In today’s Academic Minute, Nicholas Leadbeater of the University of Connecticut begins a three-day examination of the chemistry of the hit television show "Breaking Bad." Learn more about the Academic Minute here.
Last week, Nicholas Kristof revived the old canard that academics have removed themselves from the public sphere through obscure prose and interests. Among the problems we might identify in Kristof’s essay -- thereare, obviously, many -- is the irony of a writer with the resources of The New York Times supporting him chiding the rest of us for not writing in outlets such as The New York Times.
But who gets to write in The New York Times -- and to whom is The New York Times accessible? If we’re talking about accessibility and insularity, it’s worth looking at The New York Times’s own content generation cycle and the relationship between press junkets and patronage.
So, instead of confusing intellectual meritocracy with access to outlets, let’s look at how The New York Times itself generates content about something that matters greatly to professors: higher education.
What I learned there -- besides how weird corporate-sponsored conferences are, right down to commercials they looped on screens between talks -- is that there is a system of content generation that feeds thinkpieces and thinkfluencers with greater speed and sound bite concision than most professors can offer.
It’s important to note that the only professors on stage at this conference on the future of higher education had left teaching and research as faculty for academic upper administration or to launch their own MOOC companies. While Kristof might see this lack of platform as more evidence of academic self-cloistering, I see it for the closed system that it is: “influence” comes mainly from those who might be in the position to take out full-page ads in the Times.
I saw the Schools for Tomorrow conference advertised in the Times’ Sunday Magazine, and looked into registration online. It cost $795 for a one-day event. For reference, I just registered for a four-day conference in my humanities field for $150.
I wrote to the Schools for Tomorrow registration office and asked if they could lower the cost for actual professors, bringing it in line with typical registration fees between $75 and $200. They said they could bring it down to $495. I found some institutional money for online teaching development and paid the “reduced” fee.
The $495 did not, however, guarantee me a seat when I got to the conference. The mid-three figures is a lot for humanities faculty and their limited (if existent) travel support, but in this world it just got me through the first door. It turned out that the plenary talk by Sal Khan (of Khan Academy) on globalizing access to education was overbooked, so while corporate sponsors like Bank of America and Blackberry enjoyed reserved seats in the auditorium, a lot of self- or university-sponsored folks like myself ended up watching on screens in the basement.
This was the first lesson in sponsored access to influence and content creation. Since Khan’s talk led into the panel discussion “Has the University as an Institution Had Its Day?” a lot of professors sat out the Q&A in the cheap seats. Not even, really. We were in a different arena altogether.
These weren’t conversations; these weren’t arguments. Mainly, these were rehearsed pitches for products, policies, and industries in which presenters had considerable financial or political stake. Some featured speakers, like former Senator Bob Kerrey, had a foot in several categories: he was in the Senate, he had been president of the New School, and he is now starting a for-profit university.
At various points it became clear that the speakers were used to talking to one another “on the circuit” as one said to another, suggesting that they’d been on the online education junket a lot together that year. And some cycle back through the Times meetings. Having missed Sal Khan at the education conference, I could have caught him the next month at the DealBook business conference.
The third lesson of the conference, however, came when I picked up my New York Times at home. The November 1 "Education Life" section titled “The Disrupters” is almost entirely drawn from or inspired by the conference. One conference reviewer quipped that “so many Times newsroom staff members are participating in the conference, they might not be able to put out the paper on Wednesday.”
To the contrary, such events seem to be built into their content generation strategy. “The Disrupters’ ” lead article, "Innovation Imperative: Change Everything, Online Education as an Agent of Transformation" was written by Michael Horn and Clayton M. Christensen. Both hail from the non-university-affiliated Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation. The latter is a business professor at Harvard and the former was a panelist at the conference. Here's Horn’s bio from the conference webpage. He did a 25-minute one-on-one with David Leonhardt, the Times'sWashington bureau chief, advocating “The Disruption of Higher Education.”
According to his bio, Horn studied for an M.B.A. at Harvard (presumably with his co-author Christensen), then gained a platform as an educational innovation consultant at Arizona State, the editorship of a “journal of opinion and research about education policy,” and invitations to testify on issues relating to education. He does so not from a university, but from an institute that operates in the world between academia and lobbying. He does not balance his time between teaching, service, and peer-reviewed research and publishing. Yet he is a recognized authority on higher education according to the Times’s invitation. And then his work is immediately funneled into and amplified by featured space in the Sunday Times.
Even if the Times itself might be forgiven for seeking out breathless think tankers over professors who lack their own Center for Thinkfluencer Excellence, we might be more critical of the blurry line between content and advertisement.
Elsewhere in the issue you’ll find Bob Kerrey’s Minerva University, a for-profit liberal arts venture, featured prominently. It is mentioned in the Horn article, and is the focus of this article on “affordable elitism.” And then there’s major conference sponsor, Capella University. Their “credit for competencies, not credit hours” model is the subject of this article. It was also a major topic of conversation at the conference, discussed at length by Capella University's president, Scott Kinney. Days before the conference, every registrant received an email promoting Capella and bearing their logo.
How much money did Capella pay for this multiplatform marketing strategy? And where did their marketing end and the ideas at the conference begin? They were in the email of all registrants. Their logo was all over the conference and in full color on the back page of the Times Sunday Magazine. Policy changes crucial to their success were discussed favorably at a conference with Education Secretary Arne Duncan in attendance, and they got an article focusing on them in the Times just below an editorial praising their sort of educational “disruption.”
When Kristof's article began raising questions about professors’ ideas and public influence, I was reminded of the way influence moved from the $795/$495 per person corporate-sponsored conference to the pages of the newspaper of record.
Professors, we need you! Who, then, is the “we”? As lots of people have pointed out, if the “we” is the American public, then you’ve already got us as teachers, popular and specialist writers, activists and more.
If the “we” is pageview ad-metric revenue-hungry online content providers and writers, then that’s another question. Do you really want us? And if we come to you, how much will it cost to get in?
Jonathan Senchyne is an assistant professor of library and information studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A version of this essay originally appeared on Avidly.
Judith Butler, a noted literary theorist who is the Wun Tsun Tam Mellon Visiting Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University, has called off a talk she was supposed to give at the Jewish Museum in New York City, amid criticism of her support for the boycott of Israel. Butler's talk was not to have been about her views on the Middle East, but on Franz Kafka, who died well before the State of Israel was created. A statement from the museum said: "She was chosen on the basis of her expertise on the subject matter to be discussed. While her political views were not a factor in her participation, the debates about her politics have become a distraction making it impossible to present the conversation about Kafka as intended."
In an email to Inside Higher Ed, Butler said: "I did decide to withdraw when it became clear to me that the uproar over my political views (actually, a serious distortion of my political views) would overtake the days ahead and the event itself. As I understand it, the Jewish Museum also felt that it could not handle the political storm, and we were in complete agreement that the event should be canceled as a result."
She continued: "What is most important now, in my view, is for both educational and cultural institutions such as these to recommit themselves to open debate, not to become vehicles for censorship and slander, and not to become party to forms of blacklisting. It certainly should not be the case that any of us are forced to give up speaking in public on scholarly topics that have no bearing on the political issues that are so controversial. It constitutes discrimination against a person on the basis of political viewpoint, implying that the speaker ought not to be allowed to speak on any topic given the political viewpoint in question. It is one thing to disagree, say, with my political viewpoint and to give reasons why one disagrees, even to call for an open debate on that disagreement, and to ask the Jewish Museum to exercise its authority and commit its resources to such an open debate. It is quite another to say that anyone with my political viewpoint (itself badly distorted in this case) should not be able to speak at a Jewish cultural organization.... Whether one is for or against [the boycott movement], it seems important to recognize that boycotts are constitutionally recognized forms of political expression, affirmed by international law as well. That means that one cannot exactly outlaw a boycott, even if one opposes it with great vehemence, without trampling on a constitutionally protected right. We are seeing several efforts now to curtail speech, to exercise censorship, and so cultural institutions like the Jewish Museum will now have to decide whether they will allow their choices of speakers and artworks to be coerced, whether they will have the courage and the principle to stand for freedom of expression, refusing to impose a political litmus speakers on speakers and artists who have every reason to be part of the broader community they serve and have ideas on many other topics to share."
Cathy Davidson, a major player in the digital humanities and discussions of new models of higher education, is leaving Duke University for the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Davidson is currently the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies and the Ruth F. DeVarney Professor of English at Duke University. She is also co-founder of HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory), and the Graduate Center will become the main home of the organization. At CUNY, Davidson will be a professor of English at the Graduate Center and will direct the Futures Initiative, a CUNY-wide program to promote collaborative and participatory innovation in higher education.
In a statement, Davidson said that CUNY's Graduate Center "proves that a public, urban university is both accessible and exemplifies the highest possible intellectual standards.... My dedication to public higher education, while always strong, has grown in the last few years. How can the most affluent nation on the planet not invest in the future of public education? The Graduate Center and the entire CUNY system can be, and will be, the world leader in higher education innovation. I’m so proud to be part of the effort at such a fine public urban university system.”
A South Carolina legislative committee has voted to punish two public colleges for assigning freshmen to read books with gay themes by cutting the institutions' budgets by the total spent on the books in programs for freshmen, the Associated Press reported. The College of Charleston was criticized for making Fun Home, an acclaimed autobiographical work by Alison Bechdel, and the University of South Carolina Upstate assigned Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio, which is a collection from the state's first gay radio show. Representative Garry Smith, a Republican, said he proposed the cuts to get colleges to take his concerns seriously. "I understand diversity and academic freedom," he said. "This is purely promotion of a lifestyle with no academic debate."
Representative Gilda Cobb-Hunter, a Democrat, said legislators were interfering in academic decisions, and would draw ridicule from outside the state. "We are now in a posture where individual moral compasses and beliefs are being pushed down on our institutions of higher education," she said. "Do you think for one minute some companies are going to look seriously at us, when they think about their workforce coming to a state like this, with members of a Legislature who believe their job is to pass judgment on colleges of higher learning to dictate what books people are going to read?"
Adjuncts at Seattle University filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board Thursday to hold an election to form a union affiliated with the Service Employees International Union. SEIU also is organizing adjuncts at Pacific Lutheran University in Seattle, which has challenged the NLRB’s jurisdiction over its campus based on its religious affiliation.
A spokesman for Seattle University, a Roman Catholic institution, directed questions about the filing and whether the university would challenge NLRB jurisdiction based on its religious status to a statement posted on its website from Isiaah Crawford, its provost. It raises numerous concerns about the union drive, including that NLRB "oversight could infringe on our Jesuit tradition and Catholic identity." About 350 full- and part-time non-tenure-track faculty are eligible for union membership.
Also on Thursday, the NLRB said there was no need to review the composition of the proposed bargaining unit at the University of LaVerne, in Los Angeles, where SEIU also is organizing adjuncts on multiple campuses as part of its nationwide Adjunct Action campaign. LaVerne previously had asked that the union election be open to all adjuncts at its satellite campuses; the SEIU-proposed unit is open only to adjuncts working on the main campus.
In a statement posted to its website, LaVerne said: “We are disappointed that our inclusive approach has been rejected. However, this decision should pave the way for the ballots, which have been cast and returned to the NLRB Regional Office, to be promptly opened and counted.” Voting began Feb. 5 and ended last week. Ballot counting was delayed, pending the national NLRB decision, as well as an unfair labor practice claim related to the union drive filed against the university.
The Texas Faculty Association is suing the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College in federal court on behalf of three tenured professors who say they were fired for being too old, after the two institutions ended a 20-year-old joint operating agreement. Juan Antonio Gonzalez, a professor of modern languages; Dorothy Boven, an assistant professor of English; and Karen Fuss-Sommer, an instructor of nursing, all were granted tenure at Texas Southmost prior to the merger of the college and university in 1992 but had their tenure revoked following their split in 2012.
The lawsuit alleges that was due to an administrative charge that prioritized the retention of non-tenure-track faculty members with master’s degrees over tenured faculty without master’s degrees during downsizing related to the split. But the professors, all over 40, say their positions weren’t even eliminated, and that they were replaced with younger professors without due process.
"Tenure is a property right, and it is not to be taken without good cause or due process, and these individuals were denied both,” said Mary Aldridge Dean, executive director the Texas Faculty Association, affiliated with the National Education Association, in a news release. Some 80 tenure-line and non-tenure-track faculty lost their jobs following the institutions' split.
A spokeswoman from Brownsville said the university does not comment on pending litigation. Texas Southmost did not immediately respond to a request for comment.