Monday, April 30, 2007


You Don't Win on Defense

Last week I had the rare opportunity to take off the Dean hat and put on the Academic hat, and actually attend a small academic conference. It was dedicated to questions of higher education and the changes being wrought in it (and on it) by various economic forces. Most of the speakers hold tenured positions at R1 universities, except for a few representatives from K-12 teachers' unions. I only found out about the conference through a personal connection, and I'm fairly sure that I was the only person there affiliated with a cc.

Although I share political sympathies with most of the people there, I found the (almost universal) line of argument they used hopelessly tired and defeatist. And they didn't have the first clue what to make of me.

The assumption they all started with is that the normal and natural state of things is that public universities devote themselves to bringing the classical academic disciplines to the masses, in return for which the masses gladly pony up support for ample tenure-track positions. Any deviation from this vision – whether because of students choosing other majors, universities employing adjuncts, proprietary colleges springing up, or even students starting at cc's and transferring – is clearly less desirable, and to be explained through references to Republicans, globalization, and the Iraq war. The way back to the golden age, they all agreed, was through an unspecified alliance of faculty, labor, and students, whose interests, it was assumed, naturally converge. The various speakers differed in their estimation of the likelihood of that actually happening, but the way forward, to them, was clear.

It was unspeakably depressing. These are intelligent people, well-meaning and well-read. And the best they could do was to hope that a broad-based social democratic labor movement would spring up from out of nowhere and magically transport us all back to 1968, when we didn't squander public funds on stupid wars in Asia.

Wait, check that...

It wasn't until the drive home that I realized that the word I heard most frequently was 'defend.' We need to defend the university against 'corporatization,' need to defend tenure against the forces of ignorance, etc.

No, no, no. If your only moves are defense and magical thinking, you're doing something fundamentally wrong. You don't win on defense.

Looking back on it, these folks feel so utterly besieged that they can't conceptualize much beyond hitting back. They're so busy playing defense that they haven't given serious thought to what it is that they're actually defending. It's hard to make conceptual leaps when you're fighting rearguard actions, and it's hard to get a good look at the landscape when you're covering up.

Worse, it's hard to talk honestly about what reforms really need to be made when you've adopted a bunker mentality. At that point, any recognition of the necessity of change brings with it the fear of a slippery slope to perdition.

When I raised a few points at the conference, I was treated as a sort of space alien. They were so far gone, they couldn't recognize an ally when they saw one. It made me sad.

To my mind, bringing higher education to the masses is the goal. That's the first-order good, the thing we shouldn't compromise. Most of the trappings of traditional higher ed – tenure, geographically defined service areas, expectations for published research nobody will read – are, at best, second-order goods (and sometimes not even that); at most, they're instrumental. To collapse the second into the first is to make the kind of basic category error that allows new institutions to come along and change everything. Better to keep our priorities straight, and not waste time defending the indefensible, the obsolete, or the irrelevant.

History is littered with the carcasses of institutions that refused, on principle, to change. I care too much about higher ed to stand idly by and let that happen without a fight.

Too bad this view is so pervasive. The business world can't do this to much of a degree if they want to stay in business.

On a related note, I am glad to hear the "larger forces" (ie AHA, Chronicle) are actually starting to notice that CCs play a vital role in what we do in academe - especially for students.

One of the best things I did in grad school was adjunct at a nearby cc knowing that they were going to be hiring more humanities professors than the other types of institutions. And, it demonstrated to teaching-oriented 4 year institutions that I could hold my own in a primarily teaching environment on top of my previous K-12 experience.

Great insight, as always!
What they don't see is that the university model, as they see it, is in direct conflict with bringing classic academic subjects to 'the people'. The significant change in public universities began with the GI bill, which opened the door to 'the people'.

Later, with Vietnam, the door was opened wider and wider -- to include people going to graduate school to avoid the draft. With a new pool of labor available, administrators tried using adjunct labor to teach classes profs didn't want to teach and which consist of more and more of 'the people', while collecting the same amount of tuition. Since administrators (which are often also tenured faculty) can do math, they can see the profit to be made on the backs of adjuncts.

Finally, since the drive now is to have people go to college or end up destitute, every course release or research sabbatical needs to be covered by someone, and since other tenured profs are busy doing their own research or sabbatical, adjuncts are necessary to actually DO the teaching.

Sorry for the rant, but from the point of view of a CC faculty member, the R1 prof perspective brings out the worst in me.... and the fact that they don't even realize we've taught their students for the first two years so they don't have to -- and they still barely recognize our existence doesn't help!
Next time you try on an "academic hat," wear it in an actual classroom. Only then will you begin to understand why we feel besieged. We are on the receiving end of administrative decisions that emanate neither from stone-hearted conservatives or pudding-brained liberals. It's the market speaking. Got that. We read the same papers. What I don't understand is how the administration guts the faculty, fills it with adjuncts without a voice of any kind, and then bitches about our unwillingness to "take charge." That would be your job. As more and more colleges throw open the doors for more and more unprepared students, the value of the university's product will depreciate. The market speaks again. All I can do to protect the school is flunk these students who are sent in greater and greater numbers. I do not wish to return to a golden era that never existed. But I do want administrators to know that until we are given a voice, we can only react to the changes wrought by you.
"They were so far gone, they couldn't recognize an ally when they saw one. It made me sad."

Actually, I don't believe that you are an ally of these folks. You seek to dismantle tenure (you've said so before), and these folks cherish it.
PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE can we stop lumping all R1 people into one monolithic group? There are many of us who are very involved in undergraduate education, very ACTIVELY concerned about what our students are learning, and are not just sitting around eating bon bons while we teach one course per year. Stereotypes get us nowhere, my intelligent friends.

I've been at Masters' II institutions for almost all my career, and the mindset is about the same as at R1's. I keeppointing out that, at its emergence in the niddle ages, the university was a vocational school. The vocations were priest, lawyer, and doctor. I have argued (for going on 30 years) tht what's happened is an expansion of the list of vocations for which we help people prepare. The intellectual skills remain much the same--critical reading and thinking, logic, mathematical/analytical reasoning. It's just the applications that are different. My point of view is not well accepted by many in the "traditional" humanities fields. They also are circling the wagons.
A couple of thoughts. How would you bring education to the masses without geographically defined service areas? Most of the masses in my area can only go to college if they are able to live at home because the cost of living is very high. I'm a big proponent of distance ed but it can only take you so far. Also, something you may have forgotten or may not realize at a community college is that research provides significant funding to most R1 schools. Forty to 50% of each grant is captured as "overhead". At some University of California campuses, that represents more funding than the funding provided by the state. There's very little financial incentive to drop the research requirement when it plays such a vital economic role, despite the fact that the increasing committment to research sucks professors out of the classroom faster than a Hoover on steriods.

I think the "solution" to this problem will be different for each school. With funding based on enrollment falling, colleges will turn increasingly to other sources of income. R1 will continue to push reasearch for the funding it brings. What I'd be interested in hearing about is what the community colleges can do in the environment to bolster themselves (since research seems not to be your answer to this problem).
To my mind, bringing higher education to the masses is the goal.

This is not the only goal or necessarily even the most important goal. You also have people developing medical devices, more efficient wireless protocols, better imgaging systems to detect cancer,...

(The universities in the bay area also seem to be good at incubating startup companies.)
Two things:

"Bringing higher education to the masses" is NOT the goal of research institutions like the University of California.

inside the philosophy factory said "with Vietnam, the door was opened wider and wider--to include people going to graduate school to avoid the draft." Nope. A student deferrment was good for four years, and after graduation, you went right to the top of the list of potential draftees. Graduate school did not keep you out of the army.
DD, you're being disingenuous. You're no ally. YOu're the one who introduced the notion of "beige" to all of us, and you did by accepting that there are situations in which you have no choice but to hire beige -- albeit against your better judgement. And you excuse? The Dead Dad Blues, which always begins and ends the same: 'what's a po' dean to do?'

You repeatedly say, both explicity and implicitly, that your hands are tied, that you occupy a functional position between a slew of competing interests, and the best you can hope to do is satisfy the bottom line while not sacrifcing too much. In fact, you've practically lectured me on this very point.

And okay, I say, I see your point and position and it's not enviable -- though you get a good salary and have health benefits. But when you then turn around and claim you're an ally, well, sorry I suddenly feel something in my throat.

You're an ally of yourself, DD, not anyone else. And that's fine. That's the stance every manager I have ever encoutnered takes. The trick is to make the job work in such a way that everything works as smoothly as possible. Granted, it's an ongoing process, but that's the goal. And if hiring adjuncts, or beige adjuncts gets you through the day, well, man, you don't even blink. You do what you gotta' do.

As for the seige like stance you encountered at this conference, well, obviously as one of tose indirectly aiding in the seige, it stands to reason that their attitude would be perplexing.
I'm in the private sector, serving higher ed (and to some degree K-12), and it's taken quite a leap to shift the attention from the R1s to the CCs, but it's happening.

The R1s get a lot of attention because there's a huge chunk of students at not that many schools. But there are just as many students at CCs as there are at R1s (that's real data, not an intuition). The problem is that CCs are hard to market to because they're smaller and more dispersed.

But because CCs are small, they're nimble in a way that R1s really can't be, and they're much more diverse in their approaches to teaching. Which is why some of them have become so successful that they've grown almost to the same size as some R1s.

It's an interesting time to be in higher ed.
In Sweden (social democratic since 1920 or so), we have very few privately funded universities - almost all of them run on public funding, and even those that don't, run to a large extent on the benevolence of the state agencies.

We have three guiding principles that universities are obliged to follow, with at least nominal power to withdraw support if a university fails repeatedly and consistently at these:
1) Provide higher education
2) Perform research
3) Dissipate recent research to the broader public.

I'm not certain about the order of the two first, but I know #3 really is #3, since this is what no university is really equipped to do, and where the science clubs can get leverage.

On the one hand, this comment is largely irrelevant, since it deals with a situation that's more of everyone you described's pipe dream than the reality in the US. On the other hand, it sketches a situation where noone ignores neither teaching nor research - even the smallest colleges are expected to keep up with research if not perform world leading research - if nothing else then so that they can claim to have real researchers doing the teaching.
DD, you wrote: "...public universities devote themselves to bringing the classical academic disciplines to the masses...." You also wrote: "To my mind, bringing higher education to the masses is the goal."

Please tell me, a simple engineer, what "the classical academic disciplines" are. Are they synonymous with the "higher education" that you refer to in your second statement?

Thanks, Keith
Somewhat less vituperously, I do agree that part of the reason you were looked at funny is that you are a member of an institution which, due to its extremely low compensation rates for instructors, is redefining the notion of what it means to be a teacher of higher education. To some extent, to them, you are a symptom of the assault on higher ed, not a part of any proposed solution.
Most of the folks I know with a PhD in one of the humanities can make just as much money and receive better treatment teaching at a CC than as an adjunct at an R1. Yeah, the tenured faculty in the English department make a decent living, but they're no more representative of the teaching staff there than the cast of Friends is representative of actors.
This reminds me of the complaints from big labor unions. They're pissed because people buy cars made by cheap foreign labor (e.g. Kia, Hyundai etc.) or by a large number of low paid temps. (Toyota & Honda)

Basic fact is that the public has a choice. They can buy a product that includes lots of nice things for the people that deliver it or they can but an import with cheaper seats. I guess the public doesn't care that much about tenure.
And post like this are why I read your blog.
Dean Dad,
I hope the increasingly hostile comments you've been receiving lately don't turn you away from blogging. I really value reading about academia from your perspective, even when I strongly disagree with it!

It's kind of funny that the R1 folks have responded so...defensively.
Entertaining as always, DD.

At the top, two things happened at about the same time: Vietnam and the peak in the Baby Boom entering college. Effects of one are easily confused with the other. The former had some effects on grad school enrollment, but those deferments were short lived. The bigger driver of grad school (in my field) was demand for faculty to teach all those kids going to college. When 90% get faculty jobs, the market looks pretty good. This hiring ended circa the last years of Vietnam when the enrollment crest became visible.

With those people locked in and a large pool of people trained for nothing else, adjuncts and other medium term positions were the only rational answer for the next 25 years. Just look at the age structure of large R1 universities, and the wave of retirements that are coming ... just as the Baby Boom Echo crests (and falls?).

The glacial response of R1s is why CCs will likely play an increasing role in higher ed. Lower salaries, even for full timers, and flexibility in what we can teach means we can take risks and respond to fluctuating demands.

We may also be better prepared, just by our nature, to help students cross the increasingly wide divide between the way an average HS is run and the independent learning skills needed to succeed in a college class. If you spend your time inventing the next WiFi network, or funding the students that do it, your operating level will be a bit above today's HS student. We can help.

PS to SL -
Read your posting and you might understand why people are cautious about hiring you into a full-time position.
Are you calling me out on typos? Okay, whatever.
I don't know.

Being defensive is, essentially, a good indication in a loosely-defined collective that there is no communal defense.

For reasons that will hopefully become apparent in a couple weeks, give or take... I like that. Not to be ominous or intentionally obscurantist.

Just, frankly, tired of trying to fix the meat grinder form the inside.

More in a bit. But in general, I think the failure you sensed is an encouraging thing. Sometimes you have to fish or get off the can. As it were. Maybe we're close to the "get off the can" stage of things, in higher education.
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