I live in a house filled with magic. Our six-year-old son is obsessed with Harry Potter and although he knows that magic isn’t real, he still secretly hopes that it might be. We look for the sparkle in his eyes when he gets excited about being able to read, when he figures out how things work, when he learns and discovers. The most inspiring faculty members I know have the ability to create that kind of magic in their classrooms.
This basic humanity is missing in discussions of the corporatization of higher education. On a personal level, I find it difficult to connect with the corporate analogy. It is alienating, sterile, and ultimately…masculine.
I view teaching and learning as a series of human interactions that, at their best, become a series of magical moments of discovery shared between students and professors. When I think of a magic show, on the other hand, I visualize a transaction-based relationship between a magician and his audience, a series of cheap magic tricks performed for ticket-buying customers.
One major element missing from both Mike Brown’s and Andrew Ross’s depictions of the university is the rest of the people on campus: students, staff, and administration. Academic discussions of the corporatization of higher education frame the institution as a corporation and the faculty as the labor oppressed by this structure. But academics need to realize that the corporate model dehumanizes everyone on campus, not just the faculty.
The best professors are teachers who have a passion for teaching and learning, and they deserve campuswide respect and support. However, faculty do not make allies when they portray themselves as the only laborers in higher education, thereby omitting the majority of those who work on our campuses. Professors seem to have a strange sort of tunnel vision when it comes to defining labor on campus. Apart from their fellow faculty members, their view rarely includes those outside of the line on the organizational chart that links themselves to their presidents. They seem to look through their chairs, deans, and provosts to their most senior leaders.
But the reality is that those of us who labor in academe range from part-time work-study students to outsourced janitors and food-service workers, to campus police, librarians, doctors, legal counsel, and a myriad of student counselors, among others. Many of the working conditions that affect professors also affect the rest of us. Much more is to be gained by seeing the conditions we have in common than by painting a picture of faculty as uniquely oppressed. Building bridges between faculty and administration is a necessary step in creating a campus culture that values teaching and learning and that is oriented toward the success of both students and faculty.
When we present the university as a corporation, the faculty as labor, and the students as customers, we lose sight of our core mission of teaching and learning. Just as the corporate analogy distracts, the customer analogy detracts. Presenting the student as a customer rather than as a partner in learning is condescending at best. It is a short-run view that focuses on interactions with students as a series of financial transactions rather than a network of human relationships. When we view education as consumption, administrators are forced to side either with faculty at the expense of the students or with students at the expense of the faculty. When our focus is on learning as a form of development, we can spend our energy on finding ways to support the creativity and growth of both partners in this relationship.
In an ideal world, an institution’s relationship with its students is a cradle-to-grave interaction based on far more than consumption. Our goal should be to create lasting relationships with our students, from the moment they choose our institution as the community they want to belong to until the time when our college is associated with fond memories.
When I meet with alumni, I ask them to recount some of their more memorable moments at our institution. These invariably involve a favorite faculty member who taught them to question and see the world a little differently and who made them realize that they had that ability. For me, the magic of education happens in the classroom when an amazing professor reaches a group of equally amazing students and they discover together. That moment is not easily monetized, nor should it be.
When we view faculty as labor and students as customers, we do not see magic; we see expenses and revenue on a profit-and-loss sheet. We would be better off selling tickets to a magic show.
Look for our wrap-up later this week.