Scions and titans and heirs, oh my
Slate.com is running a weeklong look at what’s wrong with American universities. Interesting series. But their writers haven’t addressed what I think is really going on with college education right now. It’s not about overhauling the majors or “morality-based learning” or rediscovering “great books.”
No, like healthcare and air travel, the higher ed system is ailing. And it’s going to take a long time to heal it.
What infected it? To start with, money. To get more of it, universities adopted the corporate model. They sent their professors and administrators to the sorts of idiotic, rah-rah management training seminars that corporations used in their attempts to re-focus employees on what was really important—the reaping of higher and higher profits. And what “profits” are these non-profit schools looking for? Money in the form of wealthier students, donors with deeper pockets, corporations willing to fork out millions in return for a “branded” department or a new building with the mega-corp’s name in big gold letters facing the campus.
I sat through a two-hour seminar last year at which the names of “peer universities” (schools about the same size) were flashed on a big screen, along with their hefty endowment figures. Our campus’ endowment was too far behind them, we were told by the provost. We needed to rev up revenue to catch up to our fellow private schools. This was the only required-attendance meeting for faculty last year (as I recall). No mention was made of inspiring students, engaging in meaningful research or anything having to do with actual education. It was all about dollars and the getting of more of them.
I saw newspapers do it in the 1980s and 1990s. No longer was it the goal of the reporters and editors to get the truth and print it to serve the readers. The goal was shifted to profits. The content of newspapers was redesigned to save money on production (trim the staff to bare bones, shrink the size of the pages to save dollars on newsprint, cut down on expenses for reporter travel and out-of-city bureaus). To boost advertising, reporters were dissuaded from writing stories that would offend the department stores, car dealers, grocery chains and other mainstays who bought the biggest chunks of ad space. To fool the readers into thinking they were getting more when they were really getting much, much less, papers promoted themselves in ad campaigns touting the thinner, less informative product as “new and improved.”
Shifting to academia, I have seen the whole scenario play out again. The tuition goes up and the breadth and depth of the education gets narrower and shallower. The university’s website touts “a private university in the heart” of the best neighborhood in the city. The “liberal” disappears from “liberal arts” because it scares away the right-wingers.
Early in the fall semester, departments throw tailgate parties and homecoming brunches to attract more students as majors. These are fun things to do and being a “fun major” is emphasized above all else.
Too much course work isn’t fun. Assignments and exams too numerous? Get rid of finals. Eliminate Friday classes. Dumb it all down and they will come. It will be more fun. Go drinking with your classes. Order in pizzas. Give more “group project” assignments that will let the strong lead the weak to higher grades. That's fun.
Having fun insures good word of mouth among the students. The more majors who sign on, the more money from the university coffers will be assigned to the department. The bigger the budget, the more “instructor lines” will open up. The more instructors, the more classrooms can be requested. The more classrooms, the more urgent need for a stand-alone building or separate wing to house the department. And above all, the higher the departmental profile in terms of money donated, the more powerful the department chair will feel.
“We need to brand this department,” the chair I worked for said in a faculty meeting. “Find a donor who’s willing to give us $10 million and we’ll put his name on the building.”
To find that donor, we professors were encouraged to exploit our contacts in media and big business. A bogus “Board of Advisors” for the major was thrown together made up of executives from public relations, marketing and advertising firms. Dinners were catered for them, at which the most attractive students and glad-handy professors were put on display as evidence of the department’s greatness. (More than once, one of these “advisors” told me privately that they knew they were being used and it didn’t matter because they were only agreeing to be on the “board” as a resume-fattener for themselves. None of them ever really did much “advising” and their revenue streams toward the department were little more than a trickle.)
In the never-ending search for funding, even we adjunct slobs were told to comb our class rolls looking for scions of the rich and powerful whose parents could be tapped by our chairperson for checks with many zeroes.
Scholars, be damned. Heirs, come here.
The effect of all this is that money talks and education walks. The constant emphasis on money redefines us teachers and forces us to act as profess-whores.
Don’t even get started on the research grant-grubbing (which leads to dubious research in the name of corporate branding), the textbook racket, the fluffy “courses” that require students to take expensive trips to D.C. and Manhattan, where they are trotted in front of well-heeled alumni and then awarded hours of credit for their efforts. (Instructors are paid handsomely for chaperoning these trips.)
Before World War II, only the upper-crusters could afford to send their offspring to college. The GI Bill changed that, allowing ordinary Joes to get degrees and move into professions. In my day, government grants and low-interest loans helped working-class students like me pay college tuition and expenses. We earned degrees and repaid the government from the meager earnings of our first jobs. And we were happy to do it.
Now with the government grants dried up and even state universities charging tuitions and fees more than double what we paid for a private university education in the 1970s, we’re seeing the working class, financially strapped students getting shut out of higher ed all over again. Sure, they can do community college and hope for a two-year scholarship for junior and senior years. Yes, they can work full-time and get through in five or six or seven years. But it's more of a struggle than it used to be. Way more.
It should not be this way. Universities shouldn’t be selling themselves to the Mercedes-and-merlot crowd with the same marketing strategies used by high-end resorts and gated communities. But that's exactly what's happening. Get the rich kids in. They can pay their own way. Make sure not to flunk them, because they're cash customers and we need to retain, retain, retain. Let them buy a degree on agreeable terms and as alums they’ll endow chairs and stick their names on buildings. It’s good business. It's investing in the future. What future is there in a scholarshipper who wants to go into the Peace Corps?
A new workout facility recently opened on the campus where I taught. It’s a marvel, complete with skylights, indoor climbing wall, indoor lap pool, water wall, state-of-the-art weight machines. You name it, they have the dernier cri of health club paraphernalia. To pay for this thing, the school raised tuition 6 percent over the past two years.
Elsewhere on campus, in many of the classrooms, students still sit on cracked plastic half-desks purchased in the 1960s. Ceiling tiles are missing in every building except the very newest. Water fountains don’t work. The main library is beset with mold and mildew. Air-conditioning and heat sputter under the cutting edge technology of the Reagan era.
But those things sit low on the list of repairs when surveys of prospective students reveal that a slick health club-like facility for doing squats, lunges and sit-ups a few times a week is a high priority when the country club kids are deciding which school to attend.
If students really do haul their tight tushies over to use all the stuff in the new “Center for Lifetime Sports,” they will be healthier than ever.
It’s college itself that’s looking a little pale.