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What If Thinking About Education As A Business Were A Good Thing?

July 6, 2011, 5:37 pm

The Nation had a recent, and very provocative, issue organized around the theme “Re-imagining Capitalism:  Bold Ideas for a New Economy.” Assuming that the revolution is not on its way as we speak, the authors argue for the restructuring of capitalism to provide the prosperity that free-market theory (as practiced across the political spectrum) has made an even more distant dream.  These articles are worth a read, particularly since they break into old dichotomies to demonstrate how a more humane economy might also be a stronger one:  the series features employee-owned industries as opposed to the euphemistic “small businesses” politicians love to talk about; government as a guaranteed employer of last resort rather than as a workfare overseer; and reforms of liability law are but a few of the ideas about how we might balance the profit motive with a more even distribution of capitalism’s benefits.

So I began to wonder:  is there some way to think about how capitalism provides an interesting model for thinking about higher ed that pushes us beyond the disasters that privatization?  Here’s what I came up with.
Two of the more interesting capitalists I have ever known, one a Zenith alum and the other the mother of a childhood friend, were in the business of fixing businesses.  They would acquire companies that were essentially sound, in that there was a market for their products, they had a good infrastructure, and were located in an area that needed an employer.  But these businesses were, from some reason or another, not doing well and in danger of going under:  they had been mismanaged, they had lost their vision, or they had misjudged their market.  These two very different individuals that I knew would set these businesses aright, and by doing so, save the jobs of the people who worked there, create new ones, and make a nice little profit for themselves on top.

This is a very different model from the boom and bust cycles that are characterizing our economy, driven (as Paul Krugman and Robin Wells argue in this review of Jeff Madrick’s Age of Greed:  The Triumph of Finance and the Decline of America, 1970 to the Present) by the pursuit of short-term profits at the cost of long-term investment  Similarly, higher education seems to be driven by a desire for immediate results at the cost of thinking through long term structural changes.  It’s not only administrators who are guilty of this, although strategies for boosting a college’s reputation that are guided by people paid to do only that have exactly that effect.  The equivalent of short-term investment in the academy is to establish the program du jour one year and forget about it the following year when a new program du jour at a rival institution provokes a copy-cat initiative; to hire public relations firms who develop themes for a campus that aren’t sustained by any curricular heft but reflect a sense that students want X; and to drive down their acceptance rates by soliciting ever-more applications from students who can’t possibly get in.

So what would long-term investment look like at a moment when fewer and fewer real dollars are coming to publics or privates?  For academics, what it might require is an investment of time to use the dollars we have well, and by doing so, draw more investment.  Let’s imagine the following:

Instead of trashing the humanities, holding conferences in which we question (meaning assert) the relevance of the humanities, or recycling old arguments about the humanities, recognize that some students will feel well-served by them and others won’t.  Ask the students who feel served by the humanities why, and invest in those students. Release the others from humanities requirements. Why should we force everyone to take humanities courses? Why is being a generalist always critical to becoming an engaged citizen?  It’s not clear to me what vague statements about nurturing citizenship through the humanities mean in a country where more and more people find college out of reach, or are academically unprepared to attend college; where half of registered voters (many of whom are college educated) do not vote, by choice; where two million incarcerated black men will join millions of other black men who are ineligible to vote; where empathy for the poor among all other classes is in startling decline; and where a vast majority of honest workers who might become citizens are living in the shadows.

A long-term investment in the humanities would address these urgent questions by framing curriculum around them in all fields, rather than merely gesturing to the unproven “fact” that students will gain citizenship skills through studying the humanities.  One way of beginning to make this investment would be to convert adjunct lines to tenure-track or long-term contract lines and ask the scholars who see and teach the most students to be central players in constructing these curricula.  Where will you get the budget for this?  Fire one administrator who is responsible for making up the gobbledygook that goes on the website every year. See how that goes.  If things seem to be improving, and your humanities departments are maintaining enrollments, fire another.

Find ways of effectively sharing faculty across institutions. I interviewed at one school this year where faculty are appointed in two separate institutions, close by each other, and expected to tach in both.  The appointment is made with written, and shared expectations about where the person will teach, how the person will be reviewed to tenure, as if it were a joint appointment in the same institution.  This required no investment of dollars, but of time, to figure out how it would work properly and how such an appointment could be made in a true spirit of cooperation.  Before you leave a comment about how this is a sign of the Apocalypse, think about this:  a vast number of per course adjuncts travel between multiple institutions every week, or every day.  They have to apply for their jobs every year, or every  semester, and they are wretchedly paid.  And think about the fact that where no job existed, one now does.

In the past I have also advocated for colleges and universities not duplicating departments.  We might even stretch this to fields within departments: if there are three colleges in proximity, would it be better for one of them to have an historian of Eastern Europe or none of them?  These initiatives would be best conceived by faculty themselves, working with departments at other institutions, planning over the long term.  Inevitably, faculty also need to think harder about the use of online teaching and video conferencing to make such sharing easier, and not dismiss them out of hand as a degradation of the classroom experience.

Look around your institution, find something that doesn’t work as it should, and fix it.  This requires dedicated faculty-administration partnership. It’s not uncommon that there are programs of study, journals, or co-curricular events that bump along, sucking up money, and not doing anything special.  With an investment of time, you could do something better with the same money — or close what isn’t working down, salvage the parts or people who are worth salvaging, and build something new.  Part of what is wrong with the academy is that once something is established it usually lives forever.  This often makes administrators and faculty reluctant to start new projects, lest they live forever; and it diverts funds on an annual basis into things whose sole function is to maintain a personal fiefdom that acquires a few dedicated adherents every year. Businesses who suppressed exciting new initiatives in favor of maintaining unproductive departments that lost money would fail.  Yes, this might result in the loss of a few things that some people value.  On the other hand, an institution that is open to fresh initiatives would be open to a new, refreshed argument for the relevance of a program that was on the block.

I know it is unfashionable to say the words “business” and “education” in the same sentence.  But perhaps it is our reluctance to learn about business, our refusal to acknowledge that what academics do — even in non-profits — is work for a capitalist enterprise, that keeps us from learning the things we need to know to survive in the pay to play world.

What are your ideas, readers?

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