here is only that the "college graduates earn 2x" calculation will change. Labor markets and pay will change, but not necessarily in ways we can predict.

Even so, I think we can still agree that having more people receive more education is a social good. The question is, what education and where? I'm running out of time this morning, because I'm trying to keep these daily check-ins relatively short. But I want to continue pulling on this thread and think about skills vs. general education and targeted programs vs. 4-year degrees, among other things. And where a residential university fits into that evolving picture and what it may need to do to remain relevant.

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Retrenchment, Day 11

I went to the Beltrami County Fair yesterday afternoon, as a volunteer in the Historical Society’s exhibit, which is an 1896 homesteader log cabin that was moved to the fairgrounds. It belonged to Freeman Doud, the first white man to occupy a farm by lake Bemidji, on land that now includes Diamond Point Park and the state university campus. The cabin’s interior is roughly 300 square feet and the society has filled it with household articles from the early 20th century, to depict what the life of early white settlers in the region may have been like. It’s one of the dependable, permanent features of the fair, and people come year after year to visit and remind themselves and their children.

It was a mostly sunny Saturday afternoon, so the traffic was pretty steady in the three or four hours I was there. As people circulated through the small exhibit and children filled out little scavenger hunt sheets, locating antique toys, I had a chance to chat with local people and also with my fellow historical society volunteers. These are folks who have lived in the area for decades if not their entire lives, and who are very invested in the community. Of course, the issue naturally came up of “what the heck is happening at BSU?”

While most people probably think of Bemidji as an up-north vacation destination for fishing or boating, or the big town to visit for ice creams, shopping, and a photo with Paul and Babe when they’re up at camp or visiting the Mississippi headwaters at Lake Itasca, it’s also a college town. Maybe not quite as much in the way Northfield Minnesota is, with both Carleton and St. Olaf. But BSU is a big employer in the region, and in the past it has been a center for both sports and cultural life.

This came up in the conversations I had in the Doud Cabin yesterday. A retired Bemidji schoolteacher brought up the previous retrenchment about a decade ago, when she remembered, “they shut down the theater program.” BSU’s connection with the community through dramatic productions and the connection to the city’s community theater had apparently been so strong that it is remembered over a decade later by people who are still disappointed with its loss.

I’m not entirely sure what the mechanisms of the strong connections were, in the decades before the previous retrenchment. I imagine the link was partly created by theater instructors and students who volunteered their time in the community. And by locals who came to campus to see shows and were inspired to produce their own. There’s still a community theater in Bemidji with dedicated volunteers producing shows, but it must have been so much more in its heyday.

The university does more than just pay the city to lease its location and employ local workers — although this is also important and the loss of more workers will have an effect on the economy. It also acts as a cultural center and a sort of beacon to high schools in the region that there are people in their city who are doing research and scholarship. I don’t think we’ve done a particularly good job over the last decade or so, reaching out into the community in a deliberate and organized way. Sure, individuals have maintained or developed ties. I’m president of the local historical society’s board of directors. And I know some colleagues who have done sustainability projects or have visited the high school to talk about our programs or supervise concurrent enrollment “College in the High School” classes. But to a great extent, I think this has been ad hoc activity by individual faculty members, not an organized engagement by the university. That’s a problem.

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Retrenchment, Day 10

I have already mentioned that retrenching 27 people at the bottoms of several departmental rosters tends to disproportionately eliminate early-career faculty who were teaching a lot of the survey courses and who may have been more up to date on some of the most recent advances in their fields and also in new developments in teaching. This is not universally or necessarily the case, of course. It is as possible for a tenured full professor to be keeping up with the latest developments and to be excited about new educational technologies and practices. But statistically, there may be a case there. Similarly, another thing that has been said about this retrenchment is that it is disproportionately eliminating women and minorities. And statistically, this is also demonstrably true. Fewer of BSU's more recent faculty hires have been middle-aged white males like myself. So as far as measures of diversity and equity go, BSU will be taking a step back toward the 1970s, if not the 1950s.

Of course, just as there are some tenured full professors who keep up with their field and pedagogy, there are some middle-aged white males who work to incorporate diversity in their courses. I teach decolonization and highlight issues of race and class and women's issues in my history courses. A recent contingent history instructor who covered for my colleagues during their sabbaticals was a young white male, but he was an effective advocate and teacher of equity and diversity. So I don't think it's true that the people who are left will try to lock down a conventional, "master narrative" worldview. Although, I have to admit, the contingent instructor and I will both be gone, once the retrenchment goes into effect.

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Retrenchment, Day 9

When I went to Crossfit yesterday, there were a bunch of BSU people there. My tenured colleague in my own department who was also retrenched is a member there too. And she had posted an announcement of her retrenchment on Facebook, so the news had spread even farther. It's a bit weird, because although it has been announced that 27 faculty are being eliminated, the names have not been released -- only a list of which rosters were effected. So in order to figure out who has been retrenched, you have to compare the numbers announced in each roster with the actual list. I have done that, but even then it's hard to be 100% certain without asking.

And occasionally there's more to the story. One of the people I saw at the gym was a member of the music department. He mentioned that in addition to the guy I had guessed had been eliminated, a tenured professor who basically saw the writing on the wall decided to find a new job and resign before she could be retrenched. This loss doesn't "count" in the 27, but the music department is going to feel it.

Morale is going to be a big problem this semester, I think. Nobody I talked with said they are going to attend the president's startup breakfast meeting. One person suggested that maybe all the retrenched faculty should go, and face their chairs away from the stage or "take a knee". Mostly, people are planning (or at least saying they're planning) on avoiding the meeting entirely.

I am not planning on going to the president's meeting or to the provost's. My Dean is going to roll out her reorganization plans for the colleges at a two-hour-long meeting in the afternoon, and after having breakfast with her a couple of days ago I have agreed to attend that. It's a really radical reorganization which might have the desired effect, although probably not quickly enough to save my job. But at least she and the other Deans are trying to DO SOMETHING other than just eliminate faculty, which was the best response the administration managed to come up with.

Students are arriving this weekend and dorm move-in begins next week as the faculty are attending or boycotting these start-up meetings. What the administration says to them will also have a huge effect on how the semester goes. And what faculty say, especially those of us who are losing our jobs. I don't plan to stand in front of classes and air dirty laundry. But I also don't plan to hide the fact that I've been retrenched. I suspect that will be a shock to some of my students. I actually got an email from a former student who is now in grad school. She was very supportive and offered to write a letter or cause a ruckus. That was very nice, and I appreciate it.

The problem for current students will be, how will all these classes go, taught by faculty who know they are short-timers. I don't plan to slack off, although I have to admit I may not implement some of the innovations I was planning for this semester. I imagine that as time passes, I'll feel more like I should just do what I've done before and devote the time I would have spent trying new things to looking for a job. To be honest, I feel more urgency around getting my courses ready to offer to the outside world than revising them for BSU. But having said that, I DO of course plan to teach these last courses at BSU to the best of my ability and to tell the students that even though the race may be ending, we're going to run through the tape. The content hasn't changed: it's still relevant and important, even though the institution is crumbling around us. A metaphor for the state of society?

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Retrenchment, Day 8

The president of my university sent out an email to all faculty and staff yesterday. I think it struck a pretty good tone. He acknowledged the retrenchment and the disruption to people’s careers and lives it has caused, and he apologized. He discussed the budget problems, which he pointed out are largely due to enrollment that has been trending down for the last five years. When he discussed the reductions in expense lines, he was careful to note first the cuts he has made in administration.

I think these are all helpful and send a message of a management team that didn’t cause these problems and is reacting to them as well as they can. And I think there’s some truth to that. But I have questions. For example, I’d like to see as much detail about the administrative cuts as I’m seeing about the faculty cuts. Specifically, are they trying to claim management’s contribution to covering the budget shortfall consists in not replacing the Chief Diversity Officer and his staff who left, and the Assistant VP of Academic Affairs who went back to his tenured faculty position? That will save a couple of hundred thousand dollars going forward, but it doesn’t really affect anyone who is currently an administrator.

The biggest issue, for me, is that although the decrease in enrollment has been a concern for the last five years, so many of the people who either contributed to it or failed to respond are still running things at BSU. One thing I haven’t heard anything about is the executive pay gap. The cost of living isn’t very high in Northern Minnesota. So despite the competitive national market for university executive compensation, I don’t think the people running BSU should be making three to five times more than the people teaching the classes. Especially at the moment, I would suggest that the most significant step the C-Suite could take would be to cut their compensation for a year by the same percentage as the faculty reductions. If BSU has to lose 15% of its faculty in order to survive, I don’t see why the president and his cabinet can’t take a 15% haircut In solidarity.

There have been lots of meetings about “Strategies”, using outside assessments of BSU and comparisons with other institutions, which we have paid dearly to purchase. There have been a lot of exhortations to faculty to think in terms of fancy new acronyms like SMART Goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-based). The thing that has been missing is Consequences. It is too hard to fail and lose your job at BSU, if you’re a manager. Maybe that’s why it’s so possible to succeed and lose your job, if you’re faculty.

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Retrenchment, Day 7

Day 7 of my Retrenchment. It's beginning to seem less like an Adventure and more routine. There haven't been any changes or breaking news overnight. I'm going to finalize my syllabi for my fall classes over the next couple of days. I'll be teaching US History I, Women in World History, and American Environmental History this fall. I have a three-credit course release to work on the Z-Degree project, funded by the grant I received in the Spring. I'm going to continue working on that, although probably in a different way now, than how I would have under other circumstances.

I'm reminded by the events of this week that the funding for that work came from this grant I received from the system office. That means that actually, Minnesota State and not BSU is the client. I can definitely research and report on how to prepare a university to implement zero-textbook-cost programs and majors. Even if it's not necessarily going to be BSU that ultimately implements such a plan.

I'm not saying my current university definitely won't do a Z-Degree. My Dean has always been a supporter and still is. She even suggested to me that if I could lock in the $100,000 implementation grant, that might save my job. Assuming a portion of that could go toward covering half my salary for a couple of years, she thought that would be a strong argument. That's technically possible, given how modest my salary is. But ironically, there might be pushback from the union if the university tried to protect or reinstate my job "out of order" with the seniority roster.

One of the biggest ironies about this situation, from where I stand, is that it's really a combination of management and union priorities that has resulted in my retrenchment. From the administration's position, the best solution is to cut faculty rather than athletics, infrastructure, or management. From the union's perspective, seniority is the only criterion for ranking. That's part of the insanity that is gradually destroying Higher Ed, but that's a story for another day.

So I
might be able to do myself some good, if I managed to write a successful grant proposal and got the $100,000 to implement the Z-Degree. I was reasonably certain I was going to win that grant, before this happened. Now I think that would be a lot of work, especially against the morale headwinds and confusion that's going to be caused by this retrenchment and reorganization. I am also not sure that I could adequately promise that the implementation would go as I planned it, if I'm not around. I don't think I ought to ask for that kind of money without being able to insure it would be put to the use and get the results promised. But I can't guarantee that unless I'm the implementer. I'm not even considering the unfairness to me of writing a grant proposal I wouldn't be able to participate in -- I'm just talking about practicality. So I guess I need to find some way to convince management to give me a two-year contract, contingent on me getting the Implementation Grant. Which would be funded out of that grant. It would still be a roll of the dice, since I'd have to win the grant to keep part of my job. But at least it's got real conditions attached, rather than a vague hope that things don't turn out to be so bad. So I've gone ahead and written a letter to the Provost and Dean. I'll let you know what happens.

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Retrenchment, Day 6

This morning I'm had breakfast with my Dean and another (tenured) colleague in my department who has also been retrenched. Then afterwards, I had a meeting with my department chair. I like both these managers quite a bit. And I don't blame them for what has happened at my university. Both have worked really hard to come up with creative solutions that would support the school's mission and also attract students to our program and courses.

They each expressed their concern for me and I have no doubt that's real. The Dean proposed a type of "hail Mary" effort to remake the academic programs that might help retain my job. I appreciate the efforts and sympathize with her hopes. I will attend the meetings during startup week in which she and the other Deans are going to roll this plan out (I'm not going to the President's breakfast or the Provost's meeting). I think the changes they're proposing may save a few of these retrenched jobs. But the people who normally carry most of the weight in efforts like this are also the people who have been retrenched. So it will take a different group of faculty to step up and make this happen. I'll let you know how that goes.

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Retrenchment, Day 5

It's day five of my retrenchment adventure. I wrote the bones of this post yesterday, but today I'm trying to revise it to tone down the anger a bit. I haven't decided to completely "let go" and ignore or validate by silence the stories that are beginning to circulate about the problems at BSU. But I'm trying not to make it personal.

Apparently there was an article in the local paper about a month ago, describing layoffs at BSU that were done in March. So far, there hasn't been any news about the fact that BSU is retrenching once again. One of the things people may wonder about it, when the news comes out, is why did this happen? How did we get
so deep in this financial hole? In the article, the administration acknowledged that they had discovered that the university's deficit, which had been estimated at $9 million, was actually $11 million. Somehow, the reporter on the story was misled into describing this realization as something of a "win" for management, which looked more thoroughly into BSU's finances and discovered the problem through a "deeper understanding of the budget". This is inaccurate and might even be described as a coverup. Everybody on campus knows the truth.

One of the problems has been decreasing enrollment, which was a problem before COVID pushed BSU off a cliff. The university did receive a bunch of one-time money during the COVID crisis. Apparently the administration spent a lot of that on stuff that wasn't one-time. Rumor has it that the headcount reporting up to Academic Affairs increased dramatically. That's kind-of a problem. BSU already had one of the lowest percentages in the MinnState system of spending on instruction, with just a bit over a third of our budget paying for faculty. This is typical for small institutions -- after all, your fixed costs for things like buildings are...fixed. The big variable cost is faculty, and it can expand and contract more easily with enrollment than some of the other lines.

The problem is, reducing faculty to align it with lower enrollment sort-of insures that the lower enrollment will be permanent. I was already wondering how the History program I was part of was going to deal with the roughly 90 to 100 students per semester that I teach, once I'm gone and there are just two people left who between them already teach about 140 to 150? And neither of the remaining people currently is prepared to teach East Asian History. Or SE Asia. Or Environmental. Or any of the non-western, post-colonial stuff like Latin America. This is not to say they couldn't gain that expertise and prepare themselves to teach these subjects. But due to tenure and academic freedom, they can't be forced or effectively pressured to do so.

And my situation isn't unusual. 27 faculty are being cut -- over 15%. The Sociology Department is losing two people who between them teach a couple of hundred students per semester. The two people left in the department are not going to be able to absorb those students. So there will be fewer seats in History and Sociology courses. There will also be fewer courses offered. By about 1/3 in the case of History; probably 1/2 for Soc. Especially upper-level electives, since the surveys that meet core requirement goal areas are typically the most heavily enrolled and in any case are necessary for the graduation core requirements. Are students going to come to BSU to major or minor in these subjects? I think not.

The overall message students are going to get, when they hear what is happening and see the course catalog for Fall 2024 is,
don't come to BSU to study History, Sociology, and probably several other majors and minors. It's going to be really crucial, I think, for the university to craft some type of message that addresses the issues honestly and constructively. Admitting that this is a big problem but suggesting that although it's painful, there's a plan and it's not fatal.

But is there a plan? I haven't seen one, and I was on the Strategic Enrollment Management Planning steering committee for a couple of years. And is there a marketing and communication department that can produce and deploy a complicated, nuanced message like that? Remember when I was feeling salty a couple of days ago and said there are a bunch of people remaining in the new president's cabinet who aren't qualified to run a department? The marketing department is the most egregious example I can think of.

I guess I need to get over the anger at some point and say to myself, it's no longer my problem. I'll work on this. It's a bit harder, I have to admit, when the administration and the union are saying things like, maybe the cuts won't be this deep. Maybe we'll be able to "claw back" some of these retrenched positions if some money falls in our laps or enrollment miraculously recovers in the next two semesters. I understand why the union wants to hold onto this hope. But I don't consider this type of talk from the administration an expression of good faith. If you keep doing exactly what you've been doing, you're likely to keep getting the same results. Oh well. It's not my problem. It's not my problem. It's not my problem.

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Retrenchment, Day 4

It’s Day 4 of the Retrenchment Adventure; 277 to go in my BSU professorial career. Today (Saturday) I'll be meeting with my Obsidian Book Club and talking with friends in the Midwest, California, and even the Middle East about Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway's recent book, The Big Myth. I should acknowledge that this will post first thing Sunday morning, so my documentary of my experience is slightly delayed. I write this journal throughout the day as things happen and as I have ideas; then I produce a post that collects the parts I think are interesting and reports them out.

Along those lines, I've been thinking a bit about my research and writing projects. When I had lunch with my Dean a week or so ago and she hinted things might get bad for me at BSU, my initial reaction and what I told her was that I was planning on continuing to pursue my historical projects. I even expressed a little regret that I hadn't made a bit more progress on these projects when things were seeming to go smoothly. I'm going to miss the opportunity to take a sabbatical and travel to archives. I'll even miss the ability to use my travel expense budget to do a bit of research during the semesters while I'm working. BSU isn't a research university -- not even remotely. I don't even know another faculty member who has published an academic monograph. But even so, a third of the "professional development" criteria on which we were judged every year had to do with research and publication. Mostly that meant articles or conference papers. So there was some money available to faculty to travel to conferences or to conduct research.

Now, of course, I'm not sure I'm going to have another chance to be faculty in Higher Ed. If I don't, what becomes of my research? Obviously, if I became a UPS driver or a salesman, any reading I did would have to be strictly as a hobby and I'd have other full-time claims on my energy and attention. If I did something in Higher Ed that wasn't history related (such as promote OERs or open education), my research would still be a sort-of hobby but I could at least work on history related OER projects. If I was earning a living producing historical material for a popular audience on the web, a lot of my research might remain relevant.

Notice I didn't say, if I get a book deal. I guess maybe I shouldn't rule that out quite so immediately. But I'm not really a fan of mainstream publishing as it's currently constituted and I think it would be a bit difficult for me to generate the energy to approach agents or editors, write proposals, etc. I've been there, done that with the Yale University Press. It didn't make that much of an impression. Based on the types of subjects that interest me, I feel like I'd have more luck finding an audience online than convincing a publisher my ideas would fit their audience.

I've been aware of and interested for quite a while with the differences between writing for academic audiences and writing for the public. I think some of the historical material that interests me has more of an academic flavor, although I think (hope!) I could tell a story about most of the stuff that interests me that wouldn't bore a regular person to death. However, I recognize that SOME of the stuff I'm pursuing may be much more resonant and compelling to an audience on Substack or YouTube. I just did a historiographical post on the Bavarian Illuminati that a viewer responded to with hopes I would expand on the theme. There are certainly some topics that are sexier than others in the online history space.

That doesn't mean I want to devote my time to pursuing clickbaity topics that don't interest me at all, that I don't think make a meaningful contribution to helping how we understand the past inform our lives today. But it DOES mean I ought to try to be aware of the relative "sexiness" of topics that interest me. If I want to develop a bigger following and maybe earn a living publishing history online, I need to find a place where my interests and those of my potential readers/viewers converge.

I suspect that of the three projects I've been working on, over the past year, transatlantic secular radicals probably have the least extensive potential following. I think there has been a fairly substantial international secularist movement online in the past, but it may be less prevalent than a decade ago. When I first published my Knowlton biography, I got some attention from these folks and even attended a convention. But interest may not be as widespread as I'd like it to be. Similarly, I think there may be some localized interest in aspects of my project about the White Pine forest and the lumber industry. If I told the stories in the right way, I might find audiences.

The thing I've been working on that I think might generate a large online following is the network I've been creating or plutocrats during the first Gilded Age, which I've been extending toward the present. I think there's a LOT of resonance with what's going on today -- not only networks of elites running the nation and world from the shadows (or at least, out of the spotlight of attention). But also of the types of people who opposed them and the methods and techniques they employed. I spent this morning listening to a chapter of
The Big Myth in preparation for my Book Club meeting. Clearly, people are writing bestselling books on topics adjacent to the type of thing I'm pursuing. So maybe I can find a path to develop this info that both contributes to historical understanding and captures its share of eyeballs.

It's interesting to me that my thoughts about this seem to show that in this new information ecosystem, there's a much different relationship evolving between creators and consumers. It will be fascinating to see how this plays out.

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Retrenchment, Day 3

Day three of my retrenchment adventure! It's nice to have people show support at a time like this. In the last couple of days since I was retrenched I've received a lot of messages from people in many of the communities I'm part of. I even heard from my dissertation chair, David Glassberg, who I didn't know followed my blog! Thank you, everybody for the good wishes.

I had a talk with a friend who leads the OER Learning Circles for the system. I mentioned to her what I've just discovered (and talked about it yesterday) the connection between job security and authoring open textbooks. She shared her own experiences with being a contingent instructor (adjunct) and writing open content. She also suggested I talk with people at the system office who value the shift toward affordable course materials. I've been part of that network for a while now. In addition to writing OERs, I have been on the system-wide Academic and Student Affairs Tech Council and last year I was its chair. I've been on Textbook Affordability committees. I've talked with state legislators.

It's interesting, working within a state system. We're the second largest system in the US; only SUNY, the State University of New York, is bigger. Seven universities and 31 community and technical colleges, I think. The question this always raises in my mind is, what should be the role of the system relative to that of the campuses? One possible answer to that question is that the universities should all offer complete, 4-year programs, soup to nuts, across the entire range of subjects typically covered by a university. Another is that they might want to focus on a core competency, if they have a faculty that is particularly strong in an area or if they have a tradition of superiority in a subject. Some people call that "Centers of Excellence". Or a location or physical footprint that lends itself to a particular focus like agriculture, urban planning, or sustainability.

My university has invested a lot of its mindshare in a "sense of place". We're the only university in the system located on a scenic lakeshore in the north woods. Although the Environmental Studies Department and Sustainability Office have believed this suggests a focus on ecology and have tried to create programs matching that vision, I don't think the campus has entirely committed to this. The Music Department, for example, points to a long tradition of community engagement with performance. This was very true in prior decades, when we also had a strong Theater program. My office on campus is in a building that has several really nice recital halls in it, which I remember my kids performing in when they took violin, piano, and cello lessons with a local teacher. The Bemidji community was very upset when the Theater program was gutted and will probably be similarly affected by cutbacks in Music. But how many students is Music currently serving? How are decisions about its importance being made. It's a mystery.

The MinnState system coexists in the state and competes for funding with the University of Minnesota. "The U" is an R1 public university established in 1851 and then expanded under the Morrill Act of 1862. It has campuses all over the state and serves over 50,000 students. MinnState, the second system in the state, actually serves over 300,000. And even at the university level, we are focused on extending the benefits of Higher Ed to a wider population. The state legislature recently passed a law that would grant free tuition to students from families earning less than $80k annually (my kids may qualify if I fail to find a job!). Ironically, this is exactly the population BSU tends to attract, and we're geographically positioned to attract them from the entire northern third of the state. Too bad we're cutting so many faculty and programs just before these students begin looking for places to enroll.

But back to my original point. I have a network in the system, both in St. Paul at the "Home Office" and in quite a few of the colleges and universities. The system isn't going to disappear, and I believe in its mission. So maybe this crisis at BSU can become an opportunity for me in the wider system. Lemons to lemonade. I've got 278 days to find out.

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Retrenchment, Day 2

As I mentioned yesterday, I'm going to be reporting on a daily basis about my "Retrenchment Journey" over the next 279 days. Some of these posts will have to do with how the situation I find myself in seems to be a very clear demonstration of the current crisis in Higher Ed. This is one of the main reasons I want to document this experience and why I think it will be resonant and attract readers. But along the way, I think I'll also be surprised by some experiences and ideas I hadn't anticipated. Today I have one of them.

Writing Open Educational Resources (OER) is something you do when you are employed. This isn't something that has really ever occurred to me before, because since I began writing OER I have always been employed. I did recognize pretty clearly that it was the type of activity that attracted early-career overachievers, eager to make a name for themselves by going above and beyond the call of duty. But I figured, "what goes around, comes around" and expected that as Rajiv Jhangiani once said, "change often comes one retirement at a time". While I believe that is still true, I've recently run headlong into the reality that sometimes change comes one retrenchment at a time.

It's one thing to give away valuable content when you are an employee and the content both enhances your organizational value and provides benefits to students. The institution benefits tremendously as well, through increased enrollment and retention as students discover they can eliminate the crushing expense of commercial textbooks. However, it's a bit much, I think, to expect people who are not collecting a paycheck to be expected to donate their intellectual property and effort in this way. So once I am no longer earning a paycheck, I'm considering ending the giveaway.

I gave away several of my OER textbooks on the Open Textbook Library, over the years. These began with my American Environmental History textbook, which I'm revising this summer for my fall class. Then I wrote a Modern World History textbook that I later revised with another Minnesota State professor. I may want to revise this again, if I decide to teach a Modern World course on the web. Next was a US History I text that began as a remix and revision of a pre-existing open textbook, but evolved into my
American History Told By Contemporaries primary source anthology. I'm still working on that one, adding podcast links so students can listen to the sources in addition to reading them. I'll be using it this fall in a class as well.

Finally, there's my note-making and writing guide,
How to Make Notes and Write. This began its life as my father's A Short Handbook for Writing Essays in the Humanities and has been through a couple of revisions. The most recent one was last year, when I added a whole note-making section to make it a more complete "Methods" textbook for students wanting to learn to write a research paper. This one may be the most obvious candidate for removing from the Open Textbook Library. I'm not teaching a course during my final year of employment that uses it, so there's no paycheck currently associated with it. And it does have a bit of a following. I suspect that if it was no longer available as a free e-book, I might sell a few more copies. And since there are only 279 days left in my career at BSU, that's something I need to think about.

So, as of now, I'm removing the free ebook of
How to Make Notes and Write from the Open Textbook Library and making it available for sale on Amazon. In the near future, I'll probably create a research and writing methods class that I'll offer online. So, hopefully, people who value this content will support the author now that I'm transitioning to freelance.

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So I just got retrenched. Retrenchment is a term that describes the situation when tenure-track or tenured faculty are let go because their positions have been eliminated. I wasn't quite tenured, although I was going up for tenure this fall. But plenty of tenured people are losing their jobs too. As I understand it, in addition to the four people who were already retrenched, 27 more have been cut. That will leave 141 faculty at BSU.

The university is in serious financial trouble. Our enrollment was down significantly before COVID. Our recruitment efforts were really pretty lame for the better part of the last decade. The previous president was useless and her cabinet was filled with people who had no business running departments. The chief financial officer retired just after the president did, and when she left her replacement discovered that the deficit the campus was facing was actually not $9 million but $11 million. Almost what you might consider criminal negligence. A bunch of the other people responsible for this debacle are still on the new president's cabinet, still collecting their six-figure salaries.

I suppose it's going to take me a couple of days to decide what my next step is going to be. As I've mentioned before, at the end of last semester I received a grant to explore to possibility of BSU offering zero-textbook-cost bachelors degrees (Z-Degrees). I was planning on recruiting faculty to convert their courses and then writing the follow-up application for the $100,000 grant to implement the program next year. But I won't be working at BSU next year. Maybe someone else will pick that up and run with it. I'd put the odds at...100 to 1. But if we're laying bets, what are the odds BSU will exist long enough to implement a Z-Degree program?

Steph has already begun sending me job descriptions -- the first from Vermont! Guess I better update my CV and my LinkedIn page. I have some friends in other Minnesota State institutions and at the system office. Maybe there will be something there for me to do.

I have been sort-of considering the possibility of this happening for a few days now. I had lunch with my Dean last week and things seemed pretty grim. Part of the impetus, I think, to spend more time uploading content to Substack has been the idea that I might not be teaching at a university soon. I’m not sure, however, whether I’m hoping that will entice another institution to want to hire me? Or am I secretly hoping that I’ll be able to earn a living writing for an online audience? Or teaching classes online, to students who just want to hear about the types of things I cover in my courses?

I’ve been thinking for a while now it would make sense sometime soon to put the courses I teach on the web and actually offer them to regular people anywhere who want to study with me. I guess that time is now. Over the next couple of weeks, in addition to getting my classes ready for my students at BSU, I think I’ll get them ready for the world and offer them online. This is going to take some thought. I guess I’ll get right on that first thing tomorrow.

One last thing, since I’m now facing a countdown to unemployment. I encourage everybody who is getting some value or enjoyment out of the stuff I’m posting on Substack to please subscribe. If you’re already a paid subscriber, thank you very much. If you’ve been on the fence, consider jumping. Although I’m not getting rich working at BSU (I earn about the same as an average High School teacher), that’s going to come to an end soon. If I could offset some of that lost income from subscriptions, that would increase the options I could consider.

They're getting rid of the people who actually DO everything. All the innovation. All the new courses. All the new initiatives like the Equity Certificate program, OER textbooks, Z-Degrees.

In a big way, it's the union's fault. The system (tenure itself) protects the oldest and most senior faculty. They also tend to be some of the most resistant to change and least energetic. But it's also the administration's fault. I was a volunteer faculty member on a "Strategic Enrollment Management Plan" steering committee. After a couple of years I dropped out. Last year they spent the entire year (literally) filling out a five page spreadsheet of great things they could do to improve enrollment. Maybe they should have spent a little less time brainstorming and a bit more effort doing shit. I'll talk more about each of these problems as I move forward.

I'm going to add a new tab to my Substack header, called Retrenched. It will document my journey the next 280 days. Stay tuned and hang on; I imagine it's going to be a somewhat bumpy, wild ride.

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