Wednesday, October 12, 2011

 

Occupation

The word “occupation” has been getting a workout lately.

The Occupy Wall Street movement, which seems to have gone viral around the country, is emerging as a welcome and badly-needed counterweight to the Tea Party. It has given rise to an Occupy College movement, in which students protest excessive tuition increases, student loan burdens, and, implicitly, the lack of well-paying jobs available upon graduation.

And then there are occupations, as in jobs. The lack of occupations is causing occupations.

“Occupations” in the former sense are usually considered intrusions. An interloper refuses to leave; the area is under occupation. An occupying power is present after an invasion. In the case of Wall Street, the idea is that people outside the financial elite are daring to tread on the elites’ turf. In the Occupy College movement, which, paradoxically enough, demonstrated itself through vacating classrooms, the idea is that the students who are just passing through are stopping to stay a while, presumably because there’s nowhere else for them to go.

Working at a community college, I find the latter harder to stomach than the former. Certainly any sentient observer of American politics would have to concede that the plutocratic bias of the system is both catastrophic and self-reinforcing. Taking public exception to plutocracy strikes me as reasonable, if not required. Coming up with a reasonable and realistic alternative is somewhat harder, but the movement is welcome in at least making it clear that there’s real objection to the incessant rightward drift of our politics.

Whether the occupation will actually accomplish that is another question. After all, “Wall Street” is a literary device. The folks with real money don’t actually live there. Much of what “Wall Street” does is actually done online from wherever. The street itself is mostly unoccupied. The Occupy Wall Streeters are bemusingly tolerated mostly because they’re harmless. They’re occupying a space where people don’t live.

The issue they’re trying to address is only partly solvable by isolating a few villains (even conceding that those few are really awful). It’s mostly systemic. The cockpit is mostly unoccupied.

That’s even more true in higher education. Yes, it’s easy to point out a few celebrity presidents who make asses of themselves with ridiculous salaries and tone-deaf pronouncements in the press. (Mark Yudof, I’m looking at youuuuu...) But they’re ultimately beside the point. The real drivers behind cost escalation are structural: Baumol’s cost disease, a labor-intensive artisinal production model, health insurance, unfunded mandates, the constant demand for new technology...

That’s why the blogosphere’s knee-jerk “if the administrators would just wake up and/or go away” meme is so pointless. In the desperate search for villains, it misses the real story. The real story is that thousands of people have cycled through academic administration for the past few decades. These people have had different backgrounds, politics, personalities, demographics, and inclinations. And yet despite trying all of those different people -- most of whom were intelligent and at least partly well-meaning -- the cost trend has been inexorable in every sector of higher ed, in every region, for decades. The issue is systemic.

Occupying the dean’s office won’t make Baumol’s cost disease go away. Replacing this president with that one won’t stop the unfunded mandates. Decrying the adjunct trend won’t make health insurance any cheaper to provide.

And attacking the one remaining institution in American life that actually serves upward social mobility is not going to create the jobs its graduates want.

I wish the OWS people well. They’re exerting political counterpressure that desperately needs to be exerted. But with a few exceptions, the issues they’re concerned about won’t be solved by seizing the enemy’s turf, because there is no enemy. The issues are structural and impersonal, which is why they can seem inexorable. They’re complicated. They require changing the rules of the game.

Trying to figure that out, at least in higher ed, is occupying my time. I invite others to join me here. The ground may be virtual, but the issues are real. In the meantime, I’ll tip my cap to the folks working the other way ‘round, for opening the political space to start.

Comments:
"And attacking the one remaining institution in American life that actually serves upward social mobility is not going to create the jobs its graduates want."
Except that it isn't. Though I don't care for the military much as an institution, it probably does a better job at serving upward social mobility than higher ed broadly these days. Of course some of that they do by using colleges. But by providing people a means to pay for it, they are not just providing a trivial accessory, but a fundamental component.

But the real problem is that nobody is serving to facilitate upward social mobility on any meaningful scale.
I love that it's the goal of higher ed (particularly state schools and particularly CCs) to do it, but they aren't doing it well. In the meantime, they're serving as window dressing for an oppressive society. Colleges, and community colleges especially, are the chief reason people accept the unacceptable.

At the same time, if you want some actual practice advice? Start with your job placement office. Higher ed (particularly the liberal arts) has historically said "it's not our job to find you a job". But the only thing that makes tuition worthwhile for the multitude is better opportunities for employment. If the opportunities go away, the implicit social contract is broken.
 
My problem is that most of the occupy Wall Street crowd, if they voted in the 2008 presidential election, voted for Mr. Hope, who lead the way on passing TARP during October of 2008.

When I lived in Missoula, it was much easier to get the kids to a dump Bush rally than to vote for a candidate other than Mr. Bush.

If the occupy Wall Street crowd really wanted to change the world, they'd move to New Hampshire, and get us some real political candidates for the 2012 election.
 
If the occupy Wall Street crowd really wanted to change the world, they'd move to New Hampshire, and get us some real political candidates for the 2012 election.

This completely misses the point of DD's post. Putting a different person in the President's chair (college or nation!) won't solve the problem, because the problem is not the imcompetence of individuals in positions of power; the problem is a dysfunctional social structure. We need to apply systematic thinking to deal with the issues DD raises and put aside the fallacy that some Charismatic Heroic Leader will save the day.
 
This comment has been removed by the author.
 
At the same time, if you want some actual practice advice? Start with your job placement office. Higher ed (particularly the liberal arts) has historically said "it's not our job to find you a job". But the only thing that makes tuition worthwhile for the multitude is better opportunities for employment. If the opportunities go away, the implicit social contract is broken.

I couldn't have said this better.

Nowadays, formal education and job skills are diverging rapidly. It's much easier to get a job after hacking together a website for a couple of months than doing multiple degrees in academia. Why? Because academia really don't provide the correct skillset. Of course, tenured professors and old time administators say "Nonsense. Education opens many doors, prepares you for many careers" etc. However, not only are they wrong but they're not even aware that they could be wrong; they're completely secure in their roles and have been for a long time. They have never (or at most once or twice) had to apply the same standards to incoming students to themselves in practice, so they simply theorize that the standarts are reasonable and move on to something more interesting. This is why posts on this blog about whiteboards vs chalkboards, or the best ways to teach grade school arithmetic generate lively discussions, but posts about deeper, introspective issues in higher education are silent.

In a way, that's the real issue here.
 
"Though I don't care for the military much as an institution, it probably does a better job at serving upward social mobility than higher ed broadly these days."

May I confirm this observation with personal experience? I have three sons, 20s, all college grads from highly regarded private colleges or universities. One is unemployed, one is underemployed, the third relocated to Europe where he is successful teaching ESL (not something college prepared him for). My prospective son-in-law dropped out of college after 9-11 to enlist, spent 8 years in the military (he got stop-lossed), and now is employed by a major defense contractor, making in the mid-5 figures just to start. Considering his benefit package, he makes more than I do.

He still wants to finish college someday to get the credential, and I wonder what the point would be, though I am supportive.

I agree with JMG, higher ed has lost sight of its real purpose. Or it seems to have redefined the mission so that subsequent employment is optional, because education just for the sake of education is so intrinsically valuable. Nowhere is this more clear than in the current law school controversies.
 
It's much easier to get a job after hacking together a website for a couple of months than doing multiple degrees in academia. Why? Because academia really don't provide the correct skill set.

This statement is false. It is easier to get a programming job with a computer science degree than to do so with a couple of hacked together websites and a gleam in your eye. In programming in particular but in other areas as well, it's not that academia doesn't produce the correct skill set - it's that business doesn't recognize or honor that skill set outside of a more familiar (business) context. And frankly, that statement ignores the reality that getting jobs is as much about your network as anything else (especially now). Programming is a youngster’s game. As one friend who works at Intuit told me, “those new kids fresh out of school – they know all the new stuff and they are so much faster than us! We hire as many as we can.” A new grad with good performance during co-ops (internships) who also has a degree in computer science is infinitely more likely to get a job than either your hypothetical self-taught hacker or a new grad with degree alone because businesses respect that the student has performed in the context of a business and are more likely to trust the student's skills.

Any college that fails to promote internships to their students, any instructor that fails to mention internships as one of the quickest ways to get into an entry level job serves their student’s poorly.

RE: this blog - It's easy to help solve problems with 5th grade math. But the "deeper, introspective issues" in education are HARD to deal with - if they weren't, we would have had them sorted by now. I think that’s the point of this post.
 
"He still wants to finish college someday to get the credential, and I wonder what the point would be"

To bring that five figures up to six figures, I imagine. His experience plus a degree will get him better offers than his experience alone. I live in the defense contracting world headquarters - Northern Virginia - and can assure you this is true. That boy is no fool. However well he's doing for himself now, he's probably caught a glimpse of the copious, well-paid opportunities available to degreed individuals with active security clearances and wants a piece. I can't blame him!

Otherwise, I agree with a lot of what has been said here. Employers no longer think anyone intelligent and diligent enough to get through a degree program is intelligent and diligent enough to learn the job. They want someone with concrete experience. They basically want someone to walk in the door already trained. And most college degree programs just don't address this at all. I really think robust co-op/internship programs are the best hope for the future. Even more so than just trying to hack it without the degree, because the degree is still a basic screening tool for even administrative assistant jobs in most organizations these days. You need the degree, but you also need the experience.

A friend of mine has an MBA from an Ivy, and the robust network she's built from her degree program cannot be overstated in its importance to her livelihood, now and in the future. It is frustrating that business schools are the only departments that really, truly endeavor to facilitate networks for their students beyond a few token job fairs. I have a B.A. and I've got nothing but good things to say about the intellectual capabilities of my professors and the things I learned, but I envy the strenuous resume-polishing and networking my friend has been able to do. It's time we stop looking at that as distasteful and instead as a real part of the package we offer to students.

And I know. Do this with what money? Obviously the politics matter because we keep electing people who are rabid to cut funding. Rock, hard place, etc.
 
I am serving upward mobility. I don't know any other way of describing the transition from electrician to electrical engineer or carpenter to civil engineer.

Although I love the vision of "a labor-intensive artisinal production model", I have trouble reconciling that vision with my 600 student freshman psych class. Or, for that matter, the 60 student chemistry lecture at my CC.

However, my main objection to such assertions is that I have very good reason to believe that salaries at R1 universities are as much of an issue in cost growth as health care is to our CC.

I know one university where costs have skyrocketed above inflation while class sizes have not changed while the mix of faculty and adjuncts has shifted toward the low-cost alternative.

I know another university where it appears they get more in state funds per undergrad than our CC's entire cost of instruction for the same student taught by the very same adjunct!

Debates about where the money comes from and where it goes is taking place in a data-free world. Assertions cannot be the basis for claims about what it cost 30 years ago at DD's CC or mine or some particular university. The problem is that college and, in particular, university budgets obfuscate more than they illuminate and not easy to compare to 30 or 50 years ago. We need a case study. Maybe DD can provide one from his college. I can't get at the data to do it at my college.

Finally, Dean Dad makes the fundamental mistake of assuming that complaints about administrators are directed at CC's. They are directed at universities where there are only 2.5 students for each non-instructional (administrative) staff member. Other colleges get caught in the crossfire.


PS - Mr. Hope had no role in passing TARP. He hadn't even been elected yet, my dear anonymous friend! TARP passed on the 2nd try because Wall Street signaled very clearly that we would have 25% unemployment and another Great Depression, rather than a merely Modest Depression, after TARP failed in Congress on the 1st try.
 
@CCPhysicist: it's useless to try to engage with conservatives on history or economics. A black man is President, so it's his fault. The rest is details.
 
but I think that they are defending their right and I think that it is a fair fight but the only way to get into the news and in mind of the people it is like that.
 
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?