The University Is in Real Trouble, Folks

This is news to no one who’s been paying attention, of course. But this morning I read two articles that highlight some of the difficulties universities are facing today.

The first was from Al Jazeera, which seems to be on a charm offensive targeting the glut of PhDs produced by the current university system. Today’s article  is specifically targeted at those of us not lucky enough to be on the tenure track:

Some may wonder why adjuncts do not get a well-paying non-academic job while they search for a tenure-track position. The answer lies in the cult-like practices Pannapacker describes. To work outside of academia, even temporarily, signals you are not “serious” or “dedicated” to scholarship. It does not matter if you are simply too poor to stay: in academia, perseverance is redefined as the ability to suffer silently or to survive on family wealth. As a result, scholars adjunct in order to retain an institutional affiliation, while the institution offers them no respect in return.

The overall tone of the piece is somewhat strained:

Most adjuncts teach at multiple universities while still not making enough to stay above the poverty line. Some are on welfare or homeless. Others depend on charity drives held by their peers. Adjuncts are generally not allowed to have offices or participate in faculty meetings. When they ask for a living wage or benefits, they can be fired. Their contingent status allows them no recourse.

But the glut of PhDs has allowed for something like an extension of conditions faced by graduate students, who are usually underpaid and overworked. Once they earn their PhDs, most will find it difficult, if not impossible, to land a tenure track position. Those who chose to continue to pursue a career in Academe will become the scholarly equivalent of itinerant workers.

While the article points out that the scholarly working class is forced into that position by the cult-like requirements of Academe — those who leave for a non-academic job have almost no chance of returning to the academic fold –  it doesn’t mention the fact that maintaining a ‘temporary’ position in Academe is probably not much more likely to land us a tenure track position.

If one lands a job (or several jobs at once) as an adjunct, that means one will more than likely have to devote all one’s time to teaching. In such a situation, one might not have time to do the research necessary to get hired for a tenure track position. One might try to get a postdoctoral research position in an effort to beef up one’s CV on the research front. But increasingly, time limits are placed on postdoctoral positions, meaning that one cannot even apply for a position if one earned one’s PhD too many years ago — even if one has never occupied a tenure track position.

Whether one has served as a teaching-only adjunct or a postdoctoral researcher, after a few short years, no matter how productive, exciting, or impactful one’s teaching and scholarship, one’s PhD essentially expires. It is likely that many of us on the non-tenure track will quickly pass our ‘sell by’ dates. Those of us on the non-tenure track are put in the position of clinging to whatever slim (and diminishing) hope we have to land a ‘real’ job in Academe or forced to get a ‘real’ job outside of Academe that precludes any possibility of our landing a ‘real’ academic job.

Meanwhile, the university faces increasing accountability demands from society. Many of these demands are focused on the university’s inability to prepare undergraduate students for jobs. While we are too successful, it seems, at preparing our graduate students for jobs that don’t exist, we are not successful enough at preparing our undergraduate students for jobs that do exist (supposedly). The Florida Blue Ribbon Task Force on State Higher Education Reform makes this latter point in no uncertain terms.

This point is related to the second article I read this morning, from InsideHigherEd, which discusses a bill introduced into the Florida state legislature that would allow Florida government officials to certify a course as “Florida-accredited,” thus bypassing the typical accreditation system.

“We’re saying the monopoly of the accrediting system is not designed for the world of MOOCs or other individual courses,” said Republican State Senator Jeff Brandes, the bill’s sponsor.

The article tends to focus on this move as a challenge to the autonomy of the university, which seems obvious. I think it’s actually more interesting to try to listen to those making such moves. For instance, this quote from Dean Florez speaks volumes:

“I think every professor in the nation starts with, ‘I think online education is going to ruin higher education,’ ” he said. “What I think every professor is saying is, ‘Online learning is going to significantly disrupt the way I’ve been doing things.’”

Resistance to accountability demands is interpreted as resistance to change. In my opinion, this sort of resistance is futile. But it seems to be our knee-jerk reaction. If we are going to find an answer to accountability demands, we’ll need to start by swimming with the current. (In this regard, I am in substantial agreement with another article from Sarah Kendzior, author of the first article discussed above).

Jeff Brandes may be throwing us a lifeline if we choose to grab on to it. It is hidden in the controversy discussed in the InsideHigherEd article about the role of tests in either substituting for courses or as the point of MOOCs:

“What we’re saying here is students have to pass an exam at the end, so they have to pass to attain the knowledge,” he said. “The arguments against it would be there’s something magical about how you attain that knowledge. For the most part, the knowledge is the commodity. So what we’re saying is, ‘How are we going to get this commodity into your head?’”

When I hear politicians talk about knowledge as a commodity and education as delivering that commodity into the heads (not the hands, interestingly) of consumers, I hear a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of education. This is an opening, should we choose to exploit it.

The alternative between such an economy of didactics and the black box of education is a straw man. We need to open the black box of education, revealing that the sort of cultivation of students that ought to happen at a university is not so mysterious, after all. But this will require us to engage in ongoing dialogue with those outside the university making what most on the inside take to be threats to their autonomy. I am not hopeful this will happen.

In the end, there is one unmistakable sign that the university is in real trouble: we continue to conduct business as usual.




This entry was posted in Accountability, Basic News, Future of the University, Graduate Studies, Metrics, Sustainability, Risk Management, & Long-Term Security, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The University Is in Real Trouble, Folks

  1. Dan Hicks says:

    “The alternative between such an economy of didactics and the black box of education is a straw man. We need to open the black box of education, revealing that the sort of cultivation of students that ought to happen at a university is not so mysterious, after all.”

    Absolutely. But it’s no good to replace “education is depositing facts” with “education is depositing technical skills,” like critical thinking. Those are just as much commodities, after all. Handwaving about “great conversations” and “Western civilization” won’t do the job, either, since those phrases don’t really mean anything to anyone who’s not already an academic.

    I think the key here is to relate the aims of education to other, familiar activities that resist commodification. Many people are repelled by the idea of treating public policy, families, or friends as a matter of market transactions. We should be talking about the connection between education and citizenship, parenting, and friendship.

  2. Lance W. says:

    “Hopelessness is a form of silence, of denying the world and fleeing from it….As long as I fight, I am moved by hope; and if I fight with hope, then I can wait.” -p. freire

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>