Monday, November 29, 2010


Over the break I finally had a chance to read Higher Education?, by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus. It was yet another in a long line of pieces that purport -- at least in title -- to address higher education generally, but that assume a daily reality that simply excludes community colleges. (At least Hacker and Dreifus had the good grace to admit it.) Suffice it to say that it seemed to mean well, but was so scattered in its presentation that I was just left shrugging.

I had a similar sense reading Historiann’s recent post on what she takes to be the roots of the casualization of academic labor. In response to a snarky line by Thomas Frank, she defends the honor of the tenured faculty: “No tenured faculty in any department I’ve ever been a member of has cackled with glee at the prospect of seeing our ranks depleted and populated instead with adjuncts.” I presume this is true, though it’s a way of implying a contrast. Who, exactly, is cackling with glee?

She answers:

Here’s how the adjunctification of a department happens: when my senior colleagues retire or a colleague resigns to take another job, we lose not only the tenure line but we also lose the money. The Dean’s and Provost’s office–or some other entity farther up–hoovers up the salary savings, and my department gets nothing...

Well, “hoovers” certainly sounds sinister enough. But in case that was too subtle, she swings for the cheap seats in the next paragraph:

Administrators are the authors of this shift from tenured to casual labor, and they’re the ones who benefit from it directly. (emp. in original)

Those would be the administrators who are cackling with glee, I assume. The villainous glee derives, I’m guessing, from the direct benefits that accrue to deans and provosts.

It’s a genuinely stupid theory, and one so far removed from any reality I can recognize that I honestly have to wonder at the professional competence of anyone who would believe it, let alone write it. Yet intelligent people write this stuff, and other intelligent people seem to believe it.

This January will mark a solid decade in academic administration -- approximately ten years more than Historiann, if my math is correct -- and I can attest that in those ten years I have never seen or heard a dean or provost cackle with glee at the prospect of hollowing out a department. Not once, not ever. In my decade of personal observation, at multiple institutions, it has never happened. In discussions with my counterparts at other cc’s in my state, the same is true for them. Nor do the benefits accrue directly to deans and provosts. Where does the money go?

This Washington Post article sent to me by an alert reader gives a clue. Here’s some reality I can actually recognize:

Even as community college enrollments have climbed during the recession, 35 states cut higher education budgets last year, and 31 will cut them for next, according to survey data from the National Association of State Budget Officers. Those shortages are expected to worsen next year when federal stimulus money that had plugged holes in state budgets is no longer available.

Aha! Could it possibly be that deans and provosts have constraints, too? Might it be the case that those of us at community colleges are facing budgetary realities far beyond the imagination of folks at research universities? WaPo continues:

That's partly because community college budgets have grown more slowly than at other institutions, according to an analysis of federal education statistics by the Delta Cost Project. In 2008, the education-related spending for an average full-time student at a community college was $10,400 while it was about 20 percent to 50 percent higher at public universities and at least 50 percent more at private four-year colleges.

Hmm. And yet, we have administrators, too. Perhaps there’s a flaw in the theory somewhere...

To combat the budget cuts, the College of Southern Nevada has increased the proportion of cheaper adjunct faculty, closed two of 11 learning centers in the community, and held classes at midnight to maximize the use of class space.

Aha! A direct causal link between decreased funding and increased adjunctification. No cackling with glee here.

Here in Las Vegas, state funding for the College of Southern Nevada has dropped more than 17 percent while the number of students, on a full-time basis, has risen 12 percent. While a federal stimulus bill provided funding to community colleges, that money is about to run out, too.
"In Nevada, we have to accommodate state budget priorities such as Medicare, public safety, including corrections, and K-12 education," Richards said. "Higher education comes in fourth or fifth in the list."

And there we have it.

Administrators may be the bearers of bad news, and sometimes the people who have to choose among terrible options. But to assume that we’re sitting on piles of money, cackling with glee while exploiting adjuncts and pocketing the savings for ourselves, is just otherworldly. It assumes a context completely out of keeping with anything I can recognize as reality. It’s so far afield that the only truly fitting rebuttal is a sigh.

One could object, I suppose, that the adjunct trend goes back much farther than the Great Recession. But the drivers behind the trend go back farther, too. I’ve written at length about them over the years, and (spoiler alert!) have devoted a chapter of my book to them. The screwy economics of higher education come from all kinds of sources: the credit hour, tenure, public funding constraints, and ever-increasing technological demands each play a part. Management can help or hurt, but it can’t explain the main direction. Private industry has managers -- lots of them -- many of whom make far more than any dean or provost I’ve ever met. Yet our costs are increasing much more quickly than theirs. A serious explanation requires different variables.

The only way I can imagine the “Provost as Dr. Evil” theory making any sense would be if you never looked beyond the confines of a single academic department. If your context is any broader than that, the theory quickly falls apart.

At some level, I suppose, none of this matters. If some bloggers want to go off into la-la land, that’s their business. But if higher education is going to make any kind of recovery, let alone headway, it will have to do so cooperatively, and with collective acknowledgement of Objective Fucking Reality. The issues are endemic, severe, and increasing. Coming to grips with that will require, among other things, letting go of the fantasy that the deans could just fix everything if they would only see the light. The first step is to acknowledge that colleges exist in a much larger world, and are subject to it in important ways. Without that context, there’s really nothing to say.