Tag Archives: Universities

I Agree With All Of This

Institutions of higher education are under sustained attack by self-described “anti-woke” culture warriors, and those attacks understandably generate a protective response from those of us who value scholarship. That instinctive defense, however, shouldn’t morph into claims that all is well on the nation’s campuses.

All is not well. I say that as someone who spent the last 21 years of her work life on a university faculty.

Unfortunately, the current, contending critiques of college life are unproductive, because they occur within different realities. The crazed Right (DeSantis, et al) attacks scholarship itself, insisting that, to the extent instruction fails to support their preferred world-view, it is illegitimate.

They are wrong, and they are dangerous, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t problems in the groves of academe. I recently came across an enumeration of those problems a litany with which I entirely agree.

The linked Persuasion essay begins by reminding readers of the multiple, manifestly important contributions of the nation’s “more than 3700 colleges and universities.”

But then come the admissions:

But yes, higher education is deeply screwed up. College is way too expensive, costing twice as much, in real dollars, as it did in 1990, nearly three times as much as it did in 1970. Half of students—half!—fail to graduate within six years. Teaching sucks, and always has. Too much of it is done by adjuncts and other contingent instructors, who now make up three quarters of the faculty. There are far too many administrators—deans and deanlets and directors and diversocrats—peddling far too much administrative bullshit. Academic standards are abysmal. Between 1963 and 2013, average GPA rose from 2.5 to 3.15, even as the number of hours spent studying fell by half over roughly the same period. Selective institutions, the ones that produce our elite, are wildly class-stratified. At the top 200 schools, two-thirds of students come from the highest quarter of the income distribution, less than one-sixth from the lower half; at 38 schools, including most of the Ivies, more students come from the top 1% than from the bottom 60%.

it’s relatively easy to generate complaints, but the author, William Deresiewicz, also offers “fixes.”

First, make public college free. We used to do this. (We still do it for K-12, and no one thinks twice.) If you’re old enough, you remember when people were able to put themselves through school with a part-time minimum-wage job. The University of California, the greatest public system in the world, charged no in-state tuition before the 1970s. Neither did the City University of New York, home to City College, known for decades as “the poor man’s Harvard.” The idea that free college would be a giveaway to the rich, because only the rich go to college, gets it exactly backwards. Part of the reason that only the rich go to college—or, at least, go disproportionately to college—is because it costs so much….

Next, reverse the tide of adjunctification by tripling (at least) the tenure-track faculty. We shouldn’t have adjuncts at all, except for the limited purpose—to enable working professionals to teach the occasional course—for which they were originally intended. Adjuncts are paid like baristas, worked like farmhands, and treated like Kleenex. Their use is bad for students, bad for morale, and bad for recruitment into the profession.

There’s more. As he says, we need to make sure that professors actually know how to teach. (Doctorates focus on research, not pedagogy.) Cost-cutting would include dramatically  reducing administrative staffs and capping the salaries of the remainder at the level of senior faculty. He’d eliminate intercollegiate athletics altogether– “Let the NBA and NFL (and WNBA and NWSL) pay for their own minor leagues.” And, finally, no more “amenities”: no luxury dorms, no climbing walls, no dining halls with carving stations.

His most important “fix,” in my opinion?

Most obviously, the “input” has to be improved. As of now, some 40-60% of entering students—another stunning figure—need remediation. Colleges, in other words, especially community colleges, are being tasked with giving freshmen the education that they should have received in high school. Improving K-12 (a monumental undertaking of its own) would also help reverse another dismal trend: credential creep. If a high school diploma actually meant something, employers wouldn’t feel the need to ask for quite so many bachelor’s degrees, and fewer people would have to go to college in the first place…  And, of course, we need to rebuild vocational education—trade schools, training kids for high-skills, high-wage manual labor—in both high school and beyond.

In other words, let’s step back and remember what colleges are for–not job training, but intellectual exploration and expansion– inquiries that allow humans to learn and grow and successfully navigate an information environment produced by those who are “flooding the zone with shit.”

Corrupting The University

In order to take control of a country, zealots have to undermine not just people who may have been educated to be independent thinkers, but the very idea and legitimacy of a liberal education. Those intent upon spreading belief in “the Big Lie,” for instance, must attack the institutions committed to truth-seeking and a commitment to verifiable evidence.

So we see the escalating attacks on knowledge, on science , on expertise. We see a co-ordinated effort to replace the very concept of education with the far less threatening goal  of job training.

And we see unremitting attacks on the nation’s universities.

I spent twenty-one years as a faculty member at a public university, and I would be the last person to claim that all is well in academia. There are plenty of legitimate criticisms that can–indeed, should–be leveled: bloated administrations, too-cozy relationships with moneyed donors, a knee-jerk tendency to “cancel” proponents of currently unpopular positions, and a depressing willingness to equate academic success with job placement statistics.

That said, the degree to which the GOP is waging war on education–at both the public school and college levels–  seems unprecedented.

I’ve previously posted about former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s efforts to destroy the University of Wisconsin–including his attempt to change the century-old mission of the University system by removing language about the “search for truth” and “improving the human condition” and replacing those phrases with “meeting the state’s workforce needs.”

At least Walker understood the need to be sneaky.  Florida Governor Ron DeSantis–a poster boy for today’s GOP–hasn’t bothered to hide his animus for science, truth and higher education. The results have been ugly.

A special panel created by the faculty at the University of Florida has completed a review of the academic environment there, and what it has to say is not flattering.  As The Miami Herald reports, the report shows that academics in Florida live in a literal state of fear; one where they don’t dare tell the truth out of fear of reprisals from Gov. Ron DeSantis. That’s particularly true when it comes to revealing the facts about COVID-19.

The report makes it clear that researchers felt a great deal of outside pressure in preparing research information for publication. That sometimes meant that information was delayed, or not published at all. In some cases, scientists were told not to reveal their affiliation with the university when releasing information, or to take the University of Florida name off presentations.

All because they were not allowed to do anything that could be viewed as criticizing DeSantis, or policies related to COVID-19. Faculty in the university’s Health Department were warned that funding might be “in jeopardy if they did not adopt the state’s stance on pandemic regulations in opinion articles.”

DeSantis’ attacks went well beyond his approach to COVID.

Course descriptions, websites, and other materials concerning the study of race and privilege had to be hidden, altered, or removed. The persecution in this area became so ridiculous that instructors were told:

“The terms ‘critical’ and ‘race’ could not appear together in the same sentence or document.”

Much of this bullying has occurred “under the radar,” but a few months ago, national media reported that the University of Florida was prohibiting three professors from testifying as experts in a lawsuit challenging a new law restricting voting rights. The prohibition was justified by the the University on the grounds that “it goes against the school’s interest by conflicting with the administration of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.”

There was a sufficient outcry that the University reversed that decision, but it is blindingly obvious that less well-publicized efforts to “get along” with the Governor remain in place.

It isn’t only Florida.

At a time when University Presidents are chosen more for their fundraising abilities than for their devotion to scholarship, some are using their authority to simply remove inconvenient scholarship from  their institutions. Here in Indianapolis, the administration of Marian University has simply eliminated its department of political science. 

The school’s administration has failed to offer a rationale for removing political science, a program with as many declared majors as most other liberal arts programs on campus —and which you would think is especially important, given the troubled state of U.S. political life–and especially since the faculty vociferously opposed the decision. The linked report notes that no other major was targeted for elimination.

The dispassionate pursuit of science, evidence and “inconvenient”  knowledge is being targeted by ideologues, autocrats and their facilitators. To the extent that they are successful, this country is in deep, deep trouble.


Chasing Tuition Dollars, Foregoing The Mission

When reasonably knowledgable people listen to today’s political arguments–not just in Facebook posts, or at dinner parties or other venues, but also on cable networks’ panel discussions–it becomes painfully clear that a whole lot of Americans have no idea how their government is supposed to work. I bitch about that constantly.

But ignorance of our legal and constitutional system is far from the only information deficit on display these days. The most dogmatic and smug assertions–on both sides of the political divide– routinely come from presumably educated folks who display absolutely no understanding of the rules of elementary logic, and who appear to lack even the slightest acquaintance with political theory, let alone American or world history.

“Presumably educated” is the key. At risk of over-simplifying a complex phenomenon,  I want to suggest that these low levels of argumentation are an outgrowth of the decline of  liberal arts requirements in our colleges and universities, where genuine education continues to lose ground to job training.

It isn’t only in the U.S. A reader of this blog sent me a link to a report from England:

The University of Staffordshire last year launched its bachelor’s and master’s esports programs, in which students mainly learn marketing and management skills tailored to the industry. This autumn, it’s expanding the program to London while other schools are also debuting esports degree courses, including Britain’s Chichester University, Virginia’s Shenandoah University, Becker College in Massachusetts and The Ohio State University. In Asia, where esports has seen strong growth, schools in Singapore and China offer courses.

The global esports market is expected to surge to $1.1 billion this year, up $230 million from 2018 on growth in sponsorships, merchandise and ticket sales, according to Newzoo . The research firm expects the global esports audience to grow in 2019 to about 454 million as fans tune in on live streaming platforms such as Twitch and Microsoft’s Mixer.

I am prepared to believe that “esports” is a growing field. So are motorsports (which my own campus offers and hypes), web design, hospitality studies–not to mention more traditional business school courses in marketing, accounting and the like. And I have absolutely no objection to programs that teach these skills.

I do, however, have a huge objection to programs that allow students to substitute what is essentially job training for courses that provide them with a liberal education–that introduce them, albeit superficially, to great literature, to the arts, to economic and social theory, to history–in short, to the intellectual products of civilization.

At best, an undergraduate education can only provide young people with a “tasting menu,” a sampling of the intellectual riches that generations of scholars and thinkers have amassed. But ideally, that sampling will do three things:  foster a thirst for lifetime learning; give them a foundation for understanding the complexities of the world in which they must function; and inculcate an appropriate intellectual modesty–a recognition that there is infinitely more to know.

I understand why many universities have gone down this road. We depend significantly on tuition dollars to function, so we compete for students. Telling 18-year-olds that you will help them understand their world is far less enticing than telling them–and their parents–that they’ll make good money.

Universities also depend heavily upon public funding. State legislatures hold those purse-strings, and too many policymakers view higher education entirely through the lens of eventual employment. Along with self-anointed “rankers” of institutional worthiness in the media, they judge the effectiveness of universities by looking only at the rates of employment and salary levels of their graduates.

Esports, “game studies” and the like may pay the rent. However, unless  students in those programs are also required to take significant courses in the liberal arts,  they are unlikely to produce informed citizens, or to provide their graduates with the inner resources they will need if the promised jobs fail to materialize.

We are cheating students when we fail to at least introduce them to the intellectual and cultural products of those who have gone before. Making a living isn’t remotely the same thing as making a life.

Battle for the Soul of Higher Education

In this morning’s New York Times, Frank Bruni has a must-read column on the purposes of higher education. He focuses upon a debate currently consuming Texas, but anyone who has listened to the rhetoric coming from the Indiana General Assembly will recognize it as an issue equally salient in Indiana.

As Bruni poses the central question:”Do we want our marquee state universities to behave more like job-training centers, judged by the number of students they speed toward degrees, the percentage of those students who quickly land good-paying jobs and the thrift with which all of this is accomplished? In the service of that, are we willing to jeopardize some of the trailblazing research these schools have routinely done and the standards they’ve maintained?”

I would suggest an even more basic question: are we willing to value education?  Do our lawmakers even recognize that education is not the same thing as job training? Do they see any value in the liberal arts, or in research that adds to the sum of human understanding and knowledge? Evidently not.

Bruni quotes the new Governor of Virginia on the subject: “Pat McCrory, the new governor of North Carolina, recently advocated legislation to distribute funds to the state’s colleges based not on their enrollments — or, as he said on a radio show, on “butts in seats” — but instead on “how many of those butts can get jobs. If you want to take gender studies, that’s fine, go to a private school,” he added. “But I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.”

The current emphasis on what we used to call “vocational education” not only minimizes the value of education itself, it ignores the reality of today’s job market. Most college graduates will have several careers–not just jobs, but careers–and a significant number of those have yet to be invented. Students who emerge with “training” rather than an education that prepares them to think, to apply critical analytic skills to a rapidly changing economy and world, will soon need re-training.

Students who have been taught to think only instrumentally–who value only instruction that is immediately applicable economically, who are satisfied with the “how” and never ask “why”–are already at a considerable disadvantage. We have plenty of those students now, and I often want to invert the dismissive and ignorant statement made by Virginia’s Governor, and tell them: If you just want to learn how to manufacture widgets or push paper, fine.

Go to a trade school.