The Chickens Come Home to Roost

Anyone who’s worked in U.S. higher education has heard the mantra: colleges should be run as efficiently as a business. (We’re assuming they don’t mean a business like Lehman Brothers, of course.) Business are flexible and adaptive and they efficiently contain costs. What that actually means in practice, of course, is that the system has become two tiered: on top, a shrinking pool of tenured faculty, beneath them, a growing base of adjunct with little job security.

The recent reports suggesting that the public doesn’t trust colleges (Public Agenda survey finds deep skepticism) are unsurprising and ironic. Unsurprising, becuase this has been their (conservative, administrative) calling card for a few decades, and ironic because the public sees these business values as the problem, not the solution. I haven’t read the full report yet (it’s here) but the media focus on the public perception that college ought to be cheaper only scratches the surface of the problem.

It’s hard to disagree with the general sentiment reported in the survey. The “business” model has meant, among other things, enormous salaries for administrators and bloated athletic budgets rationalized as marketing campaigns. The business model goes farther than that, though, it also defines students as consumers and their educations as services. It’s greatly expanded the use of student evaluations as measures of so-called teaching effectiveness, too.

The business model mistrusts faculty and shared governance. It sees tenure as inflexible, and promotes the myth that a tenured teacher cannot be fired, and that tenure protects the incompetent. It mistrusts academic freedom of speech. The academic business model is anti-union, and invests heavily in union busting and prevention. It’s a model that hardly makes sense, even in a business. Reform can’t happen unless the model is dropped.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol]

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