When’s the last time an ice deliveryman visited your home? Have you ever talked to a telephone switchboard operator? Thanks to new technologies, these once-common occupations passed into history many years ago now. Bank tellers and travel agents are not completely obsolete, but substantially fewer people are employed in these lines of work than in the past for similar reasons.
Will new developments in Internet-based communications technology do similar things to college professors? Perhaps people like me will face the same trouble finding employment that newspaper reporters or piano tuners face nowadays. Or perhaps MOOCs will eliminate the need for professors almost entirely, allowing students to flock to courses offered by a smattering of "super-professors" while computers, graduate students and adjuncts do all the grading that once occupied so much of an analog instructor’s time.
I don’t know whether the Internet will make college professors obsolete, but then again nobody else does, either. Yet this fact has not prevented the rise of a cottage industry of pundits who gleefully suggest that faculty in every department of the modern university are somehow headed for the scrap heap. Some of these pundits seem to welcome that possibility because they expect that the cost of a college education will decrease with fewer professors collecting what they perceive to be hefty salaries, and they think that’s good for society. Some of these people seem to welcome this possibility because they just hate college professors. We are perceived as elitists, and everybody likes to watch elitists get their comeuppance, except the elitists themselves.
While countless people try to predict the future of higher education based on the technologies of the present, less interest exists about the effect of all these predictions on higher education today. While reading the online educational technology press for the sake of my blog, I sometimes feel like that old man in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" who has to tell the guy clearing out the bodies of plague victims that he’s not dead yet.
To my mind, this feeling is no accident. As the saga surrounding Teresa Sullivan’s presidency at the University of Virginia has clearly demonstrated, faculty are capable of mounting fierce resistance to unwanted technological changes under the right circumstances. The e-mails leading up to Sullivan’s initial firing demonstrate that U.Va.'s Board of Visitors was steeped in press clippings that treated the transition to online education as an inevitability. That attitude goes a long way toward explaining the board’s now legendary heavy-handedness. They wanted to ride the crest of a wave that supposedly well-informed people were all telling them is already coming.
For technology companies that stand to profit by disrupting higher education, treating the transition to an online future as a fait accompli serves as a very effective business strategy. By continually reinforcing the idea that traditional higher education is way behind the times, they gather public support for costly online initiatives that might not otherwise go forward. Equally importantly, this kind of rhetoric infects faculty with a sense of learned helplessness. Why try to fight the inevitable when we have so much else to worry about in our busy lives already?
Personally, I go back and forth between optimism and despair about the future of my profession. Sometimes I think that enough support exists on enough campuses that the kind of teaching I do now will persist well past my retirement because students will still value the personal touch that proximity makes possible. Sometimes I feel like I’m living inside of Frank Donoghue’s higher education classic, The Last Professors. Donoghue’s primary concern in that book was the corporate culture of the modern university. The jargon employed by U.Va. board members suggests how well the maturation of online education complements the destruction of traditions caused by that ideology in other aspects of campus life.
Perhaps my somewhat schizophrenic attitude toward the possibility of my own obsolescence comes from the fact that whether the Internet makes college professors a thing of the past doesn’t depend upon the professoriate. It depends upon students, and to an equal extent it depends upon society at large.
Nobody can dispute that online education has advanced far enough that it is now possible to learn a wide range of subjects at home in your pajamas through your computer. The question is whether this kind of learning will be acceptable to most students in the future, and perhaps more importantly whether it will be acceptable to the people who’ll employ them. I used to think that someone on the other end of a computer screen could never teach history as well as I can in person. I still think that’s true, but as Clayton Christensen has argued, an online education doesn’t have to be superior to the status quo in order to make my current job obsolete. The bad can drive out the good under certain circumstances, such as when the price of the higher-quality product is too expensive for most consumers to afford it.
Whether you’re an enthusiastic booster of online education or an informed skeptic like me, there is no question that faculty need to understand developments in the educational technology industry, if for no other reason than for their own self-preservation. If transformational change is indeed inevitable, faculty should assert their prerogative as teachers in order to make sure that the quality of higher education is not seriously degraded by this metamorphosis. By doing so, maybe they can carve out a place for themselves in a more efficient future. If transformational change is not inevitable, then for heaven’s sake don’t let the vultures who want to profit from picking at the corpse that was once your career destroy it without a fight.
I can tell you from personal experience that following developments in educational technology can be thoroughly exhausting. I’m sure plenty of you who’ve tried it yourselves would prefer to never encounter the word MOOC again in your entire lives. However, living in ignorance is probably the worst thing you could do. No matter how the Internet impacts higher education, we faculty need to play a role in the debate over its strengths and weaknesses for the sake of our students. If we happen to save our own jobs in the process of doing so, then that’s all for the better.
A faculty study of athletics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has called for an outside review of the relationship between athletics and academics at the university, The News and Observer reported. The panel concluded that recent scandals were not isolated incidents, but reflected broader problems, such as poor oversight, improper roles for athletes' academic counselors and a culture in which faculty members feel shut out of decisions about athletics programs.
Portland State University expelled and banned from campus a graduate student who a classmate said had made threatening remarks involving guns and a professor, The Oregonianreported. The article describes how the university acted quickly after receiving the report and about how Henry Liu says the university unfairly viewed him as, in his words, a "crazy Asian shooter." Liu denies making the remarks attributed to him, and a psychiatrist concluded that he poses no danger to himself or others.
A professor at the University of Texas at Austin is facing questions about his credibility after a nonprofit watchdog group said that he did not reveal ties to a drilling company as he led a study on hydraulic fracturing that found that the process produced no groundwater contamination. “UT promoted the study as an independent inquiry into fracking’s environmental risks, but PAI found that the study was actually led by a gas industry insider and UT faculty member, Charles ‘Chip’ Groat, who sits on the board of fracker Plains Exploration & Production (PXP),” according to the introduction to the report by the Public Accountability Initiative, the watchdog group.
After the watchdog group published its report, the Austin American-Statesman reviewed SEC filings and found that Groat had been paid $413,900 in cash and stock by the company last year and holds $1.6 million of the company’s stock. Groat called the report a mix of truth, half-truths and unfounded conclusions, according to StateImpact, an NPR project with local public radio stations that examines public policy issues. The university said Tuesday that it would ask outside experts to review the fracking study, according to StateImpact.
The Public Accountability Initiative recently raised questions about a study on fracking at the State University of New York at Buffalo, as more and more universities become battlegrounds for debates over the issue.
Many Americans look upon an election year with trepidation – they worry about being deluged with phone calls before dinner; they grumble about their favorite TV shows being taken over by attack ads. For college and university faculty members, there’s another reason to worry: we’ve been made an easy target for politicians.
On the campaign trail, Rick Santorum made waves with his statements criticizing President Obama on the importance of college. This brought to light an earlier statement that he made at Ave Maria University. Santorum argued that Satan’s campaign to subvert American institutions started with the professoriate, because Satan "understood [the] pride of smart people…. They were in fact smarter than everybody else and could come up with something new and different -- pursue new truths, deny the existence of truth, play with it because they’re smart."
Repeatedly, the Republican nominee Mitt Romney has assailed President Obama for being a product of "the faculty lounge" – out of touch with the problems of everyday people and possessing dangerous ideas that will make America less secure (Examples here, here, here and here). There's already been a great deal of discussion about this matter – whether it’s the curiosity of someone with multiple degrees from his alma mater attacking it, or the presence of Harvard University faculty on his policy team. Most recently, Stephen Carter from Yale has weighed in on the matter, politely asking Romney to stop.
For the record, I’ve never seen the inside of a faculty lounge; it could be that I’m not subversive enough for the brandy and Karl Marx-read-only-in-the-original crowd. My query on this matter is a tactical one: Why do these attacks persist, and what can we do about them? Carter invokes Richard Hofstadter’s argument that intellect is an inherent challenge to authority. While this is of course true, part of the problem lies within ourselves. At a time in which the very value of a college education is under attack, too many of us: faculty, administrators, and our professional associations, are silent about what we do in these ivy-covered buildings. Asking politicians to stop is not going to work. It is time to reframe the debate.
We need to take the offensive in justifying academic research. If scholarship is the mechanism by which we are out of touch, then it is our responsibility as scholars to better underscore (and indeed sell) what we’re learning about the world and why that matters. The good news is that this is something that many of us already do. We train graduate students to justify how their work contributes to broader debates in their theses and dissertations. In our own grant competitions, we are required to explain why our work is important – and indeed, why our proposal merits funding over hundreds of others. We report back to these same funders about what we’ve learned and how their investment in us has been used. What we need are mechanisms that allow us to better articulate and disseminate to nonacademic audiences what academic research is and why it makes a difference.
Fixing this problem is not merely a matter of marketing. It also requires changing incentives. Decisions about tenure and promotion are based on output in scholarly outlets, not the popular press. Individual faculty members will resist devoting energies to outreach as long as there are no professional rewards attached to it. Generating more outreach requires that universities value outreach about scholarly research just as much as they value the research itself . Universities send out press releases to announce athletic recruits and the retention of million-dollar coaches; surely the ideas in a book published by a philosopher merits attention as well. As the political science community has seen this past year, failing to justify what we do as scholars and why can have detrimental consequences.
At the same time, universities need to better promote their own efforts in teaching and mentoring. Rick Santorum would not have argued that faculty are the first page of the Satanic playbook had he understood that the faculty lounge is increasingly staffed by adjunct faculty members who have few incentives to hold office hours, write letters of recommendation, and counsel students — and yet who do so all the time because of their commitment to their students. They do so much to keep the modern university running, and yet receive so little in return. Rewarding adjunct faculty for excellence, and publicizing that excellence, is a great way to reassert the importance of student learning.
Colleges and universities need to tell their stories to multiple audiences. This doesn’t merely mean prospective students or Congressional lobbyists; it means opening our doors and sharing what we do with the public. Universities become less easy targets when we promote how first-generation students become Congressional staffers and how the products of single-parent households can win nationally competitive scholarships. We do not merely pour facts into students’ heads. On many days, we change students’ lives.
American higher education is one of the greatest products ever devised for human betterment. We do not need slick slogans or fancy jingles to justify it. All that we need is to take the energy that we get from an interesting article, a fascinating finding, or a great class discussion, and share it. More attention to scholarly outreach and promoting teaching and mentoring can be our own attack ad as we work to elevate higher education in these challenging times.
Martin Edwards is associate professor at the John C. Whitehead School of Diplomacy at Seton Hall University.