Posts Tagged ‘Universities’

The twilight of the American university

December 11, 2020

When I think of the wonderful experience I had attending a university in the 1950s and the great teachers I had, I grieve for that this experience is rarely if ever available today, except for a few pockets where scholars stubbornly value learning for its own sake.

The faculty and administrators of the University of Wisconsin stood up for the right to tell the truth as they saw it, and not just for the rights of tenured faculty, in the era of Joe McCarthy.

Now college professors are under pressure from two directions—pressure to refrain from scholarship that is threatening to business interests, and pressure to maintain an ideological orthodoxy regarding race, gender, etc. These two pressures are not incompatible.

When I was a newspaper reporter, from roughly 60 years ago to roughly 20 years ago, there were only three categories of people I could interview who would speak their minds without fear—owners of successful businesses, members of strong labor unions and tenured college professors. Add to that civil servants talking about their areas of expertise.

The fear factor was much greater when I retired than when I started out. I am pretty sure it is not less today.

Universities are part of the institutional memory of civilizations. Their decline is one reason for the historical amnesia that exists today.

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Can college education be free for everyone?

March 25, 2016

I think it is feasible to provide college education with free or affordable tuition, as Bernie Sanders advocates.  Foreign countries do so, and the United States once did, too.

I have long been in favor of free or affordable college education for everybody who has the desire and ability to do college work, but this is different from providing free tuition for everybody.

collegekids97944673-copyRon Unz, the maverick political editor and writer, has proposed that Harvard University offer free tuition.  As he says, it can easily afford it because of the tax-free revenues of its huge endowment fund.  He also advocates for a fairer admissions process, especially for Asian-American students.

Those are excellent proposals.  But they wouldn’t get everybody who wishes into Harvard.

Sanders’ plan is for the federal government to pay for two-thirds of the cost of college education at state universities that offer free tuition and meet other conditions.  I expect that many state governors would turn down this generous offer.  Most states are cutting the budgets of their state university systems.  And after all, many states refused to expand Medicaid even though the Affordable Care Act offered to cover nine-tenths of the cost.

Germany is frequently cited as an example of a country that provides free college tuition for everyone, including foreigners, who can pass an entrance examination.

But only about 28 percent of young German adults are college graduates, compared to 43 percent of Americans.

During the golden age of American public higher education, college education was much less common.  As recently as 1990, only 23 percent of young American adults were college graduates.

Higher education in Germany also is much more bare bones than it is in the USA.  German colleged generally offer a rigorous academic program without the extra-curricular amenities that Americans typically regard as a part of the college experience.

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The fate of the arts and sciences

August 15, 2015

Everybody knows that the percentage of [college] students majoring in English has plummeted since the 1960s. 

But the percentage majoring in the physical sciences—physics, chemistry, geology, astronomy and so forth—has fallen even more, by some 60 percent.

As of 2013, only 1.5 percent of students graduated with a degree in one of these subjects, and only 1.1 percent in math.

At most colleges, the lion’s share of undergraduates major in vocational fields: business, communications, education, health.

But even at elite institutions, the most popular majors are the practical, or as [David] Brooks might say, the commercial ones: economics, biology, engineering and computer science.

It is not the humanities per se that are under attack.  It is learning: learning for its own sake, curiosity for its own sake, ideas for their own sake.

==The Neoliberal Arts by William Deresiewicz in Harper’s magazine.  Available to subscribers only.

David Graeber on corporatization

September 25, 2014

The increasing interpenetration of government, university and private firms has led everyone to adopt the language, sensibilities, and organizational forms that originated in the corporate world.

Although this might have helped in creating marketable products, since that is what corporate bureaucracies are designed to do, in terms of fostering original research, the results have been catastrophic.

My own knowledge comes from universities, both in the United States and Britain.  In both countries, the last thirty years have seen a veritable explosion of the proportion of working hours spent on administrative tasks at the expense of pretty much everything else.

In my own university, for instance, we have more administrators than faculty members, and the faculty members, too, are expected to spend at least as much time on administration as on teaching and research combined.  The same is true, more or less, at universities worldwide.

The growth of administrative work has directly resulted from introducing corporate management techniques.  Invariably, these are justified as ways of increasing efficiency and introducing competition at every level.

What they end up meaning in practice is that everyone winds up spending most of their time trying to sell things: grant proposals; book proposals; assessments of students’ jobs and grant applications; assessments of our colleagues; prospectuses for new interdisciplinary majors; institutes; conference workshops; universities themselves which have now become brands to be marketed to prospective students or contributors; and so on.

As marketing overwhelms university life, it generates documents about fostering imagination and creativity that might just as well have been designed to strangle imagination and creativity in the cradle.

via Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit – The Baffler.

Universities as businesses: Death of an adjunct

September 19, 2013

Margaret Mary Votjko, an 83-year-old college teacher of French at Duquense University in Pittsburgh, was found dead of a heart attack recently.  She was living in poverty, unable to pay her medical or utility bills.   Her situation was an example of what happens when the for-profit corporation becomes the model for all institutions of society, including universities.

Daniel Kovalik, of the United Steelworkers, told her story to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Margaret Mary was an adjunct professor, meaning that, unlike a well-paid tenured professor, Margaret Mary worked on a contract basis from semester to semester, with no job security, no benefits and with a salary of between $3,000 and just over $3,500 per three-credit course.  Adjuncts now make up well over 50 percent of the faculty at colleges and universities. 

[snip]

Seal_of_Duquesne_University.svgAs amazing as it sounds, Margaret Mary, a 25-year professor, was not making ends meet. Even during the best of times, when she was teaching three classes a semester and two during the summer, she was not even clearing $25,000 a year, and she received absolutely no health care benefits.  Compare this with the salary of Duquesne’s president, who makes more than $700,000 with full benefits.

Meanwhile, in the past year, her teaching load had been reduced by the university to one class a semester, which meant she was making well below $10,000 a year. With huge out-of-pocket bills from UPMC Mercy for her cancer treatment, Margaret Mary was left in abject penury.

She could no longer keep her electricity on in her home, which became uninhabitable during the winter.  She therefore took to working at an Eat’n Park at night and then trying to catch some sleep during the day at her office at Duquesne.  When this was discovered by the university, the police were called in to eject her from her office. Still, despite her cancer and her poverty, she never missed a day of class.

Finally, in the spring, she was let go by the university, which told her she was no longer effective as an instructor — despite many glowing evaluations from students.  She came to me to seek legal help to try to save her job.  She said that all she wanted was money to pay her medical bills because Duquesne, which never paid her much to begin with, gave her nothing on her way out the door.

via Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

Her economic situation is not that unusual, and her pay, based on what I’ve been told by friends who are adjunct college teachers, was fairly standard.  The original idea of adjunct faculty was to have successful lawyers, scientists and other professionals come in and lecture about their fields of expertise.  They were intended as adjuncts to the regular faculty, not substitutes.

The great Russian novelist, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, once wrote that what matters is not the political or economic system, but the moral foundations of society.   The present system of higher education would work just fine if it was operated by people whose priority was a love of learning and teaching.  Colleges and other non-profit organizations are given special privileges on the assumption that they have a higher aim than maximizing wealth.

When administrators recognize no values except monetary values, then their employees have no choice but to organize to protect their interests.   Teachers on any level don’t like to strike, but the strike—the power to withhold one’s labor—is the workers’ only means of self-defense.

Click on Death of an adjunct for Daniel Kovalik’s full article.  Hat tip for the link to Daniel Brandt.

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