Monday, October 18, 2010


Tossing Bottles

As a teenager in the 1980’s, I saw most of the important teen movies of the era. One of the staples of 80’s teen movies was the moment when the screwup hero realized that he had imbibed (or allowed others to imbibe at a forbidden party) much of what was in the parents’ liquor cabinet -- these houses always had well-stocked liquor cabinets -- and didn’t want to get caught. Invariably, he’d add water to the various bottles to make the cabinet look, at first glance, undisturbed. Tossing bottles would have given the game away.

SUNY Albany is tossing bottles, and catching holy hell for it. Apparently, it’s suspending admission to programs in French, Italian, Russian, and classics. Stanley Fish has opined that this marks the official collapse of the humanities.

As regular readers know, I stand in awe of Stanley Fish’s ability to maintain a prominent and successful career without ever, even by accident, getting anything right. It’s an astonishing record, really. He’s the David Hasselhoff of academia; nobody can really explain why he’s still there, yet he’s still there.

His win-by-losing streak remains alive. In defense of distribution requirements that used to be the lifeblood of certain departments, Fish writes -- and I am not making this up --

I have always had trouble believing in the high-minded case for a core curriculum — that it preserves and transmits the best that has been thought and said — but I believe fully in the core curriculum as a device of employment for me and my fellow humanists.

Wow. Just, wow. So the reason we should support the humanities is to provide jobs for humanists.

It’s an interesting bit of logic. Just substitute anything at all for “humanities” and the sentence still works. The reason we should support buggy whips making is to retain the employment of buggy whip makers. The reason we should support the continued use of typewriters is to retain the employment of people in typewriter factories. The reason we should continue the production of whalebone corsets is to support the employment of whalebone corset makers. Whee!

Lest my reading seem reductive, check Fish’s piece. He explicitly rejects the usual “pieties” on behalf of humanistic studies, as well as any kind of economic-usefulness argument. Revealingly, he also rejects internal cross-subsidies:

And it won’t do, in the age of entrepreneurial academics, zero-based budgeting and “every tub on its own bottom,” to ask computer science or biology or the medical school to fork over some of their funds so that the revenue-poor classics department can be sustained. That was the idea a while back, but today it won’t fly.

Why not?

FIsh doesn’t even try to answer that, though he should. Because his alternative -- administrators will save us all! (seriously! that’s what he wrote!) -- assumes that the state legislature will be easier to persuade than will the biology department. Even though the biology department reports to the exact same campus presidents who are supposed to persuade the legislature. Even though Fish assures us that the presidents don’t believe it themselves.


Politically, this doesn’t even rise to the level of ‘failure.’

In a rational world, Fish’s piece would have been drowned out by derisive laughter. Instead, it was quoted approvingly by the AFT FACE folk and all manner of adjunct activists, even though it undercuts their departments’ reason to exist.


If SUNY Albany had, instead, simply adjuncted-out more courses across the humanities, eventuating in the same level of savings, would that have been better or worse? Suppose that, instead of tossing some bottles, it had just watered more bottles down. How might the world have reacted?

Judging by the last forty years’ worth of trendlines, I’ll go out on a limb and say that nearly nobody outside of Albany would have noticed. Business would have gone on as usual.

Instead, Albany did what few of us have the courage to do: it chose to toss some bottles and wake everyone with the noise of their shattering. It chose to face the truth, and in so doing, to maintain higher levels of resources for the programs that survived. (Fish’s analysis is silent on that point.) It made the decision -- perfectly defensible, in my estimation -- that it would rather do fewer things and continue to do them well than continue to do everything just a little bit worse.

Whether the specific bottles it chose to toss are the right ones, I don’t know; that’s context-specific, and I don’t know the context well enough to say. Whether the decision will withstand the inevitable legal challenges and votes of no confidence, I don’t know.

But it did something that the usual default move doesn’t do: it got public attention. It actually made some noise, and may have started a worthwhile debate. Should colleges continue to act as if all those budget cuts by states make no material difference, or should they put the cost on public display?

I’ll admit being less-than-optimistic that the voters of, say, New York will storm the barricades demanding more graduate programs in French Lit. Academics who care about that are invited to enter the political sphere and try to sway the electorate, though as someone who has done that for years, I’ll advise plenty of patience and a stiff sense of irony. Generally speaking, the more you can frame the discussion in terms of “great education” and “benefits to the state as a whole,” as opposed to “jobs for humanists,” the better a chance you stand.

You can’t water down the bottles forever without fundamentally changing what’s inside them. Albany decided to toss some bottles to save the rest. It’s a debatable choice, but certainly a defensible one, and it offers at least the appeal of abandoning a strategy that has failed for forty years. It also offers the appeal of maintaining quality control -- and yes, jobs -- in the departments that remain.

Albany may or may not be right, but it does not deserve the opprobrium it has received. And Fish’s win-by-losing streak remains intact.

They aren't the first, nor will they be the last, I'm afraid, to take this step. The main campus of my institution has recently announced that some "programs," which have served as major options for undergraduates in English, simply cannot be sustained (linguistics, professional writing, to name just a couple). In their place will be offered, hopefully, some sort of certificate program. That is, of course, if they can find someone to teach those classes now that they don't have the money to hire lecturers.
I have to say, normally I find your posts to present a refreshing and well-thought-out p.o.v. that differs from the mainstream -- it's why I read your blog. But this?

"But it did something that the usual default move doesn’t do: it got public attention. It actually made some noise, and may have started a worthwhile debate. Should colleges continue to act as if all those budget cuts by states make no material difference, or should they put the cost on public display?"

Come on, DD, you know that's not the debate here. If you think it is, and not "should SUNY Albany have perhaps consulted with the departments involved about possible alternatives before making the decision to eliminate four entire programs?" then I think you're missing the point. What people are up in arms about is the top-down decision-making here. It looks like nobody even bothered to ask if there were other ways to make the programs more cost-efficient and perhaps save one or two of them.

If SUNY Albany wanted to start a debate, I can think of a couple of ways that don't involve massively curtailing the study options of students and firing a bunch of tenured staff. Maybe a newspaper article? A blog post?

And yeah, Fish is a bit of a twit in that article.
It is stunning that Fish takes the position that his subject area has no intrinsic value, but should be taught anyway because he needs a job ... that gives him the time needed to add to worldwide scholarship in a field he doesn't think is worth knowing.

One question that remains unanswered in the piece (or the IHE comments area on the original article) is whether SUNY Albany chose a specific metric, majors taught rather than students taught, to target these specific departments. The student:faculty ratio of 500:7 sounds pretty good for any department, unless someone is not counting adjuncts. That tells a very different supply and demand story than simply counting the number of majors in a field.

The untold story is whether this decision will impact other departments. Will students avoid some other majors because they can't take a language needed to get into graduate school?
Three points.

1. Fish is, I believe, a dean himself. His deanly view may be being expressed through sarcasm.

2. There are claims that the alleged criteria for eliminating these particular departments, if objectively applied, would have eliminated different ones. Administrators telling porkies? If it comes to litigation, that may be significant.

3. This is an attack on tenure, which is why tenured folks are appalled by it. If he can do it to you, he can do it to me. Particularly in a large multi-campus state university with no designated flagship like SUNY. We don't need to have all campuses offer all majors and we've decided that Buffalo's major in X is better than Brockport's. So we're closing down Brockport's and eliminating the faculty who taught it.
First, this is the best analysis I've seen of the SUNY-Albany thing:

Second, I'm going to agree with Jim here and say that Fish was aiming for sarcasm.

Third, going along with that, I don't think that Fish thinks there is no value in his subject area (though he probably would challenge the word "intrinsic" as a modifier), but I do think that it's probably the case that he doesn't believe that saying so is an effective argument to make on its behalf. I mean, seriously: "But the humanities are so valuable!" Is that an argument that has achieved anything positive in the past 30 years?
Can you think of any legitimate argument in favor of linguists cataloging the dying languages of the world? If so, I suspect you can find the legitimate argument Fish is making.
If not, perhaps you can get the argument-between-the-lines that he makes (albeit poorly). Humanities are the canary here.
When all that is left but chemistry and math, Universities will be indoctrination machines for the Art Robinsons of the world

Interestingly, if you view it through the culture wars lens, you *can* see he's making an argument that should hold some sway- 'tradition'. "Maintaining the classics".
The trouble is, the conservatives who eat those arguments up like candy are also the ones that are totally convinced everything other than chemistry and maths (and sometimes them!) have been converted into evil liberal indoctrination machines, and are rotting the minds and souls of our young people.
Someone like YOU arguing "great education" or "benefit to the state as a whole" will just make those people all the more convinced these programs need to go. You're up against an oblec. ;)

So in the political message sense, I'm inclined to think you've got the right analogy but you are complimenting the wrong strategy.

You HAVE to toss the *right* bottles. People NEED to see cutbacks in the programs that they care about, if you have enough faith they want to fund universities at all. That is, a lot of your strategy depends on how much of the battle you think you've lost (if you are convinced they are going to toss the whole university anyway, you might well want to quietly fade away over many years instead of going out with a bang).
Let's say you've got a CC that has several independent departments- philosophy, languages and art history. You also have a nursing program.
The college has two choices:
1)Toss each of the first batch of departments, while creating a catch-all 'humanities' major to replace them for students. This will save them $X. (i.e. combination of watering the bottles and tossing some)
2) Cut nursing. This will save them $2X. (i.e. tossing the champagne while keeping the UV vodka)
IF the purpose is to draw attention to the financial plight of the college, is it better to do 1) or 2)? In the current social and political climate, which is the college more likely to do?
A few years ago, the New York Daily News--hardly known for its defense of knowledge for knowledge's sake--published an editorial by Fish. In it, he says literature programs must be sustained because, well, they're literature programs. He says that any attempt to justify the existence of English or literature programs in terms of their utility in other areas (e.g., to improve students' writing skills, to make them more receptive to other points of view) is misguided and wrong. He didn't come out and say that he wanted save humanists' jobs, but that was the obvious subtext of the article.

I still think the Daily News published that editorial tongue-in-cheek. After all, for all of their simplistic logic and semiliterate writing, they do have a sense of sarcasm.

To say that Fish is a twit is like saying that Lady Gaga tries to shock people.

Anyway, as for closing admission to programs, I am of two minds. In the college in which I teach, humanities majors make up a small percentage of the student body. Most of the students are in business or the "professional" programs (e.g., occupational therapy). On one hand, I am glad that the option exists for students should they decide they don't want to go into one of those professions and they want to go, say, to graduate, law or medical school. (For the latter, degrees in "pure" sciences and even the humanities are looked upon more favorably than those from nursing and other kinds of "professional" programs.) On the other, those students might do better in other schools, of which there are several nearby, that are more oriented toward liberal arts and "pure" sciences.
As a sort of Devil's advocate, I don't see a problem with any college/university closing out or eliminating arts programs, or any program for that matter. Assuming this decision wasn't the result of petty local politics (I don't know if that's the case), it might do the SUNY Albany some good to take a hard look at its programs. Perhaps tossing bottles opposed to watering them down might make sense from a macro perspective.

In Ontario, all universities (about 17 or so) have both psychology and English departments and degree programs. All but two or three schools have engineering programs. This mostly made sense in the 1960s when there was huge demand from the Baby Boom for almost any degree. Now, several decades later, with many major economic, technological and educational changes, the programs are still in place at all schools. This has created some redundancy in programs; psych and English undergraduate degrees are arguably overrepresented. This isn't good for employers (surplus of candidates with the same skill sets) or graduates (increased competition for grad/professional schools and jobs). Not sure how this plays out for universities themselves, but I would say that it wouldn't hurt the "outside" world/economy to cut some departments or programs there.
I'm current faculty at SUNY-Albany (and pre-tenure, a not-insignificant source of stress in this climate!). I am surprised at how many folk don't seem to have caught the 'need to make a shock-and-awe statement' aspect of the chosen cuts.

At the level of the College of Arts & Sciences, I think that the choice to cut some programs rather than slice all is clearly correct: once the Dean of CAS is told 'you must save $XX' you have only a couple of options.

The level where questions should be asked, I think, is higher up: the decision point that allocated the cuts to CAS rather than to athletics, or groundskeeping, or libraries, or admin, or whatever. That's proven harder to get good data on, but there is at least somewhat of a report on the process available to SUNY folk (but not I think outside) in the minutes and reports of the 'Budget Action Groups.' I disagree with some of the choices made there, as well as with the assumptions going in - e.g. that athletics should a priori be considered as having the same standing as academics - but my sense - somewhat to my cynical surprise! - is that the process has been handled both transparently and in good faith.

The battle on a higher (state-wide) level for funds is the critical one going forward; and really there's a conflict seen between access and quality, with access currently winning out. I *don't* think that SUNY as a whole, nor Albany especially, can survive as a decent institution unless something dramatic happens. And the five departments cut save only, I believe, $2 million from a $13 million hole. Several other shoes are yet overhead.
"[H]e says literature programs must be sustained because, well, they're literature programs. He says that any attempt to justify the existence of English or literature programs in terms of their utility in other areas (e.g., to improve students' writing skills, to make them more receptive to other points of view) is misguided and wrong."

FWIW, I think that Fish is absolutely right here. Literature is an important part of our culture, can have deep and lasting meaning for all individuals, is very interesting, and is something that every educated person knows a little about. That *is* why literature is important.

Now you may learn writing skills in a literature class. But you can also learn writing skills in a history class, an anthropology class, or a business class. You may learn critical thinking in a lit class. But you may also learn it an almost any other class as well.

Studying almost any substantive field in depth will help you develop critical thinking skills, and Fish is write to chastise humanists who claim that the humanities have a lock on this.

We study literature, or history, or art history because it is a field that is interesting and worth studying...and this should be the basis on which the study should be defended.

And not because you might write some papers in class, and the ability to write those papers will make you more employable.
I skimmed this article, and I didn't read Fish's, but...

As an undergrad alum of SUNY Albany from this past May, this issue is clearly a hot topic.

Yes DD, Albany could save these programs but hiring adjunct professors, but Albany's broader problem (and its shown up in other ways within these past few years) is that they do not know how to properly budget their money. You could say the only language President Phillips speaks is dollar $ign$ (pun intended).

We have ridiculous amounts of money going into an athletic program (Albany is a "basketball school", all other sports don't really draw a student following), while D1, hasn't performed well in the past 4/5 seasons considering they way we fund it (cut some money right there). On top of that, Albany has a construction budget of $310mil for the next 3-4 years. Of that, about $70mil is going towards the remodeling of our existing campus center, the social epicenter of campus. The campus center is fairly new and nice, these renovations are merely a facelift (I say wait 10/15 years). Yes, construction budgets and academic budgets are separate, but this school is ONCE AGAIN putting money where it doesn't need to go!

sidenote: Albany also had 2 of our 5 dining halls gutted out and renovated in the last 2 years, but those were payed for by our food provider Chartwells [aka "Fartwells" ;)]
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