Wednesday, August 21, 2013

American Universities Future

I want to share this important essay:
The Future of American Universities by Larry Busch, MSU Dept of Sociology,
21 August 2013
It is my conviction that universities as we have known them for centuries are undergoing a radical transformation. Gradually, but surely, the very notion that faculty are intellectuals who follow their consciences in educating students and in the search for new knowledge is being undermined. To my mind, although the reviewers are certainly right on some details, they have completely capitulated to this transformation of the university. Let me explain:
1. New Public Management has become the norm at public universities. (If you are not familiar with the term, I suggest that you read up on it.) Instead of allowing disciplinary units to determine what counts as scholarship, we are being forced to accept 'objective' measures such as number of publications, number of citations, journal impact factors, number of grant dollars received, and other criteria. Ironically, these measures are so badly constructed that a student proposing to use them to study research quality would be the laughing stock of any statistics deparment. Moreover, NPM is based on the assumptions of Public Choice Theory which assumes that we are all social isolates and that anyone working in a setting in which markets and competitions are not central is likely goofing off. Imposing these measures shifts the kinds of research that gets done and quietly supresses most critical research. It is aided by the growing acceptance of grant activity as a measure of quality, forgetting that many topics neither require nor need grant money. Those topics are being gradually moved off the agenda. (Please remember that I say this as a faculty member who, with my colleagues, has obtained ~$30 million in extramural grants over my career.)
2. There is more and more pressure to standardize undergraduate and graduate education. (Much to my amazement, the College of Arts and Letters is standardizing its introductory courses so that all faculty will use the same textbook. This will allow comparison of 'effectiveness' across faculty members!) Both grads and undergrads are to be moved as rapidly as possible through the assembly line of education so as to improve efficiency. Remember that our department has long had an international focus. Many of our best students have taken quite a bit of time to complete their degrees because they spent a year or more in the field gathering data. Of course, it should be obvious that pressure to move students quickly through the system is also tantamount to encouraging a decline in quality (although those pushing for it would not admit that).
3. On the grounds of greater efficiency and cost cutting, the proportion of faculty in tenure track positions is declining.Those who are not in tenure track positions are faced with living vulnerable lives at the whim of the university. They are also miserably paid for what they do. Some politicians have already called for doing away with tenure; others will follow. In Britain, they have already done that.
4. A consequence of growing marketization and competition is growing bureaucracy. Despite endless propaganda about the efficiency of markets and competitions, each time one establishes a market or competition, one must also establish a bureaucracy to monitor, develop measures, check on those who will undoubtedly attempt to game the system, etc. Hence, the volume of forms, memos, requirements, measures, and consequently the number of administrators is rising. The US education department has collected numbers that are astonishing.(Think of this as a new version of the Wizard of Oz, in which we are all told not to pay any attention to that fellow behind the curtain.)
5. Students are becoming 'individualized' by virtue of huge loans that MUST be repaid regardless of circumstances, requiring them to work during the semester -- when they should be studying and learning -- to minimize the size of those loans. They are also being forced by the loans into believing that college is all about maximizing future earnings, one's human capital. The idea that college education is also about citizenship and knowing onesself  is receding.
What to do about all this is not entirely clear. But there are certainly some things that can be done. Each of us can get up to date on how higher education is changing. (To put that in sociological terms, we can each learn how certain powerful groups are changing social structures to meet their desires, while screwing the rest of us.) We can also begin to consider how to develop new forms of social solidarity with colleagues in other disciplines (we are sociologists! Remember?) and, when appropriate resist. And, we can help students to understand how these changes affect them and what they might do about it.

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