Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Cranky Bear on the Sinking Ship of Public Higher Education

Editor's note: for those of you unfamiliar with this blog, I have a guest blogger friend by the name of Cranky Bear whose missives I occasionally publish in these pages.  CB is much more profane and unrestrained than I, and out of fear of attracting lawsuits or protest I often edit or refuse to publish much of his material.  In this case I agree so much with his message (though perhaps not with some of his more impolitic words) that I will publish it unadulterated.  You have been warned.


This is Cranky Bear here with a fire my belly and righteous indignation in my soul.  As some of you know, ole CB once cracked the boards of the academic stage before leaving behind one of those rare tenure-track jobs to live in the Cranky cave with Mrs. Cranky teaching cubs rather than bears the ways of history.  When I left the academic world I got a little misty-eyed about giving up the life of the mind and whatnot, but nowadays I feel that decision was the case of one smart-ass rat fleeing a desperately fucked-up sinking ship.

I worked in public higher education for five long years, at non-flagship universities at that.  For thirty years these institutions have been getting slowly starved of state funds while having to pay for non-academic expenses like gilded gyms with rock-climbing walls, flat screen TVs in the library, and a whole panoply of assorted deanlets with cushy salaries.  Tuition skyrocketed, as did the ranks of the "contingent faculty," who labor without security, benefits, or adequate pay.  I was one of these poor souls for two years, and saw how my university's survival depended upon laborers who had no voice in university affairs and were treated like human garbage.

Since the onset of the current economic depression, things have only gotten worse.  Public universities around the nation are cutting departments wholesale, with Latin, Greek, German, and philosophy especially gutted.  Most of these universities still retain their football teams, of course, and I would love to see a law stating that no institution that lacks philosophy but retains a football team ought to call itself a "university."  Few people seem to care, mostly since these institutions -SUNY-Albany, Louisiana-Lafayette, etc.- largely service working and lower-middle class students at a time when papers like the Times focus their higher education coverage on how to get their readers' bourgeois children into big-name universities.  The young people at less rarified "directional" state unis having their education trashed were already stabbed in the back and left for dead by a system that simply does not give a flying fuck about their future.

That silence might change now that the elite flagship state universities are undergoing a similar process of "streamlining" whereby higher education becomes strictly vocational and programs are funded or cut on the basis of the money they generate.  The news trickling out of the University of Virginia seems to indicate that its popular president was fired for failing to do the bidding of the corporate interests that now finance the university in the aforementioned absence of state support.  It seems that the same people who wrecked our economy weren't just satisfied with that, and now they want to throttle quality public education to death while spouting the useless, pernicious bullshitting cant of "innovation."

To them "innovation" means maximizing profit at all costs, damn the consequences or any other value apart from the cash nexus.  In my three years on the tenure track at a horribly mismanaged state uni, I got to learn all that this entails.  It means moving courses online even when there is no demand for it.  It means eliminating whole departments and fields of study that do not advance the cause of training students to be corporate drones unable to question the economic system fucking them up the ass on a daily basis.  It means turning the professoriate into just another bunch of replaceable, expendable "employees" doing the intellectual version of working the counter at McDonald's.  It reduces teaching to "customer service" and scholarship to an afterthought.

After decades of state negligence, our corporate overlords have been stepping into the financial breech, and now get the to call the tune, which is a ditty that calls for a demented neo-liberal St. Vitus' Dance whereby contingent faculty are worked to death for low pay and all that is not intended to make money gets thrown on the dung pile to rot.  Now that they provide the funding, the corporate hyenas feeding on the corpse of higher ed can even get universities to generate research findings that benefit them.  Many public universities are public in name only, since they get so little of their funding from either state or federal government sources, and this has had disastrous consequences.

It's taken a good three decades of rot to set in to get to the current state of affairs where whole academic disciplines are being destroyed and the average faculty member is a low-wage drone paid by the course rather than a tenure-track professor.  I hate to burst your bubble, boys and girls, but this type of decline cannot be reversed.  We are now witnessing something truly disgusting: a society standing by and watching while one of its greatest and most storied institutions -something so key to the enlarging of its middle class and economic prowess- bleeds to death in the gutter while hyenas and vultures rips its flesh and grab its wallet.

As is the case with so much of our American life today, the elites won't bother to do anything because they left public higher ed for dead long ago.  The elite will continue sending their kids to well-funded elite universities where their administrators have endowments so large that they can swim in them a la Scrooge McDuck.  The rest of the poor plebeians will be fed on a thin gruel of glorified vocational training, and true public universities will go the way of the Model T.  It's a sick and disgusting state of affairs, and in those in charge will get what they want: a compliant, semi-moronic populace educated well enough to do their stultifying cubicle jobs, but not knowledgable enough to question their own enslavement.  God knows we're more than halfway there already.

I for one got sick and fucking tired of trying to resist change as inevitable as the tides.  Teaching in low-level public higher education began to feel like collaborating in a disgusting and vile lie, one I could no longer tell without prostituting my soul.  For those of you still in that world, enjoy it while it lasts, cuz it sure won't be around too much longer.


Matt J. said...

I should start this by proclaiming my love for Cranky Bear. This plainspoken, hirsute Everyman is right on. Adjuncts, visiting professors (a miserable term), low-ranking tenure track (and tenured) professors, and working-class students are all being sacrificed on the altar of “strategic dynamism” or any number of similar deities. And it stinks to high heaven. However, I feel moved to offer a quibbling alternative perspective. Even if we agree, and who couldn’t, that Cranky’s points regarding state funding, the devaluation of liberal courses of study, and the degraded state of colleges in general are all valid, and even if the situation seems irreversible, it’s not over. Educators still have to teach the students in front of them, at every level. We can still make forceful cases for the value of our disciplines, either explicitly or implicitly. Most of my students buy into a market-based educational model and will “use” their experience in history classes to slog through the liberal arts-inspired core and move on to other fields. While we’re together, though, even when we fake it, we act like history (my own discipline) matters, and learning for its own sake matters, and if even only part of that bleeds through, it’s worthwhile. The lefty in me longs for a day when students and faculty (and other concerned parties) will work together in a powerful political coalition, but until then I’ll keep telling my sad, sad stories, and believing that my students are listening.

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

Well, I don't endorse evertging that Cranky has to say here. I have fond memories of the colleagues and students who really did care. I too hope for some kind of change movement, but I fear that the tenured faculty are too protected, the contingent faculty too afraid of getting fired, and the students too complacent. I am at least glad that there are people like you out there fighting the good fight.

Debbie said...

Geez....get a room already!

Great post CB. And a fine rebuttal, Matt J.

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