google-site-verification: googlea33552291e834fff.html Education: Towards a new Community of Scholars

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Towards a new Community of Scholars

In two recent posts (here and here) Chris made an educational and ethical case for the public research university shifting its attention to increasing educational intensity and to committing itself to a vision of universal capacity rather than its present practice of intensifying pre-existing social inequalities.  There have been, as far as I can tell, two primary responses to his arguments: 1) an enthusiastic agreement with the basic principle and suggestions for ways it could be extended and 2) a resigned gloom rooted in the widespread sense that our institutions are simply not receptive to the notion.

I want to suggest here that both of these responses are apt but that they should lead us not to resignation but to a recognition that thinking outside the normal structures of our institutions is both desirable and necessary in this instance.

The reasons are several:

First  is the serious probability that the public university as we know it is dead.  That isn't to say that it won't continue to function producing knowledge and graduates of various kinds, teaching as it does, etc. But it is winding down. It has become clear over the last decade that the public university is not fulfilling its fundamental social functions in terms of social mobility and mass education. Nor is it clear that it will be able to continue its research funding given the commitment to austerity in both state capitals and Washington D.C.

To a significant extent these issues are financial. In its present form public research universities are caught in what we might call a "low level equilibrium trap." Despite all the rhetoric about how crucial higher education is to the future, the actual visions of the political class is narrowly focused on their perception of today's job demands, a perception which is instrumentalist in teaching and indifferent to research. Comparatively, the state of California still funds a large percentage of UC and CSU's core costs. But the state's political leadership seems willing to accept the system that we have now and slowly reduce it over time (or not so slowly given the problems with the pension system and the uncertainties facing the medical centers).

We all know the obvious signs of this situation. Governor Brown is openly hostile to investing in higher education, and despite some increased funding in his budget he has made it clear that he has no intention of overcoming the years of austerity or aiding the University facing in facing its increasing costs. Given his support for Patrick Callan's latest reportLieutenant Governor Newsom appears to think that the answer is something akin to Western Governors University.  But the clearest indication of the problem, I think, lies in the Legislature's preference for scholarships over University funding.  By agreeing to increase funding for Cal Grants the state is committing to holding down effective price without increasing funding for universities.   This does not necessarily mean that the state, Jerry Brown aside, is unwilling to support higher education.  It does mean that the State is no longer willing to support the research university in its present form

There is a second component to this slow death of the public research university.  As science faculty have pointed out repeatedly, they spend an inordinate amount of their time applying for grants and seeking to raise the funds necessary to support their research.  I do not want to revisit the arguments about the cross-subsidies (in whatever direction) that complicate the issue of indirect cost recovery.  My point here is that the Federal support for scientific research is in decline, that this will only increase pressure on science faculty, and that in the long-run without increased state funding for basic research the scientific enterprise as we know it cannot be sustained.  In today's "the only thing that matters is the next six months" political economy, political and business leaders may not worry about the long decline of research infrastructure but anyone concerned with the research university must be.

Now I don't think that the end of the public research university as we have come to know it is entirely a bad thing.  We are all aware of its overly bureaucratic nature, the unchecked and hidden expansion of administration, the growth of an overly intrusive audit culture, the threats to faculty rights and academic freedom threatened by online contracts and administrative policing of employee speech, its rising financial burdens on students as well as the expanding size of classes.  Even at its finest, it was a high modernist institution that tended to extended and unnecessary hierarchies.  The triumph of finance in the inner circles of the university has only made matters worse.

But are there alternatives?

One way to begin a discussion is to look at the extremely different notions of cost that exist between UC and Sacramento. Sacramento, in particular the LAO, is convinced that CSU and especially UC are inefficient in the way they provide education to students.  They make this claim based on a fairly simple calculation--dividing total core revenues by the numbers of enrolled students and claiming that the result is the real expense per student. Because UC has never been willing to actually figure out how much goes into the instructional program per student, UCOP and the campuses have been unable to challenge this idea effectively.  So long as the universities are unable to demonstrate to legislators and the public that the funding is necessary for instruction and that it will go to instruction, we will be unable to regain support for higher education institutions.  

There are, to be sure, two different sources for this gap in perception: the cost of research and the growth of administration.  To some extent they overlap (the increased oversight demanded of research funding, questions of safety, legal issues, the growth of IT) but not entirely.  And one thing that would need to be done would be to finally get transparency on where the costs lie and which ones are actually necessary for core function

But there is an even larger conceptual issue at stake here.  We can, I think, approach it by thinking about the ideas of "faculty centered" vs. "student centered" universities.  It is possible to look back at the universities of the 1950s and 1960s (during what Christopher Jencks and David Reisman called the "academic revolution") as "faculty centered" universities.  In that moment of institutional expansion (and especially expansion in the importance of graduate education) universities were centered around the interests of growing disciplines and departments.  Although some radical activists were able to compel the creation of new fields of study in the humanities and social sciences, for the most part academic fields were driven by faculty and academic fields shaped student experiences.

This university (and I know I am overstating its practical reality a bit) was quickly displaced by what we might think of as "Student-Centered University I."  In part "student-centered university I" was driven by the desire for improved rankings that took off in the 1970s and by the increasingly dominant notion of consumer choice in the 1980s that turned students into customers.  But the effort to attract customers, in particular, led to an increasing displacement of the classroom in student lives and the growing importance of both material surroundings in the university and the separation of student services from the instructional core.  Although "student centered university I" continues in part, it has  been replaced by "student-centered university II." "Student-centered University II" is marked by dramatically increasing economic inequality within the student body and it means the worst of both possible worlds for many: rising costs needed to pay for administrative services and material upkeep, worsening conditions of the classroom, increased student debt, and the managerial turn to massive numbers of poorly paid instructors with little to no job security or long-range benefits that they can count on..

What we need is the end of "Student-Centered University II."  Instead, and with acknowledgments to Paul Goodman, we need a new "community of scholars." Goodman rightly argued that the core of any university or college worth its name lay in scholarship--understood as both the creation and communication of knowledge and insight through the educational process.   To achieve a new "community of scholars" increasing educational intensity would be central.  Now, I am not trying to claim that the only spaces that matter in a university are the classrooms, laboratories and libraries. But it does seem fair to me to rethink the University as a place where these spaces are the core of the University in more than name only and in which the interplay between faculty and students is the central dynamic of the institution.  

This would entail a widespread reorganization of resources--one in which student services would be reintegrated with instruction, staff moved back into departments, and faculty involved in advising. Administrations would need to provide greater transparency of costs, and undergraduate programs would be more fully integrated with research.   

It would also entail a serious engagement with students and parents.  At least one central problem would need to be addressed in terms of the infrastructure of the university: would students and parents accept a materially less rich extra-curricular apparatus in exchange for more resources in instruction and a lower overall price?  If it is possible to offer less expensive higher ed, could it be done outside of the branding race rather than--as people like Gavin Newsom propose--by eliminating the rich intellectual life that could be offered on residential campuses?  And would parents and students buy into that vision?

As even a quick look at the questions that need to be addressed will indicate, such a reorganization of the university cannot be done from the top down.  We already had one version of that in Gould Commission.  If anything could demonstrate that real educational imagination and re-thinking will not come from the top, the Gould Commission, with its rush to accept all the conventional wisdom of educational austerity and its displacement into the fantasy of UConlline, should have done it.  The only way that a new public research university can be created will be from the bottom up, with faculty, students, and parents attempting to create a new public discourse.  

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