22 January 2008

Why the University is not a Business, yet again.

The Post must have a special relationship with the polyanna nutcases over at the American Enterprise Institute, a leading think-tank for economists who are well-rewarded for advancing the view that human life can be reduced to profit margins and that the sum goal of our endeavors is to increase Capital. I can't think of any other reason that the Post would allow these shills to place columns in the weekly editorial columns and weekend Outlook section so regularly. To find something that would balance out the shrillness of the AEI folks, you'd have to run weekly columns by Noam Chomsky, although they'd have to be rewritten by some eighteen year old who doesn't actually understand Noam Chomsky in order to be as incoherent and illogical as the AEI offerings.

This past weekend is a good example, with Richard Vedder's piece in the Outlook section. Vedder gets off to an interesting start, talking about Harvard and Yale's plans to reduce tuition for the middle and upper-middle class (and in some cases remove it all together for the few lower class students they allow through their doors), but Vedder's paymasters aren't interested in the middle-class, except as a fob, and the upper-middle class isn't of much more use: Vedder's American Enterprise Institute serves the mega-corporations and the ruling class individuals who pull those strings, not the middle-managers pulling in 100K a year or even the upper-level execs pulling in $200K. So he tips his hand early:
Yet greed trumps vision, and wealth triumphs over American egalitarian ideals. Harvard and Yale still want dollars from the mostly affluent families that send their kids to Cambridge and New Haven, and apparently just can't bring themselves to go tuition-free. Besides, what would they do with all the financial aid bureaucrats if there were no need for financial aid?

You'd be forgiven for doing a double-take over Vedder's invocation of "American egalitarian ideals." Whenever deployed by the AEI, this phrase has nothing to do with justice or equality -- it simply means that the wealthy should pay the same as the poor. So the tortured phrase, "wealth triumphs over American egalitarian ideals" might make you think he's actually arguing for something progressive like public funding of health care, but no, he's simply arguing that the super-rich should go to Harvard and Yale for free as well. Talk about twisting meaning around to be the exact opposite of progressive. Then he tacks on some bizarre implication that Harvard and Yale won't go tuition free because they want to retain "the financial aid bureaucrats." This moron, in addition to shilling for the AEI, works at a university, so he should be the first to know that universities tend to jump at opportunities to shed departments, and being able to dump student financial aid departments would free up lots of money and space, so you know Vedder's simply got a particularly dull ax to grind, and boy does he grind it.

Later in his diatribe, Vedder lists out some bullet points that he thinks are causing tuitions to rise. The list is hilarious in many ways, but it's also very sad, because you realize when you're done that this sort of poor reasoning is being disseminated by the Post weekly without any sort of commensurate response from someone who actually knows what he or she is talking about. Anyway, here's a sampling from Vedder's list:
Nonprofit status. As nonprofit institutions, most colleges and universities have no market incentives to reduce costs vigorously, improve quality or use new technology -- for example, having students listen to lectures on their MP3 players -- that could lower costs and improve efficiency.

Does Vedder live in a cave, or is Ohio University simply a backwater? Many universities do record lectures in digital formats, and for years before that have used whatever technologies were available (CCTV, tape, etc.) to deliver content to larger numbers of students. Nonprofit status -- the AEI by the way is a nonprofit -- has nothing whatsoever to do with employment of technology, and Vedder deliberately pretends that nonprofits don't face the market or have "market incentives" -- even though earlier in his piece he complains about the cost of new dorms at Princeton, which guess what, is a "market reaction" to treating the students like consumers who need to be wooed not by great education, but by material comforts like superdeluxe dorms:
to increase applicants (a factor in the ranking computations), the school has built the ultimate student-living facility

Seriously, is Vedder a total moron for thinking readers can't connect his reasoning for Princeton's building the dorm to "market incentives," or does working for something as soulless as the American Enterprise Institute simply kill your respect for other living people as sentient beings? But really, the list goes on:
Exclusivity. The need for accreditation, as well as other barriers, restricts new, for-profit institutions that may be more efficient and innovative from entering the higher education field.

Ah, that's right. Pesky things like licensing are driving up college costs. It's true, the need for accreditation/licensing also restricts my neighbor from hanging out a shingle and performing brain surgery in his garage, too. He's always on about that. Of course, Vedder lists accreditation as "exclusivity," trying to act as though this process, which every institution of higher learning (other than diploma mills that you get emails for all the time) goes through, is somehow elitist. I agree with him that accreditation is something of a joke, except I think it's a joke because it's too easy to get accredited. He apparently thinks it represents an insurmountable barrier. Which makes this next point pretty laughable:
No bottom line. Did Harvard have a good year in 2007? Who knows? There are few measures of the value added in attending college, making it difficult for schools to even define goals, much less achieve them.

Apparently, Vedder wants something like a stockholder's report for universities. Again, as a university employee, he should know that those things are readily available, but he's not really interested in the truth -- he's more interested in rephrasing the problem in a business model: "bottom line." Let's throw out accreditation, but let's come up with all sorts of other standards -- imported from the business model -- to determine if the university "did well" -- by which it's pretty obvious in his language above, means did Harvard "turn out good products." Because, at bottom, that's all that humans are to the folks at the American Enterprise Institute -- they're little technicians, or managers, or slop-pickers -- so long as they serve Capital. Whether you've advanced as a human being (advanced in your own terms: learned something you've found useful, felt you understood the world better, etc.) is of no concern to little minds like Vedder.

The list also contains the usual complaint about tenure (limits "flexibility," as if it weren't a sad sad joke that at nearly all universities, you've got a permanent pool of part-time labor who have taught at the university for ten or twenty years because of the needs of "flexibility") and a few other ridiculous assertions that make you wonder if Vedder does in fact actually work at Ohio University.

Welcome to the poverty of the business model. It's been increasingly ruling our public institutions since at least 1981, and through think tanks like the AEI, it's being given a gloss of "scholarship," shoddy as it may be.


Anonymous said...

Nice post.

Tracer Bullet said...

Dammit, between the mediocre (and frequently criminal) football team and this assclown, I am increasingly embarassed to be an OU alum. At this rate, I'm going to start telling people I went to Ohio State. Blech, the horror.

The Constructivist said...

Here's my attempt at an antidote. Let's see if The Post picks this up.