Word Play at the MLA

December 28, 2005

Professors who specialize in language can probably draw from a vast reservoir of choice words to describe the current fiscal climate of academe. And based on one small sample, few of those words are good.

For Jeffrey J. Williams, an English professor at Carnegie Mellon University, the word is “debt.” Williams was one of the professors who shared his choice at a session called “Academic Labor: Keywords for Current Conditions” at the Modern Language Association’s annual convention in Washington Tuesday.

Professors who went through college in the 1970s and 1980s may not have dealt with student debt, Williams said, but they’d better start talking about it now. “Sex is not the great forbidden,” he said. “People talk about it all the time. Money is the great forbidden.”

Williams noted that, as fear of debt nudges students toward more work-oriented colleges and programs of study, the humanities will be the first to suffer. “A public [university] used to cost less than a laptop,” Williams said. “With less state aid, the universities have gone corporate, and so are the students” as they increasingly must manage private loans from banks.

Like several other speakers, Williams pointed out that states contributed about 80 percent of funding for public higher education after World War II, a number that he put at closer to 30 percent now. He and others argued that the broad access to higher education spawned by the G.I. Bill is becoming a historical exception.

“[College] is no longer a public entitlement,” Williams said, “but a private service … that is paid for more directly by consumers. Debt puts a sizable tariff on social hope.” He added that, as college has become more of a typical market commodity, students and institutions, in their cost-benefit analyses, have become oriented toward programs that lead directly to higher earning potential, increasingly pushing students away from conventional institutions toward the burgeoning for-profit institutions.

For Francis J. Donoghue, an associate English professor at Ohio State University, “prestige” is the word of the moment. Donoghue said that strong liberal arts programs have become a sign of prestige, reserved for top tier institutions, and that institutions left out of the top tier, and desperate for money, are turning away from liberal arts, and often from the idea of intellectual prestige altogether.

Donoghue added that, as colleges have become more corporate and job oriented, many people “no longer trust college as a place for intellectual broadening.” That distrust, combined with soaring costs, Donoghue said, is pushing students to the University of Phoenixes of the world, the “anti-intellectual, anti-prestige universities,” as he put it. He cited Phoenix’s founder, John Sperling (who has a Ph.D. in economic history from the University of Cambridge), as having once said: “We’re not going for that ‘expand their minds’ bullshit.”

Liberal arts, Donoghue said, have ceased to be a societal ideal and are now relegated to the realm of the elite, where they become part of the air of exclusivity that colleges seek for branding purposes. Apparently, Donoghue said, the branding is working. He noted a survey documented in the book The Winner-Take-All Society. In it, respondents picked the Princeton University law school as one of the top 10 in the nation. Princeton, though it has a mighty name, has no law school.

What it all adds up to, in the word chosen by Paul Lauter, an English professor at Trinity College, in Connecticut, is “rage.” Lauter said that, in business, “people will do what they can get away with,” and that as colleges have become more businesslike, the same is true in the academy. Lauter railed against the labor practices of private institutions that deny graduate student unions, and against the once rare but now ubiquitous practice of employing non-tenure track faculty members. “We have to think of ways we can intervene,” he said, “to make governing or living untenable for” administrators who act like corporate managers.

Most of the audience members felt that academe has little hope of turning out of its downward spiral -- funding cuts, program cuts, more funding cuts -- without a substantial increase in federal funding for students and institutions.

Michael Hale, an English teacher at Ventura County Community College, in California, thought that removing some conflicts of interest might help students foot the college bill. Hale recently graduated from California State University at Northridge, part of the largest public system in the country. During his four years there, the Board of Trustees approved fee raises of around 70 percent, he said, adding that “most of the trustees own banks.”

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