'The Lost Soul of Higher Education'

To begin an article by saying that American higher education is in a state of crisis would be -- at least to most readers of this site -- so familiar as to border on tautology. "Well, sure," the reader can be imagined thinking. "But is she referring to the years of economic turmoil and drastic budget cuts? The adjunctification of the faculty? The neglect of the liberal arts and humanities? The watering down of academic standards?"

October 20, 2010

To begin an article by saying that American higher education is in a state of crisis would be -- at least to most readers of this site -- so familiar as to border on tautology. "Well, sure," the reader can be imagined thinking. "But is she referring to the years of economic turmoil and drastic budget cuts? The adjunctification of the faculty? The neglect of the liberal arts and humanities? The watering down of academic standards?"

In this case, the answer would be, "Yes, for a start." And the author of that answer would be Ellen Schrecker, whose recent book The Lost Soul of Higher Education: Corporatization, the Assault on Academic Freedom, and the End of the American University (The New Press) counts all of the above among a host of critical issues confronting academe. The book grew out of an opinion piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education in which Schrecker, a professor of history at Yeshiva University, wrote that the "assault on the academy" by conservative critics such as David Horowitz poses a greater threat to academic freedom than did McCarthyism in the 1950s.

In The Lost Soul of Higher Education, however, Horowitz and other detractors of academe are depicted as just one facet of a much broader set of problems. Schrecker stressed to Inside Higher Ed that the book's primary focus might be summarized as "the damage that the 'casualization' of the academic labor force is doing to academic freedom and the quality of higher education."

In an e-mail interview, Schrecker shed further light on the book's themes and explained why it is incumbent on faculty in particular to stand up and speak out.

Q: What are the "major flaws [of the academic community] ... that have in part ... contributed to its present precarious condition," and how have they done so?

A: Let me begin with three (or at least two and a half) cheers for American higher education. For all its flaws – and they are many – it is still a remarkably diverse, exciting, and innovative enterprise that not only stretches the boundaries of our knowledge and broadens the American mind, but also serves as the main source of social mobility within the United States. That said, it is also a system that reflects and to some extent increases the inequalities within our society. Its flaws, it must be noted, do not stem from some uniquely academic shortcomings, but are the product of larger social and political forces. In other words, our universities are mirrors of our society. So, if we are seeing an increasingly inegalitarian, competitive, and stressed-out academic community, welcome to the world of 21st century America.

The issue, of course, is money. Since the financial crunch of the late 1960s and 1970s, American colleges and universities have worried about their bottom lines. Reduced support from state legislatures and the federal government’s decision to aid higher education through grants and loans to students rather than through the direct funding of individual institutions forced those institutions to look for other sources of income, while seeking to cut costs. In the process, academic administrators adapted themselves to the neoliberal ethos of the time. They reoriented their institutions toward the market at the expense of those elements of their educational missions that served no immediate economic function.

As they came to rely ever more heavily on tuition payments, they diverted resources to whatever would attract and retain students -- elaborate recreational facilities, gourmet dining halls, state-of-the-art computer centers, and winning football teams. At the same time, they slashed library budgets, deferred building maintenance, and – most deleteriously – replaced full-time tenure-track faculty members with part-time and temporary instructors who have no academic freedom and may be too stressed out by their inadequate salaries and poor working conditions to provide their students with the education they deserve. Meanwhile, rising tuitions are making a college degree increasingly unaffordable to the millions of potential students who most need that credential to make it into the middle class.

Unfortunately, the competitive atmosphere produced by the academic community’s long-term obsession with status and its more recent devotion to the market makes it hard for its members to collaborate in solving its problems. Institutions compete for tuition-paying undergraduates and celebrity professors who can boost their institutions’ U.S. News & World Report ratings. Faculty members compete for tenure and research grants. And students compete for grades after having competed for admission to the highly ranked schools that will provide them with the credentials for a position within the American elite. Until the denizens of academe – and their off-campus supporters – recognize the need for collective action not only to restore their lost public funding but also to rededicate themselves to their core educational missions, American higher education will not emerge from its current funk.

Q: The very definition of "academic freedom" is, of course, contentious. How would you define the term?

A: In many ways academic freedom is like pornography: we know it when we see it, even if a simple definition eludes us. It developed because the nation’s faculties needed some kind of special protection if they were to carry out their primary functions of teaching and research without the fear of being punished for doing so. It is related to – but not the same as – free speech. While the courts have (at least until some recent bad decisions) protected the First Amendment rights of professors at public colleges and universities, they offer no such protection to those who, like myself, work at private schools. Even so, because academic freedom is derived from our activities as teachers and scholars and not our status as citizens, faculty members at every type of school and at every level enjoy (or should enjoy) it.

But academic freedom does more than just protect an individual professor’s freedom of speech. It is also a professional perquisite that ideally enables faculty members to protect the quality of higher education. They do this by maintaining control over their own and their colleagues’ academic responsibilities. That autonomy is a crucial element in the structure of academic freedom; not only does it keep irrelevant political, personal, or economic considerations from subverting the educational process, but it also ensures that qualified academic professionals are in charge of that process. It operates through a variety of practices and procedures, like tenure and faculty governance, that have evolved over the past century to protect the independence of the American academy. After all, scholars and scientists cannot merely follow orders; the new knowledge they produce must come from the unfettered interplay of their trained minds with the data they collect. Similarly, as teachers, academics can develop their students’ powers of rational and independent thought only if they are themselves autonomous within their classrooms. When outsiders intervene and override the professional judgment of academics in key areas like curriculums and personnel, they threaten the integrity of higher education.

Of course, their academic freedom does not allow professors to do or say whatever they please. On the contrary, they must conform to the mores of their profession. They must operate within the established boundaries of their disciplines and abide by the same standards of evidence and accountability as their fellow scholars. And they must not misuse their classrooms by propounding irrelevant material or taking advantage of students. A variety of institutions enforce these professional obligations – departmental committees, faculty senates, disciplinary associations, scholarly journals, and so on. Through peer review and the constant assessment of each individual’s work, these institutions ensure the quality of academic scholarship and teaching. Sloppy research will rarely get published; poorly prepared lecturers will rarely get tenure. Naturally conflicts arise – academics are, after all, only human – but a general consensus about what constitutes good work within each field ordinarily exists. Significantly, however, this system only functions if the men and women who enforce the norms of the academic profession are academics themselves. Who else possesses the expertise and experience needed to evaluate the quality of someone’s research or teaching? In almost every instance, when academic freedom is under attack, it is because outsiders seek to make academic judgments – a situation that not only violates academic freedom but also undermines the quality of higher education.

Q: "[T]he struggle for academic freedom," you note, "...is both a high-minded campaign for free expression as well as a more self-interested one for professional status and respectability." And, indeed, it does seem that professors' complaints are often dismissed as elitism, laziness, or greed. How can this distinction be made?

A: Professors are getting a bad rap these days – and understandably so. After all, a full-time tenured position in a college or university is, as many observers have noted, the last good job in America. No wonder, therefore, that ordinary citizens, who currently face so much economic uncertainty, resent the security and autonomy that tenured professors enjoy and, thus, buy into the characterization of the academic community as a coven of over-privileged, over-the-hill time-servers and radicals. But such stereotypes ignore the fact that most faculty members today are neither dead wood nor rabble rousers, but part-time or temporary instructors with no job security and lousy wages who can – and do – lose their jobs if they say anything too controversial in class or give their students low grades. These stereotypes also misconstrue the reasons why tenure exists and how it protects academic freedom and the quality of higher education.

To begin with, tenure is not a lifetime guarantee. Tenured professors can be dismissed if they are unfit to carry out their academic duties, but only after a quasi-judicial hearing before a faculty committee that offers them significant guarantees of due process. Tenure, in other words, simply makes it harder (though not impossible as the firing of dozens of tenured people during the McCarthy years reveals) to punish someone for inadmissible political or personal reasons. It allows faculty members to push at the boundaries of accepted knowledge both in their research and their teaching without the fear that espousing an unorthodox idea might end their careers. But tenure has another function as well. It attracts talented people into the academy and protects its quality. The security that tenure provides makes up for the economic disadvantages of the academic profession, whose members, faculty stars excepted, rarely make as much money as other similarly educated professionals. At the same time, the rigorous process through which they are hired and achieve tenure ensures that the men and women who staff the nation’s faculties are competent, experienced individuals who deserve a lot more respect than they have been getting these days.

Q: "Much of [the current threat to academic freedom]," you write, "comes from the federal government." In what ways has this changed -- or stayed the same -- in the first two years of the Obama administration?

A: In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the Bush administration understandably panicked and instituted heightened security measures that made it much harder for the academic community to carry out its research, teaching, and related activities. Immigration restrictions barred controversial scholars and prevented students and scientists from certain “unfriendly” nations from reaching the United States or working on some projects, even if they opposed their countries’ regimes. Secrecy and surveillance increased in many areas, while biological scientists had to cope with such restrictive regulations on their work with dangerous organisms that many simply abandoned the field. The Obama administration has promised to roll back many of these restrictions. And it did, somewhat belatedly, admit some previously excluded individuals to the U.S. In other areas, however, it is unclear how much progress has been made.

An equally, if not more, serious threat came from the attempt of the Bush administration’s Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings, to reshape higher education by instituting more assessment and accountability. While it would certainly be useful to discover what our students have learned, that project should be in the hands of faculty members who understand the educational process. Unfortunately, Spellings and her business-oriented associates relied on a narrow set of largely economic and quantifiable criteria that threatened to impose a one-size-fits-all model on the nation’s highly diverse system of higher education. Though Congress rejected many of Spellings’ “reforms,” the Obama administration may not. The current Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, is as fixated on accountability as his predecessor. And, like her, he is looking at the numbers instead of figuring out how to assess the broader knowledge that higher education provides. Neither official, it should be noted, has seriously tried to find out what current faculty members feel is important.

Q: You write that "the transformation of students into consumers changed the curriculum," as "students and their parents began to demand that education lead directly to employment." What is the argument against allowing the interests (and future employment prospects) of students to impact curricular offerings?

A: There is a difference between education and vocational training. And, what we are seeing today is the vocationalization of higher education. As they struggle to attract warm, tuition-bearing bodies, many schools have begun to offer ever more career-oriented courses of study. That’s what students and their parents supposedly want, especially at a time when they view college as an investment that should lead to an immediate economic pay-off. But that kind of short-term thinking is damaging -- to students, to higher education, and to society as a whole. To begin with, most students graduating today will change their careers at least six times before they leave the workforce. Courses that are narrowly tailored to particular jobs may not serve these students well if the machinery they have been trained to operate becomes technologically obsolete or the occupational niche they were planning to fill ends up in Asia. They need broader skills and an educational background that will allow them to adapt themselves to a wide variety of work environments.

More importantly, however, transforming higher education into vocational training has profoundly undemocratic implications. It creates the kind of tracking system that only exacerbates the pre-existing inequities within the American system of higher education. Ivy League undergraduates do not study M.R.I. technology or speech pathology; students at third-tier state universities and community colleges do. But there is no reason why the latter should not also be exposed to the liberal arts. While it would be unrealistic for all the nation’s colleges and universities to ignore their students’ demands for specific job-related skills, they must also give them the intellectual equipment they need for making sense of the world around them. I guess I’m something of a fuddy duddy here, but I believe that preparation for citizenship is just as important as vocational training. By exposing students to a wide range of new and old ideas and helping them articulate their own responses to those ideas, America’s institutions of higher learning can prepare those students for meaningful participation in our democratic political system. And, it should. There is more to life than a paycheck.

Q: "For many of the administrators [and others]... who had long been trying to restructure American higher education, the financial meltdown brimmed with promise." To what extent has the economic downturn been used by administrators, in particular, as a pretext for structural changes that they would not otherwise have been free to make?

A: I certainly don’t think administrators have welcomed the current financial situation as a way to take advantage of their faculties. Even when they find themselves forced to curtail hiring, freeze wages, and even cut them, many campus leaders still struggle to protect the jobs of their tenured and tenure-track professors. At the same time, however, some are using the crisis to whittle away at the faculty’s role in university governance and reduce the power of faculty unions. Admittedly, many academics do tend to resist change, especially when it threatens their own and their colleagues’ turf, but they are not unreasonable and, when given genuine responsibility, can and do come up with sensible reforms – if only they are consulted. But often they are not.

And recently all too many institutions have imposed structural changes without any significant faculty input, especially when it comes to eliminating whole programs and departments. The humanities, in particular, are taking enormous hits. Classics has become an endangered species. Just the other day the SUNY system’s University at Albany released plans to eliminate all of its modern languages except Spanish, thus providing its students with even less instruction in a foreign tongue than many high schools do. Politically vulnerable fields – labor studies, for example – are also on the chopping block. Elsewhere, academic leaders are trying to save money through outsourcing and on-line courses. However, a recent experiment at one of the California state universities where the remedial freshman math course was offered over the internet may make administrators think twice. When computers replaced classroom teachers, the normal pass rate of about 70 percent fell precipitously: only 40 percent of the students passed the course.

Q: You describe the book as "a plea to and for the faculty." What do you hope faculty members will get from your book, and how do you hope they will act on it?

A: As the problems confronting higher education are becoming increasingly evident, one important voice, that of the faculty, is missing from the public debate. Pundits, politicians, business leaders, administrators, even students, all offer suggestions, provide expert testimony, and serve on national commissions, but faculty members have been largely left out of the conversation. Yet they are the key “stakeholders” (to use that benighted term) within the academic world, the men and women with front-line experience in the nation’s classrooms, who have made a lifetime commitment to the academy and whose insights and collaboration are crucial if U.S. higher education is to retain its former glory. I wrote this book in order to give the faculty’s perspective on the current situation and to insert the academic profession’s voice into the national discussion.

But it’s also an attempt to induce the faculty to use that voice. For the past 40 years, professors have been abandoning their collective responsibility for maintaining the quality of higher education. Some have been careerist or lazy, but most, I think, are just overwhelmed. With over 70 percent of the instruction in the nation’s institutions of higher learning in the hands of people with part-time and temporary appointments, the tenured and tenure-track faculty members who traditionally ran American higher education can no longer do so. They no longer have the time. Forced by today’s academic rat race to compete ever more feverishly for grants and publish ever more books and articles, they must also carry an administrative load made increasingly onerous by external demands for accountability and by chores that only they can perform in departments staffed largely by adjuncts. At the same time, their institutions are adopting a top-down corporate model of governance that erodes their traditional power. Thus, even if they had the time to devote to university governance, faculty members find themselves sidelined from key decision-making about such central educational matters as what to teach and who should teach it.

This situation must be reversed; faculty members must return to their traditional role at the heart of the university. They must explain to the public – and to their students and their administrators as well – why their input is essential if American higher education is to meet its current challenges. This reversal will not be accomplished easily; the nation’s faculties face a legacy of more than forty years of demonization by the media and marginalization on their campuses. Collective action – through unions, faculty senates, and organizations like the American Association of University Professors – is crucial. Fortunately, the situation is not yet hopeless. As many administrators admit, faculty members still have considerable clout within their institutions, even if they do not always exercise it. At the same time, as the failure of David Horowitz’s recent campaign against academic freedom revealed, once politicians and the general public understand the real issues involved, they do support the intellectual openness and faculty autonomy that American higher education requires. And, who knows, they might even pay for it.


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