Has public higher education outlived its usefulness -- like cassette tapes and typewriters? Are our students "academically adrift," our institutions shams? Who benefits from this tale? Policy-makers and government officials are regarding public higher education as an industry that needs to operate on cheap labor in order to manufacture products. William Deresiewicz, Peter Brooks and Martha Nussbaum make clear the consequences: the dismantling of public higher education eviscerates the creation and perpetuation of knowledge, access to education, and the principle that an educated citizenry is the keystone of democracy.
The crisis in higher education must be redefined by those of us in public institutions who are living it daily. For us, there are two crises: the bowdlerizing of what learning means, and the critical need for a counter-discourse that will lead to material change in public attitudes and allocation of resources.
Numbers reveal a certain kind of information and conceal other kinds, such as what it means to be a human being. How do we quantify students’ experiencing the wonder of intellectual discovery, those moments when, as Rita Dove conveys so beautifully in her poem "Geometry," the ordinary is transformed into transcendent possibility? How is this learning accounted for when it occurs outside a public college course or institution, but is a direct result of both?
I prove a theorem and the house expands: the windows jerk free to hover near the ceiling, the ceiling floats away with a sigh.
As the walls clear themselves of everything but transparency, the scent of carnations leaves with them. I am out in the open
And above the windows have hinged into butterflies, sunlight glinting where they've intersected. They are going to some point true and unproven.
To those of us who teach working-class students that using their minds expands and transforms their lives, the data on spreadsheets is akin to thinking of students as if they were part numbers. In our classes, we propel students to grapple with the paradoxes of the "true and unproven" gleaned from different disciplinary perspectives. At semester’s end, we judge how well they’ve achieved this and other objectives and assign a grade. We can never assess, however, if, when, or how students integrate what they’ve learned into their psyches and experiences. Counting, quantifying, and measuring are not the only ways to make sense of what and how students learn. These methods do not illuminate the value of a college education to working-class students for whom privilege is not a birthright.
Stories and story-telling are other options, potent sources of information. Stories provide entrée to the inner life, "ourself behind ourself concealed," access to knowledge about what it means to experience learning. Stories humanize numbers on spreadsheets. They are a different kind of currency in an economy in which the exchange of ideas is the basis of community. Stories perform a multiplicity of functions as Robert Coles reminds us: they "point us in new directions, or give us the courage to stay a given course. They can offer us kinsmen, kinswomen, comrades, advisers — offer us other eyes through which we might see, other ears with which we might make soundings." Stories, the ones we and our students tell, make possible an alternate way of thinking about learning, success, and achievement in publicly funded academic institutions.
Here is such a story. I was on a New York City subway deeply absorbed in reading Tim O’Brien’s book The Things They Carried when a young man sitting across from me noticed the book’s title and started talking to me: “I remember that story. That’s the story that begins with the description of what the soldiers are carrying. Oh, I remember that story. We read it in my freshman English class.”
O’Brien’s book is indeed memorable. A searing account of soldiering in Vietnam, the collection of interwoven stories probes the anguish of war while meditating on the porous boundaries among reality, truth, and fiction. Most spectacularly, O’Brien employs the metaphor of carrying to convey the gravity of heartbreak, senseless loss, and war’s breach of moral ethics. "First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey," the first story begins. "They were not love letters, but Lieutenant Cross was hoping, so he kept them folded in plastic at the bottom of his rucksack." Within the first two pages, O’Brien develops the metaphor further by listing the literal objects the soldiers wore on their bodies, hauled on their backs, and stashed in their pockets.
The subway encounter between the young man and me is as symbolic as the literal weight of the items the soldiers carried: the interaction encapsulates the very best a liberal arts general education can achieve. Something in the O’Brien text, the reading, the discussion, and the college classroom experience entered into the student, changed the way he constructed meaning, and became part of his world. Like the soldiers who carry the material and psychological weight of war, the student carries the book and the experience of reading it with him, and that is what inspired him to initiate connection with a stranger on a New York City subway.
The experience in the general education classroom provided the model for the interaction. The young man wanted to create connection about being moved emotionally, his discovery of the meaning of metaphor, and his memory of that experience. The interaction between the young man and me sparked by the O’Brien text suggests that the general education classroom fosters community building. Unknown to each other, the young man and I are part of a community premised on the idea that learning, and communing about learning, are fundamental, unifying values. Not limited by class or status, the community is the Jeffersonian ideal of an enlightened democratic citizenry. All involved, including the English professor who taught the class, the public institution in which the student took the class, and the faculty who designed the curriculum and deemed it a requirement, are academically on course, guided by a compass that keeps the true meaning of learning in view. Best explained by Ken Bain, true learning occurs when students embrace “new mental models of reality” spurred by teaching that cultivates their abilities to question, judge, evaluate, and construct meaning out of facts and information. True learning is personal and intellectual transformation.
In the story I just told, what proves the student’s learning? The student may not have done well in his freshman English class. He might have failed the class, transferred to another college, or dropped out for a year or two. He could be a statistic on a retention or graduation rate chart. Outcomes, measures, deliverables: inadequate. What this student learned is ineffable, as difficult to wrap our minds around as Emily Dickinson’s claim that the Brain is wider than the sky.
The Brain -- is wider than the Sky –
For – put them side by side –
The one the other will contain
With ease – and You – beside
Dickinson’s dictum about the sanctity of the human imagination must guide us as we create a counter-discourse about the crisis in public higher education. Colleges and universities are not factories in which we produce widgets on an assembly line. Academics work with people, human beings whose height and weight can be measured, yes, but whose brains are wider than the sky, “For — put them side by side — /The one the other will contain/ with ease — and You — beside--.”
We need to create a competing conversation that honors the idea that brains are wider than the sky and deeper than the sea, “For — hold them — Blue to Blue — /The one the other will absorb — / As sponges — Buckets — do.” And we need to tell a collective story about what is right and on course about public higher education: the ways in which it defies an intellectual caste system and is currently one of the few places that comes close to realizing the American value of equality — in the diversity of faculty and students, and the pursuit of unregulated intellectual freedom.
Linda M. Grasso
Linda M. Grasso is professor and chair of English at York College of the City University of New York.
Always excited by conflict, media commentators have recently been riveted by the even more dramatic spectacle of impasse, more specifically, the ever-proliferating standoffs between adversaries who refuse to budge: players and owners in the NBA and NFL at odds and triggering lockouts in both leagues; the legislature and the governor in Minnesota holding their ground and shutting down state services; and Republicans and Democrats in Washington failing to agree on anything.
These stalemates – and others I could cite — are challenging the reputation of colleges and universities as unrivaled paragons of inaction. In fact, at its most dysfunctional – in the grip of a filibuster, say, or tangled up in arcane rules – the stalled, quarreling U.S. Senate can make the Faculty Senate look like a SWAT team.
I want here to look at what universities can learn from legislative paralysis, particularly the gridlock stymieing Washington. I start from the assumption that universities, more than most organizations, emphasize achieving consensus in decisions. At times, many of us in academe take pride in our commitment to consensus-based decision making, aligning it with such positive values as involving people in the decisions that affect them and favoring persuasion over coercion. At other times, however, even the most forceful advocates of consensus-based decision-making, among whom I count myself, get impatient. Our frustration leads to familiar complaints about herding cats, never getting another accomplished, and enduring interminable meetings that only complicate problems instead of resolving them.
Our commitment to consensus waxes and wanes for many reasons but primarily because we are ambivalent about compromise. Compromise is almost always essential to achieving consensus in higher education. A proposed major change in a university – for example, a revision in the academic calendar or curriculum – typically attracts a core of supporters and an equally vocal group of naysayers. Between these extremes lies a not yet committed, more or less curious group, sometimes a majority of faculty members, who need to be brought along if the proposal is going to succeed. I say "succeed" rather than "pass" because without sufficient support, even a proposal approved by the majority can still be sabotaged or at least stalled. Tenured faculty opponents of the change can continue their dissent with impunity. Lukewarm faculty members can maintain their disengagement, refusing to staff key committees that may be necessary to implementing the change. Although unanimity is neither essential nor realistic, sufficient consensus, not just a majority vote, is crucial.
Measuring "sufficient consensus" is a judgment call administrative and faculty leaders must make before moving on. Familiar marketplace metaphors often guide our reasoning. The "buy-in" of the uncommitted results from "selling" them something. It can be something tangibly in their self-interest – e.g., the curricular change might lower teaching loads – but often in colleges and universities, carrots are as hard to come by as sticks, especially now, when budgetary pressures are increasing class size, freezing salaries, and whittling away travel support. Rewarding cooperation becomes as problematic as punishing intransigence. Buy-in accordingly comes from allowing the initially disaffected to leave their mark on the proposal that results: offering amendments, rewriting sections, raising objections to be dealt with later, all with the ultimate goal of achieving broad "ownership."
The difficulty of reaching this goal is compounded not only by the paucity of material incentives in universities but by a culture that justifiably affirms the intellectual independence and creativity of its members and has difficulty mustering enthusiasm for anything that sounds written by a committee. Absent fiscal exigency, ending a campus discussion of a contentious issue thus becomes as difficult as starting one.
Some critics have used the slow pace of decision making in universities against them -- as evidence, for example, that universities need to be run more efficiently, like businesses, or that tenure allows professors to remain narcissistic, irresponsible adolescents who never learn to work with others. Fans of for-profit higher education, where CEO’s need not wait for a faculty committee to review anything, like to talk about the glacial pace of deliberation in traditional higher education.
But insulting professors and universities deflects attention from the even slower progress of national legislative decision making, where much more is at stake and deadlines loom ineffectually, like warning signs no one reads. At this level, suspicion of compromise has given way to hostility, with President Obama the target, contributing to the national legislative gridlock. It is striking how criticisms of Obama from the left and the right consistently disparage compromise. From the point of view of Frank Rich, Paul Krugman and other liberal columnists, Obama is a disappointing centrist who caves in too readily to his adversaries. From the point of view of Tea Party Republicans, however, he is a steamrolling socialist who must be resisted at every turn, not appeased in any way.
Either way, compromise gets stigmatized: as something the president engages in too readily or as a trap his right-wing adversaries must avoid. The only resolution of their differences that these ideological opponents can imagine is somehow tilting the balance of power in their favor: a game-changing election that will finally allow their side to get something definitive done. The game being changed or ended is the process of debate and negotiation across differences, which few are confident will lead to a better outcome than their own initial position. We are left with paralysis, short-term fixes, posturing for one’s allies, and endless searches for opportunities to weaken the other party.
Here is one example among many of liberal columnists’ wanting to toughen up Obama’s resolve by curtailing what they see as his penchant for compromise: in his June 10, 2011 New York Times opinion piece, Joe Nocera expressed disappointment with Obama’s failure to nominate consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren to direct the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Seemingly cowed by Republication opposition to Warren, "the president's response has been to dither" and search in vain for a compromise candidate. For Nocera, the root of the problem is that Obama is "a president who sees himself as a consensus-seeker. His first instinct is to try to cut a deal." Nocera admits that "there are certainly times when compromise is the right approach." But he goes on to say "this is not one of those times." Obama should finally do the right, not the most expedient, thing: nominate Warren and engage in the partisan fight that would result. Taking a firm stand would "redound nicely to the president’s advantage" by repairing his credibility as a leader in the eyes of the American people, even if Warren would end up not being confirmed.
Much as I concur with the political position of Nocela, it is hard for me to see how acting on his advice would break the impasse that frustrates him. This stalemate results from Republican intransigence, which Nocera is asking Obama to emulate by refusing to budge on certain key points. Fighting fire with fire – responding to one non-negotiable demand with another – is always tempting when stuck in a disagreement. But exchanging ultimatums only exacerbates the standoff one is trying to move beyond, like talking louder in a noisy restaurant. That isn’t to say that Obama should give in to every demand. It is to say that the root of the problem is not his preference for negotiating with his political opponents but their refusal to meet him half way.
Two recent books – Avisha Margalit’s On Compromise and Rotten Compromises (2010) and Robert Mnookin’s Bargaining with the Devil: When to Negotiate, When to Fight (2010) (the source of my title)– shed new light on the rejection of negotiation and the compromises that negotiation inevitably occasions. Margalit and Mnookin see the give-and-take of negotiation as essential to democratic political life and most relationships, from friendship and marriage to business partnerships. Openness to compromise signals respect for other points of view, trust in someone else’s word, and willingness to cooperate and work things out for the good of the relationship or community.
Nevertheless, despite their predilection for compromise, Margalit and Mnookin agree that in certain extreme situations "bargaining with the devil" should be rejected. In identifying these situations, they set the bar high. For Margalit, we should never enter into discussions where the outcome is likely "to establish or maintain an inhuman regime, a regime of cruelty and humiliation, that is, a regime that does not treat humans as humans." Mnookin similarly allows for rare occasions when personal moral objections to engaging in any kind of a dialogue with an adversary can override pragmatic considerations. For both writers, one refusal to negotiate meets these strict conditions: Churchill’s decision not to negotiate with Hitler would qualify.
I seem to have strayed far afield from the Republicans’ refusal to bend in their negotiations with Obama. But keep in mind the association of Obama with Hitler on numerous right-wing websites, not to mention Glenn Beck’s notorious injunction to read Mein Kampf as a guide to Obama’s policies. I am not suggesting that Republican senators and representatives see Hitler in Obama and recoil. I am saying that an undertow of fanaticism keeps them from moving beyond their all-or-nothing demands. "Fanaticism" is the conservative commentator David Brooks’s word for the Republicans’ disdain for "the logic of compromise, no matter how sweet the terms," their willingness to sacrifice everything to the “idol” of their ideological position ("The Mother of All No-Brainers," New York Times, July 4, 2011).
Mnookin offers the following safeguard against fanaticism: always discuss key decisions regarding negotiation with people who see things differently. The need to seek out other opinions is especially important for leaders whose decisions affect others. Gut feelings need to be exposed to public debate even, or maybe especially, when we are sure we are right.
The absence of debate with people who hold different views sustains the fanaticism and demonization that are fracturing national political discussions. Numerous commentators have pointed out how gerrymandered House districts insure the reelection of incumbents or expose them to primary challenges only from candidates to their right or left. In addition, the electronic media foster what Cass Sunstein has called "enclave extremism" and "cyberpolarization": individuals coming together electronically to ratify and compound one another’s biases, suspicious of outsiders and sheltered from opposing views, even ones that claim the backing of empirical evidence and fact. The logical conclusion of this insularity is Sarah Palin’s acolytes rushing to Wikipedia, not to verify her account of Paul Revere but to rewrite what contradicts it, bringing every recalcitrant source of information into her orbit.
This narrow mindedness is antithetical to everything we teach and value in academe. But before we congratulate ourselves too much, we should remember that self-serving dogmatism is where our own ambivalence toward negotiation and compromise can take us when it goes too far and fuels categorical rejection of bargaining with whoever we are tempted to see as the devils in our everyday professional lives: the colleague we can never agree with, the department chair who seems always to say no, the senior administrator whose every word sounds false.
Giving up on dialogue with these individuals, denying them the possibility of change with totalizing words like "never," "always," and "every," inspires dreams of escape and revenge that make us susceptible to much the same self-pity and bitterness that motivate Palin. For some faculty members, the blanket refusal of negotiation results in opting out of university service, seeing the classroom or the study as a refuge from an otherwise hostile institution, the only places where they feel vindicated and whole. For administrators, thoroughgoing disenchantment with negotiation can lead to staying cloistered with like-minded supporters, bypassing consultative processes, and issuing edicts from on high, chiding whoever dares to dissent.
I am particularly concerned here with college and university leaders, who bear a special responsibility for counteracting these forms of withdrawal and the myopia they can promote. As Mnookin suggests, leaders need to set the example of seeking out opposing views and striking the right balance between empathy (understanding someone else’s needs and perspective) and assertiveness (clearly articulating one’s own point of view), between patience and prodding.
Listening is especially important to fostering constructive conversations. When people feel unheard, they clam up or shout. It is hard to listen to someone else when we ourselves feel unacknowledged, when we are stewing over our own bottled up thoughts and feelings instead of expressing them to a responsive audience. The best university leaders show how we all can move from monologues – venting to friends, lecturing to subordinates, complaining to a spouse or partner – into learning conversations with the very people we want to avoid.
"Learning conversations" comes from the Harvard Negotiation Project, in particular the influential book Difficult Conversations: How To Discuss What Matters Most (1999). The Harvard project assumes that when we are caught up in a conflict and anticipate confronting the person or group we are at odds with, we fear at best a difficult conversation or at worst a shouting match. We feel defensive, anxious, and unsure how to proceed, like students the first day of a challenging class. Our most appealing options seem to be fight (marshalling arguments, zeroing in on the vulnerabilities of our adversaries) or flight (escaping to our comfort zone).
The Harvard project aims at moving us past attacking or retreating and toward seeing disagreement not as a zero-sum power struggle but as an opportunity for mutual enlightenment. If this growth toward engagement were easy, there would be no need for the many books, seminars, and workshops that promote it. Well aware of the obstacles in our way, the Harvard project nevertheless encourages us to create a community strengthened not by lockstep agreement but by edifying debate.
If by bargaining we mean the learning conversations celebrated by the Harvard project – not the bickering and showboating that pass for debate in our national politics – then we should be bargaining with the provost, the Faculty Senate, and our colleagues every chance we get. A healthy culture of collaborative decision-making should characterize universities as much as effective teaching and exciting research, especially now, when confidence in negotiation and compromise is crumbling in other institutions. A healthy culture of collaborative decision-making means not only getting things expeditiously accomplished, but also creating educational opportunities each step of the way. The open-endedness of university discussions, their characteristic lack of fiscal urgency, encourages us to make the process as meaningful as the anticipated outcome.
The absence of economic incentives for engaging in these discussions – more harshly, the fact that they take time and do not pay – can lend credence to the cynical adage that academic debates are so vicious because there is so little stake. But it can also mean that individuals join in these discussions for the best of reasons: for the relationships they enable, the insights they provide, and the changes they bring about along the way and in the end.
We have become accustomed to assessing universities by their graduation rates, student learning outcomes, and other quantitative measures. I have been suggesting that this is what great universities sound like: lively conversations outside as well as inside the classroom, informed by new ideas and energized by respectful disagreement and widespread participation.
Michael Fischer is vice president for faculty and student affairs at Trinity University, in Texas.
Tenure won’t save us from a higher education collapse. Start making alternative career contingency plans now because this collapse could be sudden and catastrophic.
Among middle- and upper-class Americans, almost every intelligent, hard-working person attends college. Knowing this, many employers use college as a cheap and efficient sorting device and consider only college graduates when hiring for professional positions.
Not having a college degree sends a negative signal to employers. Unfortunately for professors, this signal could dissipate. To see why, consider an extreme example in which students go to college only because of signaling concerns. If something happened to cause fewer highly capable high school graduates to attend college, the stigma of not attending college would slightly decrease.
But as this stigma fell, fewer people would pay for college, which would cause the stigma of not going to college to fall further, which in turn would reduce the percentage of highly capable people who went to college which would…. In a world in which college functioned purely as a signal of quality of the graduate, the percentage of people who attend college could quickly plunge.
The self-made technology billionaire Peter Thiel, who wrote a book attacking political correctness at Stanford, is attempting to weaken the negative signal of not attending college. This billionaire held a competition to find 20 of the smartest, hardest-working and most accomplished people under age 20 and is paying them to “stop out of school.” Although these 20 couldn’t make a difference per se, Thiel is using them to send a message that talented young people shouldn’t need to pay (in cash and time) for a college degree. When evaluating Thiel’s chances of success, keep in mind that he was the key financial backer of Facebook and LinkedIn.
Computing technology poses an even greater threat to colleges than Thiel does. Computing power is driven by the well-established trend known as Moore's law, an implication of which is that the amount of computing power you can buy per dollar approximately doubles every year. Let's say you're 40 years old and are wondering what kind of artificial intelligence programs you'll be competing with in 20 years. When deciding this, take into account that 20 years from now computers will likely be around a million times more powerful than they are today. Over the long run you don't want to go up against Moore's law, yet I fear that this is my profession’s fate.
If you think that students will always prefer live, human performances to online education, please ask yourself whether many 18-year-old boys would rather be taught by you or by something that came out of the technology used to create this.
fool you into underestimating the mortal threat information technology poses to our occupation.
Many governors face enormous fiscal shortfalls, forcing them to choose which public employees to anger. Tenured professors, I suspect, have a lot less political clout in most states than do policeman, nurses, prison guards and public school teachers. If online education keeps improving, then I predict that some governor is going to propose firing most of the tenured faculty at his public colleges and replacing the high-priced teachers with online courses. Since Republicans consider academia to be a creature of the far left, many Republican governors would undoubtedly take joy in decimating the traditional higher education market.
Students gamble on the future when they fund their education with debt. Our current economic difficulties, however, are making Americans pessimistic about the long-term fate of our economy, and it wouldn't surprise me if many parents are no longer willing to let their kids load up on debt. That is especially true if the parents have sent another child to college only to see him moving back home after graduation and taking a job that didn't require a college degree. Unfortunately for professors, every capable kid who doesn’t go to college reduces the stigma of not pursuing higher education.
If you have tenure and therefore think that your college would never get rid of you, consider what would happen if most of your school’s peer institutions replaced expensive tenured faculty with cheap online courses and used the savings to cut tuition by 50 percent. Even if your school has a healthy endowment, many members of your Board of Trustees or Regents probably have business backgrounds and would consider it financial malfeasance for the school to bear costs that the majority of its competitors had shed.
I'm far from certain that the higher education market will disintegrate. But the reasonable chance that it might should be enough to get young and middle-aged tenured professors to think about what we would do if forced out of academia. And bear in mind that if academia suddenly collapsed, the job market would be flooded with former professors, making it extraordinarily challenging for us to get jobs, such as editing and teaching high school, that are well-suited to many professors' skills
Networking is the key to career management. Professors do much networking, but mostly with other professors. I suggest that professors network outside of academia with a goal of having a set of contacts we could use to acquire a nonacademic position. The best way to do this is to use Facebook and Linkedin to keep in touch with some of our former students, especially those who would make good bosses.