In one of his final posts of 2013, political blogger Andrew Sullivan noted that it was the year journalism “surrendered.”
The tipping point for Sullivan was the announcement that Time magazine has internally reorganized so the newsroom reports directly to the business executives, tearing down a wall that has existed since the inception of the free press.
The rationale for Time’s move is that the magazine can now “explore new revenue opportunities,” which is code for the “native advertising” practices utilized at websites like Buzzfeed – which substitutes memes for news - and Politico - which makes no apologies for the fact that its Chief White House Correspondent engages in de facto influence peddling, as amply demonstrated by Erik Wemple at the Washington Post.
Of course, the whole discussion hinges on believing that a free press is an important part of a functioning democracy. The Constitution seems to think so.
This is not a particularly cheery way to start a new year, but Sullivan’s post has me thinking about public higher education and surrender, how we’ll know when we’ve thrown in the towel.
What is the public higher education equivalent to Time privileging “revenue opportunities” over its responsibilities as part of the free press? The purpose of public higher education isn’t enshrined in our nation’s founding documents. If you believe that public colleges and universities exist primarily for job training, then you can stop reading because what I have to say below shouldn’t be overly worrisome.
And part of me wonders if we’ve already surrendered. Seventy-five percent of instructional faculty are contingent. Adjuncts paid per course make, on average, $3,200, and significantly less than that at community colleges.
Billionaire donors are given de facto hiring authority over some academic positions at public universities.
I see the University of Virginia board’s attempted ouster of Theresa Sullivan as a combo surrender/takeover. The board’s biggest mistake was moving too soon. If they’d waited for 2013 and the “year of the MOOC,” they might’ve gotten enough public opinion on their side.
But let’s say we haven’t surrendered, that these things are just part of an ongoing battle where the result is still in the balance. (I’m trying to be at least a little optimistic.)
What would surrender look like? At what point does public higher education – the human exchange and creation of knowledge - turn into something else.
Here are some thinking-out-loud, possible signs of surrender in public higher education:
1. General education credit at is given for MOOC completion without the MOOC having gone through an actual accreditation review.
2. Course assignments are completed and assessed entirely through the interaction between student and software.
3. A gradual end of tenure where no new tenure-line positions are created, and all retiring tenured faculty are replaced with full-time contingent positions overseen by administrators, rather than through shared governance at the department level.
4. As an adjunct to number three, the retention of faculty will be either wholly or significantly dependent on end-of-semester student ratings of instructor effectiveness. Think of it as the customer is always right meeting No Child Left Behind.
5. Automated grading of student writing is used anywhere, ever, as an acceptable substitute for human labor.
6. A significant revenue source for departments comes via kickbacks from publishers/educational resource providers in return for using those resources exclusively in their courses.
7. Instructors are forced to wear advertising-laden NASCAR-style jumpsuits to class in order to provide funding for their own salary.
(Actually, I’d probably do that last one.)
What signs of surrender are you looking for?
In the future, all surrenders will likely come via Twitter, or whatever comes after Twitter.
 (While we can look at the historical example of Hearst’s and Pulitzer’s yellow journalism as a time where the business and editorial sides were merged, the difference is that Hearst and Pulitzer and Colonel McCormick at the Chicago Tribune owned the papers. They were biased, but they weren’t bought and paid for by outside interests. There’s a difference between what Rupert Murdoch does with his newspapers, and the kind of “journalism” that Buzzfeed and Politico practice.)
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