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Universities, Awake! or, the Crisis of Higher Education

June 23, 2009, 11:55 am

In Hazard or Opportunity? Inside Higher Ed’s Doug Lederman reports on yesterday’s meeting of college and university administrators sponsored by the Lumina Foundation. While higher education is not in complete free fall (health care and the struggling newspaper industry are the comparisons where systemic crisis is provoking drastic change), the hand writing is on the wall. Some of you might be concerned about the agenda at such a meeting, since the Lumina Foundation is a proponent of practical education that is aimed at turning out obedient workers, not citizens bursting with critical thought. And your worries might be compunded by the fact that Ohio, which has been a leader in shutting down alternative education options in the state by imposing rigid certification mandates, was heavily represented as a source of change.

But much as I dislike the messenger, the message is worth listening to. “As is often the case at such events,” Lederman writes,

those in attendance heard mostly from those who believe that higher education must change and who have sought to respond aggressively. Eric D. Fingerhut, who as chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents has led his state’s efforts to impose greater efficiency and centralized control on a group of public institutions that had, like those in many states, operated largely as free agents, made it clear that the “crisis” Ohioans face is not the recession of the last year but the larger and longer-unfolding “transition of the economy of the industrial Midwest.”

That enormous challenge, Fingerhut said, is “why I want to grab our leaders by the lapels and say, ‘Don’t you see what’s going on around here?’…. The fact is that the ability of future generations of this state to sustain our commitment to a vibrant system of higher education is very much at risk.”

These questions are important. In fact, I can’t imagine who those people are who don’t think that higher education needs drastic reform, as we look into yawning budget gaps and students stepping into the abyss of endless debt so that they are qualified to graduate and take an — internship?

In the opinion of this Radical, higher ed is on a precipice of non-sustainibility, and it’s not because there are too many faculty or that we make too much money. Colleges and universities serve fewer people, less well and at greater expense than they ever have. But structural and policy issues are well-hidden in the personality-driven human interest stories that appear in the media. While many of these narratives feature suburban parents rending their garments about how they will tell their children that pricey, private schools are off the table, others feature desperately indigent teens who have lifted themselves up out of the gutter to snag a coveted Harvard scholarship or a place on a Big Ten football team. Even the current employment crisis has provoked little news about the situation of a vast number of people: college educated parents who can’t afford a public university or a private university without asking their children to take out enormous loans.

That paying back college and graduate school loans for several decades has had a depressing effect on our economy, masked by easy consumer credit, makes perfect sense to me, but if any economists are working on this, I don’t see it in the news. But you know what? if people aren’t paying their mortgages and credit cards, I doubt they are paying their student loans either. Is anyone writing about this?

Had they invited me to this conference, I would have suggested the following topics for discussion:

Is the function of a university system to pass on the aggregate knowledge of a civilization or to teach students to think critically about the world they live in? Since I have been a university professor, the answer has been: pay for everything you can! Don’t decide! Why shoudl we pander to student interests by actually hiring people in fields that are relevant to their interests? And while the answer to this question is not either/or, liberal arts colleges may now be forced to suck it up and begin to specialize, making consortia arrangements with other public and private institutions to cover the gaps in their curricula. For example: I loved the classics — studying Latin in many ways was my introduction to reading primary sources as a very young scholar. I also love my colleagues in the Classics department at Zenith, of whom there are too few, given how good natured and competent they are as a group. But frankly, given how few students are served by this field, every college may not need a Classics department of its own. I would argue, however, that every college needs a Center for Contemporary Politics, where intellectually flexible, interdisciplinary scholars drawn lead students in vigorous debates about the ideological, cultural and political changes that are shaping their world and future. Precious few universites are ready for what will happen tomorrow, and by the time tomorrow happens, it’s too late to set up a new department or program, much less hire and tenure people in it.

The federal government needs to start spending education dollars on young people who do national service, military and non-military. Zenith, for example, made a big deal of it a few years back that we were setting one place aside each year for a veteran of our current war. One? Give me a break. Places like Zenith need to cut a deal with the government in which we expand our student body by thirty-forty students, offer all of those places to veterans of the military and Americorps, and cut a deal with the feds that we will discount the full cost of their education by 25% if the government pays the whole freight without any loan burden to the student.

Shift money out of the penal system and into preparing people for a college education and budget lines dedicated to lowering tuitions drastically. A great many states are so in hock to prison guard unions and private prison contractors they don’t know what to do. You think Social Security is the third rail of politics? Ha. De-carceration is the third rail of state politics, my friends. And yet it is a fact that the prison population is also on the bottom rung of our population when it comes to literacy and numeracy. It is another fact that the greatest deterrent to criminal recidivism is educating people and making them employable.

The federal government needs to return to actually spending money to support education; in return, colleges and universities should de-privatize. That’s right: you get, you should give. Right now, everything that private universities give to their communities is voluntary: gifts in lieu of taxes, fresh-faced volunteers sent into the community, and creating “culture” that people outside the university can pay to attend. But what do they get to do in return? Collect donations from their alumni, which said alumni then deduct from taxes that might otherwise go to support public education; reserve the right to exclude any student for any reason; set whatever price they choose; and hoard money in endowments.

Higher education needs to start paying more attention to what is going on at the secondary level and vigorously fight unnecessary mandates, particularly the testing mandate associated with No Child Left Behind. Right now we in higher ed pretend this has nothing to do with us, but
we are wrong. Billions of dollars of state and local money that could be going to higher ed, as well as to secondary ed, are going to test prep, testing, and “outcomes assessment” done by for profit consulting firms. This is money going down the drain that could be devoted to high school to college transition programs that would actually prepare students for college, and to underwriting tuition at public universities. Furthermore, testing is homogenizing education, and that homogeneity is creeping upward: more and more students expect content in a class, as opposed to debate about ideas. Fewer students feel confident that they can write an academic essay without a structured “prompt,” although curiously, at my school, they write blogs, songs, plays, and film scripts with ease and creativity. What else can explain this gap between their unoriginal, often openly craven, papers and the vigor of their creative labors than the fact that they have learned to suppress critical thought in their academic work in order to score well on tests?

I am the last one to say that an economic depression will be “good” for higher education in and of itself: the short-term outcome will be more students excluded from college and more students taking on impossible debt. But is it time for we educators to change the system?

You bet.

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