Butts and Jobs

On a national radio program Tuesday morning, [North Carolina Governor, Patrick] McCrory, who goes by Pat, said he would push legislation to base funding for the state’s public colleges and universities on post-graduate employment rather than enrollment.

“I’m looking at legislation right now – in fact, I just instructed my staff yesterday to go ahead and develop legislation – which would change the basic formula in how education money is given out to our universities and our community colleges,” McCrory told radio host Bill Bennett, who was education secretary under President Reagan. “It’s not based on butts in seats but on how many of those butts can get jobs.”

The Republican governor also called into question the value of publicly supporting liberal arts majors after the host made a joke about gender studies courses at UNC-Chapel Hill. “If you want to take gender studies that’s fine, go to a private school and take it,” McCrory told the radio host. “But I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.”

Another Liberal Arts Critic,” Kevin Kiley

The right-wing political agenda for U.S. higher education makes a certain amount of sense. It’s rooted in facilitating profits– usually for the largest corporations– and in a kind of irrational market religion that is almost laughably self-serving. That is, it serves the selves that have the money, and dam the rest of us if we cannot keep up. It’s a game with rigged rules.

In other ways, the right-wing’s agenda is a little mysterious, if not cryptic. Even if we accept the (overly simple) notion that the right always champions individualism (and the left collectivism), it seems strange that the right endorses standardized testing. What could be less individualized? Of course, the mystery is largely solved when you consider that standardized tests can be so easily mass-marketed and sold at great profit rates.

Individual instruction, of course, is a different matter, rooted less in modern production and more in older craft models. (Don’t even think about the unions that arose out of the crafts.) Even more mysterious, in some ways, is the right’s homophobia and sexism. It’s easy to understand McCrory’s dislike if not hatred of universities: he thinks academia is a communist stronghold, and more importantly, far too interdependent of the discipline of the market.

There are profits, in other words, trapped in those public schools. Why does he see gender studies as the epitome of useless humanities research areas? Nothing could be sillier, in his view, than trying to understand gender; except, maybe, trying to teach students your understanding of gender (read: women and queers). Somehow, underneath the macho market talk of “buts that can find jobs” is a very basic kind of sexual insecurity and anxiety.


Textbook publishers argue that their newest digital products shouldn’t even be called “textbooks.” They’re really software programs built to deliver a mix of text, videos, and homework assignments. But delivering them is just the beginning. No old-school textbook was able to be customized for each student in the classroom. The books never graded the homework. And while they contain sample exam questions, they couldn’t administer the test themselves.

One publisher calls its products “personalized learning experiences,” another “courseware,” and one insists on using its own brand name, “MindTap.” For now, this new product could be called “the object formerly known as the textbook.”

The Object Formerly Known as the Textbook,” Jeffrey R. Young

Universities are full of people who either know how to design software or want to know how to design software. We could have spent the last 30 years building an infrastructure of these people and ended up with a public software sector– an entire ecosystem of people and technologies–that made education cheaper and more accessible. It wouldn’t have stopped the commercial sector, but it might have pushed it to do more for less money.

This is the way research and development used to work before “buying from the lowest bidder” (if there was a competitive bidding system at all) was the only model. We got what we paid for, of course. Commercial software has helped to make online and traditional education more rather than less expensive and, arguably, slowed down the development of new communication technologies. We got a system that serves billionaires instead of the public.

Now it’s happening again as we move out of the age of paper-based textbooks. Once again we have the chance to create a public system of open source textbooks rooted in the huge numbers of education professionals who know how to create multi-media textbooks (writers and designers as well as scientific and humanities researchers) and the huge pool of people who want to learn how to do these things. We need a public textbook infrastructure.

Part Two: “Good for Wall Street – Bad for Students” and Teachers

Higher education stands as a monolith in a dynamic, rapidly evolving society in which access to information has been democratized through technological innovation while much of academia clings to traditional conventions of closed sources of information. The way people work and play have changed, but the way students are expected to learn, for the most part, has not.

2011 Annual Academic Report, “Why Higher Education Must Change”

The ACTA ‘s blog presents a concise version of  the corporate sector’s agenda in public higher education.  In fact, they represent corporate power as influential trustees and alumni. They are usually coy about their 1% bona fides, but their last “Must Reads” post points to what it calls the “Phoenix challenge” to higher education embodied in that company’s “2011 Annual Academic Report.”  The report begins with a neat summary of the ideological and historical overlap between neo-liberalism and academia.

Corporate america is hardly the bastion of democracy, either in the workplace or in its political advocacy, or an exemplar of administrative transparency and open information.  The public sector can be at least as good at reducing costs, if not better, through administrative efficiency.  Still, the report illustrates how the academic desire to promote education outside of its traditional social boundaries, faced with an entrenched bureaucratic culture, turned to technology and a market ideology for a rationale.

It’s a conveniently self-justifying rhetoric for greed.  It also suggests that the roots of the for-profit sector lie deep in the failures and frustrations of (public) U.S. academic culture.  If the last three decades has taught us anything, however, it’s that the unregulated market has only reproduced and exacerbated the very problems it was said to solve.  The for-profits are making education more accessible but also duplicating its high expenses,  student debt, opaque administration and antiquated labor practices.

“Good for Wall Street – Bad for Students” and Teachers

I was happy to see that the SEIU is taking the lead on organizing in the for-profit university system, although they are a very long way from unionizing any online faculty. Still, both their website, For Profit U, and a recent online seminar, summarized in both Truth Out’s ‘”Good for Wall Street – Bad for Students’: SEIU Hosts Webinar on Predatory, Proprietary Colleges and Universities” and Pittsburgh’s Post Gazette’s “Service union’s criticism rankles EDMC” are a breath of fresh air. I think, though, that they don’t understand the industry.

The Truth Out summary of the for-profit industry’s roots in neo-liberalism, and its use of unethical recruitment practices is right on target. I also think that SEIU has good reason to target EDMC which, as its recent layoff process suggests, seems to have a profoundly paranoid corporate culture.  (Full disclosure: I was recently laid off from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh Online, which is owned by EDMC.) The tone of the SEIU website seems a little off-putting to me, but the real issue is how the SEIU is portraying teachers.

The seminar participants underplay the role of traditional academics in the for-profit schools, which were largely founded by professors and academics with established careers in the public higher education system. This is a profoundly conservative strain in academia that’s not often discussed.  More importantly,  none of the participants seems to realize that the for-profit system is full of teachers that are, in effect, refugees from thirty years of decline in professional conditions. They are not the enemy of the public good.

The public and for-profit  higher education systems share in the erosion of tenure, the loss of academic freedom of speech and full-time employment. The for-profits, in a sense, are the creation of academics and administrators who felt that the destruction of the old system was going too slowly.  The for profit system is a direct development of  the long-standing desire, largely realized in the public system, to take power away from teachers. The focus on students is laudatory, but the SEIU also needs to focus on the teachers.