Sunday round-up: the “crisis in higher ed,” your turn edition

Girl howdy did my post last weekend soliciting your views on the “crisis in higher ed” get an avalanche of replies, like, immediately!  It was almost like you were just waiting for someone to ask!

As regular readers will recall, I commented on Tony Grafton’s recent essay in the New York Review of Books, in which he reviews the current jeremiads about what’s wrong with American colleges and universities these days and called for “curious writers . . . [to] describe some universities and colleges, in detail, with all their defects.”  I solicited your views, dear readers, and am blown away by the number and diversity of viewpoints you have contributed.  So today I offer you a very briefly annotated bibliography of the responses.  Please click and read them for yourselves!

  1. Roxie at Roxie’s World must be reading the New York Review of Books up in heaven, because she wrote a post fully 24 hours before I solicited her opinion on what’s wrong with modern American universities.  Her answer?  The unconscionable reliance on adjunct labor, which is after all at the heart of most Excellence Without Money strategies.  (Just go to her blog and search Excellence Without Money to read her catalog of crimes against education over the past three years.)
  2. Roxie also kindly reminded me that Tenured Radical got in on the game even earlier with this post calling for faculty “to get off the Education Carousel and get to work Occupying Education.  Faculty, in particular, are becoming more like each other than not, regardless of where they work.  While some of us will age out under the old system of tenure and stratified privilege, increasingly we too must come to terms with the effects of the neoliberal education agenda (shrinking salaries, reduced and more expensive medical benefits, the destruction of entire fields of study to eliminate tenured positions, political attacks on unionized faculty and staff, higher workloads) in the here and now.”  (Just to name a few of the problems facing us in higher ed!)
  3. Notorious Ph.D., Girl Scholar says from her perch at Crisis State University (after Walt Kelly’s Pogo) that the enemy of higher education “is us,” that is, the American voters who have consented to withdraw their support from higher education at both the state and federal levels.
  4. Lance Manyon writes from Flagship Public U. that Americans in general approach university education in a way that’s too career-oriented rather than thought-oriented, and urges other faculty not to fall into the trap of buying into this vision of education.
  5. Dr. Crazy, in a brilliant riff on Foucault and the repressive hypothesis, asks who’s failing and on what terms?  From her position at a comprehensive directional university where she teaches a 4-4 load (plus usually some summer courses), she thinks that her university does just fine in offering first-generation college students a fine education at a bargain price. 
  6. Expat U.S. American Janice Liedl writes about her Canadian comprehensive and bilingual regional uni, and like Dr. Crazy, says that she thinks it’s doing really well for their students even given budgetary pressures.
  7. Feminist Avatar, a Scotswoman now teaching in Australia, reviews the issues in higher ed in both the UK and in Oz and argues that the corporate university is not just an American thing.  She writes, “Instead of taking the lead on what the relationship between research and the economy/ society should be, [universities] are buying into the narrative that ‘growth’, ‘money’ and ‘the economy’ should be our social drivers. But, what is the point of the universities, if not to question these things?”
  8. Professor Zero offers the basic math of the demands on her time and labor in teaching and advising in a Foreign Language department, noting that her teaching alone should in theory occupy 60 hours per week!  (She’s effectively picking up on Roxie’s point in #1 above, which is the burdens that fall on the “privileged” regular faculty when universities staff programs or even entire departments with adjunct faculty labor.)
  9. Spanish Prof writes from a prestigious midwestern sectarian uni that she’s got it pretty good for now.  However, she notes that the fates of even private universities are tied quite closely in all respects to the local K-12 schools, which is not encouraging for American higher ed at large.
  10. Flavia at Ferule & Fescue offers twin posts on this subject:  Part I is “somewhat bizarrely cheerful,” (her words, not mine) about the job her comprehensive public uni has done in promoting the liberal arts and higher academic standards, although in Part II she confides that the absence of meaningful support for foreign language teaching and scholarship at her uni bodes ill for the truly “global” university it aspires to be.  
  11. Speaking of the relationship between K-12 and American post-secondary ed, Clio Bluestocking writes about her former life teaching “grade 13” at a community college in an area in which the K-12 schools have done a poor job preparing their students for any post-secondary education.  She argues that the assumptions behind the “assessment” regime and concern about “completion rates” are more appropriate to 4-year institutions, and don’t really apply to the CC model.
  12. J.Otto Pohl writes from the University of Ghana about the “reverse brain drain” from the U.S. to other nations. 
  13. Leslie M-B at the Clutter Museum writes from Boisie State U. about her predominantly working-class students and their complicated lives.  Accordingly, she resents the administration’s “desire to scale up the number of students we teach, and the speed with which they graduate.”  (She also resents the low status and pay scale among the humanities departments.)
  14. Jonathan Rees at More or Less Bunk also complains about evidence-free (and unpaid!) work speed-up initiatives and online classes at Baa Ram U.-Pueblo.
  15. Although Undine claims that she has nothing to contribute at Not of General Interest, she writes that the amount of student loan debt that Americans carry is deeply troubling.
  16. And finally, I offered just one of the things I think is wrong with American universities, or rather, with the discourses on the “crisis” in higher education:  we never talk about student achievement, and treat all bachelor’s degrees like they’re equal when I suspect that grades and real achievement matter a great deal to employers and admission to graduate and professional schools.  I teach at a State Uni (not a Flagship U.) that’s officially R-1, although my department functions more like a History department in a comprehensive university (we have only the M.A., not a Ph.D. program.  My teaching load is 2-2, although the caps on our courses are rather high:  100-120 for survey courses; 42 for upper-division courses; 15 for graduate and undergraduate seminars.)

Keep ’em coming, friends!  Be sure to send me an e-mail and/or leave a comment here if your post doesn’t track back to this thread or to the original post soliciting your ideas.  And please let me know if I’ve missed anyone here inadvertently–after all, although I know it’s difficult for most of you to believe, I’m only human, and I own and manage the ranch by my lonesome. 

(Speaking of all by her lonesome:  so long as you’re over at the New York Review of Books current issue for the Grafton article, take a look at Cathleen Schine’s review of Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, a memoir of her only daughter’s life and tragically early death.  Keep a box of tissues at the ready, if you dare.  I’ve ordered a copy of Blue Nights from the library, although I’ll have to be careful about when and where I read it given the fact that I’m crying already as I type this!  I know that many people thought that Didion’s previous memoir about her husband John Gregory Dunne’s sudden death, The Year of Magical Thinking, was too much grief Pr0n.  However, I thought it was a moving and insightful look at the unwanted journey from wife to widow.)

35 thoughts on “Sunday round-up: the “crisis in higher ed,” your turn edition

  1. Thanks, Ann and Z, for your other contributions. I agree that the reliance on adjunct labor is probably symptom #1 of the crisis in higher ed. My department has gone from 2 f/t lecturers & 2-3 adjuncts when I started 10 years ago to having half of our courses taught by adjuncts and lecturers today.

    Clio’s Disciple: I’m sorry I missed your post! I didn’t get a trackback from it last weekend.


  2. Oh, these are going to take me a while to get through. But I’m sure they’ll be worth it.

    In the meantime, you’ve now got me seriously considering changing my employer’s pseudonym on my blog to “Crisis State University.” So very apt.


  3. Warm thanks to all, with a special tip of the old fedora to Dr Crazy for her brilliant critique of my original piece, which also manages to say a lot about the work she and her colleagues do. I’ve learned a great deal and will refer people who are interested in widening their perspectives to this amazing collection of posts.


  4. Sorry: and special thanks to Historiann, as ever, for running some of the best discussions anywhere of things that matter to historians and other teachers.


  5. I traveled in some of the same social circles as Didion’s daughter, and she was an extremely kind and loving person. I always had the sense that her family life–one of fame, celebrity, and extreme public literary success–left her completely unprepared for anything more ordinary.


  6. In addition to the business approach, and being run mainly by idiots, we should also shoulder a lot of the blame. Whenever I go into a class what I see is a classroom from the 1950s, student scattered as if they are visiting a mall, equipment that Bill Clinton asked to be replaced and me trying to do what I do the last 30 years.



  7. Thanks for this round up, Historiann. I have some reading to do in the next few days (along with an update of my blogroll).

    Just on skimming a few more of the links, I see a lot of familiar dilemmas: growing enrolments without adding faculty, increasing class sizes without increasing resources, greater demands to publish and produce while also handling a larger share of administrivia.

    I really don’t think we’re all failing, either as individuals or as institutions. However, we are being asked to do too many things these days. Without the will to fund these hydra-like initiatives, as Notorious Ph.D. points out, we have only ourselves, as a culture, to blame.


  8. Thanks for the roundup, Historiann. What strikes me is that so many of us say the same think. We’re doing OK, helping our students achieve as best we can in our institutional contexts. That those contexts often have various forms of dysfunction is clear, though I’d say at my place, the institutional crazy derives more from the state than the administration.
    Here’s what I’d say:

    I was educated at an Ivy that is extraordinarily well endowed. I went to graduate school at a somewhat less wealthy Ivy, and for over 20 years I lived in the same town as a third Ivy. I taught first at an SLAC, and then at an oddball private university (OPU) with very little money, but which used high tuition to fund intense individual work with students.. In each of these contexts, what was valued – and provided – was interactions between students and faculty. Upper division students were routinely in classes of 20-30 (and that was large). At OPU, I worked individually with students. Until three years ago, I had no serious experience with public higher education.

    I now teach at a public R-1. The student body is growing rapidly – it’s almost doubled in size since I arrived in the fall of 2008. Our students are mostly first generation (over 60%); mostly poor (c. 60% Pell eligible); and over half speak a language other than English at home. We are, in other words, the kind of university that can and does serve as an engine of social and economic mobility for students. And we succeed at a relatively high rate. We are also under-resourced: we don’t have enough faculty and staff; we are running out of space for classes. Because we are an R-1, we have a low teaching load; because it’s low, we do not get course releases for chairing a department, or running an institute, or any of the other things for which you are generally rewarded. I do an insane level of service. The real problem is that because we have so few faculty, we have to teach larger classes. In history we have decided that at least two of the classes students take should be small. Other majors have gone for the large classes, which raise enrollments, but don’t serve the educational needs of our students.

    What difference does money make in higher education? I’d suggest two. First, as Notorious suggests, it determines how much time faculty have to spend with individual students helping them realize their talents. Our students are very bright, but they lack skills. It takes time and energy to nurture those skills. There is another difference that money makes: it turns out that for our students, the usual predictors of student success (high school GPA and class rank, SAT/ACT scores) are not particularly useful. The predictor is financial resources: the more precarious the student or family resources, the more likely a student is to drop out. And while we can help the individual student, we can’t support the family for them. It’s another version of Virginia Woolf’s L500 a year.

    (Sorry to be so long winded… I meant to email this to Historiann earlier in the week.)


  9. These were just amazing to read. And I love that the conversation is ongoing and alive.

    My own thoughts were written (in haste, with a kid in my lap) as I thought of the recent push – quite publicly – to suggest that college is a waste of time, and that one could simply jump into the economy full-grown at 18 and make all that much more $. This is appealing in my state, which imagines itself as a free market innovator in alternative education, and which distrusts the smart-pants faculty member as a type. It is also fundamentally different than the old saw that universities are hotbeds of liberalism, where no good conservative Prof. can get a fair shake.

    For higher ed, this proposal has the effect of the “starve the beast” model elsewhere. If fewer students go to college, universities lose their social function and their resources, and they can be beaten back into submission. If we make up for the loss of statewide students by recruiting nationally – or, gasp, internationally – we diminish our already perilous claim to public support. If new alternatives emerge and get parity in representation, we have lost the battle and the war.

    We love to be defensive. But you can’t field a ball on your heels, as the saying goes. Better to be on your toes, so that you can change the angle of approach and make the play. But I’m struggling – I’ll admit – to think about how to aggressively predict and counter a movement that refuses to admit that what we do is distinct from what “Western Governor’s” does, or what Rosetta Stone does.


  10. All you have to do, Lance, is ask the state legislators and governor if they’d be happy to send their children’s tuition money to Kaplan or Western Governors U. instead of Flagship U., Touchdown Jesus U., or other elite public & private unis out of state?

    When our elites start sending their kids upstairs to their rooms to online courses instead of packing up the minivan and heading for Ann Arbor, Bloomington, Austin, or Amherst, Mass., then I’ll take another look at online ed. But I have a feeling that that will be a cold day in h-e-double-hockey-sticks!


  11. I don’t usually politicize my lectures, but today I was talking about civic humanism in my big Western Civ lecture and telling them that civic humanists believed that knowledge made people better citizens and more moral and ethical human beings (in contrast to the kind of “basic skills” education that had become increasingly popular for business/professional ends). Just hearing the words out loud in a classroom made them sound radical, and I noticed there was a bit of ripple among the students. I mentioned how deeply entrenched this idea became in Europe-America (that educated = better citizens) up until today, when it’s now an idea widely dismissed.


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  13. I think it’s worth a try. Like you said, play offense & not defense. Get up in their grills about what a huge waste of money a college education is.

    Recent Colorado governors have sent their children to Baa Ram U., as it happens (Monica Owens & August Ritter, IIRC.) Teddy Hickenlooper is only in the 4th or 5th grade, but as an only child I predict that he’s heading to an elite eastern uni like Wesleyan (like Daddy) or Princeton (Mommy).

    I have yet to read about a politician’s child who’s enrolled in an online university. (Maybe they are enrolled, but they know it’s nothing to brag about?)


  14. All you have to do, Lance, is ask the state legislators and governor if they’d be happy to send their children’s tuition money to Kaplan or Western Governors U. instead of Flagship U., Touchdown Jesus U., or other elite public & private unis out of state?

    Of course they wouldn’t. I don’t understand why you seem to think that this kind of egalitarian argument would carry any weight whatsoever with the elites that are driving this narrative. The fiction that every US citizen is in this together has been completely discarded, and it is no longer seen as necessary to even give it lip service. The notion that there is one United States for the corporate and financial elite and their highly educated servants–lawyers, professors at elite institutions, specialist physicians, architects, etc–and another United States for the workers and consumers is now right out in the open.

    The educrats are not claiming that their plans and schemes should be applicable to the elite. Their claim is that this is how corporate workers should be educated. So your reductio ad absurdum argument of imagining their application to the elite carries no weight at all. The only arguments that matter are those supporting the conclusion that their plans and schemes won’t work to educate corporate workers. The fact that they would surely fail to prepare the children of the elite for their elite lives is irrelevant.


  15. Hardly! This is what’s called a rhetorical question, CPP.

    The point is to highlight the gap between what elites deem appropriate for their children versus what they prescribe to the proles, and to do this for the benefit of the public repeatedly and often. It’s not to change the minds of the elites, or to convince them to send their children to Kaplan U.

    Are you seriously suggesting that there’s no point in raising this issue publicly?


  16. The point is to highlight the gap between what elites deem appropriate for their children versus what they prescribe to the proles, and to do this for the benefit of the public repeatedly and often. It’s not to change the minds of the elites, or to convince them to send their children to Kaplan U.

    I was clearly misunderstanding your rhetorical stance, confused by your entreaties to “get up in the grills” of the elite about this in relation to their own children.


  17. What crawled up your ass and died this morning?

    I guess I should have specified that of course these questions would be asked in public, in the pages of the letters to the editor of the local newspaper, or at a townhall meeting, or on the floor of the statehouse itself.

    What would be the point of asking these questions only in private meetings? (Who would ever do that?)


  18. @Lance: Wow. He doesn’t even know that saying this is a problem. I think the worst part is the definition of “Normal girls – more interested in abs than in labs, more interested in pecs than specs, more interested in triceps than tripos.”

    And we wonder why there is a glass ceiling.


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  21. @Susan & Lance: “Enjoy her! She’s a perk!” I think I just threw up in my mouth a little bit. That’s just everything that’s wrong with everything, in two sentences.


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