At Wannabe U, a research university that I have been observing for years, the provost and president have announced that it is time to create a new academic plan. (That's a business plan garbed in academic regalia, gold tassel and all.) "We have exceeded many of [the] goals" set in the last plan, the announcement said. It also revealed that this newest plan is to guide restructuring: It will set the criteria for eradicating academic departments and eliminating jobs.
When I spoke at several Australian universities in March, I heard professors utter the same words again and again: "We are undergoing restructuring." (Some universities had already experienced restructuring several times.) That process apparently means to combine departments into larger units so as to achieve the "three Es" of the new managerialism -- economy, efficiency, and effectiveness. Together, those three Es also constitute the framework being used to "modernize" American higher education. As Wannabe U contemplates a new business plan, I find some aspects of Australian restructuring much too familiar, as though we and our colleagues down under are living the same nightmare. Other practices seemed strange indeed.
Several processes are occurring simultaneously. Departments are being lumped together to form new constellations of schools and faculties. (In Australian academic parlance, schools are a bureaucratic unit composed of disciplines or programs. A faculty consists of a collection of schools.) But, my newly met colleagues insisted, restructuring is not about encouraging interdisciplinarity or intellectual cross-fertilization by increasing the administrative proximity of related fields of inquiry.
Rather, I was told, central administrators have been combining units as universities pare down the number of schools and faculties they harbor to extirpate unnecessary courses, eliminate "redundant" workers, and increase what the Aussies, like the British, call "casualization" and Americans term "contingent labor." As in the United States, such practices are more likely to be applied to the arts, humanities and social sciences rather than to the STEM fields -- science, technology, engineering, mathematics -- which supposedly promise to raise needed income through contracts, grants, and inventions and to goose the region's and the nation's ability to succeed in international economic competition.
An Australian middle manager at a university explained to me: "The restructuring can be of academic units (initially melting departments into schools, now, [after several iterations] melting bits of schools into other schools but it can also be of degrees (in which case the usual path is to reduce dramatically the number of majors in a B.A.). This is important, because it is a way to reverse engineer academic redundancies." Mostly restructuring pares the staff which supports academics. In both countries, restructuring redirects funds from academic to administrative support. But at Melbourne's La Trobe University, 40 professors took the hit, as Katherine Bode and Leigh Dale explained in The Australian Humanities Review.
In essence, a young man at an Australian university, given to analogies, told me, "Think of it as a kind of colonialism." Eventually the imperial power (or central administration) augments itself at the expense of the faculties. It hires staff to satisfy new federal mandates, such as monitoring teaching and research productivity, expands efforts at marketing, building alumni loyalty (and donations), and managing its reputation, and founds and expands what Americans call Institutes for Teaching and Learning, which have burgeoned in both countries. This fellow added that the imperial powers set the terms by which their subjects live. At best, there is a pretense of consultation.
I have encountered other components of this sort of restructuring before. In Wannabe U, I discussed some ways that a particular long-gone provost appointed committees. One was to select members whom he knew desired the same outcome that he did. Another was to so meticulously map the tools and processes which the provost charged the committee to use that its members were essentially filling in the numbers of a formula that the provost had devised. The committee members were his functionaries. That same provost used to explain how many meetings he had taken to reach a decision. He never summarized others’ opinions or even said whether people disagreed with him – only that it was his responsibility to make decisions, whether those others liked his decisions or not.
I have also heard the president of a distinguished private university discuss redundancies. He boasted about his method of eliminating superfluous courses to save money; he appointed a committee to study the course catalog and syllabuses. Was statistics for sociologists so similar to statistics for political scientists that one department had to retire its course? Did a chemistry course cover some of the same material as a biology course? And, of course, one can always save money by increasing the number of students who must enroll for a course. (So much for the "boutique" courses for exceptional students and the faculty hungry to teach them.) At Wannabe U, a course with too few students cannot be offered. At one Australian university, a unit must pay the central administration if it carries a course whose enrollment is deemed too low. (Needless to say, units eliminate those courses to avoid the penalty.)
And then there’s the matter of adjuncts. Explaining a two day-strike of the staff of Australia’s University of Sydney, the distinguished sociologist Raewyn Connell wrote: "Over time, university managers have responded to funding pressures by making job insecurity grow – through outsourcing of general staff work, erosion of tenure, and above all, casualization. To management, this looks like flexibility. To many of my younger colleagues, it looks like a life of precarious labor, scrabbling for short-term, part-time and totally insecure appointments." She adds, "These are poor conditions for building an intellectual workforce. From an educational point of view, it means a mass of teaching done by staff who can’t build up the experience, depth of knowledge, or confident relationship with students that are needed for the very best teaching."
Connell is describing the conditions of our own work, one of my American colleagues informed me.
Equally noxious is the practice of setting publication quotas. These quotas really do involve publish or perish. One administrator at an Australian university requires researchers in the humanities and social sciences to publish four refereed articles a year and teaching faculty to publish two. Yup: He counts instead of monitoring quality and so virtually guarantees that his faculty will not undertake the challenging projects that require deep thought and take years to bring to fruition. His practice reminded me of Wannabe University’s Professional Responsibilities Doctrine, particularly its emphasis on assessing acceptable academic performance by counting how many articles, grants and whatever a professor has accumulated each year. Wannabe U's new business plan is sure to increase the standards used to gauge a professor's productivity, Many professors still feel that the metrics in the last business plan were a speed-up of the academic assembly line.
Ultimately, though, I have trouble understanding one key aspect of restructuring in Australia. The combinations of departments lumped into schools are so different from those that prevail in the United States and there is so much variation from one university to another that I have a hard time following the logic of permutation and recombination. Are schools and colleges supposed to combine related fields? Why is philosophy classified in the humanities in one university and in the social sciences at another? Why does social science include sociology, anthropology, and criminology but not demography? Why does one university’s School of Cultural Inquiry include Victorian English literature, classics and ancient history, while Victorian history is housed in a School of History that specializes in early modern and modern Australia, North America, and Europe?
When classificatory systems seem nonsensical, there must be another principle at work. One of the three Es – economy -- provides an answer. In Australia, a colleague claimed, central administrators have been combining financially productive and fragile departments into new units, letting those units steep in their juices, and then rearranging them, as well as their bits and pieces, again. Structured and restructured, combined and recombined, these ever-larger units may not have intellectual integrity, but they help central administrators to eliminate sluggardly departments, to build their own managerial capacity to initiate and respond to accountability measures, and to react to the diminishing public funding that is increasingly characteristic of higher education in most countries.
In the United States at most research universities, including Wannabe U, central administrators appoint committees to identify departments that are weak and so do not deserve to retain their graduate programs. At liberal arts colleges, the committees are to fold whole departments, not merely graduate programs. At most institutions, the administrators set the criteria used to define weakness, much as done at Wannabe several years ago. The carefully selected committee has the unenviable task of filling in the boxes of the rubric that a central administrator has constructed. Today, members of Wannabe’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors hope that the faculty will be able to decide the criteria used to measure strength and weakness. However, with their Australian colleagues, the faculty at Wannabe shares the realization that the central administrations' perceived need for academic extirpation is not open to negotiation.
In Australia, economy, efficiency and effectiveness are federal mandates. In America, those mandates come from the states with the federal government consistently pushing them to spend less and achieve more. In Australia, central administrations announce new combinations of departments that are to comprise new schools. In America, central administrators strongly advise -- virtually insist -- which combination of disciplines should work together to meet the financial and workforce needs of their state.
Perhaps because I am an American academic, I find the Australian combinations of disciplines to be quite strange. I betcha that Australian academics would find the rationalized and interchangeable American combinations of fields to be so rationalized as to be McDonaldized, akin to the ubiquitous McBurger or a luxurious McMansion.
Strange as some aspects of our work lives may seem to one another, too much seems the same. We are threatened by the academic version of McJobs. Before I left the U.S., I had read such classic American treatments of Australian tertiary education as Sheila Slaughter and Larry Leslie's Academic Capitalism as well as refereed articles by Australian researchers. I was familiar with the argument that European nations were reverse engineering American practices Then I went to Australia and learned that academic worlds are becoming more similar and more besieged than I had thought.
Gaye Tuchman, professor emerita of sociology at University of Connecticut, is author of Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University and Making News.
Massive open online courses (MOOCs) have captured the nation’s imagination. The notion of online classes enrolling more than 100,000 students is staggering. Companies are springing up to sponsor MOOCs, growing numbers of universities are offering them, and the rest of America’s colleges are afraid they will be left behind if they don’t.
But MOOCs alone are unlikely to reshape American higher education. When history looks back on them, they may receive no more than a footnote. However, they mark a revolution in higher education that is already occurring and which will continue.
America is shifting from a national, analog, industrial economy to a global, digital, information economy. Our social institutions, colleges and universities included, were created for the former. Today they all seem to be broken. They work less well than they once did. Through either repair or replacement — more likely a combination — they need to be refitted for a new age.
Higher education underwent this kind of evolution in the past as the United States shifted from an agricultural to an industrial economy. The classical agrarian college, imported from 17th-century England with a curriculum rooted in the Middle Ages, was established to educate a learned clergy to govern the colonies. This model held sway until the early 19th century.
In the years before the Civil War, the gap between colleges and society grew larger. European higher education modernized, creating models that would inspire America to grow our own. Innovations, mostly small, were attempted; many failed. During and after the war, the scale of experimentation increased with the founding of universities such as Cornell University, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Chicago a few decades later. Other institutions, such as Harvard University, remade themselves. The innovations spread. By the mid-20th century a new model of higher education for an industrial era coalesced. It was codified in California’s 1960 master plan, balancing selectivity with access and workforce development.
This transition brought new institutions that better met the needs of an industrializing America.
An entity called the university was imported from Germany, with what would become a mission of teaching, research and service. It offered instruction in professions essential to an industrial society, organized knowledge into relevant specialties, and hired expert faculty in those areas. It not only transmitted the knowledge of the past, but advanced the frontiers of knowledge for the future.
The federal government created the land-grant college to bridge between the old agrarian America and the emerging worlds, agrarian and industrial America. Now found in all 50 states, the land-grant college was designed to provide instruction in agriculture and the mechanic arts without excluding classical studies.
Specialized institutions emerged. Some, like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, were modeled on the European polytechnics; they promoted industrial science and technology and prepared leaders in these fields. Others, the normal schools, sought to provide more and better teachers as the evolving economy demanded more education of its citizenry.
The two-year college — originally called a junior college, later a community college, sometimes Democracy’s College — was initially established to offer lower-division undergraduate education in the local community.
As these institutions emerged, the curriculum changed. Graduate studies were introduced. New professional schools in fields like engineering, business and education became staples. Continuing education and correspondence courses were added. Elective courses and majors arose. Disputation, recitation, and memorization, the teaching methods of the agrarian college, gave way to lectures, seminars, and laboratories.
The colleges that persisted adopted many of the era’s changes, and the classical curriculum largely disappeared.
This is the history of higher education in America. Change has occurred by accretion. The new has been added to the old and the old, over time, modernized. Change occurs with no grand vision of the system that the future will require. New ideas are tried; some succeed, many fail. By successive approximations, what emerges is the higher education system necessary to serve the evolved society.
Social change is a constant, and so is the need for higher education to adapt to it. When the change in society is deleterious, as in the McCarthy era, it is the responsibility of higher education to resist it and right the society. It is a natural process, almost like a dance. However, in times of massive social change like the transformation of America to an information economy, a commensurate transformation on the part of higher education is required.
We are witnessing precisely that today. MOOCs, like the university itself or graduate education or technology institutes, are one element of the change. They may or may not persist or be recognizable in the future that unfolds.
What does seem probable is this. As in the industrial era, the primary changes in higher education are unlikely to occur from within. Some institutions will certainly transform themselves as Harvard did after the Civil War, but the boldest innovations are likelier to come from outside or from the periphery of existing higher education, unencumbered by the need to slough off current practice. They may be not-for-profits, for-profits or hybrids. Names like Western Governors University, Coursera, and Udacity leap to mind.
We are likely to see one or more new types of institution emerge. As each economic and technological revolution creates new needs for higher education, unique institutions emerge to meet them. In the agrarian era, only a tiny percentage of the population needed higher education, and the college served these elite few. When industrial America required more education, more research, and mass access to college, two major institutions were established: the university and the community college.
The information economy, which requires a more educated population than ever before in history, will seek universal postsecondary education and is likely to create new institutions to establish college access for all at low cost. These institutions will operate globally, not locally, which will dictate a digital format. Because information economies emphasize time-variable, common outcomes — unlike the industrial era’s common processes and fixed times (think assembly lines) — universal-access institutions will offer individualized, time-variable instruction, rooted in mastery of explicit learning outcomes. Degrees and credits are likely to give way to competency certification and badges.
Traditional higher education institutions — universities and colleges—will continue, evolving as did their colonial predecessors. Their numbers will likely decline. At greatest risk will be regional, part-time commuter universities and less-selective, low-endowment private colleges, particularly in New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and the Midwest. The future of the community college and its relationship to the universal-access university is a question mark. It is possible that sprawling campuses will shed real estate in favor of more online programs, more compact learning centers and closer connections with employers and other higher education units.
In this era of change, traditional higher education—often criticized for being low in productivity, being high in cost, and making limited use of technology — will be under enormous pressure to change.
Policy makers and investors are among those forces outside of education bringing that pressure to bear. It’s time for higher education to be equally aware and responsive.
Arthur Levine, a former president of Teachers College, Columbia University, is president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.