Monday, June 23, 2008

So...Struck a Nerve?

Judging by the comments, Friday's post really set some people off. Rather than responding to each attack – and 'attack' is the right word – I'll just make a few observations and move on.

A disturbing number of commenters went right to 'intention,' implying variously that I was finally showing my nefarious true colors, my 'roots' in a proprietary college (!), or some other variation on the Dark Side. Others detected a note of satire, with multiple references to Swift.

Those were all disheartening, if for different reasons. First and most basically, I, personally, am not the point. The proposal makes sense, or doesn't, independently of me. Anybody who knows me knows that the frustrations I periodically reference on the blog are rooted in my caring about higher education and what it could, and ought to, be. They're the frustrations of someone who hasn't sold out. I'm frustrated that we've developed a system in which lifetime job security for some is paid for by sub-exploitation wages for others. That may offend some people, but it's true, and I noticed that none of the attackers actually refuted that point. (A few dropped the predictable snide comments about administrative salaries, which simply shows a complete ignorance of scale. But it doesn't refute the actual point.)

If I were only in it for the money, I'd find another line of work. If you're looking to get rich, don't work at a community college. You heard it here first.

My personal story aside, the whole point of a 'what if' post is precisely that. I frequently get requests to flesh out a Grand Unified Theory of what I think higher ed should look like. I don't have one. That's not for lack of trying – it's just that it's flippin' hard. So I'm coming at it piecemeal. What if we determined everything based on tradition? Okay, we know what that looks like. What if the organizing principle were internal interest-group politics? See my last four years of posts to get a sense of that. What if it were the market? Friday's post was an attempt to sketch that out. It could easily be something else, too, and I'd be more than happy to entertain possibilities.

But the 'burn the heretic' tone that I encountered on Friday wasn't exactly encouraging. If internal reform is blocked by such indignant huffing and puffing – which, admittedly, is likely – then the obvious consequence will be other institutions coming along and eating our lunch. (See “Phoenix, University of”) We can cast aside the old catechisms and actually try to come to grips with what's going on, or we can just get angry at anyone who connects the dots. I'm trying to connect the dots in various ways to see what makes sense.

(As far as the satire/Swift line of reading, I'll just say that I like to think that my satirical pieces are clearer than that.)

I want to protect academic freedom, properly understood. I want people who go into higher ed to be able to make adult livings, with dignity, and reasonable – not lifetime – security. I want students to have challenging professors who are up-to-date in their fields and who are rewarded for teaching well. I want the public to have legitimate confidence that its spending on higher ed is wise, and that more would be wise, too. I want administrators to be thoughtful about what they're doing, and to have a firm grasp on the fundamental truth that It's Not About Them.

What I see instead is a class of adjuncts exploited at Wal-Mart levels to make possible endless internal interest-group politicking; academic decisions made based on whose local ox is gored, rather than the good of the students; tenure used as a cruel sort of bait to keep replenishing the ranks of the adjuncts; ridiculous funding models creating all manner of perverse incentives; and declining public confidence coinciding with the rapid ascent of new institutions based on very different values.

In that context, airing out some different theories strikes me as worthwhile. If we just trot out the tired old war-horses, we'll keep losing ground. And if we can't tell allies from enemies, we've already lost.