• September 4, 2015

An Academic Rip Van Winkle

An Academic Rip Van Winkle 1

Steve Brodner for The Chronicle Review

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Steve Brodner for The Chronicle Review

Without much fanfare, I cashed out my stock options 18 months ago and quietly returned to the academy, after more than 20 years in devoted service to corporate interests.

The time I spent in the hollows of cutthroat capitalism (profitably plying, believe it or not, the skills I learned while earning degrees in medieval poetry) was, on the whole, surprisingly rewarding. But at age 60, I felt ready again to follow those wild, drunkenly idealistic impulses that had made the academic life seem so worthy and honorable when I was 20.

With some luck, good timing, and recommendations from friends around the university, I found myself back employed by one of my alma maters, as a director of communications. If all goes well, I plan to spend the latter years of my working life at one of those most successful embodiments of practical, sturdy idealism, an American land-grant university.

For the past few months, I've felt a strong pull to report on what university life looks like to one who has found his way back after strange travels outside the village walls. As much as I initially fought the analogy, every time I start to frame my story, I keep finding myself identifying with Rip Van Winkle.

I fight the analogy, of course, because literary canon makers have long considered Washington Irving's powder completely wet. But in spite of my attempts to shift the story onto more noble or literary ground—say, to T.S. Eliot's insistence that "the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time"—Rip keeps breaking in to insist that he shape the tale.

To make sure I wasn't shortchanging a story I last read in 1967, when I was 18, I recently dipped back into it. To my surprise, the plot's central joke had somehow changed over the years. Back then (when the proportion of women enrolled in college was half what it is now), my teachers (all male) made sarcastic, misogynistic comments about how Rip is driven to the mountains to escape his carping wife. This time around, I was more taken with the political irony of the story. Rip's two-decade nap allows him to sleep his way through, among other things, the American Revolution. When he stumbles back into the village, which is ablaze with fractious arguments about the latest elections, he immediately outrages his neighbors by haplessly singing the praises of King George III. Rip soon settles comfortably back into his quiet life, though—Irving's nasty irony arguing that, in spite of a revolution, nothing had really changed that much.

This reading of Rip's adventures fits nicely into my own return narrative, up to a point. The truth is, I'm stunned by how little has changed—or rather, how much of what drove me away 20 years ago has gotten even more disturbing. There's been no Bunker Hill or Yorktown in academe since I marched off, practically shoeless, into the hands of industry. Instead it seems that there's been a steadily accelerating devolution.

My story is illustrative in its simplicity. I left a good college a year or so short of my tenure decision. I had a long résumé of publications, most in the right places; I had organized sessions at MLA conferences; I was honored to get to teach Chaucer once a year to hard-working, interested students; earnest, talented graduate students came to me for advice about their futures.

But there had been a long foreground to that success.

I had moved my family four times in six years (only one relocation partially reimbursed by my employer). I had paid my dues as a teaching assistant at two institutions, for appallingly low wages. After my doctoral exams, one semi-elite Northeastern college's English department offered me a lectureship with these conditions: four courses each fall semester, none each spring. But almost all of the adjuncts, I was assured, qualified for welfare during the spring semester. Consider the spring semester "something like a research fellowship," argued the department chair.

Before that, I had been offered an instructorship (in 1980) at a rapidly growing university in a large Southern city. Well, almost offered. The terms: five writing courses a quarter (after five years, the position could potentially be upgraded to assistant professor), at $12,500 a year, slightly more than the average hourly wage I'd pulled down as a not-too-able carpenter's assistant during the summers when I should have been writing my dissertation.

As with Rip among the hill people and their flagons of drink, the search committee had plied me with sherry (though the interview started at 11 a.m.), which accounted for the giggles I couldn't suppress at the salary offer. Which accounted, I suspect, for my not being actually offered the position. By the time I arrived at my dream job, I had taught 58 sections of introductory composition. Most of my graduate-school friends could tell similar stories.

I once hiked 2,100 miles through the mountains with a pack on my back; I can go the distance. I'm not a particularly weak individual. But by the time the final straw floated down, I was exhausted. That last fiber landed on a Friday afternoon during a conversation with a bright grad student in her mid-20s. She loved literature, had taught high school for a bit, and had the bug. She was, she explained, doing her first teaching assistantship and was finding it hard to juggle her own course work with her desire to build a flame under her students. I tried gently and with a pleasant lilt in my voice to explain what was most likely in front of her—the years of 80-hour workweeks, the compromises she'd be expected to make in her family life, the monastic poverty, and the fact that 10 years down her path, the teaching slot she wanted would be happily filled by teaching assistants just like her.

I didn't even begin to crack her optimism. In my estimation, she had close to no chance of ever landing an academic job. And the cause was simple: The powers that be had made a calculated choice (if gradual, and usually without much thought to the long-term consequences) to outsource teaching to graduate students and adjunct faculty members. It looked to me like the greatest generation (under pressure from taxpayers who were choosing to no longer support public education with much vigor) would be the last in a while to enjoy a sane, healthy life in academe. I didn't feel right being complicit. Even if my earnest grad student hadn't felt it in her bones yet, this was already the oldest story in the book by the mid-1980s, when I headed out to learn the marketing trade.

Rip had no one, not even his dog, to guide him back into the village after his long sleep. But when I came back, I rediscovered The Chronicle, which helped me ease back into the culture. Or rather, its news stories magnify the dis-ease I sometimes feel about the nobility of the enterprise to which I've returned. The percentage of college faculty members who are tenured or on the tenure track sank to 31 percent in 2007 and has probably fallen below 30 percent by now. Including graduate teaching assistants, only about a quarter of all instructors have some sort of tenure. Work pressures have mounted enough that some profs are outsourcing their grading to Bangalore. I could go on. But you know the story.

Just for fun, I checked the Web site of the English department where I was once an instructor (a job I loved, by the way). In the early 1980s, it employed four of us full-time, nontenurable staff members. The departmental site now lists 17 for a student population that hasn't come close to doubling in the last three decades. And I'd be willing to bet that the department chair is sifting through a pile of résumés to line up a few part-timers to be called in at the last minute, when the fall-semester enrollment numbers solidify.

Throw some savvy for-profit education outfits into the mix, and one can't help imagining that Rip Van Winkle's sleepy village could look at some point in the future like one of those forsaken farm towns in the Midwest that flourished for a brief moment in time, until the agricultural conglomerates brought their relentless bottom-line thinking to bear. Remembering my marketing days, I can only imagine the great bonuses the for-profit advertising teams are anticipating as they start conjuring their magic on our students (their customers), who are just beginning to understand that the plot line means they will venture out of the village with a collective debt of about $95-billion ($23,900 for every graduating senior in 2008), into a world where hiring for new graduates was down 21 percent in 2009 (and in spite of the recovery, up only slightly this year).

It's all very disheartening.

Once Rip returned, he spent the rest of his life lounging around Mr. Doolittle's Hotel, telling all comers the story of his time out among the powerful little men with their flagons of sleep and forgetfulness. Bear with me for one last cautionary tale from my life in the corporate world.

The company I worked for developed telecommunications gear, often revolutionary telecommunications gear. The bright, focused people who worked there used their pioneering expertise to digitize the world's communications systems in the 80s; their experiments with fiber optics made an affordable Internet possible in the 90s; their intellectual property drives the mobile devices that are now transforming our lives. A decade ago, the company brought in $30-billion a year and supplied gear to 70 of the companies on the Fortune 100 list. It looked to me too big to fail, that it would be around for another 100 years. But despite its moment in the sun, the company declared bankruptcy two weeks after I moved back into academe. By early 2011, it will have disappeared, its 110,000 employees scattered with the wind.

How all that happened is complicated, but I can tell you one simple truth from my experience out there: The values of the executives who steered that ship of disaster look very similar to the values of those among us who think that the way to sustain the great tradition of public higher education is to trim expenses by outsourcing the teaching—the core of the undergraduate experience—to grad students and adjuncts.

And here's what is particularly heartbreaking. Here's where my story takes a turn that would never fly in a well-written tale, but that is absolutely true to my experience back in the village.

A big part of my day is spent in the university library. Coming in one morning recently, I paused to watch a young man walk up and join three students who had pulled chairs together around a table. As the new arrival settled in, he let out the archetypal "That's awesome!" cry, loud enough so that I leaned in to see what he was admiring. He was looking at what appeared to be an animated differential equation making itself visual in stages embedded in a PowerPoint chart. As I walked by, he was practically chewing his lower lip off in his enthusiasm and was asking the laptop driver, "How did you do that?"

It was a moment that could have awakened Rip Van Winkle's long-dead dog. A moment that crystallized all the reasons that most of us went into teaching to begin with. And I see a half a dozen of these a week. It's easy, since this place—the library—is crowded, packing in the equivalent of a fourth of the student population on a good day. I generally walk around for 10 minutes or so each afternoon to recharge.

Some of the students are on Facebook; some are watching cats do funny things on YouTube. But most are heads down in their studies, or working out physics problems together on whiteboards they've drawn into impromptu circles. When we started lending out iPods, they would sometimes come back loaded up with an app that some student had developed herself to make the device more useful. I interview lots of students, and they tell me they love the library, love the university. They are not kidding. They are idealistic and hardworking.

But I can't help worrying about the stories they'll be telling about us 20 years from now.

David Hiscoe is director of communications at the North Carolina State University Libraries.


1. zeno6601 - August 02, 2010 at 09:59 am

David writes: "Remembering my marketing days, I can only imagine the great bonuses the for-profit advertising teams are anticipating as they start conjuring their magic on our students (their customers), who are just beginning to understand that the plot line means they will venture out of the village with a collective debt of about $95-billion ($23,900 for every graduating senior in 2008), into a world where hiring for new graduates was down 21 percent in 2009 (and in spite of the recovery, up only slightly this year)."

Good essay.

As I drive along the highways of my fair metropolis, I see quite a few for-profit institutions springing up. The easy federal loans for students ensure easy income for the proprietors. $23K isn't unreasonable debt for a student to take on if the student is graduating into a functioning economy, but we no longer have a functioning economy. The students' debt will not go away, no matter how bad the students' financial situation, since students owe it to the company store, i.e., the U.S.

If the student loan credit dries up (which I don't think it will, for political reasons), the higher education ponzi scheme collapses. In the meanwhile, it will just limp along.

2. drmoby - August 02, 2010 at 10:34 am

Thank you, David, for a candid, insightful, and well-written account of what a time-lapse experience of academe tells us about the state of the academy. It's interesting to me that the source of energy you find in the university is in the library, not the classroom; I'm wondering how this point compares to your earlier experience (was the library the source of energy for you in the early '80s?), and also thinking about the number of faculty I know who are more excited about what's happening in their campus library than in their department.

One last parallel to Rip that might be worth pointing out about your own story, however, is how your own success is itself feeding off the systemic problem you point out. Yes, faculty are being asked to work more for less reward, and fewer and fewer faculty are able to do that work with even the hope of tenure. Yet college costs keep rising. Why? Are these schools out to make money all of a sudden? No, they're trying to balance their budgets when it comes to expenses. But one of the things that makes that so difficult to do is the explosion of non-tenure, full-time positions on campuses. Student services, academic support, information technology, all barely existed 20 years ago compared to what is not only available but considered mandatory at most schools across the country now (what school's library, for instance, had its own full-time director of communications in 1982?). The academy you're so uncomfortable with is the same academy that created your job through increasing that discomfort. But what's to be done about that? That's the tricky part.

And don't bag on Rip too much. His story doesn't need weirding up for today's readers--it might not be obvious from a medieval literature standpoint, but Rip is still in almost every single American literature anthology on the market today, and the story itself is so deeply embedded in American culture that not only medievalists but physicists, anthropologists, and business folks could follow what you're talking about in this story without the benefit of a link to the original tale. This is one of the greats, if for nothing else for its telling explanatory power of the American experience, as you have shown here.

Oh, and Depp/Burton did "Sleepy Hollow," not "Rip."

3. pbhales - August 02, 2010 at 11:12 am

zeno6601, and David, demarcate the slow-growing crisis of higher education in the US; what neither of them note is the underlying cause (or causes) of the failure of the academy in a democratic society. First on my list is the erosion of support for the academic endeavor within that democratic polity. I regularly read and comment on reports on higher ed in common journalism and business-oriented websites, gently correcting the misconceptions: that higher ed. profs are wildly overpaid and granted gigantic and undeserved pensions; that we are underworked (the usual willful misapprehension being the computation of workday around in-classroom hours); that we spout political opinions at our students without facts-- that we are, in other words, tenured ideologues with captive audiences. The replies to my posts tend to be both vitriolic and full of those same misapprehensions.
In these responses I see both the cause and the effect of the failure of higher education to treasure, nurture, and regulate, its prestige. Once professors were up there with doctors at the top of the American prestige ladder. In the interim, we failed as a profession, and our universities failed as institutions, to keep our message out in the public eye, and to control that message. Not only outside right-wingers now despise us. Everyday citizens in the rural countryside where I retreat to cycle, write, think, and rejuvenate myself (in the brief intervals between teaching, running an international institute for the State Department, reading dissertations, teaching writing to graduate students who should long have learned the nature of punctuation, and writing letters of recommendation for the shrinking job pool) tell me how good I have it, and all of them have anecdotes about tenured radicals and overpaid windbags, interjected with their resentment that they can no longer afford to send their own children to college.
Where did we fall behind on this? Well, certainly we ourselves allowed the very caricatures we now try to puncture to rise to public prominence; indeed, we defended their right to pomposity and the dissemination of misinformation. Remember Ward Churchill? I do: I remember listening to him at an American Studies Association or some other such conference decades ago, and thinking: he's not just wrong; he's willfully wrong, and his lies are inflammatory. But I didn't fight back. Instead, I watched as he became a tenure-rights, free-speech symbol. We should have laughed him out of the academy.
But our failure wasn't so much our failure to police within the academy. It was much more a failure to sell our mission outside it. We left our "image-making" to slick provosts and campus PR spokespeople and overpaid figurehead presidents with Big Ideas that we knew were ludicrous (in my case, the U. of Illinois "Global Campus Initiative," an attempt to turn the U. of I into University of Phoenix with prestige attached but with an equivalent downsizing of genuine intellectual activity). Now our primary job is to win back the democratic polity. And we have to do it one voter, one cycling buddy, one well-driller neighbor at a time. It will take decades, and we will have to learn to soften our rhetoric, hold our tempers, listen and acknowledge. We're frankly not that good that these-- we are in the habit of narcissism, of grandiosity, or at least their temptations-- we are petty melodramatists in classrooms and lecture halls, too often, seduced by the power of the podium and the grading pen. We will have to learn again how to be like our neighbors-- skeptical, ironic, pragmatic, careful in our relations with our surrounding communities, but also reintroduced into those communities, as people with expertise and something to offer.
There's a contradiction to my relations with my small community here. While the citizens have little respect or obeisance to my profession, they are terrifically interested in what I do-- not the highfalutin' theories my grad students love, but the actual subject matter, the investigations of American life decades or centureis ago, imbedded in physical fragments of buildings, in popular songs, in tv shows, in doomed social experiments. They want to hear more about this stuff! It's intriguing! And if we have to recast our outward personas, we also have to revise our missions as well-- we brought this incomprehension upon ourselves by worshipping incomprehension in the post-Structuralist and lit-theory years. In my field as an art historian, I am often told with some contempt by fellow academics that "we" need more "theory and crit people." No we don't. We need more pragmatists, more investigators, more eloquent explainers, more lucid logicians. And as we get more of them, we'll be edging our fields back into the arena where democratic citizens can know what we do an recognize how truly interesting and important it is.
But we have a long, long road ahead.

4. jtamarin - August 02, 2010 at 12:01 pm

drmoby, thanks for flagging the Depp/Burton/Sleepy Hollow error. I've dropped the reference. J. Tamarin, an editor

5. bjon7014 - August 02, 2010 at 12:21 pm

I -heart- pbhales.

6. awegweiser - August 02, 2010 at 12:38 pm

If those who respond must go on and on, might they at least provide a few paragraph or section breaks? If one wishes to make a point without trying the patience of readers then a little more brevity might be in order. Then if it attracts attention, elaborate.
I am fond of eMail but it already takes up far too much time with long winded expositions.

7. ellenhunt - August 02, 2010 at 12:58 pm

I have said this before. To deal with this we must have legislation at the federal level that requires universities to publish metrics that can be compared.

I suggest requiring all graduating bachelor students to take the GRE in their area, after being approved for graduation, but before having the degree conferred. The scores should have no bearing on whether they graduate or not.

I also suggest that randomly chosen statistical samples of each graduating class be given oral exams with the same conditions. Further, every 5 years, a randoly selected sample of students should be followed up to determine their economic status.

Yes, it is easy to attack these three steps, but we need something. Right now, based on my experience, our race to the bottom has turned what would be C-B students 40 years ago into A students with grade inflation. A person can get a degree from anywhere and afterward, most of them are considered similar when they are most definitely not.

This is a big change in a university culture that dislikes to even publish graduation rates, including graduation rates of doctoral students. It won't happen without independent action from academe. Chancellors and the rest of the minions will never champion it.

8. rodbell - August 02, 2010 at 01:39 pm

pbhales: I heart him too, bjon7014. His was fine commentary, saying much that's true. I would only question the implication, as I understood it, that academics have gradually and incrementally lost--by giving up--their authority and credibility. We have "failed as institutions, to keep our message out in the public eye, and to control that message."

I think it happened rather suddenly, and institutionally.

By asking "what happened?", pbhales is correctly, even courageously, fitting the shoe to the foot: We have to acknowledge our failure, and he's right to mention academia's shameful inability to laugh a Ward Churchill out of the acadamy. (Don't get me started on Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn.) But that inability, I contend, is related to our deeper inability to understand and assimilate the countercultural movement of the 1960s-70s. That broad legitimacy crisis affected every authoritative institution in modern society, not least our academic ones.

The bureaucratic establishment--the constitution, as it were, of the modern nation-state--responded as Philip Selznick explained it would (in 1949!), namely, by cooptation: Absorb the critics into the bureaucracy where, in the nature of the beast, those crtics will become bound to a system of authority that Weber called "practically unshatterable." We were, as pbhales astutely remarks, "too often, seduced by the power of the podium and the grading pen."

I wish I could explain, with confidence and clarity, what happened in that half-decade or so, but I'm still thinking about it and haven't got it worked out to my satisfaction. But understanding what really happened, rather than succumbing to the saccharine blandishments about social justice that have replaced the murderous thrill of Dohrn's paean to the Manson cult, may be the only way out, if there is a way out, of the academic cul-de-sac and back to the education of a democratic society.

9. eelalien - August 02, 2010 at 01:52 pm

This long-wided diatribe embodies precisely what its author supposedly loathes: a guy with admitted connections leaves the lucrative world of commerce as it becomes not lucrative, and "returns" to a fallback position in the world of academia because of his connections. I find not a whit of sympathy for this character, and his arguments ring false and shallow as they are espoused by a perpetrator of what precisely ails the academic world - people who don't belong there are there for all the wrong reasons.

10. drkull - August 02, 2010 at 02:00 pm

After the past 20 years in-and-out of teaching and consulting, I finally decided to go for it at a local private university and landed a tenure-track position in the business school. I had to take more than a 50% pay-cut in order to do it. Even the students questioned my judgment - after all, the ROI is so staggeringly appalling. It's great to see passion in colleagues and students; what troubles me, as does many others, is the blatant malfeasance I recognize among the administration, the overworked faculty, the inability to earn a living wage, and this is passed on to the students who - bright young things - cannot understand why anyone would go into academe. I question my decision now and as a result am returning to work after 2 years of this nonsense to take a position in a quasi-academic government agency, again at more than 2x my academic salary.

Something must be done or we will flag behind the world. Regulation, perhaps. Better metrics? Doubtful. Especially if they are used as tools for compliance. Metrics tend to send the wrong message and drive off the top talent into better paying jobs where metrics are rewarded with bonuses.

Perhaps we're seeing the beginning of the end of academe in the U.S. Sure, we'll putter along, but the devolution will continue until we're like the proverbial frog in the boiling water. Then it will be too late for a generation or two.

Lack of foresight and the insipid anti-intellectualism of this country as brought us to this situation and will bring us to our knees competitively. This is a warning to all that we need to get our house in order and learn to care and respect the people who give their lives over to helping others to learn. By way of credentials, I predicted the rise of several trends in business that have come to fruition. Those were tough calls. This is an easy one.

Call to action: We're preaching to the choir, folks. Everyone: let's make a commitment to write for a mass-media publication about the state of affairs, why higher-education needs an overhaul, why it matters to us and why it matters to you. If we cannot commit to that.... perhaps we are not as committed to those ivory towers which are increasingly yellowed and pointless.

11. drkull - August 02, 2010 at 02:24 pm

To DrMoby:

Might I suggest taking positive lessons from the progressive side of the private sector, who have done away with the language and structures of budgets and expenses in favor of business plans, strategic management, value-creation, cross-selling, and so on. The reason they work is not simply more positive semantics. They draw upon a central feature of human behavior that my old mentor at GWU, Erik Winslow, used to pound into our consulting practicum. "If you do not remember anything from this class," he'd intone, "remember this one thing: 'people support what they help to create.'"

In other words, take a pulse of the services you offer your stakeholders. Slash those that aren't seen as a beautiful thing. Let the mob form and step in as the hero and say, "thank you for volunteering." Why not student volunteers running the library? They get a bullet on their resume, access to resources, and get to meet coeds. And the pride in saving the library, which is a fantastic story any employer would recognize in someone who has character.

Only when people take ownership over an initiative will they care about it's existence. This works almost every time. Of course, the times it doesn't work, you'll be looking for another job! heh heh. But at least you'll have tried to make a difference, and everyone respects stories of leadership courage and tenacity.

I don't know if this would work in your situation. Each situation is different and you know the context better than anyone. Point is this:

Let's all recall Einstein's quote: "The definition of insanity is doing the same things over and over and expecting different results."

12. amdmathews - August 02, 2010 at 02:39 pm

I read these articles and become more and more depressed. I've been in adjunct purgatory (hopefully called so for its hope of escape) since 2004. Should I flee for the brighter pastures? What hope is there?

13. graysters - August 02, 2010 at 05:34 pm

After reading the above, I vote an emphatic "yes" on brevity. Academe frequently flounders due to bombastic pompousity, an instituionalized lack of accountability in its teaching staff (or for that matter, an inability for them to generate value seeking mentalities in their students), and the addictive allure of reading too many of one's own words. Go capitalism go! - graysters

14. 11122741 - August 02, 2010 at 05:45 pm

excelent artilce; gave me a moment of sanity relative to why I am back doing research and superivising doc students at 68 ....namely, that I hadn't accidently wandered into the wrong village and really was demented.

It is so heart breaking sad really and the current leaders really don't get it and what they are destroying as they are just pimps for power and profits ...their own ...which is what you get when academic goes corporate and makes coporate folks leaders and managers.

Literally at my flagship U only 1 of the top 7 people have any real academic experience or academic accomplishments ...but a lot of political and corporate experience and connections and this type of "line-up" is fairly typical today. Having made my academic bones bigtime before I went corporate and made my corporate bones big time before I came back, I see and understand the havoc they are causing and creating and like the Wall Street guys they are going to want their big bonuses after they crash the ship. They really do not see the competitors who are creeping up on them and will be eating their lunch in a generation or two as they educate these very competitors today for big bucks.

Everything and anything is for rent in the American university, but as any rental property manager will tell you, the "wear and tear" is fierce and will ruin you if you're not smart while you think you're making a profit and then find out that all of your hidden deficient financing and deficit profit taking banrupts you. Just wait until the property tax bills start coming due for the century on the dole and now costing the common Joe an arm and a leg for his kid to get an education if he can get 1 of the 50% of the seats that aren't going to foreigners.

The money machine (student loans, grants, fees, forgiven taxes, federal and state appropriation etc) is soon going to grind to a halt and ther too big to fail mentality is no longer around. It may take a couple of centuries to build a decent university but just like a stock it can crash in less than a decade. The crash is on the way as undergraduate education and many universities are a bubble currently and will be the equivalent of high schools (public and private) in a decade with "college" starting in graduate school for those with the money to go and no need for a job or a life (read trust fund folk, the major marketing target).

Now that I see how bad its getting I'm thinking of going and taking a long nap.

15. olivia55 - August 02, 2010 at 05:55 pm

What happened? The business model of education. A rush to become profit centers rather than education centers, for example, online offerings instead of thoroughly examining costs versus intellectual benefits.

16. richardtaborgreene - August 02, 2010 at 06:04 pm

1) the essay is quite wordy and the Rip analogy is over-worked adding actually nothing to the points along its way

2) the flakiness of business and academe are roughly equal, as the essay suggests---bankruptcy versus bankruptcy

3) the unstated theme is the quality of America and Americans is a causal factor---we are a culture and civilization that no longer make people capable of sustaining that culture and civilization---poor quality people in = poor quality people out

4) the stated theme---the managers who bankrupted his corporation are quite the same---from the same COLLEGES that bankrupted his university---is that Americans have created a culture of management that destroys America (and tiny 3rd world nations near oil supplies)

5) Harvard, let us be honest, is the epitome of all the above bads---we either worship its wealth and academic snobbisms or recognize that its business school creates the actual monsters that just stole 1.7 trillion dollars from ordinary Americans---nice work

6) we, academe, have generated monsters who now manage-------------us!!!!!
The irony is delicious---a great story!

17. staceysimmons - August 02, 2010 at 10:00 pm

I loved this essay. I too regularly find myself agape at what passes for higher education these days... faculty who read to students from books day in and day out, and then become sanctimonious wind-bags when the idea of on-line education comes around. As a young woman in my teens, I remember taking my ACT at a local university. I was entranced. I wanted to live at the university- everyone learning and talking, and expanding what they knew- what was possible to know. Twenty-five years later and my experience is the opposite, individuals and departments so deeply entrenched that there is no possibility of innovation, tenured-faculty members making decisions that impact young people, with no consideration as to whether or not those young people will benefit. And no consideration whatsoever on the vision of the future, only on how we maintain ourselves in the present in the same vein as the last 100 years. It's pitiful. The party is over, and it seems, no one bothered to tell the faculty.

18. bdbailey - August 03, 2010 at 08:23 am

The trend towards a part time teaching workforce paralells the de-funding of public higher education. Over at least the last 30 years, funding as a percentage of state budgets has fallen. This is partly because of shifts in values. There is a strong anti-intellectual wave. There has also been a shift from percieving higher education as a public benefit, to seeing it as a private benefit. All of these have diminished the will to fund public higher education. The ability to fund it has also diminished. As the state burden for healthcare has risen, funding for higher education has declined.

So, the problem is in part due to the graying of America; and in part due to our diminished sense of community and common good. The final piece of the puzzle may be the development of a country club atmosphere in higher education. Apartment style dorms, high tech fitness areas, etc. all cost money. Admittedly, I don't know much about university budgets. I know that the funds to build the amenities do not come from the operating budget. But, where does the money to service the debt come from?

19. eveeses - August 03, 2010 at 08:30 am

I'm a Ph.D. who has long since fled academe not to business but to private school education, where the majority of my time is given to teaching and developing curriculum and students themselves. Not enough time to myself in the library, but I figure that's the price of being an adult. The essay and several of the responses point to the surest path to save universities: not simply reiterating the phrase "student-centered," but emphasizing models of education that give students the time and space to find and work out their own curiosities and ideas. The library should be the best place on campus; the challenge is to figure out a way to channel the "awesomeness" of students clustered in the library out to the classroom and further, into the world of adults who are hungry for the chance to reflect and learn.

20. butterworth - August 03, 2010 at 08:48 am

Consider the following comparison, my Alma Mater in Ireland employed seven full-time groundskeepers for a 45-acre campus when I graduated. The first American university I attended had 83 people full-time workers for a similar acreage. The overseas study office I worked at in Ireland as a student, employed three people, one of whom still kept his teaching duties. The American one I also worked at employed roughly 20 people. The Irish Dental School and Teaching Hospital on campus, which served the entire Eastern part of the country, had one joint administrator (a very, very gifted manager); the American university employed three people to do the same job for a much smaller patient population (I know this because the Irish administrator had visited the American school and was mesmerized by what he perceived as its inefficiency). The American dental school eventually closed for lack of funds. Perhaps Academia in America - which has either soaked the state or the customer (and especially its graduate student customers) to pay for its relentless expansion - has lost sight of its mission?

21. dank48 - August 03, 2010 at 09:51 am

I taught for a couple years at a Gymnasium in Dortmund, Northrhine-Westphalia, in the '70s. This is essentially a college-prep high school, through 13th grade. The school was a building, with teachers in the various subjects, plus:

one director
one secretary
one custodian

That is, there were exactly three nonteachers on staff, except that the director was so to speak first-substitute when someone was out sick.

It worked fine then. I read Miller and Hemingway with an eleventh-grade class that was not considered the best and the brightest, but we had good discussions, in English, of worthwhile novels and plays.

God only knows what the nonteaching staff looks like now.

22. fuigb - August 03, 2010 at 12:06 pm

Trends in academia beat me into submission 15 years ago and so the corporate world picked up freshly minted, well-credentialed social scientist. The private sector (advertising & analytics) is not for sissies, but it by and large a meritocracy and there are very good jobs to be had.

23. daveblue - August 03, 2010 at 12:49 pm

Thank you eveeses: My mission this year "the library WILL BE the best place on campus". I wish more administrators would walk though the library and see the transformaion and student energy as they pile into the group study rooms and fill the big white boards (installed by student request) with equations and analysis. And we have lost over half of the group study rooms as the administration gobbles up more and more space in the library.

24. jmonroe6400 - August 04, 2010 at 12:42 am

This is a bracing read. I've also been corporate and academic, and I have to say that my biggest complaint with academia today is that it is too split between too-cunning-for-their-own-good "executives" in the administration and idealistic academics who never fail to moralize and ideologize every issue to the point where nothing can be done except in a great cloud of infeasible input and indignation.

I prefer to think of the corporatization of the academy as something related to the politicization of the academy and its loss of standards. Our universities are bloated with agendas while weak on commitment to teaching. Rational restructuring along profit and non-profit lines and sensible allocation of costs are important components of the change, but so is educational principle, standards, and leadership. The reasonable voices on these issues too often are drowned out by the chorus of special interests (the corporatization fanatics I count among those).

It would also be worthwhile for many people, especially in the Liberal arts, to ask why we don't have "gymnasia" like that described by dank, above. The way we have organized universities in this country is only a habit, reinforced by regulation and interested parties. It doesn't have to continue as the disgrace it has become (unfortunately, the median college experience is a disgrace, in terms of the quality of the experience, the education, and value for the money).

25. gsawpenny - August 04, 2010 at 11:39 am

For 20 years I carried a rucksack and a rifle where ever my dear Uncle Sam asked me to go. Along the way I picked up an MA, a PhD, and a chest (now dresser drawer) full of campaign medals. O also learned a host of teaching and training (yes, training)skills that any tenured professor would die to have.

I recently retired and landed a nice job teaching, gasp, military history. The first thing I noticed is that academia spends way too much time fighting the same internal administrative battles over and over and is shockingly uncaring of what pbhales (post number 3) identifies as public opinion. On the first issue I managed to open my mouth at a faculty meeting where I told the department head that the best way to solve the issue at hand was to take a decision. Stop talking about it with you underlings and staff - do what you are paid to do and, well, command. If we the faculty fail to fall in line then gin up the anti-tenure machine. Horrors! How dare I suggest that a leader lead and that the empolyees follow! Of course at the next faculty meeting we discussed the same issue and left it equally unresolved.

On the second issue I have published two works and neither is with a so-called "academic press." What about peer review? Read my work and tell me what you think beyond that I'm not overly concerned. I see it as my job to teach my students and inform my community (you know, that place just off campus). If a call comes in from the local historical society I take it. If they need a hand I recommend a few of my eager grad students run over ther and learn a little about Public History.

The point is: the academy has forgotten what it is all about and that is education. Everything else is silly. When I was in the service I thought all the chatter about the "ivory tower" was just so much noise, but it is indeed true. As long as the academy remains that tower with a spiral stair case that goes no where but around and around it will suffer. Open the doors and embrace your community. Lead your department, insspire your graduates, and do your job and the rest will fall into place.

26. crobius - August 04, 2010 at 01:04 pm

Yikes. --What an extraneously long-winded piece of work.
The inpirational sign over Mr. Hiscoe's desk must read:
"Stretch It! Pad it! x 10000"
May I suggest replacing the sign with:
"Make Every Word Count," or perhaps more to the point,
"Eschew Verbosity."
Zinsser would spit.

27. marka - August 04, 2010 at 02:09 pm

Thank you butterworth, dank48, fuigb, gsawpenny ... We have seen the enemy, and the enemy is ... us! Not 'them.'

Sorry, you others, but 'outside forces' (anti-intellectualism, corporatization, etc. - i.e. 'others') are not the major culprits: as with many other systems, the major problems are internal, not external. You need to look within, not without, for solutions.

As with many other aspects of our society, we have turned essential individual 'rights' against the potential tyranny of the many into entitlement 'rights' to ... tenure (cf. civil service & union barriers to discipline & firing) ... retirement (again, cf. entitlements pensions) ... , and looming larger & larger, 'health care' (really 'sick care,' where most of the $ is thrown @ extremely expensive efforts with little positive result), all exascerbated by extending lifespans and decreasing birthrates, thereby accelerating the economic imbalances between & among the generations.

To wit, the ivory tower has exacerbated the divide between haves (tenured faculty & a very small number of adminstrators), and the have nots (more & more wage slaves with little to no job protections or benes -- such as 'support staff' and adjuncts ... ), both within and without the academy (outside there is a gap between those 'educated' with the right kinds of degrees and those without). And those tenured faculty continue to feed off of the myth that their kind of job (protected, with additional benes) should be supported by everyone else -- taxpayers, donors, 'society' ... without any particular accountability for what value (if any) they provide. (Plenty to complain about 'executives' both inside & outside academe who don't seem to be worth their pay, but at least in academe, these amount to a drop in the budget bucket ... )

Frankly, for many many students, the 'education' they receive is not worth the debt undertaken to pay for it. And for all I & others might value a liberal arts education (I have degrees in political science, mathematics, and law), I can hardly say that I've seen any significant increase in value to society -- who out there can show me some added value to society that more & more liberal arts degrees have produced? And I'm not talking about loose correlation studies, where many other potential contributing factors are involved (remember, correlation is not causation ... ). Engineers, technicians, scientists, etc. help produce our material advances ... but do more & more degreed political scientists, anthropologists, historians, lawyers, etc. demonstrably improve our society? If so, how so? And wouldn't we be better off if, instead, we were training health care workers and other technicians who help make our real world work?

28. dhiscoe - August 04, 2010 at 02:56 pm

Thanks, folks, for the thoughtful comments.

Just two thoughts, stimulated by Marka's post.

1) The tenure system is not perfect. But its fundamental purpose, as I understand it, is to ensure that potential tyrannies (both powerful and petty) cannot, at will, silence the views of thoughtful professionals who have earned, through a long and arduous process, the ability to profess what they have learned without fear of easy retribution. There's a long history of brutal intellectual suppression that led to its adoption as a central part of western educational institutions (long the glory of the globe, I might add) and in spite of its sometimes abuses, we should be (IMHO) careful about throwing it out to save a few bucks.

2) In the business world, I repeatedly saw liberal arts majors rise to critical positions exactly because of the abilities that were fostered and taught in their educations. Even in the high tech marketplace, where scientists, engineers, and technologists provided the foundation for discovery and innovation, those who could see the big picture, communicate a plausible direction, and generate a spirit of cooperation among wildly diverse opinions often rose to the top. I can't count the number of research organizations or IT groups I worked with over the years who were successfully headed by Italian or art history majors.

29. aaroncj - August 04, 2010 at 04:15 pm

I couldn't help but wonder how much money NC State is spending on a "director of communications" position for its libraries. Wouldn't that money be better spent on improving the salaries for the under-paid faculty?

30. performance_expert2 - August 04, 2010 at 07:50 pm

Good content, expand to book form?

31. the_journey - August 04, 2010 at 10:57 pm

Unfortunately, the problems you allude to are symptomatic of much larger problems. As such, I doubt there is any successful way to deal with them in isolation: your particular branch is unlikely to flourish if the root system is diseased.

32. aldebaran - August 04, 2010 at 11:41 pm

"Engineers, technicians, scientists, etc. help produce our material advances ... but do more & more degreed political scientists, anthropologists, historians, lawyers, etc. demonstrably improve our society? If so, how so? And wouldn't we be better off if, instead, we were training health care workers and other technicians who help make our real world work?"

Just sign this "The Vulgarian Philistine's Manifesto", and it would be complete. And no doubt Zinsser would admire its brevity.

33. eacowan - August 09, 2010 at 06:00 pm

Certainly the devolution of once-serious colleges and universities into a kind of corporate miasma is disheartening, and the chances seem slim that they might re-emerge once more as real universities.

All hope is now (entirely) lost. As Laurie Fendrich pointed out in the Chronicle (July 27, 2010, "Off the Beaten Canon"), "Except for a few pockets -- St. John's College, Annapolis, Columbia University, the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Study of Core Texts and Ideas at The University of Texas, Austin -- there are few places today where people think of college as a time and place to study "Great Books."

The Thomas Jefferson Center did not exist at UT-Austin back when I was a student there (1956-1964), but its present existence means that at least one state university does seem to care about that portion of the student body that really wants a genuine higher education.

The listed institutions constitute a remnant of serious higher learning that might form the nucleus of a renewal of higher learning in America. At least these institutions seem, in some way, to reject the devolution of once-serious universities into playpens for grown-ups. --E.A.C.

34. eacowan - August 10, 2010 at 06:58 am

Re: "All hope is *now* entirely lost."

Make that: "All hope is NOT entirely lost."

("Lapsus digitalis" strikes again!) --E.A.C.

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