Thursday, June 26, 2014

What's Wrong With Our Universities?

Apologies to those who find the use of fonts here frustrating.  There are some issues between MarsEdit, my blog composition app of choice, and Google’s Blogger.  Hopefully I’ll get them sorted soon.  MP

It may seem to some like a frivolous exercise, but friend of mine, an Assistant Professor of literature at a Canadian university, is among a cohort of 56 younger academics who have done something novel to draw attention to what they say are the overpriced salaries of senior university administrators.  Working in teams of four, each team has applied jointly for the position (and $400,000 plus salary) of President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Alberta.  As my friend explained it on her Facebook page;

"This began as a serious joke to protest the 'administrative bloat' taking place on many university campuses who are supposedly under 'austerity' regimes.  The event has morphed into a larger movement targeting the 'rhetoric of austerity' of large and expensive administrations and administrators, focusing especially on the increasing dependence on sessionals/adjuncts and the skyrocketing costs of tuition."

Perhaps not surprisingly, the UofA was not interested in any of these applicants.  In the rejection letter which my friend shared online, it states that:

Given the serious endeavour of pursuing the UofA’s Change Agenda and building on the strengths of the institution, we are focusing the search on a highly competitive field in which there are only a small number of candidates whose particular sets of experience and skills closely match the position profile."

While none of these young faculty thought that the UofA would seriously consider a job-shared approach to its top position, they were pleased that they drew media attention to the issue of the income gap between university administration and many teaching positions.  One of the job-sharing applicants was included in a New York Times debate on the issue, and it also got the attention of CBC Radio’s show As It Happens.
For those who haven’t been tracking the state of post-secondary education, there’s been a a lot of media attention to what some commentators see as its failing state of health.  

Particularly, these stories involve the perceived bloat in university administration costs, the hollowing out of rank and file university teaching as tenured faculty are increasingly replaced by temporary adjunct faculty (with a consequent CEO-worker pay imbalance that mirrors the trend in the corporate world, the increasing cost and declining accessibility of post-secondary education and the increasing debt burden of many students, the decline of humanities programs and the increasing corporatization of universities in general.

For those who suspect that the list of ailments in that last paragraph betray a left-wing bias, let me refer you to that starry eyed liberal columnist, the New York Times’ David Brooks.  In his essay “The New Right” (NYT 10 June 2014), Brooks wrote this:

We are moving from a world dominated by big cross-class organizations, like public bureaucracies, corporations and unions, toward a world dominated by clusters of networked power. These clusters — Wall Street, Washington, big agriculture, big energy, big universities — are dominated by interlocking elites who create self-serving arrangements for themselves. Society is split between those bred into these networks and those who are not. 

In other words, Brooks seems to be saying, whereas we once had social institutions and mechanisms that created opportunities for social mobility and advancement (“cross class organizations”), we are moving to a world where a self-replicating, even hereditary class with a monopoly on wealth, power, and management expertise (“interlocking elites”) reengineer these institutions and mechanisms, including universities, to keep themselves at the top of the food chain.

I suspect that Brooks might find my paraphrase of his words to be crass and reductive, but I think that is what he is saying.  However, if you prefer plain speech to Brooks’ polished prose, and you care about the relationship of education to a healthy society, you should have a look at this recent piece by Thomas Frank (June 10, 2014) in Salon on what he sees as a thirty-year tuition spiral that is turning the university education from a social good to a Chivas Regal-type brand that becomes the price of admission into the elite of our new “Neronian” gilded age.  Why is it, Frank asks, that American students and their parents are willing to mortgage their futures for a diploma when students of other countries fill the streets at the “tiniest” tuition increases?

Because in this country college fulfills a different role. Even if those peaceful campus quadrangles were originally laid out by Quakers or by the egalitarian Thomas Jefferson, we all know what they signify today: They are the central symbolic device for explaining inequality. College is where money and merit meet; where the privileged learn that they are not only smarter than everyone else but that they are more virtuous, too. They are better people with better test scores, better taste, better politics. College itself is the biggest lesson of them all, the thing that teaches us where we stand in a world that is very rapidly coming apart.

Again, you may decide that this is left-wing opinion, and indeed it is, but I would argue that there are at least three issues at play that are undisputedly factual.  They are:

1) Rising University Administration Compensation.  Last month the NYT editorial board reported that according to a report from the Institute for Policy Studies, at the 25 American universities where executive compensation was highest, pay for university presidents had gone up by a third between 2009 and 2012, with an average salary of just under a million dollars a year.  While the IPS report did not directly link this increase in administrators’ salaries to student debt or the increasing use of adjunct faculty, as one of the report’s authors told the NYT, “if you think about it in terms of the allocation of resources, it does seem to be the tip of a very large iceberg, with universities that have top-heavy executive spending also having more adjuncts, more tuition increases and more administrative spending.”

2) Spiralling Tuition and Student Debt.  Several nights ago, the PBS News Hour interviewed documentary filmmaker Andrew Rossi, whose new doc, Ivory Tower, looks at this issue.  Rossi found that since 1978, US university tuition costs have risen by 1100% and that on average, students are now graduating with $33,000 in debt.  You can find a trailer for Rossi’s film here.  I haven’t had time to research comparable Canadian levels, but you can start with a slightly dated CBC story here.  According to the Centre for Policy Alternatives, Canadian tuition costs for post-secondary education are the fifth highest in the OECD countries (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development), behind the US and several Asian countries.

3) The Rise of the Faculty Underclass.  Put simply, more than half of the undergraduate teaching at American universities is done by part-time instructors who do not enjoy the benefits of tenure and are paid, like academic sharecroppers, strictly for the courses they teach.   Some have incomes below the poverty line.  This situation (50% of faculty being non-tenured, temporary staff) may be similar in Canada, based on what little digging I’ve been able to do and what I hear anecdotally in grad school.  This problem is probably more pronounced in the Arts and Humanities than it is generally, and part of the problem, as Joshua Rothman notes in The New Yorker magazine, is that graduate faculties have been incentivized to overproduce PhDs for decades now.  This is not to say that tenured faculty are not expensive, and doubtless their salary costs have been rising for years as well, but one has to ask, if a university education is a commodity whose purchase increases one’s chances of prosperity, than does the brand (not to mention society as a whole) suffer if more and more of the teaching (which is, after all, the content filling that brand) is done by impoverished instructors who do not get paid to do the research that should, ideally, produce excellent teaching?

Besides these three issues, one could point to a whole host of trends that are working to erode, or at least, change, university education.   As mentioned in point 3, the rise of the adjunct underclass goes hand in glove with the decline of the Humanities as a discipline.  The NYT reported last year on a study indicating the decline of that archetypal Humanities degree, the English major, and while that finding has been contested by none less than a past president of the Modern Languages Association.  However, the people I know on the ground would say that the ethos of the liberal arts education (critical thinking, a well-rounded view of life) is being undervalued.  A thread I followed recently on Facebook, started by a respected English professor at a major Canadian university, noted that the success rate for securing funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada was about 15%.  the same professor was told that securing external funding was a significant metric used by university administrators in measuring faculty performance and whether they “added value” to their universities.  Other faculty in the same thread reported that SSHRCC funding criteria was increasingly moving towards rewarding proposals that talked about Big Data and Data Management, rather than, say, the small “d” data that a Humanities scholar might produce from reading books and thinking about philosophy and such, which is, presumably, what equips Humanities faculty to work in the classroom.

My thoughts on all of this are fairly pessimistic.  I am currently in a graduate program in Religious Studies, paid for by the Canadian Armed Forces.  I have a job to go back to when I finish my thesis next year.  Some of my friends in the RS PhD program at U of Waterloo want to go on and work in their discipline as faculty.  I wish them every success, and I suspect that the most driven amongst them will succeed, just as, twenty years ago, many of my peers in a PhD English program eventually found full-time academic work.  However, the evidence suggests that a lot has changed at universities in twenty years, or even in ten.   Among the younger faculty I know, I detect a certain pessimism and even despair at the direction universities are heading in.   For those younger people contemplating a university education, especially one in the Humanities, I would encourage them to proceed, but carefully.  I would ask them to look at debt rates versus employment success rates.  I would encourage them to ask, really ask, why they want that degree?  If they want it as a step towards changing the world, I would encourage them to proceed bravely but wisely, but if they want it simply as a guarantee of lucrative employment, I would encourage them to look at a vocational program, and maybe take a film or a poetry course on the side if they were so interested.

It’s past time that we as a society challenged the idea that a university education was a commodity to be bought to secure advancement.  We need to take down the walls of cant and corporate speak that universities are being allowed to shield themselves in.  Why, for example, does the UofA need to spend $400K on its President?  What possible value could that person deliver for $400K, and for that matter, why spend extra money on the inevitable headhunter if, as the UofA rejection letter told my friend, “there are only a small number of candidates whose particular sets of experience and skills closely match the position profile” ?   Exactly what skills and experiences are they?   If that $400K+ price tag is necessary to buy a member of the elite with fund-raising access to the rest of the elite, then doesn’t that mean that the whole idea of the university as a means to a thoughtful, egalitarian economics, society and politics, as we once understood it, is post-secondary education today fatally flawed and in need of a reboot?


Pat G said...

Hear, hear!

PatG BA Hons. English
(which is oddly how I became a data analyst)

Anonymous said...

Terrific analysis! Thanks for your reflection!

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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