I planned to respond to David Levy’s egregious attack on higher ed but Kaustuv Basu and Dean Dad have already penned very smart, satisfying responses. I particularly like Jill Kronstadt’s offer to Levy that he shadow her on a typical day teaching at Montgomery community college. And I urge everyone to follow Lee Bessette’s suggestion to make Monday, April 2 a “Day of Higher Ed” by recording your day’s work in detail.
All brilliant as these responses to Levy are, the problem is that all were posted on academic sites: we are preaching to the choir, folks. What we need is to educate the greater public about the value of higher ed (and the hard work of professors, staff, and yes, administrators) “outside” higher ed. But how best to change public perceptions of the academia? Perhaps our professional organizations should invest more in marketing, in developing an updated public image of the professor, and in sponsoring shadowing programs of both tenure track professors and adjuncts. We need to go beyond promoting individual colleges and universities and work on the PR of academia as a whole. Even our own students graduate without a clear sense of what we do outside of the classroom. While I don’t advocate spending class time regaling our students with a litany of our obligations or descriptions of our grueling committee work, we could involve students more in the governance of the universities, giving them appropriate responsibilities in search committees, curriculum development and review, and in discussions about student learning.
But it’s important to note that Levy’s attack isn’t an attack on higher education in general, it is a specific devaluing of teaching. He exempts research institutions from his attack, claiming that they are the “center of America’s progress in intellectual, technological and scientific pursuits, and there should be no quarrel with their financial rewards or schedules. In fact, they often work hours well beyond those of average non-academic professionals.” Got that? Research is important, time-consuming work but teaching students does take much time or effort and should not be rewarded in line with other professions.
Attacks on higher education are not caused by misinformation and ignorance alone. In Wisconsin, attacks on professors have been part of a calculated campaign to malign all state workers, part of an explicit agenda to demolish unions. In my state, the resentment fostered has not focused on the supposedly cushy nature of professors’ jobs, but rather the benefits—benefits that are being stripped from many in the private industry. How taking away benefits from state workers will help anyone without benefits still has not been explained. Perhaps misery loves company. Still, there is a real issue at stake: the cost of health insurance is a national crisis. Unfortunately, chipping away at the benefits of state workers isn’t going to fix that problem.
Similarly, Levy’s article, while so full of factual errors as to be almost a parody, still contains one important truth: the cost of higher education is a national crisis. Our regional state university is relatively inexpensive, yet for my students, many of whom are first-generation college students, the cost can be crippling when compared to the low wage jobs that await them upon graduation. On the other end of the scale, a colleague’s daughter was just accepted at the University of Chicago, her top choice. This young woman is a national merit scholar, a talented harpist, a champion swimmer, and has astronomical GPA and SAT scores. She was offered a scholarship of $30,000/year, but since the yearly expenses total over $60,000/year, she will have to turn down the offer. What 17-year old is equipped to weigh the consequences of accumulating $120,000 in students loans? My younger sister went to college on a full scholarship, but every year she suffered anxiety, wondering if the scholarship amount would rise to accommodate tuition hikes, or if she’d be forced to transfer or drop out.
These are real problems that need to be addressed, unless we’re willing to accept a caste-based system of higher education, where only the children of the very wealthy have options. And this is not a problem caused by faculty workloads.