05 October 2009

Another business failure.

If anyone wants to know what the dominance of the business model in higher education means, they need look no further than today's Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required for full story), which is reporting that the United States' role as a leader in higher ed is now fading.

Sure, the rise of other nations such as India and China contributes to the leveling of higher education across the globe, but that in itself is part of the reason that the corporate university fails so miserably: like their counterparts in Enron, Lehman Brothers, and Countrywide, the self-congratulatory CEO-styled university heads believed their own hype and felt that "they'd changed everything." That's a phrase usually heard before a colossal failure of some sort -- whether it's from an internet start-up, a political hack, or a fossilized CEO.

The rise of the corporate university (and I'm talking here about the aggressive importation of a business model to university governance as well as the replacement of academic university presidents with "business leaders") displaces learning -- whether through research or teaching -- as the central priority of the university, replacing it with customer service and profits. The goal of the university becomes filling seats; if something educational happens once that seat is filled, well, that's a happy by-product.

The business model has resulted in the growing casualization of the faculty, a relentless assault on core curriculum, and an increased attention to style over substance. Because of space restraints, I'll only deal with the first issue today.

As Marc Bousquet has pointed out on numerous occasions, the growing army of adjuncts that now account for the majority of college teaching are not simply being exploited by the university administration; they're also threatening the continuation of the comparatively cushy tenured and tenure-track positions that professors so covet. For a business model, it's a no brainer to hire three adjuncts at $2500 each with no benefits (total cost per year, 2 courses a semester: $15,000) instead of a tenure-track full-time professor at $45,000 plus benefits.

And those adjuncts will be hired, because it's not as if the work isn't there. For all its complaints about the need for flexibility, the corporatized administration ignores the fact that adjunct use is relatively steady or growing. Many adjuncts remain for decades at a school, and for those schools that rely heavily on their own graduate students to provide TA and adjunct labor, the faces may change but the need remains, year in and year out. In other words, the so-called over-production of PhDs (a familiar trope to anyone involved in an academic job search) is simply a fallacy. It's a manufactured crisis that has everything to do with the business model's disrespect for the traditional role of the university as a center of research and learning. As former George Washington University president Stephen Joel Trachtenberg so elegantly put it once, "Professors are like elevator operators; no matter how good they are, you can only fit the same amount of people in it."[1] The attitude that faculty members contribute little to the institutional memory or governance of the university is palpable.

As a result, at many larger universities, freshman may never encounter a full-time professor except as a peanut standing at a lectern on a stage.

[1] I have been searching for the source for this quote. I heard it on WAMU back in the mid-1990's, but can't turn up the source (Derek McGinty Show? Talk of the Nation? Diane "The Idiot" Rehm?). However, in 2007 Trachtenberg sat down with Kojo Nnamdi and an interesting moment came up about 40 minutes into the show, when a caller described her experience at GW as "training" -- in a positive way. She felt she had been trained. Not educated. Trained. Seals are trained. People should be educated. OMG. At 51 minutes he claims Gelman is one of the best libraries in the city. I suppose that's true, if you don't want to do any research, since GWU cut off many of its journal subscriptions in the 1980's, although the chairs and desks are nice and photograph well for brochures.

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