Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Bordello U's

It is no secret that universities are now operating on the 'business' model.  This self-flattering term applies to all of their operations, not just their research component which has by now long been in bed with private interests and empire-building in regard to public funding sources.  It also applies to athletics, which is nothing new, though seemingly more out of control than ever.  Finally, it's swept like a pandemic across the academic sides of things as well.

A good treatment of this, from the UK perspective, is an essay by Marina Warner, "Learning my Lesson: The Disfiguring of Higher Education", in the March 19, 2015  issue of the London Review of Books.  She properly rakes the UK university system, which is much more centralized under government control than ours, over the coals.  She identifies the various venal takeovers that have been occurring. These include the denigration and diminution of subjects that might enlighten people's personal lives but don't pay in hard cash (the humanities, arts, literature, and so on).  Among much else, she notes the very fine buildings being erected on campuses, by prizewinning architects, largely for industry-related research.

The priorities are clear and they're no secret.  Faculty are being downgraded unless they're in the money subjects.  Tenure and promotion are based on bean-counting 'objective', and hence essentially material, evaluation methods.  Such numerology can be gamed, and is being gamed, such as by publishing more but more trivial papers, spending more of one's time writing grant applications, less attention to teaching, universities hiring low-paid Instructors to teach high-paying high-indebted students, while high-paid professors seek high-income grants.  Meanwhile, even higher-paid administrations are becoming ever more bloated, administrators' salaries inflated with helium far exceeding those of actual professors.

By now everyone knows what's going on.  Administrators of course control the power leverage. They may delude themselves about how important and vital they are, and how their 'objective' performance standards maintain quality and all that sort of puffery.  Of course, only in Lake Woebegone can everyone be above average (though all can claim to be).  Administrators cannot be expected to curtail their own power and salaries, because if they did, most would have to return to the (ugh!) demeaning work of actually teaching classes.

It's not just Europe--indeed, we started it
Warner's article is about the UK, but in the US we have these problems in spades and here, too, everybody knows it.  Indeed, it was Reagan, and the ensuing Reagan-Thatcher conspiracy against ordinary people, by which this whole process was initiated.  Much of the rest of Europe is following suit (we don't know whether universities in Asia, Africa, or the rest of the Americas still have their pants on or are dropping them for money as is happing in the European-US axis).

The US has worse issues that it is conveniently not doing anything serious about.  Europe doesn't have the Greek (fraternity and sorority) system.  Europe doesn't have the athletics problem.  A recent graphic making the rounds of the internet showed the highest-paid state employees in the US states, and 40 were university coaches with outrageous salaries.  Europe doesn't (yet) have the fancy-dorms-with-luxury-spas system we are building, which venally corrupt the idea of a serious-level education.  Why this (given its huge cost and the student-debt problem) doesn't disgust parents and lead them to insist that their kids go to more cost-conscious and educationally serious schools instead is unclear.  Maybe a spate of OpEd articles will lead them to that, and perhaps force universities to scale back their excesses.

That all that glitters, staggers, and cheers appeals to 18 year-old high-schoolers looking for a college is easy to understand, but puts the blame on the adults who lure them, and their high tuition, to their campuses.  What's the justification?  "Everybody else is doing it and if we don't do it we'll lose these students!"  Of course, we here at the universities are the profiteers, because the students bear the debt burden, often for decades after graduation....er, that is, whether with a degree or not when they leave, while we take home our nice paychecks.

Just because it's in our own backyard?
We ourselves have had academic careers, and anyone knows best the dirty laundry in their own backyard.  There is a tendency, especially if one cares about that backyard, to be excessively critical of it.  In our case, Penn State, where we have been for almost 30 years, is a fine example of the not-so-fine state of affairs. But while we do criticize our own institution, we do our best to take into account that it's the one we care most about.  Here were and are our fine colleagues and many wonderful students (including two of our own children).  Bloated though bureaucracies may be, including university administrations, this doesn't mean the people are individually bad or not helpful, and we've admired and been helped by many across the years.  But the above burdens have grown here, as elsewhere, and it is fair game to note that.

We here are not unique; indeed, if anything has bothered us it is that Penn State has not taken leadership in addressing the issues in more than a me-too fashion.  Worse, in our particular case, the Sandusky child-abuse scandal gave Penn State a huge silver platter on which to do real reforms, curbing athletics' over-reach and reestablishing serious academic standards; indeed, it's what our then-President promised we would do in response to Sandusky: rebalance 'academics' and athletics.  But what happened since was nothing of this sort, and the old ways are in full stride, and academic standards have not been raised.  We repeat that this is not just a local problem: it is widely and often recognized as a national one.

The problems are not unknown and indeed are widely written about.  Universities, being good, well-behaved bureaucracies, usually respond by acknowledging problems and setting up a committee or 'task force'.  That meets for a year or more and issues a report that claims major changes but is usually little more than safe rearranging of the deck chairs.  We need to stimulate industry-related research?  Build a building and call it Novelty Central, accessed via Creativity Road.  You likely know what we're describing.

Just reactionary?
Warner's article should be read by anyone who cares about the state of educational affairs and would like to know more about what is going on--hopefully to be made angry enough to join in the effort to do something about it.  Reform will be very difficult because there are too many prima donnas too well entrenched to be dislodged without a struggle.  But if there is no struggle, reform will come after we have fallen so far that serious consequences become palpable.

Of course, we could just be reactionaries, objecting nostalgically to changes that make universities unlike what we ourselves have known.  If this were not clearly a national problem on three major fronts, that might be the case.  We don't think it's reactionary to object to the luxurious life for students (and faculty) on campus at the clearly exploitive expense of heavily indebtedness is a reactionary position.  The national downward trend in our educational attainment relative to competing countries elsewhere is a legitimate reason to call for reform.  The edifying value of education for its own sake and to engender better citizenship, and the value of disinterested research (publicly open and not done for private gain) are well-established reasons to have a bastion of independent thinking as part of our national resource.

Whatever happens with online and other new-mode courses may or may not be good, but doesn't directly address the issues of (1) the national value-added gain of subsidizing education, (2) the value of independent knowledge, and (3) the motivation of an idealistic and dedicated faculty to live a modest but comfortable life rather than chasing personal wealth which, after all, they are free to do in the private sector.

Is it fair to title this post as we did?   Regardless of how tolerant you are of the changes, the days of the elbow-patched tweed jacket seem to be over.  But that change has left other holes in our educational culture that badly need to be patched.

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