google-site-verification: googlea33552291e834fff.html Education: Universities without Austerity

Monday, January 12, 2015

Universities without Austerity

Here's a quick update on my way back from Vancouver, where I attended the Modern Language Association meeting.  Jeff Williams and I had a panel featuring some of the issues in our Johns Hopkins University Press book series on Critical University Studies: Scott Jaschik at Inside Higher Ed covered it here.  Send us a book proposal!  Universities aren't going to recover or have the intellectual functions the world needs unless faculty get actively involved in their redesign. We're equally interested in historical work.

I also have a piece today at Inside Higher Ed on the weakening of the austerity logic that has been ruling public universities. Entitled, "The Higher Ed Austerity Deal is Falling Apart," it argues that three major (albeit unwilling) political partners are getting tired of accepting the "new normal" of never-enough-revenues at too-high tuition rates.  

I start by pointing out that 2015 promises more of the same, and then analyze the fractures that became visible at the November regents' meeting.  My premise is that austerity isn't a natural effect of the economy but the effect of a tacit political alliance among the major players that includes senior university managers, faculty, and students. The UC story will be familiar to blog readers;  the second half of the piece, less so.

At one point, I write, 
Although austerity theory still rules public colleges, three of its major players no longer project future benefit from following their scripted roles: cutting and squeezing (administration), political compliance (governing boards), and tolerance for higher tuition and debt (students). It has become clear to them that these austerity policies will never make things better. 
When I re-read the piece this morning on line, I stumbled at that second sentence. Do these folks really know that only one engine is getting fuel and that therefore the plane is losing altitude? On reflection I think yet again that the answer is yes.  UC admin has been talking about the structural deficit to the regents for several years, and the students who spoke out last fall now think the Democrats are using the tuition freeze to let themselves off the funding hook.  

The question is more what to do with this knowledge. The immediate answer is to spell out the research and the teaching that get disappeared by funding shortfalls.  

At the MLA, there was an obvious conflict between the brilliance of the work, which has intellectual scope and depth that are better than ever, and the resources to finish and disseminate the research, which are nearly nonexistent. Our panel respondent, for example, was a grad student who couldn't afford to travel to Vancouver and thus went missing.  Sponsors of extramurally-funded research often require conference travel and fund their requirement.  On this point the humanities are underwater, with predictable delays.  Younger MLA scholars have never in my view been doing richer, more ambitious work with more important public implications--and yet never have more incomplete support to get it finished.

Second, there's teaching.  I'm on the MLA's Delegate Assembly, and on Saturday, at the end of a six hour meeting with a sustained focus on academic freedom, the Association's officers asked for input from the floor about how to respond to Arizona State University's recent raising of teaching loads for its non-tenure track (NTT) writing instructors by 25 percent (to 5-5), with no increase in pay.  An ASU dean was in the audience to explain the administration's rationale, which was that all university faculty have a notional five-course load per term, and the tenure track faculty who teach two courses per term are getting three courses of credit for research and service.   All the admin was doing, he said, was regularizing a lot of NTT instructors while rationalizing their workloads. 

The assembly took a dim view of this and of the other pieces of the dean's explanation. Many people objected to the exploitation of faculty who are now expected to offer meaningful feedback to 125 writing students a term.  Others pointed out the unilateral nature of the decision, in which admin tells faculty what to do with no regard for faculty expertise.  

My concern is also with the administrative framing. This assumes that college writing instruction is a commodity, both in terms of the instructor who delivers it, who need not be paid even the median US wage for 125 students, and of the student who is trying to master a skill by responding to individual feedback on their work.  ASU has a sophisticated idea of public education that is active and process oriented (see the linked article above), and yet asks instructors to deliver it under high school working conditions.  Why does anyone think you can create skills at a college level with a high school teaching load and for less than a high-school teaching wage? Because it's convenient to think that, because it allows cross-subsidies to think that, but also because administrators--and faculty--haven't spelled out in educational detail why we can't. 

Faculty need not simply to reject the framework but to explain why it's wrong: why we don't and can't have five courses as a teaching baseline for college instruction, for starters. We need to explain what students are supposed to learn in a writing class, show the level and type of feedback that requires, and then explain the working conditions that make that possible, including the maximum number of students that one can have to grade a certain number of pages per term with the cognitively required feedback.

Yes I know: who thought we were going to have to do this kind of explaining just so we could do our jobs? But this is how it is, and has been since the 1980s. The good news is that it marks the way colleges and universities are a decisive social power, which is why they are being fought over so relentlessly.

I thought about this when I happened on an article yesterday about tactics.  "The immediate response is bound to be a defensive one: fight the cuts." Yes, I thought, admin is finally doing this, as some faculty have done for years, but the power of the austerity framework, as the author writes, "has exposed the limited character of a struggle which remains a defensive one." 

The author continues to say that the defensive struggle "will get us nowhere if it is posed simply as a return to a state of things before the deluge"--very true! And it "cannot succeed unless it contains an active and positive content--of a new kind."  This new content, he concludes, needs to be embedded not in temporary and opportunistic political associations, but in "real and durable historical alliances" that lead to a "genuinely popular democratic social force."  This will involve, however, the transformation of "all the forces which are to be pulled together in this way."  

As some of you have guessed, the author was Stuart Hall, the year was 1980, and the subject was "Thatcherism--a new stage?"  University austerity is Thatcherism, historically and conceptually, but as I argue in the IHE piece it is now applied by Democrats and Labour as well as a by Republicans and Conservatives.  Opposition has not succeeded for Hall's reasons, which are insufficiencies of imagination and organization. In other words, we anti-austerians are not beating our heads against an inevitable historical trend or economic destiny, but have some new work to do.

So send us a book proposal!

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