How the American University Was Killed

In “How The American University was Killed, in Five Easy Steps,” Debra Leigh Scott observes the following five trends: (1) defunding of public education, (2) de-professionalizing of professoriate, (3) rise of administrative class, (4) rise of corporate culture and money, and (5) destruction of students through both lowering standards as well as raising costs of university. The result is “low wage migrant professors teach repetitive courses they did not design to students who travel through on a kind of conveyor belt, only to be spit out, indebted and desperate into a jobless economy.”

More Counting of English Majors

I think [Alex Reid][] has it right in terms of how to phrase the question about what is happening with undergraduate education in general and in humanities (read English here) majors in particular:

> Yes, it is bogus to look at the large numbers in the late 60s, note the decline in English, and say this proves we are doing something wrong. But it is also bogus to look at the lower numbers from the late 40s or 50s and suggest that what we have seen since is a regression to the mean. Instead, we might start by saying that the idea of having a college major barely existed a century ago. It’s a little amusing to consider how the 1880s to 1910s paralleled our current period in terms of a rapidly expanding student base and changing values for going to college (then, like now, it was all about getting a better job in a new economy). The thing is, the contemporary English major grew out of that historical moment. And in the 1950s, when higher education was born again, English expanded with it. But as everyone points out, that popularity was fleeting.

> I suppose one can look at those statistics and take it as evidence that the humanities can continue to trundle along as it has for the last 30 years or so. I will stick by my argument that the second industrial revolution, which spurred the growth of higher education, and created a foundation for the value of the print literacy that English has historically provided, has been supplanted by new economic engines. We shouldn’t be looking at the 1950s. We should be looking at the 1850s. From 1850 to 1920, the role of rhetoric and literary study in American universities was completed transformed because of the economic effects of the industrial revolution. Might the same be said of the shift from 1950-2020?

Reid’s basic assertion is that observers are quibbling over where to paint the playing field lines when we should be looking at the construction of the stadium. (The sports metaphor surprises me as much as anyone else reading this.) The fact is that there is a much larger transformation taking place in education, especially higher education, and we need to be thinking about it not only tactically but also strategically.

My own thoughts have mostly focused on tactics: let’s engage the current developments in various professions that highlight the role of information technologies to make sure not just our majors but students in general can glimpse, and possibly create/develop/maintain/revise, the connections between the codes and structures they encounter and the kinds of codes and structures that have long been the purview of the humanities in general and literary studies in particular.

I want to state that again: it’s not just about majors but about humanists making a valuable contribution to education in general. This might seem short-sighted in the face of myopic administrators who can’t see past counting heads, but I think we should keep our eyes on the bigger prize and on the larger mission: being a part of a collaborative that gives students the ideas, facts, concepts, and methods they need to create a place for themselves in the world, and in doing so, makes the world a more interesting, free, and safe place for everyone.

[Alex Reid]:

In Defense of the Liberal Arts

Carol Geary Schneider has an [essay][] in _Inside Higher Ed_ which offers a defense of the liberal arts. Her essay is in response to the extension of the Republican attack on the liberal arts to the social sciences. All of this is done in the spirit of focusing government-supported education on the labor market. You know, only make what sells. How Republicans manage to want to focus on STEM while at the same time trying to rip the heart out of science by undermining evolution, climate science, and anything else that somehow offends their very limited understanding of the Bible escapes me.

What makes it worse is that here in Louisiana our university administrations seem only to happy to echo everything said by policy makers. And so the trickle down effect is that national-level groups lead these efforts by focusing on state-level changes — this is, after all, the strategy for success used by Republicans for congressional re-districting. In Louisiana, this means the supervising boards parrot what the legislature says; university administrations parrot what the board says; and then one gets to see individual university administrators say much the same thing.

Folks, I was in business when *value-added* became popular. It doesn’t mean what you think it means. The idea was in response to a very particular moment in the history of American corporations. Really, history matters. (And I say that on the eve of our local historians giving up on history.)


Universities Are Copy Machines

In case you missed it, [Siva Vaidhyanathan]( has a nice post up on CHE about the role of copying in universities. Copying as a necessary good. It’s in the context of the recent ruling in favor of the HathiTrust.

What would life be like [if I worked at Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd University][kfu]?


[This news from the Baton Rouge newspaper The Advocate]( is troubling not only because it is additional cuts in an already pretty bleak landscape for higher education in Louisiana but because it’s the first the faculty at UL have heard about it, so far as I know. Our administration is really good at communicating about Christmas parties, but not so good at communicating news about the business of the university itself.

And the loss to the library is catastrophic. It is already the case that we haven’t seen any serious book acquisitions in six years — yes, **six years** — but this kind of cut will probably begin to cut into digital acquisitions like JSTOR and Project Muse which, for some, is the only remaining connection to the larger sphere of science and scholarship outside those things which we acquire ourselves. And since a number of faculty have not seen any serious pay increases since 2005, that money too is drying up.

Humanities and the Library

Jean-Claude Guédon made the following observation in The Humanist mailing list with regards to open access matters;

Researchers may be very busy, but they still need to pay attention to their working environment. Scientists should pay attention to the
quality of their instruments, and they generally do; humanists are
certainly interested in the wealth and depth of their library, which is
an infrastructure, and if they complain about the lack of journals,
etc., they might consider looking a little further than the usual
complaint to the librarian who, too often, is simply deemed to be either
insensitive or incompetent, or both, plus being bureaucratic, etc… If
journals are missing in the library, a quick check on library budgets
and their evolution might be profitably compared to the evolution of
subscription prices for journals, particularly STM journals. They might
then consider that, given the priorities of modern universities,
humanities journals will be given up in order to free money for STM
journals. Then, humanists might begin to wonder why some commercial
publishers need to make profit at the tune of 35-45% before taxes.

Researchers are not just researchers; they are also citizens. Public
money goes into supporting research, lots of it. Why the published
results of research should be so expensive when the manuscripts have
been given away to publishers for free, when publishers have us peer
review the articles again for free, etc. ? These are the  very questions
that triggered the Public Library of Science when it was still nothing
more than a worldwide petition back in 2001. They are still with us.
They may trouble the quiet aire of delightful studies, but that is an
elitist attitude that seems to claim that some of us are entitled to
unlimited (subsidized) access to information without having to reflect
on the economic conditions that begin to make this privilege a reality.

Exactly. When humanists turn their back on the world, they shouldn’t be surprised when the world turns its back on them. I worry that it may be too late to halt this particular swing of the pendulum from arcing, depressingly, further out.

What we should be doing is campaigning for our libraries.

Emory Gets It

Notice the high production values of this piece from Emory University’s Youtube channel: the faculty member is well-lit and the sound is good. Now imagine how little effort the actual piece took, once the infrastructure is in place. It’s getting the infrastructure in place that is the work. But Emory clearly gets that promoting their faculty as content producers, as knowledge creators, is key to everything else they do and that it can be done using the same infrastructure that is already in place for university public relations and, probably, for distance learning.

Lamenting the Loss of the Weird

A lovely piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education laments the loss of the weird in universities, specifically that professors, especially humanities professors, have lost their ability to be weird. Certainly the image of campus life conjured up by my older professors when I was in school was far different than the life we lead now. Jacques Berlinerblau, the author, lays the blame at an unfortunate convergence of the proliferation of administrators, the corporatization of universities, and political correctness. I think he mostly has it right. The thing I lament is the increasing infantilization of students: it’s not that corporate universities see them as consumers to be placated, it’s that the modern university — which is not yet mercenarily corporate nor is it any longer pedagogically a university — cannot pre-masticate its material enough, to its own mind, to make it palatable to students. And, even worse, the time spent pre-masticating material means that one teaches a whole lot less.

This will be a foreign sentiment to my friends and colleagues at universities and colleges further up the pecking order, and I can only wish for them that this particular wave exhausts itself here, lower on the shore, where there is also the combined impulse to fault the professoriate for it and lay the lash on more sternly. (Again, there is talk of increased teaching loads.)

Law Schools and Cows

[The New York Times reports]( that there is a glut of law school graduates, many of whom went to school based on glowing career opportunity statistics that turn out to have been fairly thoroughly cooked by law schools. Law schools, it turns out, are cash cows for universities, especially since law students expect to be crammed into large lecture halls. With the promise of large salaries at the other end of three years, the schools can also charge high tuitions. $43,000 a year on average.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to me — still it did — because I had a similar glimpse into another professional school economy while I was at Indiana University. While there, I worked for a time in the Executive Education unit of the School of Business — it’s now the Kelley School of Business, I believe, and Exec Ed is known as Kelley Partners. Our unit produced revenues of six to eight million dollars a year, with an annual profit between $500,000 and $800,000. That money went straight into our Dean’s budget, for him to use as he saw fit.

Of course, our profit to the School and to the University did not end there. What we also produced was a regular stream of extracurricular work for business faculty, such that when the School was recruiting new hires, they could in effect say to a prospective faculty member, “Look, we can only offer you *this much* salary, but we can guarantee you *this much* in executive education work.” (And so, a starting salary for a business faculty member might have been, and this is fifteen years ago, in the high five digits or low six digits, but, for some faculty, the executive education money might double the total value of the package. That’s a nice perquisite for an organization to be able to offer.)

Now, the executive education dimension was, and is, separate from the other rather large profit center at the business school — and, to be clear, IU’s B-school was only doing what every other B-school was doing, and I know they were not as extravagant as some other schools, even other midwestern schools — and that profit center, like the law school, is the MBA program. Like law schools, MBA programs strove to charge high tuitions because they could, in a booming economy, promise such a good return on your investment. (I think, at the time, IU’s MBA program regularly placed people in the $60k range to start, and that was awfully good money in the mid-nineties, and, more importantly, it was only to start: MBAs were typically fast-tracked for promotion.)

Now, with Harvard faculty re-thinking the value of the MBA — that an entire generation of MBA-thinking may have brought about the insanity of an economy driven by finance and not by the production of actually useful things — I wonder where MBA schools stand, and if their graduates are facing anything similar…

Scientists Fault Universities as Favoring Research Over Teaching

Interesting *zeitgeist* moment in which [*Nature*][n] and [*Science*][s] publish articles by established scientists critiquing the system that essentially rewards winning grant money above all else:

> Mr. Mann, who served as chairman of biochemistry at Vermont from 1984 to 2005, said grant money made up about 22 percent of his salary as an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota back in 1970. Now it’s 60 percent, as he pulls in about $3-million a year in federal support, and administrators at Vermont are asking him to push it even higher.

> “Nobody has ever asked me how good my papers were, and I think you would find that universally true,” he said, “They basically say, Well, how many research dollars are you bringing in?”

From [*The Chronicle’s* coverage][c].


The Course of Open Courseware

Almost a year ago I wrote about the future of universities, especially regional public universities, as the internet — the content delivery system without peer or precedence — transforms the environment within which they operate. My argument then was, and is now, that, given the backwards shift — in terms of the direction we should be going — in education towards assessibility and normativity, that smaller universities will find themselves in the position of being facilitators/accreditors of “other people’s content” (OPC).[^1]

In a [recent post][1] in [*The Chronicle of Higher Education*][che], Kevin Carey argues much the same thing in light of Nature Publishing Group’s development of [Scitable][2]. The Nature Publishing Group publishes _Nature_ and _Scientific American_ among many other high quality journals, many of which carry an impressive price tag. Scitable, however, is free. Why? Because Nature thinks it can offset the costs of doing this both through corporate sponsorships in the short term and through the development of more scientists willing to pay for their other publications in the long term. (And the good news for the rest of us is that we can use their materials in our own classes.)

Two businesses, Caryey notes, should be worried by this: traditional textbook publishers and smaller public universities. The textbook publishers see the horizon and recognize their ship is sinking, but they are still collecting so much gold along their current trade route that they just can’t bring themselves to get a new ship.

Scitable, MIT OpenCourseWare, Open Yale Courses, the Carnegie Mellon Open Learning Initiative, iTunes U, among others, will also challenge another group, for they

> spell trouble for people in the second threatened business: teachers at non-selective undergraduate institutions. Wealthy institutions in the business of sorting the most academically promising students and putting them in proximity to both one another and esteemed scholars will probably be operating in more or less the same way 100 years from now. So, too, will small liberal arts colleges that specialize in teaching. The future of everyone else is muddier. Although it’s hard to predict exactly who, how, and when, it seems very clear that in the long run, the number of organizations who decide it’s in their best interests to provide free open courseware will grow and the tools themselves will steadily improve. All of which is to say that if your career plans involve teaching introductory cell biology at a regional four-year public university or community college in 2030, you might want to reconsider.

Notice how Carey shifts the burden from the universities to faculty. It seems reasonably clear that the beachhead of administrators who have never published and taught, or who did so only enough to advance them toward a path in administration, is only going to expand into a lodgement, if it has not done so already. Because non-profits in general, and universities in particular, tend to be about twenty years behind in terms of current business theory and best practices, I think we are going to see a great deal of what was termed in the nineties “re-engineering of processes” in order to “align” various “workflows” with “assessment goals.” In this model, students working toward a degree are the boxes to be pushed through the pipelines and faculty are but cogs adding various pieces, skills and bits of knowledge, to the eventual machine to be produced. If those “bits o’knowledge” — can we just call them BOKs for now? — are already available as discrete units on the intarweb, then one doesn’t need a faculty member of creating bits (or BOKs), only a facilitator capable of transferring the knowledge and certifying that the transfer has occurred.

My, it just got dark in here.

[^1]: I think Ken Robinson, and others like him, makes a persuasive case against the mechanistic version of education that standardized testing in particular, and standardization in general, encourages. I am not, in principle, I should note against having standards, but for every standard I admire there is a corresponding set of standards and/or bureaucracy that enforces/polices the standard that sends me screaming into the night.


Scattered Leaves

Yesterday afternoon my wife came home with what I found to be a rather telling story about the local art scene here in south Louisiana. Her and a friend had taken our combined three children to a nearby small town, which has carved out for itself a small antique and art scene. (There are a couple of these now, and so my obfuscation does leave room for mystery.) The five of them had left a shop and were pausing for a moment to enjoy a courtyard that had a layer of fallen leaves. The kids, being kids, were making the occasional pile out of leaves. The shop’s owner came out to watch what was going on, sighed, and noted quite audibly that she really liked the way the courtyard looked when the leaves were simply scattered by the wind. As if realizing that she had perhaps rebuked the two women, whose children were undoing the scattering, she then described one of her favorite photographs to them: it is of a girl who has thrown leaves up in the air and they are now falling all about her. My wife’s response, and that of her companion as well, was, well, if she had bothered to wait a moment, she would have seen it in action.

Leaves scattered on the ground!

For me, the anecdote captures exactly the strange twilight world of the local arts, and even to some degree the local academic, scene and its relationship to the local landscape and people. The local arts organizations, are very fond of invoking “Cajun” and “Creole” as things that enrich the local arts. Painters and poets draw upon their Cajun roots, or they produce work with a Cajun sensibility, or they capture Cajun folklife authentically.

That is, local arts organizations make much use of Cajun folklife in various ways, but the Cajun they have in mind lives mostly in the pages of books, and most of those books are quite old. The Cajuns they have in mind still make their way about the world on boats, run small cattle ranches, and trundle about the landscape on horses, or perhaps Model T Fords.

When it comes to actual Cajuns, who still tend to be rural and working class, they really don’t have much truck with them. That the farmers and fabricators that are still the economic backbone of this region and who don’t go much for the kind of events hosted by the local art organizations and universities are seen as a kind of drain on how lovely things could be. It helps, of course, that the city’s upper classes hold much the same view, which makes sense because it is these folks who attend local art and university events. They pay top dollar for tickets to see Beausoleil play, and everyone believes that Beausoleil *is* Cajun music. And it is. It’s just that it’s Cajun music for a very small percentage of Cajuns in Louisiana. Out on the prairies, I have met very few people who listen to Beausoleil. A number of folks still listen to Cajun music, but the music they listen to is not an art form, but a dance form, a social form.

Don’t get me wrong. A number of my friends produce some of the most beautiful Cajun music I have ever heard. And it’s Cajun music in as much as they are Cajuns and they made it, but it is not Cajun music in the sense that a large percentage of Cajuns listen to it. Nor is it, sadly, entering into oral tradition and becoming the basis for other innovation — though I could be wrong here, and I really would like to investigate the Lafayette scene to see how the incredibly innovative work here may also have some traditional dynamics.

But the qualification to the above is that it’s the Lafayette scene. It’s bounded. The Lafayette scene is not the Louisiana scene, and the constant conflation of the two is used by local organizations for profit: they sell themselves or the things they produce as the thing itself when they are not. I am sure this dynamic is to be found around the nation, and it’s probably an acceptable fiction by both the local organizations as well as their various funding sources, who probably would hold the actual “folk” at arms distance as well.

As a fiction, it is worth further study, and perhaps that will be my next project. I can imagine something like “Cajuns, Creoles, Cultures, Commodities.” If someone else wants to take the idea and run with it, feel free. I suspect that I am too close to it all to do the topic full justice: I myself belong to the local university. Many of the people involved in both the local arts organizations and the local university are my friends, acquaintances. Some of them, if they ever read this post, will be disturbed, perhaps even upset, by what I have written here. To them, I note that this is meant as critique, in the sense of understanding the work, and not as criticism. I engage in this kind of critique in the firm belief that the local arts and academic organizations find themselves in a status quo which, in fact, undermines their very desire to grow and to become more relevant. If we can unchain ourselves from just a few conventions, then perhaps we can do truly amazing things. If you are going to renovate a house, sometimes you have to remove a wall or two from the existing house.

**UPDATE**: A friend wrote in to note that by my definition of *Cajun* and the logic I pursue above, “Cajun music itself is not Cajun, because, judging from record sales, dancehall attendance and airplay, most Cajuns do not listen to it.” All I have right now are questions — and, who knows, this may be the end of this ling of thinking for me. Questions like: what does it mean for a “folk music” not to have its “folk” base any more? Or not to have it in the usual way — it begs the question of what is “usual.” What is the relationship between folk music and its folk? What happens when the tradition and the group seem to run in parallel?

None of these questions are at all useful to people trying to make a living playing, performing, writing or to the groups — local arts and academic organizations — that try to support them.

And I should be clear: folk music is not my area of expertise. Nor is public folklore. My focus is on creativity, and my current work is with farmers and fabricators.

More Good University Videos

A number of people have written in about the video I posted from BYU that was a parody of the Old Spice ad. (Check below for the post.) Here’s another one, this time from the University of Evansville. Given that the south is known for both its oral storytelling traditions as well as its humor, where are the videos from southern universities that are like this?