My Dad had a wonderful belly laugh. I couldn’t always predict when it would happen. The laugh made an impressive appearance when we were watching Airplane II, of all things. In an early scene, Robert Hays sees a door on the plane marked “Danger: Vacuum.” He opens the door cautiously, only to be assaulted by a vacuum hose and nozzle that try to wrestle him to the floor. My Dad laughed as hard as I had ever seen him. Other people in the theater actually turned around. Thirty-something years later, I remember it vividly.
Now, whenever I hear metaphors about things happening in a vacuum, I picture Robert Hays wrestling with the hose and nozzle, and my Dad laughing heartily.
I thought of Robert Hays this weekend as I tried to catch up on my Twitter feed and ran across a couple of pieces on the adjunct trend in higher education. Both mean well, and both are by people I respect, but both take place in vacuums.
The first was a widely shared piece by Clay Shirky. It’s one of those broad-scope pieces that’s easy to nitpick in plenty of ways, and others have done a thorough job of that. The core of his argument, though, is that the basic structure of most colleges and universities has not changed in a fundamental way for a long time, because at some level, most people who work in higher education believe either that the last forty years have been an aberration and that we’re about to return to the finances of the 1960’s, or that they’re close enough to retirement themselves to ride out the clock. It’s a tough argument to write off entirely.
For all of its oversimplifications, the big idea that Shirky gets right is that the sector as a whole has been able to maintain an all-things-for-all-people strategy by steadily reducing the number of people who count in “all.” For thirty-ish years in the mid-twentieth century, the sector handled increasing costs through increasing net subsides. For the last forty-plus, it has shifted costs from subsidies to students and future faculty. That model sort of worked, on its own terms, because it bought off the political opposition of elite incumbents, and it combined a winner-take-all funding model with a strong myth of meritocracy to blame those who lost out. The combination of tuition increases and adjunctification was tenable as long as enrollments kept increasing.
Unfortunately, several decades’ worth of holding actions have led to severe complacency among the most highly placed in the profession. Now that enrollments are slipping in many places, bad political habits are proving hard to shake. As the saying goes, when the tide goes out, you see who was swimming naked.
In very broad strokes, there’s a great deal of truth in Shirky’s account. But it treats higher ed in a vacuum. The same period of holding actions for higher education has been a period of holding actions for the American middle class. Stagnant wages were made tolerable first by increasing the number of women in the workforce, and then by taking on greater consumer debt. We hit the limits of that strategy in 2008, when the finance bubble popped. Since then, labor force participation has dropped dramatically, too. All of a sudden, income inequality is a hot issue.
In that larger context, it’s easy to read changes in higher education as consistent with changes in the larger political economy. The elites are doing better than ever; everyone else is struggling, but cultural myths around merit make it difficult to organize around that struggle. To the extent that education was the preferred apolitical answer to economic struggle, an extended recession has suddenly cast college as the god that failed. Put differently, public higher education struggles to the extent that it’s trying to create a middle class for a country that no longer understands what it takes to create one.
Taken outside that context, it’s easy to get the prescriptions wrong. It’s politically impossible to hold one sector sacred while everything else gets gutted. And it’s unrealistic to expect the few for whom the system is working to lead the drive for change.
In a less dramatic way, Rebecca Schumann -- also known as pankisseskafka -- raised eyebrows on Twitter with her suggestion of getting U.S. News to base its rankings of colleges on their adjunct percentages. The idea was to use consumer/peer pressure to shame colleges into converting more slots to full-time.
Reading that from a community college perspective, I could only shrug. As a sector, community colleges are where the adjunct issue is the most pronounced, and where the U.S. News rankings mean approximately zero. This is also where “shaming” would do the least good -- cc’s are run on shoestring budgets -- and possibly the most harm, since the entire sector lacks prestige already. If her proposal were enacted, cc’s would be even worse off than they already are, and the elite institutions that could actually afford to make the change would get brownie points for already being wealthy. A proposal floated in the name of fairness would wind up rewarding the strong and punishing the weak.
That’s what happens in a vacuum. You can’t just fix one thing.
Airplane II was a farce, by design. Dad was supposed to laugh. But what’s going on with higher education in America will be more tragedy than farce if we don’t stop treating it as if it were in a vacuum of its own. This vacuum isn’t funny.
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