Posts Tagged ‘university’

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Will colleges and universities reopen in the fall? That’s the question on the minds of many these days—administrators, faculty, staff, students, and their families, not to mention the communities in which they live.

All institutions of higher education (in the United States and in much of the rest of the world) had a difficult spring, having to close their campuses for in-person instruction (as well as many other activities, from athletics to study-abroad programs) in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic and resort to online classes. There wasn’t much advance notice or planning and, notwithstanding the heroic efforts of faculty and staff and the unequal means of students who found themselves back at home, the results were at best uneven and less than satisfactory.

Now, the question is, what will they do in the fall, while the pandemic continues to accumulate millions of cases and hundreds of thousands of deaths around the world?

California State University—the largest system of four-year higher education in the country, with 23 campuses, 53 thousand faculty and staff, and 482 thousand students—recently decided it will close all its campuses for in-person instruction this fall. Most other colleges and universities of which I am aware either have publicly announced their decisions to reopen in the fall or are expected to do so.

Purdue University and the University of Notre Dame (my former employer) are the latest to do so. Over the weekend, the presidents of both schools published opinion pieces (in the Washington Post and the New York Times, respectively) explaining and attempting to justify their decisions.

Purdue’s Mitch Daniels put it in terms of balancing the overwhelming student demand to return to campus—”the young people who are our reason for existing at all,” who supposedly are not at risk—and protecting the “unusually small minority” (of students, faculty, and staff) “who could be at genuinely serious risk.” Not to reopen, he asserted, “would be not only anti-scientific but also an unacceptable breach of duty.”

John I. Jenkins, speaking for Notre Dame, adopted a somewhat different stance, arguing that the decision to reopen the campus was based on both scientific and moral grounds. Following the science, he explained, would mean keeping “everyone away until an effective vaccine was universally available.” But, he added, relying on a selective reading of Aristotle, it is necessary for society “to bear burdens and take risks for the education and well-being of its young.”*

As readers can well imagine, both decisions were greeted with a great deal of skepticism and considerable criticism (as well as, to be clear, some tepid support). Here are some of the comments from both newspapers:

I can almost hear the dollar signs in his eyes

Immediate removal of this failed Presidential bid, incompetent Governor, who has no business to be the President of a university, should be demanded. This man is as bad or even worse than Trump. There is no place for a man like him in academia.

As a retired university professor, I am concerned about your ability to protect your faculty and staff. Undergrads as a group will have really good intentions, but that age group is not known for its ability to continuously focus on the well being of others. And there appears to be a such a large percentage of asymptomatic carriers that even with extensive testing it will be difficult to keep faculty/staff exposure to a minimum. I wish you all good luck.

I don’t hear any real consideration here of the faculty and staff who are at much greater risk as a cohort than students. What considerations were given to the “least among us?” –to evoke a resonant Christian theme — the elder faculty and staff, the hourly wage workers, those who have pre-existing conditions or care for those with these conditions, who work at the university. I think morality in this case is a bit more complicated than Rev Jenkins wants to have it here. Luck of the Irish to you!

The only way morality has anything to do with the health of college students on campus from an administrative perspective is whether you value money over lives. Schools are not going to be prepared to open in the Fall unless a vaccine or a universally effective cure is miraculously developed before then.

And that’s true across the country. I’ve been in touch with lots of university and college professors and staff members, including former colleagues, and there is a great deal of concern—from hesitation to resentment—about reopening campuses in the fall. Part of the reaction is certainly about health and safety, for members of the university of community as well as the people who live and work in the environs of those campuses (since both students and employees spend a lot of time off campus). It is likely that many of those campuses will become new hotspots, like meatpacking plants and nursing homes, for COVID-19. A second reaction concerns the amount of extra work that will be imposed on campus workers—from faculty through administrative assistants to cleaning staff—at the same time as they have faced furloughs, lowered pay, and cuts to their retirement benefits.

The problem they face is they’re not just there to assist young people to get a college education; they’re working in what I have called (since 2010) the new corporate university.

That university, and not the one portrayed in the public relations copy proffered by Daniels, Jenkins, and other academic executives, is a site for the production of commodities. Many different commodities, in both private and public institutions. Yes, they produce and sell the education commodity to students. But they also offer for sale plenty of other commodities: room and board, NCAA athletic performances, venues for special events, trinkets and apparel with protected logos, patents and royalties. They are also the site of funded research (from both public and private sources) and financial investments, as well as the source of paid consultants (especially in economics).

And, of course, the tail of other activities often wags the dog of undergraduate education, the ostensible reason for reopening offered by Daniels and Jenkins. Unless they reopen the campus for in-person classes, then there won’t be athletic competitions, especially football and basketball. And no revenues from housing and feeding the students or sending them abroad. Plus, if they don’t reopen for teaching, venues won’t be made available for renting for special events. And so on and so forth.

That’s not to say real, valuable intellectual and pedagogical work isn’t being conducted on college and university campuses. It is, at least to some extent, as I learned from almost four decades of teaching on and speaking at college and university campuses. But it does put the decision to reopen campuses in a new light. What’s at stake is the production of those commodities, and the revenues associated with them, and the way those commodities are produced.

As I recently wrote to some former colleagues, who were discussing the university’s announcement of the decision to reopen, which was communicated to faculty, staff, and students at the same time,

Dear friends, former colleagues among the faculty and staff, I don’t envy you. More is being demanded of you, under precarious conditions, and yet you’re only finding out what you’ll be up against with general edicts from on high. Many of you have voiced concerns, and then one or another on the inside steps up to assure you that the issue has indeed been discussed. 

Permit me, if you will, to state the obvious: There are real health and safety issues with the reopening plan. There are also real employment and other economic issues. But what I’m hearing (reading) is, in the end, there’s a real governance issue. “They” discuss the issues, with all good intentions, and “you” have to figure out a way of working with what “they” have decided.

That’s no way for a university to operate, even during a period of exception—when, of course, such issues become even more acute, and the consequences even more serious. 

I wish you all the best of luck,

The fact is, on most campuses with which I am familiar, the decision to reopen the university was made by administrators and then communicated to others, who are then forced to take on the tasks (often in addition to their normal activities) necessary to carry out those decisions. Yes, along the way, there may have been some consultation but the decision-making power rests in just a few hands.

That’s the way the new corporate university functions. “We” (the university faculty) work for “them.” It wasn’t that way when I first started as a professor, when faculty governance was the norm. I worked in an institution with at least some degree of governance by those who did the work (although, to be honest, the staff were mostly left out, which led to union-organizing efforts).

Now, that’s no longer the case at most colleges and universities. So, the decision to return to producing the various commodities offered by institutions of higher education is taken by the administrators and trustees, and then carried out by others, who played no role in actually making the decisions. And, as I wrote to my former colleagues, those decisions during this “period of exception” have even more serious consequences for all concerned, on and off campus.

That’s exactly why the decision of whether or not to reopen college and university campuses in the fall can’t be left solely to those currently in charge. It needs to be a collective decision. Not to move in that direction is an “unacceptable breach of duty” and a “timidity” that undermines the idea of the university.

 

*As one of my former colleagues (a philosophy professor) explained, Jenkins claimed the higher moral ground for his position, but, by Aristotle’s reasoning, the case may be the exact reverse. Here are a couple of quotes Jenkins didn’t include: “the man who exceeds in confidence about what is really terrible is rash” (NE 1115b27-28), and “but even death, we should hold, does not in all circumstances give an opportunity for courage: for instance we do not call a man courageous for facing death by drowning or disease” (NE 1115a). So, instead of accusing the “other” position of being morally deficient, and engaging in rhetorical grandstanding, the only option available is to work out, much more humbly, what would be possible in the current circumstances, and to proceed gradually and with great caution, as more information and resources become available.

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William Deresiewicz [ht: ja] has a new essay out, “The Neoliberal Arts: How college sold its soul to the market.”

As it turns out, I used a previous version of Deresiewicz’s argument in the conclusion of my lecture this past spring at Manchester University. My sense is, the audience (especially the faculty members, who saw themselves as pawns in the latest attempt to rebrand the university) found it to be the most interesting part of my presentation.

Here’s what I said:

Before I open it up for questions and comments, permit me a few final remarks about utopia, critique, and current trends in our colleges and universities.

As we know, a new discussion is opening up about the role of higher education in the United States. On one hand, many economists and policymakers see college education as the panacea for growing inequality (forgetting, of course, that almost everyone in the top 1 percent have college degrees but the top .01 percent is pulling away from everyone else, including everyone else with a college degree). On the other hand, state funding for public universities continues to decline and all colleges and universities—private as well as public—are raising the fees for tuition as well as room and board. The result is what we have come to call the “new corporate university”—in which the faculty increasingly work for the administration (instead of participating in the self-governance of the university), students are saddled with higher and higher levels of debt (which, at over $1 trillion, for the first time in U.S. history surpasses credit-card debt), and we’re all under increasing pressure to make this increasingly expensive and less-accessible education pay off.

By doing what? By offering marketable skills (in other words, a kind of vocational education) and focusing on job placement (so that “our” students can compete better with “their” students).

The effect is that our colleges and universities are being radically transformed—and there’s less and less space for critical thinking, for the utopian moment of a ruthless criticism.

Less space for what Cardinal Newman, in the mid-nineteenth century, referred to as the conversation that lies at the heart of the university:

You have come, not merely to be taught, but to learn. You have come to exert your minds. You have come to make what you hear your own, by putting out your hand, as it were, to grasp it and appropriate it. You do not come merely to hear a lecture, or to read a book, but you come for that catechetical instruction, which consists in a sort of conversation between your lecturer and you. He tells you a thing, and he asks you to repeat it after him. He questions you, he examines you, he will not let you go till he has proof, not only that you have heard, but that you know.

And what much recent recently William Deresiewicz (in his American Scholar article and now in his book Excellent Sheep) warned us about:

The liberal arts university is becoming the corporate university, its center of gravity shifting to technical fields where scholarly expertise can be parlayed into lucrative business opportunities. . . Yet there is a dimension of the intellectual life that lies above the passion for ideas, though so thoroughly has our culture been sanitized of it that it is hardly surprising if it was beyond the reach of even my most alert students. Since the idea of the intellectual emerged in the 18th century, it has had, at its core, a commitment to social transformation. Being an intellectual means thinking your way toward a vision of the good society and then trying to realize that vision by speaking truth to power. . .

Being an intellectual begins with thinking your way outside of your assumptions and the system that enforces them.

In my own little corner of the academy, the discipline of economics, that idea of the intellectual—of a commitment to social transformation, thinking one’s way toward a vision of the good society, of speaking truth to power—has given way to presenting a series of formal, mathematical models and expecting students to manipulate them without understanding either the underlying assumptions or the economic and social consequences of the models.

It’s a situation that is perhaps best depicted in the Inside Job, still the best film about the conditions and consequences of the crash of 2007-08. Even now, many of my colleagues in economics—who failed to even include the possibility of such a crash in their models, let alone offer policies that would effectively deal with the fallout—continue to teach the same models, in the same fashion, as if nothing had happened.

Hopefully, my remarks this evening have served to remind us of the necessary role of utopia and the critique of political economy and, perhaps most important, what the idea of the university is.

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There is no doubt, for those of us who work in and around institutions of higher education, that the university is dying.

Terry Eagleton has been making that argument for a long time. Now, he’s making it in the Chronicle of Higher Education [ht: ja], with his characteristic incisiveness and wit.

Eagleton’s argument is about the death of the British university but much of his analysis holds for the United States as well.

Universities, which in Britain have an 800-year history, have traditionally been derided as ivory towers, and there was always some truth in the accusation. Yet the distance they established between themselves and society at large could prove enabling as well as disabling, allowing them to reflect on the values, goals, and interests of a social order too frenetically bound up in its own short-term practical pursuits to be capable of much self-criticism. Across the globe, that critical distance is now being diminished almost to nothing, as the institutions that produced Erasmus and John Milton, Einstein and Monty Python, capitulate to the hard-faced priorities of global capitalism.

Much of this will be familiar to an American readership. Stanford and MIT, after all, provided the very models of the entrepreneurial university. What has emerged in Britain, however, is what one might call Americanization without the affluence — the affluence, at least, of the American private educational sector.

But Eagleton, I think, focuses a bit too much on the decline of the humanities, as if English and art departments were the only source of critical thinking. Better, it seems to me, is to identify and analyze the crisis of critical thinking across the length and breadth of the university—in economics as well as English, anthropology alongside art. Critical thinking in all the disciplines is disappearing as “Philistine administrators plaster the campus with mindless logos and issue their edicts in barbarous, semiliterate prose.”

The death of critical thinking in and across all its disciplinary forms is the real death of the university.

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This, according to Kevin Carey, is what a university looks like:

Mr. Trachtenberg understood the centrality of the university as a physical place. New structures were a visceral sign of progress. They told visitors, donors and civic leaders that the institution was, like beams and scaffolding rising from the earth, ascending.

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I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about utopia these days—from the plenary address I gave at New Harmony last November to the talk I’m giving at Manchester University in April.

So, I’m fascinated by the fact that Mark Bittman, in honestly confronting the Brave New World—”featuring even fewer haves and more have-nots than the current one”—has turned to the idea of utopia. He looks at some top-down solutions (such as public works and Guaranteed Basic Income) but then argues that bottom-up changes have “even more potential for a more equitable economic system.”

What we’re seeing, on a small but growing scale, is a world where energy and even power may become increasingly decentralized, and communities are building more on local and regional levels, creating organizations that benefit more of their members. Worker ownership — which, for obvious reasons, combats income inequality directly — is becoming more common, and these organizations are talking to one another locally. Even something as simple as the farm-to-school movement means that economies are becoming more local and communities are supporting their own businesses.

Those kinds of institutions—in which workers, their families, and the communities in which they live—do, in fact, have much more potential than more jobs and an economic safety net to challenge and provide an alternative to a system in which “capital has full control, as it nearly does now.”

Socialist utopia is what we used to call that change from the bottom up, although Bittman worries that “both those words are forbidden in neoliberal society.” Maybe he’s right, and we might want to come up with a different “pitch.”

For my part, the key is to connect the idea of utopia to critique—to a “ruthless criticism” of the existing order. And that’s what I plan to talk about at Manchester University in April, connecting the idea of utopia as critique to the task of reviving the idea of the intellectual and challenging the new corporate university.

As William Deresiewicz argued in his 2008 American Scholar article,

The liberal arts university is becoming the corporate university, its center of gravity shifting to technical fields where scholarly expertise can be parlayed into lucrative business opportunities. . . Yet there is a dimension of the intellectual life that lies above the passion for ideas, though so thoroughly has our culture been sanitized of it that it is hardly surprising if it was beyond the reach of even my most alert students. Since the idea of the intellectual emerged in the 18th century, it has had, at its core, a commitment to social transformation. Being an intellectual means thinking your way toward a vision of the good society and then trying to realize that vision by speaking truth to power. . .

Being an intellectual begins with thinking your way outside of your assumptions and the system that enforces them.

Fortunately, we can count Bittman among those who are thinking their way toward a vision of the good society and then trying to realize that vision by speaking truth to power.

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I’ll be heading out to the University of California-Riverside in a couple of weeks, to participate in a conference in honor of my friend Stephen Cullenberg (who served as the dean of the College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences from 2006 to 2014), on the topic of “Unsettling the University: Confronting Capitalism and the Crisis of Higher Education.”

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As a result of the National Labor Relations Board’s latest decision, the members of the university precariat find themselves in a stronger, less-precarious position.

The decision on Case 19-RC-102521, in response to a petition by the Service Employees International Union, Local 925 seeking to represent a unit of all nontenure-eligible contingent faculty members employed by Pacific Lutheran University, affirms the right of those faculty members to form a union. This is a major victory for the growing number of contingent faculty members in American colleges and universities (now amounting to some two-thirds of all faculty in institutions of higher education in the United States).

There were two significant criteria behind the decision—one having to do with religion (the religious nature of the institution and of the employees’ role in the institution), the other with the nature of the employees’ work (whether or not they should be considered part of management).

While both criteria are important, I am most interested in the second: the grounds on which the NLRB found that Pacific Lutheran “failed to demonstrate that full-time contingent faculty members are managerial employees.”

In the famous Yeshiva University case, the NLRB found that faculty members participated in shared governance and thus were considered part of management. Therefore, they had no right to form a union. But the structure of university governance has changed since 1980. According to the latest decision,

Time appears to have confirmed the wisdom of the Court’s decision to address only the case then before it. Over the 30-plus years since Yeshiva was decided, the university model of delivering higher education has evolved considerably. As one commentator has explained:

The rise of consumerism, a growing push for accountability and declining public support for education are contributing to what many call the ‘corporatization’ of higher education. Nonprofit colleges and universities are adopting corporate models, cutting costs and seeking profit-making opportunities.

Indeed, our experience applying Yeshiva has generally shown that colleges and universities are increasingly run by administrators, which has the effect of concentrating and centering authority away from the faculty in a way that was contemplated in Yeshiva, but found not to exist at Yeshiva University itself. Such considerations are relevant to our assessment of whether the faculty constitute managerial employees.

A common manifestation of this “corporatization” of higher education that is specifically relevant to the faculty in issue here is the use of “contingent faculty,” that is, faculty who, unlike traditional faculty, have been appointed with no prospect of tenure and often no guarantee of employment beyond the academic year.

The fact is, most faculty members—both tenure-track and contingent—find themselves increasingly in the position of non-management employees, taking orders from administrators, with at best an advisory capacity with respect to most major decisions in their colleges and universities.

The latest NLRB decision recognizes that university administrators (such as the president, the provost/dean of graduate studies, the vice president for development and university relations, the vice president for finance and operations, the vice president for admission and enrollment services, the vice president of student life/dean of students, and the academic deans) are given faculty status. But that shouldn’t obscure the fact that most of the faculty, who do the bulk of teaching and research within higher education, are not administrators and do not participate in any kind of shared governance of the university.

Not in the new corporate university.

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President Eisenhower originally included “academic” in the draft of his landmark speech on the military-industrial-complex. He worried that “the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery” would be corrupted by “Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money.”

What Eisenhower didn’t seem to have imagined was the role of private corporations—both military and nonmilitary—in designing the curricula of the “free university.”

As the Wall Street Journal explains,

The University of Maryland has had to tighten its belt, cutting seven varsity sports teams and forcing faculty and staff to take furlough days. But in a corner of the campus, construction workers are building a dormitory specifically designed for a new academic program.

Many of the students who live there will be enrolled in a cybersecurity concentration funded in part by Northrop Grumman Corp. The defense contractor is helping to design the curriculum, providing the computers and paying part of the cost of the new dorm.

Such partnerships are springing up from the dust of the recession, as state universities seek new revenue and companies try to close a yawning skills gap in fast-changing industries. . .

After a launch in late 2012 and further development last year, IBM invested millions of dollars in a data-analytics center in Columbus, Ohio, based in part on a partnership with Ohio State. In exchange for direct access to students and curricula, the company sends employees to the school campus, provides software, and hires more than a dozen students for internships.

Jim Spohrer, director of IBM Global University Programs, sees such ties growing. “For the partnerships to grow in sophistication,” he said, “both universities and industry are going to have to change.”

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The university, as I have discussed many times on this blog, is being dismantled.

The university I’m referring to is the place where critical thinking takes place, where critical ideas are produced and disseminated. And it’s that university generations of working-class students have struggled to enter, to become part of that project of critical inquiry.

But it’s becoming harder and harder for those students to acquire a decent university education, as the barriers to entry go up and the quality of the education they’re receiving is going down. We are therefore facing the destruction of the university.

Debra Leigh Scott [ht: sf] summarizes how the university is being destroyed in five basic steps:

Step I: Defund public higher education.

Step II: Deprofessionalize and impoverish the professors (and continue to create a surplus of underemployed and unemployed Ph.D.s).

Step III: Move in a managerial/administrative class that takes over governance of the university.

Step IV: Move in corporate culture and corporate money.

Step V: Destroy the students.

And there you have it: if this process if allowed to continue, the university as we have known it will be destroyed. Truth be told, the governing elite can’t allow themselves to actually eliminate the institutions of higher education entirely, because they still need to bring students and faculty together (under the command and control of corporate managers, of course) so that job-training and skills can be manufactured and sold to the highest bidder. Those of us who don’t comply, who persist with the idea of what a real university can and should be, will henceforth be forced to stand outside our lecture halls asking students to pay for the bits of insight and knowledge we can offer—$50 for a good idea, $100 for a great one or, alternatively, an article of precious clothing, a barely used knapsack, maybe a freshly baked pie.

As for the rest, it will be a university in name only—unless we do undo the five easy steps outlined above.

Update

And, of course, there are alternatives: like the University of Mondragón [ht: fw].