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[Guest Column] Professors’ Arguments Against Penn State’s Fall Plans Are ‘Trojan Horse’ For Real Issues

The Open Letter (Petition) Penn State Teaching Professor Paul Kellerman and others penned and recruited colleagues to sign, Mr. Kellerman’s published article in Esquire magazine, and his quotes for an article in Onward State are prima facie evidence of many academic’s elitism, arrogance, and solipsism. It is an attempt at manipulation, or as Mr. Kellerman and others might call it, “The Art of Rhetoric”. It appears to be an attempt to influence public perception by means of false outrage and faulty argument. The motive and available means being used to change the administration’s decision to return students to campus and sway public opinion is a disingenuous attempt to use this time of pandemic-induced uncertainty as an opportunity to grab for power, gain personal attention, and serve indolence.

Mr. Kellerman’s criticisms of the University’s plans to resume on-campus work and learning hang almost exclusively on the accusation that there was a “…limited amount of input from faculty, staff, and graduate employees…”. The real problem seems to be that none of the University’s 16 committees and task groups (Yes, 16!) established to seek input, “…guided by faculty scientific and public health experts…” included Mr. Kellerman or any of his “group of organizers”. Perhaps Kellerman and his organizers’ fragile egos simply cannot deal with the notion that they were not personally solicited for task-force participation. Their resulting conclusion is simple: if they weren’t personally consulted, the University’s plans must be flawed.

Mr. Kellerman cites his instruction of a course in non-fiction writing and
he is likely aware of how an argument can be deceptively structured to
manipulate fiction as fact. One suspects Robert Gula’s book Nonsense: Red Herrings, Straw Men and Sacred Cows – How We Abuse Logic in our Everyday Language has a prominent place on his bookshelf. The deception goes something like this…

  • Represent as fact unsubstantiated opinion absent any scientific
    basis: Students are super-spreaders of Covid 19.
  • Claim a solution to safeguard faculty from diseased super-
    spreading students: Students should be monitored 24/7.
  • Claim a righteous concern for students privacy: Students should
    not be monitored 24/7.
  • Conclusion: There should be no in-person classroom instruction.

Kellerman’s article and open letter arguments are flawed and a trojan horse for the two real issues. The first is job security. Non-tenure line professors are “at will” employees with minimal job security. The operating and financial uncertainty affecting most businesses has created anxiety among anyone absent the privilege of tenure. The current fear, uncertainty, and doubt being experienced by teaching faculty is understandable and real. However, this pressure is what most working Americans feel and have felt every day of their working lives — even absent the added risks brought on by the coronavirus-induced economic disruptions. Mr. Kellerman and his “group of organizers” exhibit no understanding of, or regard for, the plight of most working people in this community or this country.

The coronavirus pandemic seems to have introduced the notion that Kellerman might, for the first time in their careers, be separated from the modicum of job security provided by a historic professional courtesy of employment extended teaching faculty. In one of the most uncertain and insecure times in our nation’s history, Kellerman is using an unprecedented event to grasp for certainty and job security. It isn’t going to happen. A predilection for stability right now is, again understandable, but the histrionics of Petitions, publishing Open Letters, and merchandising oneself to the local and national Press is neither constructive nor is it going to bring job security.

To be sure, the egregious, paltry compensation provided non-tenured teaching professors is a travesty that needs to be made public, and needs remediation. Teaching professors at Penn State (and many other public Universities) are compensated less than high school teachers – who are also inadequately valued and compensated! The engine of teaching at Penn State and most Universities is the body of teaching professors like Mr. Kellerman. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education the vast majority of actual teaching is done by non-tenured teaching professors. Clearly, more economic resources should be devoted to support teaching professors’ work — including that of Mr. Kellerman.

While teaching professors are starving, life has never been better for the tenure-line faculty. The general public and tuition-paying students and parents would be appalled if they knew how little work is done by many tenured professors and how much they are both compensated and protected. If one seeks an example of gross privilege and systemic disparity in the treatment of human beings in a closed system, they need look no further than a public university.

However, stand back and watch in awe when the tenure-line professors criticize this piece to support their continued privilege. They will offer a range of excuses from the importance of not having their research time and attention burdened by “trivial matters” like teaching, to the importance of the academic freedom (read protection and privilege) to say and do whatever they want. The truth is, tenured faculty love their privilege and they intend to keep it. They climbed the ladder and have now kicked it away so others cannot climb it . This system is the very kind of privilege mirrored in so many other areas of society and is one of the core complaints underlying the current civil unrest. There is a real problem with teaching professor compensation.

There may also be other real problems within the University system such as disproportionate economic resources allocated to tenure-line professors; a bloated administration more reflective of an office environment in the 1960s than the contemporary technological work environment of 2020; outdated curriculum; and a host of wasteful spending that creeps into almost every organization of tremendous size. For the “group of organizers” to use the pandemic as an entré to a discussion about job security, though, is a ruse, and the distraction is a disservice to the focusing of attention on other critical systemic issues.

In addition to job security, the second issue Mr. Kellerman back into is that they simply do not want to teach on campus. They just don’t have the courage to say the words. Kellerman apparently saw the move of in-person classes on-line this past spring as a Grand Experiment proving that students could be taught most academic content on-line. The prospect of sitting comfortably at home to teach this fall is far more appealing than having to prepare more extensively for the day, dress professionally, drive to campus, park, walk to class, and face many students who would rather be somewhere else at the moment. To Kellerman, online teaching “works,” so let’s just do that.

Well, be careful what you wish for. If the University determines it can permanently move many classes (and probably most GenEd classes) online, they will eventually realize there is an opportunity in the process to improve the quality of education by eliminating a significant number of teaching professors. The University could conduct nationwide searches for the people with the deepest and most contemporary knowledge in various subject areas, who also happen to be compelling and proficient teachers, who have garnered public success and notoriety – and hire them to teach classes online.

With no disrespect to Mr. Kellerman’s scholarship or teaching abilities, most students might both prefer and be better-served by being taught non-fiction writing electronically by authors and essayists like John Hopkins University’s Alice McDermott or New York Times best-selling author and Yale Professor Roxane Gay or contemporary new author, Glennon Doyle. How about the University of Texas at Austin’s Dr. Brené Brown teaching HDFS 497E: Risk and Resilience Over the Lifespan. Imagine the demand for someone wildly popular with the “i-Generation” like Simon Sinek teaching a class in the Corporate Innovation and Entrepreneurship degree program!

Mr. Kellerman’s misguided attempt at demanding job security could actually quite ultimately end up costing thousands of Professors their jobs as the University seeks out the very best available educator to virtually teach many courses in the academic catalog. If we are all about providing the best Penn State education possible, let the search for the best on-line teaching professors begin!

Mr. Kellerman’s position regarding not teaching on campus is enjoined by University of Michigan Professor Susan Dynarski who in her New York Times article “College Is Worth It, But Campus Isn’t” makes it clear that not only do these professors not want to teach in person, they do not want students on campus — at all! They do not even want students in town!! So how would that play out in towns like State College or Ann Arbor…?

While professors would teach classes on-line and be economically unscathed, the University would be launching administrative staff off the payroll in record numbers; local businesses would struggle and many of them would close; local gig workers would be devastated; both Mom and Pop lessors, as well as corporate developers, would be severely hurt; local real estate values would drop; many students would take a Gap Year creating a logistical traffic jam of students the subsequent year; University income would plummet; and the students will be denied a college experience – even if that experience would be curtailed significantly. But hey, Mr. Kellerman and his colleagues would be okay!

The coronavirus pandemic and current civil unrest in this country are an
opportune time to reconsider and reinvent many systems and structures. The nation’s elitist, exorbitantly high-cost system of higher education is ripe for improvement and change. There are few occupations in the country with a class of people more privileged than tenured professors. If students and others want to protest systemic privilege – maybe they should start with the higher education system in this country.

Please know, I support meaningful research and scholarship. In addition
to substantial donations to the University in the areas of Sport Medicine, Athletics, The Schreyer Honors College, and various other student scholarships, I established a Professorship in the College of Health and Human Development (HHD). The beneficiary of that Professorship is a brilliant scientist who has done breakthrough work recognized by millions of dollars in grants provided to the University by outside entities in support of his work. He wants to and does indeed actually teach class in addition to his research work, and he has management duties as the Director of a Center in HHD. He deserves and earns his compensation. Unfortunately, he seems to be an exception. I have tremendous admiration for him, and I support him and his work, but not the notion of guaranteed employment regardless of performance (tenure).

As a former CEO of both public and private companies, I find the approach being used by Mr. Kellerman and his “group of organizers unproductive, offensive, and frankly a burlesque. Regardless of what anyone might think of University President Eric Barron and the 38 member Board Trustee structure, the administration did not create or request Covid 19, and they had little time to react and effectively communicate plans. To infer that the administration does not “put people first” and was “Ignoring faculty concerns”, operating in an “Ivory Tower Executive Suite” is scandalmongering, and one of many oblique techniques used to garner support through a disingenuous twist of phrase.

Mr. Kellerman has chosen the current all too often used tactic of naming, blaming, and shaming someone for a problem that they did not in fact cause, during an ordeal that is affecting all of us and which all of us dislike – for his own personal purposes. Several signees of the petition have already voiced their displeasure and feeling of having been used by Mr. Kellerman. Some people report being led to think the petition was intended to highlight concern and promote internal discussion and alternatives to instruction. It now appears to them that there was an alternate motive. It is unlikely that most petitioners signed up to attack the administration or to be used in the promotion of Mr. Kellerman or his personal agenda, or the agenda of a “group of organizers”.

Mr. Kellerman’s misrepresentation of the efforts taken by the administration to take pedagogic concerns into account belies what actually sounds more like personal contempt for the University. For instance, what was to be gained by the irrelevant, indirect maligning of the importance of University Athletics and how does the invocation of Jerry Sandusky’s name in a National publication suggest any sort of constructive intent? Mr. Kellerman’s claim of being a “loyal cog” yet publishing an attack on the University itself is hardly the behavior of a devotee. Mr. Kellerman’s Esquire article concludes with multiple references to “My Penn State”. Mr. Kellerman may claim love for Penn State, but it also seems that he hates Penn Staters.

Mr. Kellerman like so many other academics cannot hide his disdain for the attention athletics receives and couldn’t resist taking a swipe at the importance of University athletics. So perhaps a quick mention of athletics would be instructive. Penn State Football Coach James Franklin makes a tremendous contribution to the University. He is a morally sound gentleman who works ungodly hours; models for his players and others what is required to be a person of integrity; and runs a successful program that people can be proud of. He creates a rare environment where student-athletes lives are genuinely changed for the better.

However, I have on rare occasion come home from a Penn State football game wondering why in the world Coach Franklin made certain calls, some of which feel like they could have cost our team the game (but rarely did). If I have a concern, I don’t send Coach a dirty letter, or tweet some snide remark, or publish a petition, or promote a critical article in Sports Illustrated riddled with falsehoods and innuendo and questions about his decisions. If I had a suggestion or concern, I would say it to him in private. We also both know that in the end, managing every aspect of the football program is his responsibility… and I trust his good judgment because I know that he always has the best interest of the student-athletes and the University at heart.

To be sure, it is easier to support a great leader with good communication skills like Coach Franklin. Perhaps Mr. Kellerman has simply lost faith in the University’s leadership or that of his Department and if that is the case, he should do the honorable thing – resign, and try marketing his talents to another institution. If he then wants to also work to see a change in the leadership of the University, he is free to do so. But don’t continue this duplicitous tact of claiming loyalty while plunging a knife in the back of your employer.

In my work as an Executive Coach for young CEOs, Boards of Directors of Fortune 500 companies will task me with helping their CEO improve performance and their relationships with employees, investors, and the media. I am often in some roundabout way asked by the CEO, “Why won’t people like me, believe me, or follow me?” The answer invariably comes down to an issue of Trust. Trust has to be earned. It is not earned by making private disagreements public; or without leadership sharing in both victory and defeat (to include issues of security and profit-sharing); or without the leader’s obvious commitment to protecting those in his or her care.

The landscape of the coronavirus pandemic has been — and is likely to continue to change — from week to week. Give the administration time to voluntarily course-correct as the situation changes; to do the right things; and to voluntarily take the actions that will earn the trust of all University constituents.

If Mr. Kellerman and the “group of organizers” claim to want transparency, then they should model it themselves and be honest. If they are maneuvering to organize a Union, then they should have the courage to say so. If they are appealing for higher cash compensation for teaching professors, it sure seems justified, and it would probably get a lot of support. Know though, that if teaching professors are ever going to see more of the University’s compensation pool, there is also likely going to have to be a change in the arrangements for tenured professors. So you better gird your loins to take on that powerful brotherhood. Job security is another story entirely and a pretty untenable request right now.

If professors don’t want to teach on campus, don’t. In Mr. Kellerman’s English Department, four teaching options are provided, and three of them don’t require the professor to set foot on campus. If professors want to educate themselves on the cost/benefit of reopening campus and learn why “…reopening may be the more responsible option,” then they should read the well-researched and well-written treatise by the Provost and President of Cornell University “Why Cornell Will Reopen in the Fall” in the 7/1/20 Wall Street Journal.

Finally, I would respectfully offer to Mr. Kellerman and the “group of organizers” the same advice I offer my clients struggling with what to say in difficult situations… “Just tell the truth.”

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About the Author

Gregory Wolf

Greg Wolf is a Penn State alum ('77), businessperson, and philanthropist. Greg was one of the original Advisory Board members for the Schreyer Honors College; served as the Athletics Chairperson for a portion of the Campaign for Penn State Students; established 'Life After Penn State,' a program supporting former Penn State student-athletes; the Gregory H. Wolf Professorship in Healthy Aging and Human Development; and among other significant funding, the FaceAge Fund supporting a film installation and workshops designed to spark meaningful and positive impact on the relationships between generations and ethnicities. Greg served as President, CEO, and Board Member of numerous public and private companies, and currently serves as an executive consultant to C-suite executives through Knowted, LLC.

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