Posts Tagged ‘university’

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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.”