Tony Grafton on the higher education crisis, and your turn to talk back!

Via my colleague Nathan Citino who reads the New York Review of Books, we learn that Tony Grafton has written a thoughtful review of the raft of books on the “crisis” of higher education in the United States published recently.  He dislikes the polemics that pick one enemy–the lazy-a$$ed faculty who allegedly never teach, or the inflated ranks of administrators who allegedly suck up six-figure salaries without contributing to the core mission of education.

However, Grafton appears to agree with Historiann’s analysis of the free farm clubs that unis run for the NFL and the NBA, reserving some choice disdain for the fact that “head football and basketball coaches earn millions and their assistants hundreds of thousands for running semiprofessional teams. Few of these teams earn much money for the universities that sponsor them, and some brutally exploit their players.”  But even I must acknowledge the fact that even if Baa Ram U. fired the coaches and told the men’s football and basketball teams to hold a bake sale if they want uniforms and travel money, it’s unlikely that the money saved would actually be invested in rebuilding the faculty or otherwise improving the quality of classroom education we offer.  (I still think it’s a fantasy worth preserving, however!)

The problem as Grafton sees it is not just that students buy into the Animal House vision of student life, with an emphasis on a social life built around sports and alcohol and drug-consumption rather than an intellectual life built around independent study.  He argues that American universities themselves foster the Animal House sensibility, rewarding faculty only for their research and never for their teaching, and providing a range of amenities for students that lure them anywhere but the classroom or the library:

In many ways, universities have reshaped themselves over recent decades to support the current version of student life. Particularly in the natural and social sciences, professors are encouraged to feel that it is legitimate to devote most of their energy to research. When they make a discovery, they receive a reward: exemption from time in the classroom. Even those who don’t discover America, as the Italians used to say, spend as much time as they can in the lab or the library. Teaching has been reassigned, more and more, from tenured and tenure-track faculty to graduate students and adjuncts.

In theory, budgetary constraints have forced these measures on reluctant deans. In fact, though, they also make it easier to recruit and retain star academics, whose salaries and research support are costly. It’s a lot easier to convince a Deep Thinker to move to Old Siwash and cogitate for a few graduate students than it is to convince the same Deep Thinker to come teach 120 kids a term.

Even in these supposedly tight times, finally, well-paid administrators and nonacademic professionals proliferate—as do the costly extracurricular activities that they provide, from bonding exercises for freshmen to intercollegiate sports. The message is clear: no one sees classroom learning as a primary pursuit.

Go read the whole thing–it’s the weekend, after all, and aren’t weekends made for reflecting on the failures and inherent corruption of our work environments?  (I choose to believe that’s part of the reason the labor movement fought for the weekend.)

Grafton concludes that given the tremendous diversity of the American “system” of higher education, we need more fine-grained and close-up studies of how higher education is working–or not working–for American students, administrators, and faculty, and the larger communities they serve:

Best of all would be for enterprising publishers to find curious writers and have them describe some universities and colleges, in detail, with all their defects. The polemical books, even those that have some substance, end up slinging mud—which, as Huckleberry Finn pointed out to Tom Sawyer, isn’t argument—more often than laying out the evidence. The empirical studies, with a very few exceptions, are deliberately cast in such general terms, and written in such a value- and metaphor-free style, that they won’t reach anyone without a professional interest. Neither sort would give an intelligent outsider—say, a parent or student, a regent or a trustee—a vivid picture of a year’s life and work at a college or university, as it is experienced by all parties; much less a lucid explanation of how finance and pedagogy, bad intentions and good execution shape one another in the academic world.

It’s been a few years since those of us in this corner of the blogosphere have passed around a meme, so let’s rent a barn and put on a show, kids!  People with blogs are “curious writers,” even if some of us (guilty, as charged!) have a flair for the polemic.  The other bloggers and regular commenters here study and/or teach at a variety of institutions around the world–so let’s offer our own detailed descriptions of our universities and what the problems look like from our vantage. will offer virtual stage time to those of you who don’t have your own blogs but who would like to contribute an essay–e-mail me whatever you like, and I’ll publish it under your nom de blog, anonymously, or under your own name, as you wish.  (However, in order to verify your identity, you will need to disclose to me your RL name and submit your essay via an institutional e-mail address.)

So, let’s tag some bloggers, and let the fun begin!  Notorious Ph.D., Girl Scholar.  SquadratomagicoRoxie’s World.  Tenured Radical.  Clio’s Disciple.  Dr. Crazy. The Clutter Museum.  Another Damned MedievalistKelly J. Baker.  Religion in American History.  Romantoes.  More or Less Bunk.  Ferule and Fescue.  Professor Zero.  Dude, Where’s My Tardis?  And let’s not restrict this meme to just people who teach and/or study in the United States, because university people around the world have troubles to share, too:  Janice Liedl.  J. Otto Pohl.  Feminist Avatar, and Spanish Prof., you’re tagged too!  Link back to me (and also e-mail me, since my bloggy software doesn’t always seem to identify all of the links I get), tag some more contributors too, and I’ll advertise your post and start a new blog page collecting them all.

(Don’t let this feel like yet another work obligation.  I know that the committee work is ramping up, and so is the grading and time spent dealing with student issues from now on through American Thanksgiving and final week, so just remember:  short can be sweet!)

61 thoughts on “Tony Grafton on the higher education crisis, and your turn to talk back!

  1. Oooh. This is interesting. I was just thinking that the big-research-university-with-big-time-athletics model is not at all the kind of place that I work. And then you tagged me! I’ll try to get a post up within a few days.


  2. Being a pack animal, I love nothing better than a group project! As it happens, we put up a post yesterday over at our place about a new adjunct policy the regents have forced upon QTU. It’s a gobsmacking example of Excellence Without Money (™RW Enterprises, LLC). Our piece is, oh, maybe a teensy bit polemical, but, hey, that’s what blogs are for, right? It still offers a fairly detailed description of what a particular problem looks like from our vantage point.

    Here’s the link:

    You might also want to connect this to TR’s call last week for bloggers to begin searching for ways to Occupy Education. That post is here:

    Ride ’em, cowgirl!


  3. Grafton’s piece was discussed–well, cited, not everyone had heard about it yet–among a procession of mostly-historian scholars walking through a large East Coast American city last night, halfway between thinking and eating as it were. Not having read it yet I’ll just note that there are lots of universities that don’t really reWARD anything. They re*QUIRE* endless amounts of teaching and pay limited amounts of lip service to the tiniest little bits of “scholarly activity” (calling stuff that discourages long-term disappearances into archival institutions). Meanwhile, report a bulb out in an overhead projector or a screen that won’t stay down (in front of the *whiteboard* where they daemonically tend to locate these things) and the paperwork will cycle for weeks before a maintenance person shows up–in the middle of class time–to insist that now is only- best the time to take a look at the problem/work order. That makes it hard, for me anyway, to release too many administrative personnel from the Purgatorium of the 1%.

    Love the idea of crowd/cloud-sourcing reports of facts on the ground from across the academic world, though, and will read it all eagerly.


  4. I’m on it, Historiann. None of these proliferating “higher ed in America” pieces comes close to describing three of the five institutions where I have taught in my career, including my present (and by far longest) gig. Grafton comes closest simply by acknowledging that level of diversity and how a lot of places have no place in the polemics. (And, not that it matters, but my blog is “History,” not “Life,” in the title 🙂 ).


  5. Many of us down in the trenches Provincial State U are going to counselors now. When you storm into HR saying “I quit” they ask you to please wait while they get a professional to talk you out of it. The psych professionals tell us that our anger and sadness are entirely rational responses to the corporatization of our university. No, you are not unwell, they say, an assertion that would be good news if we could then go on to do anything about our predicament. The psych professionals say “just try to not yell so much. Try to hang on until you can retire.”

    I asked for a meeting with my dean last week for the purpose of speaking on behalf of the woefully underpaid classified staff who are continually asked to do more for the same pay. The dean was joined by my college’s CFO-equivalent, who did most of the talking. I was told by the CFO that what I don’t understand is that this new work is like a gift. It’s an opportunity, they say, for the lowly office staff to stand out and maybe get a promotion in the future. Right. It’s the same “gift” they have been giving for the last decade. I didn’t expect to change anything during this meeting and indeed I did not. I did, however, confirm for myself that the finance folks are running the show, not the dean.

    Hmm. Maybe I do have an essay in there.


  6. Paul: sorry about the mistake, but doesn’t History = Life? (I guess your subject is on my mind, as I’m contemplating teaching an early American religion class.) Glad to hear you’re up for a contribution!

    Truffula and Indyanna: I really hope you both contribute an essay. I know you’ve each got lots of them in you!

    Roxie: I *saw* that you had posted yesterday on Excellence without Money recently, and planned to catch up on all of the blog-reading that I’ve missed out on over the past few weeks.

    And I’ll look forward to Clio’s Disciple’s essay, too!


  7. I’ll get on this in the next day or two – it’s a good conversation for us to have, and since I’ve been at a loss for “real” post topics it couldn’t come at a better time!


  8. Pingback: For Historiann and Tony Grafton – an IOU | Mictlantecuhtli

  9. It’s an honor, Historiann. Intererested in my South American memories (polished for the general public, of course). A comparison between my undergrad years and my current job at an institution in All-American midsize city in the Midwest?


  10. OK I wrote something short but would really like to write the book he requests, have thought about it actually, and believe I am almost uniquely well informed for such a project, in various ways. Very interesting article, glad you wrote this post.


  11. Although not necessarily the largest point in the (wonderful) Grafton piece, this was the money quote, which I wish someone would make our legislators read aloud at beginning of every campaign speech, fundraising event, and committee meeting: “those majoring in liberal arts fields—humanities and social sciences, natural sciences and mathematics—outperformed those studying business, communications, and other new, practical majors on the CLA.”

    Thanks to all who have taken and will take up Historiann’s challenge. I look forward to the reading.


  12. Lance–how funny! Annie is running on my DVD player at this very minute. We’re at the first musical number at Mr. Warbucks’s place, “I think I’m Gonna Like it Here.” Thanks for the contribution–I’ll check it out right now.

    Spanish Prof.: I didn’t realize (or had forgotten) that you’re a S. American who’s teaching in the U.S., so sorry that I lumped you with the non-U.S. based scholars above.


  13. Pingback: The Epic Fail, or Failure as the Ultimate Four-Letter Word « Reassigned Time 2.0

  14. Thanks for the link to Tony Grafton’s review round-up. That’s a boatload of books that I’m glad he read, if only to identify the many wrong-headed attitudes out there about higher education.

    I’ve posted a bit about my own institution and how we’re facing up to times of crisis over at my blog:

    I’ll be sure to come back here tomorrow and start reading through others’ comments and linked blog posts.


  15. I got here via Dr. Crazy, and already posted a few thoughts on her blog about this subject.

    However, you mentioned athletics, so here is a revolting breaking story that shows the importance of athletic success to a university president:

    Be sure to read what President Spanier of Penn State University says in a press release quoted about 5 paragraphs from the end of the story.


  16. I suppose I can write something. We have a three day weekend now. So I probably won’t get to it until Tuesday. I think a lot of my thoughts about working in Africa have already been blogged. But, I am really surprised that I got tagged. Judging from my site meter and comments nobody reads my blog other than my family and a few real life friends. Although this tag did get me four hits which is a lot by the standards of my site meter. I am pretty sure that I share no regular readers with popular blogs like this one.


  17. Thanks for the tag, Historiann. I’ll add my reflections later in the week, as my experience includes a 4-4 load and many, many first year exams to grade before blogging.


  18. CCPhysicist: I heard a news squib about the Penn State molester last night, and as usual am entirely unsurprised that the university apparently continued to employ him and that the uni Prez is backing the AD and the administrator responsible. I guess it’s a new twist that this sexual predator preyed on boys instead of girls or women.

    I’ll get a post up soon highlighting the contributions so far from Notorious, Dr. Crazy, Janice, Prof. Zero, Roxie, and Feminist Avatar. Keep ’em coming!


  19. After just a quick read of this post and comments here, one thing that might be missing from the mix is that Sci-Tech-Eng-Math have the potential to be “profit centers” in administrators’ eyes.

    The pressure to concentrate on research is not so much because the profs find it more interesting than teaching (although they generally do). What profs think or want is a negligible quantity. But the 60% or more “overhead” on a $600,000 grant that flows to the administration with no real strings attached is pure gravy.

    The administrators decide budgets for departments, so their priorities quickly become the chairs’ and profs’ priorities, too, and there you are. I couldn’t count the meetings I’ve sat through which were discussions of the best sales pitches for the likeliest marks. (Sorry, research directions of interest to [insert acronym here].)]

    Anyway, this is just a longwinded way to say it’s not about the research. It’s really about the money. (Just like the athletics which isn’t about fitness, come to think of it.)


  20. quixote: feel free to write this up on your blog & send a link! I think you’re right about the tail that wags the dog. (Or perhaps I’m naively mistaken that education is the dog instead of the tail? That is, education seems to be like more of a side-effect of major universities rather than the organizing principle, which as you say is all about chasing the do-re-me in big grants & big athletics.)


  21. Pingback: Some Arithmetic | Mictlantecuhtli

  22. “…more of a side-effect of major universities rather than the organizing principle, which as you say is all about chasing the do-re-me in big grants & big athletics.”

    Yes, well that is the neoliberal university I guess: support industry, including although hardly limited to the athletic industry.

    It’s actually quite liberating to look at that situation head on and say OK, that’s how it is, as opposed to try and say it’s not true, shouldn’t be true, and so on.


  23. Pingback: Three things make a post? « Blogenspiel

  24. Okay! My first — and somewhat bizarrely cheerful — post is up. A follow-up post will come later this week when I have another spare moment.

    Thanks for starting a great discussion.


  25. Having just left academia for secondary ed, I look back and am struck with the thought that so many people -administrators, faculty, students, and politicians- just didn’t seem to give a shit about learning. Administration poured money into buildings, beer and circus, and “assessment.” Many faculty had absolute contempt for students and put little energy into teaching. Many of the students just wanted to get a diploma doing as little work as possible, and the consumer-oriented universities bent over to accommodate them. The appalling levels of apathy that infect higher education had a great deal to do with me getting the hell out of it. I am glad to be working in a field where more people actually seem to care if students are learning something.


  26. Pingback: It takes two to tango. « More or Less Bunk

  27. You know, I read Grafton’s piece a third time just now. How is it possible that with all of the smart and savvy people in higher ed, no one in the belly of the beast is capable of writing a portrait of this infinitely crazy, interesting, bizarre world we inhabit to match the work of Caputo on Vietnam, or Didion on El Salvador, or Chandrasekaran on the Green Zone, or Sheehan on John Paul Vann? That isn’t exactly where he ends, I know, but he does suggest that the sausage-making aspects of higher ed need to become an object of serious journalistic/ethnographic scrutiny. Insofar as we have failed to that ourselves in a sustained and comprehensive way, we haven’t exactly helped matters.


  28. Out here in California college professors are losing their jobs, students are drowning in debt, and yet the “presidents” and “chancellors” of public universities continue to award themselves huge bonuses of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

    In the education world, they are the 1%.


  29. Pingback: Another memelicious monologue

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