May 14, 2009

Changing higher ed, from Mr. Obvious Man

Craig Smith tagged me in an AFT FACE entry asking about the future of/a better vision for higher education, and given the way that Mark Taylor's schizophrenic vision of higher ed prompted not only a flurry of comments but thoughtful comments by Dr. Crazy, Dean Dad, Marc Bousquet, Timothy Burke, H. Saussy, and Michael Berube, among many others, not to mention Andrew Delbanco's review essay, it's time for me to underwhelm the universe with ten obvious comments about the future of higher education.

  1. Marc Bousquet is wrong in some very significant ways, but he's absolutely right in many others, and if his creative ravings prompt a healthy discussion of higher ed in the long term, my hat is off to him.
  2. In addition to other criticisms of Mark Taylor's curricular utopia, an important purpose of a stable curriculum is to eliminate one huge potential (expletive) waste of time reinventing wheels. It's far more productive to improve the wheels we've got and maybe invent a few carbon-fiber ones than to figure out how to make wheels made of hemp, green beans, recycled computer parts, and spent nuclear fuel rods.
  3. The entire discussion of college "costs" and tuition is off the deep end even while there are interesting sub-arguments. The discussion of tuition almost always ignores opportunity costs and generally ignores non-tuition costs (such as books or the cost of living). The Delta Project's analysis is interesting but entirely ignores the definitional problems in IPEDS reporting and the division of labor in colleges and universities. (I'd love to wave my hands and say, "Yes, fire all the student-life administrators, plow the money into faculty, and don't ask me to advise students!" Somehow, I don't think that's a practical suggestion) The human-capital arguments in favor of debt ignore the fundamental way that college student loans privatize the risks of going to college. At the same time, we have the chance to make a substantial incremental improvement in helping students with a shift to entirely direct lending and the automatic indexing of Pell Grants. I'll take the incremental improvement (it's HUGELY necessary) and still wish for some better model-building. I have no grand theoretical synthesis, but anyone who wants to buy me a good whiskey some evening and talk this over is more than welcome to!
  4. The vocational rhetoric surrounding higher education benefits the liberal arts because it implies that college students are responsible for their own affairs and should not be babied. This is in tension with arguments that liberal-arts programs and either a core or general-education curriculum should be at the heart of undergraduate studies, but on balance the vocational rhetoric of higher education has drawn far more students to college than would otherwise have been the case. We liberal-arts folks should be happy to have the chance to evangelize rather than preach to the converted. Give me 100 enrollees in my classes for a requirement, and I will convert 90 of them into students.
  5. The only national organization right now with a productive agenda on higher-education accountability is the American Association of Colleges and Universities. I'll take that good with the other, mediocre attempts funded by Lumina, but this is not a healthy state of affairs in the long run. The Shopping Mall High School's thesis is as applicable to large universities as to high schools, and until we can clone Cliff Adelman, we need a group of people with intellectual depth discussing the curricular problems at universities. 
  6. Right now, discussions of student learning are largely isolated from the widespread reliance on contingent faculty. Half of the discussions I see blame tenured faculty for avoiding teaching (as if all tenured faculty work at the University of Chicago). Does anyone else see the problems with this?
  7. Academic freedom can survive with a core of tenured faculty at an institution with non-tenure-track faculty, but we don't know the minimum size of that critical mass. For a variety of reasons, while the aftermath of 9/11 threatened academic freedom, it has been far more robust in the past decade than the worst fears in late 2001, including at my campus. At the same time, there are continuing threats, both inside and outside colleges and universities. In many places, tenured faculty are the most active defenders of academic freedom because they are safe; that was a crucial rationale for tenure in the first half of the 20th century, and it remains a valid argument. I have yet to see anyone who simultaneously advocates the abolition of tenure and can also point to a place that survived a real threat to academic freedom without any tenured faculty.
  8. Faculty are fragmented into too many communities of interest to defend academic values in a robust way. All too often, two-year and four-year faculty fail to understand the worlds that the others work in, let alone teaching institutions vs. research institutions, or even primarily teaching faculty and primarily graduate or research faculty in the same institution. Unions and the AAUP provide national organizations to defend values, along with disciplinary organizations, but the barriers are significant.
  9. When administrators ignore faculty organizations or do their best to do end-runs around them, they are missing substantial opportunities to advance institutional interests and feeding the behavior they presumably hate. I winced when I read one book by Derek Bok advising university presidents to do their best to go around the faculty senate or equivalent, because they're largely dysfunctional. Let me see if I understand the reasoning: if faculty senates are full of deadwood, and you go around them, what faculty support can you claim for your initiatives, and what incentive do you give the faculty you think should be in the faculty senate to serve? Oh, yes, and any monolithic model of your university demonstrates an essentially anti-intellectual temperament.
  10. Conversely, faculty who think that all administrators are evil are doing a remarkably good job of undermining collegial governance. There are serious problems with the development of academic administration "tracks" in the past 50 years (see item above), but the fact is that colleges and universities have administrators, you want the administrators to understand faculty and work with them, and what incentive do you give your colleagues to be willing to serve as administrators if they know you'll be the first one putting a target on their backs? Oh, yes, and any monolithic model of your university demonstrates an essentially anti-intellectual temperament.
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Posted in Higher education on May 14, 2009 10:36 AM |