Is Fundamental Change Really 'Inevitable'?

On November 17, an article here entitled “Is Higher Ed Ready to Change?” referred to “the embrace of the necessity and inevitability of fundamental change in higher education.” It went on to characterize faculty as skeptics about change and acknowledged a certain amount of scapegoating of faculty, stating:


December 6, 2010

On November 17, an article here entitled “Is Higher Ed Ready to Change?” referred to “the embrace of the necessity and inevitability of fundamental change in higher education.” It went on to characterize faculty as skeptics about change and acknowledged a certain amount of scapegoating of faculty, stating:

“Exactly why transformative change has been so hard to come by in higher education was a topic of much discussion at the meetings. As is often the case at meetings of senior administrators and policy analysts, faculty members and their unions came in for much of the blame, for failing to recognize that state and other financial support is unlikely to return to historical levels and for blocking curricular and pedagogical reforms… .” But the article also pointed out that faculty representatives are usually not present during such discussions.

Are faculty really obstacles to needed change or are they performing an important function by opposing administrative initiatives?

The budget woes seem to many commentators to be an inarguable reason for “fundamental change” in education, but is money really a sufficient excuse for reorganizing and perhaps thereby weakening an effective system of higher education that has been the envy of the world? Further, do today’s temporary budget problems really reflect a permanent inability to fund higher education in the future, a disinclination to educate students in the ways that have been traditional in the past or a dissatisfaction with the quality of prior education?

I think the pressures on education today are twofold: (1) demographic increases in the number of students seeking education combined with insufficient expansion of seats in classrooms to accommodate more students; and (2) opportunistic seeking of changes that will benefit the institutions' bottom lines but not students themselves.

Because faculty have traditionally been advocates not only for their own interests but for those of students as well, their opposition is not the self-serving intransigence of unionized labor, but a cry from the trenches opposing exploitation of a group without a voice -- present and future students -- especially at public universities and from middle- and working-class families.

Administrators once came from faculty ranks but increasingly represent business interests, either explicitly in for-profit institutions, by training when coming to academia with a business background, or by adopting the values and interests of regents selected from the business community. If administrators were once faculty members, the context in which they work changes their values over time. In general, administrators and faculty do not share the same priorities and do not have the same goals.

Whereas faculty care about the lives of individual students, administrators care about the reputation and success of the institution. Administrators want to control costs and provide the most efficient (i.e., cheapest) service to the most possible students regardless of quality. Private-sector administrators take this a step further because they must also maximize profits. Administrators believe that proposing and implementing new initiatives is the heart of their job.

Thus we are chasing an increased graduation rate this year, but last year aimed to enhance the first-year experience, and the year before that we tried to increase student engagement, all while supporting the capital development efforts of the high-priced new executives hired to put the touch on successful alumni (meaning those with dollars, not those with a satisfying job or success in creative endeavors). Administrators are evaluated by measures that have nothing to do with educational experience, such as cost savings or time to graduation. Faculty want to facilitate growth in students whether it shows up in such measures or not, and are unconcerned with cost/efficiency but very concerned about the insufficiency of resources to educate students properly.

A great deal of the faculty resistance to change occurs because many faculty regard these faddish initiatives, along with the emphasis on assessment, as a waste because they divert resources from the classroom. When tenure-track lines are replaced by adjuncts and faculty are denied lab space, travel funding, or even market-average pay, they come to doubt the sincerity of administrative assurances that the institution cares about quality education.

Faculty believe that their own competence depends on professional preparation, quality of ongoing scholarship, ability to involve students in the generation of new knowledge, and mentoring students toward roles that do not necessarily lead directly to corporate life. The less faculty are paid, the less incentive there is to pursue a faculty career, the lower the quality of teaching and the less well-educated students will be.

This happened for decades in the K-12 system; as teaching pay decreased so did the qualifications of new teachers, until now the finger points at teacher quality as an excuse to further starve K-12 systems. In the meantime, desperate parents are hiring tutors and scrambling to enroll their students in the highest-rated schools (often private), while public schools are further starved of funding to do their job well.

Universities were spared that fate for a while, but now we are being treated just as our fellow K-12 educators were. We are resisting, not because we are greedy or unreasonable, but because we do not believe we should work for insufficient pay simply because we care about student welfare.

The latest polls in California, for example, show that the public supports a high-quality university system and wants it to be funded appropriately (which means public subsidy, not exorbitant tuition that denies access to otherwise qualified students). It simultaneously doesn’t want to be taxed, but who does? The value of an educated populace to our society trumps the desire of individual Californians to evade paying for public education. In the past legislators acknowledged that and funded the university anyway. Now greed is good and individual responsibility no longer includes the duty to pay for services that contribute to the common welfare.

The result of these so-called budget pressures, as we try to educate increased numbers of students with ever-smaller budgets, is espousal by administrators of things like online education or larger class sizes or "distance" education despite evidence that these “changes” do not benefit students to the same extent as face-to-face education. For example, at one campus, administrators have encouraged faculty to teach yoked classrooms where the professor is only present in one but is broadcast to students in the other room -- something tried and discarded in the ‘70s when TV teaching failed as an educational innovation.

I am regularly contacted by students at online universities seeking hands-on research experience in my lab, because it is not offered at their school and they cannot apply to graduate programs without it. An administrator’s interest is in having fewer professors teach more students, even though this results in less personal attention to students, the one thing that correlates highest with increased graduation rates.

Their reasons are economic. This year I will be teaching face-to-face a class formerly taught only online. Students are grateful and tell me they hated the previous approach, that they avoid online classes whenever possible. Faculty who teach online have published studies showing that more faculty time is required to teach an online class effectively, not less, so class sizes cannot be increased even though there is no physical seat restriction.

But class sizes are increased and faculty thus are forced to teach less effectively. This kind of experience is being ignored by administrators because they care more about the efficiency of instruction than its quality. Then when professors point out these things, we are accused of resisting fundamental change, as if we have a collective personality flaw that makes us too rigid to recognize good ideas or “inevitability.”

A larger problem is that this focus on temporary budget difficulties obscures any discussion of the role of higher education in our society, the relation between an educated populace and an effective democracy, and the need for fostering such abilities as critical thinking, creativity, initiative, long-term thinking, deeper understandings, or grappling with subtlety and complexity. These are the abilities needed to maintain whatever competitive edge we have in the world economy. Where do new products come from if students receive only job-skills training to be workers but not innovators?

To complicate matters, there are the financial opportunists. There is talk of an "education bubble" generated by profiteers who see education as an untapped market, at the K-12 level (via private charter schools), the job-training level and now the university level. With Obama endorsing the idea that only job skills matter educationally and only community colleges need support, and the idea that everything important about education can be measured via national testing, there is a neglect of quality higher education from local to national government.

This neglect, whether motivated by financial opportunism or budget concerns, is being justified by blaming the victim. In the process of starving education, our society is being encouraged to regard teachers and students as the problem. How struggling schools can be fixed by denying them funding is beyond me, but this attitude that K-12 education is failing and thus not worth investment is now being applied to the college level as well.

Maybe university professors are not deemed underprepared (as K-12 teachers are accused of being), but they are being portrayed as trivial, snobbish, intransigent, selfish, lazy and cynical – and ultimately more concerned about their own working conditions than about their students. Demonizing faculty then excuses whatever untested reform initiative administrators might wish to propose in the name of efficiency.

Teachers must oppose changes they regard as pernicious to students. Students have power only as consumers. Unfortunately, because there is greater demand and less supply, especially among "elite" schools, students today have no leverage. Professors are supposed to speak for students and advocate for higher-quality education. We are also supposed to be society's critics, ask questions about value and purpose, and critically evaluate all proposals. Calling us obstacles to fundamental change when we fulfill our roles is manipulative and shows complete ignorance of the role of academics in public life.

The role of intellectual gadfly, the critical voice that examines social change, is protected by tenure. I believe the ongoing attack on tenure is an attempt to remove the obstacles to unfettered change and prevent faculty from carrying out their responsibilities in public life. The silencing of faculty (via economic starvation, overwork, or harsher measures such as jailing or persecution) occurs routinely in non-democratic nations.

I see a vocal professoriate protected by tenure as a bulwark against turning the U.S. into another country where erosion of freedom occurs without complaint because the educated voices have been stifled. Filling classrooms with adjunct faculty in place of tenure track professors is part of this attack on the tenure system. Just as education is being presented as nothing more than job-skills training, faculty are being offered a new role consisting of regurgitation of pre-packaged material to hordes of diploma-mill students via impersonal technologies.

Whether change is proposed out of financial necessity or a profit motive, the effect is the same. We lose the opportunity to systematically provide young people with experiences that will make them more than drones. Call me intransigent, but I wouldn’t want to work in such a system, nor would I want to send my son or daughter to that kind of university. You can call it “fundamental change,” but the fact remains that education dictated by financial considerations alone cannot produce minds with the strengths needed to pull us out of a recession, much less produce world leaders.

There is a reason why faculty are not part of the discussions being held by university administrators.

I feel hypocritical submitting this to appear under an assumed name but I do not think it will help any of my efforts to work with our campus administrators if my name appears on criticisms of their motives. I have no doubt that most administrators believe they are helping students and doing good work, including our presidents and trustees. That's why multiple perspectives with strong voices are important. The value of having a union is that it insulates individual faculty from those in power whom they must criticize, so that everyone can work more smoothly together while still being free to speak up about how the university functions -- it makes shared governance work as more than a rubber stamp.


Perry A. Holloway is the pseudonym of a professor at a public university in California.


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