Wednesday, January 17, 2007


In the comments to yesterday’s post, it became clear that some of the crabbiness out there results from a faulty assumption: if something bad is happening, it's because someone bad is making it happen. There must be a villain somewhere, and he must be defeated; once that happens, all will be well. Too much righteous outrage, deprived of an outlet, is bound to curdle. Best to find someone to embody all that is wrong and beat the crap out of him.

But it doesn't always work that way.

It's true that certain disasters can be traced to certain, well, deciders. In those cases, it's possible to draw a relatively straight line from the decisions of a single person to a series of horrifying outcomes. But those cases aren't necessarily representative.

I've seen it on my own campus. Last week, one of my chairs called me, utterly indignant, complaining that “someone” had approved exceeding a section cap without her permission. (The fairly clear implication was that I was the miscreant.) Upon doing some detective work, we found a glitch in the online registration system by which a student, acting in good faith, could slip into a closed class. While it answered the direct question – and we're working on patches for the glitch – I could see a certain emotional dissatisfaction with the outcome. She wanted the moral high ground in a fight, and a system error just didn't have the same emotional payoff as an accusation of wrongdoing.

(One of my favorite scenes in film was in the Henry Fonda version of The Grapes of Wrath. In a scene I don't remember being in the book, a farmer brandishes a shotgun at the man on the bulldozer who is about to raze his farm for defaulting on the mortgage. At the key moment, the man on the bulldozer reveals himself to be a neighbor who is just doing his job. Jobs are hard to find, so cut him some slack. Frustrated, the farmer asks “who do I shoot?” Exactly.)

To me, one of the great intellectual contributions of the social sciences in particular has been to shift attention from a search for villains to understanding larger underlying structures. If you want to understand changes in, say, the distribution of wealth, you don't just look at a few plutocrats or the personal attitudes of selected elites. You look at the processes for the production of wealth, changes in taxation, shifts in technology, rising and declining industries, union membership, and so on. Individuals count, obviously, but they make their decisions in the context of shifting constraints that they themselves often don't understand and certainly don't control.

So why has higher education moved so aggressively toward a mostly-adjunct faculty? Who do we shoot?

The idiotic answer is 'administrators,' as if we get commissions from the salaries we would have paid to full-timers. The simple fact of it is that deans, among others, work within given budgets. My college, for example, has a higher adjunct percentage now than it has ever had. It is also running a yearly operating deficit of over a million dollars. Its state allocation for this year is lower than it was in 2001, even before correcting for inflation; in that time, health insurance costs have roughly doubled. None of these is my doing or my preference. Were it up to me, we'd be rolling in money and I could hire a cohort of new faculty of my own generation and younger. It's not up to me. That's the point.

Add to those constraints the realities of increased utility costs, public impatience with continued tuition hikes, a salary scale determined by seniority and a very senior tenured faculty, and you have serious fiscal issues to face. Those issues can be handled well, badly, or not at all, but they can't simply be wished away or taken as the 'true colors' of a power-mad manager showing through. Time spent blaming individuals for systemic issues is time wasted.

How to reverse the trend? If the 'villains' theory held water, all we'd have to do is cashier the current lot of administrators and replace them with, I don't know, Cary Nelson or something. Then the new deans would wave their magic wands, sprinkle some pixie dust, and distribute the millions of dollars that would magically appear.

The shame of it is that educated adults actually think this way.

I'm not counseling 'defeatism,' as one commenter suggested. I'm counseling coming to grips with Objective F-ing Reality. 1965 is long gone, and it's not coming back. The economy has changed in multiple and confusing ways. The political discourse has changed, too. Better to spend time thinking about (and enacting!) alternatives for the future that might prove both worthwhile and sustainable in the new environment than to lament the loss of the old in ever more strident terms. One relatively intelligent writer opined that freedom is the insight into necessity. What he meant, I think, is that there's no such thing as the escape from necessity or the conquest of necessity. It's always there. Only coming to grips with it will allow room for real agency.

The decay of the existing order – and make no mistake, it's decaying – has a silver lining: it creates room to try something new. The rise of the proprietaries, whatever else you might think about it, shows that “growth” and “higher education” aren't mutually exclusive, even in parts of the country where the population isn't growing much. Maybe it's time to take some very serious looks at the proliferation of graduate programs in already-crowded disciplines. Maybe we should take a look at different ways of credentialing, or at ways to shorten the absurdly-long training period for faculty. (A couple of years ago, I proposed a for-profit model that would compete on the high end. I called it “Mercedes U,” and issued an open call for any venture capitalists to email me. The offer still stands. Yo, VC's! Over here!) I don't know what's coming next, but I'd guess that it's not 1965. And that's not because some supervillain absconded with all the money. Don't bother looking for him. There's productive work to do instead.