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Battling With the System
January 13, 2011 - 7:30pm

A familiar truism about academia is that the battles are so big because the stakes are so small. Academics will fight over anything, from journal rankings (and which journals “count”), which department can use the word "rhetoric" in course titles, to who gets the credit for a big idea. For the most part, I've kept out of such battles because I need my energy for other things.

I'm also a fairly flexible person and I play well in groups. However, I do have principles that I struggle to protect. One of the most important to me is that, no matter what we decide is best for the university, students aren't hurt in the process. This means that students should expect the best education we can give them, and students should expect that the tuition they pay will be put to their benefit, not the benefit of bloated bureaucratic budgets or nonsensical budget allocations. I'm not naively suggesting that academia is a pay-for-service situation, but rather that the university should not skimp on providing those services to students in the interest of "capturing" more of their revenue.

In an era of budget cuts and budget restructuring that has each unit responsible for its own budget, this has become more apparent to me. As units grapple over each tuition dollar, we find ourselves decrying other departments for "stealing" our students, as though that weren't more dependent on the subject matter and teaching than on kidnapping. Universities see some offices asking students to pay steep fees on top of tuition in order to subsidize other programs. We see faculty pay being cut or frozen while also being encouraged to work more, teach more and spend more time creating new courses that will attract students.

Too often I see an attitude among some administrators that assumes that students (or their families) have unlimited funds and will quietly accept any tuition increases or program fees. Very little attention is paid to the needs of students in this regard. A fee of a few hundred dollars for a program may often be the deciding factor as to whether a student can participate or not. An increase in the amount of loans a student must take out means saddling that student with a life of debt. I struggle with being complicit in this: in wanting to offer innovative programs, I have to cooperate with a system built to profit from them.

As a tenure-track professor, there is little I can say or do to change that system. I have become too familiar with the look of a senior administrator that tells me that I am naive and idealistic when I demand that every program be accessible to students who qualify, regardless of their financial situations.

I wish I could say more on the matter, but I've been told I'll lose that battle, even though the stakes are actually important.

Boston, Massachusetts in the USA

Denise Horn ( is an Assistant Professor of International Affairs at Northeastern University and a founding member of the editorial collective at University of Venus. Her prior posts have included: Dear Professor, I Want to Be Your Friend, Be Careful What You Wish For, The Class That Never Ends and Conversations That Count.


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