Sunday, May 6, 2012

Why I Know a Lot About the Current State of Higher Ed that Andrew Delbanco, Anthony Grafton, and Louis Menand Don't Know

I should start right off by saying that the title of this post is in no way a denigration of messieurs Delbanco, Grafton, or Menand.  I greatly respect both their scholarly work, as well as their recent contributions to the discourse around the current state of higher education in America.  However, I would like to point out some major issues with who is being allowed to enter into that discourse.

I am not even in the same universe, scholarship wise, as the the three men who I've mentioned, and will freely admit that.  On the other hand, my time in the universities exposed me much more rigorously to the changing realities of higher education.  Instead of being perched in a tenured Ivy League post, I went through graduate school at a public university facing severe cutbacks even before the 2008 meltdown.  From there I worked as a contingent faculty member for two years at a regional state university in Michigan.  The institution, which was public and not research-oriented, is very typical of the type of schools that most university students attend today.  It could not have been further from the world of the Ivies, yet it is professors from the Ivies -with their billions of dollars in endowments and elite student bodies- who are filling the op-ed pages of the land with their musings about the current crisis.  I appreciate their concerns over the state of public higher ed (especially Grafton's), but being so far removed from the problem, their words lack the proper anger and urgency over what is being done.  The fact that faculty from non-elite institutions do not get to participate in the highest-level discussions of academia's current crisis also leaves the vast majority of university professors relying on the goodwill of others who do not fully understand the problem, despite their best intentions.

Most faculty members working at universities today are off of the tenure track, yet their voices are so rarely given major platforms to speak from.  The more privileged profs sounding the alarm about the exploitation of labor rarely have experienced the contingent system for themselves.  Over time I have come to realize that there is a wide gulf of experience and understanding separating those who have worked contingency positions and those who have not.  Even the most well-meaning tenure-track lifers who care about making the system more equitable can opt out of doing so at the end of the day, since their life chances and careers do not depend on changing things.  Many who have never had to work on the low side of academia still hold onto the falsehood that the Great Academic Chain of Being is a meritocracy, pure and simple.  Having worked on both sides of the fence, I know full well that there are many on the contingency side whose accomplishments would qualify them for tenure at most universities, but through bad luck and crummy breaks still haven't managed to find a permanent job.

Adjuncts have begun to organize through groups like the New Faculty Majority, but their words are rarely heard in the larger public discourse about education.  The vast, vast majority of Americans are totally unaware of the adjunct system and how badly it abuses those caught in its web.  They still think of professors as be-tweeded dons living a laid-back life of the mind, not as freeway fliers teaching six classes a semester to stay afloat yet still unable to afford health care.  As long as that perception persists, the problem of academic labor exploitation will only get worse, since no one outside of adjuncts and their allies will care to do anything about it.

Once I moved on from my contingent position, I was lucky enough to get a tenure track job at a regional public university in Texas very similar to the one I had worked at in Michigan.  It was here that I endured the effects of the financial collapse of 2008, which meant going without raises combined with bigger classes.  I was effectively getting paid less for more work.  Departments were being cut amidst a campus with a new recreation center (featuring a rock climbing wall and lazy river) and state of the art student center.  At many other similar universities administration has opted to give their customers beer and circuses rather than a worthwhile education.  (They also vote to give themselves raises even despite the economic hard times, something I learned after tracking down a copy of the school's budget.)

To be blunt, the elite institutions that our most prominent commentators on the state of higher education work for never have to face this stark choice between attracting students in order to survive and maintaing high standards.  As Ivy League profs, they've also never had to endure a rigorous assessment regime like the one foisted on me in Texas; a horror that aims to make university education just as stupidly rigid and test-driven as it is for other levels.  They've never had to balance teaching one hundred and fifty students a semester while trying to publish enough to fulfill tenure requirements much stricter than for those of previous generations.  This is not the fault of the esteemed elite scholars who are trying to make sense of higher education's crisis, but I do think that their removal from the day to day realities that faculty increasingly face keeps the enormity of the current problems from being fully revealed to the public.

The fact that our most prominent academic commentators on higher education reside in places far removed from the realities of most faculty and students does not disqualify them from speaking about higher education's travails, but I think it does mean that many other academics from much less exalted places are much more qualified to speak directly about what is really happening in our universities.  (By the way, I have not even mentioned online and for-profit universities, which are usually only spoken for by their administrators, rather than their faculty.)  These voices need to be sounded on stages with bigger audiences, and must be heard.

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