Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Universities, Awake! or, the Crisis of Higher Education

In Hazard or Opportunity? Inside Higher Ed's Doug Lederman reports on yesterday's meeting of college and university administrators sponsored by the Lumina Foundation. While higher education is not in complete free fall (health care and the struggling newspaper industry are the comparisons where systemic crisis is provoking drastic change), the hand writing is on the wall. Some of you might be concerned about the agenda at such a meeting, since the Lumina Foundation is a proponent of practical education that is aimed at turning out obedient workers, not citizens bursting with critical thought. And your worries might be compunded by the fact that Ohio, which has been a leader in shutting down alternative education options in the state by imposing rigid certification mandates, was heavily represented as a source of change.

But much as I dislike the messenger, the message is worth listening to. "As is often the case at such events," Lederman writes,

those in attendance heard mostly from those who believe that higher education must change and who have sought to respond aggressively. Eric D. Fingerhut, who as chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents has led his state's efforts to impose greater efficiency and centralized control on a group of public institutions that had, like those in many states, operated largely as free agents, made it clear that the "crisis" Ohioans face is not the recession of the last year but the larger and longer-unfolding "transition of the economy of the industrial Midwest."

That enormous challenge, Fingerhut said, is "why I want to grab our leaders by the lapels and say, 'Don't you see what's going on around here?'.... The fact is that the ability of future generations of this state to sustain our commitment to a vibrant system of higher education is very much at risk."


These questions are important. In fact, I can't imagine who those people are who don't think that higher education needs drastic reform, as we look into yawning budget gaps and students stepping into the abyss of endless debt so that they are qualified to graduate and take an -- internship?

In the opinion of this Radical, higher ed is on a precipice of non-sustainibility, and it's not because there are too many faculty or that we make too much money. Colleges and universities serve fewer people, less well and at greater expense than they ever have. But structural and policy issues are well-hidden in the personality-driven human interest stories that appear in the media. While many of these narratives feature suburban parents rending their garments about how they will tell their children that pricey, private schools are off the table, others feature desperately indigent teens who have lifted themselves up out of the gutter to snag a coveted Harvard scholarship or a place on a Big Ten football team. Even the current employment crisis has provoked little news about the situation of a vast number of people: college educated parents who can't afford a public university or a private university without asking their children to take out enormous loans.

That paying back college and graduate school loans for several decades has had a depressing effect on our economy, masked by easy consumer credit, makes perfect sense to me, but if any economists are working on this, I don't see it in the news. But you know what? if people aren't paying their mortgages and credit cards, I doubt they are paying their student loans either. Is anyone writing about this?

Had they invited me to this conference, I would have suggested the following topics for discussion:

Is the function of a university system to pass on the aggregate knowledge of a civilization or to teach students to think critically about the world they live in? Since I have been a university professor, the answer has been: pay for everything you can! Don't decide! Why shoudl we pander to student interests by actually hiring people in fields that are relevant to their interests? And while the answer to this question is not either/or, liberal arts colleges may now be forced to suck it up and begin to specialize, making consortia arrangements with other public and private institutions to cover the gaps in their curricula. For example: I loved the classics -- studying Latin in many ways was my introduction to reading primary sources as a very young scholar. I also love my colleagues in the Classics department at Zenith, of whom there are too few, given how good natured and competent they are as a group. But frankly, given how few students are served by this field, every college may not need a Classics department of its own. I would argue, however, that every college needs a Center for Contemporary Politics, where intellectually flexible, interdisciplinary scholars drawn lead students in vigorous debates about the ideological, cultural and political changes that are shaping their world and future. Precious few universites are ready for what will happen tomorrow, and by the time tomorrow happens, it's too late to set up a new department or program, much less hire and tenure people in it.

The federal government needs to start spending education dollars on young people who do national service, military and non-military. Zenith, for example, made a big deal of it a few years back that we were setting one place aside each year for a veteran of our current war. One? Give me a break. Places like Zenith need to cut a deal with the government in which we expand our student body by thirty-forty students, offer all of those places to veterans of the military and Americorps, and cut a deal with the feds that we will discount the full cost of their education by 25% if the government pays the whole freight without any loan burden to the student.

Shift money out of the penal system and into preparing people for a college education and budget lines dedicated to lowering tuitions drastically. A great many states are so in hock to prison guard unions and private prison contractors they don't know what to do. You think Social Security is the third rail of politics? Ha. De-carceration is the third rail of state politics, my friends. And yet it is a fact that the prison population is also on the bottom rung of our population when it comes to literacy and numeracy. It is another fact that the greatest deterrent to criminal recidivism is educating people and making them employable.

The federal government needs to return to actually spending money to support education; in return, colleges and universities should de-privatize. That's right: you get, you should give. Right now, everything that private universities give to their communities is voluntary: gifts in lieu of taxes, fresh-faced volunteers sent into the community, and creating "culture" that people outside the university can pay to attend. But what do they get to do in return? Collect donations from their alumni, which said alumni then deduct from taxes that might otherwise go to support public education; reserve the right to exclude any student for any reason; set whatever price they choose; and hoard money in endowments.

Higher education needs to start paying more attention to what is going on at the secondary level and vigorously fight unnecessary mandates, particularly the testing mandate associated with No Child Left Behind. Right now we in higher ed pretend this has nothing to do with us, but we are wrong. Billions of dollars of state and local money that could be going to higher ed, as well as to secondary ed, are going to test prep, testing, and "outcomes assessment" done by for profit consulting firms. This is money going down the drain that could be devoted to high school to college transition programs that would actually prepare students for college, and to underwriting tuition at public universities. Furthermore, testing is homogenizing education, and that homogeneity is creeping upward: more and more students expect content in a class, as opposed to debate about ideas. Fewer students feel confident that they can write an academic essay without a structured "prompt," although curiously, at my school, they write blogs, songs, plays, and film scripts with ease and creativity. What else can explain this gap between their unoriginal, often openly craven, papers and the vigor of their creative labors than the fact that they have learned to suppress critical thought in their academic work in order to score well on tests?

I am the last one to say that an economic depression will be "good" for higher education in and of itself: the short-term outcome will be more students excluded from college and more students taking on impossible debt. But is it time for we educators to change the system?

You bet.

28 comments:

Yancy said...

Great post! Thank you for the bigger-picture view, too, in connecting the dots between more spending on prisons and NCLB means less spending on other programs/initiatives. As a doc student in education who loves to think about these issues, I have to cheer anytime someone talks about teaching critical thinking rather than memorization and making room for creativity over testing the heck out of students.

Mark K. said...

I don't know if they count as an economist, but Strapped : why America's 20- and 30-somethings can't get ahead is a good recent book on college and other debt.

Mark K. said...

Sorry, author: Tamara Draut. She seems to have done some other writing on the subject too.

JackDanielsBlack said...

I say thank God for No Child Left Behind. In my community they are actually firing principals and teachers who fail to produce. We may need to improve the tests but I think the principle behind them should be extended to higher education -- no results, no job for the teacher. We spend too much money on education not to be measuring results at all levels.

JackDanielsBlack said...

I say thank God for No Child Left Behind. In my community, they are actually firing principals and teachers who fail to produce. We may need to improve the tests, but the idea of an objective measure of accountability is sound and should be extended to higher education. We spend too much money as a society on education, and education is too important, not to demand measurable results from our educators.

JackDanielsBlack said...

Oops--didn't mean to post twice -- the system tripped me up. Sorry about that!

Anonymous said...

Dear JackDanielsBlack --

Have you ever taken one of the tests associated with No Child Left Behind? I have, and I would like to fill you in on what the experience was actually like.

First, the thought that any principal or teacher would be fired based on my ability to respond to the prompt "What is the biggest decision you have ever made?" saddens me. I was sixteen years old at the time I wrote the essay; I hadn't exactly made any life-altering decisions and so produced a terribly boring, formulaic response.

Second, my teachers had to devote significant classroom time to discussing test-taking strategies rather than teaching. It hardly seems fair to simultaneously expect teachers to set aside classroom time for such drivel and to hold them accountable for their ability to transmit knowledge.

Third, we took the tests in late April and early May, well before the end of the school year, and yet the test covered an entire year's worth of material.

And finally, the tests themselves were written by politicians, not by teachers. That politicians were perhaps not qualified to do so was made abundantly clear when the US History test included questions about the Seine River.

Evaluating -- and hopefully rewarding -- teachers according to classroom performance is one thing; expecting a standardized test to perform so complicated task is another.

Shane in Utah said...

I agree with most of this, especially the part about defunding the prison-industrial complex. Closely related to that theme, I would add another suggestion: end the idiotic war on drugs, and immediately revoke the law that prohibits anyone convicted of a drug offense from receiving student loans or grants. (What better way to ensure that a casual drug user turns to a life of crime than to deny him/her a chance at an education?)

The one part I would quibble with is this:

liberal arts colleges may now be forced to suck it up and begin to specialize, making consortia arrangements with other public and private institutions to cover the gaps in their curricula...

DeanDad made a similar comment a couple of months back, and it struck me as a very region-centric argument. The nearest accredited institution to my own university is some 50 miles away. For that matter, there is only one four-year university in the entire state of Wyoming, which covers a geographic area larger than New England. Even prestigious SLACs such as Grinnell are in isolated locales; how would you possibly prescribe greater specialization to such a school?

Ahistoricality said...

how would you possibly prescribe greater specialization to such a school?

Appropriate use of distance learning technology. It's standard practice already in some places for campuses to share specialized classes through video and fax-equipped studio classrooms.

It would actually be easier to do this in state systems, though, where transfer credit interoperability is already more or less standard practice. But small liberal arts schools often have more institutional flexibility, so you might be able to do it.

There are some consortia already -- ACM, Seven Sisters, etc. -- that could easily shift in this direction if they could agree on who'd do what. That's where the negotiation gets tense.

Paris said...

TR - your Americanist speciality is showing!

The critique you level against the Classics department can be said for almost every advanced langauge class offered. Very few students are served by advanced Arabic or Chinese, but I think your Center for Contemporary Politics would be delighted to have these courses available to students.

I agree that the purpose of higher education needs to be rethought, but the "dump this or that department/program because it is Too Old" is a bizarre approach when your replacement just looks like a reconceptualization of a general education core.

Anonymous said...

"it's not because there are too many faculty or that we make too much money."

That's a bold assertion to make without any substantiation.

I would be very interested to see a chart that showed the cost of salary and benefits for tenured faculty as a percentage of institutional budget, over time, with data points starting before the cost of tuition began to spike through the most recent data. With that information I could test the validity of the assertion that the salary of tenured faculty is not a big factor in the spike. My unsubstantiated hunch is that it would show otherwise.

Also, as a "tenured" "radical" how much concern have you given to the gap between what adjunct faculty and tenured faculty are paid? According to the NEA "Part-timers across institutions on average receive significantly less income per credit-bearing class taught than do full-time faculty members, $2,836 versus $10,563" (I have never taught myself.)

Alfredo J. Leon said...

Dear Anonymous...

Regarding your comment:

According to the NEA "Part-timers across institutions on average receive significantly less income per credit-bearing class taught than do full-time faculty members, $2,836 versus $10,563" (I have never taught myself.

I do not think that the disparity in the salaries of an Adjunct Faculty member when compared to a full-time faculty is really an issue. As a part-timer myself, I have seen what it is required of an Adjunct, and that in itself is not comparable to what many full-faculty members are required to do.

As an Adjunct in a local College, my responsibilities are to be prepared for my class and “be there”. With this in mind, the responsibility and the commitment that is asked of an individual in this position is greatly minimized. An Adjunct in many cases will take on this opportunity as a complement to their full-time job or as a way of “giving back” to the community. As such, there is no real attachment to the class or the institution. Also, the part-timer may not posses the necessary degree requirements to become a full-time faculty member, but could be a great asset for the institution by bringing-in a professional point of view and experience.

A full-timer has many more responsibilities regarding not only the class, but also to the institution. Their participation in meetings, forums and in many cases, grant-witting to promote or advance certain aspects of their particular department, are a requirement – if they do not complete these tasks, their advancement in the institution will be limited and in many cases, never offered tenure. Furthermore, a full-timer is constantly considering ways to better not only the class, but fix incongruities in curriculum or class offerings.

A part-time faculty member, although a necessity in many higher education institutions, is a person that is hired to complete a task or to fill in a gap that the full-time faculty may not. Therefore, their salary scale should reflect the responsibilities that are asked of them and as I have pointed out, they are not comparable to the requirements of the full-time faculty.

Some exceptions do exist, me being one of them. Although currently an Adjunct, I have on average 2 courses per semester, I participate in furthering the institution’s objectives and I also have the necessary degrees to be a full-time faculty – the problem is the current monetary and enrollment issue, which plagues many institutions and the subsequent hire-freeze.

Shane in Utah said...

Ahistoricality, I'd love to hear what you would define as "Appropriate use of distance learning technology." I suppose it could work in some disciplines that are more concerned with knowledge transmission than with discussion and exchange. But all my (admittedly limited) experience with either web-based teaching or satellite video have suggested that it would be a very poor substitute for any sort of seminar format in which students are expected to participate regularly and often.

For that matter, I guess I'm unclear on what exactly TR meant by increased specialization for SLACs. Surely you don't mean that one college will have an English department, another will have History, a third Math, and so on? Would each school maintain a core faculty in the core curriculum, but specialize in more "boutique" programs? Help me out, here.

Shane in Utah said...

PS: Alfredo, I'm afraid that in too many places your situation is the rule, not the exception. Many people (especially in the evergreen disciplines such as English and Math) are adjuncts not out of choice, but because the brutal job market denied them tenure-track jobs despite their credentials. So they take whatever teaching opportunity comes along, and often take on committee work and other service duties in the hope of making themselves "indispensable" to the department. Sometimes they even throw themselves heavily into research in the hopes of making themselves more marketable. It's heartbreaking and unjust, and Anonymous raised a good point.

Alfredo J. Leon said...

Shane, I am sorry to get into your conversation, but it is totally the opposite of what you are thinking. Distant learning technologies are currently easier to use in an interactive and constant discussion format, than it is for a course that is more content oriented.

The use of social networking tools such as Twitter, Facebook and others alike have created a virtual classroom where the students can interact with each other outside the conventional classroom. Not only that, but it opens the boundaries of a particular class outside of the 1.5 or 3hr class-time. The discussions that arise from different postings or comments from articles help a class’ discussion.

In the other hand, for content-driven courses the mentality is that the information is given, memorized and applied. Students will usually only visit or use eLearning tools to get a quick fix to a problem or because they could reach the instructor much faster than a regular email.

The “appropriate use of distance learning” is exactly that, having a course moderator that helps in the guidance of the class, while students direct and fully participate in open discussion.

PS: regarding the comment posted by Anonymous, I do agree with him in some aspects - but I do not agree that the resposibilities that a full-faculty has are the same as those required by an Adjunct. The key word here is requirement.

As you said, some of us do try to make ourselves more attractive to being hired in the future, but that is not what is requested of us, and thus our pay.

Shane in Utah said...

I don't doubt that distance education technologies are changing the very nature of the educational experience. But I find it hard to fathom that anyone would spend $30,000 a year to attend a private university, and then to take English and History classes in which they only interact with professors in distant towns by email, blog, and Facebook...

There's something delicious in Alfredo the adjunct arguing that adjuncts' contributions generally don't compare to those of full-time faculty, while Shane the "tenured" "radical" argues that the modern university couldn't function without exploited adjunct labor. Let me just add one final point: whether or not most adjuncts are contractually obligated to do service work, many of them do, for the reasons I suggested in my above post; and many departments have become entirely dependent on adjunct labor, and not just in regards to teaching.

Alfredo J. Leon said...

Regarding a student paying “x” amount of money to a private institution if they have to take a distant course, I don’t see it so far-fetched. When a student enrolls in an institution, the student is not making a “purchase” for a single class; he/she is making an investment in a full curriculum and a degree offered by the institution. The institution then may hire the best professionals – in the form of Adjuncts (hehe…) – to teach these courses. The amount of money that would be saved not only for the institution’s salaries and infrastructure, but also for the student’s room and board – considering that they may take these courses in summer from their homes or take a semester, at home if they desire, and lower the total cost of their education. The effects of this would be direct on the institution by having less available funds at one point, but then you would have to consider the trade-off of possibly causing more potential students to enroll, from a distance, and in this way having access to a high level education.

I know that it is something of an irony in the fact that an adjunct is not calling out the differences is salaries and so on, while a tenured “radical” is defending our rights. Many institutions do depend on their Adjuncts – like mine – and they do as much to take care of us, as possible. But maybe it is that as a student and now an adjunct, I have seen what some “professors” have done in their 1 or 2 semesters as adjuncts and before I say that they are not doing their job, I have had to consider what their “job” was – and now I pick-up those pieces.

The real issue is not if adjuncts are or not an important part of the Higher Learning environment, the real problem is if institutions can or cannot provide their students with what they are offering, with the resources they have. I do not think that Adjuncts are being exploited, there is an offering and there is a salary, it is the adjunct’s option to take it or not. If graduate school taught me one thing, was that sometimes you have to pay dues, before you get the prize and thus I work as hard as I can to distinguish myself from the rest. I am not the first, nor the last.

JackDanielsBlack said...

Anonymous 8:27, sounds like what you're saying is that the tests may need improvement; I believe that I said that myself.

Very interesting discussion of distance learning. I have taken both content courses and discussion courses over the internet and found that both can work well. The real question is, if you're going to parcel out different specialties to different institutions and use the internet to connect students, why do you need "brick and mortar" colleges at all? I believe that there is a danger (or hope, depending on your point of view) of what in the business world is called "disintermediation", also known as the elimination of the middleman.

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Anonymous said...

I have read Tenured Radical's posts avidly for a number of years now. I will no longer revere their wisdom quite as much, however, after TR's stab at the field of Classics. As one of the above posters put it, TRs Americanist bent is definitely showing, but her proclivity for the modern is warping her ability to assess fields such as Classics. TR states: "given how few students are served by this field, every college may not need a Classics department of its own." This statement exemplifies a deep ignorance of what the field of Classics (as a whole) accomplishes and what great teachers of the Classics can give to their students: if what we want is to teach students how to think critically about anything, then it is a truly multidisciplinary field like Classics that we should seek to retain, with its emphases on primary sources, art historical interpretation, literary theory, anthropology, analysis of material culture, etc etc etc. Combining a variety of evidence to reach a reasonable hypothesis is what Classics is all about, and SHAME on TR for questioning the value of this field. FOR SHAME

Tenured Radical said...

Dear anonymous:

don't make it such a big deal to ask a question. Whooo.

Anonymous said...

TR:
The question itself was a good one. I took issue with the assumptions about the contemporary value of the field of Classics on which your answer relied (in part). I simply did not expect a respected academic such as yourself to have openly questioned the validity and the service of an entire academic discipline.

Tenured Radical said...

OK, Anonymous. You do need some education in the Classics because your reading skills are not so hot. I am going to reprint what I wrote with relevant passages italicized:

making consortia arrangements with other public and private institutions to cover the gaps in their curricula. For example: I loved the classics -- studying Latin in many ways was my introduction to reading primary sources as a very young scholar. I also love my colleagues in the Classics department at Zenith, of whom there are too few, given how good natured and competent they are as a group. But frankly, given how few students are served by this field, every college may not need a Classics department of its own.

Translation: Classics can be an important feature of a liberal arts education, even for those going into other fields. But few students come to college wanting, or prepared, to take these courses nowadays. Hence, two or more colleges might work together to mount a full curriculum in classics for all of the students in their respective institutions. They would then have full classes, without each college duplicating the same positions for half, a third, or a quarter of the students in each institution. Colleges save money; students save money.

Where here do I say that the Classics are not an important field of study that everyone should have access to? Now: don't answer this question if you are going to just say the same thing over again. Say something different this time or don't reply.

Brett said...

Although here in Canada a number of these issues do not apply in quite the same way, the final point about testing has become an increasing problem here in Ontario, where a new, standardized testing based curriculum was initiated in the late 1990s.

I was actually in the last year to operate under the prior curriculum, so while I was in high school the two curriculums were operating simultaneously until the old one was finally phased out when my cohort graduated.

I did have some experience with the new test-based method. While I was in Grade 13/OAC (this was an extra year of high school to act as a preperatory year for university. Sadly it had been phased out), I acted as an english tutor in a class of grade 9 students who had been marked out as having severe literacy problems. This had long been a program at my high school, but since the advent of the standardized testing regime which has a mandatory literacy test in grade 10, that class had turned into nothing but an effort to get these kids to somehow pass the literacy test. I think that we could have done more to actually help them become properly literate if we weren't simply trying to get them to pass a test that, by all accounts, was as poorly put together as these tests often are. The point is that these kids were largely illiterate, but managing to get them through that test didn't actually make them functionally literate members of society.

So on the issue of secondary school testing I am somewhat torn, as I recognize the need to measure whether students can actually read, but the way that the tests are administered now do not actually show this very well. There is a large difference between being able to show literacy on a multiple choice test and being able to show literacy through fluent written and spoken words and through the ability to read and synthesize a range of information. I'm inclined to think that even improved tests, as has been discussed in the comments above, would not really solve this problem.

jones said...

It is a grave topic. A speech on this by T.J. Clark, the art historian, and a call for (international) action can be found here: http://www.pandalous.com/topic/the_crisis_of_the

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