Now, there are some out there who are offering up solutions, but I am curious--since the inclination when discussing the future of higher education is to do what the CHE did and chat up association and institutional leaders--if there might not be just a teensy bit more room for faculty and staff in that discussion? And that is what this is really about.
So, here are two questions:
- Do you believe the U.S. system of higher education is in need of change and, if so, why and to what degree?
- What are the top three things you would change in the long-run if you had the power to do that?
Finally, the intention is not just to encourage folks to talk about staffing (unless that is one of the areas you firmly believe needs changing), but rather to generate a wide range of ideas from a faculty and staff perspective since one fundamental change we believe in is more faculty voice in academic decision making . . . but I get ahead of myself.
So I've been thinking about this since I received Craig's invitation a few days ago, and I've gone back and forth about how to respond. It seems to me that discussions about higher education reform often reach an end point that is likely going to be difficult if not impossible to implement in practical terms. So, for example, let's say that we want to talk about the crisis in adjunct labor. Yes, I think that this constitutes a crisis. But if where we go from there is that we need to hire more t-t faculty (which I'd agree in principal that we do) and stop hiring such a high percentage of adjunct labor (which I think that we do), where we often come out at the end is with a call to action that will never become reality, not because it's not right but because there isn't the infrastructure to support that change.
The bottom line is that if we need hundreds of sections of composition, we're not going to get the lines to support t-t hires to fill all of those sections, what with the budget situations of the states these days. So then, the extension of that is that we end up whining about how everything's broken, but we don't see improvement in working conditions for faculty (whatever their stripe) or improvement in education for students (which should really be the ultimate point). In the worst cases, we just offer support for those who believe that higher education has been totally ruined - "taxpayers" (not individual people, but the group that is invoked), legislators (people who think that implementing tests will get them re-elected), idiots - without offering a workable alternative. We are the very people who have trained our whole lives in the field and who, in theory, should know best how higher education should work and who should really be the people who spearhead discussions about change in higher education. And yet, what we end up doing is confirming suspicions about our own inefficiency, stupidity, and obsolescence.
So, before I begin, let me offer some suggestions about who should be coming together to start any discussion of these questions:
- Working tenured and tenure-track professors from a range of institutional types and from a range of disciplinary areas of expertise. The profession of "college professor" is not, ultimately, a monolith. Being a college professor at an Ivy League institution is different from being a professor at an R1 Flagship state university is different from being a professor at an R1 non-flagship is different from being a professor at an Elite SLAC is different from being a professor at a non-elite, non-selective SLAC is different from being a professor at a regional state university is different from being a professor at a community college. The institutional cultures are different, the funding levels and emphases are different, the students are different, the missions are different, and the conditions for one's labor and successful promotion and tenure are different. Moreover, having a wide representation of fields is important, as my experience as a professor may actually more closely resemble that of an English professor at a non-elite SLAC than it does a business professor at my own institution. Also, in this category I'd include tenured and tenure-track librarians from the whole range of institutions.
- Administrators from a similar range of institutions, as well as from a range of positions within administrative hierarchies (academic deans, provosts, presidents, deans of students, those in charge of technology, heads of libraries).
- Contract faculty (part-time, full-time) in non-t-t positions, post-docs, VAPs, again, from a range of institutions.
- Students. Both grad students and undergrads. I know, crazy, right? And this isn't about the customer always being right but rather about including the biggest population on university campuses in the discussion.
- Staff. Full-time advisers, support staff, IT people, people in administrative units like First Year Programs or Retention or Study Abroad.
So with all of that being said, let's look at the first question.
Do you believe the U.S. system of higher education is in need of change and, if so, why and to what degree?
Before I can answer this, I want to think for a minute about what we think "change" is supposed to do. Who is the "change" for, and what we hope to achieve through change? Because here's the thing that often gets lost in discussions of higher education in the United States: even with all of its problems, the university system in the United States is still, as far as I'm aware, the best in the world. Our higher education system still attracts people from all over the world, and degrees from the United States remain more marketable than degrees from elsewhere. So as much as we talk about our system as "broken," it's still, apparently, pretty darn good.
So let's start with what makes our system good. I think it's the fact that we do believe - across types of universities - in "general education" and in open access (to varying degrees depending on institution type) to higher education. Higher education in the United States (first since the GI Bill, and then since affirmative action) is not, across the board, about preserving privilege for a select few. It is about granting access to opportunity. That has to do with economic opportunity, sure, but it is also - and this is key for me - about intellectual opportunity. This is what general education, core, or general studies requirements are about. Any student who goes to college in the United States is put into a position where there is the potential that his or her mind will be blown. No, this may not happen for all students. But the potential is there for all students.
So if we are to change things, I think the only reason to do so would be to increase the chances for students - across university types, across backgrounds - to have their minds blown. This is potential that I see as already being there, and something that already happens for many students. "Change," for me, would mean that more students get their minds blown. (I'm not going to say all students - that might be more than anybody could deliver.)
But so if that is the goal of "change," then "change" can't really start with an objective of "selling" higher education to legislators, or taxpayers, or whatever. Change has to start with curriculum and with what happens in the classroom, and, further, with ideas, and those things aren't quantifiable or assessable before you imagine them. If you start with assessment before you address what will be assessed, you're not changing anything in a meaningful way - you're just adding layer after layer of bureaucracy. It's not that I don't believe in assessment. I do. I just don't believe in putting the cart (assessment) before the horse (education). Meaningful assessment grows out of solid curriculum. Solid curriculum does not grow out of proficiency tests, pre-ordained learning outcomes, Quality Enhancement Programs, or legislative mandates. And it certainly doesn't grow out of demands for excellence without money, or, more broadly, without support (which includes things like time).
So, do I think higher education should "change" in the United States? Yes. I think that we do not serve all students as well as we are obligated to serve them. I think that as college has become a necessity for most people rather than an option for an elite few, that the structure of higher education as a whole has not transformed to meet that need. Instead of transforming higher education to our current needs, we have merely added on to an elite (elitist?) model, which means a brilliant kid from Appalachia will go to the state college down the road rather than to the private university in the Northeast, and that brilliant kid's opportunities will reflect that "choice." Only it was never really the kid's choice, because we talk about "college" as if it means the same thing no matter where you go. And if your parents, or any of the people that you know, didn't even graduate from high school, they're in no position to tell you any different.
I think that it's wrong that we exploit highly qualified "temporary" or "contract" faculty because it means that the bottom line works out, even if it also means that students don't necessarily get the same kind of support that they would get otherwise (and this is not a diss on the temporary or contract faculty: this is about the fact that if they do give students that support it's out of the kindness of their hearts and not in any way something that students should have the right to expect of them).
And finally, I think that a model of higher education where tenured and tenure-track faculty fight turf wars about the respective "value" of their disciplines through battles about curriculum is totally fucked up. That's not what our students need, and it's not really about educating them. We do it because that's what higher education used to be, and we do it because administrators can force us to take those positions based on their edicts. But seriously: I shouldn't want a course to be required for all students just so that I'm sure to make my enrollment, or because I'm worried that my program will be axed if x number of courses in my department aren't required. I should want a course to be required for all students because I think that all students really would find such a course useful, illuminating, and enriching in their lives as educated people. Seriously. That's the bottom line - not enrollments, not department power, not anything else. As higher ed stands today in this country? I'm a fucked up idealist. What I just said totally isn't reality.
So on to the next question:
What are the top three things you would change in the long-run if you had the power to do that?
Ok, so I'm going to list three, without a whole lot of explanation because this is already wicked-long. We can talk more about the ins and outs of these in comments, if people want more.
- I do not believe that adjunct labor (or graduate student labor - grad student labor should be about training them to do this job, not about using them) should underwrite lower teaching loads for tenured and tenure-track faculty at institutions that aspire to raise their research profiles. It's bad enough that we rely so much on adjunct labor at my teaching-intensive regional institution, but at least I teach as much as most of our adjuncts, and I do teach those "unattractive" gen. ed. courses (comp, intro courses) that they also teach. Yes, I want a lower teaching load. But no, I don't want it on the back of somebody who's making 2 grand a course. And seriously: teaching is not an impediment to ideas or to solid research. It's just a time-suck. In this job I've learned how to make it less of one, without sacrificing rigor in my students' educations. This is not impossible. If research universities want to have faculty who teach less, they need to hire more t-t/tenured faculty.
- Curriculum should be about serving students - not about serving the legislature, not about serving the "community", not about doing an administration's will. Curriculum should be determined by people who have an investment in those disciplines, not by outsiders. Just because you "love to read" or have read a few books doesn't mean you know what literature students should read in college, or how much they should read. Seriously. I went to school for years to become qualified to make these judgments. I teach these students. You hired me to do this. You tenured me. Yes, I'm the lady who knows more than you about these matters.
- Decisions about the vision of higher education at a particular university, or about what it should become generally, need to happen with ultimate transparency and they need to happen with a mandate. This isn't all that hard. Dude, I'm in an English department (and we all know that those are snakepits) that hadn't truly given its curriculum an overhaul in 30 years and I made that happen. How did I make that happen? By being totally transparent and by getting people invested in the change through that. Yes, it was a fuck of a lot of work. Weeks of my life I'll never get back. But I made it happen, and I'm like this hero for doing it, even for those who were suspicious and resistant. That can happen on a broader scale. It just takes trusting that it can, working really freaking hard, and involving as many people as possible.