TITLE: A Few More Thoughts on the Future of Universities AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: June 13, 2011 7:11 PM DESC: ----- BODY: Our state legislature still has not passed a budget for the next fiscal year, which leaves the the university hanging, waiting to set its course for 2011-2012. We expect another round of big cuts, the latest over more than a decade in which the funding base for state universities has eroded rapidly. I've written before about the fault lines under higher education. I'm really not a Chicken Little sort of person, but I do think it's important that we pay attention to changes in the world and prepare them -- maybe even get ahead of the curve and actively build an institution that serves the state and its people well. Over the weekend, I read William Deresiewicz's recent piece in The Nation, Faulty Towers: The Crisis in Higher Education, which looks at the pyramid scheme that is graduate education in the humanities. Deresiewicz writes about places like Yale, but much of what he says applies across the academy. This passage made sirens go off in my head:
As Gaye Tuchman explains in Wannabe U (2009), a case study in the sorrows of academic corporatization, deans, provosts and presidents are no longer professors who cycle through administrative duties and then return to teaching and research. Instead, they have become a separate stratum of managerial careerists, jumping from job to job and organization to organization like any other executive: isolated from the faculty and its values, loyal to an ethos of short-term expansion, and trading in the business blather of measurability, revenue streams, mission statements and the like. They do not have the long-term health of their institutions at heart. They want to pump up the stock price (i.e., U.S. News and World Report ranking) and move on to the next fat post. ... What we have in academia, in other words, is a microcosm of the American economy as a whole: a self-enriching aristocracy, a swelling and increasingly immiserated proletariat, and a shrinking middle class. The same devil's bargain stabilizes the system: the middle, or at least the upper middle, the tenured professoriate, is allowed to retain its prerogatives -- its comfortable compensation packages, its workplace autonomy and its job security -- in return for acquiescing to the exploitation of the bottom by the top, and indirectly, the betrayal of the future of the entire enterprise.
Things aren't quite that bad at my school. Most of our administrators are home-grown, not outside hires using us as the next rung on their career ladder. But we are susceptible to other trends identified in this article, in particular the rapid growth of the non-faculty staff, both mid-level administrators and support staff for the corporate and human services elements of the university. Likewise, the situation is different with our faculty. We have relatively few adjuncts teaching courses, and an even smaller proportion of grad students. We are a "teaching university", and our tenured and tenure-track faculty teach three courses each semester. That's great for our students, but our productivity in the classroom makes scrounging for grants and external research dollars hard to do. We may be more productive in the classroom than our research-school brethren, but with less recourse to external dollars we are more dependent on state funding. Unfortunately, our board of regents and our state government don't seem to appreciate this and leave us hanging by much thinner threads as state appropriations dwindle. Now there is talk of assigning faculty who are less productive as researchers to teach a fourth class each semester, which will only further hamper our ability to create and disseminate knowledge -- and our ability to attract external funding. The idea of career administrators hit close to home for me personally, too, as I enter my third term as a department head. I am at heart a computer scientist and programmer, not an administrator. But it's easy to get sucked into the vortex of paperwork and meetings. I need to think of this year not as the first year of my next term but as the first year of my last term, or perhaps as my third-to-last year. Such a mindset may be a better way for me to aim at goals I think most important while preparing the department for a transition to new leadership. One last passage in Deresiewicz's article got me to thinking. While talking about the problems with tenure, he points out one of the problems of not having tenure: Who will pursue the kind of research that cannot be converted to a quick buck if faculty can expect to be jettisoned by universities at any time, but especially as they age and become more expensive than new hires?
Doctors and lawyers can set up their own practice, but a professor can't start his own university.
I've been thinking about this idea for a while but don't think I've written about it yet. It's something that really intrigues me. There are so many obstacles lying in the way of achieving the idea, and the differential immediate applied value of the various disciplines is only one. yet it is an interesting thought experiment, one I hope to write about more in the future. -----