Monday, April 30, 2007

You Don't Win on Defense

Last week I had the rare opportunity to take off the Dean hat and put on the Academic hat, and actually attend a small academic conference. It was dedicated to questions of higher education and the changes being wrought in it (and on it) by various economic forces. Most of the speakers hold tenured positions at R1 universities, except for a few representatives from K-12 teachers' unions. I only found out about the conference through a personal connection, and I'm fairly sure that I was the only person there affiliated with a cc.

Although I share political sympathies with most of the people there, I found the (almost universal) line of argument they used hopelessly tired and defeatist. And they didn't have the first clue what to make of me.

The assumption they all started with is that the normal and natural state of things is that public universities devote themselves to bringing the classical academic disciplines to the masses, in return for which the masses gladly pony up support for ample tenure-track positions. Any deviation from this vision – whether because of students choosing other majors, universities employing adjuncts, proprietary colleges springing up, or even students starting at cc's and transferring – is clearly less desirable, and to be explained through references to Republicans, globalization, and the Iraq war. The way back to the golden age, they all agreed, was through an unspecified alliance of faculty, labor, and students, whose interests, it was assumed, naturally converge. The various speakers differed in their estimation of the likelihood of that actually happening, but the way forward, to them, was clear.

It was unspeakably depressing. These are intelligent people, well-meaning and well-read. And the best they could do was to hope that a broad-based social democratic labor movement would spring up from out of nowhere and magically transport us all back to 1968, when we didn't squander public funds on stupid wars in Asia.

Wait, check that...

It wasn't until the drive home that I realized that the word I heard most frequently was 'defend.' We need to defend the university against 'corporatization,' need to defend tenure against the forces of ignorance, etc.

No, no, no. If your only moves are defense and magical thinking, you're doing something fundamentally wrong. You don't win on defense.

Looking back on it, these folks feel so utterly besieged that they can't conceptualize much beyond hitting back. They're so busy playing defense that they haven't given serious thought to what it is that they're actually defending. It's hard to make conceptual leaps when you're fighting rearguard actions, and it's hard to get a good look at the landscape when you're covering up.

Worse, it's hard to talk honestly about what reforms really need to be made when you've adopted a bunker mentality. At that point, any recognition of the necessity of change brings with it the fear of a slippery slope to perdition.

When I raised a few points at the conference, I was treated as a sort of space alien. They were so far gone, they couldn't recognize an ally when they saw one. It made me sad.

To my mind, bringing higher education to the masses is the goal. That's the first-order good, the thing we shouldn't compromise. Most of the trappings of traditional higher ed – tenure, geographically defined service areas, expectations for published research nobody will read – are, at best, second-order goods (and sometimes not even that); at most, they're instrumental. To collapse the second into the first is to make the kind of basic category error that allows new institutions to come along and change everything. Better to keep our priorities straight, and not waste time defending the indefensible, the obsolete, or the irrelevant.

History is littered with the carcasses of institutions that refused, on principle, to change. I care too much about higher ed to stand idly by and let that happen without a fight.