Friday Reads: American Business Model is ruining Higher EdPosted: July 25, 2014
I’ve been watching the death of higher education in Louisiana as Sociopathic Governor Jindal continues his war on 99%of humanity in search of higher office. Right wing Donors are the only folks worth subsidizing and saving in Jindal’s sick mind. I was thinking the other day that I was glad that the girls graduated before it’s gotten to this point. Youngest daughter experienced a bit of the issue at the end of her undergrad degree since class offerings were decreasing. I’ve also been thinking about the Duquesne adjunct professor who died last year in abject poverty. I think that I’ve most likely seen my future. Here’s a refresher about her death last August.
On Friday, Aug. 16, Margaret Mary Vojtko, an adjunct French professor who’d recently lost her job at Duquesne University at the age of 83, suffered a cardiac arrest on a street corner in Homestead, Pa.* Vojtko collapsed yards from the house where she had lived almost her entire life. She was rushed to the hospital, but she never regained consciousness. Vojtko died on Sunday, Sept. 1.
Two and a half weeks later, Vojtko’s lawyer, Daniel Kovalik, published an op-ed about Vojtko called “Death of an Adjunct” in thePittsburgh Post-Gazette. Kovalik wrote that “unlike a well-paid tenured professor, Margaret Mary worked on a contract basis from semester to semester, with no job security, no benefits, and with a salary of $3,000 to $3,500 per three-credit course.” (In fact, for many years, she’d earned less—only $2,556 per course.) She’d been receiving cancer treatment, he said, and she’d become essentially homeless over the winter because she couldn’t afford to maintain and heat her house. Then, in the spring, she’d been told that her contract wouldn’t be extended after the current semester. A social worker from a local government agency had been tipped off that she might need help taking care of herself, which horrified Vojtko—“For a proud professional like Margaret Mary, this was the last straw,” according to the op-ed.
Her recent life hits way too close to home for me. I’ve noticed the rise of administration in higher education and how they seem to be embracing the same kind of things that are wrecking secondary education. They want standardized testing and proof that the professor is doing their job to the point that I feel like I’m a lowly graduate student with an absentee professor. I spend a lot of time grading things that I’m pretty sure are not contributing to anything but some administrator’s report that justifies their high salary and position. I can also tell that many colleagues just do it arbitrarily and not too well because my students are obviously doing the same old things like recycling other people’s homework and other people’s papers. I remind you that I only teach graduate students and those at the end of their career and those doing an academic degree that should be tougher than something like an MBA. So, all of this leads up to this link from a speech by Noam Chomsky who relates the hiring of faculty to that of the Walmart hiring paradigm. Faculty are basically now mostly temps. Business like workers who live in fear and insecurity. They also like them exhausted.
That’s part of the business model. It’s the same as hiring temps in industry or what they call “associates” at Wal-Mart, employees that aren’t owed benefits. It’s a part of a corporate business model designed to reduce labor costs and to increase labor servility. When universities become corporatized, as has been happening quite systematically over the last generation as part of the general neoliberal assault on the population, their business model means that what matters is the bottom line. The effective owners are the trustees (or the legislature, in the case of state universities), and they want to keep costs down and make sure that labor is docile and obedient. The way to do that is, essentially, temps. Just as the hiring of temps has gone way up in the neoliberal period, you’re getting the same phenomenon in the universities. The idea is to divide society into two groups. One group is sometimes called the “plutonomy” (a term used by Citibank when they were advising their investors on where to invest their funds), the top sector of wealth, globally but concentrated mostly in places like the United States. The other group, the rest of the population, is a “precariat,” living a precarious existence.
This idea is sometimes made quite overt. So when Alan Greenspan was testifying before Congress in 1997 on the marvels of the economy he was running, he said straight out that one of the bases for its economic success was imposing what he called “greater worker insecurity.” If workers are more insecure, that’s very “healthy” for the society, because if workers are insecure they won’t ask for wages, they won’t go on strike, they won’t call for benefits; they’ll serve the masters gladly and passively. And that’s optimal for corporations’ economic health. At the time, everyone regarded Greenspan’s comment as very reasonable, judging by the lack of reaction and the great acclaim he enjoyed. Well, transfer that to the universities: how do you ensure “greater worker insecurity”? Crucially, by not guaranteeing employment, by keeping people hanging on a limb than can be sawed off at any time, so that they’d better shut up, take tiny salaries, and do their work; and if they get the gift of being allowed to serve under miserable conditions for another year, they should welcome it and not ask for any more. That’s the way you keep societies efficient and healthy from the point of view of the corporations. And as universities move towards a corporate business model, precarity is exactly what is being imposed. And we’ll see more and more of it.
Also part of the business model is making sure you’re as miserable as possible and that your assigned management baby sitter loads you down with so much nonsense that even when you don’t have anything productive to do, you have to pretend you are. Chomsky sums up the goal of all this.
Well how do you indoctrinate the young? There are a number of ways. One way is to burden them with hopelessly heavy tuition debt. Debt is a trap, especially student debt, which is enormous, far larger than credit card debt. It’s a trap for the rest of your life because the laws are designed so that you can’t get out of it. If a business, say, gets in too much debt it can declare bankruptcy, but individuals can almost never be relieved of student debt through bankruptcy. They can even garnish social security if you default. That’s a disciplinary technique. I don’t say that it was consciously introduced for the purpose, but it certainly has that effect. And it’s hard to argue that there’s any economic basis for it. Just take a look around the world: higher education is mostly free. In the countries with the highest education standards, let’s say Finland, which is at the top all the time, higher education is free. And in a rich, successful capitalist country like Germany, it’s free. In Mexico, a poor country, which has pretty decent education standards, considering the economic difficulties they face, it’s free. In fact, look at the United States: if you go back to the 1940s and 50s, higher education was pretty close to free. The GI Bill gave free education to vast numbers of people who would never have been able to go to college. It was very good for them and it was very good for the economy and the society; it was part of the reason for the high economic growth rate. Even in private colleges, education was pretty close to free. Take me: I went to college in 1945 at an Ivy League university, University of Pennsylvania, and tuition was $100. That would be maybe $800 in today’s dollars. And it was very easy to get a scholarship, so you could live at home, work, and go to school and it didn’t cost you anything. Now it’s outrageous. I have grandchildren in college, who have to pay for their tuition and work and it’s almost impossible. For the students that is a disciplinary technique.
And another technique of indoctrination is to cut back faculty-student contact: large classes, temporary teachers who are overburdened, who can barely survive on an adjunct salary. And since you don’t have any job security you can’t build up a career, you can’t move on and get more. These are all techniques of discipline, indoctrination, and control. And it’s very similar to what you’d expect in a factory, where factory workers have to be disciplined, to be obedient; they’re not supposed to play a role in, say, organizing production or determining how the workplace functions—that’s the job of management. This is now carried over to the universities. And I think it shouldn’t surprise anyone who has any experience in private enterprise, in industry; that’s the way they work.
The Corporate apparatchik are the only ones that gain from a workforce that behave and think like sheep. There are so many examples of intellectual laziness these days on the part of so-called professionals that I could spend a weeks worth of posts on it. But, let’s just start with a few recent ones. Ever read BuzzFeed? Well, it seems one editor lifted material from Yahoo. I wonder who taught him that Yahoo is an appropriate source?
Yahoo! Answers, one of the great artifacts of Internet history, is intently studied at viral news website BuzzFeed, where its trove of half-literate questions (and even less literate answers) has supplied material for at least fifty different posts and listicles. One BuzzFeed editor, however, has streamlined this aggregation process to its vanishing point: Simply copying text from Yahoo! Answers and pasting it, without attribution, into his own work.
Two pseudonymous Twitter users pointed out today that BuzzFeed’s Viral Politics editor, Benny Johnson, has periodically lifted text from a variety of sources—Wikipedia, U.S. News & World Report, a random press release—all without credit. The users, @blippoblappo and@crushingbort, supply convincing evidence that Johnson slightly reworded various sentences to make them his own.
I struggle daily with telling students that none of those sites are appropriate sources. But, under the pressure of grading deadlines and having to give them tons of busy work, it sure is tempting just to throw my hands up and pass so that I can spend less time and maybe approach the minimum wage.
The funny thing is that the costs of higher education focused on by the press are cost of tenured faculty. What they don’t seem to understand is that a lot of faculty–especially those in the really low paying subject areas–generally run to administrative jobs for wages. A lot of the money is also going to fancy dorms, student centers, and leather chair laden classrooms for executives so the university can attract the cash cow students. I really don’t think people–like whoever wrote this article in The Economist--actually look at where the money goes. They believe that online education is going to be the norm in the future.
In the meantime, a second generation of MOOC is trying to mirror courses offered at traditional universities. Georgia Institute of Technology and Udacity have joined forces with AT&T, a telecoms firm, to create an online master’s degree in computing for $7,000, to run in parallel with a similar campus-based qualification that costs around $25,000. Mona Mourshead, who runs McKinsey’s education consultancy, sees a turning point. “If employers accept this on equal terms, the MOOC master’s degree will have taken off. Others will surely follow,” she says.
Although some companies have authored online courses (Google, for instance, has made a MOOC on how to interpret data), established universities still create most of them. To encourage them to spare their best academics’ time to put the courses together, online-learning companies must give them a financial incentive. EdX says it is “self-sustaining” but provides no details of its revenues. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported last year that edX lets universities use its platform in return for the first $50,000 generated by the course, plus a cut of future revenues. An alternative model that it reportedly offers is to charge $250,000 for “production assistance” in creating a course, plus further fees every term that the course is offered. Coursera reveals only its revenue from certification—around $4m since its launch in 2012—for which it charges students between $30 and $100.
Some have struggled to make a business out of this. Last year Udacity underwent an abrupt “pivot”, declaring that the free model was not working and that from then on it would sell professional online training. Although web-based courses are much cheaper than on-campus ones, they will not retain ambitious students unless they replicate the interaction available in good universities. Making teachers available for digital seminars and increasing the level of interactivity could help. So would more detailed online feedback. Improvements like these raise costs. So a more varied MOOC-ecology might end up with varying price-tiers, ranging from a basic free model to more expensive bespoke ones.
The universities least likely to lose out to online competitors are elite institutions with established reputations and low student-to-tutor ratios. That is good news for the Ivy League, Oxbridge and co, which offer networking opportunities to students alongside a degree. Students at universities just below Ivy League level are more sensitive to the rising cost of degrees, because the return on investment is smaller. Those colleges might profit from expanding the ratio of online learning to classroom teaching, lowering their costs while still offering the prize of a college education conducted partly on campus.
Notice that last suggestion still says that the cost of the professor is the problem not all the supporting infrastructure and bureaucracy.
The problem that I have with all this is the underlying assumption that the private, corporate business model is efficient, effective, and lower cost. The deal is that most of the lower costs come from de-professionalizing almost all employees in the hierarchy and de-emphasizing personal service. Everything is consolidated away from service provision.
Anyway, I doubt I’ll visit this topic again anytime soon, but I did want to offer up the nightmare that’s become a university teaching job. I have to say I get ready to get my social security more and more every day. This is no longer the stuff written about in Wallace Stegner and John Updike books. I’ve started to feel like an overworked and insecure cog in a wheel over which I have no control. Yup, that’s the stench of American Business.
What’s on your reading and blogging list today?