Wednesday, November 16, 2005

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.

18 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's scary, but it's so, so true. The saddest part for me comes when talking to local high school kids about this particular college. A lot of them end up on campus for one of the school's numerous lecture series, and they're picking up the vibe: check out the sparkling new work-out facility, but never mind those rust stains on the stairs leading up to the university's original building, the centerpiece of campus. Forget that you had to walk a mile from your parking spot to get to the auditorium! Did you see the rock-climbing wall?

As a student in the department in which the professor taught, I have tried to put together a free, short recruiting event for local high school kids to come see the deparment, use the fancy equipment, meet some of the profs, and especially to talk to students firsthand, without all the brochure-ish stuff that never tells them much of importance.

After six weeks of e-mailing almost every high school journalism adviser within 30 miles of campus, I had one student interested in coming. Needless to say, there was no event.

People -- the kind whose kids this school could use -- notice when the university spends most of its effort on presidential libraries and new gyms. And those people are sending their kids elsewhere.

8:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

True, wealth distorts. But then there is stuff like this:

Yale for free!

Yale's graduate school of music made tuition free, for everyone, forever. Thanks to a generous alumni donation.

Princeton was kicking around the idea of free undergrad tuition, you can do that when you have a $9 billion endowment that spins off a billion dollars every year in investment proceeds. Suddenly the $200 million tuition payments of 5,000 students taking loans to pay $40,000/year is small change... so why not make it free. How cool is that?

9:39 PM  
Blogger theprofessor said...

I was thrilled to the bone when I read about the Yale School of Music waiving tuition starting next year. This is donor dollars going for more than bricks and mortar. Bravo!

10:04 PM  
Blogger Cold Potato said...

Reasons I do not like my school:
(UTArlington)
-If you have any kind of dispute with the University, espically one concerning money, you might as well assume you will not be sucessfull in your attempts to resolve the situation.
-Parking is virtually non-existant even after paying $90 for a little piece of plastic that says you have a right to a space that may or may not exist. ($45 for day students)
-While the tuition by itself is somewhat reasonable, the housing, food, parking and other fees are where they stick you.

10:46 PM  
Anonymous Andrea said...

The Yale-for-free this is AMAZING. No one's saying money is a bad thing here, and this is such a wonderful use of the school's endowment. But academics should never, never be sacrificed in order to GET those endowments. In fact, it's bringing SCHOLARS through those doors, people who get something out of their university experience and want to give back out of what they reap, that will bring those endowments.

Sure, you'll get some chump change by catering to the scions, dumbing down classes, removing Fridays, building a snazzy new workout center but cutting faculty members... but those kids you're bringing in won't be donating much more than the cursory amount necessary to look good in the eyes of the community. It's those who truly value education who will donate the big bucks. And designing McClasses will send students who value education - and their parents - elsewhere.

11:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

All this while 48 percent of undergrads are at community colleges where we have to prove a "value added" to our students to justify our existence...
hmmmmmmmmmm

6:01 AM  
Anonymous Garnigal said...

As a Canadian, I know our universities are in a terrible money crunch right now. The majority of post-secondary education is publicly funded, with all the difficulties that entails. Sadly, in many situations we are counting on corporate and individual donations for the bricks and morter.

11:00 AM  
Blogger Kevin said...

Shit this makes me sad and mad!

The Yale story is awesome, though. And my own home town of Kalamazoo has made me proud this week, as well. Quite a story. http://tinyurl.com/8eka5

A private group of donors up there has promised to send every grad of the Kzo public schools on to 4 years of any state uni or community college, for free. Tuition only, no room and board, but dang! Wish I'd had that option back when I grad-je-ated high school and went on to college up there! While it only cost some $400/semester back in the olden days, that was some pretty big dough for my folks to come up with.

Also wishing mightily now that some similar group of wealthy benefactors down here in Houston would decide to do the same thing for our kids/our collective future.

3:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If I was going to do a University course again I wouldn't even bother doing it on campus as it is much better to do it by correspondence where you don't have to put up with this sort of thing (the campus I went to has most of it's students studying this way.)

3:54 PM  
Blogger Red River said...

I took 22 hours my last semester at UT and worked full time. I had one B.

I paid my way all the way.

I rented a room near campus, not an apartment. Rode my bike everywhere or took the bus or walked when I stumbled out of the Library at 2am. I ate Mac and Cheese and also ate at the Restaurant I worked at.

A lot of my friends were the same way - they scraped by.

So everyone looking for a sugar daddy needs to just suck it up and make it work.

UTA or UTD instead of SMU, a room instead of an apartment, a bike instead of a car, a tip-paying job by school instead of the internship across town, etc.

When you are done with school, you will have the time and money skills and internal fortitude your richer cohorts lack.

4:15 PM  
Blogger graycie said...

This kind of thing is happening even in high schools. A large portion of our clientele consists of the wealthy movers and shakers of our small city. Their children have been catered to for well over the two decades I have taught here. In our new building there will be no tables or desks for computers in the labs. There _will_ be a cappucino machine in the student cafeteria, though. _That_ they remembered.

5:31 PM  
Blogger Yvette said...

My school's trying to do the same thing except they call it "rebranding." As far as we can tell, it involves diversifying the campus breadth (read: attract dumber kids) while building a lot of new freakin' expensive dorms and changing "CWRU" to "Case." Although the freshman class is the largest ever it has backfired spectacularly as the rebranding has successfully alienated many of the alumnai who give the big bucks so now we're running a deficit. Awesome.
Oh, and the new expensive dorms that attracted so many of the huge freshman class? They don't get to live in them as the upperclassmen/ next huge anticipated freshman class need space and instead they get to live in the old condemned dorms that are falling apart. I predict some of the prospectives will read the fine print regarding their sophomore digs and this plan will also backfire, but that's just me.

5:59 PM  
Blogger GrumpyGringo said...

I find it odd that someone who teaches 'public relations' complains about the corporatization of academia.

6:26 PM  
Blogger Superdestroyer said...

Isn't the real question here: What do high school students know and what experiences have they had that will help them choose a college to attend?
Most high students are not familiar with the terms adjuctant faculty, will not understand how registration and class scheduling can affect their college experience, or how sophomores are threated versus freshmen will affect them. Thus, the high school student ends up picking a college based upon reputation, physical plant, and the neighborhood that the college is in.

4:44 AM  
Blogger SafeTinspector said...

For some, college is slightly overrated in any case. I don't know if its social relevance as a place for teenagers to mature into adults is more important than its roll as a place of education and research, but it does seem close.

Money is, I agree, the root of the problem. I don't know much about colleges behaving as corporate entities (I wouldn't doubt it, I simply have no first-hand experience) but I do know this:
If college tuition costs continue to climb disproportionately to the rate of inflation, I think the higher education system will either become an impossible goal for all but the wealthy or it will need to be reinvented in a form that is more affordable for the average person to afford.

I worry about this often due to the fact that I have a four-year-old. I made do without higher education, but my chosen field is quite tolerant of educational inadequacies as long as aptitude and expertise can be demonstrated. My Samantha will require college, I think, in order to gain access to a life similar to mine or better. If costs continue to rise at this rate, I will be unable to pay for it, and so will she.

2:37 PM  
Anonymous Hillary said...

I wish there was an answer.
Unfortunately, we'll never learn it in the classroom, that's for sure.

3:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wish we had a real endowment to experience such pain. I work at an open-enrollment institution where the greatest majority of graduates have been teachers and the contributions to the endowment are as miniscule as you suspect. Our problem comes from the admissions policy and the subsequent financial aid that rolls into the university coffers. Our motto should be, "Bring us your tired, your poor, your underprepared, and your FAFSA."

Our administration happily gobbles up the aid, offers pathetic remediation and related services, offers a generous course repetition and academic good standing policy, and tells us, "Find a way to teach (re: pass)them."

On the other hand, we might also consider how good it is that there are donors willing to give $10 million dollars. I work with a local, community symphony with an amazing endowment and budget. The manager has made it a mission to educate and foster understanding of music as an art form among the very conservatives that are frequently maligned by liberals. They have created a real future for art music with their conservative money. Think Zander and "radiating possibilities" versus "downward spiral."

1:12 PM  
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10:43 PM  

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