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.


plus ça change

December 1, 2013

Same as it ever was:

Only a few of these denominational schools were equal to good second-rate grammar schools, Lindsley charged, and he scorned their “capacious preparatory departments for A, B, C-darians and Hic, Haec, Hoc-ers–promising to work cheap, and to finish off and graduate, in double quick time.”

The quote is from Richard Hofstadter, Academic Freedom in the Age of the College. New York: Columbia University Press, 1955, p. 212. Hofstadter is known today as an historian of populism and anti-intellectualism, but in this instance he turned his gaze on the development of academic freedom and the beginnings of American higher education. In this case, Hofstadter is quoting Rev. Philip Lindsley, an 1804 graduate of Princeton and later president of Cumberland College (which became the University of Nashville).

So when I rant about the low standards and fly-by-night nature of most of your for-profit “universities and colleges,” at least I’m part of a grand historical tradition.


freeway flyer

September 25, 2013

In my last post, I made a reference to this horrific event. As word of this has filtered out, we’ve seen an array of reactions, but the general consensus is that people are finally starting to realize how precarious a position most people who work in the academy actually have. (Even tenure is not as stable as it once was.)

So what to do about it?

My friend (an outstanding composer as well – if you’re in central NJ on SundaySaturday, go to his recital!) Christian B. Carey mentioned this idea on Twitter yesterday, and I think it shows some promise: Why not have consortia of colleges that, between them, can hire an adjunct at nearly-full-time status and split the costs of benefits? It’s not perfect, as you’ll see from the discussion, but some systems (Mike Berry mentions the Washington State higher ed system) are doing things like this already.

Another solution, of course, is to separate health insurance and access to care from employment. The new exchanges may help with regard to that, but we need to pressure all states to expand Medicaid (since many adjuncts are below the poverty level) and/or push for a single-payer/Medicare for all system.

Here at UMM, at least in music, we’re lucky – for the majority of our adjuncts, this truly is a second or third gig. We also offer some pot-sweeteners because of our distance from major population centers. We have an “adjunct coordinator,” and we make it a point to include contingent faculty in the governance of the discipline as much as possible. Still, I have been in positions where adjuncts have been mistreated, and having lived that life myself and knowing how challenging it can be (and knowing current adjuncts), I recognize that we need to fix this. It is unsustainable over the long term.

What thoughts do you have on the adjunct crisis?


May 24, 2013

Three things on topics academic this morning:

(1) A note to The Chronicle of Higher Education: Putting up an op-ed from an attorney for the Competitive Enterprise Institute (a “free-market” “think” tank so right-wing that it makes AEI look like the Comintern) does not help your credibility.

(2) Colorado College in (not surprisingly) Colorado is offering a new major in Education that operates a little differently. Good on them.

(3) If you read only one of these, read this one from Matt Reed at Inside Higher Ed. The destruction of public education is not limited to K-12. Public education (from pre-K to PhD) remains the greatest potential creator of *true* equality, and as such it’s a threat to the oligarchs. That’s why we have the funding inequalities described here. That’s why we have MOOCs and for-profit “schools” pushed – and pushed hard – by people who would *never* send their own children to one.


what if

February 17, 2013

I know that in Georgia, the HOPE scholarship (which started with the best of intentions) has actually led to the lowering of academic standards, since it looks good for a high school to get more kids into the HOPE program.

College needs to be more affordable as well, and between increased administrative costs, a reduction in state support, and various other causes, that’s a challenge.

So, thinking outside the box…

I propose that a state – perhaps a smaller one to start, or one that is flush with cash right now, like North Dakota right next door – offer *every* student one free year of higher education/training. No grade requirements, just graduate high school. This would be redeemable at any state institution of higher education or vocational training.

By removing the grade requirements, you presumably avoid grade inflation in the K-12 area (and possibly do something about the standardized testing junta as well). By making it applicable for both academic and technical education, you don’t shove people into programs for which they have no aptitude or desire just to get the numbers up. You also help create skilled laborers, which could be tied to an increase in local manufacturing.

Yes, this is just one year…so perhaps a public-private partnership could be created to provide scholarships for the next years of training/education. It would be made very clear to the students that colleges are not in the business of sympathy, so you’d have to maintain your college grades to be considered for the upperclass scholarships. We in higher education would have to be resolute in maintaining our academic standards.

Yes, the cost would be high – but it could be paid for by reworking the current scholarship programs. I am open to other funding mechanisms as well.



sing alma mater

August 18, 2012

Via a friend comes a thought-provoking piece on the state of American public higher education.

One thing I do notice: The “elite” institutions aren’t subject to this increasing corporatization and destruction. That’s because the “elite” institutions are where the oligarchs send their offspring.

I have “elite” in quotes because in my experience, they primarily exist to perpetuate themselves rather than to actually provide an education. They do provide one, of course, and they are able to do so because they work for the oligarchs, but I would put a *good* public education – like the one I had at Morehead State University – up against any undergraduate education. The primary difference between what I got at MSU and what you get at an elite institution is the circles in which you get to network.

Back to the larger point – the destruction of American public higher education is not a bug, it’s a feature. There’s a segment of the 1% that won’t rest until anyone who isn’t 1% can only take their job training (not education) at a for-profit degree mill while their own children get the best of the best. After all, if you wanted a real education, you should have had the good sense to be to the manner born.