Sunday, August 26, 2012

Academia's Capitalism Problem

Today I was lucky enough to spend some time with two of my former comrades from graduate school, and it's got the academic world on my mind again.  Recently there has been a great deal of public debate and much rhetorical wind spent on the issue of higher education, much of it rather overblown and fatuous. Those who believe technology is a panacea have been raving about MOCCs and the ability to have thousands of students connected by the internet taking the same class online, as if that were a path to real learning.  Others ask whether college is necessary, Academically Adrift has questioned the effectiveness of higher learning, and many politicians have started intervening in their state-level university systems. In Texas, a state I was thankfully able to escape, governor Rick Perry has been pushing a plan where professors are rated on how much money they generate. (Sadly, I am not joking.) Essentially, he wants state universities to make the bottom line the bottom line, like any other corporation.

This might sound extreme, but compared to the current state of academia, it is a difference of degree rather than kind. More and more, universities operate like businesses, with all of the negative consequences that implies. Students have become customers: passive consumers who expect a product in return for their money without actually devoting themselves to learning. Faculty labor, like labor elsewhere in the neo-liberal globalist economy, has become insecure, poorly compensated, and disposable in the form of the adjunct system. Universities spend tons of money on advertizing and bells and whistles like luxury dorms, recreation facilities, and sports teams intended not to improve education, but to bring in more customers. Upper-level administrators, like their compatriots in the corporate world, have rewarded themselves with ridiculously large salaries, even when they fail.  Now they can look over the world of online, for-profit education, where faculty have almost zero input and executives rake in the big bucks.  From what I hear from my contacts still in the academic world, administrators have been aping these trends rather than resisting them.  Universities that are not elite private schools or state flagships are increasingly engaging in a race to the bottom where their "peer institution" has become the University of Phoenix.

When people like Perry and others talk about "accountability" they are doubling-down on neo-liberal capitalism. Ironically, these greater regulations of universities are coming at a time when public colleges get less of their money than ever from tax dollars. Starving them of revenue has jacked up tuition, allowing the politicians to then complain that students aren't getting their money's worth.  Privately-owned schools have stepped into breech, as community colleges and other state institutions can no longer keep up with demand in the face of austerity.

Basically, the problems I laid out earlier are only going to get worse. Some of it has to do with the economic and political mood, which has led many politicians to villainize public workers as the root of all evil. The other is the lack of a true opposition. Contingent faculty members are so oppressed and so transitory at their institutions that they have almost zero public voice in most universities. Untenured tenure-track faculty are told that if they don't STFU, they will lose out on tenure, making them reticent to speak up. Tenured faculty are least affected by these changes, and hence do very little to protest them, even though they are the only portion of the faculty who are protected against reprisals. Against such feeble opposition, the administrative and political steamrollers cannot be stopped.  With competition from the for-profit sector looming large, traditional universities will enforce austerity and "efficiency" on their faculty until the pips squeak.

My only hope is that somehow faculty can come together with concerned students to oppose these trends. Remember, the customer is king.  Unfortunately, most students at non-elite schools approach their education with a vocational, quid pro quo mentality whereby they only want their degree with as little fuss as possible.  Hopefully the more thoughtful within their ranks can mobilize themselves to make a change.  Needless to say, I am not too confident that will happen.

Footnote: Judging scholars by how much money they generate is about the most asinine thing I've ever heard of. It would make as much sense as ranking artists on their income rather than their work. By the standard Perry wants to employ, the guy who first painted dogs playing poker is the greatest American artist of the twentieth century!

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