Swimming against the Tide in Higher Ed

(from the blog of Troy Smith)

Swimming Against the Tide in Higher Ed

In case you haven’t noticed, there have been a lot of changes in higher education in this century, especially since the economic downturn in 2008. In a lot of cases this involved trends already in place well before then, but which have been amplified in recent years –and, as is often the case, have been connected to the political landscape.

As states have significantly decreased the funding they give to public universities –while costs have continued to rise –those universities have been looking for money elsewhere. Much of this comes in rising tuition –and studies have shown that the biggest increase in cost that those students are paying for is the ballooning cost of administration (certainly not faculty, as there has been a growing trend of relying on adjuncts with low wages and no benefits.)

All of this has made academia more vulnerable to the trend of neoliberal corporatization and outsourcing (much like public schools have been experiencing in this country.) Which brings us to the political component (and after all, can you talk about money without talking about politics, and vice versa?) The 2010 midterm elections saw a national wave of conservative Republicans dominating state legislatures across the U.S., often aligned with governors of the same political bent –and that particular bent is one that bends away from traditional support of public institutions and bend toward privatization, to the benefit of businesses and, in the case of academia, the detriment of the mission of higher education.

This can best be demonstrated by taking a look at what Scott Walker has tried to do, with quite a bit of success, in Wisconsin, by attacking public unions and the concept of tenure. He infamously tried to rewrite the university’s mission statement, eliminating all that silly stuff about searching for truth, engaging the public, and improving the human condition, and instead sum the whole thing up by saying “meet the state’s workforce needs.” As if a university is the same thing as a technical training school, and not a place to engage with ideas.

This bodes ill in general, because the same things are happening around the country. State governments are initiating changes that will benefit entrepreneurs, under the guise of saving money, while weakening principles like academic freedom and shared governance. The same sorts of things are happening on the individual campus level, with it becoming more and more common for administrators to implement rapid change from the top down rather than go through the traditional processes of consulting with faculty about education. As I recently heard one administrator say, when you’re trying to get something done too much dialogue slows down the process.

And that is the crux of the matter. The old way of doing things: go through the necessary procedures of faculty discussing the issues –having first been informed of said issues –and then making a recommendation, which is either seriously considered by administration or, on many campuses, is part of the administrative process. The new way of doing things: administration making changes, with nominal or no faculty input (and sometimes nominal or no faculty knowledge), and then announcing said change.

Proponents of this new paradigm say it is essential in our new, modern circumstances. Universities have to be quick on their feet, immediately responding to new opportunities, especially if those opportunities bring in funding. And dialogue just slows things down, and results in the risk of missing lucrative opportunities. Is there a link in the chain of faculty involvement that might prove weak in regard to the opportunity being seized? Then bypass that link. Maybe the whole chain. We have to be mobile, agile, and adaptable.

Know what that sounds like? A successful business model. A model in which profits are produced for the shareholders, which is the primary (and practically the only) purpose of the venture. The problem is, higher ed –although requiring funding to survive –is not a business venture, or it shouldn’t be. It is about human capital, not economic capital. It is an intellectual investment in the future of our country –not to produce docile workers with proper credentials, but to produce dynamic and innovative thinkers, and informed and engaged citizens, who have been taught to challenge the status quo in order to improve it. And this requires academic freedom for their professors to guide them in those pursuits. And academic freedom requires shared governance to ensure that the true purpose of the university –interaction between faculty and students that stimulates intellectual growth –does not take second place to economic concerns or to making the process easier (or more maneuverable.) Democracy itself, after all, is neither facile nor agile. It is unwieldy by design and by necessity. The lack of it might make the trains run on time, but that is not the real goal.

Proponents of this new model would say this trend is irreversible and it would be foolish (and naïve) to try to resist it. “It’s gone, and it’s not coming back.” “We can’t beat ’em, we have to join ’em.” So essentially: here is the program, jump on it. Or for you fellow Star Trek fans: You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.

Here’s my problem with that. As a historian, I know that there have been countless changes made -and trends reversed -by large numbers of people uniting in opposition. Things no one would have thought possible. The end of slavery and segregation. The female franchise. Heck, the eight-hour workday. All those things and many more -including the protection of academic freedom a little over a century ago -required pushing back against a wave that seemed irresistible. If you resist and you’re the only person that does -yeah, that’s not going to work out so well for you. But if a lot of people do, together, no trend is inevitable. In fact, this very “trend” they keep talking about was carefully engineered and given long-range execution due to careful, deliberate planning of conservative groups beginning in the 1970s.

This is not to say that universities don’t need funding and enrollment. But the very national situation that necessitates putting more emphasis on those things than we used to can be reversed –but we have to work together and try, on all levels. When someone tells you, “A change is occurring, it will limit your power, resistance is futile,” it is a sure sign you need to organize some resistance. And start thinking about the ways this allegedly irresistible trend stands to benefit the people telling you not to oppose it. Maybe it makes their lives easier. Is that what we are here for?