A predicted wave of retirements of tenured faculty is presenting colleges with opportunities and practical and programmatic concerns -- as well as legal considerations, according to a report released today by the American Council on Education.
If public universities are really committed to promoting access, affordability, and quality, they should consider increasing their funding by accepting more undergraduate students instead of raising tuition and restricting enrollments. While many would argue that higher education institutions are already unable to deal with the students they currently enroll, in reality, it costs most public research universities very little to educate each additional student, and the main reason why institutions claim that they do not get enough money from state funds and student dollars is that they make the students and the state pay for activities that are not directly related to instruction and research.
To calculate how much public research universities spend on educating each undergraduate student, we can look at national statistics regarding faculty salaries and how much it costs a university to staff undergraduate courses. According to a recent study by the American Federation of Teachers, "Reversing Course," the average salary cost per class for a tenured professor at a public research university is $20,000 (4 classes at $80,000), and it costs $9,000 for a full-time non-tenure-track teacher and $4,500 for a part-time instructor to teach the same course. Using these averages, we can determine the annual instructional cost for each student by considering the number of classes each student takes in a year and how much each individual course costs. Since we know that only a third of undergraduate courses are now taught by professors, and the other courses are taught by non-tenured faculty, we can calculate the per student cost, but we first have to determine the average class size to do this calculation, and this is the analysis that I believe no one has ever done.
Looking at transcripts from several public research universities, I have determined that the average annual course load for a student is six large classes (averaging 200 students) and two small courses (averaging 20 students). Next, by using the national faculty average salary per class, and determining who actually teaches the courses (1/3 professors, 1/3 full-time non-tenure-track faculty, and 1/3 part-time faculty), we find that the total average annual instructional cost per student is $1,456 (each large class costs $56 per student and each small class costs $560). In other words, public universities charge on average $7,000 per student and they get another $8,000 per student from the state, but in reality, it only cost about a tenth of this amount to teach each student.
This means that most of the money coming from undergraduate students and the state is used to pay for sponsored research, graduate education, administration, and extracurricular activities. Furthermore, the main reason why the cost for instruction is so low is that research universities rely on large classes and inexpensive non-tenured faculty and graduate students to teach most of their undergraduate courses. However, my point is not that states or students shouldn’t support the full range of activities that universities pursue; rather, I am arguing that the best way to make up for the loss of state funding is to enroll more students.
Of course, administrators will say that I have not accounted for the cost of student services, the library, staff, administration, utilities, and maintenance. My response is that you do not build a new classroom or hire a new administrator when you enroll a new student, and there is a huge economy of scale in higher education. Moreover, universities often leave their classrooms empty for most of the day, and so by making students take courses during the evening or on the weekends, enrollments can be increased without having to build new facilities (you can also cut down on binge drinking). Thus, it seems clear from my calculations that research universities would actually turn a huge profit if they simply froze tuition and increased enrollment, so why do they not do this?
There are probably many answers to this crucial question, but I believe the main reason is that universities do not want to admit to the public that student dollars and state funds are spent on other things than instruction and related research. As many professors have told me, they do not believe that the public would support the research mission of the university, so the university has to hide how it spends its money. Many faculty have also implored me not to publicize the true cost of instruction because this will result in further reductions from the state, and by showing how money is actually spent, I will feed the right-wing attack on all public institutions.
My reply to all of these responses is that we cannot make higher education more accessible, affordable, and effective if we do not reveal to the public how we spend money and why we think it is a good thing for people to support our endeavors. I also believe that you can only run from the truth for so long until it catches up to you. Moreover, my calculations include the cost of a professor’s salary that fund the research part of his or her job.
I am not arguing here that we should get rid of tenure or stop funding research; instead, I am saying that budget transparency will allow everyone in the university to do their job in a more efficient manner as it increases educational access at a time of uncertain economic stability. If we can actually tell the public how and why we spend their money, we may actually see an increase in our support.
Bob Samuels is president of the University Council - American Federation of Teachers, which represents lecturers and librarians at the University of California. He teaches at UCLA and writes the blog Changing Universities.
Responding to a Congressional request, the National Research Council has now convened a committee to study the health of the nation’s research universities and to identify strategies for advancing their role in U.S. prosperity, security, and global competitiveness in the 21st century. This is both an intensely timely issue and one with a very long history. While they have long been with us, these questions have never been more urgent than in the current period of economic uncertainty, as devastating budget cuts and widespread disinvestment are threatening the foundation of our nation’s higher education system, and its research universities in particular.
To define a course of action for the 21st century U.S. research university, the newly formed committee would do well to look to the roots of this question in the 19th century. We are approaching the 150th anniversary of the U.S. policy that has been key to shaping the evolution of public higher education in general and the American research university in particular: the 1862 Morrill Act.
Also known as the Land Grant College Act, this federal legislation made public higher education possible for millions of Americans, extending it beyond the rich, the clergy, and the privileged, and creating the opportunity for anyone with the talent and the motivation to benefit from an advanced education. This act surely helped to create an unprecedented century of American prosperity, fueled by the innovation, discovery, and knowledge generated from our classrooms and research laboratories. It also established today’s paradigm, with the states responsible for much of the fundamental budget and policy regulation of public colleges and universities.
But as the sesquicentennial of this landmark law draws closer, instead of celebrating its legacy, the nation steadily is letting it slip away, and eroding a cornerstone of our democracy in the process. In state after state, fundamental higher education budgets are being ruthlessly slashed to a degree never seen before, compromising the fundamental operating basis of public higher education.
This current model is simply unsustainable. State by state, we are deconstructing a great American institution without the type of public debate and examination that rightfully must accompany a social policy change of this magnitude, and doing so in the utter absence of any realistic and coordinated overarching national strategy for public higher education. Moreover, the research universities, with the breadth of their sophisticated activities, more than other sectors of the public higher education enterprise, are disproportionately threatened by this instability.
The future of our nation’s public higher education institutions is too important to leave in the hands of individual states. As the framers of the Morrill Act forecast, and as the foundation of this new federal panel reaffirms, a strong public higher education system anchored by excellent research universities is key to building U.S. economic, intellectual, and technological strength, as well as to ensuring our national security and global competitiveness. We all have a stake in this, and we need public policy that advances our public research universities as an investment in our collective well-being.
The time is ripe for our nation’s leadership to take a fresh approach to this issue while pushing this policy discussion into the public arena, and the creation of the National Research Council Committee on Research Universities is a promising foundation for such a conversation. I hope that the committee’s deliberations will serve to frame a larger national debate about establishing a broad, overarching national public higher education policy. In place of the short-term, narrowly defined tactical fixes based on political trends of the day that our states have shown of late, we need a long-range, carefully considered national strategy to define the role of public higher education in our nation’s future, and to shape the long-term policies best equipped to support this role.
Such a debate should begin by affirming the basic notion of why we need a strong system of public higher education in this country, and proceed to explore how we can best achieve this objective. Several critical questions and proposals are already being raised within the national higher education community, and would help to frame this debate. Some of my colleagues, for example, have called for a new Morrill Act reaffirming federal investment in public higher education, with a focus on urban-serving universities. Others call upon states to resume the chief role in paying for public higher education systems, while others suggest creating a group of federally-funded super land grant universities. And as the global economic crisis makes such federal and state support increasingly more challenging, growing numbers are calling for universities to be empowered to generate revenue independently through entering into strategic public-private partnerships and introducing key elements of free market competition.
Whatever shape these conversations ultimately take, I hope they will urge a careful, strategic discussion at Congressional and Administration levels, as well as topping the agendas of major higher education associations such as the Association of American Universities and Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities. The result? A clear and widely-understood national strategy shaped by broad-ranging, active public debate will help ensure that our campuses continue to contribute significantly not only to the advancement of education and research, but also to the economic strength and security of our communities, regions, and nation. Fueling an innovation-based economy in the 21st century by sustaining our research legacy will improve quality of life and maintain our healthy democracy. Our success in reversing the plight of public higher education would also mean the preservation of a positive U.S. economic and political impact globally.
Nationally, we need to return to the view that public higher education is a public good. And we need to recognize that for its critical and foundational impact to continue, maintaining a strong higher education system, guided by a long-range, strategic federal policy, must remain one of our highest national priorities.
If we succeed, we will be able to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act as the fulfillment of the foresight and value of our American public higher education system, just as its authors intended — not as an occasion for regret as we look back on the remarkable legacy we squandered in times of short-term financial difficulties.
John B. Simpson
John B. Simpson is president of the University at Buffalo, of the State University of New York.
The recession that seems likely to shape our midterm elections has also made visible a gradual and unfortunate change in American education. Imagination has been devalued in our schools, colleges, and universities over the last 40 years as their policies have been increasingly shaped by the values and practices of big business. In judging the corporate and entrepreneurial management styles now popular in education, including the Obama administration’s “race to the top,” the unquantifiable, old-fashioned word imagination is useful in revealing the limitations we find in much corporate thinking about educational reform.
Attempts to apply business practices in education lack the wholeness of vision we associate with acts of imagination, a problem we explore in administrative trends and in the classroom. We agree with much that Diane Ravitch says in The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (Basic Books), her indictment of educational reform in our public schools. Ravitch was once an enthusiastic supporter of “No Child Left Behind"; her account of changing her mind about “market reforms” in public education exposes an ideology that is becoming as influential in colleges and universities as in the public schools focused on in her book. She reveals how corporate thinking has made our institutions vulnerable to technological and managerial fads that undermine creative thinking.
We understand acts of imagination to refer to complex thoughts and feelings that allow people to find new ways of thinking. They can transform complicated, even chaotic, experience into narrative, one important way we find and make meaning. They are a way of knowing, not primarily “data-driven,” but grounded in complex knowledge and direct experience. They differ as much from free-floating fantasies as from narrowly specialized thinking. Acts of imagination usually require prolonged attention that temporarily sets aside everything else. Sustained imagining is a balancing act that thrives on both solitude and the stimuli that come with participation in complex communities embodied in actual places, not just metaphorical versions of community found online. Acts of imagination produce results as practical as changing one’s mind, understanding another’s perspective, finding the limits of one’s knowledge, or recognizing the need to seek help.
Sometimes imagination provides glimpses of the wholeness of creation and insight into the injustices that betray that wholeness. Imagination recognizes the necessity of communities that include whole ecosystems. Authentic education fosters acts of imagination and contributes to civil society. Our use of imagination, though grounded in the study of literature, is not metaphorical when used for creative thinking in other fields, where it is often as important as it is in literature and the arts. Because acts of imagination are human acts, they are bound to be flawed, insufficient, imperfect; but humility is built into acts of imagination, a natural consequence of recognizing our human dependence on much in creation over which we have no control.
Money has long played a role in cultivating imagination. It can be used to encourage imagination when it buys freedom to give sustained attention to a problem or question. But a focus on money provides a rationale for fostering another way of thinking by bringing corporate executives and business values into educational institutions. Ravitch shows how money has recently created restrictive “market reforms” in education as a result of the ascendancy of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation: “Unlike the older established foundations, such as Ford, Rockefeller, and Carnegie, which reviewed proposals submitted to them, the new foundations decided what they wanted to accomplish, how they wanted to accomplish it, and which organizations were appropriate recipients of their largesse.” What the Gates, the Waltons, and the Broads have sought, according to Ravitch, are “strategies that mirrored their own experience in acquiring huge fortunes, such as competition, choice, deregulation, incentives, and other market-based approaches.” The result has been a top-down approach to educational reform. The consensus among these powerful, wealthy foundations -- “bastions of unaccountable power,” Ravitch calls them -- has allowed them to influence policies in school districts and states and the U.S. Department of Education. These “reforms” have been echoed in changing management styles at the private colleges we know.
Over the last several years we have observed in private liberal arts colleges the emphasis on data-driven accountability that Ravitch finds in public schools. We have watched administrations grow larger and more powerful. Policy decisions formerly made by faculties are increasingly the task of administrators, and students are viewed as consumers. Personnel decisions have come to rely ever more heavily on data collected from student evaluations and the assessment of scholarship by outside experts. Growing numbers of people granted tenure are left with a sense that they barely qualify. Colleges and universities have come to rely increasingly on contingent faculty with little job security, few benefits, and low salaries.
As colleges adopt management models that emphasize corporate efficiency, opportunities for creative, collaborative thought are increasingly undermined. Shared governance begins to erode. Deference to hierarchy increases. Even at an institution like Vassar College, with a history of progressive work practices, marketplace analysis becomes the central guiding force in restructuring. For example, creative writing and the introductory, “The Art of Reading and Writing,” became focal areas for saving money at Vassar. Non-tenure-track writing professors have been losing suffrage, pay, health and retirement benefits, and jobs. Reducing the number of available non-tenure-track faculty members has reduced the elasticity of the curriculum at Vassar and damaged the programs, some of Vassar’s central areas of productivity and creativity. Although Vassar is an institution with three-quarters of a billion dollars in its endowment, for the last two years almost all discussion of changes in educational offerings or policies has been based on the need to save money.
Founded for women over 150 years ago, Vassar offered liberal arts courses that mirrored the curriculum available to men. Of course, Vassar has not always been sensitive to issues of class or race, but the college worked to become more inclusive across socioeconomic lines among the professors, students and workers who make up the community. The dual strands of elitism and service have been in tension at Vassar throughout its history, as they have been at many private colleges, and the institution has been responsive to various definitions of diversity through more inclusive practices and an evolving, more diverse curriculum.
As a workplace, Vassar has been committed to providing decent wages and job security for its employees. The college has long been considered one of the fairest workplaces in the Hudson Valley. Attempts have also been made not to exploit those most marginalized in the academic workplace, the adjuncts, by attempting to provide sufficient course loads so that the college could provide health insurance. These practices have offered a “hidden curriculum” at Vassar College, embodying as they do a decent workplace and a commitment to diversity and to the most vulnerable.
In the last two years, Vassar has responded to diminished endowment earnings by cutting curriculum, faculty, and support staff, and laying off workers in a time of rising unemployment in the surrounding community. Outsourcing of work and risk has become the preferred management practice, although Vassar administrators refuse to acknowledge this. Beginning early in 2009, the administration has seemed bent on breaking or reducing the power of the unions by requiring pre-dawn shifts. The new work schedule not only begins before dawn but introduces specialization by consolidating tasks and responsibilities.
Many students who participate actively in environmental politics and national political campaigns ignore institutional labor practices that might be expected to generate locally focused dissent. Activist students on most campuses are more likely to protect the rights of workers in the developing world than those of college custodial workers or adjuncts at their own colleges. Trying to understand this apparent disconnect, we’ve begun to wonder if growing emphasis on a virtual, electronic world in the classroom as well as beyond adds to the power of the new “hidden curriculum” we see in the business practices that define changes in personnel policies. As students come to our classrooms accustomed to multitasking with television, iPods, cell phones, and computers and their many variations, we’re encouraged to teach to their intellectual restlessness, or “hyper attention,” instead of helping them to discover the value of focused contemplation, the “deep attention” that makes possible acts of imagination and a sense of connection to the college community.
Growing numbers of our introductory-level students write more vivid, thoughtful prose under time pressure in class than they do with leisure to revise outside of class. They show connections between insights they find in the reading and ideas and examples we’ve discussed in earlier classes. They explore links between their own experience and ideas drawn from their reading. They make illuminating comparisons, using concrete, lively language. This isn’t an altogether new phenomenon. In the past we’ve had very good students who appeared to censor their most interesting ideas and language on out-of-class writing assignments, but it used to be unusual for students to fuse ideas, images, and examples into an inventive whole more effectively in these brief classroom assignments than in longer, presumably more reflective writing out of class.
One key to our students’ recent writing successes in the classroom, we believe, is the silence that settles on the room. The writing process outside of class appears to be a very different story. Most of the time students work on computers that signal when they get e-mail. Perhaps it is tempting to follow “friends” updates on Facebook. Even when there’s no signal, students admit to being tempted to check their incoming mail and inventory their ever-increasing numbers of electronic friends. They receive signals on cell phones, too, for calls and texts. Some students listen to music on iPods while they work. As college libraries strive to be “user-friendly,” we see students managing sandwiches and drinks along with various electronic devices while they work on essays. They are, as they explain it, multitasking, a classic corporate skill.
Colleges and universities were established in part to provide the communal stimuli crucial to fostering acts of imagination. Students at a residential college are more deeply embedded in actual community than they are likely to be at any other time in their lives, but walking with others on campus they are as apt to be talking or texting on a phone as conversing with their actual companions, seemingly as present to someone distant from them as to their physical neighbors. We wonder if relying heavily on an abstract electronic “community” leads to a sense of placelessness. And if virtual places become more important than actual places in colleges and universities, it may be more difficult to imagine the consequences of something like the oil spill in the Gulf. Even with minute-to-minute access to powerful images and quantifiable data, it may be harder to find powerful metaphors and cultural understanding in a placeless world.
One result of encouraging a culture of multitasking and reliance on virtual community is that students are increasingly isolated from the people and places where they study. This technological abstraction may be equally common among faculty members who struggle to keep up with their workloads and professional obligations. People juggling texts and calls and tweets and e-mails might be compared with executives trying to establish order and profitability in companies flying out of control. They are showered with mediated versions of life itself from many directions at once.
There are many ironies in the triumph of corporate practice at educational institutions in this time of financial crisis, when our Supreme Court is bent on increasing the power of corporations. Like companies that fire the most recently hired when they fall on hard times and a country that lets a small proportion of its citizens pay the price for wars it chooses to fight, our most privileged colleges seem prepared to place the burden of their money problems on the shoulders of the most vulnerable. The message implicit in such policies, the hidden curriculum, speaks quietly to students of a college’s determination to protect privilege even when it means placing limits on the development of minds. Perhaps a crucial role of education in our time is to show young people the joys and benefits of giving focused, contemplative attention to the people around them and the places where they live, as well as the varied subjects they study.
Judith Nichols and William Nichols
Judith Nichols is adjunct associate professor at Vassar College, where she has been teaching writing and literature for 20 years. William Nichols, a retired professor and administrator at Denison University, is visiting professor of writing at Dartmouth College. Liza Donnelly is a cartoonist whose work has appeared in The New Yorker for 30 years. She is an adjunct lecturer at Vassar.
How do furloughs work for educators? Let me be clear: I am both happy and thankful for being invited onto the tenure track my first go-around, given the precarious economic situation and academic job market in 2008-9. I’ve taken very little for granted in the past year or so. What could I possibly have to complain about? Working conditions are not hazardous — well, outside of faculty meetings at least. Many of us have relative autonomy — that is, when no one is looking. We ultimately get paid to pursue issues and topics that we enjoy. Wall Street folks feel justified in their gripes over new regulations and a 3 percent increase in their marginal tax rate, despite making money hand over fist. Maybe we can offer a humble university professor some license to complain … about furloughs.
This is the third year in a row my university is subject to furlough plans; there is no consensus on whether there will be a fourth. The current plans are progressive, which means that the amount of furloughed time is directly proportional to one's salary. In my case, as a new faculty member, I must relinquish roughly a week’s worth of time and pay. The furlough concept vexes me for two reasons. At first — less so now that I am in my second year — it was a bitter pill to swallow when I crept out of graduate school, making practically nothing for some of the work that I do now, and hearing at one of my first faculty meetings that I was already getting a pay cut. Just when I was about to draw a steady paycheck, there was discussion of taking money away. Having never worked for state government, the furlough concept was completely foreign to me. I grappled with the idea that as a professor, I was an employee of the state, and therefore subject to furloughs. When a sanitation worker goes on furlough, trash doesn’t get picked up. We all see that, and it’s a highly visible and olfactive inconvenience.
As a professor I was informed that the furloughs must impact academics as little as possible, which I completely understand. Yet, with the explicit prohibition on canceling class, skipping a faculty meeting, or slashing committee appointments, all of my so-called furloughs encompassed the multitude of tasks that I complete in private. This includes planning, grading, answering e-mail messages, reading, writing, research activities, professional meetings, and reviewing manuscripts or proposals. No dignified or obvious public response is permissible. Not one person feels the impact or the insult of furloughs other than the individual faculty members. It is also true that few faculty members will actually refrain from any of the above activities during a mandated furlough day because that’s just twice the amount of grading or e-mail messages that have to be dealt with the next day.
The second problem with the furlough (read: pay cut) scenario has a lot to do with my former life as a public school teacher. This is why I might be more offended by the requirement to not only take the pay cut, but also track the exact days on which I supposedly slough off to "earn" it. No one ever understood my job as a teacher except for those who actually taught. To many, our job consisted of roughly six or so hours of hanging out with a bunch of kids. We do that for several months, are given generous breaks in between, and we have the entire summer off to travel, mow the lawn, and basically waste our nation’s valuable tax dollars doing nothing.
I can appreciate how people have this view; it’s a difficult myth to dispel. If anyone took the time to really examine what goes on behind the scenes, or if teachers were actually given a voice to speak out, one would see a person lugging stacks of notebooks home on a daily basis. More stacks of books and binders would go home on weekends. They’d see teachers going in sick to work because it’s too much trouble to call in a sub. Parents undermine your judgment at almost every turn, you can’t use the restroom for hours at a time, lunch lasts for 20 minutes and largely consists of leftovers or snacks in the fabulously accommodated teachers’ lounge, and all the while you have to navigate a hopeless bureaucracy that chips away at your professional autonomy.
So much of what a successful K-12 or college educator must do to make the classroom operate effectively is done behind the scenes. In fact, the preparation done privately is absolutely essential to the public face of the profession, which is in the classroom. Whenever a new mandate or policy rolls out, a new curriculum, or certification requirement, it’s dumped on the backs of teachers. We are told that our extra duties must not in any way compromise time with the students. Teachers who have already run out of time weeks ago perpetually take the minutes and hours and blood out of their private preparation, which then inevitably creeps into educators’ personal lives. Educators take their jobs very personally and our performance, or lack thereof, is interpreted by society as a personal virtue. If we are perceived as not burning the midnight oil for the sake of our students, then there must be something wrong with us. It’s a character flaw and we therefore should find another line of work.
What’s the connection to higher education and the furlough concept? Sacrifices must come out of my private responsibilities as an educator. The powers that be know full well that for any professor who wants to keep his or her job, which is based on satisfactory teaching, research, and service, nothing meaningful will be cast aside. Many of us will just keep right on working as usual with not one thing taken off our plate. As an aside, I admire faculty members who are able to take a stand, put an outgoing message in their e-mail, stating that they are on furlough and will not answer messages today because they are indeed on furlough. I wish I could exercise a little self-control and actually take a day off here and there. As a new faculty member, I just don’t have that luxury. The demands to publish, research, and stay current with the latest and greatest teaching gadgets and techniques are too great.
Let us call it what it is: a pay cut, not a furlough. The latter concept cannot apply to educators unless we can furlough our public duties. Dealing the blow within our private responsibilities — in our offices, at home, or away at meetings — reads as if these duties are not as valuable. Because they do not generate revenue explicitly, private functions like reading, writing, and research are expendable. But in similar ways in my public school teaching, there would be no teaching — no effective teaching — without all that educators do behind the scenes. Without a furlough of our public duties, no one can understand the message and the impact of budget cuts. Educators take the hit in silence, and it is this lack of defense of our private duties that perpetuates the myth in the general public that educators have none. We clock in, teach our students, and then clock out.
It’s hard for me to criticize furlough plans because I know people are losing their jobs. Perhaps my pay cut, combined with all the others, will save a few jobs here and there. I’m happy to do that, if that is indeed what I’m doing. If I make it hard for students and parents who are paying more for my services than ever, they just won’t come back, or they will pursue their education elsewhere. Long term: that’s not good for business.
When I complain about pay cuts or furloughs, I end up feeling like a selfish jerk afterward. But universities are dropping the ball in their handling of furloughs and pay cuts. There’s a considerable amount of resentment and suspicion of administration due to the precarious economic situation. In order to alleviate tensions, the leadership could acknowledge faculty as they get stiffed. Would there be harm in canceling just one meeting? How about free parking passes for faculty or free meals on campus, assuming that eating on campus is a pleasurable experience? I won’t even get into deferred compensation plans, but that’s also a good option.
There are numerous potential gestures out there that could be easily seen as a tip of the cap to our troubles. If teaching and other official duties are deemed sacrosanct, even though a host of other requirements are intensified, something will eventually have to give. Until furloughs or pay cuts explicitly affect what occurs in the classroom, the shift of the burden to the private realm, as has happened with K-12 teachers, will force the issue further underground and out of the public eye. Educators of all stripes and levels will continue doing the same job, but for less and less.
Shaun Johnson is assistant professor of elementary education at Towson University. His blog is At the Chalk Face.
The following letter to George M. Philip, the president of the State University of New York at Albany, prompted by the proposed elimination there of French, Italian, Russian and classics, was originally a blog post at Genome Biology and is reprinted here with permission of the author.
Dear President Philip,
Probably the last thing you need at this moment is someone else from outside your university complaining about your decision. If you want to argue that I can't really understand all aspects of the situation, never having been associated with SUNY Albany, I wouldn't disagree. But I cannot let something like this go by without weighing in. I hope, when I'm through, you will at least understand why.
On October 1st, you announced that the departments of French, Italian, Classics, Russian and Theater Arts were being eliminated. You gave several reasons for your decision, including that there are comparatively fewer students enrolled in these degree programs. Of course, your decision was also, perhaps chiefly, a cost-cutting measure -- in fact, you stated that this decision might not have been necessary had the state legislature passed a bill that would have allowed your university to set its own tuition rates. Finally, you asserted that the humanities were a drain on the institution financially, as opposed to the sciences, which bring in money in the form of grants and contracts.
Let's examine these and your other reasons in detail, because I think if one does, it becomes clear that the facts on which they are based have some important aspects that are not covered in your statement. First, the matter of enrollment. I'm sure that relatively few students take classes in these subjects nowadays, just as you say. There wouldn't have been many in my day, either, if universities hadn't required students to take a distribution of courses in many different parts of the academy -- humanities, social sciences, the fine arts, the physical and natural sciences -- and to attain minimal proficiency in at least one foreign language. You see, the reason that humanities classes have low enrollment is not because students these days are clamoring for more relevant courses; it's because administrators like you, and spineless faculty, have stopped setting distribution requirements and started allowing students to choose their own academic programs -- something I feel is a complete abrogation of the duty of university faculty as teachers and mentors. You could fix the enrollment problem tomorrow by instituting a mandatory core curriculum that included a wide range of courses.
Young people haven't, for the most part, yet attained the wisdom to have that kind of freedom without making poor decisions. In fact, without wisdom, it's hard for most people. That idea is thrashed out better than anywhere else, I think, in Dostoyevsky's parable of the Grand Inquisitor, which is told in Chapter Five of his great novel, The Brothers Karamazov. In the parable, Christ comes back to earth in Seville at the time of the Spanish Inquisition. He performs several miracles but is arrested by Inquisition leaders and sentenced to be burned at the stake. The Grand Inquisitor visits Him in his cell to tell Him that the Church no longer needs Him. The main portion of the text is the Inquisitor explaining why. The Inquisitor says that Jesus rejected the three temptations of Satan in the desert in favor of freedom, but he believes that Jesus has misjudged human nature. The Inquisitor says that the vast majority of humanity cannot handle freedom. In giving humans the freedom to choose, Christ has doomed humanity to a life of suffering.
That single chapter in a much longer book is one of the great works of modern literature. You would find a lot in it to think about. I'm sure your Russian faculty would love to talk with you about it -- if only you had a Russian department, which now, of course, you don't.
Then there's the question of whether the state legislature's inaction gave you no other choice. I'm sure the budgetary problems you have to deal with are serious. They certainly are at Brandeis University, where I work. And we, too, faced critical strategic decisions because our income was no longer enough to meet our expenses. But we eschewed your draconian -- and authoritarian -- solution, and a team of faculty, with input from all parts of the university, came up with a plan to do more with fewer resources. I'm not saying that all the specifics of our solution would fit your institution, but the process sure would have. You did call a town meeting, but it was to discuss your plan, not to let the university craft its own. And you called that meeting for Friday afternoon on October 1st, when few of your students or faculty would be around to attend. In your defense, you called the timing "unfortunate," but pleaded that there was a "limited availability of appropriate large venue options." I find that rather surprising. If the president of Brandeis needed a lecture hall on short notice, he would get one. I guess you don't have much clout at your university.
It seems to me that the way you went about it couldn't have been more likely to alienate just about everybody on campus. In your position, I would have done everything possible to avoid that. I wouldn't want to end up in the 9th Bolgia (ditch of stone) of the 8th Circle of the Inferno, where the great 14th century Italian poet Dante Alighieri put the sowers of discord. There, as they struggle in that pit for all eternity, a demon continually hacks their limbs apart, just as in life they divided others.
The Inferno is the first book of Dante's Divine Comedy, one of the great works of the human imagination. There's so much to learn from it about human weakness and folly. The faculty in your Italian department would be delighted to introduce you to its many wonders -- if only you had an Italian department, which now, of course, you don't.
And do you really think even those faculty and administrators who may applaud your tough-minded stance (partly, I'm sure, in relief that they didn't get the axe themselves) are still going to be on your side in the future? I'm reminded of the fable by Aesop of the Travelers and the Bear: two men were walking together through the woods, when a bear rushed out at them. One of the travelers happened to be in front, and he grabbed the branch of a tree, climbed up, and hid himself in the leaves. The other, being too far behind, threw himself flat down on the ground, with his face in the dust. The bear came up to him, put his muzzle close to the man's ear, and sniffed and sniffed. But at last with a growl the bear slouched off, for bears will not touch dead meat. Then the fellow in the tree came down to his companion, and, laughing, said "What was it that the bear whispered to you?" "He told me," said the other man, "never to trust a friend who deserts you in a pinch."
I first learned that fable, and its valuable lesson for life, in a freshman classics course. Aesop is credited with literally hundreds of fables, most of which are equally enjoyable -- and enlightening. Your classics faculty would gladly tell you about them, if only you had a classics department, which now, of course, you don't.
As for the argument that the humanities don't pay their own way, well, I guess that's true, but it seems to me that there's a fallacy in assuming that a university should be run like a business. I'm not saying it shouldn't be managed prudently, but the notion that every part of it needs to be self-supporting is simply at variance with what a university is all about. You seem to value entrepreneurial programs and practical subjects that might generate intellectual property more than you do "old-fashioned" courses of study. But universities aren't just about discovering and capitalizing on new knowledge; they are also about preserving knowledge from being lost over time, and that requires a financial investment.
There is good reason for it: what seems to be archaic today can become vital in the future. I'll give you two examples of that. The first is the science of virology, which in the 1970s was dying out because people felt that infectious diseases were no longer a serious health problem in the developed world, and other subjects, such as molecular biology, were much sexier. Then, in the early 1990s, a little problem called AIDS became the world's No. 1 health concern. The virus that causes AIDS was first isolated and characterized at the National Institutes of Health in the United States and the Institute Pasteur in France, because these were among the few institutions that still had thriving virology programs.
My second example you will probably be more familiar with. Middle Eastern studies, including the study of foreign languages such as Arabic and Persian, was hardly a hot subject on most campuses in the 1990s. Then came September 11, 2001. Suddenly we realized that we needed a lot more people who understood something about that part of the world, especially its Muslim culture. Those universities that had preserved their Middle Eastern studies departments, even in the face of declining enrollment, suddenly became very important places. Those that hadn't -- well, I'm sure you get the picture.
I know one of your arguments is that not every place should try to do everything. Let other institutions have great programs in classics or theater arts, you say; we will focus on preparing students for jobs in the real world. Well, I hope I've just shown you that the real world is pretty fickle about what it wants. The best way for people to be prepared for the inevitable shock of change is to be as broadly educated as possible, because today's backwater is often tomorrow's hot field. And interdisciplinary research, which is all the rage these days, is only possible if people aren't too narrowly trained. If none of that convinces you, then I'm willing to let you turn your institution into a place that focuses on the practical, but only if you stop calling it a university and yourself the president of one. You see, the word "university" derives from the Latin universitas, meaning "the whole." You can't be a university without having a thriving humanities program. You will need to call SUNY Albany a trade school, or perhaps a vocational college, but not a university. Not anymore.
I utterly refuse to believe that you had no alternative. It's your job as president to find ways of solving problems that do not require the amputation of healthy limbs. Voltaire said that no problem can withstand the assault of sustained thinking. Voltaire, whose real name was François-Marie Arouet, had a lot of pithy, witty and brilliant things to say (my favorite is "God is a comedian playing to an audience that is afraid to laugh"). Much of what he wrote would be very useful to you. I'm sure the faculty in your French department would be happy to introduce you to his writings, if only you had a French department, which now, of course, you don't.
I guess I shouldn't be surprised that you have trouble understanding the importance of maintaining programs in unglamorous or even seemingly "dead" subjects. From your biography, you don't actually have a Ph.D. or other high degree, and have never really taught or done research at a university. Perhaps my own background will interest you. I started out as a classics major. I'm now professor of biochemistry and chemistry. Of all the courses I took in college and graduate school, the ones that have benefited me the most in my career as a scientist are the courses in classics, art history, sociology, and English literature. These courses didn't just give me a much better appreciation for my own culture; they taught me how to think, to analyze, and to write clearly. None of my science courses did any of that.
One of the things I do now is write a monthly column on science and society. I've done it for over 10 years, and I'm pleased to say some people seem to like it. If I've been fortunate enough to come up with a few insightful observations, I can assure you they are entirely due to my background in the humanities and my love of the arts.
One of the things I've written about is the way genomics is changing the world we live in. Our ability to manipulate the human genome is going to pose some very difficult questions for humanity in the next few decades, including the question of just what it means to be human. That isn't a question for science alone; it's a question that must be answered with input from every sphere of human thought, including -- especially including -- the humanities and arts. Science unleavened by the human heart and the human spirit is sterile, cold, and self-absorbed. It's also unimaginative: some of my best ideas as a scientist have come from thinking and reading about things that have, superficially, nothing to do with science. If I'm right that what it means to be human is going to be one of the central issues of our time, then universities that are best equipped to deal with it, in all its many facets, will be the most important institutions of higher learning in the future. You've just ensured that yours won't be one of them.
Some of your defenders have asserted that this is all a brilliant ploy on your part -- a master political move designed to shock the legislature and force them to give SUNY Albany enough resources to keep these departments open. That would be Machiavellian (another notable Italian writer, but then, you don't have any Italian faculty to tell you about him), certainly, but I doubt that you're that clever. If you were, you would have held that town meeting when the whole university could have been present, at a place where the press would be all over it. That's how you force the hand of a bunch of politicians. You proclaim your action on the steps of the state capitol. You don't try to sneak it through in the dead of night, when your institution has its back turned.
No, I think you were simply trying to balance your budget at the expense of what you believe to be weak, outdated and powerless departments. I think you will find, in time, that you made a Faustian bargain. Faust is the title character in a play by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. It was written around 1800 but still attracts the largest audiences of any play in Germany whenever it's performed. Faust is the story of a scholar who makes a deal with the devil. The devil promises him anything he wants as long as he lives. In return, the devil will get -- well, I'm sure you can guess how these sorts of deals usually go. If only you had a theater department, which now, of course, you don't, you could ask them to perform the play so you could see what happens. It's awfully relevant to your situation. You see, Goethe believed that it profits a man nothing to give up his soul for the whole world. That's the whole world, President Philip, not just a balanced budget. Although, I guess, to be fair, you haven't given up your soul. Just the soul of your institution.
Gregory A Petsko
Gregory A. Petsko
Gregory A. Petsko is the Gyula and Katica Tauber Professor of Biochemistry and Chemistry and chair of biochemistry at Brandeis University.
A genome biologist, Gregory Petsko, has gone to bat for the humanities, in an open letter to the State University of New York at Albany president who recently (and underhandedly) announced significant cuts. (For those who haven’t been paying attention: the departments of theater, Italian, Russian, classics, and French at SUNY-Albany are all going to be eliminated).
If you are in academia, and Petsko’s missive (which appeared on this site Monday) hasn’t appeared on your Facebook wall, it will soon. And here’s the passage that everyone seizes on, evidence that Petsko understands us and has our back (that is, we in the humanities): "The real world is pretty fickle about what it wants. The best way for people to be prepared for the inevitable shock of change is to be as broadly educated as possible, because today's backwater is often tomorrow's hot field. And interdisciplinary research, which is all the rage these days, is only possible if people aren't too narrowly trained."
He's right. And if scientists want to speak up for the humanities, I’m all for it. But Petsko understands us differently than we understand ourselves. Why fund the humanities, even if they don’t bring in grant money or produce patents? Petsko points out "universities aren't just about discovering and capitalizing on new knowledge; they are also about preserving knowledge from being lost over time, and that requires a financial investment."
How many us willingly embrace that interpretation of what we do? "My interest is not merely antiquarian...." is how we frame the justification for our cutting edge research. Even as we express our dismay when crucial texts go out of print, any sacred flame that we were tending was blown out when the canon wars were fought to a draw. Why should we resurrect it? Because, says Petsko, "what seems to be archaic today can become vital in the future." His examples are virology and Middle Eastern studies. Mine is 18th-century literature — and with all the imaginative vigor at my disposal, I have trouble discerning the variation on the AIDS scare or 9/11 that would revive interest in my field. That’s OK, though: Petsko has other reasons why the humanities matter:
"Our ability to manipulate the human genome is going to pose some very difficult questions for humanity in the next few decades, including the question of just what it means to be human. That isn't a question for science alone; it's a question that must be answered with input from every sphere of human thought, including -- especially including -- the humanities and arts... If I'm right that what it means to be human is going to be one of the central issues of our time, then universities that are best equipped to deal with it, in all its many facets, will be the most important institutions of higher learning in the future."
Well, that would be great. I have no confidence, though, that we in the humanities are positioned to take advantage of this dawning world, even if our departments escape SUNY-style cost-cutting. How many of us can meaningfully apply what we do to "the question of just what it means to be human" without cringing, or adopting an ironic pose, or immediately distancing ourselves from that very question? How many of us see our real purpose as teaching students to draw the kinds of connections between literature and life that Petsko uses to such clever effect in his diatribe?
Petsko is not necessarily right in his perception of what the humanities are good for, nor are professionals in the humanities necessarily wrong to pursue another vision of what our fields are about. But there is a profound disconnect between how we see ourselves (and how our work is valued and remunerated in the university and how we organize our professional lives to respond to those expectations) and how others see us. If we're going to take comfort in the affirmations of Petsko and those outside of the humanities whom he speaks for, perhaps we need to take seriously how he understands what we do. Perhaps the future is asking something of us that we are not providing — or perhaps we need to do a better job of explaining why anyone other than us should care about what we do.
Kirstin Wilcox is senior lecturer in English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.