Archive: Aug 2014

Today, I recall one of my mentors and an inspiration for my life’s work–Myles Horton and his Highlander Folk School. His spirit lives on, lighting the way along whatever back roads we travel to overcoming injustice and inequality.

Even though movement leader James Bevel called Myles “the father of the civil rights movement,” he remains as little known today as he was during his own life and times. For those of you unfamiliar with Horton, he founded Highlander, and among its thousands of students were Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Andrew Young, Ella Baker, and John Lewis.

Myles grew up a Tennessee country boy, Scotch-Irish and poor.  He eventually ended up at Union Theological Seminary, where he studied with Reinhold Niebuhr, a powerful advocate of the Social Gospel movement. Horton eventually realized he was more interested in sociology than theology and headed off to the University of Chicago. In graduate school, he became a student of Robert Park, who impressed upon him the power of collective action and need for creative conflict. He also got to know Jane Addams and her work at Hull House, an adult education center for immigrants in that city.

During that era, He learned about Danish folk schools. He raised enough money to travel to Denmark, dropping out of graduate school, never to return. When he got back from Denmark, he went to see Niebuhr, who raised money for Myles to start the Highlander Folk School, in the highlands of East Tennessee in 1932. The rest is history. This video shows what happened when a sociology student left graduate school at the University of Chicago and begin to practice public sociology, not as an avocation but as a calling.


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February 2004

Let 50 Flowers Bloom

by Monte Bute, Metropolitan State University, Minnesota

I attended my first meeting of the American Sociological Association (ASA) in 1994. I went to Los Angeles as a middle-aged outsider, hoping to gain a little disciplinary knowledge from the natives. For five days, I was mesmerized by phenomena that were not listed in the official program—a perpetual display of Goffmanesque rituals of deference and demeanor.

These customs are by no means limited to this tribe of sociologists. All academic disciplines are defined by what Robert K. Merton called their manifest functions. The obvious and intended function of scholarship is the production and dissemination of knowledge. These professional practices also have what Merton identified as latent functions, consequences that are unintended and frequently unrecognized. The scholarly enterprise has one latent function that dares not speak its name—status stratification.

The professional culture and reward structure of our discipline have evolved gradually over the past half century and are now so much the taken-for-granted-reality that most sociologists are oblivious to their functions. Ralph Linton once observed that the last thing a fish in the depths of the sea would discover is water. The late Stanley L. Saxton was a particularly perceptive denizen of the deep. In A Critique of Contemporary American Sociology (1993), he noted, “The conditions of work for a small but powerful minority of sociologists at research universities need not and should not imprint the whole discipline” (p. 247). Unfortunately, they do. The practices of this disciplinary elite have produced a stratification system for both individuals and institutions within the profession of sociology.

Those who believe that the existing academic labor market is a meritocracy might well challenge my central assertion. Defenders of the status quo do not lament this latent function of status stratification. In fact, they claim that whatever prestige is bestowed upon these luminaries is richly deserved. What fairer system could be devised for the manifest function of knowledge creation than one that rewards “the best and the brightest”? In addition, I might well be accused of sour grapes. What am I but a provincial from the periphery who has failed to measure up?

It is not so much the reward structure that I question but rather how this social order manages to perpetuate itself. I question that an oligarchy of sociology departments at research universities holds sovereignty over the entire discipline. How does this occur? Let me give you just one example.

ASA is the premier professional association for the discipline. All ASA officers for 2002-2003 and 2003-2004 come from schools belonging to the Carnegie Foundation’s most selective category of research universities. Only 150 of nearly 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States are included in this exclusive club. With just a couple of exceptions, the members-at-large on ASA’s Council for those two years also possess this rare pedigree.

Defenders of the status quo will argue that these leaders won competitive elections. True, but if we examine the Committee on Nominations for those two elections we would find that those doing the nominating are disproportionately affiliated with the same elite institutions as those whom they nominate. A similar analysis of the Publications Committee speaks volumes as to why all the current editors of ASA journals are also from Carnegie’s most restrictive list of research universities.

The manner in which this disciplinary elite defines and privileges a certain type of scholarship—and the “conditions of work” that it entails—is the linchpin of supremacy. The old bromide about how one gets tenure now holds true for promotion, external professional recognition, and even superstar status: publish, publish, publish. The highest rank accrues to those doing esoteric research, with subsequent authorship in prestigious journals and academic publishing houses. This “gold standard” diminishes other types of scholarship, reduces teaching and service to second-rate activities, and reproduces a regime of status stratification within the discipline. If most rank-and-file sociologists continue without question to concede this criterion, it only serves to legitimize the oligarchy’s dynastic succession.

An outsider to the disciplinary canon, Alfred Schutz, developed a sociology of knowledge that poses an alternative to this elitist paradigm of practice. He distinguished between scholarship aimed at the “expert” and scholarship directed to the “well-informed citizen.” American sociologists once saw the well-informed citizen as their primary audience. Conversely, the disciplinary elite today sees fellow experts as their only audience.

How do we restore sovereignty to that large majority of sociologists who toil under a more populist paradigm of practice but remain second-class citizens within the profession? The state professional association is one important venue. As an apprentice to the craft, I found congenial homes, first in Sociologists of Minnesota (SOM), and later in the National Council of State Sociological Associations (NCSSA).

I was welcomed by colleagues who refused to be constrained by the “expert” model but were engaged in scholarships of integration, application, and teaching. I was mentored by master teachers who prided themselves in conducting three to five sections of undergraduate classes each semester, devoted to developing a sociological perspective in students who may never take another course in the discipline. These folks practiced service the old-fashioned way; a “good citizen” took on those often-thankless tasks on campus and in the community that needed doing.

I am only saying aloud what has long been whispered. The intent of this essay is to initiate a conversation, a dialogue of equals. Sociology’s latent function not only divides us but also hinders our ability to engage wider audiences—we need to practice what we preach. We invite more of our research university colleagues to join us in state organizations, just as we have joined you in the ASA. Our local associations and practices might, once again, make our discipline relevant to the well-informed citizen. Let 50 flowers bloom.


August 11, 2014

With narrow work force focus, MnSCU has lost its way

Monte Bute

Monte Bute


Last year MnSCU, in partnership with the Chamber of Commerce, held 50 “listening sessions” with over 500 employers statewide. “By listening to Minnesota employers,” Chancellor Steven Rosenstone said, “we can obtain a greater understanding of the state’s work force need.”

There were no such highly publicized listening sessions for students, faculty, staff, or local communities.

Because of this shortsightedness, “work force development” now trumps most other criteria for teaching and learning. While the chancellor and trustees would deny it, they seem to view MnSCU students as little more than merchandise, mass-produced to fill orders for its business customers. MnSCU now even has production quotas.

Produce leaders — or followers?

MnSCU students (and their families) understandably want to succeed and find good-paying jobs. But why must MnSCU measure success in the narrow terms of students’ fit with work force trends? Critical thinking, creative problem solving, and communication skills remain essential tools for leadership in a world desperately seeking transformative leaders — and yet MnSCU appears more interested in producing followers.

The University of Minnesota and private colleges like Carleton and Macalester realize that high standards produce leaders, managers and innovators, while mediocre standards create a workforce whose fate it is to follow the orders of others.

While there is no shame in working for others, shouldn’t we give all students a skill set to establish their own ceilings in life? Then let the market sort out the supply and demand for labor. Planned economies are notoriously inefficient.

The leadership qualities fostered by a traditional liberal arts education are, at best, an afterthought for MnSCU’s leadership. Some state university teachers actively seek to subvert this academic class system by providing elite education to the masses, despite a centralized juggernaut that has strictly utilitarian goals for most of its students.

Subtle inequality

As Louis Menand points out in a recent New Yorker essay, “This is why liberal education is the elite type of college education: it’s the gateway to the high-status professions.” Most parents would say that’s what I want for my children.

Like the barnyard critters in George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” all Minnesota colleges and universities are equal, but some are more equal than others. Masking this subtle inequality with claims that merit determines outcome is disingenuous — learning opportunities in our state are inequitably distributed.

Most MnSCU students are as quick-witted as their counterparts at more elite institutions are. Regrettably, this intellectual potential and the opportunity to develop that gift are often a mismatch at MnSCU’s colleges and universities. As a result, the system diminishes these students’ life chances.

How have we gotten into this quandary, and why is it getting progressively worse?

MnSCU is, in fact, among the most centralized systems of public higher education in the nation. With best of intentions, former Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe and the Minnesota Legislature passed a bill in 1991 merging three independent systems — state universities, community colleges, and technical colleges — into what has since become an über-bureaucracy.

Unintended consequences

Legislators were oblivious to the unintended consequences that might follow. What they had intended was a rational and efficient federation of relatively autonomous public colleges and universities. Instead, what history has bequeathed us is a Byzantine empire, with top-down management ruling local campuses like colonial outposts.

Established in 1995, MnSCU has become the elephant in the room for local campuses. Its staff has proliferated into nearly 400 administrative employees, imposing board policies and dictating procedures to its 31 college and universities — and their faculties.

The central office staff of MnSCU — many of whom have never taught a university class, graded a paper, advised a student, or written a scholarly article — spend far too many of their working hours as busybodies. They browbeat local campuses and their faculties with what Emerson called “A foolish consistency [which] is the hobgoblin of little minds,” while neglecting important matters like academic excellence and leadership development.

What can we do?

Students and their professors are the heart and soul of higher education. All other partners exist to support the teaching and learning process. MnSCU is no longer part of the solution; it has become part of the problem. Is MnSCU past its expiration date? At minimum, Minnesota needs a new chancellor and some fresh trustees.

Monte Bute teaches sociology at Metropolitan State University, a MnSCU institution in St. Paul and Minneapolis.

MnSCU reaches tentative deal with university faculty

By Mila Koumpilova

POSTED:   07/30/2014 12:01:00 AM CDT | UPDATED:   7 DAYS AGO

The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system and its university faculty union have reached a tentative contract agreement after almost a year of contentious negotiations.

Details of the settlement, which must be approved by the full faculty and board of trustees, were not released. Earlier this year, the two sides brought in a state mediator to help with the stalled talks, which also revealed a strained relationship between faculty and MnSCU Chancellor Steven Rosenstone.

The union has been an outspoken critic of Rosenstone. It sent a harsh critique of his performance to the board of trustees earlier this summer and bashed a new contract for him that had been reached quietly last November.

Steven Rosenstone (Courtesy photo)

Steven Rosenstone (Courtesy photo)

In a statement to its members, the union — the Inter Faculty Organization — said the mediator urged the sides to hold off on releasing details to the press in the coming days.

“However, we can say we think you will like it,” the statement said.

Rosenstone thanked the union’s new president, Jim Grabowska, and his negotiating team and said he “looks forward to partnering to implement our joint vision for serving our students.”

This spring, state legislators approved a $17 million annual increase in funding to MnSCU that is dedicated to employee compensation increases. Some lawmakers since have voiced frustration that the contract was not settled shortly thereafter.

If the faculty and board approve the contract, it will go to the Legislative Subcommittee on Employee Relations. If the subcommittee approves it, the agreement will go into effect, pending approval by the full Legislature next year.

The average university faculty salary at MnSCU now is about $59,680 for an assistant professor, $66,500 for an associate professor and $83,000 for a full professor, according to data provided by the union.

At MnSCU, seven universities and 24 community and technical colleges serve more than 400,000 students annually, including about 60 percent of the state’s undergraduates.

Sunday, Aug 3, 7:00 pm
St Anthony Main Theatre

Publicity photo

An Interview With Martin Light is a 51-minute video, documenting the only known interview with the assassin of Supreme Court Justice William Graham. The interview takes place inside Judson State Prison, where Mr. Light is awaiting a decision on his life or death sentence. In this interview, Mr. Light explores his possible motives and examines what role his state of mind, free will and Fate played in the tragedy. Produced and directed by Digger Kohler. Featuring Monte Bute, Jim Leinfelder, and Gary Warnke.