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January 25, 2000


More Thoughts On The Future Of Higher Education

by Tom Brennan

In the last issue of The Harbinger, Mayor Dow, in an interview with Edmund Tsang, claimed that many of the polluting industries in Mobile are becoming so squeaky clean and that, to quote the Mayor, "we need to be aware so we don't throw the baby out with the bath water" (No. 8, Jan.10-24, 2000). I take it he means getting rid of the dirty bath water, i.e., outrageous pollution of the environment in Mobile and Mobile County, is a very expensive proposition, which, if carried too far, could harm the baby, i.e., the bottom line. A little pollution will never hurt us as long as that baby is fat and sassy. What was it that Reagan said about pollution being good for us?

What the Mayor and those of his persuasion don't appreciate is that business and industry generate a lot of dirty bath water. In one form or another they have a polluting impact on whatever they touch -- call it the Midas touch. In the process of turning things to gold, business and industry pollute. Responsible businesses and corporations, under Federal pressure, have reluctantly acknowledged the destructive nature of the Midas factor and have been doing their best to provide remedies and palliations. Ironically, just as some industries and corporations in the Mobile area are belatedly becoming environmentally responsible, the same cannot be said of the entrepreneurial cowboys on the Board of Trustees at USA. They are in the process of polluting the entire educational environment of the university with business bath water to the degree that traditional academic education will drown in the filth they are so intent on producing. Moreover, our upbeat Mayor sees nothing but good things coming from a business partnership with USA. He believes that football will slicken up the university's image enough to make the university more competitive in its efforts to get a bigger piece of the state pie. The mayor with his business spectacles borrowed from USA Trustee Mayer Mitchell, apparently, believes the shell of image is all and substance is nothing.

Konrad Kressley, in an article in the same issue of The Harbinger, "Alma Mater.Edu," concludes that the corporate colonization of USA now in progress is the wave of the future, and that what we see happening at USA is part and parcel of a larger phenomenon -- a massive incursion of information technologies. Kressley, assuming the academic pose of objective observer, is rather sanguine about this transformation underway. While the academic house is in danger of burning down, your gelid academics are preoccupied with analyzing the flames. But should academics become firemen? Yes indeed, since that has always been an important dimension the academic's mission. As the torchbearers of traditional educational values, they are firemen and women carrying the best of the past into the future, and should not simply drop the torch and throw up their hands in despair. What we're up against in The Midas factor is the deeply embedded virus, a.k.a. greed, one that is always latently virulent and difficult to suppress even when good intentions to do so are dominant. But there's no hope at all if academics and other firemen/women (poets, artists, philosophers, musicians and some theologians) lack the gumption to keep the torch burning brightly into the Brave New World of corporate triumphalism as it feverishly gropes, rapes, and pillages the academic baby. The era now aborning is making jackals and porkers of those who have no intentions of suppressing their greed. Wanting to get their unfair share, some members of the USA Board of Trustees are more than willing to join the gold rush in progress across the country. They care not a whit that it will transform USA into a "quasi-public corporate institution" governed by "educational business managers at all levels."

This transformation, pervading every facet of the higher education, is producing so much dirty bath water it's almost impossible to see how the baby delivered by traditional education can survive at all. It's slowly dissolving into the bath water. And what exactly is the "bath water" created by freebooting the university? Konrad Kressley's piece does an admirable job of indicating the major components and outcomes of the corporate "make-over." Here's a list of likely developments as present trends continue to lay down the tracks of the future. The list is partially from Kressley and partially supplemented by me:

1. Sports will be the centerpiece; the trustee or trustees with the deepest pockets, aping the media impresarios and big-time-sports owners, will use more of their personal fortunes to put the right business face, the slickest and most seductive commercial image, on the university. Kressley: "A football program [at USA] is being touted as the key to local popularity and institutional growth." Plans are afoot also to bring professional wrestling to the Mitchell Center.

2. Undergraduate education, euphemistically called distance learning, will be eventually hacked into the Internet. The undergraduate peons will get standardized and neutralized information for regurgitation. Graduate education will become increasingly elitist and selective. Personal contact with professors will be reserved for those privileged to gain access to upper class information and knowledge.

3. Four-year institutions will increasingly become indistinguishable from two- year colleges as the business ethos forces them to adopt the curriculum and policies of the junior colleges.

4. Curriculum, traditionally a faculty prerogative, will be determined largely by educational business managers with their eyes fixed on labor-market swings. Kressley: "Educational institutions...will operate more like factories producing reliable, standard graduates (read products)." "The curriculum will gradually shift from theoretical to applied fields, or those subjects that have practical applications.”

5. State legislators and bureaucrats will mandate that the curriculum must be articulated even more thoroughly than it presently is to facilitate the transfer of courses from the two-year colleges to the four-year colleges, thus accelerating the process of transforming four-year colleges into junior colleges.

6. Students will be increasingly viewed as consumers and customers whose taste and demands must be met. Kressley: "To make sure that the business succeeds [in a cut-throat competitive environment], promotional activities take center stage.”

7. "Faculty members can expect to drift into the role of production workers or clerks, as the business managers take control of higher learning." "The terms of employment will be changed." Tenure for teachers will disappear; the tenure of faculty designated researchers will continue a while longer. Tenure "will be replaced by the flexible employment policy which industry recently adapted from the 'just in time' inventory control technique for assembly parts. Personnel are hired and released as production demands dictate.”

8. Tenure in the new vocational environment will lose its meaning. That is, the need to speak freely in the classroom about crucial issues will be judged by administrators as inappropriate in a vocational environment. Intense personal interaction between students and teachers will go the way of the Dodo bird. And without the protection of tenure, those who continue to speak freely will be promptly dismissed. Kressley: "Many professors have already witnessed the transition from deferential learner to critical and demanding customer.”

9. Student evaluation of teachers will be the premier criterion for continued employment -- the paying customers will be making the determination. The traditional substance of the university based on high academic standards will be left to academic stars ranked nationally. The educational business managers will eagerly seek to hire "target-of-opportunity" professors, academic hotshots who will cost a large bundle, and who will be used for attracting "distance learners."

10. Class size in service courses like freshman English will go up. Recruitment of qualified professionals will lag far behind these expanding services courses because funds will become scarce or no longer available. Retiring faculty will be replaced by part-time faculty. Ways will be sought to increase the number of out of state students because they pay more. Remedial teaching will be cut back because it is both too expensive and the responsibility of the elementary/high school levels.

11. Funded research will become the essential criterion for promotion even in the humanities, and what little money there is will go to units demonstrating excellence in research.

12. More and more "$10-million deals with corporations like Coca Cola and Coors will be made excluding all rival products.

13. Part-time faculty, generally designated adjuncts, will unionize and initiate court battles to win fair salaries and benefits and to gain the kind of legal support for their first amendments rights in the classroom that tenured faculty are accustomed to.

From my own thirty-years experience as a faculty member in the English Department at USA, I can attest that most of the changes in this list-summary are well underway. What's particularly depressing to faculty who find these things dehumanizing, mechanical, and pernicious, is that their work as intellectuals and their salaries are becoming more and more dependent on the success of this emerging market-oriented system. But contrary to Kressley's view that the changes coming are an outgrowth of information technologies, I see the real problem as an accelerating corporatization of the American university. Ron Stoner, Professor Emeritus, Bowling Green S.U., puts it this way: "Increasingly, governing boards, sensitive only to the 'bottom line,' treat all faculty (not just adjuncts) as an exploitable workforce. Academic freedom, to them, is an irrelevancy. As tenure disappears and adjuncts dominate the faculty work force, all the traditional safeguards of faculty quality and competence will disappear, too" (The Chronicle of Higher Education, "Colloquy," Dec. 7, 1999 -- hereafter cited as CHE).

Administrators are mostly political opportunists and give little thought about consequences before translating grubby and chancy politics into desperate, systematic efforts to keep the operation going, the faculty paid, the public undisturbed, the alumni and trustees happy, and the intellectual activity of the star- faculty performers perceived as proceeding excellently. At USA, the educational business managers from President Moulton on down have prolonged a senseless quarrel with the USA Foundation in lieu of any carefully thought out plan to deal with the difficulties brought on by the parlous times of the corporatization in the Information Age. And to make matters worse, these administrators have pressed into their cause most of the business and medical faculty. The rest of the faculty don't seem to care much about these overall activities which are having a devastating affect on their positions as scholars and intellectuals. And they ignore the fact that academic freedom is a cruel myth for that portion of the professoriate that doesn't have it, and that portion is rapidly welling the ranks of the professoriate with part- timers lamenting how easily colleges and universities can dump them for teaching controversial material, fighting grade changes, and organizing unions.

What evidence can I muster for these claims that the business makeover is razing the foundations of traditional higher education? The evidence to date is largely anecdotal, but the volume of it is increasingly evident in educational media. One sign of the dominance of market orientation in colleges in universities is that business schools in the U.S. went on a hiring binge in 1999, adding 21 per cent more faculty than were hired the previous year (CHE, March 19, 1999). "Much of the hiring in business schools...stems from the growth of new programs, including those that are customized for specific industries." (Ibid.) At the same time business schools are thriving, Ph.D.'s in the humanities are starving, increasingly displaced by a career market bent on hiring vocationalists. To assist unemployable humanities Ph.D.'s, the Wilson Foundation has a new grant program to expand career options for Ph.D.'s. in the humanities (CHE, April 16, 1999).

The job shortage for Ph.D.'s has been haunting academe since the early 70's, but only recently has the new market orientation of universities seized the opportunity to exploit Ph.D.’s as part-time throwaways. In 1994 the American Mathematical Society condemned what it called the "systematic hiring" of unemployed Ph.D's on a part-time basis (CHE, Feb. 16, 1994). In a resolution, the society called the practice "reprehensible and exploitative" and says it "undermines educational quality" (Ibid.). From quarter to quarter or semester to semester these part-timers come and go in throngs. The effect is to produce "faceless departments" staffed largely by "invisible faculty." These academic ghosts are present briefly in departments and then disappear. They do not share in the governing of the department. At Cal State's Hayward campus, over 100 professors signed a "Statement of Concern" which began: "The health of our university is being devastated by the insidious decline in the number of tenured and tenure-track faculty.” The statement said in 1992, the university employed 407 tenured and tenure-track professors and 143 lecturers [their term for part-timers]. In 1995, those numbers 373 and 330" (CHE, Mar. 28, 1997).

A 1993 survey by the National Center for Education Statistics found that the proportion of part-time professors had doubled over the previous two decades to more than 40 per cent. Adjuncts account for 64 per cent of the faculty members at two-year colleges.

Even at prestigious universities such as Yale graduate students and adjuncts teach 70 per cent of classroom hours (CHE, April 9, 1999). Carol Hodes, who currently teaches at Penn State, reports: "At one small school in Pennsylvania where I used to teach, the adjunct faculty to tenured faculty ratio was about 3:1. Many students are recruited to this school for sports" (CHE, "Colloquy," Dec. 9, 1999).

As the number of part-timers increases, the quality of teaching declines, not because part-timers are necessarily bad teachers but because without tenure to protect them in the classroom, academic freedom is not a torchbearing auxiliary but an igneous fatuous that can lead unwary part-timers into the bogs of administrative disapproval. Savvy part-timers know that if they say the least controversial thing and they will not be rehired. And sometimes too they are not rehired because they teach so well they unintentionally make the tenured faculty look bad. This happened to a woman at a large public university. She was very successful at teaching a difficult statistics course and her success aroused the ire of some of the full-timers who routinely failed large percentages of students (CHE, "Colloquy," Dec. 8, 1999). Knowing also that their positions are so dependent on good student evaluations, the grades they give are more likely to be inflated. Numbers count most and academic freedom counts for nothing in the minds of educational business managers. A part- timer in a community college who requested anonymity out of fear of reprisal was told by an administrator, "we don't fail students here," and was required to record failing grades in red pencil on the rosters, which were then submitted to the department chair first and not the registrar (CHE, "Colloquy," Dec. 9, 1999). Another adjunct requesting anonymity said that "the question of academic freedom follows me like a shadow." "Most administrators understand the question, but tend to fall back on the so-called 'necessity' of the economic model with its tendency to reduce learning objectives and their measurement to the point where they are easily accomplished by the least capable student. Administrators tend to see a student failure as a failure of the instructor (especially if the students project their failure onto the instructor's actions, as they often do in student evaluations). The business model fails to sort out the ability to perform from the ability to pay" (Ibid., "Colloquy," Dec. 10, 1999).

Lee Simmons, of Nanyang Technological Institute, reports that he "was teaching a business ethics class at an institution which prides itself on cross-cultural sensitivity. We discussed differences in morality due to culture and religious differences. I was told there were no jobs in the next term after I discussed atheism being moral and religions other than Christianity." Simmons adds that while an adjunct in Texas he was "called in to change the grades of football players." Another school dismissed Simmons when he discussed sex and pornography in Internet ads. Some students complained to the Dean that he was advocating the use of drugs and pornography (CHE, "Colloquy," Dec. 8, 1999). A practicing sociologist while teaching in a visiting position at a large state institution encountered a conservative member of the community who "took it upon herself to purge the university of those 'secular humanists destroying the unsuspecting minds of our youth.'" He says, "she enrolled in several sociology courses and found a target on one of my tenured colleagues who is known (and mostly respected) for his unconventional lectures and methods." The matter was "handled" when the faculty person agreed to issue a disclosure statement at the beginning of each class. Thus forewarned those students who might find his lectures offensive could avoid the class" (Ibid. "Colloquy," Dec. 10, 1999).

At first blush, disclosure statements appear to be fair way to deal with students who do not wish to be exposed to ideas that might change the way they think. But the question that begs to be asked is: why are they attending college? From those who believe that higher education is just a more advanced kind of vocationalism, the answer is simple -- training in practical skills so they can make a lot of money in the business world. But a traditional liberal arts education has as its primary purpose (in my opinion) repeated exposure to ideas that will in fact have a transformative effect on students. A teaching sociologist is teaching nothing if he/she is not teaching about "the larger social mechanisms of everyday phenomena such as deviance, delinquency, sex and gender constructs, racism, bureaucracy, etc." "It is precisely the job of a sociologist [or any teacher who teaches the arts and sciences] to question students, challenge preconceived notions, fight bureaucracy and bureaucrats, and raise the consciousness of students and colleagues whenever and however possible" (Ibid.) That is, as torchbearers it's incumbent on us not only to pass on the best but also to use our torches when necessary to burn up the worse. We're not just firemen/women but arsonists too.

A few savvy parents are steering their children away from courses designated in course schedules as being taught by "staff" because they know that "staff" means a part-timer or adjunct will be teaching the course. One can't fault these parents; they want the best for their children, but on the other hand, faculty, whether part time or full time, are faced increasingly with malicious students, who, sensing their new found worth as customers, will use their own narrow- minded views (usually based in religious fundamentalism) to disrupt a class and irritate other students who are able to suspend their own beliefs and opinions to understand the context of a literary work or other work under discussion. One student wrote on her evaluation that the instructor focused on pornography. In most situations like this, untenured instructors can expect no support from educational business managers. (Ibid. Dec. 10, 1999). Nancy Buffenbarger, an adjunct at the University of Wisconsin at Marshfield, reports that "one of her former students, and MA candidate teaching sociology part-time at a community college, told [her] she no longer taught inequality topics -- poverty, gender, race -- because her students punished her for it in evaluations" (CHE, “Colloquy," Dec. 8, 1999). For a fuller presentation of horror stories read Allison Schneider's article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, "To Many Adjunct Professors, Academic Freedom Is a Myth," 12/7/99.

For the part-timer, academic freedom is a luxury he or she doesn't have and dare not presume to have. But if academic freedom is essential to excellent teaching and scholarship -- and I believe it is -- then all who teach or do scholarly work of the academy must have it. The real issue is power, a complete lack of it in the growing ranks of part-time faculty. The educational business managers, with the backing of the trustees, think they have right to all of it and only grudgingly offer token amounts to tenured faculty. As long as faculty cannot bring to the table an equivalency in power, academic freedom will exist as a mere luxury protecting a relatively few quirky professors with tenure. These few can be safely ignored by the business managers while they shaft those with no power. Academic freedom as an ideal needs to be re- formed as independently as possible from academic power, i.e. tenure. That, however, is not likely given the present power structure with its business elite dominating and increasingly curtailing academic freedom. I see only two ways to bring to the table a power equivalency with sufficient clout to include all faculty, part- time and full-time, in the sacred precincts of academic freedom, and that is, horrors of horrors, litigation and unionization. Academic freedom protected by case law and unionization are the only effective counter measures to administrative power and ultimately the only antidote against the mediocrity of the marching morons accepting hollow, fraudulent diplomas.

But before real issues can be joined across the table, faculty must be willing to unite as they rarely have done in the past to face on equal footing the business commodifiers who would turn students and faculty into exploitable resources, the raw material of profit. The lack of solidarity among college and university faculty when issues of power manifest is nothing new, but it's especially characteristic of southern institutions. Greg Tropea, the Associate V.P. of Lecturers of the California Faculty Association asks: Are tenured faculty "too weak-minded to grasp what is at stake when freedom of speech is abridged? Too selfish or cowardly to defend the open exchange of ideas" If so, then "academic freedom" will become an oxymoron soon enough" (CHE, "Colloquy," Dec. 8, 1999).

Unionization will rectify salary inequities and litigation will provide court rulings protecting faculty against flagrant violations of first amendment rights. Quality, in part, depends after all, on just compensation and protection of free speech. The lack of quality in the ranks of the part- time faculty has little to do with education and training and a great deal to do with a cavalier disrespect for the free expression of ideas and a willingness of full-time tenured faculty to conspire tacitly with business managers in scandalously low pay rates for part-time faculty and in encroachments on their first amendment rights. Academic freedom is for tenured only. Around the country, part-timers typical earn around $2,000 to teach a course for which a full-timer would earn the equivalent of $5,000. At USA, part-timers in the English Department are paid $1400 per course. One of the lowest, if not the lowest rate in Alabama for public institutions. And are these part-timers free to speak their minds and hearts? Not from what I've heard from a few of them, and not from what I've personally experienced.

USA and other institutions believe themselves fully entitled to dismiss adjuncts from teaching position whenever they wish. No explanation required; no grievance procedure provided; part-timers just disappear. This is exactly what happened to me (only I don't intend to disappear). After teaching for 30 years at USA, I retired last August but continued to teach part- time during the Fall Semester 1999. When I asked Dr. Sue Walker what teaching assignments I might expect for the Winter Semester, she told me she could no longer offer me courses to teach in the department and refused to give any reasons for that decision. Now those of you who read The Harbinger regularly know that I've written a series of articles highly critical of some members of the Board of Trustees at USA and some administrators. It seems obvious to me that I've been barred from the classroom at USA because I've freely exercised my first amendment rights. As long as I held tenure, I was protected but tenure doesn't follow a person into retirement.

Even so, the days of discriminatory practices exploiting part-time faculty are numbered. Presently, as in most things, California is leading the way toward better compensation for part- time faculty. Last October, Gov. Gray Davis singed a bill that will provide thousands of part-time instructors at community colleges with health insurance and could also compensate them for office hours (CHE, Oct. 12, 1999). "The economic exploitation of community-college part-time faculty is the most severe public-employee problem in California," said Tom Tyner, president of the Community College Council of the California Federation of Teachers. The union is demanding that the system include $50-million in its 2000-01 budget proposal, earmarked for part- time pay" (CHE, Dec. 13, 1999). On the legal front, successes are likely to come. In the state of Washington, last fall part-timers initiated three actions in state court against the community-college system. One lawsuit charged that the state owes more than $40-million in back payments to thousands of part-time instructors. A second suit says the state wrongfully denied health-care benefits to part-timers. A third suit involves 15 part-timers who are seeking damages for what they say are years of unpaid wages and overtime. What is unusual in these legal battles is that part-time instructors have joined forces to sue a state employer. Victories in Washington will very likely inspire part-time faculty across the country to initiate similar suits in their own states (CHE, Oct. 12, 1999).

Over the years there have been lawsuits involving issues of academic freedom and plaintiffs have won in the courts. The volume of successful lawsuits will increase as part-timers and others join forces to hire first-class legal assistance. A professor fired recently for mentioning tampons and anal sex in a pathology class sued and won. Moreover, academic freedom will be a main issue at the bargaining table as more and more faculty realize that the absence of academic freedom for part-timers threatens academic freedom for all.

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