Monday, January 07, 2013

Admins as Inkblot Tests

Over the break, I had a welcome chance to catch up on my reading.  Through the miracle of Twitter -- which I think of as an annotated bibliography that self-updates in real time -- I ran across these two articles, and couldn’t help noticing how they crash into each other.

The first, by Keith Kroll, is a pretty standard lament for the good old days by an English professor.  Surveying the rise of adjunct instruction and the decline in full-time faculty jobs, Kroll concludes that the issue boils down to political will.  He calls on faculty, and prospective faculty, to “push back.”  From reading his piece, you’d think that the only reason that we don’t have the academic job market of 1966 is that deans are foolishly caught up in faddish imitation of the private sector.  I was particularly struck at the portrayal of administrators as either feckless (“leave it alone”) or evil, focused on short term cost-cutting.

The second is a more forward-looking piece by Nathan Harden, who claims that the internet will do to higher ed what it did to the music industry.  Recorded music still exists -- in many ways, it’s far more available than it has ever been -- but its economic underpinnings have changed fundamentally.  Music consumers have more and better options than ever, but both musicians and what used to be called record companies have lost revenue. (Elsewhere, I’ve read that the new model is based entirely on speculation.  Neither Pandora nor Spotify is actually profitable, but they attract investment capital based on rapid growth.)  In this version, the key story is the shift of market power from producers to consumers.

In this version, administrators are painted as the foot-dragging guardians of the status quo, defending the economic rents derived from exclusivity.  

Both visions of administrators -- everybody knows that they’re bent on the destruction of tradition, and everybody knows that they’re unthinking guardians of tradition -- have just enough evidence to be plausible.  On the “bent on destruction” side, it’s easy to point to the shift towards adjunct faculty, and a sort of chronic cost-consciousness that results in saying “no” to plenty of otherwise good ideas.  On the “guardian of tradition” side, it’s easy to point to decades of faster-than-inflation tuition increases in both the private and public sectors, as well as to construction booms among the elites.  

But evidence for one discredits the other.  If administrators were actually market apparatchiks, why do they keep raising tuition faster than inflation?  (In the free market, it’s normal to compete on price.)  Alternately, if administrators are docents of tradition, why do they keep watering it down by converting full-time positions to part-time?

What both versions capture, if only half-consciously, is that the underlying structure of higher education is under strain. Decades of Baumol’s cost disease, economic polarization, and questionable political choices have led to a series of split-the-difference decisions.  But you can’t just “push back” against time-bound measures of productivity and expect to get anywhere.  Until the 1990’s, there was no serious alternative to traditional higher education, so it was able to thrive by default.  The for-profits mounted a threat for a while.  Now MOOCs are starting to threaten.  Unlike the for-profits, MOOCs have solved the productivity problem.

I don’t think the current cohort of MOOCs will be fatal -- as the New York Times acknowledged yesterday, nobody has yet figured out a business model for them -- but they are radically different from anything that has come before them.  In this context, it’s more helpful to see many administrators as neither feckless nor evil, but instead as doing the best they can to maintain a structure that’s becoming harder to maintain.  

In my perfect world, we’d get past calls for Restoration -- those never quite work out like they’re supposed to -- and instead work on innovation.  Rearguard actions don’t lead to victory, and I’m not interested in surrender.  We need to adapt.  The critique to make of administrators isn’t that they’re backwards-looking or slaves to the market; it’s that they need to confront more deliberately the forces that drive their decisions.  And that will take the collective intelligence of faculty, staff, and administrators, all working together.