The Work of Humanities

Posted by sepoy on June 06, 2016 · 12 mins read

Departmental Chairs of SALC (L to R): Ulrike Stark, Gary Tubb, Wendy Doniger, Steve Collins, CM Naim, Sheldon Pollock, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Clint Seely. Center: Alicia Czaplewski Departmental Chairs of SALC (L to R): Ulrike Stark, Gary Tubb, Wendy Doniger, Steve Collins, CM Naim, Sheldon Pollock, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Clint Seely. Center: Alicia Czaplewski

A few weeks ago, the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations celebrated its 50th anniversary, alongside 60 years for The Committee on Southern Asian Studies, and more generally a record of excellence in research on South Asia dating back to the foundation of University of Chicago in 1892.

These are good times for the study of India at the University of Chicago. Just two years ago, with much fanfare, the University opened a Center at Delhi (to go along with other global centers in Paris, Beijing etc.). A few years before that the Indian Cultural Ministry put in $1.5 million to install the Vivekananda Visiting Chair. Earlier this year, was another major gift-- The Anupama and Guru Ramakrishnan Professorship in Sanskrit Studies-- a Chair that will be held by Gary Tubb.

These are bad times for the University of Chicago. In Feb 2016, the S&Ps rating agency cut its credit rating to AA- citing "persistent and expected continued operation deficits, high debt burden and adequate financial resources for the rating with additional debt expected in fiscal 2017".

This was all pre-dicted. In 2014, Bloomberg reported:

... inherited an ambitious program to improve campus life while bolstering highly regarded academic programs. The institution stuck to the plan even as it suffered a 21.5 percent loss on endowment investments in 2009. Its debt has grown in the past four years to $3.6 billion from $2.4 billion. “We well understand that borrowing for some of these investments entails risk,” Zimmer, whose $3.36 million compensation made him the highest-paid private college president in 2011, said in a statement in August after local reporters obtained a copy of the proposed financing plan. “We cannot, however, scale back our academic and programmatic ambitions in a way that risks our future excellence as a university.”

As a result in 2015, the University claimed to look towards re-couping their losses by focusing on non-academic staff:

... it is signaling a bureaucratic revamp covering some 8,000 nonteaching staff members whose compensation has been growing faster than faculty pay and university revenue. “This means a change in how we think about administrative costs, not just a temporary adjustment of expenses,” Provost Eric Isaacs warned in an April memo to faculty and staff. At a faculty meeting the next day, President Robert Zimmer said support functions that had grown in an ad hoc fashion could be organized more efficiently, according to an attendee who asks not to be identified. Another faculty member, who also requests anonymity, says Zimmer, when pressed, “clearly acknowledged that people were going to be losing their jobs.”

It came then as no surprise that two weeks ago, a number of departmental administrators in the Humanities Division were given a month's notice for the termination of their jobs-- with the stipulation that small departments would now share administrative staff as part of this re-structuring.

One of those given notice is Alicia Czaplewski-- center stage in that photograph above, taken at that gala dinner celebrating SALC few weeks ago. In her 23 years of service to the University, she worked for nearly all of those departmental Chairs. In 2011, Alicia was celebrated by her students and awarded the Marlene F. Richman Award for Excellence and Dedication in Service to Students. Alongside Alicia, Tracy L. Davis, administrator for Slavic Languages & Civilizations, was also given notice.

The students, and faculty, have a petition in her support that I urge you to read, if only to see how big an impact Alicia has had over the last fifteen years.

I want to, however, tell what it means to be an "Alicia" in a top private University at the Southside of Chicago. I have little to add about the so-called 'corporatization' or 'neo-liberalism' of the University. Such paeans are deeply ahistorical and ignore the very foundation of such private enterprises.

From 1998 to 2008, I worked in the administrative offices of University of Chicago-- first five years for the Social Sciences Division and the last five for the Humanities Division. I worked at least 40 hours even before I became a benefits-eligible full-time employee in 2005. As a graduate student, I was hired at an hourly rate to build the computing administrative structure for the Divisions-- payroll, accruals, reimbursements, procurement, accounts payable. This work introduced me to the administrative structures which remain invisible to students or faculty as part of everyday academic life. The systems was organized and run by people like myself, departmental administrators, finance managers, grant managers, secretarial staff, and facilities staff. For ten years, I worked almost exclusively with women of color and working-class women from Chicago's suburbs. The average service time for these tremendous workers was never below a decade-- with services rendered in 20, 30 and even 40 year cycles.

I worked with these women as they gave support, catering to the demands, whims, desires, and complaints of faculty who were paid hundreds times more and without participating in either the prestige economy or the benefits economy of the University on equal terms. Alicia, and her daughters, would pick up Speakers and Visiting Professors coming from India, at the Airport to save the department costs of taxi services. They would house them, assist them in cultural and legal translations; work late into the night, and over the weekend to help critical departmental business go forward. All of this was labor unpaid, and required, for the mere functioning of the department. All of this labor was done by Alicia, and Tricia, and Anne and every other departmental administrator for the sake of their Chairs and their tenured faculty. I bear direct witness to this labor and I know that it was done without any 'cost-sharing' with the University.

That was not all. Any Ph.D. program is necessarily structured to debilitate one's sense of self-hood and sanity. Whatever sadism is intended by this 'rite of passage' the fact is that mental health services were not a part of Graduate Student benefits during my time at Chicago. Life-- marriage, birth, death, divorce, trauma-- had to happen off-screen and far away; there was no institutional ways outside of the tried and failed "leave of absence". That task of mental health wellness for Graduate students, and faculty, was also the task of the women sitting in the departmental offices. They were the confidants, the shoulders-to-cry-on, the help, the surety of purpose for the hundreds of students and faculty. This too was uncompensated labor. In the petition, Alicia is called "the Foster Mother" (the building in which SALC is housed is Foster Hall). She was not anyone's mother that attended or worked in Foster Hall. That she was asked to play that role is itself a condemnation of the way in which Humanities operated at Chicago. Her love and grace saved many a dissertation, and that work clearly won her devotion from the hundreds of students. That love, however, was not what she was being paid to do.

In my ten years at University of Chicago, there were many, many like Alicia who belonged to the South Side community and who served the University. When the University made a decision on how to face financially uncertain times, it relied a priori on an understanding of waste within its operation-- redundancies, expired utilities, inefficiencies. To clear that waste, the most disposable people were these lower administrative staff. The access of such denizens of the South Side to a lower-middle class life, via employment at the University, has now ended at the University and the stories of retirements, lay-offs are all too common. ((University of Chicago is no friend to the community in which it has lived. It's ethos "life of the mind" cherishes the fact that the mind is not attached to a body, and that body is not colored. The horror stories of its "largest University Police Force" are countlessly documented but less documented, or understood, is its neo-colonial restructuring of urban landscape in Hyde Park. The Urban Planning and Sociology departments worked closely with foundations to make the University part of the national conversation. See LaDale Winling, "Students and the Second Ghetto: Federal Legislation, Urban Politics, and Campus Planning at the University of Chicago," Journal of Planning History (2011) The history of its refusal to allow a Trauma Center on the South Side is, in itself, a brutal history to behold.)) In my ten years, I also witnessed the hiring and setting up of countless new "Deputy Deans" and "Associate Deans" in the Humanities-- all charged with managing what was deemed unmanageable without centralization. I can assume that no cost-sharing is happening at the Divisional level.

The faculty at University of Chicago have been abdicating their governance over such matters for a long while now-- and I do not know if the rally to save the SALC position will be successful. I hope that it is-- but what about the Slavic position? what about the other redundancies? The financial crisis remains as do the newly built very tall, all glass structures erected by the University to house art centers or alumni relations. The time for tightening the belt is only for small departments, and those who run it, not for the grand funding campaigns and the constructions of the new New. The University is a university only if it can keep growing, keep expanding.

All that said, for the faculty and the students of SALC, there is no greater articulation of their engagements with the University than Alicia Czaplewski. They have all rallied to save her and I hope we succeed. I predict, however, that in not too distant a future they will be asked to save that department itself. It is already too late. Until then, I wanted to document the immense contributions of Alicia to the intellectual, social, and legal life at Foster Hall. We all owe her.


David | June 06, 2016

wonderfully said, Manan

Dipti | June 06, 2016

I applaud you for writing the report of celebrations of SALC at Chicago as a tribute to the unrecognized work of Alicia Czaplewski. Salut!

Eli Thorkelson | June 06, 2016

hi Manan, I just wanted to say that as someone who recently occupied your former position as database programmer in Humanities Computing (2012-2015), I really appreciate and admire your writing here about academic labor issues in the Division. The gender and racial organization of administrative support at the university needs further analysis, I think... (p.s., it would be great to be in touch sometime and share stories.)

sepoy | June 06, 2016

Dear Eli, thanks and look forward to crossing paths with you.

Arno Bosse | June 07, 2016

Thank you for writing this—every word is true. I'll write a note of support to Alicia today. I'm ashamed for my former institution, for the cruelty of the decision. And just.. angry at the stupidity. All this made much worse from knowing full well that savings could have been made elsewhere.

Ed Yazijian | June 07, 2016

Thanks for writing this, Manan.

C M Naim | June 09, 2016

Well said. The news is so distressing. But it was coming, from the day last year the administration announced its plans to 'centralize' certain work. That was the time for the departments and faculty to challenge the plan. As one group. Or at least as a coalition ALL departments. I see it as just one more successful move in their 'divide and rule' strategy. The star-turn professors have special contracts that contain assured secretarial, research help. The get "compensations" not salaries. It is the exclusively salaried, part time and full, who are being victimized. The lecturers and assistant professors will have to do some things themselves that they could count on Alicias to do. More work for the same pay. The students will suffer more. Presently if they have any 'administrative' problem they had one person to advise and guide and even do some intervening. Now they will have to que up at the Provosot's and Bursar's offices. Someone ought to dig out old telephone directories and tote up the number of Vice Presidents before and after Sonnenschein. That's when the trustees started to change the nature and aims of the university. It's no longer the university that was famous for producing people who taught at other major universities, for taking up and nurturing brilliant young people who then became stars in their own right, for letting its faculty do a lot of governing—when in '67 or '68 students took over the Ad. Bldg. (present day Levi Hall) they discovered that unlike at other universities the take over did not halt the university's functioning. The administration was so much non-centralized then. Anyway, UC is still a stink in the news with its plan to expel a student. Let's see what happens to him. Incidentally, I must mention here something that shocked me at the gala when Sheldon Pollock spoke. The Dean of the Humanities was conducting, and she introduced Zimmer not in the manner I had always heard before -- Now the President of the university ..., Or Now President... will speak some words of greetings... Instead she spent a few sentences praising him and his achievements. Sad.

AK | August 25, 2016

So Eastern Europeans on the South Side are still lower class, just like in the days of Sinclair's Jungle, over a century ago? Not surprising, is it. Thank you for writing this. I found this piece because I'm considering taking your class this fall, and I wanted to get a sense of you, perhaps to see how you interact with the world. I was one of these administrative assistants, and you are right, I lasted a few months past a decade. It is heartening to see concern and appreciation for someone who will surely struggle because of this. Most don't even take that in. Imagine, please. If our service in these lower-middle class positions is not properly valued, just imagine how we fare in the classrooms of these elite institutions, as we seek another way out. Or if not that, at least follow a love of learning. But do we belong in these hallowed halls at all? We're not even valued as servants. Or is this a victimized illusion created by the bizarre sadisms of academia? Of cultures that value power over all else? Regardless, the post is appreciated.