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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


Renewing Higher Education's Covenants

The agreement between institutions and students has broken down. How can we build it back up?

September 10, 2020

In the wake of the announcement that Northeastern University would be expelling 11 first-year students for violating social distancing rules, while also keeping their tuition payments, Tressie McMillan Cottom remarked on Twitter, “I truly believe that the way universities are breaking their covenant with students during the pandemic will not be forgotten for a generation. What a way to blow a couple of hundred years of trust.”[1]

I’ve been thinking a lot about this word, “covenant,” how apt its use is in this situation, how degraded our covenants have become, how a big part of moving forward to a sustainable higher ed ecosystem requires us to renew and even remake our covenants with students.

A covenant is an agreement, a promise between parties. The circumstances of the pandemic have revealed how restricted the covenant between institutions and students has become. Students have essentially been reduced to “payers of tuition,” with colleges the providers of credit. It is a marketplace distilled to its essence, and we are seeing how bad this state of affairs is in real time, as schools flail about with their reopening plans, becoming coronavirus hot spots, seeding infections that will spread beyond the local community as students are subsequently sent home.

Writing at The Atlantic, Adam Harris observes that “college leaders should have seen this coming,” and of course they should have, and I’m certain they did, because how could they not? For sure, there is plenty of criticism to go around when it comes to institutional leadership during this pandemic, but the sheer ubiquity of these problems suggests it is much more than a problem of leadership.

We have a system where incentives are fundamentally misaligned. This has led to a state where schools and administrators are in open conflict with their staff, faculty and students. This is not only apparent in the suspensions and punishments schools are inflicting on students who violate campus policies regarding the pandemic, but also in the rise in use of Protctorio and Honorlock, literal surveillance technologies that are promoted as essential to “academic integrity.”

It is distressing to see the relationship between institutions and students being reduced to one centered on surveillance, control and punishment. These are not values we should associate with learning.

Honorlock boasts of technology that prevents students from using multiple devices simultaneously to prevent accessing answers online. It also features the Live Pop-In™, which allows a proctor to spontaneously jump in to a view of the student and their work/living space, and even voice detection, presumably to see if someone is giving help off-screen.

Pardon my language, but this is batshit crazy. If instruction requires literal surveillance to maintain “integrity,” we are well past the point of meaningful learning. Pedagogy has been thrown out the window, replaced with a credentialing machine, increasingly monitored by AI.

We must back away from these practices before the infection grows any deeper. They are anti-student, anti-learning, anti-education, anti-common sense, even. This is a kind of ultimate manifestation of working from “operations on down,” rather than “mission on up.”

I think the truth is that we have been breaking our covenants with students for quite some time. The rise in student debt is a broken covenant. Adjunctification is a broken covenant. The fact that at some research universities a significant portion of student tuition pays faculty to not teach is a broken covenant. According to this study from Charles Schwartz, an emeritus professor at Cal Berkeley, 40 percent of student tuition at his institution goes toward funding departmental research.

Outsourcing dorms and food service to private operators is a breaking of the covenant, as is the construction bond debt that saddles generations of students with increased tuition. Athletics subsidies that can equal up to 10 percent of tuition is a breaking of the covenant.

Those covenants were broken by state legislatures in their steady defunding of public institutions, which has required schools to look elsewhere for the necessary dollars to operate. These moves have been the veritable definition of penny wise but pound foolish as we’ve seen how institutions are being squeezed by those private operators whose only focus is revenue and profits.

These covenants have been discarded along the way in order to protect operations and now, here we are, with the daily higher ed news being one disaster after another.

I’m certain that learning is still happening despite these disasters, because it has always happened before, but the key word here is “despite.” The efforts of faculty, staff and administrators to cobble something together despite the fundamental disconnect between mission and operations does not solve the problem of that disconnect.

It is, for sure, a problem of the source of funding, but it is not only a problem of the source of funding.

Kevin Carey writing at Washington Monthly presented a serious and thoughtful proposal addressing the funding problem. Matt Reed offered some necessary amendments of his own.

Addressing the funding problem, however, is not sufficient to renew the covenant. Making a broken system affordable does not fix the system. The funding is necessary but nowhere near sufficient.

My hope is that my book Sustainable. Resilient. Free.: The Future of Public Higher Education opens up some avenues for discussion on what we have to do in addition to funding our public postsecondary institutions.

We have to start with the mission, and let the operations follow. We’re seeing now that the opposite approach simply does not work.

We must consider the work of the institution, the teaching and learning, first. The rest can follow.


If you have thoughts on higher education's covenants, you can reach me at [email protected].

[1] Cottom’s Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy is a book-length exploration of part of the broken covenant, as for-profit colleges exploited a system that privileges credentialing above all, and how a privatized public system makes it easier for the for-profit operators to exploit students.

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