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Colleges and Universities

Dreaming of Vineyard U.


It ain’t Vineyard U.

Recently, the prestigious Catholic university at which I teach has added talk of “faculty rewards” to its standard cant about Catholic character.

These mismatched and dreary themes, which seem to be converging in administrative pep talks at many religiously based universities, have led me to ruminate on a gospel story I’ve loved since childhood, the parable of the vineyard owner (Matthew 20:1-16):

God’s reign is like a human householder who went out early to hire workers for his vineyard. Having agreed with the workers for a denarius a day he sent them into his vineyard. He went out at the third hour (9:00) and saw others also standing jobless in the agora and said to them: “You go into my vineyard, too, and I will give you a just wage.” They went, and going out at the sixth (noon) and the ninth hours (3:00) he did the same; at the eleventh hour (5:00) he went again, and finding still others standing around, said “Why do you stand here idle?” and they said, “Because no one employed us.” He said, “You go to my vineyard, too.”

When evening came, the vineyard owner said to his overseer, “Call the workers and pay them, beginning with the last to the first.” When the eleventh hour workers came, they each got a denarius, so when the first came, they thought they would get more, but they, too, got a denarius each. Taking it they grumbled against the householder: “These last did one hour, but you have paid them the same as us who bore the weight of the day, and its heat.”

But he answered to one of them, “Comrade, I don’t wrong you; didn’t you agree with me for a denarius? Take what is yours and go. ...

So the last shall be first and the first last.

It’s a story that translates into the world of childhood on highly reassuring terms. No one misses out; everyone gets enough, the last-born, the late-home, the one who fell asleep and missed the party. The complainer gets a generous answer and is not deprived.

Aging in the world of work brings out the pathos of the story. The endless supply of day workers looking for employment in the agora reflects the economic realities that followed the process of Roman latifundization and monetization of the Mediterranean (and now follow the corporate plundering of globalization and NAFTA). In light of these realities, the householder’s goodness, his compulsion to hire every idle worker at a day’s wage, emerges as positively heroic.

This aspect of the story, like the early Christian communal ideal expressed in Acts, might be dismissed as making its point by contrast with any workable economics. But apparently even the running dogs of capitalism occasionally profit from the distribution of equal rewards. A case in point is Continental Airlines.

When slash-and-burn policies translated into crash-and-burn results, the CEO who instituted these policies took his spoils and his demolition skills to some other corporation. One emergency measure after another failed to restore its fortunes or revive its demoralized workforce until 1994, when Gordon Bethune (its 10th CEO in 10 years), came up with the novel insight that service required cooperation. He instituted a new policy. Every month that Continental placed in the top half of the airlines’ punctuality table, all employees would receive a $65 bonus. This was supplemented by numerous other measures to enhance employee morale.

In a short time, Continental had the best on-time record in the business and was turning in profits every quarter. In 1997, Continental was named Airline of the Year by Air Transport World; in 1998, it ranked among Fortune’s 100 best companies to work for.

One might think that collaborative effort would be the obvious requirement for intellectual endeavors like teaching and research, especially in a Christian setting, and that Catholic universities would be eager to offer an example of a distribution of material and spiritual goods that instantiates the values of God’s reign.

It’s easy to sketch out a revision of existing academic structures that could create a premier Catholic university along the lines of the parable.

The “University of the Vineyard” is noted for its ability to retain fine faculty members because of the high morale and strong mutual support among the faculty.

It has long been known for its policy of paying best at the junior level, with only small variations in salary among its ranks. It takes care to see that resources for research and teaching are equitably distributed, with special attention to building and protecting the research of the newly hired and newly tenured.

The tenure process is open at all stages and begins with the presumption of competence. Adjunct faculty and doctoral students are paid a wage commensurate with their time and skills. Teaching assistants are distributed in proportion to teaching loads, and care is taken to assure that they are assigned work that enhances their education. Support staff members, including secretaries, are paid enough to support a family and receive the same benefits as faculty.

But in the system of rewards and deprivations operative in most Catholic universities, the only biblical gnomon that seems to operate is “To the one who has, it shall be given, and from the one who has not, even the little he has shall be taken away.”

This saying probably originated as a sarcastic comment on Roman economic planning and was defiantly reapplied to spiritual holdings in God’s reign. On the material level, it’s not a bad characterization of the current academic institutionalization of the ‘80’s corporate ethos in an explicit emphasis on redistributing resources upward.

One manifestation of this at Notre Dame is the demand that faculty raises in Arts and Letters be “merit” based and show a deep differential within departments (which run on a limited-goods economy). My own hostility toward this measure comes largely from experience at other universities -- that “merit” raises are based largely on the amount of time one is willing to divert from teaching and research to “self-evaluation” (selling oneself to the administration).

Shopping sprees for big-ticket, big-name (white male) “targets of opportunity” have knocked a big hole in the always dubious claim that administrations (here and elsewhere) are committed to increasing diversity on the faculty.

The tendency to limit research resources like research leave, favoring the (white male) senior and the chaired, many of whom already have research slush funds, shows a distinct lack of interest in “recruiting and retaining” women and minorities.

Another new and pernicious policy is canceling “underenrolled” classes in order to fire an adjunct, and to make sure the full-time look fully employed. This is a deeply anti-intellectual policy; aside from the contempt it shows for the adjunct who proposed and prepared the class and the faculty member who must teach it without having done either, it shows how little the administration regards courses as the product of creative intellectual endeavor.

It also assumes the inferiority of adjuncts, a stunningly unjust assumption based on a variety of other societal injustices, not least of them gender. Many of the adjuncts are women, often faculty wives whose qualifications differ from their husbands only in so far as they have been denied opportunities or sacrificed them for the demands that the university made on their husbands’ careers. When they are paid, it is on a scale that is the opposite of the vineyard -- they work 12 hours while being paid for one.

Don’t even get me started on the “rewards” for secretarial staff.

At most church-affiliated schools, the furor about “Catholic character” has been directed into a kind of branding. Its function is to provide a selling point, something to market the product. It can be done by cost-free measures like expelling the gay and lesbian group from campus, rejecting the generosity and devotion of gay alumni, and starving and threatening the Women’s Resource Center.

In areas that cost money, Roman realities apply; when it comes to the means of livelihood, access to resources, support for one’s intellectual and spiritual endeavor and respect for one’s person, the last will be last in the “university family.”

Maybe 15 years from now some Catholic university out there will spawn an academic Bethune, but for the moment, there is no Vineyard U. on the Catholic horizon.

Mary Rose D’Angelo is professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.

National Catholic Reporter, September 24, 1999