Tuesday, November 02, 2010

A Response to Marc Bousquet

As regular readers know, Marc Bousquet and I are not each other’s biggest fans. That said, he has really outdone himself this time. In a remarkable tirade on InsideHigherEd – sheesh, I take a week off and the standards drop – Bousquet wrote:

President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan's plans for higher education are evident in their attraction to community colleges. All of the features that most educators deplore about community colleges are what the current administration likes about them: top-down control of curriculum, disposable instructors, automated courseware, a training model of education, and management highly responsive to local employers.

Until now, to my knowledge, Bousquet has restricted his attacks to administrators. Now he’s setting his sights on the public institutions that teach over forty percent of America’s undergraduates.

I'll take the charges individually before getting around to the larger point.

“Top-Down Control of Curriculum.” This is just false. At my cc, and at every one I know, a curricular change -- a new course, a new program, a change to a prerequisite, anything of substance -- has to be proposed by a faculty member in the department responsible for the course(s). It has to be approved by Curriculum Committee, which has a faculty majority. It then goes to the College Senate for approval. I couldn’t impose a program if I wanted to.

“Disposable Instructors.” We have tenured faculty who started teaching here before I was born. Literally. I am not making that up. The people here who live in fear of their jobs are the administrators, among whom turnover -- mostly involuntary -- is much, much higher. Even the adjuncts are unionized, and can’t be dismissed without process.

“Automated courseware.” What does this even mean? We don’t have robo-faculty. We have tenured faculty teaching in learning communities. We have tenured faculty on paid sabbaticals. At least with the previous charge, I can imagine what Bousquet probably meant. This one just leaves me scratching my head.

“A Training Model of Education.” Our largest major is liberal arts transfer. Our largest academic department is English. Our enrollments in transfer programs dwarf our enrollments in career programs. While we’re at it, I’d like to point out that our transfer students graduate their destination colleges at higher rates than their native counterparts. If you want to beat up on someone...

“Management Highly Responsive to Local Employers.” This one is partially accurate. Yes, when considering new vocational programs, we look at local employment needs. I don’t know why we wouldn’t. But to suggest that we’re somehow slaves to market dictates is both slanderous and ignorant of the transfer function.

The specifics of Bousquet's charges are laughable, but I doubt that would bother him. There's a larger worldview underlying his drive-by attack on public institutions that serve low-income students. This, in a column in which he attacks Michelle Rhee (whom he feels entitled to call “Micky”) for trying to reform public institutions that serve low-income students.

If you read Bousquet's stuff often enough – hell, I even slogged through his book – you see a single theme emerge above all others. Faculty are Special, and their purity of motive deserves substantial material reward. Never mind the contradiction. Community colleges are bad because they don't convey enough status to those who are above the need for status. Alrighty then.

That's how Bousquet can assert, simultaneously, that colleges are run by evil and overpaid administrators who glory in the degrading of the faculty, and that those administrators should be entrusted with far larger budgets – with which to pay tenured faculty -- on the public dime. Never mind the contradiction.

There’s a fundamental dishonesty at the heart of Bousquet’s position. He asserts with metronomic regularity that “working conditions are learning conditions,” from which it should follow logically that higher faculty salaries will equate mathematically to better education. (Interestingly, he fails to apply that same logic to administrators. Do higher salaries equate to better management? Goose, gander, whatever.) But he never bothers actually engaging real world economics.

Say that you have a finite budget. Which of the following scenarios will lead to better learning conditions?

1. A full-time professor teaching five sections of fifty students each.

2. Five adjuncts teaching two sections apiece of twenty-five students each.

That’s a pretty clean approximation -- simplified, but recognizable -- of the choices administrators face. Here’s another one:

1. Two programs, each forty percent full-time.

2. One program, eighty percent full-time.

I can envision principled arguments on both sides. But to assume that these dilemmas simply don’t exist, that they’re just smokescreens behind which administrators hide their nefarious agendas, is just silly. And to assert that talk of costs is real but talk of revenues isn’t, is just fantasy.

Bousquet’s tendentious agitprop simply doesn’t allow for a diversity of priorities, a mix of institutions, or the existence of difficult choices. It’s a Manichean morality tale; you are either Good and Pure and Noble or you are Evil. And as with most moralists, the longer he goes on, the larger the category of Evil becomes. It used to ensnare only the administrators and legislators. Now it ensnares an entire category of public institutions, and anybody who dares to suggest that decades of sustained failure might just warrant trying something different.

Community colleges do wonders on a shoestring. I would have expected him to be a supporter of community colleges, since they’re nonprofit and they serve underrepresented populations. Instead, in a climate in which many of us are facing the third consecutive year of state budget cuts and the political winds are cold, he piles on. When those funding cuts come, from whence, exactly, are those faculty raises supposed to come? And is the AAUP seriously in agreement?

It’s an appalling performance, and it couldn’t be less timely. Now I’ll return to crossing my fingers and watching the election returns, hoping against hope that the choices we’ll have to make don’t get even worse.