/On the Demise of Universities

On the Demise of Universities

Yves here. Friend of the site Erasmus e-mailed Lambert and me about his post on Covid accelerating the conversion of universities from institutions of learning to money generators. As you’ll see, Erasmus has direct experience with some of the pathologies, which extend beyond colonization by MBAs.

By Erasmus, an academic in the humanities

Thank you for the Dec 7 post on the demise of universities. I know this terrain all too well.

Universities have become far more profit-oriented, and corrupted by administrative bloat and bullshit jobs (Graeber)/make-work (like “assessment” mandates), as well as by the customer service mentality of pleasing and placating students to the detriment of standards and solid education. There are plenty of books about various facets of academe, including satirical novels. The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed are useful, but there are plenty of silly articles there too, often written by well-intentioned administrators or English faculty. Parkinson’s Law and all his other insights should be rigorously imposed on the whole mess.

Standards have declined precipitously, which no one admits except curmudgeon tenured senior faculty. Grade inflation is a related problem. There is cheating and lack of study skills, lack of attention span, lack of discipline. A Harvard professor, Harvey Mansfield, has denounced grade inflation publicly, which is excellent, but most cannot do that. The high schools do not teach much, so students cannot handle college work, and there is a lot of partying and dysfunction and anxiety and superficial learning, often done in groups. The pseudoscientific obsession with metrics instead of the hard work of engagement and informed judgment means that student course evaluations (numbers) are important, and that corrupts the teacher-student relationship.

On tenure. Tenure can be legally revoked, but it is rare, and usually due to gross misconduct or something serious. Probably every college and university faculty handbook has a boilerplate section on emergency situations in which the administration can eliminate academic departments and lay off tenured faculty – this has happened. It has been rare up to now, but we will probably see more of it. The Medaille place mentioned in the post is a nothing school, but it is ominous.

Legally the university is a corporation, and you can usually find the faculty handbook on its website. Interesting reading. There are business/executive types on boards of trustees who don’t understand and/or don’t care about university customs and would love to eliminate all tenure. It is happening incrementally, with tenured faculty retirements being replaced with low-wage, contingent adjuncts, lecturers, “clinical” faculty, “assistant teaching professors”, and the like. Gigs instead of stable positions with the traditional ranks: assistant, associate, and full professor. In the UK a lecturer is a higher status than in the US system. Germany and France and Italy have their own systems. Of course, as you would expect, the Italian system (today) is the nuttiest, and unfortunately there is a lot of nepotism there, to the detriment of serious research and teaching. Italy gave us Vico and Eco and others though, so there’s that.

In my view, it is a massive, systemic fail of the faculty to not stand up to the bad decisions and greed of administrators and prevent a lot of this. Faculty governance is a pleasant myth, but faculty have lost a lot of ground over the decades. Some faculty are in denial and believe that what is customary will prevail. They do not understand the difference between custom and law. The faculty handbook is a ratified document, in force for making decisions.

Most faculty are cowards and careerists and sycophants who just want to be comfortable or gain status with peers, but this neglects the institution. They are politically inept, like the progressives (as Matt Stoller has observed). Most of them do not know how to get anything done. They do not understand power. It used to be that mediocre faculty tended to go into administration, but now there is an expanding administrative class that rules over the budget and faculty, and this is detrimental to the institution. Tenured faculty have not prevented the exponential growth in the use (exploitation) of adjuncts for undergraduate teaching. I say this as a person with a PhD from a public university that has had a unionized faculty for decades. It didn’t make much difference. My institution was the only one in the US charging tuition to PhD students teaching on its undergrad campuses – taking back money paid for teaching in the system (extremely low-paid, of course). This is one reason why I will never donate.

Yep, academic freedom is being undermined. It’s elusive if one can’t pay the rent and is a gig laborer for an institution run like a brutal plantation.

Yep, teaching is not job training. George Carlin had a few words on this topic – obedient workers are the desired product of the school system. There are various brilliant scholars who wrote worthwhile books on teaching, usually forgotten.

One insidious practice I have seen is the notion of “collegiality” being a factor in tenure decisions. The traditional categories, usually weighted, are teaching, research, and service. People have been sabotaged and denied tenure due to collegiality issues, which can hide bullying and nasty dept politics or bigotry. There are legal cases about it. It is vague and subjective, and there is no way for it to be imposed fairly as a standard. The AAUP has position papers for various issues on its site, as does the MLA (Modern Language Assn).

Books: Higher Education?, The Last Professors, many others document what has been happening.

Jacques Barzun foresaw a lot of what is happening in his book The American University. He dissected the parasitical centers and institutes that infest campuses. He has a chapter in there on an essay by William James (if I recall) on the “PhD octopus” which exemplifies the expansion of credentials and degrees. Barzun’s book Teacher in America is also excellent and worthwhile, in my opinion.

Camille Paglia (I know Yves views her work as uneven, but when Paglia talks about academia, she is perceptive) has written since the 1990s about the intellectual corruption in the humanities, and many other topics. In fairness, she has been teaching undergraduates for decades, and she was exiled from having a “normal” academic career because she was and is outspoken and direct. She is very serious about education and students. She was in the culture wars. She sees what is happening now.

There was a professor, Richard Mitchell, who wrote a delightful newsletter, The Underground Grammarian, later published as books. He also foresaw the coming idiocy. He denounced idiocy coming out of schools of education, and deconstructed the poor thought in their convoluted prose, which is similar to administrative prose. There are entire journals devoted to such bloviation.

The brutal economic conditions caused by the pandemic (well, due to lack of support from DC) are only accelerating processes that were already well underway for many years in US colleges and universities.

It is not enough to throw money at the problem – there needs to be substantial reform, and no upper administrator wants to cut off the branch s/he is sitting on. There was great expansion in the 1960s and 1970s, and some of those places might die out. Neoliberalism again.

When I look back at the wonderful teachers and professors I have known across multiple disciplines, and see the tremendous impoverishment of students today, it is heartbreaking.

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