Aug 15 2015

The Survival of Small Private Colleges


The Survival of Small Private Colleges: Myth and Mismanagement

Without question, small private colleges, especially those in the Northeast and Midwest, are presently enduring declining populations of high school graduates (as prospective students) and suffering from fewer middle-class families financially capable of sending their children to college—so great is income inequality in the United States.

Because these demographic trends and widening national income disparities are not within their direct control, small private non-profit institutions of higher learning need remain nimble and adaptive in response to those realities to survive until better times—without sacrificing their core humanistic missions.

To prosper in such a competitive environment, small private colleges and universities must retain highly effective campus presidents who will streamline upper administration, value shared governance, honor the disinterested pursuit of knowledge, preserve freedom of expression inside and outside of the classroom, and safeguard the overall fiscal health of their institutions.

Many presidents adhere to these principles, and on average only five private four-year non-profit colleges and universities have closed during each of the last ten years. Those institutions shutting their doors most often are religiously-affiliated private colleges with less than 1,000 students. The vast majority of private nonprofit colleges “don’t really seem to be in too deep trouble.”

Exceptions to these trends in college closures are small private institutions boarded up after being mismanaged by bad administrators. In this respect, the conclusions of a 2013 Vanderbilt University study for risk indicators for small private colleges and universities are most revealing:

“If [such] institutions are to survive in the long-term, they must be mindful of both their short-term and long-term needs. While capital projects may seem attractive to boost enrollments, the financial commitment associated with expansion is long-term and can have dire consequences if they take up too large a percent of total resources. Similarly, undergoing capital expansion is unwise if it is done at the expense of existing facilities.

The literature abounds with reports of failed institutions at which expenses exceeded total revenues.”

The continuance of small non-profit private colleges of a certain size therefore depends upon “a clear strategy, streamlined operations, a strong financial foundation, trust and accountability, and a willingness to invest only in innovations that truly create value for the institution.”

In contrast to that model of good stewardship, which is above all a fiduciary responsibility, we might consider the case of Hartwick College—a small four-year institution in upstate New York feeling the pinch of the times, and currently suffering under the dreadful corporate-style leadership of President Margaret Drugovich.

This summer, while most faculty members were absent from campus (pursuing research interests around the globe), Drugovich abruptly eliminated eighteen non-faculty employees—ostensibly to cover a $1.68 million shortfall in the university’s 2015 budget resulting from declining enrollments.

Drugovich also eradicated several vacant positions and informed five employees “that their positions were being reduced to 9, 10 or 11 months of service.” All of the employees facing elimination were “notified the day the layoffs were announced.” Many of those terminated by Drugovich, or whose positions suffered diminution, were longtime employees dedicating their professional lives to the college community.

As word of the firings broke in Oneonta, a rural burg of just 14,000 residents, their repercussions reverberated beyond the walls of the college. In protest, the president of the Hartwick chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) managed to secure—in early August—the signatures of 46 of 111 full-time faculty members on a letter of censure against Drugovich.

Instead of responding to faculty assertions that staff terminations were made without warning (due to sudden budget shortfalls), accepting responsibility for the failures of leadership that led to censure, and submitting her resignation, Drugovich trotted out the chair of the Hartwick College Board of Trustees—Francis Landrey—who defended the June layoffs as “deliberate, well-considered, comprehensive,” and anything but hasty!

This incongruence between rhetoric and reality is noteworthy, as is the abandonment of the long-standing American tradition of shared governance by this corporatized Board of Trustees, which automatically lent their “unconditional support” to Drugovich following her censure.

Most vile, however, are the tacit threats of retaliation leveled against the faculty by Hartwick’s provost, Michael G. Tannenbaum, following faculty censure. He recently wrote to twelve academic departments apprising them of “a new review process” taking place later this year to “identify possible avenues for re-allocating (the college’s) resources.”

In comments to the local media, Tannenbaum flippantly assured faculty members that they need not fret about the possibility of their own dismissals—but, then he added, if the college determined a program does not require a particular number of professors, eliminations might become necessary!

Although many Hartwick faculty members will see through his disingenuous comments, and update their curricula vitae to enter the recovering academic job market, it is a deadly serious matter when leaders of a non-profit institution of higher learning use the guise of exigency to retaliate against tenured faculty members insisting on shared governance and administrative accountability, which is their rightful legacy (according to AAUP’s 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure).

In light of such thinly veiled threats against the faculty, the names of the signatories to the letter of censure of President Margaret Drugovich should be preserved, and AAUP alerted to any hint of the premeditated use of financial emergency to justify eliminating tenured and tenurable faculty positions at Hartwick College—particularly those appointments held by professors who stood up for campus democracy.

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Jul 20 2015

Thorstein Veblen and Business Models of Governance


Thorstein Veblen and Business Models of Governance

Nearly one hundred years ago, the social scientist Thorstein Veblen published a book suggestively entitled: The Higher Learning in America: A Memorandum on the Conduct of Universities by Business Men (1918). In it, Veblen mounted a spirited defense of the disinterested pursuit of knowledge, and advocated for enhanced faculty representation, as ballasts against the unchecked power of university presidents and business-minded governing boards.

The reissue of this classic text (with annotations) by Johns Hopkins University Press is extraordinarily timely, for faculty members in the United States are once again locked in a struggle against those who Veblen pejoratively called the “captains of erudition”—a deliberately provocative analog to the exploitative robber barons of the nineteenth century Gilded Age, such as Andrew Carnegie, Andrew Mellon, and J. D. Rockefeller (who all lent their names and fortunes to major research universities dedicated to “practical” learning for the benefit of industry and commerce).

Richard F. Teichgraeber, in his informative introduction to Veblen’s witty and sometimes sarcastic tract, situates The Higher Learning in America in a long history of “professors’ literature of protest.” Veblen wrote against the decidedly downward flow of power from institutional presidents—who in the bedraggled American university of the early twentieth century chose their own deans (who selected department chairs), hired and fired faculty at will, and otherwise made promotions and demotions free of procedural constraints.

No doubt, such a low point in the history of American higher education may seem rather a shining beacon to some contemporary college and university presidents bent on wrenching governance from the professorate and domineering over academic professionals (including Lower Columbia College president Chris Bailey, Hartwick College president Margaret Drugovich, and former Pitzer College president Laura Skandera Trombley).

For similar offenses, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) recently censured four American institutions of higher learning for violations of tenure, academic freedom, and shared governance. Unhappily, though, AAUP chairperson Hank Reichman admits that these censures represent only the “tip of a larger iceberg threatening our fundamental values” of non-profit higher education and the free exchange of ideas.

We therefore have many reasons to revisit Veblen’s warnings concerning the corrosive effects of importing corporate business practices into tertiary education. Veblen charged that the hierarchical structuring of the American university, which he witnessed firsthand as established modes of governance were taking shape, led inescapably to the intellectual acquiescence of the faculty, and to their deprofessionalization (by making them employees-at-will).

Veblen provided evidence for the  bullying and dismissal of faculty members by presidents for disagreement with their policies—as well as for compiling (and sharing) blacklists containing the names of professors holding heterodox notions! Were that not fault enough, Veblen also highlighted a (still-evident) penchant among university presidents for acquiring prestige, for themselves and their institutions, and a pandering obsequiousness in convincing members of boards of trustees that they were in possession of “a business like character” (20-21).

Writing in the “Introductory” to The Higher Learning in America, Veblen takes aim at the noxious influence of mercantile values on pure theoretical inquiry. He asserts:

University teaching, having a particular and special purpose—the pursuit of knowledge—it has also a particular and special character, such as to differentiate it from other teaching and at the same time leave it relatively ineffective for other purposes. Its aim is to equip the student for the work of inquiry, not to give him facility in that conduct of affairs that turns such knowledge to “practical account” (48).

For Veblen, the university at its best is comprised of “mature scholars and scientists” who each work at “the pursuit of knowledge, together with whatever advisory surveillance and guidance he may consistently afford such students as are entering the career of learning at a point where his outlook and methods of work may be of effect for them” (49). By contrast, under the cultural imposition of corporate values, learning becomes reduced to practical expediency and takes the form of “utilitarian instruction.”

From the vantage-point of the twenty-first century, we realize that Veblen was correct in his appraisal of the deleterious consequences of business values in the academy, particularly on teaching, scholarship, and disinterested research. Historically speaking, the formation of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) in 1915, with John Dewey as its first president, enabled development of a framework for the advancement of the doctrines of intellectual freedom and shared governance. AAUP set professional standards for tertiary education, and clearly defined that endeavor as a not-for-profit one dedicated to the commonweal.

Once it jettisoned the business values that infiltrated the academy in Veblen’s day, the American university thrived. The widespread adoption of AAUP’s “Principles of Academic Freedom and Tenure” (codified in 1925, and reinterpreted in 1940 and 1970) protected faculty from interference in their research and teaching, and empowered them with tenure protections. In return, the faculty eschewed most corporate ties and relied instead on robust public funding. It proved a fortuitous combination: following the Second World War higher education in the United States became the global standard for excellence (reaching an apex of influence and academic integrity between 1945 and 1980).

Truly, as Veblen understood one hundred years ago, “the intrusion of business principles in the universities goes to weaken and retard the pursuit of learning, and therefore to defeat the ends for which a university is maintained” (192). We do well to heed his warning, for re-emergent corporate values, in the guise of neo-liberalism, surged to prominence in the 1980s (as a new conservatism among voters meant an unwillingness to fund public education with tax dollars).

Corresponding with Veblen’s observations, the reintroduction of business values into American higher education over the past thirty to forty years led to the “substitution of impersonal, mechanical relations, standards and tests” (what he called “accountancy”) in place of personal guidance and mentoring between teacher and student (192). We might add to these woes: steadily rising tuitions, administrative bloat, adjunctification, a decline of humanities education relative to job-related training, and the undue influence of wealthy donors and alumni.

In light of Veblen’s trenchant analysis, we should do more to stem the tide of corporatization in the American academy. That effort might begin by addressing presidential overreach head-on, recognizing the loss of intellectual integrity that corporate-sponsored research represents, and opening more tenurable positions to the seventy-three percent of all faculty members across the United States currently serving on a contingent basis. It’s time, once again, to right our course.

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Jun 29 2015

Assaults on Tenure


Assaults on Tenure and the Moral Crisis in the Academy

Let’s face it, America is squandering its last great export: higher education.

Signs of that forfeiture abound: adjunctification, administrative bloat, corporatization, declining access to tertiary education (a consequence of ever-rising tuitions), and an obsession with commodifying the products of the university to suit the needs of the marketplace.

Yet, such a calamity is one of our own making, and nowhere in America’s prized system of colleges and universities is the loss of that integrity more apparent than in the unwarranted and short-sighted attacks on tenure, free-speech, and shared governance across the nation, as exemplified this month by Wisconsin.

Astute commentators observe that Wisconsin’s governor, angling to run as an anti-union and anti-education conservative contender for the 2016 Republican Party presidential nomination, proposes to eliminate a statewide tenure policy enshrined in state law and instead grant more authority to the university’s Board of Regents.

For many, such a transmission of authority (from state to board) may seem harmless enough. Surely, the Board of Regents recognizes the vital importance that our leading scholars retain the ability to speak, write, and research without hindrance—i.e., the free pursuit of knowledge to the protection of democracy?

Apparently not, for the “Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System consists of 18 members, 16 of whom are appointed by the Governor.” In other words, Mr. Walker has been stacking that governing body since his election in 2010 and now makes a shrewd calculation to grab media headlines, and endear himself to a certain segment of the electorate opposed to state-funded higher education for the benefit of the commonweal.

In addition to eroding tenure protections in state law, Mr. Walker would bestow on the Board of Regents the legal right to terminate employees—including currently tenured faculty members—for any reason related to “program discontinuance, curtailment, modification, or redirection” (should Section 39 of the Joint Finance Committee’s omnibus motion win passage).

Simultaneously, the governor has announced plans for a $250 million budget cut to the University of Wisconsin, which would allow the board to act on those proposed provisions.

However, since neither free speech and enquiry, nor shared governance, can survive in the absence of tenure protections, de rigueur in the United States since 1940, faculty members at the University of Wisconsin’s flagship campus in Madison, such as Sara Goldrick-Rab, have decided to leave, since the “ability to sift and winnow through evidence, speak truthfully” threatens to be utterly surrendered.

Nicholas Hillman (also at Madison) observes that this assault on tenure and intellectual freedom has been years in the making, and institution of the $250 million budget cut proposed by the governor would simply “create the conditions where the Board of Regents can exercise their new authority to fire at will.”

Although the repercussions of the unfolding crisis in Wisconsin have yet to fully resound throughout the academy, scholars and researchers are rightly raising alarm.

How ironic then, in light of the diminished state of the American academy, that Republican Representative Christopher Smith of New Jersey is holding congressional hearings regarding academic freedom—in China!

Representative Smith’s concerns regard the increasing number of American institutions operating in the Middle Kingdom, such as New York University in Shanghai, where any restrictions on free speech are considered antithetical to the hallowed American principles of “absolute academic freedom and independence” in higher learning.

Rather than lecturing the Chinese, who unlike Americans lack a tradition of free speech protected by tenure, Representative Smith might turn his attention to the erosion of tenure at public colleges and universities around our nation, including the University of Wisconsin, the University of Illinois, Louisiana State University, and University of Southern Maine, among others.

As for governor Scott Walker, Robert Kuttner observes: “public universities are now only about 15 percent supported by public funds. So it adds injury to insult when a rightwing governor cuts tax support—leaving a public university effectively private when it comes to meeting its budget—but that same governor attempts to dictate academic policy.”

Ultimately, though, the governor will not be able to have it both ways, for top-tier research universities cannot sustain themselves when they fail to attract the best scholars, researchers, teachers, and students the world has to offer.

Therefore, when Wisconsinites look back ten or twenty years from now, and wonder what happened to the multi-generational legacy of that prized university system—they will know whom to thank for squandering it.


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May 31 2015

Bad Administrators


Bad Administrators and the Corporatization of Higher Education

In recent months, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) released several reports outlining alleged violations of academic freedom and tenure by administrators at four institutions: the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, the University of Southern Maine, and Felician College.

These institutions of higher learning stand accused of transgressing the widely accepted standards set forth by AAUP in its 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure. That statement begins with a series of important assertions, increasingly ignored today and therefore quoted at some length, regarding the fundamental non-profit mission of higher education:

“Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution as a whole. The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.

Academic freedom is essential to these purposes and applies to both teaching and research. Freedom in research is fundamental to the advancement of truth. Academic freedom in its teaching aspect is fundamental for the protection of the rights of the teacher in teaching and of the student to freedom in learning. It carries with it duties correlative with rights.

Tenure is a means to certain ends; specifically: (1) freedom of teaching and research and of extramural activities, and (2) a sufficient degree of economic security to make the profession attractive to men and women of ability. Freedom and economic security, hence, tenure, are indispensable to the success of an institution in fulfilling its obligations to its students and to society.”

In summation, AAUP insists that full freedom in research, publication, and classroom discussions be protected by tenure, and that dismissals of faculty follow due process.

By contrast, let us consider the fiasco at Felician College, where sixteen full-time contingent faculty members received notifications of termination (effective the following semester). When pressed by them, administrators cited ““the exigency of the college’s financial status” as justification for the non-renewals, but AAUP found that “despite the college president’s assertions to the contrary, the college’s own policies regarding termination of appointments had not been followed; and that their efforts to obtain an account of the process by which their appointments had been selected for nonrenewal had been fruitless.” In addition, the administration at Felician College refused to cooperate with the AAUP inquiry or allow investigators onto campus.

In the lead up to the firings, president Anne M. Prisco held a series of meetings with faculty and staff members concerning declines in enrollment at the college—and the dire fiscal consequences that might result from them. Yet, according to the AAUP report, one of the deans at the college “confirmed to the investigating committee that the financial picture at the beginning of fall 2012 did not differ significantly from earlier situations that the college had weathered successfully.”

So, what gives? Unfortunately, Felician College provides another example of the corporatization of higher education in the United States by which the methods of business are deployed into a traditionally non-profit sector. This influx of corporate models of institutional governance sanctions a hierarchical corporate culture ill-suited to the non-profit enterprise of education.

For example, consider the tactics employed by president Prisco to warrant the terminations of sixteen long-serving fulltime faculty members: she hired a consulting company to initiate an “academic program prioritization process” by which departments were ranked against each other on a scale. Next, a cadre of administrators and complicit faculty members took just four months to conduct their survey and issue their findings. Those academic programs placed “in the lowest quintiles were to be candidates for reorganization or discontinuance.” Effected departments had only six weeks to file reports in response to the so-called “findings.” Ongoing institutional assessment of campus operations provided cover for these shenanigans.

AAUP asserts that following these mass dismissals at Felician College, a palpable fear assailed the entire faculty, and many of its members were too afraid to communicate with the AAUP investigative committee at all. That trepidation was particularly pronounced among faculty members “seen by the administration as dissenters.” AAUP singles out the denial of “emeritus status to a top-notch teacher and productive scholar with a record of speaking out against what he found wrong” as “punitive and petty in the extreme.”

Due to the corporatization of higher education, a similar culture of fear now flourishes at many American colleges and universities suffering the twin misfortunes of administrative bloat and incapable leadership. In seeking an understanding of that phenomenon, we do well to remember the Peter Principle—a management theory that suggests corporate culture promotes individuals based on their past performance, until they ascend to positions for which they are unfit. That incompetence compels such leaders to cling to the social hierarchies by which they preserve and augment power, and to find ways to dismiss talented junior employees—both courses of action which work to the detriment of the institution.

So, if you work in higher education in any capacity, have a look around you. Have you witnessed bad administrators leave your institution—often for higher-ranking positions at other universities? Do you feel sorry for the institutions that somehow managed to retain these individuals and promote them to another level of incompetence? Or, maybe you have held high hopes for an incoming administrator, hired after a lengthy national search, only to discover later that you’ve been passed a “bad penny”?

The idiomatic expression, to “turn up like a bad penny,” dates from the eighteenth century when one cent (just one hundredth of a British pound or US dollar) was a coin of worth. To discover that one had been passed a counterfeit was more than a nuisance—it meant taking a real fiscal hit. Today, when a college or university hires a bad administrator, students and faculty members stand to lose much more than the equivalent of a hundredth of a dollar, as salaries for some executives are now unconscionably high.

Frank Bruni of the New York Times describes “shockingly lucrative deals that have become almost commonplace among college presidents.” He notes, for instance, Yale University paid former president Richard Levin an “additional retirement benefit” of $8.5 million following his departure. Likewise, Gordon Gee depleted the coffers of the Ohio State University with a pay package worth more than $6 million during his final year as president.

Annual presidential salaries such as these are no laughing matter in an era of rapidly rising tuitions, which students and their parents often struggle to finance. Bruni reports that Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute president Shirley Ann Jackson recently accepted a remuneration package worth over $7 million, John L. Lahey of Quinnipiac University brought in approximately $3.75 million, while Lee Bollinger of Columbia University settled for a meager $3.4 million.

Administrative bloat, and the fiscal recklessness of high management salaries, are draining the American academy of its intellectual capital. The majority of faculty across the nation now serve as adjunct professors (who fat-cat presidents deign to pay only $3,000 per 16-week course, on average).

Therefore, we must reject the administrative overreach exemplified by the leadership of Felician College, along with the infusion of mercantile values into the academy, and return administrative remuneration to levels commensurate with those of the full-time faculty. Thus, suddenly finding academe hostile to corporate salaries, many of these bad administrators will scamper off to find more lucrative opportunities in the corporate sector—where they belong.

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Apr 30 2015

New Models of Contingency


New Models of Contingency and the Moral Crisis in the American Academy

At the heart of the moral crisis in the American academy, we find the exploitation of adjunct professors, and other contingent teaching professionals, by a growing class of overpaid administrators who are bringing corporate models of governance to the traditionally non-profit enterprise of higher education.

As the American public learns more about the inexcusable practice of employing so many part-time professors at barista wages, college and university administrators around the nation are scrambling to find ways to disguise that deficiency—instead of bringing back the full-time tenurable professorships lost over four decades (during the “contingency craze”).

Heightened media scrutiny placed on the plight of adjunct faculty is well founded. Not only does it push dubious employment practices in higher education to the fore of public consciousness, it also highlights the true cost of employing part-time professors on students, on faculty morale, and on campus learning communities.

The first National Adjunct Walkout Day in February helped to raise awareness of the rather embarrassing fact that part-time adjunct faculty members now constitute the majority of professors serving at community colleges, four-year colleges, and universities across the nation.

To protest the terms of their employment, many adjunct faculty members staged one-day work strikes during Walkout Day; others spoke with their students about the demeaning wages they earn, the ease with which they can be dismissed, the multiple campuses on which they teach, and their lack of institutional support (such as healthcare and professional development).

Indeed, the situation has become extremely dire. New data analysis by the University of California at Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education demonstrates that twenty five percent of “part-time college faculty” and their families receive some form of public assistance (Medicaid, food stamps, cash welfare, Earned Income Tax Credit, or Children’s Health Insurance Program).

In other words, colleges and universities are pushing the costs of under-employing a significant segment of the teaching faculty onto the taxpayer—and onto students and their parents (who often pay outrageous tuitions and fees).

Additional efforts to underscore the necessity of reform in American higher education include attempts to unionize more than eight thousand adjunct professors in Chicago, an act of defiance that led to a boisterous demonstration near the University of Illinois. At that event, adjunct college instructors joined fast-food workers, and other laborers in the service-sector, in demanding a base wage of $15 per hour.

For part-time professors, that hourly rate means being paid for activities such as class preparation, grading, holding office hours, and writing letters of recommendation. One thoughtful graduate student interviewed at the rally supported a living wage for part-time faculty, observing that their low pay might affect the quality of instruction.

More ambitiously, Faculty Forward, a Service Employees International Union (SEIU) project, demands $15,000 in “total compensation” per three-credit course for adjunct faculty. Given that the current national mean per course remains far below that figure, $15,000 may seem unrealistic. However, the organization defends that sum as a fair living wage for the work—and they counter that the redeployment of institutional resources to better compensate adjunct professors would signal a return to an emphasis on instruction and student learning.

Yet, in the face of these and other movements for campus equity, hundreds of colleges across the nation stubbornly cling to the unsustainable practice of exploiting large pools of intellectual laborers to pay for a proliferation of administrative positions replete with six—sometimes seven—figure salaries.

At State University of New York College at Oneonta, for instance, adjunct professors teaching six 3-credit courses per year might earn just $15,000 (before taxes). Putting aside the near impossibility of being assigned three courses each semester, the base remuneration rate of $2,500 per course has not been raised for seven years—or adjusted in the wake of the Great Recession of 2008.

Administrative prerogatives like adjunctification speak to the moral crisis in the academy and in American culture more generally. Income inequality between the wealthy and the working poor leads some scholars to argue that we are living in a Second Gilded Age—one in which traditionally non-profit institutions (such as education and healthcare) are now corporate enterprises devoid of any humanist impulse that diminishes the bottom line. The moral shift behind such gloomy trends is the subject of a new book entitled The Road to Character.

In summing up, while the situation remains painfully bleak for many part-time faculty members, increasingly forceful public pushback has some colleges and universities rethinking their reliance on contingent teaching positions (non-tenurable appointments made on a renewable basis). For example, the University of Denver (DU) recently created new pathways for professional development that include long-term contracts for non-tenure-track faculty. After teaching five years on renewable contracts, contingent faculty members will now be promoted and renewed on continuing three year-contracts—or be let go.

Considering the diminished state of the American academy today, there is much to applaud in efforts to provide contingent part-time and full-time faculty members with more job security, wages befitting their duties, and some prospect of upward mobility. However, opening the tenured ranks to these contingent workers would be more forward-looking, and it would help to reconstitute the faculty to 1960s levels, when more than seventy percent of all professors taught in full-time tenurable positions, and shared the governance of their institutions.

As it stands, adjunct professors continue to endure hostile working conditions, often simply because they find teaching a meaningful vocation—one in which they endeavor for excellence, despite the unwelcoming conditions that many encounter.

In this respect, we do well to remember the prophetic assertion of one champion for racial and economic equality: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Now is the time to give adjunct professors the dignity and living wage that they deserve. We will wait no longer—and we will not be denied.

Demand more tenure-track appointments at your college or university! Make the choice to attend an institution that invests in you by investing in the faculty!

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Mar 27 2015

Civility Codes and Free Speech


Civility Codes and Free Speech on Campus

Several months have elapsed since the last post, as the author completed the forthcoming book Palace of Ashes: China and the Decline of American Higher Education.

A lot has happened in the interim, including President Obama’s proposal to make two years of community college tuition free, the first National Adjunct Walkout Day in February, and who could forget the proposal by Purdue University President Mitch Daniels that his students try indentured servitude to a wealthy patron instead of student loans to finance their higher educations!

All of these important topics deserve discussion in subsequent posts, but let’s spend a few moments reviewing one particularly chilling development on American campuses—the throttling of free speech through so-called “civility codes” or “speech codes.”

According to Benjamin Ginsberg at Johns Hopkins University, these codes restrict “forms of speech and conduct that might have been seen as offensive or hostile by particular groups or designed to intimidate or harass individuals based on their racial, religious, social, gender, or other characteristics.” In reality, they are frequently used by campus administrators anxious to avoid vocal dissent from faculty and staff, and are disingenuously justified on the grounds that they protect the institution from lawsuits or that they are a “best-practice.”

However, the U.S. Department of Education generally warns against adopting anti-harassment codes, as they may infringe upon constitutionally guaranteed First-Amendment rights and protections. Nevertheless, when enacted, campus administrators can use them to bully or silence their critics, especially at private institutions, which offer broader leeway.

Recent examples of administrative overreach using “civility codes” include the censoring of faculty blogs, a revocation of tenure for private writings, the rescinding of a job offer for anti-Israeli tweets, the limiting of free speech to “zones” on campus, and even a prohibition on distributing copies of the US Constitution—on Constitution Day.

Fortunately for the principle of freedom, “civility codes” in higher education do not hold up well in American courts of law (even when they are written into institutional bylaws). Therefore, faculty members with the (slightly enhanced) free-speech protections of tenure are under a special obligation to use them for the benefit of their colleagues and students by defending free speech on campus whenever, and wherever, it is circumscribed.

Yet, it seems preposterous to have to mount a defense of free speech on American campuses in the twenty-first century, since that battle was fought in the 1960s, first at the University of California at Berkeley (along with civil rights, women’s rights, and protests against the Vietnam war) and subsequently on campuses around the nation.

In 1964 and 1965, students at UC Berkeley worked together to challenge the social and political status quo after restrictions on speech and bans on political activities on campus. When negotiations with then Chancellor Clark Kerr and his administration broke down, thousands of students occupied Sproul Hall in protest and defied calls for them to leave the premises. Their insubordination helped to protect free speech in the United States across the political spectrum for generations.

Conservative commentator David Brooks rustled feathers recently when he suggested that cartoons disparaging the Prophet Muhammad published by the left-leaning satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo (that triggered terrorist attacks on their office) “wouldn’t have lasted 30 seconds” in a satirical student publication on any American campus over the last two decades.

Brooks argues “Americans may laud Charlie Hebdo for being brave enough to publish cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad, but, if Ayaan Hirsi Ali is invited to campus, there are often calls to deny her a podium.” His reference to the Somali-born writer is most apt, for Brandeis University administrators revoked their offer of an honorary degree to Ali in 2014 after her criticisms of Islam drew ire from some members of the campus community. In cases like these, political correctness justifies the arbitration of the free exchange of ideas, a principle that the American university—at its best—represents.

Moreover, Brooks finds the slogan “Je Suis Charlie Hebdo,” embraced by members of the public in the wake of the attacks, somewhat hypocritical—since most people do not use the deliberatively provocative satire and sarcasm, which is the specialty of Charlie Hebdo, in their everyday interactions. Rather, in Brook’s estimation, most individuals try to show some respect for those who hold different beliefs or ideologies, and make an effort to listen rather than insult.

“Yet, at the same time,” he continues, “most of us know that provocateurs and other outlandish figures serve useful public roles. Satirists and ridiculers expose our weakness and vanity when we are feeling proud. They puncture the self-puffery of the successful. They level social inequality by bringing the mighty low.”

If the expressions of provocative and insulting individuals are repressed by codes of civility, which demand that every viewpoint be hallowed, then where will there be room on campus for the creative people who challenge the status quo, with its refined manners and pretentious tastes, by poking fun at it?

Some of our greatest writers brandished trenchant sarcasm and biting satire as a weapon to deflate the affectations of those in power: Aristophanes, Rabelais, Voltaire, Cao Xueqin, Mark Twain, Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, and even Jon Stewart—to name but a few. When critical voices are repressed on campus by “civility codes,” how will the American college and university remain an important guardian of democracy and free speech for the nation?

More troubling still, if democracy and the free exchange of ideas cannot survive on campus, where will these principles endure in our society?

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Oct 19 2014

The Adjunct Administrator


The Adjunct Administrator: Turning the Tables

Each post on Ask My Professor illustrates a profound state of decline in American higher education from a different vantage point: the rise of for-profit institutions of higher learning, administrative bloat, runaway tuitions, chronic state and federal defunding of public education, and the influx of corporate business practices—to name but a few.

Yet, without question, among the most stupefying of self-inflicted wounds facing the American academy today is the widespread exploitative practice of hiring contingent on-demand part-time professors, for it is the poison that is slowly depleting American colleges and universities of their intellectual and moral capital.

Fact: more than half the American professoriate works on a part-time basis, earns fast food wages (sans benefits), teaches on semester-to-semester contracts, possesses little or no job security, remains largely invisible on campus (except to students), and lacks access to office space, faculty development funds, and other means of professional advancement. By contrast, their tenurable full-time colleagues are at least paid salaries that allow them to sustain themselves with modest dignity.

Sadly, even those adjunct professors who are highly regarded by students are considered by the administrations that employ them as “contingent” members of the faculty. In other words, despite teaching a majority of the courses on American campuses, adjunct professors are “not logically necessary” to their institutions, as the term “contingent” suggests.

By projecting this demeaning attitude onto so many American professors, administrators across the nation have justified paying an average of just $3,000 per sixteen-week course to these professional teachers, many of whom hold advanced degrees, and are trying to raise families.

As Matt Saccaro at Salon observes, if an adjunct professor “teaches three courses in both the fall and spring semesters at a rate of $3000 per course, they’ll make $18,000. The average full-time barista makes the same yearly wage.” Therefore, more than half of the professoriate in United States of America earns the same amount of money as a bartender.

These are the individuals whom we are trusting with the higher education of our children, and they deserve a living wage for their intellectual labor.

Indeed, it is dumbfounding that American faculty members of all ranks have tacitly allowed themselves to be so thoroughly de-professionalized over the last thirty years—and it defies comprehension that they continue to accept it as the new status quo.

One would think that all students, along with their parents, would demand full-time professors—considering the fact that college tuition and fees in the United States have surged an outrageous 1,120 percent since records began in 1978 (outpacing both inflation and the cost of healthcare delivery).

The historian of higher education recognizes that things were not always so dire in the American academy. For example, after the Second World War, the G.I. Bill created the opportunity for millions of returning soldiers to receive higher education. That national investment paid off handsomely, as America could soon boast of a highly trained workforce that innovated continually in science, technology, and engineering.

The resultant expansion of higher education meant that by the 1960’s nearly seventy-five percent of American faculty members were teaching and researching on the tenure track. While their salaries paled in comparison to those in business and industry, they at least made a fair living wage.

However, starting in the 1980s, a cultural shift took place in which American higher education began to be seen as an individual commodity (bought privately to ensure upward economic and social mobility)—rather than a public good from which the entire nation benefited.

The slow creep of corporatization into the academy during the 1990s and 2000s privileged campus executives, administrators, and managers over those who actually taught the courses and did the research.

The result is that while half the American faculty are being impoverished, a new class of highly paid administrators has mushroomed up, and they are commanding salaries that rival those found in the business world.

For example, University of Minnesota administrators are paid in line with their peers at Ohio State University, meaning the median base pay for senior administrators “ranged from about $207,000 each year to nearly $550,000 annually.”

In order to reverse this ominous trend, we should turn half of all full-time administrative positions into part-time adjunct ones—and cap top salaries at no more than ten times what the lowest paid adjunct professor makes on campus.

The massive cost savings of such a move might be used to convert a majority of current part-time adjunct teaching positions into full-time tenurable ones. After all, what is more important: attending a college where highly paid administrators eat up campus resources—or staffing classrooms with full-time professors who are supported by their institutions and dedicated to their students?

By making the majority of management and administration positions part-time, not only will institutions of higher learning across the United States save millions in operating costs, but there will be less time for silly exercises such as strategic planning, assessment, and branding.

If such a future sounds like a pipe-dream to you, consider Iowa State University (ISU)—a real leader in American higher education reform.

Iowa State is the only institution of higher learning “in the entire country to spend the last eight years hiring full-time faculty and shrinking its administration. ISU President Steven Leath explained to the Des Moines Register that ISU wanted to ‘run a very lean operation and put as much into direct support of students and faculty’ as possible, boosting full-time faculty hiring by an astounding 41 percent.”

In short, making half of all administrative positions part-time offers many advantages to students, parents, and faculty alike. It would reduce bureaucracy, strengthen faculty governance, and protect campus democracy—thereby preserving it for the nation.

In addition, as adjunct administrative work becomes less glamorous (due to salary corrections), it will inevitably attract only dedicated individuals who will serve for the enrichment of the students—and not themselves. It will spell the end of American higher education as a place where executives and administrators become wealthy.

So while, at first glance, it might seem preposterous to suggest turning administrative positions into part-time adjunct ones—in reality, it is far less ludicrous than the fact that a majority of faculty members on American campuses are now underpaid—and undervalued—part-time adjunct professors.

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Sep 25 2014

Strategic Planning


Strategic Planning: Myth and Malpractice

If you work on a campus in the United States, in any capacity, you have encountered strategic planning. Indeed, the forces driving it seem never ending, as one three-year, five-year, or ten-year plan follows another.

We all know the story: a new president or provost comes in, and soon boatloads of committees are formed, presentations and gatherings are held to encourage “community buy-in,“ and endless promises are made about the wonderful future in store for the institution once it has been “transformed.”

These days, when an oddball institution does manage to survive, all too often a new president or provost will initiate a process of “restructuring” or “reorganization,” so that eventually it will look like every other institution through a process of benchmarking and “best practices.”

It’s true; run a query for “university strategic planning” in your favorite search engine, and you will find multiple examples of American institutions of higher learning boasting about their plans. The language in them tends to be nebulous and platitudinous, but then again their real intention is to give college and university executives around the nation cover for their decisions.

Perhaps you have wondered about the origin of this obsession with ongoing strategic planning, since—gasp—it did not always exist as a widespread practice in the American academy.

Some readers might not be able to imagine campus life without multi-year plans, but the historian of higher education only has to look back thirty to forty years to a “golden age” between 1945 and 1980—when American colleges and universities resisted the influx of corporate practices (such as strategic planning and assessment) as fundamentally antithetical to their primary non-profit missions: to educate, for the public good.

Historically speaking, multi-year planning cycles do not originate in corporate America; they are a practice that emerged in authoritarian communist governments in countries like the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

After the communists won control  in 1949, for example, a socialist, central planned economy was put in place in China. Thousands of Russian experts were invited to help develop China’s higher education system. The “curricula, course syllabi, and textbooks” that Soviet scholars brought with them were carefully translated and widely distributed.

As a result of the import of Russian curricular models, a set of “canonized disciplines and professional specializations” were forever linked to the hierarchical structure of Chinese bureaucracy. The Soviet Five-Year Plan adopted by China thereby “provided an effective tool for the maintenance of a hierarchical sociopolitical order.”

Regrettably, the irony of the widespread use of authoritarian Soviet-style planning apparati is lost on many intellectuals in the American academy today.

One scholar does compare strategic planning to the American fads of piercing and tattooing (to which we might add hipster beards). For decades, she writes, “one managerial fad has replaced another, often arriving in academia just after fading out of corporate life.” As a result, most “wannabe universities” now conform to strategic planning regimes that benchmark themselves against peer institutions in an endless cycle of mimicry.

Never mind that strategic planning is an enormous burden on faculty and staff, because members of the board of trustees come from business, and accreditors and government agencies remain “enamored of planning, which they associate with transparency and accountability.”

Nevertheless, as Benjamin Ginsberg notes, the university planning process “entails months of committee meetings, discussions, and deliberations,” and most who participate “tend to buy into the outcome” and are ultimately “co-opted by it.”

In point of fact, the lengthy documents that are generated by strategic planning usually contain vague goals based on budget projections and include a number of fund-raising goals—so that they are little more than expanded vision statements.

Therefore, strategic planning is not a blueprint for the future (which is after all unknowable), but instead it is just another management tool to reinforce the “ongoing growth of administrative power.”

Many faculty or staff members who dedicate their time to strategic planning come away from the process wondering what happened to their important suggestions. When they query a president or provost about them, the inevitable reply is that all community voices were heard in the strategic planning process.

By thus manufacturing the illusion of participation, administrators are able to ignore the documents generated during the strategic planning process that do not jive with their preferred (often pre-determined) outcomes.

So, now that we have understood the strategic planning process in more detail—and gained an appreciation for how poorly suited it is to the non-profit venture of higher learning—the only question that remains is how to respond to it.

The realization that planning committee reports often go unread, their sincere recommendations jettisoned and soon forgotten when a new planning cycle comes along, makes the answer clear.

Simply do not buy in–especially if you worry about the direction your college or university is moving. Management cannot continue with the charade of inviting the community to the table, when that community understands “the emperor has no clothes.”

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Aug 25 2014

Campus Democracy


Campus Democracy

The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign recently rescinded its offer of a tenured professorship to Dr. Steven Salaita, due to his Twitter posts that disparaged Israeli military tactics during its conflict with Hamas.

A quick and furious public backlash necessitated a response from Chancellor Phyllis Wise. In it, Wise claims to respect the principles of academic freedom, codified by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) in 1940, but seemingly she does not fully understand them.

For while Wise claims that Urbana-Champaign “is home to a wide diversity of opinions on issues of politics and foreign policy,” she dubiously asserts that the ultimate decision to release Dr. Salaita “was not influenced in any way by his positions on the conflict in the Middle East nor his criticism of Israel.”

Chancellor Wise, like many corporate-minded CEOs in today’s neo-liberal academy, cites “civility codes” at her institution in defense of her decision:

“What we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois are personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them.”

Such attempts at policing thought and prohibiting its expression have not faired well when challenged in American courts of law. As AAUP would remind Chancellor Wise, “institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution as a whole. The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.”

The Board of Trustees continuing support for Chancellor Wise’s decision not to submit Dr. Salaita’s signed Letter of Appointment for approval suggests that it does not fully comprehend that tenure was designed in part to prevent retaliation against faculty members for expressions of unpopular viewpoints, and it preserves thereby the integrity of the university.

Tone deaf and out of touch, however, the Board of Trustees at Urbana-Champaign, insist:

“Disrespectful and demeaning speech that promotes malice is not an acceptable form of civil argument if we wish to ensure that students, faculty and staff are comfortable in a place of scholarship and education.”

In other words, free speech no longer applies to tenured faculty members at the University of Illinois, if it grates and irritates; in its place, restrictive conventions of civility must be observed in public debate and discourse. In this brave new world of the intellect, heterodoxy is punishable by termination.

Brian Leiter, professor of law at University of Chicago, calls it “a national embarrassment that a public official, the Chairman of the University of Illinois’s Board of Trustees, apparently does not know even the basic facts about the American constitutional system.”

Traditionally, the mechanisms of American campus democracy protected not only free speech, but also guaranteed meaningful faculty governance throughout the nineteenth century. Shared-governance emerged only when the entrepreneurial activities of the American university—such as running hospitals or state of the art research laboratories—became too cumbersome for faculty to oversee unassisted.

Following that trajectory of generational divestment, today university governance in the United States mimics corporate structures, which increase “the power of administrators at the expense of faculty, reducing faculty to a mostly temporary and low-wage workforce, and reducing students to customers.”

Tragically, a majority of faculty members across the United States now work part-time for fast-food wages, and a full three-quarters of all professors on American campuses lack the tenure protections needed to challenge administrative prerogatives, safely express heterodox notions, and to speak freely in the classroom.

Such sustained attacks on tenure, together with the appropriation of the tradition of shared governance by overzealous administrators, is symptomatic of what Stanley Aronowitz calls the “incorporation of America.” On too many campuses across the nation, power has shifted from the faculty to the administration, and this new managerial class has successfully co-opted final determination over nearly all university issues.

The decision by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Chancellor and Board not to honor their appointment of Dr. Salaita, due to the written expression of his views, exemplifies a moral crisis in the American academy. Such intolerance of freedom of expression by corporate-minded university officials is antithetical to the democratic spirit—and it imperils the ability of higher education to protect American civil liberty and democracy.

In fact, campuses across the country are experiencing the same creeping authoritarianism and loss of traditional mechanisms for faculty governance. On the State University of New York (SUNY) campus in Oneonta where I currently teach, the “faculty senate” was long ago rendered innocuous (after a vote of no-confidence against a former President) by adding non-teaching professionals to its ranks, and then reducing the renamed “college senate” to the role of an advisory body only.

Much more recently, the new Dean of the School of Social Science overturned a faculty search—despite student and faculty protests. Were that not troubling enough, our Provost stealthily appointed two associate provosts at the end of the semester, without even the pretense of national searches.

That one of these appointees failed a national search for a deanship the year before, and the other has little upper-administrative experience (past a few months as a provost-appointed interim dean) speaks directly to the corporate-style reward system now in place for faculty members who exhibit unblinking support for, and complicity in, administrative prerogatives that erode campus democracy.

These recent developments at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the State University of New York at Oneonta simply illustrate broader national trends. If left unchecked, they threaten to systematically dismantle the principles of free speech and liberty upon which American democracy is founded—and to subordinate them to the pedestrian values of the marketplace.

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Jul 28 2014

The Neoliberal University


The Neoliberal University: Illness and Contagion in American Higher Education

In previous posts, I have outlined the crisis in American higher education from a variety of perspectives, including adjunctification of the faculty, administrative bloat, the rise of for-profit colleges, abandonment of shared governance, and the loss of liberal learning in favor of professional training.

We can trace this decline in the quality and international reputation of American colleges and universities to the election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980. That fact should not surprise, for as Governor of California, Reagan was among the first to initiate the entrepreneurialization of his state’s public higher education system, at that time considered a model for the nation.

As a result, tuitions began to rise—as they have done ever since. In the mid-1970s, attending the University of California at Berkeley cost $700 per year, but now the same education runs $13,000 per year.

However, after two energy crises and double-digit inflation during the 1970s, American voters moved in a different direction, and elected Reagan as President of the United States, turning their backs on the counterculture movement and embracing instead a new form of social conservatism grounded in the market-based ethos of privatization.

When these conservative forces finally banished their liberal-leaning foes in the Culture Wars of the 1990s, American colleges and universities were framed as bastions of liberalism and fomenters of social unrest, and they came under a sustained fiscal and moral assault that continues to this day.

The lynchpin of that conservative strategy was to use the levers of policy, the power of elected office, and the rhetoric of fiscal austerity to defund higher education, and to argue in favor of tax cuts for the wealthy “job creators” that would trickle down to the ordinary Joe.

Combined with unscrupulous attacks on “welfare queens” (recipients of aid portrayed as serial abusers of social programs), conservatives successfully reframed the debate around the public funding of higher education for generations. Some might argue that the conservative movement has even gutted the capacity of the American university to produce critically minded citizens who challenge the status quo.

The systematic defunding of the American university through budget cuts, and the entrepreneurialization of those functions that could generate revenue (such as technological research), quickly spread from California to other states. Collectively, state support for higher education was reduced “by anywhere from 14.8 percent to 69.4 percent between fiscal 1980 and fiscal 2011,” with the state of Colorado leading the way.

In the face of declining state and federal support, public and private colleges and universities in the United States became more utilitarian and entrepreneurial out of sheer necessity. They sought out new revenue streams from private donors (after whom buildings, programs, scholarships, or endowed chairs could be named), and forged cooperative agreements with corporate America to help fill their depleted coffers.

The Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 cemented the relationship between corporate America and higher education. Patents, and other forms of intellectual property, became alternate sources of funding for all kinds of colleges and universities. Academic programs in business, computer science, and biological engineering received increased funding, while the arts and humanities were deemed unprofitable and gradually marginalized.

The rush to transfer the practical innovations of academic research to the marketplace as quickly, and as profitably, as possible meant that university presidents became intent “upon accumulating money to expand the size and reputation of the institution,” and thereby forced the methods of the marketplace on a reluctant (or indifferent) faculty.

This conservative attack on higher education by way of targeted budget cuts, the rhetoric of fiscal austerity, and the transference of college costs to the “consumer” through tuition and fees, all arose out of larger global trends of privatization, corporatization, and the deregulation of industry known as “neoliberalism.”

According to the philosophers Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval, the principle characteristic of neoliberal rationality is the generalization of competition as a behavioral norm and of the enterprise as a model of subjectivation. They argue that a new mode of government of human beings has arisen in accordance with the universal principle of competition, which is now embedded in the “discourses, practices, and apparatuses” of power.

The universalized logic of competition has been used to justify the restructuring of institutions of higher learning from establishments for the commonweal into business enterprises that justify inequalities among knowledge workers and administrators as a side effect of economic Darwinism (where the fittest survive and the unfit are left to fend for themselves).

Neo-liberalism is pernicious, Dardot observes, because it is not simply a mindset or ideology. It is a system of norms “profoundly inscribed in government practices, institutional policies, and managerial styles,” and it extends the logic of competition to individuals.

In the wake of this gradual neo-liberal infection of higher education, we can chart the de-evolution of American colleges and universities on the world stage, from their belle epoch between 1945 to 1980, when our institutions of higher learning were decentralized hubs of innovation–and not the quasi-businesses that they are today.

American Colleges and universities, argues Henry Giroux, “now mimic corporate structures by increasing the power of administrators at the expense of faculty,” thereby reducing professors “to a mostly temporary and low-wage workforce.” Even at institutions of higher learning where research is not a priority, faculty members increasingly report that decision-making has become “more bureaucratic, top-down, centralized, automatic, and managerial,” observes former President of Harvard University, Derek Bok.

University and college administrators are thriving, in contrast to faculty members who have been “reduced to rootless adjuncts” and their students who have been saddled with enormous debt (collectively in excess of one trillion dollars), asserts Lawrence Wittner, Emeritus Professor of History at SUNY Albany.

Forty-two American college and university presidents earned more than a million dollars per year in 2013 (in addition to generous perks that include housing and the use of luxury cars).

In light of this analysis, perhaps you are wondering if neo-liberalism has infected your own campus. If so, point your Internet browser to the IPEDS Data Center where you may compare institutions of higher education based on many factors, including: Human Resources breakdowns of full-time and part-time instructional staff, the number of management positions at a college, and the office and administrative staff needed to support them.

While IPEDS does not articulate the number of tenure track positions, or provide administrative salary information in its core revenue distributions, if your institution employs a large number of part-time faculty, it cannot be focused on providing its students with full-time professors (who are chosen in nationwide searches and survive a long period of probation leading up to tenure).

If the IPEDS data indicates that the number of executives, administrators, and managers (together with their supporting positions) outnumber full-time faculty, take that as an ominous sign that neoliberalism has infected your college or university.

Others symptoms of contagion include: the lack of meaningful shared governance, the overturning of faculty searches by deans, the appointment of administrators without national searches, and the trotting out of “strategic plans” and “best practices” as rationales for restructuring.

In combination with a sustained effort to eliminate costly university executives and administrators, and their support apparati, the conversion of existing part-time and contingent faculty positions into tenurable ones would go a long way toward stemming the spread of the neoliberal disease.

Demand more tenure-track appointments at your college or university! Make the choice to attend an institution that invests in you by investing in the faculty!

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Jun 21 2014

University as Heterotopia


American University as Heterotopia: A Thought Experiment

Perusing critiques of the academy (with such ominous titles as Fall of the Faculty, Blow-up the Humanities, Moral Collapse of the University, Knowledge Factory, and Declining by Degrees) for my own study of the university from an East-West perspective, I came across several passages referencing the utopian propensities of the American project in higher education. Yet, having taught in American universities since 1999, I find very few elements in today’s academy that we might hope to emulate in society as a whole.

For example, university politics are notoriously nasty, and faculty members are full of fear these days as they face more administrative oversight. Most American institutions of higher education are suffering from administration bloat, high tuitions, reliance of adjunct labor, standardization, Balkanization of academic units, fragmented curricula, and the influx of corporate values and business speak.

Even so, I wondered if the university writ large (as we are speaking of it, collapsing all kinds of distinctions between institutions) might still possess some quasi-utopian function. After all, the pejorative phrase often aimed at it, the “Ivory Tower,” does suggest a certain detachment from, and opposition to, the status quo. Perhaps a better way of thinking about the American university today is as a “heterotopia”?

Michel Foucault, in a 1967 lecture entitled “Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias,” contrasts heterotopic sites with utopias. Utopias are for him “unreal spaces,” “sites with no real place,” and “inversions of real space.” Heterotopias, by contrast, are real places (real sites) in which “all the other real sites…are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted.”

Like a mirror, the heterotopia is at once “absolutely real, connected to all the space that surrounds it, and absolutely unreal, since in order to be perceived it has to pass through this virtual point which is over there.” Heterotopology, for Foucault, therefore is “a sort of simultaneously mythic [unreal, utopian] and real contestation of the space in which we live.”

Foucault goes on to list six principles of the heterotopia, which we will take one by one, if only to briefly consider their applicability to particularities of the American university.

While heterotopias “take quite varied forms,” they are first and foremost a “constant of every human group.” Foucault claims “there is probably not a single culture in the world” that fails to constitute them. Although Foucault never mentions the college or university specifically in his writing on heterotopia, but he does note that “crisis heterotopias” are “privileged” places “reserved for individuals who are, in relation to society and to the human environment in which they live, in a state of crisis.”

Many teachers in the American university are living in crisis. Adjunct, and other contingent, faculty now account for 73% of teaching faculty nationally (tenured and tenure-track less than 27%). Because they can be replaced easily, contingent faculty members remain largely unable to meaningfully resist the very administrative prerogatives that are responsible for their marginalization.

In some ways, today’s university is a modern day equivalent to Foucault’s crisis heterotopia: the 19th century boarding house for adolescents where sexual awaking was suppose to happen “elsewhere than home,” and where “leisure as the rule” formed “a sort of deviance.”

The second principle of heterotopia is that it “has a precise and determined function within a society.” In the case of the university, at the most basic level, that function is to educate and advance human knowledge. However, Foucault asserts that as history unfolds, a society can “make an existing heterotopia function in a very different fashion.”

It may be a tangential connection, but at this very moment, conservatives who view intellectuals as a threat to traditional cultural and religious values are turning that human knowledge into a commodity. The modern American university has adopted the structure of a “managed organization” to integrate all its functions, which means that students are increasingly taught the vocational skills required for technical specialization at the expense of more comprehensive liberal education.

Toby Miller points out that one result of this neo-liberal assault on the American university is a “new type of conformity to national and international governmentalization and commodification” that has emerged “in which faculty devote vast amounts of time to filling out forms describing what they have done, are doing, and intend to do” while a new class of unaccountable evaluators has emerged to police them.

A heterotopia is also “capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several places, several cites that are themselves incompatible.” Foucault cites the odd rectangular space of the typical theatre in which “on a two-dimensional screen, one sees the projection of three-dimensional space.”

The modern university lecture hall, with its multiple projectors and smart boards, comes to mind as a similar type of heterotopic space. Like the theatre or Persian Garden (to which Foucault refers), in this “smallest parcel of the world,” the microcosm of the university classroom is transformed into “the totality of the world” through the interplay of word and image.

Foucault’s fourth principle of the heterotopia is that it is linked to “slices of time,” opens out into what he calls “hetero-chronies,” and results in a break with traditional temporalities. He cites the cemetery as a heterotopia that radically breaks with traditional temporality (in that it is a place of dissolution and disappearance). Libraries and museums are also heterotopian spaces “of ever accumulating time.”

The festival fits the fourth principle because it is one of “time in its most flowing, transitory, and precarious aspect.” Foucault offers up the recent phenomenon of the theme-based vacation village as a new kind of temporal heterotopia. In terms of the modern university, it contains a library (and often a museum) in which time accumulates. Yet, like a festival or even a vacation village, the university is temporary–in terms of students’ temporal passage through it.

The fifth principle of the heterotopia is that it possesses “a system of opening and closings that both isolates them and makes them penetrable.” A prison compels entry, for instance, but in other cases one “must have a certain permission and make certain gestures” to enter. One manner in which the university manifests itself as a system of opening and closing is through the admissions office, which provides access to those who make the right gestures.

While debates about “class vs. race” based admissions rages on, students from wealth and privilege still make up the majority of those who attend the most selective American colleges and universities, as they have since the founding of our country. On the other side of the equation are students who are priced out of higher education altogether, or who must borrow tens of thousands of dollars to finance their degrees. In this sense, the openings and closings that isolate universities, yet and make them penetrable, are driven by a variety of socio-economic forces and government policy.

While some heterotopias “seem to be pure and simple openings, but they “generally hide curious exclusions.” In the United States, there are more than 4,000 institutions of higher education that seem to offer access to everyone, yet we have noted several factors of exclusion above. Foucault points out that in some heterotopic sites entry “is only an illusion—we think that we enter where we are, but the very fact that we enter, excluded.”

The final principle of heterotopia that Foucault identifies is that these sites “have a function in relation to all the space that remains.” They can “create a space of illusion that exposes every real space…as still more illusory.” Like the university, heterotopias “create a space that is other, another real space, as perfect, as meticulous, as well arranged as ours is messy, ill constructed, and jumbled.” Foucault calls these “heterotopias of compensation,” and he compares them to “the first wave of colonization in the seventeenth century, of the Puritan societies that the English had founded in America that were absolutely perfect other places.”

In the colonies established by the Jesuits of Paraguay, the village and grounds were laid out “according to a rigorous plan” and the daily life of individuals was regulated in them “not by the whistle, but by the bell.” In the early history of the college, a highly regimented life was a standard part of the American experience of higher education.

Frederick Rudolph notes that “compulsory morning and evening prayers and Sunday church services” were once “fundamental to the American collegiate experience.” They were much maligned by students, who protested by “deliberate absenteeism, indifference, disrespect; by ogling female visitors; the writing of obscene doggerel on the flyleaves of hymnals, [and] by expectorating in the chapel aisle.”

Today, higher education in the United States may be more polite, but it is in well-documented decline. Even so, reform is still possible. As Benjamin Ginsberg reminds us, “at is best, the university is a remarkable institution. It is a place where ideas are taken seriously; where notions that are taken as givens are problematized; where what has seemed to be reality can be bent and reshaped by the power the mind.”

The American university will never be a “heterotopia par excellence” (a self-contained “place without a place” that exists by itself, like a boat that  moves from port to port). Nevertheless, between World War II and the 1980’s, the American university was “the great instrument of economic development” and “simultaneously the greatest reserve of imagination” in our nation’s history. Although in crisis, we must protect it as an institution essential to our democracy.

As Foucault warns: in “civilizations without boats, dreams dry up, espionage takes the place of adventure, and the police take the place of pirates.”

Demand more tenure-track appointments at your college or university! Make the choice to attend an institution that invests in you by investing in the faculty!

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May 21 2014

Edward Snowden and the Humanities


Edward Snowden and the Humanities

In his new book, No Place to Hide, Glenn Greenwald portrays Edward Snowden as a young American idealist who possesses the courage, knowledge, and daring to expose the overreach of the covert surveillance apparatus of a prominent modern nation-state.

From his point of view, Snowden is a hero for bringing to light the secret information gathering techniques used by the United States National Security Agency, as well as its problematic “corporate partnerships” with the Internet, telecommunication, and defense industries.

Greenwald, a civil rights advocate and journalist, promises even more revelations, yet the Snowden documents already released have demonstrated that the National Security Agency (N.S.A.) can “monitor or collect information from hundreds of millions of people around the globe, that it has broken into the communications links of major data centers across the world,” and that “it has broken privacy laws or exceeded its authority thousands of times a year.”

Based on his own experience with national security officials, Greenwald believes that they tend to “act abusively and thuggishly only when they believe they are safe, in the dark.” He identifies secrecy as “the linchpin of the abuse of power,” and argues that transparency “is the only real antidote.”

In her review of No Place to Hide, Michiko Kakutani asserts that Edward Snowden has revealed that the ability of the United States National Security Agency “to spy on our daily lives has grown exponentially to Orwellian proportions.”

In point of fact, Snowden’s interest in Greek mythology, and Joseph Campbell’s work on the archetype of the hero in particular, may have provided him with a narrative framework into which he could project himself.

Campbell’s comparatist approach to world mythology aimed to identify perennial patterns (archetypes) of the hero in global literatures. For instance, the mythic hero is capable of accomplishing what no one else can, and he does so for the sake of others, not merely himself.

In the Western tradition, “Jason sailed through the Clashing Rocks into a sea of marvels, circumvented the dragon that guarded the Golden Fleece,” while “Aeneas went down into the underworld, [and] crossed the dreadful river of the dead” to converse with the shade of his father.

The Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf (AD 700–1000) features a young warrior protagonist who slays the monster Grendel that terrorizes King Hrothgar and the members of his court. He must do away with Grendel’s fearsome mother as well, before becoming king of his own people.

In the Indian epic the Ramayana  (circa 300 BCE), the righteous hero Rama has a karmic obligation to kill the ten-headed demon Ravana (who kidnaped his wife Sita in a blatant transgression of the laws of dharma).

It is a possibility that Edward Snowden took inspiration from mythologies in which the protagonist (often an ordinary person) fights, rather than flees, in the face of some grave injustice represented by what Campbell calls “the figure of the tyrant-monster.”

In A Hero with a 1000 Faces (1949), Campbell describes the tyrant-monster as a “hoarder of the general benefit” who must be slain by “the redeeming hero, the carrier of the shining blade, whose blow, whose touch, whose existence, will liberate the land.”

Snowden himself asserts that both mythology and history show that “seemingly ordinary people who are sufficiently resolute about justice can triumph over the most formidable adversaries.”

Moreover, the hero should at some point quit the world and turn inward—for there exists a mirror-like relationship between the outward quest of the hero to slay an unjust monster, and the inner one for self-knowledge.

So, if reading great works of literature helped to awaken in Snowden a critical insight that culminated in his quest to slay the modern dragon of the surveillance state with the sword of transparency, shouldn’t the relevance of humanistic learning in exposing the massification of surveillance become one justification for its preservation?

The liberal arts are in dramatic, and well-documented, decline at the modern American university with some pundits arguing that they may soon go the way of the (nearly extinct) Classics department.

Citing federal data, the New York Times reports, “nationally, the percentage of humanities majors hovers around 7 percent — half the 14 percent share in 1970.” Victor Ferrall, author of Liberal Arts on the Brink (2011), writes that between 1987 and 2011, “graduates whose majors were vocational (as opposed to liberal arts)—rose from 10.6 percent to 27.1 percent.”

Compounding this flight from traditional undergraduate humanities majors (such as English and history), the Great Recession of 2008 eviscerated state funding for higher education. In response, tuitions rose steadily, and soon students began to seek out academic programs that they perceived as leading directly to a specific occupation.

Institutions of higher education around the nation responded rapidly, and according to John Tresch, most universities now seek to “build up the STEM fields, both because national productivity depends in part on scientific productivity and because there’s so much federal funding for science.”

However, there are many reasons to preserve the arts and humanities as the basis of university curricula in our age of technological advancement and globalization. Foremost among them must be to gain a comprehensive knowledge of other cultures and their histories, languages, and customs, so as to minimize conflict around the world, and facilitate the peaceful flow of knowledge and commerce across borders.

Even students in the technical professions, such as business or engineering, may gain great utility from a liberal course of undergraduate study, should they remain mindful of its potential value. “Studying philosophy,” observes Leon Botstein, “might be just the thing an undergraduate engineering major needs to become an innovative engineer.”

Economist Christina Paxson concurs that there are “tangible benefits to the humanistic disciplines.” In the complex, globalized world we are moving toward, “it will obviously benefit American undergraduates to know something of other civilizations, past and present.”

Walter Coppedge, Professor Emeritus at Virginia Commonwealth University, observes that the humanities are “fundamentally about encouraging human beings to ask searching questions: Who am I? What am I suppose to do? How am I to live?” To that end, we might follow the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in advocating for the return to a “fully balanced curriculum—including the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences.”

After all, we have an obligation to provide students with “opportunities for integrative thinking and imagination, for creativity and discovery, and for good citizenship.”

The emphasis on the liberal arts made American universities the envy of the world in the twentieth century. Let us not allow that privileged position to be eroded in the wake of financial recession, high unemployment, and the retrenchment of public funding for higher education.

Demand more tenure-track appointments at your college or university! Make the choice to attend an institution that invests in you by investing in the faculty!

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Apr 20 2014

Department Chairs & Adjunct Vulnerability


Department Chairs and Adjunct Vulnerability

A former colleague of mine in mathematics once remarked that there are two kinds of academic department chairs: those who see themselves as foremost among colleagues and shield their fellow teachers from administrative prerogatives, and those who capitulate to the administration in order to benefit their own careers (with the aim of eventually advancing from chair to dean, then to provost, and perhaps even to president).

While undoubtedly categorical and reductive, during eighteen years of teaching at the university level, I have had many department chairs. Those who were most effective simply allowed faculty members to do their work, rather than push personal, or administrative, agendas.

Most professors are instinctively dedicated to their job, working 50-60 hours per week, and do not require micromanagement. Faculty members trade lower salaries than their peers in industry, and endure heavier workloads that spill over into weekends and holidays, in return for an ample measure of independence and highly flexible schedules.

Writing on the state of American higher education in the twenty-first century, Noam Chomsky argues that tenured faculty have traditionally determined a substantial amount of their own work: “what they’re going to teach, when they’re going to teach, what the curriculum will be.”

Now, there exists “a higher level of administrators” that even the tenured faculty “can’t overrule or control. The faculty can recommend somebody for tenure, let’s say, and be turned down by the deans, or the president, or even the trustees or legislators. It doesn’t happen all that often, but it can happen and it does.”

In the case of adjunct faculty, Chomsky asserts, “they’re not permitted to be a part of the decision-making apparatus, and they’re excluded from job security, which merely amplifies the problem” of faculty members being reduced to the category of temporary knowledge workers.

This bleak new reality for all teaching faculty, regardless of rank, is a direct consequence of “imposing a business model on just about every aspect of life” in the United States, including higher education and medicine—two areas of inquiry once believed to be diminished by the taint of profit and the centralization of power away from the practitioners (the professors and doctors).

In her thoughtful book, Wannbe U: Inside the Corporate University, Gaye Tuckman observes that while some departments have “bylaws that encouraged heads to share responsibility,” others did not. In either case, Tuckman concludes, “the department head who viewed himself as working for his colleagues was rare indeed.”

Rather than sharing departmental control, and protecting the interests of their faculty, many department chairs seek control over their colleagues–a reflection of an increasing authoritarianism in which chairs see their primary job as implementing, often uncritically, directives from on high.

A coercive regime of assessment and accountability provides administrators with a means “to audit the behavior of the professoriate” while their own activities remain “hidden behind the curtain of transparency.”

These transformations, observes Calvin Morrill, necessarily breed “a corporate mentality among the faculty, squelching the free exchange of ideas and criticisms that once characterized universities” in the United States.

Morrill attributes the palpable sense of fear found among most faculty members today to work environments where the use of rewards and sanctions increasingly resembles those found in American business culture.

To some degree, awakened faculty members with tenure can resist these impositions of power, though they are often labeled “troublemakers” and marginalized, if not sanctioned publicly.

Junior faculty members, who have yet to earn tenure, are vulnerable to targeting by department chairs for any number of reasons. Some department chairs become imperious, even resorting to bullying and cheap political payback for challenging their authority.

I once witnessed a department chair weigh down a weak candidate for tenure with a series of poor performance reviews and then “kill with a borrowed knife” when his successor rejected that application for tenure the following year. Conversely, I have seen equally weak candidates secure tenure because they were well-liked by their colleagues.

The nebulous nature of the tenure review process at most colleges and universities means that such unseemly behavior by department chairs, or higher-ranking university officials, is often attributed (perhaps rightly) to the nasty nature of academic politics in general.

Yet, as compromised as junior faculty members on the tenure-track can be, far and away the most susceptible to the unjust exercise of power by department chairs are adjunct professors and contingent faculty members, who now make up the new faculty majority on campuses around the nation.

Adjunct professors can be punished, fired, or simply not rehired for opposing a chair. I have been in departments where adjunct professors who dared oppose their department chairperson were dismissed at the first opportunity. There is little recourse in such cases, even on campuses with union representation, and therefore there exists little incentive for meaningful opposition to changes in the workplace.

By way of conclusion, former chair of English, Annette Kolodny, offers a note of caution to her colleagues who would take the task of chairperson too seriously. Firstly, she writes, department chairs should think of their dean “not as the administrator to whom you report but, instead, as a pupil whom you constantly and patiently educate about your discipline and department.”

Kolodny also suggests that department chairs should remember not to “waste any more time or energy than you absolutely have to on five-year plans, mandated accreditation reviews, or any other kind of long-range planning document.” In addition, chairs should also assume that when reports are filed with deans and other administrators, they “will never have the time to read through them.”

For all of these reasons and more, department chairs should earnestly defend the interests of all of their teaching colleagues, tenured and contingent alike, with whom they serve. 

Those with the concerns of the faculty (and therefore students) foremost in mind will work tirelessly to convert as many contingent teaching positions as possible to tenurable ones.

Demand more tenure-track appointments at your college or university! Make the choice to attend an institution that invests in you by investing in the faculty!

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Apr 9 2014

Chinese Higher Education


Chinese Higher Education and the Quest for a World Class University

A few weeks ago, I wrote about a great convergence underway in higher education, driven by the forces of globalization. Let us extend that discussion by focusing on the way in which global competition among institutions of higher education is reshaping educational delivery around the world, particularly in East Asia.

Although no precise method exists for comparing institutions of higher learning around the world, intense competition persists among them for prominent positions on dubious ranking scales, like the one published by the Times Higher Education.

The Times uses what they call “13 carefully calibrated performance indicators” to determine the order of their rankings. These indicators include the academic reputation of the institution, the “teaching environment” (i.e. endowment and investment in infrastructure), the prolificness of the faculty and the citation of their work, and even income from collaboration with industry.

According to the Times, the highest ranking that an institution in East Asia achieves is 23rd (Tokyo University), while the University of Hong Kong, Seoul National University, and Beijing University diplomatically take the 43rd, 44th, and 45th spots respectively, after which East Asian universities fall off the scale rather precipitously.

In point of fact, global ranking systems of universities tend to reinforce existing public perceptions of institutional prestige.

Even so, the internationalization of higher education has produced a legitimate need for semi-peripheral and peripheral countries around the globe to produce at least one “world class university,” or preferably several of them, like the United States and the United Kingdom.

The consequences of not producing world-class universities for countries like China include generational “brain drain.” China now sends more students to study abroad than any other country in the world.

The Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange (U.S. Department of State) reports that “China, India and South Korea now make up 49 percent of the total number of international students in the United States.”

The highly competitive nature of the university entrance examination systems in East Asian countries, combined with their lack of “world class universities” to keep them home, mean that unless high school students win acceptance to the most prestigious institutions in their own countries (Qinghua University, Beijing University, Fudan University in China), they go abroad for undergraduate, or graduate, studies.

So, what has emerged in China is a two-track system for accessing higher education: those who go the traditional examination route, and those who study English and prepare for the Scholastic Aptitude Test instead. These trends are literally transforming primary and secondary education delivery as parental attitudes broaden beyond Chinese borders.

As Jiang Xueqin notes, traditional secondary education in China means “lectures and memorization and cramming for exams,” while what is required for success at college in the United States is traditionally “communication, critical thinking,” creativity, and the ability to speak in English (not just to read and comprehend it).

The Chinese central government now recognizes serious inadequacies in its current system of higher education, and so it is striving to create more universities that can stand toe-to-toe with the best in the world–as it retools its own outmoded pedagogies in an effort “to create an economy based on invention rather than cheap factory production.”

According to the New York Times, Chinese education officials are deliberately “moving toward the American model of hands-on science learning” and are working to shift the focus away from standardized testing, recognizing that it “severely hampers student development as a whole person, stunts their healthy growth, and limits opportunities to cultivate social responsibilities, a creative spirit, and practical abilities.”

Interestingly, this new emphasis in China on creative thinking and awakening critical insight by employing American models of education comes at a time when serious questions have been raised concerning the course that the United States is charting in terms of its own educational endeavors.

A heightened emphasis on standardized testing, “core” curricula, and precipitously declining U.S. student performance vis-à-vis the rest of the world has left some social critics wondering if America isn’t suffering from its own creativity crisis at a time when “other countries are making creativity development a national priority.”

Creativity is on the brink, observes Alane Starko, as America continues to run “at breakneck speed toward the cliff of total test focus, tossing aside any non-mandated curriculum as we go.”

Having taught at universities in South Korea and China in the late 1990’s, and returned to the region many times since, I find it regrettable that East Asian students coming to the West in search of alternate modes of learning increasingly encounter assessment-based “student learning outcomes” that prevent free inquiry, inhibit creative problem solving, and deaden critical thinking–all of which are antithetical to the values that once made American colleges and universities truly exceptional.

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Mar 31 2014

History of American Higher Education


A Brief History of American Higher Education

Our modern notion of the university has deep roots in the institutions of higher learning found in the ancient and medieval worlds. The University of al-Karaouine, for instance, founded in 859 in Morocco, is generally accepted as the oldest university in continuous existence. The University of Bologna, established in 1088, claims that distinction in Europe.

The history of higher education in the United States, while decidedly shorter and less illustrious than in either of those countries, nevertheless owes much to its predecessors, particularly elite institutions of higher learning in England and Germany.

Our “Pilgrim Fathers left England,” observed Alfred North Whitehead, “to found a state of society according to the ideals of their religious faith; and one of their earlier acts was the foundation of Harvard University in Cambridge, named after that ancient mother of ideas in England, to which so many of them owed their training.”

Thus the history of higher education in the United States begins with Harvard (1636) and other colonial colleges, including William and Mary (1693), King’s College (now Columbia University, 1754), the College of New Jersey (Princeton University, 1746), and the College of Philadelphia (The University of Pennsylvania, 1754), among others.

Frederick Rudolph reminds us that early American colleges were “in no sense popular institutions,” but rather served “aristocratic elements in colonial society.” Today, that elitism is still apparent in their domination of university ranking systems around the world and their dizzying endowments (in the tens of billions).

Following the American Revolutionary War, the ideals of the European Renaissance permeated the typical college curriculum, which was steeped in ancient languages, humanistic learning, and the Judeo-Christian Bible. Rudolph observes that the first year of study typically included work in “Latin, Greek, logic, Hebrew, and rhetoric,” to which were added natural philosophy in the second year and metaphysics and moral philosophy in the third, before finishing up with a final year of intensive review.

During the nineteenth century, colleges and universities proliferated as the nation expanded geographically. They flourished in Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, Colorado, and even as far west as Washington and California. Driven in part by the missionary movement, many American colleges and universities once were bound by denominational affiliations, many of which have been significantly loosened, or dropped off altogether, in our own time.

Sadly, what has also suffered diminution in the twenty-first century is the nineteenth century notion of the American college as a social investment endowed for the public good. In that spirit, state governments around the country began to break the elite monopoly of knowledge that characterized our founding institutions, and sought to put higher education within the reach of every free citizen by helping to finance it.

It was during the nineteenth century also that universities began to subdivide into separate schools (some of which we would recognize today, such as law and medicine) and to establish the first graduate institutions. Founded in 1819 by Thomas Jefferson, the University of Virginia, for instance, was offering graduate degrees by 1831 and was an early innovator of the elective curriculum.

The American Civil War had a devastating impact on the landscape of higher education. Rudolph reports that over 700 colleges “died between 1850 and 1866,” including fifty-five Catholic ones, due to the aforesaid proliferation of colleges, the competition for students that resulted, and the challenges of keeping them fiscally sustainable (despite wages for faculty that kept many of its members impoverished).

The rise of science in the curriculum dates from this period, as well. Massachusetts Institute of Technology opened in 1865, for example, and the Morrill Federal Land Grants Acts that preceded it aimed “to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions of life.”

Every state in the union received land to establish an institution where the “branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanical arts” could be taught. It was the dawn of vocational and technical higher education in the United States, and forever since business and government have been bound together in the education enterprise.

By the late 1880’s, small private colleges had to compete with an increasing number of publicly funded normal colleges (dedicated to producing teachers), which heightened the educational tendency toward vocationalism. The American university at the turn of the twentieth century was a force for social mobility—a place where disparate fields of endeavor could co-exist and students could earn a doctorate degree through specialization.

Noting the trend to mimic German universities and award an increasing number of Ph.D. degrees, the American philosopher William James attacked, as “a sham”, the prominent notion that there should be no instructor at Harvard University who did not hold the doctorate:

“Will any one pretend for a moment that the doctor’s degree is a guarantee that its possessor will be successful as a teacher? Notoriously his moral, social, and personal characteristics may utterly disqualify him for success in the classroom; and of these characteristics his doctor’s examination is unable to take any account whatever. Certain bare human beings will always be better candidates for a given place than all the doctor-applicants on hand.”

Presciently, James rightly argued in 1903: “America is thus a nation rapidly drifting towards a state of things in which no man of science or letters will be accounted respectable unless some kind of badge or diploma is stamped upon him, and in which bare personality will be a mark of outcast estate. It seems to me high time to rouse ourselves to consciousness, and to cast a critical eye upon this decidedly grotesque tendency. Other nations suffer terribly from the Mandarin disease. Are we doomed to suffer like the rest?”

It seems so, for not only has the doctorate become the preferable teaching credential, even at community colleges around the nation, but now American universities have become such large and unwieldy enterprises that traditional models of faculty governance essentially came to an end in the twentieth century, as well.

Thus, there arose the first stirrings of a professional class, known as administrators and professional staff, led by a chief executive officer who worked with a governing board (usually comprised of wealthy donors) to manage daily operations, raise money, control the finances, and get ever-more work out of a faculty wrongly perceived to be inclined toward idleness (i.e. a lazy worker).

For the sake of example, the president of University of North Dakota, Thomas F. Kane, assured those in attendance at his inauguration in 1918 that the wayward “[faculty] of the university are going to earn their salaries. We are going to drive them hard.”

Following the Gilded Age, the number of wealthy benefactors making campus gifts, endowing chairs, and having buildings (or whole universities) named after them increased dramatically. Some of those appellations we recognize today: Vanderbilt, Pulitzer, Rockefeller, and Brown.

In fact, all of these changes in the scope and intention of the university were driven by practices that members of the governing boards had learned as entrepreneurs in industry, business, and finance. As a result, Rudolph observes, “professors were already on the road from being fellows charged with ultimate responsibility to being hirelings of those men of the world who increasingly dominated collegiate governing boards.”

Perhaps aided by the rapid expansion of higher education following the adoption of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (known more widely as the G.I. Bill of Rights), the administration at most colleges went originally from just  “a president, a treasurer, and a part-time librarian” to the sprawling administrative bloat that now accounts for steeply rising tuitions across the nation.

Writing at the dawn of the twenty-first century, Stanley Aronowitz likened American universities to knowledge factories and suggested that the centralization of the academic system is just one symptom of a broader “incorporation of America.” Aronowitz argued that corporations “vocationalize” universities, as less affluent institutions sell “chunks of the curriculum” to corporations in return for “trained workers.”

Fear not, though, for hope remains with faculty members who understand that the main function of higher education is not teaching per se, but providing students with “an intellectual environment that will encourage the learner to dispense with intellectual authorities and to become her own authority.”

Demand more tenure-track appointments at your college or university! Make the choice to attend an institution that invests in you by investing in the faculty!

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Mar 8 2014

The Pitfalls of For-Profits


The Pitfalls of For-Profit Higher Education

Susan Mettler of Cornell University provocatively asserts that higher education in the United States now resembles “a caste system, separate and unequal for students with different family incomes. Where students attend college affects their chances of graduating and how indebted they will become in the process.”

At the top of this caste system are elite colleges, whose high tuition rate is discounted by half for most students. At the bottom are for-profits that market themselves to “low-income students and veterans,” and the like, who aspire to better their lot, yet might be vulnerable to deceptive marketing practices that lure in underprepared students with promises of gainful employment and a prosperous future.

In February 2014, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) filed a lawsuit against ITT Educational Services for allegedly encouraging students to borrow beyond their capacity, usually with high-interest loans. Announcing this unprecedented legal action, the director of CFPB, Richard Cordray, stressed that it “should serve as a warning to the for-profit college industry that we will be vigilant about protecting students against predatory lending tactics.”

According to the CFPB complaint, an associate’s degree at one of ITT’s 150 for-profit institutions “can cost more than $44,000,” while their bachelor’s degree programs “can cost $88,000.” In both cases, that sum “is significantly higher than the cost of similar degrees at a community college or a public four-year institution.”

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that 40% of approximately 3,000 of the nation’s for-profit institutions are owned by publicly traded companies. For example, Education Management Corporation enrolls almost 114,000 students, while DeVry Inc. has nearly 102,000. For-profits also spend a lot of money to attract and retain students. The Apollo group, which includes University of Phoenix, expends roughly 20% of its total net revenue per quarter on advertising.

Writing for Forbes magazine, Dr. Steven Salzberg concludes: “I’ve been following the growth of these companies, and here’s this professor’s blunt conclusion: they offer low-quality, almost worthless degrees. They have virtually no academic standards. They will accept anyone who can pay, and they seem to care primarily about the bottom line.”

Salzberg believes that the degrees from for-profit colleges “are not highly regarded by employers, who are right to view them with suspicion.” He compares these degrees to the Yugo, a famously inferior automobile made by the Yugoslav/Serbian Zastava corporation.

In a similar vein, Anurag Behar concludes: “high quality higher education is not and cannot be a for-profit enterprise. This is not an ideological issue; it is merely an economic implication of what is required to have high-quality higher education.” Beyond significant and broad research, Behar notes students need a “multidisciplinary faculty” who can cover fields of inquiry ranging from the humanities to applied sciences.

Unfortunately, at for-profit colleges, meaningful faculty oversight of the curriculum cannot exist because of over reliance on contingent labor. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation reports that just 0.2% of the faculty at for-profit colleges are tenured or tenure-track, 11.7% are full-time non-tenure-track, and a whopping 88.1% are part-timers.

In sum, students who attend for-profit institutions pay more tuition, leave with more debt, face higher scrutiny regarding the quality of their degrees, and are taught by more part-time instructors than those attending comparable non-profit institutions of higher education. Some for-profit colleges are even being accused of inflating the credit value of their courses in order to “increase their profit margins.”

Those who attend for-profit colleges must borrow heavily to pay higher tuitions, and so upon graduation they often “have trouble finding jobs that pay enough to afford their debts.” As a result, 23% of borrowers at for-profit colleges default within three years–compared with just 7% at non-profit colleges and 8% at public ones.

Even worse, individuals who drop out of for-profit colleges without completing a degree find themselves loaded down with student loan debt and with less income potential than their peers who finish. They also suffer “higher unemployment rates, lower median incomes, and higher loan default rates than those who graduated.”

Therefore, anyone considering enrolling in a for-profit college should really look elsewhere first, such as the local community college or public university. Students currently attending for-profit institutions should insist on full-time faculty members to teach all of their courses.

The “bottom line” is that students at for-profit colleges pay more for their educations, but get less value for their money. Caveat emptor!

Demand more tenure-track appointments at your college or university! Make the choice to attend an institution that invests in you by investing in the faculty!

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Feb 22 2014

Loan Sharks & Land Grants


Loan Sharks & Land Grants: Student Debt, Economic Recession, and the Millennial Generation

The high cost of the crisis in higher education is being passed on to our students in the form of loans. These loans, used to finance college, shackle borrowers with debt for ten, twenty, sometimes thirty years or more, impeding both their own economic livelihood and those of others.

While the unprecedented amount of debt encumbered by the Millennial Generation has hindered their own economic prospects, and those of the nation, their increased borrowing is simply a response to the outrageous price of higher education in the United States today.

Consider the fact that from 2003 to 2013 tuition and fees at four-year public institutions “rose at an average rate of 5.2% per year beyond inflation.” When room and board are factored in, total charges at public four-year institutions grew faster than in either of the preceding decades.

Tuitions keep climbing, in part, because public funding for higher education in the United States has yet to rebound to pre-recession levels. Arizona, for instance, has cut funding for public higher education by a third since 2009 (while tuition in the state increased 78% from 2008 to 2013).

Likewise, in Massachusetts, state support for higher education has declined by 37% over the last five years, while tuition has risen at UMass campuses. Some historically black land-grant institutions, created by the second Morrill Act in 1890, are awaiting millions of dollars in matching state funds owed to them from 2010 to 2012.

Budget cutting at this pace means that students are paying more than ever to go to college, whether they attend public or private institutions. As tuitions outpace inflation across the board, Millennials are forced to borrow more than their debt-ridden Generation X predecessors (many of whom are mid-career and still saddled with student loans).

On the campaign trail in 2012, Barack Obama even quipped:

“Check this out, all right, I’m the president of the United States. We only finished paying off our student loans about eight years ago. That wasn’t that long ago. And that wasn’t easy—especially because when we had Malia and Sasha, we’re supposed to be saving up for their college educations, and we’re still paying off our college educations.”

At public institutions across the United States, 70% of students who graduate with a bachelor’s degree incur student loan debt. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York reported this month that that debt now exceeds one trillion dollars and “remains the second largest source of household debt behind mortgages.”

It seems preposterous that we find ourselves in such a position. Yet, Duke University, for the sake of example, cost $10,000 per year in 1984, but today that figure is a jaw-dropping $60,000, which the executive vice provost calls a “discount” price.

Little wonder then that some Millennials are graduating with student loan debt equivalent to the purchase of a small home, condo, or apartment—before they enter the recession-addled job market. As a result, they are defaulting on their loans at a faster pace than the previous generation, as well.

In the three years after repayment begins, 11% of borrowers at public institutions, and 7.5% at private colleges, default on their loans. Making repayment even more costly, those saddled with $40,000 or more of student loan debt are likely to “have private loans with interest rates of 8% or higher.” $8.1 billion of them are now in default, partly because student loan debt is so difficult to reduce or eliminate through bankruptcy proceedings.

Economists are increasingly alarmed about the negative implications of massive student loan debt on the broader U.S. economy. The housing recovery has been hindered by a shortage of first time homebuyers. Many young adults simply cannot save enough money “for a down payment or qualify for a mortgage” any longer because of student loan debt.

Even so, the student loan industry remains profitable despite increasing defaults by debtors. According to the Associated Press, “the federal government is earning an estimated $66 billion in profits from student loans originated between 2007 and 2012.” U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren calls it “obscene” that the federal government is profiting “off the backs of our students.”

By way of conclusion, we should not neglect the role of administrative bloat in the skyrocketing cost of public higher education in the United States today. The American Institutes for Research (AIR) just released a study aimed at determining why “tuitions at public four-year colleges and universities have soared nearly 160 percent since 1990.”

One of its key findings was that “growth in administrative jobs was widespread across higher education,” particularly among professional positions. The Huffington Post, citing the American Institutes for Research and other sources, states the case in the starkest terms:

“In all, from 1987 until 2011-12 […] universities and colleges collectively added 517,636 administrators and professional employees, or an average of 87 every working day.”

In light of the scandalous reliance on contingent faculty at colleges and universities, the American Institutes for Research concludes rightly that faculty salaries “were not the leading cause of rising college tuitions” over the past decade. Rather, increased “benefits costs, non-faculty positions added elsewhere on campus, declines in state and institutional subsidies, and other factors all played a role.”

So, what’s to be done? First of all, taxpayers, students, and parents should petition for increased federal and state funding for public universities. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has proposed legislation (entitled the Federal Student Loan Refinancing Act) that would cap student loan interest rates at 4% and allow those with loans at higher rates to refinance (thereby lowering their repayment costs).

In addition to this important step, those currently borrowing to pay for school, repaying student loans, or already in default should insist on better terms for loan forgiveness, more flexible income-based repayment plans, and better financial counseling so that students can limit how much they borrow.

Finally, the well-documented growth of management and administration positions at American colleges and universities must be stemmed in order to keep tuition in check. Cost savings associated with streamlining the administration can be used to provide students with full-time, tenurable faculty to instruct them.

After all, why should college students take out loans to pay for the full-time professors that they are not getting? Today, more than 70% of faculty teach on a contingent and part-time basis—and that will change only when students, and their parents, insist on receiving more for their tuition dollars.

Demand more tenure-track appointments at your college or university! Make the choice to attend an institution that invests in you by investing in the faculty!

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Feb 9 2014

Faculty Complicity


Faculty Complicity in the Adjunct Crisis

A heightened focus on the exploitation of adjunct professors by the institutions that employ them is now underway, for adjuncts now constitute a majority of teaching faculty across the United States.

If we take the Colorado Community College System, for the sake of example, there are currently 3,235 adjunct faculty members who teach 66% of the courses offered across fourteen campuses. Nationally, that number is 69% at two-year colleges, while “at public, four-year schools” it is nearly 50%.

Increasingly, the general public is aware that part-time adjunct professors often commute between institutions, have no guarantee of continuing employment, and teach courses that can be canceled even after they start. On average, adjunct professors make $25,000 per year (often much less, and generally without benefits). Those raising families are now turning reluctantly to social welfare programs such as food stamps, while others constantly “struggle to make their car or rent payments.”

In addition, many adjunct professors feel invisible on campus. They are left out of department meetings, denied opportunities to participate in college governance, and sometimes do not have a desk—let alone a proper office.

Despite their relegation to second-class status by bottom-line minded university administrators, these part-time professors endeavor to help students outside of their courses, although they must balance class preparation, teaching, grading, and commuting from campus to campus with their family and household responsibilities.

If we want real student-focused reform in higher education, we must demand that the preponderance of part-time adjunct teaching positions be converted into full-time tenurable ones. Not only is this a matter of social justice (of providing a fair living wage and equal opportunity for advancement to all faculty), it should be a prerequisite of anyone who pays tuition. Students should choose a college or university that provides full-time professors who have the resources to dedicate to them.

Undoubtedly, the causes of the current crisis in higher education are manifold, and they are taking place against a broader backdrop of economic recession and a decline in American influence around the world. However, we should not let those who have enjoyed the protections of tenure for a generation (or more) escape blame for the explosion in the number of adjunct faculty across the country.

Confessions of tenured faculty members who awakened to discover their own complicity in the exploitation of their colleagues can be illuminating. Admittedly slow to understand the transformations in higher education that have marginalized adjuncts, Peter D. G. Brown writes:

“I must confess right off that I did not become a contingent labor activist until I turned 60, a mere six years ago. Until then, I was a fairly typical senior professor, passionately involved in teaching my students and interacting with my tenured colleagues on a variety of faculty governance committees. I have also pursued a fairly active research agenda.”

Mike Fabricant from Hunter College concurs that many tenured faculty members choose to “focus on their own research” rather than “disrupt their work life, even when they’re working alongside folks who are being exploited terribly.”

In addition to this willful self-absorption and ignorance about the working conditions of their adjunct colleagues, we must entertain the unsavory possibility that at least some tenured faculty members secretly believe in their own preeminence over their contingent co-workers. As Brown observes:

“Most tenured faculty view themselves as superior teachers with superior minds. In this view, the arduous six-year tenure process clearly proves that all of us are superior to ‘them’ and have deservedly earned our superior jobs by our superior gifts and our superior efforts.”

Perhaps, this elitist mentality emerges naturally in class-based systems like the one found on American campuses today (a breakdown of which may be found on the homepage of this website).

Regrettably, too many the current 27% “whom fortune favored” with a tenurable teaching position cling to the belief that they possess an irreplicable skill set that is lacking in their adjunct colleagues. For individuals who hold such snobbish views, one’s part-time or contingent status may be proof enough of deficiency to justify turning a blind eye.

In addition to the responsibility born by previous generations of tenured faculty for the current adjunct crisis, obliviousness to the adjunct plight, and an ugly elitism born out of classism, tenured faculty members are also complicit in the maintenance of the status quo through their own cowardice.

After years of graduate work, the dissertation defense, the anxieties of the job search, and the pressures to conform as junior faculty members, many whom earn tenure, and understand the current adjunct crisis, are too fearful of college administration to protest the misuse of adjunct labor on campus.

Most complicit, however, are tenured faculty members who work with the administration (as willing bureaucratic functionaries, sycophants, or quasi-managers) to implement and enforce policies that marginalize their adjunct colleagues.

Standing up for adjunct professors across the nation will require challenging management prerogatives that favor the use of contingent labor. We need to reject the existing multi-tier labor system at the American university and insist on fair pay, for fair work, for all teaching professionals.

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Jan 29 2014

East Meets West


East Meets West: The Great Convergence in Higher Education

In “The Ballad of East and West” (1889), Rudyard Kipling declares:

“East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;”

A British citizen born in India, Kipling witnessed firsthand what must have seemed like an unbridgeable chasm between the oriental and the occidental. A conservative defender of the British Empire and its ruling class at the close of the nineteenth century, Kipling’s assertion would have been hard to accept, had he not continued:

“But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face,
tho’ they come from the ends of the earth!”

More than a decade into the twenty-first century, we find something prescient in the last three lines of this five-line stanza. Kipling’s British Empire is no more, but its former colony, the United States, now boasts the largest economy in the world with a GDP estimated at 16.2 trillion in 2013. China claims the number two spot at 9 trillion in GDP.

Indeed, two “strong men” from the “ends of the earth” now stand face to face. The erosion of geographical borders, of ethnic distinctions, and of place of birth as a determining factor in one’s life all speak to the positive effects of globalization that Kipling foresaw.

However, the selfsame forces that have created these two “strong men” are leading to a convergence in their models of higher education. As China looks westward for reform, colleges and universities across the United States are transforming themselves in ways that eerily resemble the authoritarian top-down governance traditionally associated with their East Asian counterparts. We might call this phenomenon the “Confucianization” of American higher education.

Learning in late Imperial China was grounded in the teachings of the sage Confucius, who in the sixth century BCE espoused a complex moral philosophy that later formed the basis of the civil service examinations, which took root in the Tang dynasty (618–907) and continued until their abolition in 1905 at the end of the Qing dynasty.

Essentially a humanistic tradition, Confucianism emphasized self-cultivation and life-long learning that led one to practice the golden rule and adhere to the rules of propriety. It took for its central canon a set of texts known as the Four Books and Five Classics, which included works of poetry, prose, history, didactic moral treatises, and arcane philosophies.

Unfortunately, in imperial China a massive educational bureaucracy emerged to control the content of higher education by way of the civil service examinations. As Benjamin Elman demonstrates in Education and Society in Late Imperial China, the examination system that characterized Chinese higher learning, although humanistic in origin, had a sinister utilitarian focus—to provide the ruling class with officials who demonstrated ideological conformity (through their examination responses).

As a result of increasing globalization during our own time, we find ourselves at a curious historical moment when China is looking to the West for higher education reform, while colleges and universities across the United States are implementing policies that are standardizing curricula, growing administration and centralization of institutional governance, and enforcing ideological conformity through the scandalous use of contingent faculty to ensure compliance to administrative prerogatives. In other words, our system of higher education delivery is beginning to resemble the one that China is aiming to replace.

According to Leslie Stone, in China’s Higher Education Reform and Internationalization, traditional Chinese higher learning and Western liberal education shared many of the same attributes and goals, including a focus on the humanities. Today, China is attempting to recover that humanistic tradition. Having emphasized science and engineering for generations to provide knowledge workers for its booming economy, Chinese undergraduate education is becoming increasingly student-centered, interdisciplinary, and multidisciplinary, with more humanities content.

Yet, China’s own laudable attempt to reinstitute a lost focus on the arts and humanities is threatened by the same forces of globalization that are propelling it forward. As David Chan points out, Asian nations are transforming their own national higher education institutions into international ones able to compete with other global players. Chen argues that a focus on “marketization and managerialism in higher education” is turning East Asian universities into “business enterprises” that adopt market principles and mechanisms for management (such as strategic planning, auditing mechanisms, and evaluations of teaching performances) “under the competitive tide of globalization.”

Simultaneously, institutions of higher learning in the United States are abandoning the arts and humanities programs traditionally associated with liberal learning and replacing them with an emphasis on STEM fields and technical training. Moreover, the vogue of employing “best practices” by American administrators has meant increasing standardized testing and transferable curricula, a focus on vocational education and job placement, as well as the use of faux assessment tools as another means of control over the faculty by top-heavy administrations.

In this great convergence, the crucial distinctions between East and West higher education may soon be eroded. Rather than China learning education reform from the United States, as it has for the last thirty years, America may soon need to look eastward to recover its own lost tradition of humanistic learning, and ironically perhaps even the ideal of the university as a decentralized space of innovation, creativity, and pluralism.

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Jan 15 2014

When Quantity Reigns


When Quantity Reigns: On Measurement in Higher Education

If we were honest with ourselves, we would admit that Americans have become obsessed with measurement and quantification, in part due to the enormous success of the modern scientific method, which through its investigation of the natural world, has tangibly improved the lives of peoples around the world. The revolutionary edict of the modern scientific method is that every theory, no matter how esteemed, must withstand empirical testing. Testing and verification determine the value of predictive theories (hypotheses), and should a theory fail even one test, it must either be abandoned, or modified and retested.

The American penchant for a quantitative understanding of the empirical world has historical roots. From Europe, we inherited a mathematical method of analysis that has facilitated endless innovations in science, technology, and engineering. The inventors of calculus, Isaac Newton (1642-1727) and Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716), were products of the Age of Reason, and their new tool for understanding the world reinforced a scientific and empirical view of its processes (thereby revealing its natural laws).

Yet, science, and the measurement and calculation that it employs, constitute only one modality of human knowledge. Because learning is a mental phenomenon, numerical systems designed for analyzing the physical world are not ideally suited to evaluating student learning outcomes (SLOs). As Americans, we rely far too heavily on standardized testing to measure teaching and learning outcomes in primary and secondary education, and increasingly on problematic “rubrics” composed of vague declarations about what students should learn in colleges across the country.

In the state university system where I teach, for example, students taking a course with a Western Civilization attribute are expected to “relate the development of Western civilization to that of other regions of the world” by the end of the semester. Those who finish a course with an American History attribute should gain an “understanding of America’s evolving relationship with the rest of the world.” Simple common sense tells us that these SLOs are too over-generalized to be measured with any statistical validity.

Nevertheless, contractual statements like these are increasingly required on course syllabi, and accreditation bodies are demanding evaluation of them. An imposing administrative machinery has emerged in the last decade to collect and analyze data, then quantify the performance of academic units, including the faculty, vis-à-vis the stated outcomes. Such zealous efforts to find yet another application of the scientific method overlooks the fact that the data acquisition processes are often in violation of fundamental statistical sampling requirements.

Moreover, when they attempt to measure complex phenomena (such as whether students across sixty-four SUNY campuses understand “America’s evolving relationship with the rest of the world”), statisticians recognize a limitation called “reasonable aggregation.” Before statistical analysis can begin, they must conjecture which, out of an essentially infinite combination of quantities, are drivers of a suspected cause and effect relationship or correlation relationship—and how to measure such drivers. If the reasoning is not valid at any stage in this process, then everything else that follows will be flawed as well; the more complex the relationships being measured, the less precise the results.

Ignoring the requirements of statistical sampling, and the limits of statistical quantification, our penchant for making education reducible to numbers is changing the way we think about teaching and learning. Standardized assessment, college rankings, “value-added” indicators, and “student learning outcomes” are just some of the buzzwords associated with this misplaced faith in quantification. These terms obfuscate, mislead, and color public perceptions about the quality of higher education delivery in the United States.

Even President Obama, whose administration has championed the much-maligned Race to the Top program, is proposing that funding for higher education be tied to performance-based data indicators (graduation rates, graduate earnings, degree completion times, and other “metrics”). Back in reality, the Times Higher Education concludes simply, “meaningfully measuring the output of our highly diverse colleges and universities is impossible.”

The imprecise application and ignorance of the limitations in statistical analysis has not stopped other proponents of numbers-based education outcomes from attempts to extend the measure of learning across cultural borders. A new international plan for the “assessment of higher education learning outcomes,” called AHELO, “aims to be a direct evaluation of student performance at the global level and valid across diverse cultures, languages and different types of institutions.”

Putting aside the cultural hegemony inherent in such plans, we ignore the fact that the greater the complexity of the activities being measured, the more difficult it becomes to draw meaningful conclusions and make predictive inferences from the data. Noisy unstructured data presents serious statistical challenges, and attempts by AHELO to create a global assessment plan for higher education should not go unscrutinized.

So, why do we allow educrats in ballooning administrative ranks to manufacture dubious statistical data and use it to make decisions that affect faculty, staff, and students? Why do we allow a culture of assessment to cast us into the mill of outcome-driven instruction and learning?

As the introductory paragraph was meant to suggest, the answer may be found in our own history. The Puritans left us with a pragmatic business ethos that equates prosperity with righteousness. Enlightenment thinkers like Charles-Louis de Montesquieu (1689-1755) and John Locke (1632-1704) fired the American quest for liberty in the eighteenth century and infused the founding documents of the United States with a burning idealism, which in time would be transformed into a myth (of the American Dream) predicated on material acquisition and self-reliance as a measure of success.

In the following Romantic Period, writers began to interrogate the imposition of rationality that emerged from corporate industrial forces, which these individuals rightly foresaw as threatening to restructure society according to the values of business and commerce. Perhaps none of them was more vehement in attacking the limits of empiricism and ratiocination than the poet William Blake (1757-1827).

At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, Blake denounced the “dark satanic mills” that were polluting the cities of England. He inveighed against the eclipse of imagination, intuition, and emotion by ratiocination—an impulse that divides the world into “ratios” and limits perception (as if seeing “all things thro’ narrow chinks” of a cavern).

In an observation relevant to the current crisis in higher education, Blake notes the tendency to “bring out number weight & measure in a year of dearth.” In other words, when resources are scarce, as they remain in the wake of the Great Recession of 2008, we resort to quantification to distribute them. For this reason, we devise ways to measure one institution against another, and then make them compete for funding.

If we want meaningful reform in higher education, we should reject educational policies founded on numerical approximations of complex human interactions. A holistic view of the art of teaching and the organic process of learning includes numerical analysis, but as only one way to understand how learning is happening on college campuses across the nation.

We need to bring our hearts and imaginations back to the effort to reform higher education in the United States. Creative thinking should inform our educational policymaking —not just quantification, business models of organization, and more assessment. Otherwise, we risk allowing flawed systems of measurement, and the standardization that results from them, to stultify the minds of our citizenry. No doubt, we can do better.

Demand more tenure-track appointments at your college or university! Make the choice to attend an institution that invests in you by investing in the faculty!



Copyright © 2014 Mark S. Ferrara, All rights reserved.

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Jan 1 2014

Healthcare and Education


Healthcare and Higher Education in Crisis

As the Affordable Care Act comes into full effect, it seems appropriate to consider how the generational transformations in healthcare delivery mirror many of those taking place in higher education in the United States today.

Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Robert Kocher and his colleagues found that “from 1990 to 2012, the number of workers in the U.S. healthcare system grew by nearly 75%,” yet almost “95% of this growth was in non-doctor workers.” For every doctor in the United States today, Kocher notes, there are 16 non-doctor workers. Moreover, only 6 in 16 of these “non-doctor workers have clinical roles,” while 10 of the 16 of them “are purely administrative and management staff, receptionists and information clerks, and office clerks.” This marginalization of the professional medical doctor parallels that of the tenured professor who finds herself surrounded by staff and administration who are often far removed from the classroom.

Dr. David Scher believes that both “healthcare and education are at the precipice of complete collapse.” He notes that both systems deliver poor results, in an international context, given our level of spending on them. Writing in the American Conservative, Patrick Deneen points out that “there is something fundamentally amiss with making provision of health and higher education contingent on market models and profit calculus, as both seem to be goods that are not subject to the same kind of calculus as automobiles and bubble gum.”

I would agree that education and healthcare are two American institutions where much vaunted business models of centralization contribute to their declining stature in the world. Perhaps, the decay of healthcare delivery and higher education are indicative of a broader loss of American hegemony in the twenty-first century.

Whatever the case may be,“health outcomes in this country are no better—and in some cases, much worse—than those in other developed nations,” Darrell Kirch argues, and the “United States pays more than twice the average among its peers for health care, yet it lags in key outcome indicators such as life expectancy and infant mortality.”

Likewise, outcomes in U.S. higher education lag behind those of other nations, despite the comparatively high cost of it. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities notes that while tuition has increased to make up for shortfalls in state and federal support, public colleges and universities “have cut faculty positions, eliminated course offerings, closed campuses, shut down computer labs, and reduced library services.”

Similarly, administrative executives at Indiana University Health Hospitals seek to eliminate a billion dollars from the budget by cutting 800 positions despite rising operational income. Vanderbilt University Medical Center is cutting almost a 1,000 jobs (under the Orwellian slogan “Evolve to Excel”), while St. Vincent Health in Indiana aims to eliminate 865 jobs across the state. As is the case in higher education, CEO salaries continue to rise even at non-profit hospitals as lower level-positions are eliminated as “non-essential.”

As a result, nurses are increasingly working longer hours and tending to more patients. A recent U.S. Department of Health and Human Services study asserts that hospitals “with low nurse staffing levels tend to have higher rates of poor patient outcomes such as pneumonia, shock, cardiac arrest, and urinary tract infections.” Shana Camphor, in her literature review of safe staffing practices notes that “nurse staffing poses substantial issues at the clinical level” and has a “tremendous impact on patient mortality, patient satisfaction, increased incidence of medical errors, and nurse dissatisfaction and burnout.” Yet, when it’s time for austerity, nary does one hear of CEO’s cutting executive pay or streamlining administrative bloat.

In my next post, I will address the American obsession with quantification. However, when administrators and their staff outnumber medical doctors and university professors—it’s an ominous sign. One wonders how long we, as a nation, will continue to pay outrageous prices for the delivery of a healthcare, and higher education, “product” that increasingly does not measure up.

Demand more tenure-track appointments at your college or university! Make the choice to attend an institution that invests in you by investing in the faculty!



Copyright © 2014 Mark S. Ferrara, All rights reserved.

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Dec 18 2013

The Adjunct Professor


The Adjunct Professor: Then and Now

Once upon a time, the adjunct professorship allowed professionals and those with technical expertise working outside of the academy to teach on a part-time basis. An accountant might offer a course at her local university on current methods in the field, and a machinist by day could share his knowledge with others for a few hours a week at the nearby community college.

Traditionally, these adjunct teaching positions did not pay much, in part because there was an assumption that those who filled them had full-time employment with benefits. Therefore, colleges and universities that employed adjunct professors could offer very modest compensation (on a per-course basis), yet still employ qualified faculty who had “real world” experience that complemented the focus on theory and methods found in the college classroom.

Historically speaking, adjunct faculty members have never been well paid for their work, yet at one time they benefited more from their part-time employment. In return for a modest supplemental income, adjunct faculty gained a professional credential, and they could use their institutional affiliation to advance their own status in the field (by consulting, publishing, or giving public lectures, for instance). In addition to their full-time work, adjunct professors of yesteryear were also motivated, as they are today, by a desire to serve the community through education.

Remember, in 1969, contingent faculty members together (adjuncts, lecturers, instructors, and visiting professors) made up less than 22% of the faculty. Yet, by 2009, contingent teaching professionals were filling nearly 66% of all faculty positions in the United States. The adjunct professor today is a professional educator who teaches full-time but is paid only part-time wages.

AAUP reports that a large percentage of adjunct professors are paid on a per-class basis, commute between institutions, and are denied access to health care benefits and retirement plans by their employers. Congressman George Miller has recently created an online forum dedicated to collecting information about the working conditions of contingent university faculty.

Consider, for the sake of example, the life stories of adjunct professors featured in a recent article in the liberal leaning Huffington Post. Today, adjunct faculty members dedicate themselves to the classroom and their students literally to the detriment of their own wellbeing. The situation has become so dire that, according to the more conservative newspaper USA Today, college students are helping adjunct faculty to organize for better working conditions, salary equity, and a voice in academic areas traditionally within the purview of the teaching faculty.

Because so many professional adjunct professors now drive from one school to another to make a living, it has become increasingly difficult for them to become fully invested in the campus life of any single institution. Many regret not being able to spend more time with their students, but the logistics of being an itinerate professor do not allow it.

Moreover, without the summer and winter breaks free of teaching duties, or the institution financial support for professional development (such as conference funding), adjunct faculty are hard pressed to stay active as scholars. Thus, there exists a real risk of stagnation over time, thereby making it harder for adjunct professors to provide their students with the most up-to-date thinking in their fields.

Michael Bérubé, former President of the Modern Language Association (MLA), has bemoaned the fact that so many college faculty members “are exploitatively underpaid.” He recognizes that in communities still suffering from the economic downturn in 2008, there may be little sympathy to the current plight of adjunct professors. Yet, he believes, “it might be possible to play on the still-widespread belief that college professors are professionals and that parents who are sending their children to college should have some expectation that professors have the professional resources—offices, phones, mailboxes, e-mail and library access, meaningful performance reviews, participation in department governance—that make it possible for them to do their jobs.”

For all of these reasons, it is crucial that college students—and their parents—speak out on behalf of adjunct professors across the nation. Converting current adjunct teaching positions to tenure-track appointments is one component of a viable solution to the crisis in U.S. higher education today.

Demand more tenure-track appointments at your college or university! Make the choice to attend an institution that invests in you by investing in the faculty!



Copyright © 2014 Mark S. Ferrara, All rights reserved.

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Dec 8 2013

Reform Literature


Reform Literature in Higher Education

Those of us who work on campuses, where dismay over the crisis in higher education never seems to translate into meaningful demands for reform, may feel frustrated by indifference to this dire situation among faculty, staff, students, and parents alike. Yet, such a marginalized position can paradoxically become one of strength, for there is a prophetic quality to the “lone voice crying in the wilderness.”

This idiomatic expression is used to describe an individual who is willing to express an unpopular point of view, one that is only later understood by others to be correct. It therefore falls to the conscientious individual to cry out over the din of capitulation, if the institutions and organizations around that individual prove incapable, or unwilling, to challenge the status quo. The proverbial wilderness is vast, but it encompasses all marginalized points of view whose time will come.

The bourgeoning body of reform literature in higher education gives credence to the notion that lone disparate voices can join together to create a chorus of objection that will lead to meaningful transformation in U.S. higher education. For example, more than twenty years ago, Bruce Wilshire warned that the modern American university was adopting the structure of a “managed organization” to integrate all its functions—a trend that has only accelerated since 1990.

In The Knowledge Factory: Dismantling the Corporate University and Creating True Higher Learning (2000), Stanley Aronowitz demonstrated that the new corporate culture in the academy makes faculty more like “employees” with administrative “bosses” rather than free agents. As a result, power has “slowly but surely shifted to administrators who retain final determination over nearly all university issues.” Aronowitz also exposes the ubiquitous academic plan as another tool “used to remove authority over curriculum decisions from the local campus community and give it to the central administration.”

For Guye Tuchman, the “classic professions” of medicine, law, and academia are all being transformed by a culture that privileges “institutional logics, pervasive auditing, and an accountability regime” and emphasizes “workforce and capital development” over knowledge itself. She points to faculty complicity in this process. While “some professors agree with the central administration” there are others who “may stage direct or indirect attacks” on it (by turning to the University Senate and its committees, for instance). Such a situation allows the administration to employ the time-honored tactic of divide and conquer to quell dissent, if they even need to bother. Far too often, Tuchman asserts, “when faced with an administrative policy that professors feel doesn’t touch their immediate concerns, they may consciously accede to the wishes of the central administration.”

Toby Miller argues that these top-down models of higher education administration and centralization mean “more obedience, more external review, more metrification of tasks, more forms, less autonomy, and less time to research,” all of which impact how much time faculty have for their students. Indeed, these days “administrators refer to ‘change’ as an unproblematic good that they adore and admire,” when in fact it is a rhetorical term that really refers “to managerial mistrust of academics.” Tenured faculty now make up less than one-third of teaching staff across the nation, and non-teaching managers outnumber teaching faculty at most colleges and universities.

The eventual elimination of the tenure system would result in a loss of the principle of academic freedom, which once made American universities the envy of the world. Nearly fifteen years ago, Donald Kennedy warned the academic freedom that accompanies tenure protects faculty from political interference, allows the voicing of heterodox notions, and therefore needs to be preserved. Marjorie Heins agrees, and in her new book, she observes that the generational loss of faculty governance has deprived faculty of an essential means of resistance to administrative control. She also sees that a new “classism” is emerging in the university between part-time and full-time faculty, which is compounded by the valuing of profit and “revenue streams” over humanistic learning.

Andrew Delbanco bemoans the loss of liberal education, since it provides the holistic studies that are “necessary to democracy,” and are a “hedge against utilitarian values.” Instead, he finds that we are moving toward “professional and vocational education” in the United States. For instance, between 1970 and 2005, business enrollments increased 176%, while communications grew by 616%. Although elite colleges and universities may be immune from these trends, less prestigious institutions with fewer resources suffer increasingly from administrative bloat, high tuition costs, underpaid teachers and a reliance on adjunct labor, standardization, Balkanization of academic units, fragmented curricula, and the influx of corporate values. In short, American colleges and universities are spiraling into decline due to an erosion of the student-centered values that once informed them.

Looking forward, Robert Golden (a former provost and vice president for academic affairs and branch campus dean) imagines a State University of New York comprehensive college in the year 2050. According to Golden, there will be only fifty faculty members (on 5-year renewable contracts) to serve the 6,000 students on campus, MOOC courses will dominate the curriculum, the library will have few physical books, and the once mighty administrators will face decreasing power and autonomy in the wake of the “growing importance of technology in support services as well as the centralization of those services.”

Golden concludes this ominous portrayal of the comprehensive public college of tomorrow with a series of practical actions that faculty members can adopt now to counter this trajectory (including writing to alert the public and engaging local communities). Otherwise, in generations to come, American colleges and universities might resemble ghost towns with quads, instead of the vibrant hubs of innovation and pluralism they were in the second half of the 20th century. After all, what “is a university without departments,” quips Rebecca Schuman, but an “immaculately landscaped corporate park with its own apparel store, full of the sound of tuition money disappearing…but signifying nothing.”

Demand more tenure-track appointments at your college or university! Make the choice to attend an institution that invests in you by investing in the faculty!

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Nov 29 2013

Fawlty Faculty


Fawlty Faculty

My writing on higher education began with the supposition that students, and their parents, generally fail to appreciate important distinctions between contingent and tenured faculty. Once they do so, they will inquire about the constitution of the faculty when selecting a college or university, and choose to attend an institution that employs a large percentage of tenured professors.

However, preexisting notions about the duties and obligations of tenured faculty can crowd out that simple idea. For the sake of illustration, an entrenched perception exists that once a faculty member is tenured, an immediate, tangible, and ongoing decline in productivity, service, and the quality of teaching follows rapidly. Some of us may even know a professor who seems to exemplify this stereotype, yet a majority of post-tenure faculty continue to work on a demanding schedule that contributes to burnout and to decisions to leave the academy. The assertion that productivity declines post-tenure is often overstated and misleading, as this report from the NEA, and other studies, suggest.

Another well-entrenched criticism of tenured faculty is that they practice ideological indoctrination. Certainly, institutions of higher education like Naropa or Liberty promote chosen worldviews, yet ideology in the American university writ large is not monolithic. Because educational ideologies vary from institution to institution, and from teacher to teacher, attempts to “unpack” them in a systematic way to reveal some hidden agenda to indoctrinate are easily frustrated. While I’ve yet to meet one, somewhere a Marxist business professor must be teaching classes critiquing the perceived shortcomings of American capitalism. However, what would be harder to discover would be a school of business where all of the faculty members are Marxists.

In their study of faculty ideology and changes in student political orientation, Mack Mariani and Gordon Hewitt conclude that regardless of “any biases (intentional or unintentional) that professors bring to their teaching, the findings presented here should help alleviate the concern that students, on a widespread basis, are being forced to adopt the political positions of their liberal professors.” In a similar vein, Neil Gross suggests that a view of academia as a bastion of leftism is as flawed as the supposition of its bias against conservatives.

In my view, there are more stinging criticisms of faculty members than attacks on tenure, or so-called indoctrination. To begin with, not all tenured and tenure-track professors are student focused, although the teacher-student relationship is at the heart of the educational endeavor. At a research institutions, for instance, the emphasis on publication might trump teaching, while at the public community college, service on faculty committees may consume time better spent preparing classes. Secondly, tenured faculty members can act like bullies even hazing their junior counterparts, a process so engrained in academic culture that it is taken for granted. Tenured faculty members are also prone to constant infighting that stymies progress, regular displays of a shocking inability to critically interpret political discourses on campus, and they are often highly obstructionist (happily frustrating many an administrator).

Perhaps worst of all, in the context of finding a solution to the crisis in higher education, many tenured faculty members are made cowards by years of solipsistic doctoral coursework, the vagaries of the dissertation defense, the fear of failure on the job market, and the terrifying three-to-six year probationary period leading up to tenure. This cowardice is especially disconcerting because those with the protections of tenure should use them to actively support their contingent colleagues, who have legitimate reasons to fear organizing.

Yet, despite these shortcomings of the tenure system and faculty members as whole, the tenured professorship does provide a guarantee of due process from arbitrary sanctions and dismissals on the part of administration, and perhaps more importantly it puts in place safeguards against political pressure and discrimination. In addition, the ability to discuss and publish controversial ideas still borders on the sacrosanct in American higher education, and this right should be extended to contingent faculty members as well. All American citizens have First Amendment protections (of free speech); tenure slightly enhances them, but in important ways. Arguably, the institution of tenure creates a space in our society for the open exchange of ideas, thereby helping us to protect our democracy, which was founded on the principle of liberty.

Although tenured faculty members are not ideally suited for the task of reforming higher education, if empowered by students and their parents, they may yet regain their right to meaningful governance, work together to streamline the administration and lower tuition, and to begin to erase the legacy of administrative bloat, which threatens the very foundation of American higher education in the 21st century. As Benjamin Ginsberg succinctly points out: “Professors, taken as a group, are far from perfect. They can be petty, foolish, venal, lazy, and quarrelsome. Nevertheless, at its best, the university is a remarkable institution. It is a place there ideas are taken seriously; where notions that are taken as givens are problematized; where what has seemed to be reality can be bent and reshaped by the power the mind.”

Demand more tenure-track appointments at your college or university! Make the choice to attend an institution that invests in you by investing in the faculty!

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Nov 24 2013

Student Speaks Out


Student Speaks Out Against Standardization

Traditionally, in the American college and university, professors designed the content for their own courses based on their expertise, and then assessed their students’ grasp of that material using a grading system. In today’s academy, the simple logic of this relationship has been undermined by a cadre of highly paid administrators of assessment, accreditation, and compliance, who do not teach but create and collect “data” re-assessing faculty evaluations of their own students.

John Allen Paulos, a professor of mathematics at Temple University, observes that we live in an age of “metric mania” and “hold an outsized belief in our ability to gauge complex phenomena [such as learning], measure outcomes and come up with compelling numerical evidence.” The upshot of this “metric mania” is that American universities and colleges are heading hastily down the road of standardized curricula and testing that resembles the oft-maligned “Common Core” movement in secondary education.

Recently, a high school student laid out a withering critique of the Common Core to the Knox County School Board. In his five-minute address, Ethan Young exposes the veiled corporate origins of the Common Core and notes that it offers only “national testing and a one-size-fits-all education.” As a result, it can never adequately address “our academic deficit.” Moreover, these standards illustrate a mistrust of teachers who, in his words, have to “jump through flaming hoops to earn a score” due to “erroneous evaluation and strategic compensation” built into the Common Core.

Presciently, Young places human relationships at the heart of the craft of teaching, and observes that by definition complex personal interactions, such as those between a teacher and student, defy quantification. In fact, “there will never be a system by which it can be measured.” In Young’s estimation, “standards based education is ruining the way we teach and learn” largely because of “bureaucratic convenience.” As Young points out:

Education is unlike every other bureaucratic institute in our government; the task of teaching is never quantifiable. If everything I learn in high school is a measurable objective, I have not learned anything.
Creativity, appreciation, inquisitiveness, these are impossible to scale, but they are the purpose of education–why our teachers teach, and why I choose to learn. And today, we find ourselves in a nation that produces workers.  Everything is career and college preparation. Somewhere, our Founding Fathers are turning in their graves, pleading, screaming, and trying to say to us: “we teach to free minds!”

Young concludes his remarks by encouraging Knox County School Board members to consider one simple question: “Haven’t we gone too far with data?” In my view, and that of many educators around the nation, the answer is unequivocal. Indeed, we live in an age when quantity reigns over common sense.

Inside the halls of American higher education, tenured faculty members are perhaps best positioned to pushback against this wave of assessment and standardization, which is another symptom of the corporatization of the academy. For this reason, when parents and students select a college or university, it is important from them to ask how many of the faculty are tenured or on the tenure-track, and how many hold renewable contingent and adjunct positions.

Demand more tenure-track appointments at your college or university! Make the choice to attend an institution that invests in you by investing in the faculty!

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