• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.


Sustainability v. Competition

The President wants colleges and universities to compete. But is that what we need to become sustainable?

August 26, 2013

In his recent address, President Obama has made it clear that he wants colleges and universities to “compete” with each other. Through a series of yet-to-be-specified metrics, institutes of higher education will be measured not on inputs (as the U.S. News and World Report rankings work), but on outcomes like graduation rates and job placement.

The intention is determine the institute’s “value,” so that matriculating students can make better decisions. Ultimately, these metrics may be tied to Federal carrots like Pell Grants, with students being restricted to lower amounts for poorly performing schools. Presumably, schools will compete with others in the same category, so community colleges aren’t asked to measure themselves against the Ivy League.

The President’s proposals indicate a wholehearted embrace of a consumerist point of view regarding education.

In his recently released book, Why Teach?: In Defense of a Real Education, Prof. Mark Edmundson of the University of Virginia decries this trend in his opening essay, “Liberal Arts and Lite Entertainment,” first published in 1997.

Edmundson, I believe correctly, identifies the greatest danger of a consumerist mindset when it comes to education, namely, when we are consumers, we expect the product we are purchasing – be it a big screen television or a college degree – to be delivered to us in a kind of passive exchange. We are to sit back and let the consumption happen. In Edmundson’s view, this mindset has led to a loss of passion and engagement, not just for students, but for professors, who are subject to end-of-semester student evaluations that mimic Amazon ratings and must tailor their instruction to the (relatively narrow) desires of the consuming students.

The colleges and universities of 1997, under pressure of declining enrollments following the Baby Boomers, were driven to compete on things like amenities, dorms and fitness centers and pro-level football teams that are now luxuries some universities can’t afford.

Today, the pressures are financial, and under President Obama’s vision, schools are going to be asked to compete on a different metric, “value.”

The “competition” ethos is embedded in the American DNA. The very purpose of an education is to “get ahead.” Of course, getting ahead assumes others have fallen behind. President Bush decided that no children should be left as part of this race, while President Obama has decided that at some point, we’ll all meet at the top.

But competition invariably has winners and losers. Given that we see access to a quality education as an essential component of achieving prosperity, should we be viewing the providing of it as a competition?

How well has competing worked out for the colleges and universities outside of the massive-endowment-elite thus far?

Competition is dynamic and energizing, but literally exhausting. Even the most success-motivated people and institutions run out of steam. Microsoft – at one point the most successful corporation in America – now finds itself being destroyed from within due to an internal management philosophy known as “stack ranking” that requires individual employees to compete with each other.

Rather than operating as a kind of collaborative system, Microsoft runs as armies of one, where the goal is not excellence per se, but to be just enough better than the next guy. The erosion in creativity and quality and employee satisfaction and retention is inevitable. Meanwhile, Apple and Google take turns munching on Microsoft’s lunch.

While there are thousands of colleges and universities, rather than thinking about them as individual entities in competition with each other, why aren’t we thinking of them as a system that works in cooperation, especially at the Federal oversight level?

The individual race towards “value,” where the degree is the commodity feels like a certain trek to the bottom. This may happen slowly for the have nots of the current education firmament, and never for the have’s, but it seems inevitable. While there is perhaps an argument that the low-performers who wash out of the system because they are unable to compete “deserve” what they get, think of the damage that’s been done to the survivors as efficiency and value are pushed ahead of – I don’t know – quality?

Rather than asking us to compete with each other, why can’t the conversation be about creating something sustainable?

I think about the virtues of sustainability v. competition in regards to my own career as a writer. In many ways, writing is a competition. There’s a limited number of places to publish, and a finite audience to read it. The traditional scorekeeper in this arena (at least initially) is the publishing industry, the gatekeepers who are capable of issuing advances and shepherding books into stores, or in front of reviewers.

I am then judged by the scorekeeper on things like sales and critical attention. By these metrics, I’m falling behind in the race. My novel sold modestly or worse. I have a collection of short stories and middle-grade novel manuscripts that have my agent postponing and ignoring scheduled phone calls, things he simply does not do under normal circumstances. Another completed novel manuscript is at least a year away, more likely 2-3, and given my track record, publishers won’t be tripping over themselves to publish it.

But I long ago recognized that I cannot view my writing as a competition because my goal is not success, per se, but sustainability. In Why Teach? Edmundson says, “Education is about finding out what form of work for you is close to being play – work you do so easily that it restores you as you go,” and for me, that work is writing and teaching. I have been writing seriously for fewer than 20 years. If the actuarial tables hold true for me, I have another 40+ years on this planet to occupy my time, and I’d like to be able to do it with this work that is difficult, but is also like play.

Rising to the top by winning a big prize or having a bestseller would make sustaining writing as a career much easier, at least when it would come to getting books published. But this is neither necessary, nor sufficient. Even if “Pulitzer Prize Winner” appeared in front of my name everywhere, the books still need writing.

I happen to think that my stories and my middle-grade novel are fantastic (though why wouldn’t I?), and deserve publishing and massive audiences, but more important is the many many days I spent working on them, that time at play which is what sustains me day to day. I will be disappointed if they don’t find a route to some kind of audience, but this is unlikely to stop me from writing.

Students need places to learn. We want colleges and universities to be great, but I don’t see how competition gets us from here to there without ruining them in the process.

Not every school can be Harvard, just like only one fiction writer a year gets to add Pulitzer Prize Winner in front of their name. But we don’t need thousands of  Harvards, and not all writers need prizes. The current student loan system is not sustainable. Neither is an academic labor market where 75% of instructional faculty is contingent. Nothing in the President’s framing of the very real current problems of high tuition and student debt addresses these issues. To me, it feels like it's all interrelated, that we can't look at only part of the picture and expect a satisfactory solution.

I’m grateful that President Obama started this conversation, but I worry we’re talking about the wrong things.


Does Twitter have a sustainable business model, or is it one of those things that increases in value without ever turning a profit?




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