Newman’s Cloister

It’s always good to see an end of the year piece in the Chronicle (“The Crisis of the Public University” by Nancy Scheper-Hughes) acknowledging the ongoing realities of higher education as well as its current crises.  Scheper-Hughes offers a succinct outline of  recent history and its impact on the public university system with one glaring and telling exception: she underplays the complacency of tenured and tenure track faculty.

It’s one thing to support the Occupy movement and to decry the invasion of consumerism into the university and the rising costs of education and expanding student debt. That’s the sort of thing you might expect, especially in California.  We can only hope that this sort of resistance spreads elsewhere in the United States. It’s also a very safe place for full time faculty since it doesn’t address their own status.

Full-time faculty are in no way super privileged; most of them are clearly not doing well.  Tenure has been weakened and salaries nearly frozen for much of the last decade. But the entire system, as it has evolved over the last three decades, finances the shrinking numbers of full-time positions though an expansion of part-time positions.  As long as that cloister remains in place, nothing else can change.

The Bloom is off the Rose

I think one of my favorite more or less recent ideas is Allan Greenspan’s ‘s “irrational exuberance.”  It sums up both the era of Regan inspirited market craziness and the blooming of the internet. Hyperbole has been the order of the day. More and more, though, the bloom is off that rose. One sign might be the defeat of the “personhood” amendment in Mississippi and the striking down of the anti-union laws in Ohio.

Maybe I am being over optimistic but I suspect that the worst of the decades long  right-wing storm has passed. Another sign, I think, that the age of irrational exuberance is over is the increasing awareness of class privilege in education, especially as it relates to online education.  It’s still happening on the margins, but it is happening. One good example is the comments on “Why I No Longer Teach Online.”

The author, Nancy Bunge, makes a simple point: she’s stopping teaching online because students don’t like it. There’s no mention of class at all. The comments, however,  suggest a more complex if still inchoate picture of how the internet has been integrated into the higher education system, given the traditional systems’ profound neglect of its historical role as a means of social mobility. The  private system filled that gap.

Working students are not “warehoused” in online education; students are more than passive vessels and most don’t have the privilege of opting out of online classes. Still, online education has not yet realized the scope of the cultural capital (at least ideally) provided by a traditional education, and so has not created a robust system of class mobility. That’s our task if we are going to do more than serve a niche market.

Transparency and Hypocrisy

It seems pretty obvious that posting professor salaries online, as Florida Governor Scott has done (“Posting of profs’ salaries online draws scrutiny“) is an act of aggression against what he no doubt sees as his natural enemies in the academy. It’s part of a long-term campaign to disparage public employees, and, no doubt further weaken academic freedom of speech and tenure.

The governor fails to mention, of course, that the majority of teachers are either adjuncts or part-time. The salaries don’t seem particularly exorbitant, either, and are below the national average. As the article notes, too, the information is inaccurate in some cases, because the highest paid professors are not professors, they are administrators, like Neil Fenske, who’s paid more than a million a year.

Flexibility on the Move

The politics of the recession is like a long, slow pendulum swing, wiping out all sorts of hard-won gains until it reaches a peak and then (hopefully) reverses direction. There’s no guarantee that the return swing is going to restore everything, though. If the last three decades are any indication, we’ll never get back to the original starting point. The losses seem to go on and on.

Faculty Fears in Washington” offers a catalog of some of the worst of the ongoing destruction attributed to the recession and suggests that the pendulum has yet to reach its full height. In university level education, the main targets of opportunity now seem to be tenure, on the one hand, and full-time faculty on the other. Each, it seems, is much too expensive for current conditions.

These assaults were underwritten by a recent, earlier stage of direct attacks on public unions; one thing leads to the other. Of course, tenure and full-time faculty were seen as equally expensive in the midst of the late 90’s Clinton era boon. Nothing seems to slow the administrative pursuit of flexible labor and greed. It’s grown so bad that even the Establishment is sometimes embarrassed.

Why the Right Hates Teachers

I was reading yet another piece about Republican efforts to demonize college professors– in this case, by targeting Labor Studies professors– and thinking about why the right-wing hates teachers so much (“Groups Investigating E-Mails of Professors in Michigan and Wisconsin Produce No Evidence of Wrongdoing“). Luckily, this particular witch hunt has so far failed to find anything that might be used to drum up the sorts of fear and anger that have made the right-wing so effective in recent years.

At one level, this is very straightforward hardball politics, similar to the ongoing efforts to restrict voter registration. If  you can demonize government officials, you can by extension make it easier to destroy the last real bastion of organized labor. If you can destroy or undermine organized labor, you can undermine the democratic party and so retard social progress. Social progress, of course, is anathema to the right because it by definition shifts wealth away from the rich and powerful and to the rest of us.

It’s also a part of the right’s embrace of anti-intellectualism, which it confuses (perhaps deliberately) with populism. You can’t believe in global warming, or evolution because that would suggest support for the people “behind” these things, the intellectuals, that is, the scientists and teachers who develop and teach these ideas. That would mean support for the public schools and that would mean support for the public school unions.  All of that reduces profits. It’s a Matryoshka doll of nested craziness.


Coming in from the Cold

The  ongoing consolidation of the online higher education system, especially in the for-profit sector, is one of the most important developments in the last twenty years.  Yet, like the emergence of the internet in the early to mid 1990’s, it remains almost completely invisible in the mainstream– I am tempted to say lamestream— media.  I think it’s under-reported even in the education media.

There’s a lot to be concerned about the emerging online system– arguably, the most transformative development of the internet so far– yet the emergence of the new institutions seems to be happening without much public discussion, much less scrutiny.  The discussion that is going on, such as in Inside Higher Ed (“Going Off on Online Rankings“) seems so lost in the trees that it never considers the forest.

The U.S. News and World Report’s rankings of online schools are significant because they signal the first stages in the maturation of the online industry, led by for-profits, but increasingly joined by public schools. The final shape of the system– it’s ratio of for and not for profit institutions– has yet to be determined, mostly because the online system so radically widens the pool of potential students.

We need answers or at least a debate. Will the new system make life-long learning a practical reality? It’s not a part of  the Republican or Democrat deadbeats’ agendas, but ironically that absence  may signal its significance.  Just as importantly, is this emerging system going to reproduce the traditional system’s exploitative labor policies,  massive debt, and alienating mass consumption?