Reform Literature

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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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