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While the situation at West Virginia University continues to be dire, something interesting is happening that I think is both necessary and instructive when it comes to the battle over the next era of public higher education.

As I argued previously, I believe that higher education as a process by which people become “greater versions of themselves” (in the words of former Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust) is over, to the extent it ever existed, which it did not for many students, but never mind—for a time, including the era in which I was educated, it was true enough to believe in the potential for it being extended to everybody.

My IHE blogging colleague Steven Mintz does us a favor of defining our possible futures. One is “something like the current four-year degree” with some enhancements that create a more integrated experience for more students, improving their odds of becoming “better versions of themselves.”

The other road is “faster, cheaper paths to a marketable credential, for example, by expanding early-college/dual-degree offerings; offering more accelerated and asynchronous, self-paced online courses; and reducing the number of credits required for a degree.”

Now, that second vision sounds fantastic to lots of people, but to put my cards on the table, to me it is a betrayal of the potential for education (wherever it comes from) to help us engage with our deepest human desires for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Many of the folks who embrace this vision are conservative or libertarian types, like this gentleman from Mississippi who wants to stop funding sociology majors, but this attitude is by no means the exclusive province of the right.

The ”university of everywhere/disrupted university” movement of years past, which came out of center-left think tanks and business-minded types, sounded very much like what Mintz describes. The Postsecondary Value Commission, established and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is stocked with education officials, professors, policy analysts and others who also come from the center left and is explicitly engaged in a project that will define the “worth” of a college degree according to its economic return, judged against the costs.

Anyway, we are at this crossroads, and here is this ongoing battle at West Virginia University as an object example. WVU president Gordon Gee and his supporters on the WVU board and in the state Legislature are claiming to be fulfilling the high-minded ideal of a whole education while, in practice, undoubtedly moving the institution towards path No. 2.

Faculty are engaging in concerted pushback against the administration’s announced plans for cutting programs and majors. A group of faculty published an open letter at Boston Review challenging the administration’s narrative around the rationale for and choices of cuts.

At Faculty Senate fora, administrators are being directly confronted with questions that force them to articulate and defend those rationales, revealing the hollowness of their claims of preserving the spirit of the land-grant university. Gee was subject to a vote of no confidence that passed overwhelmingly. Clearly this has gotten under the skin of administration, as the Board of Governors and President Gee issued an open letter of their own protesting what they believe to be “misinformation” about the proposed cuts and their vision for the university.

The debate has spilled over to local media, where columnist Leann Ray at West Virginia Watch takes Gee and West Virginia Senate president Craig Blair to task for not owning up to the role mismanagement has played in creating the present status quo. The Charleston Gazette Mail shared similar sentiments in an editorial declaring that Gee’s “narrative” that he is not to blame for the cuts WVU is facing is “irrelevant.”

I think the events at WVU are illustrating necessary shift in faculty (and student) attitudes and behaviors toward the work of higher education and the institutions in which this work occurs.

One shift is in faculty breaking free of what Fobazi Ettarh calls “vocational awe,” essentially the ideals and values that institutional members internalize in a way that makes them feel their work is inherently good and important and therefore must be protected from all threats, including those from within. Writing in the context of librarianship, Ettarh argued that this belief makes laborers vulnerable to exploitation as they self-sacrifice for the cause of the institution, even as the institution makes it increasingly difficult to fulfill that mission.

The drip, drip, drip that eroded the quality and autonomy of faculty and staff labor has not been enough to drive mass activism, but in the case of WVU, seeing entire departments RIFed while administrators claim this is making the university stronger is a bridge too far.

My hope is that this object lesson resonates for others at institutions not quite at the same stage of crisis as WVU. If an administration is not acting according to the ideals they claim for the institution, for lots of reasons faculty are by far the stakeholders best positioned to make the case when administrations are attempting to use the cover of high-minded ideals even as they strip away essential aspects of a humanistic education.

For sure, faculty members lack concrete power in many of these scenarios, but they do not lack for powerful voices, as WVU’s folks are demonstrating.

The faculty pressure and WVU’s administrative blunders, such as the open contempt shown by WVU’s general counsel during a Faculty Senate forum, and Gee’s insistence that he does not deserve any blame for the state the university finds itself in, is puncturing the shield of what I call “institutional awe,” a term of my own coining drawn from Ettarh’s original concept, in which administrators are allowed to justify any and all decisions in the service of “preserving the university.”

Under the rubric of institutional awe, even clear betrayals of institutional values (such as creating a casualized, precarious teaching workforce that harms the overall quality of instruction) become necessities, no matter who or what individuals are harmed in the process. Institutional awe turns the essential purpose of these institutions that were explicitly established for the benefit of the people upside down, suggesting it is instead the individual’s job to sacrifice for the preservation of the institution.

Gee is a particularly ripe figure for this puncturing, having moved through a career in which he’s often encouraged the public to conflate the institution with himself. I’m certain that members of the WVU community would’ve been distressed by the proposed cuts no matter how they were presented, but Gee’s insistence that he deserves no blame and is only acting in the best interests of the university must particularly rankle.

Calling out the mismanagement and hypocrisy, exposing the bogus rationale of institutional awe makes space for a more meaningful and deeper debate about the underlying values that should be driving the institution and whatever changes are coming.

It seems that some version of the proposed cuts at WVU is inevitable, but by moving the frame of discussion into the realm of values, faculty and students are making space for the long battle of determining what the next era of higher education will offer.

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