on academia (one in a never ending series)

June 22, 2014

(I put this on my Facebook wall. Figured this would give me a better link.)

This is not an end point. I’m not even sure it’s a starting point. But it is what it is, and I welcome discussion.

I love what I do. I love where I do it. (This wasn’t always so.) I have great students, great colleagues, and an administration that seems to actually care more about education than cost-cutting, “disruption,” or being a toy of the Board of Regents. I recognize I am, in every sense of the word, one of the lucky ones. Having said that, Academia-with-a-capital-A is in trouble in many places. In 30 years, tuition has gone up over four times the rate of inflation, and fees have increased by a significant margin as well. The local community college, one of the few places where you could go cheaply and get a solid foundation or job training, has become unaffordable; four-year public institutions have seen a precipitous drop in state funding, and private institutions are now, in some cases, pushing $60,000 a year for tuition alone. For-profit institutions have been created to do nothing but suck up grant and loan money from ill-prepared students and saddle them with “degrees” that are less than useless. On top of that, even politicians I support on every other issue are woefully shortsighted, trying to apply the same “test-and-rank” methodology that has all but destroyed P-12 public education to the Academy.

And that’s just what you see on the outside. Inside, tenure – and the concomitant job security* and academic freedom – is rapidly becoming extinct, as adjunct positions, once set aside for a very few who had distinguished themselves in the field but outside Academia, are now often the only positions available. Those who would run Academia as one would Business love adjuncts, because (a) adjuncts cost way less, both in terms of salary and in terms of benefits, and (b) adjuncts are employed in a contingent fashion, so they fear for their jobs and will not cause trouble for the management classes. Since so many Trustees/Regents come from the world of Business, they see this as A Good Management Practice To Strengthen The Bottom Line, and reward those administrators with larger salaries, titles, and sinecures.

We in the Faculty are not blameless, though. We have contributed to this in two key ways.

First, through our disciplines, we took the idea of research and/or creative activity that will add to the body of knowledge in the discipline to an extreme. Through our scholarly organizations and our intradisciplinary promotion and tenure committees, we created “publish or perish.” Take note: I am not arguing for a removal of the research/creative activity requirement. What I am arguing for is balance and perspective. When I read that a community college – an institution that is geared towards teaching above all else – is now requiring publication credit for tenure, I worry. There simply aren’t enough outlets for all the knowledge we are allegedly creating, and it is getting more and more difficult to get into even a third-rate journal. (The ranking of journals is a topic for another time.) In addition, through peer review as it is now constituted, in many disciplines knowledge production becomes stilted and inbred intellectually, as the relatively small number of acceptable journals often have sizeable overlap in their editorial board (if not in actual fact, in intellectual history; certain programs dominate certain disciplines), so an idea that is not within the mainstream of that discipline’s thought has a much harder time seeing the light of day. Finally, a journal is a time-consuming and expensive thing, though the material costs can be much lower if it is online. (Of course, several disciplines still have a strong bias against online journals.) This emphasis on publishing more and more research in fewer and fewer journals has required the Faculty to spend a disproportionate amount of time doing research that, if it even gets publish, will reach a decreasing audience. And of course, research can mean grant money, so Administration loves to see that.

Second – and this is tied to the first – we have abdicated our role in shared governance. This was brought home to me in a recent post on Jennifer Jolley’s Facebook page, when a hale fellow named Steven Baker (a mid-level college administrator, from the looks of things), said the following:

“My one (obligatory, being an admin) response is that the disciplinary complex for faculty that has inflated basic requirements to be considered a “good” scholar has forced academics to shed a lot of their administrative and student-directed responsibilities they held for so long in order to feed the beast that is peer-review that admins need to fill those gaps. There are worthless admin positions, but done of us are just as overworked (and definitely underpaid) as many professors.”

Put another way, we don’t have time to do the shared governance things properly because tenure/promotion/grant money has overtaken everything else, including pedagogy. Nature abhors a vacuum, and into that missing governance unscrupulous administrators and staff are all too willing to step.

Once again, I am most assuredly not saying “research is unimportant.” Far from it. My research and my creative activities have made me a better teacher. We in the Academy have a singular responsibility to create and disseminate new knowledge and new ways of looking at things. What I am saying is that we have to be careful to not let our search for new knowledge become so all-encompassing that we allow the Academy to be overrun by charlatans and grifters. If taking a more active part in the life of the college means one less paper on motivic manipulation in Carlisle Floyd’s opera Susannah**, then perhaps that is not the end of the world. The paper will still be there. If we rotate and share duties, then no one person need do too much work.***

I am taking my fellow faculty members to task here because we ultimately can do something about this. Instead of buying in to the system, stand up to it – especially if you have tenure already. This is one of the reasons tenure exists! Then we can devote our energies to other problems, like legislators and Trustees/Regents meddling in curriculum, politicians and professional rabble-rousers using higher education as both a whipping boy (see the slashing of state budgets in the name of a false “fiscal conservatism”) and a fiefdom (see Florida State University), and the copious problems facing our compadres in P-12 education. But it can’t begin until we stop running good people out of the club.

*Once again, “tenure” doesn’t mean “you can’t be fired.” It means “you have rights of due process to make sure your termination is for a just cause.”

**Of course, I’ve already got that paper written – I just can’t find anyone who will publish it.

***We do that pretty well here at UMM, for the record.