Tuesday, March 26, 2019

More Like This, Please

Press stories about college closures are becoming common enough to form a genre.  As with any genre, certain conventions have emerged. There’s the profile of the struggling student, the synopsis of recent questionable decisions by institution leaders, and the reference to local demographics.  In the case of for-profits, there’s a long discussion of the stock market; in the case of non-profits, there are typically profiles of newly-unemployed faculty.

It’s vanishingly rare to see profiles of newly-unemployed faculty of for-profits.  

Closures of non-profits are treated as demographic inevitabilities or human tragedies; closures of for-profits are covered as financial or legal matters.  But they have employees, too, and many of those employees -- especially on the front lines -- are just as dedicated to students, and just as abruptly jobless, as their counterparts at non-profits.  They deserve to have their stories told, too.

That’s why I was pleasantly surprised to see this story from a Minneapolis television station about the abrupt closure of its local branch of Argosy University.  Argosy makes a great financial story because its ownership saga over the last couple of years was deeply weird; I and others have covered that at length. But it’s also a story of faculty who suddenly lack health insurance, and who suddenly are tossed onto the job market at an awkward time in the hiring cycle.

The general silencing of laid-off employees of for-profit enterprises doesn’t hold in other industries.  When an auto plant shuts down, for instance, it’s normal to see stories told from the perspectives of the displaced workers.  (As Sarah Kendzior has noted, the folks telling the stories often swoop in from the coasts, which can lead to some awkward moments, but at least they’re trying.)  The same holds in most blue-collar industries. But in this industry, not so much.

I think the blind spot comes from a few sources, each overlapping.

For one, many in traditional higher ed simply don’t take for-profit colleges seriously (or, if they do, take them only as predators).  There are plenty of reasons for that, some of them valid. But it doesn’t change the fact that the chronically bad academic job market of the past few decades meant that for some of us, a for-profit was a port in a storm, and we tried to make the best of it.  In my time as a Dean at DeVry, I saw some excellent teaching. Many of the folks I saw teach have lost their jobs over the years as the place has downsized repeatedly. I taught just as well at DeVry as I did at Rutgers, Kean, and the County College of Morris, but the former was a punchline while the rest were not.

Relatedly, many people outside of for-profit higher education think that the faculty in it are entirely adjunct and unqualified.  In my observation, the adjunct percentages were comparable to community colleges, and the qualifications were generally pretty strong.  My own department included Ph.D.’s from Rutgers, Yale, NYU, UC-Santa Barbara, and Temple, among others. None of us was entirely happy to be where we were, but compared to adjuncting at other places, well, it paid the rent.  And we worked -- hard -- to give the students good classes.

None of that is to defend the business model.  But it is to defend many of the people who worked there.  They -- we -- were worthwhile and capable people doing the best we could under the circumstances.  Some of us have found homes in community colleges throughout the state. I’m not even the only DeVry escapee to be an academic vice president at an NJ community college, nor am I the only DeVry escapee to work at Brookdale.  We’re everywhere.

So, kudos to KSTP in Minneapolis.  And to my colleagues in the higher ed press, more like this, please.