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Saturday, March 23, 2019

Saturday, March 23, 2019
As it enters week 3, the promising new series Operation Varsity Blues is running out of gas. The story of wealthy white folks bribing their kids’ way into college debuted to huge numbers. But the writers are losing the story line, so it might help to make at least two root causes explicit.

The series has been a blast – it offered the pleasure of seeing rich crooks getting caught looking stupid, in this case by bribing their privileged kids into privileged colleges with dumbbell plans. $50,000 bought strategy like the fake water polo star above. Scam maestro William Singer went with this strategy more than once: “I’ll photoshop his face on a kicker,” he said to William McGlashan, the impact fund manager, Friend of Bono, and backer of gig-economy paragons Uber and Spotify, while wired by the FBI, referring to the face of McGlashan's son, suggesting that such a picture would convince the USC football empire that the son played football. That pious bully, the College Board, turned out to have proctors on the take. Early reviews called the FBI’s 200 page script a probing look into the way we live now, one worthy if not of Dickens then Tom Wolfe or the David E. Kelley of Big Little Lies.

There was also widespread rage at American plutocracy. Most people are pissed at institutions that were to make society fairer and now do the opposite. Universities are on that list. 50 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, racial inequality is pervasive and deep, and all levels of schooling reflect this through resegregation and racially disparate outcomes at all levels. Neoliberal economic policy, a duet sung by both major parties, has reversed the limited economic equality that emerged from the Cold War project of showing off a large, white middle class. For forty years, the country’s big national project has been to strengthen business by weakening the public systems that, though flawed, are to allocate roughly similar resources to everyone. Equality stopped being a goal, and a pathetic symptom is the assumption that getting into UCLA will protect your life while going to UC Irvine will not. The previous theory was that there should be no quality cliff as you moved from district or campus to another, and the population could stop spending every day jockeying for position, since most of the positions would be good.

Meritocracy not only didn’t keep plutocracy from happening: it collaborated with it. It was supposed to signal reward for effort and accomplishment (more than for innate “ability”). But it became another system to be gamed. Proof of its decline in public opinion is that every commentator in scandal week 1 claimed that admissions scams were not the exception but the rule. The instant New York Times editorial was sarcastically entitled, “Turns Out There’s a Proper Way to Buy Your Kid a College Slot.” In other words, “until yesterday, we thought there were no limits to the power of money over universities.” It wasn’t only that Singer’s scams proved again that the needs and insecurities of rich people define American culture and society today. Even elite outlets agreed that private wealth doesn’t violate meritocracy because meritocracy is structured to serve private wealth.

As Operation Varsity Blues made white privilege index a rotten democracy, the governor of California was asked on a Sunday talk show about the admissions bribery changes "What about the legal bribery that exists in higher education?" he replied. “What about the folks writing the $20-million dollar check, putting their name on that building? Connect the dots to the folks they quietly called for admission, or wrote a letter of recommendation.”

What about the legal bribery? I’m glad Newsom mentioned it, since that gets to the first root cause—long-term shortages of non-private ed money that have restructured public universities. Since he has long sat on the Board of Regents of the University of California, he knows perfectly well that “legal bribery” is “philanthropy,” and philanthropy is a cornerstone of the strategy of "multiple revenue streams," and that in turn is a response to repeated public funding cuts (which used to be eased by eager tuition increases, but never mind that for the moment). UC started obsessing about fundraising in the wake of the 1992-95 state cuts, and began to show the Board of Regents fundraising growth charts in the mid-1990s. Every campus has its own large development operation and some kind of endowment campaign. Fundraising duties have been pushed down to deans and department chairs and even individual faculty. Fundraising has also changed the culture of public universities, shifting affective relations toward research while empowering departments and people with market and donor potential over basic research or teaching people and departments. Fundraising has strengthened the pecuniary dimensions of higher ed overall, which distorts public understanding of its total effects. Fundraising's virtues are articles of faith—no one can rise in academic administration without pledging tacit allegiance to continuous fundraising. One need not be a philanthropy abolitionist to marvel at the lack of public discussion of philanthropy's effects, which was nonexistent until a hedge fund titan gave $400 million to Harvard in 2015. OVB is another milestone, but it remains to be seen whether colleges will examine philanthropy's vices, which include increasing exactly the inequality within and between universities that the OVB outrage denounced (an example). There is certainly research that could be pondered: mine has focused on fundraising's leveraging of public resources and its insufficiency at a public scale; Anand Giridharadas's widely noted work, in Winners Take All and elsewhere, describes it as a straightforward tool of tax avoidance and political control. These problems are easily described, and yet university leaders still feel they have no choice—they must show unflinching loyalty to the practice if only because, in public universities, they are constantly, permanently short of money.

Now that he is governor, Newsom could in fact downsize legal bribery, precisely by rebuilding public funding. It would take a few annual state funding increases of 15-20 percent. How serious is he about shrinking fundraising until he can drown it in the bathtub? He was upset, but that will pass. Proposals need to come from universities.

Ironically, private colleges have seen their financial models weakened by the philanthropy they depend on. OVB broke in the wake of the biggest previous national higher ed story, which was the mindboggling news that the governing board and president of renowned Hampshire College were trying to put the college up for sale. The most likely source of their panic was that an anniversary capital campaign hadn’t been going well. Why would that lead to bankruptcy? Because like all private college boards, Hampshire’s could not see a solvency strategy that didn’t involve philanthropy.

This is why Macalester College president Brian C. Rosenberg wrote, “The Only Surprising Thing in the Admissions Scandal is that Anyone is Surprised."

I see nothing wrong with soliciting wealthy parents after their children have been fairly admitted. I do it with some regularity and with no sense of guilt. Most colleges, moreover, are "need aware" in admissions, making it more likely that an applicant coming from wealth will gain admission to more colleges than one without means.
What is maddening, though, is that the colleges most likely to be given large gifts in return for an offer of admission are the ones that are most prestigious, selective, and wealthy — in other words, the ones that need the money least. I would actually be pretty sympathetic if a struggling college were tempted by such an offer, but those offers tend not to be forthcoming.
Tuition has hit a ceiling for all but the superbrands, so if fundraising isn’t working, the model says sell off, shut down. And they are: at least 22 liberal arts college have closed since 2016.

The second root cause of OVB is that college admissions is a conceptual mess. It has two separate projects—supporting racial and economic democracy on the one hand, and forming a master class on the other. The latter, since Jefferson, Adams, and Emerson, has meant finding a “natural aristocracy.” For all our discussion of diversity, we're only slightly less essentialist about ability than our ancient forebears. To identify the greatest talents, we are supposed to use standardized tests and grades. Ross Douthat’s recent attempt to question meritocracy still equates test scores with academic merit. The SAT and ACT have been repeatedly debunked as a racial and political project of highly restricted validity and that has traditionally sought to measure a probably nonexistent entity (general aptitude and/or context-free achievement) (Lemann, Kohn, Guinier, Douglass, etc.). And yet standardized tests are still widely treated as though they captured natural ability. All attacks on race-based affirmative action invoke standardized tests as the gold standard of measurable achievement. And as Jerome Karabel and others have shown, holistic admissions has a history of reflecting the university's anti-semitic and racist biases, against which test scores seemed the main countermeasure.

Admissions continues to use exams that people don’t trust but are intimidated by, and at the same time, acknowledges their badness with incompatible gold standard #2 - this same holistic admissions.

In the 1978 Bakke case, involving a white plaintiff who sued UC Davis's medical school on the grounds that race-based affirmative action had wrongly trumped his color-blind merit, Justice Lewis Powell saved a reduced version of affirmative action by invoking Harvard's "holistic" admissions practices. These used race only as a “plus factor” –not as a claim to compensation for past or present discrimination—and threw in a bunch of other stuff, including sports and family ties to the college. It seems very nuanced and humanistic, since it cares about the whole person and not mainly test results. It always looks better than the test-score absolutists. That’s before you look at it too closely.

We did get a closer look at Harvard’s practice last fall, when a suit brought by anti-affirmative action zealot Edward Blum against Harvard went to trial. His group, Students for Fair Admissions, argued that Asian Americans were being rejected in favor of preferred minorities by being given a lower “personal rating” than are other groups. I have always been a strong supporter of affirmative action and think that Blum’s position is racist (all hardships can be introduced in admissions except race-based ones) and irresponsible (“He said he couldn’t comment on exactly what barring admissions officials from considering race would mean for applicants — that is, whether it would bar them from mentioning their race in applications”). But Harvard’s admissions people had a hard time explaining how they defined the factors they used on top of academic achievement—athletics, extracurricular, personal, overall—or how they interacted. The attitude about their careful sifting of a “wealth of information” was weakened by reports that application files at elite colleges may not get more than eight minutes of a reader’s time, and by the basic fact that a committee of 40 people is reading 40,000 applications (p 3, p 7). Harvard's witnesses didn’t really explain why Asian Americans do get lower personality scores, or the problems flagged by their own previous investigation (plaintiff’s analysis pp 11-20).

In my reading, Harvard won the narrow question: they are compliant with Grutter and related decisions by staying “flexible enough to ensure that each applicant is evaluated as an individual and not in a way that makes an applicant’s race or ethnicity the defining feature of his or her application” (p 24). But Harvard ignored the broader question, which is precisely whether all this flexibility in choosing is legitimate in the first place. Hostility to race as a criterion is the venerable right-wing issue, and 4/5ths of whites continue to oppose it. The related issue under plutocracy, for a broad slice of the public, is whether elite preferences are really better than invalid standardized tests. During their trial, Harvard made holistic admissions look like a secret formula that elites use to come up with whatever kind of class they want—which is always the class that will keep Harvard on top.

Neither test-based nor holistic admissions is convincing. Each needs the other—many people pointed out that test scores helped Jews overcome earlier admissions bias, as they help Chinese Americans now. And yet their mash up is internally contradictory, has confused everybody for decades, and aggravated white racial backlash. The results also aren’t great: elective admissions has had 50 years to fix racial disparities and it has not. With a more diverse student body than ever, selectivity has only managed to increase rates of rejection at the most selective schools while increasing inequality in the overall system.

What are we supposed to do about OVB’s root causes? Nicholas Lemann is right that the solution is not reforming admissions, and so is Ian Bogost that it's "pathetic" to be reverting to the admissions status quo. It's crucial not to let the superbrands orbit their own planet while controlling the definitions of intelligence (test scores), merit (you’re one of us), and the value of college (pecuniary gain, social mobility) on ours.

 Lemann writes, “a recent Pew survey showed that the only admissions criterion that gets majority support from the public is grades, and there are far more students with perfect transcripts than there are places in the most selective colleges, so that won’t work.”

Here I don't agree. What will work is growing the system so there are enough really good seats for all the perfect transcripts, and the other transcripts as well. The point would be to replace selectivity with scale, and today's highly unequal with generally equivalent quality.

To do that, the white middle and upper classes will need to reverse their entire Reagan-era private welfare strategy—tax cuts, public cuts, austerity, private school, restricted public quality, selectivity, fixation on monetary outcomes, and dependence on prestige. Undoing this culture will mean moving a lot of private money back into the public realm. And it would make America smart again.
Posted by Chris Newfield | Comments: 0

Monday, March 11, 2019

Monday, March 11, 2019
The season's higher ed masterplot is easy to state: liberal arts education is a financial failure; financial success requires mega-universities.

Whatever the partial truths contained in these claims, nothing this winter provided actual evidence for them.  They also conceal the real factor that's undermining private as much as public higher ed-: the unnecessary obsession with its private funding.

Alleged proof of the liberal arts's fiscal demise is coming in the form of closed or closing liberal arts colleges.  These arrived on the heels of the closure of liberal arts programs last year (like Wisconsin's Stevens Point that we covered in two parts).  Stephens Point now appears to be the tip of the iceberg: In January, CHE announced a forthcoming Modern Languages Association finding that 651 language programs have closed in the last 3 years, without academia really noticing.  Meanwhile, with only local fanfare, 17 liberal arts colleges have closed in the last five years in Massachusetts alone. Moody's claims that 1 in 5 small liberal arts colleges are under stress.

The best known case is Hampshire College.  Forever young and poor, it epitomized the creativity ideals of the whole liberal arts college genre, tied to customized majors and the small, intense classes that underwrite the "active learning" we are all supposed to have.  But Hampshire's enrollments fell 17 percent between 2010 and 2017.  Most universities survive on enrollments, and Hampshire's small endowment meant it had to find new revenues. (How much money they had and what they borrowed is in dispute.)

But Hampshire didn't become a poster child for liberal arts failure until the president's bizarre January 15th announcement that Hampshire was "carefully considering whether to enroll an incoming class this fall." This was followed by a February 1 Board of Trustees decision not to admit a full freshman class--which, as sociology professor Margaret Cerullo noted in her excellent Nation piece, was an attack on their own revenue base.

And yet Hampshire's trouble doesn't prove anything about the innate unsustainability of the liberal arts if it is self-inflicted.  That is clearly the situation.  President Miriam Nelson's initial statement didn't really make sense, as she combined her declaration of emergency with the comment that, "at Hampshire our budget is balanced, our $52 million endowment has performed well, and the success of our educational model is confirmed by an array of stellar data. We continue to be among the top three percent of institutions whose students go on to earn a research doctorate." 

Instead, Nelson and the Board seem to have artificially induced Hampshire's crisis to court potential suitors, most likely to UMass-Amherst, which had just taken over failing Mt Ida College in Newton.

Instead of praise for making the tough call, Nelson and the Hampshire Board of Trustees got the harshest appraisals I've seen dished out to college management.  In her overview in the New Yorker, Masha Gessen wrote, "Secrecy and confusion remain the defining characteristics of the Hampshire crisis."  Since its founding, Hampshire College has raised the question of whether students and faculty could manage themselves without top-down administration.  The question is being raised again, this time by its managers' incompetence.

The college leadership has wrought disaster.  Gessen writes,
Nelson is expected to announce a second wave of layoffs, in April. She told me that the scale of the layoffs would match the loss of revenue resulting from admitting a much smaller freshman class—that is, around a quarter of the college’s operating budget. Hampshire faculty members, in keeping with the school’s education philosophy, are not protected by tenure—back in the sixties, the idea was that tenure encouraged passivity in academics, and its absence would motivate them to continue to grow and develop. Word among Hampshire faculty members is that half of them are likely to lose their jobs. According to Barskova, because Hampshire has traditionally fostered co-teaching, the looming layoffs will kill the academic program.
Nelson and her board may turn out to have destroyed the college rather than sold it, and for no good reason.

Other criticism came from Yale management professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a specialist in higher education leadership.  He was writing in Fortune, which you'd expect to support this apparent example of disruptive innovation, except that just about everybody is sick of it and its regular failure to make things better.  Sonnenfeld noted a total failure of the Board to make use of the college's assets:
the college board’s executive committee framed this [matriculation] challenge as an existential crisis . . . and their actions have since created chaos. And rather than locate better ways to mobilize their own many assets—Hampshire’s distinctive mission, the Five College Consortium community, a strong alumni network, and a largely successful existence as an innovative education model—to a recovery, Hampshire’s leadership appears to have panicked.
Interestingly, Sonnenfeld tied this gross underestimation of the college's value to a failure of management to work with its wider community.
Over the course of the fall, Nelson never consulted her five living predecessors, faculty leaders, or other campus constituencies. Nor did she appeal to alumni about her dire assessment of Hampshire’s financial situation, a list which includes Stonyfield Farms chairman Gary Hirshberg, former CEO of Seventh Generation Jeffrey Hollender, renowned documentarian Ken Burns, and Pulitzer Prize winner Edward Humes. Gregory Prince, who was president of Hampshire College 16 years, envisioned tapping such alumni for a recovery plan involving various interconnected institutes. But in the panic, consultation—a cultural necessity in a liberal arts college founded on participation and engagement—simply did not occur and this important resource was overlooked.
Collaboration is in fact the foundation of intelligence in pretty much everything, but education managers only sometimes sees this.  Cerullo chronicles Nelson's failures on this front. Sonnenfeld cited former Hampshire president Prince calling for restored campus partnerships in Hampshire policy-making.  In spite of the insight of various individuals, higher ed admin culture has shifted in recent decades toward autocracy.  That has justified many a mediocre decision, including this one.

The inevitable New York Times mediation on the demise of communitarian ideals misses the point that Hampshire may close not because of liberal arts economics but because of the autocratic replacement of shared governance.

The liberal arts are often scapegoated for economic problems that come from the spread of the market model in higher ed.  Many, many people who can and should benefit from higher education cannot pay market price for it.  Markets fails to allocate higher ed efficiently--they give too much to the rich and too little to the poor.  Markets hand education out according to ability to pay, as they are supposed to do. But that isn't how societies allocate true public goods like quality healthcare, high school diplomas, and now bachelor's degrees.  Societies need relatively equal distribution of public goods that meet the same quality standard in all cases.  Such a distribution is always subsidized--where "subsidy" means society pays collectively for a just distribution through the tax system.  In other terms, capitalist societies are always partly socialist or they function very badly.  The key feature of neoliberalism--privatization of all interests and allocations--actually degrades the capitalism it seeks to expand.

In higher ed wea have this jerry-rigged system called student financial aid that offers selective subsidies without having to own market failure.  A college like Hampshire, which is private, typically uses endowment returns, gifts, and the full tuition of affluent students to subsidize poorer students.  Public colleges do the same thing with state appropriations (including direct aid to students).  Whether the college is private or public, its finances are now constituted by market failure. It needs the subsidy work-around from somewhere.

Private colleges are facing an artificial crisis borne of the national--wholly political--demand that they cover their very high quality educational operations entirely with private revenues.  Their students can't actually come up with this money: colleges are now discounting tuition in many cases by 50 percent in order to fill their classes.  This has nothing to do with the quality of the students but reflects the normal smart person's very limited personal wealth.  (The actual economics of public goods suggests that colleges should be discounting tuition anyway, since at least half the total value of a college degree is non-private, students should never pay actual cost in the first place (Stage 1)).

To function, Hampshire has to get a tuition subsidy for many or most of its students; enrollments decline because of insufficient subsidies that declining enrollments make even more insuffiicent.  The doom loop I describe in The Great Mistake applies to private as well as public colleges.  If President Nelson did in fact want Hampshire to be taken over by UMass, she was acknowledging (in a destructive way) that her private subsidy stream wasn't big enough, and could be fixed only with a bigger public one.

Let's pause to note that the thirty years propaganda war on the liberal arts, first for PCness and now for non-vocationality, has successfully scared customers away. But the liberal arts aren't only the most powerful rival of literalist, dispensationalist Christianity on the one hand and business autocracy on the other, but are the exception to college's problem with "limited learning," all of which happens in vocational majors (Figure 6).  The irony is that liberal arts colleges aren't just the most vulnerable sector of higher ed, but also its best.  The constant attacks on them are lowering overall college quality.  The attacks are enabled by the failure to understand public-good economics.

I drafted a Twitter thread on this a couple of days ago.  Liberal arts college quality comes from a combination of intense workload for students and small classes for active engagement with the material.   To make a crude contrast: a typical public college student takes 48 quarter courses for a 4-year BA. Of those 48 courses, how many will have 15 students or fewer?  Probably no more than 1 or 2, and quite possibly zero.  In contrast, at my alma mater, Reed College, I had only two courses with more than 15 students. The engagement difference adds up.

It costs much more money to do high-quality active learning.  Instead of facing this fact, the US is letting cost end the policy discussion rather than start it. The policy questions are: does the United States want to limit Hampshire-style quality to a small elite that can pay? Does it want to limit it to a group that is economically more diverse but still small (the high-tuition/high-financial aid model)? Or does it seek mass quality and see the liberal arts as something to scale up?

Politicians have been stuck in an anti-ambition mode for thirty years, catering to the tax revolt which is in large part a symptom of structural racism, which leads them not to want to pool public resources across racial lines. Operationally, this is moronic and self-destructive. it has lowered the quality of the entire national infrastructure, from roads to schools to housing.  The same is true of liberal arts colleges, public and private. Since they are more or less the best we have, refusing to fund them is tantamount to lowering overall attainment.

Liberal arts college leadership has been on the defensive for years, and is completely intimidated by criticisms of price. But the solution is not to let these colleges die so an even smaller elite gets to have their quality.  One alternative, mega-universities, with their dependence on charging significant tuition for online enrollment, are a way of kidding ourselves about quality as we give it up.

The key issue is that the whole ecosystem of higher education has been destabilized by shifting to a private cost structure that doesn't work.  Seeing colleges as private goods insures that society under-invests in them. A confident society sets goals for things like education and then figures out how to pay for it.  It does not downsize the goal to fit benighted leaders' ideas about the budget. The US has to decide if it wants real learning for all college students or just for the traditional, limited group.

If we do decide we want mass learning or democratic education, we're going to have to fix the business model. That will mean reversing privatization at private colleges too. Society and business will have to increase subsidizes to colleges and universities, not demand that universities subsidize society and business--which happens when we make students pay the cost of educational benefits that are actually half public. 

This social support for private college students will take the form of public funding for places like Hampshire.  This is a good year to start thinking about how to do it.

Photo credit: Katherine Taylor, New York Times
Posted by Chris Newfield | Comments: 5

Friday, February 22, 2019

Friday, February 22, 2019
By Trevor Griffey, PhD; Lecturer,
Labor Studies & U.S. History, UCLA and CSUDH; trevorgriffey@gmail.com.
Photo Credit: Felicia Mello

Gavin Newsom, the new Governor of California, is the biggest supporter of public higher education to hold that office in the past 15 years. He served on the California State University (CSU) Board of Trustees and UC Board of Regents from 2010-18. He is taking office at a moment when it is fairly easy for him to show his support for higher education. California has a projected $21.5 billion budget surplus (and roughly $15 billion in reserves) for 2019-20.

In what he called his “California For All” budget for 2019-20, Newsom has proposed adding an additional $1.4 billion to California’s public higher education system: $400 million largely to make community college free, $562 million increase in revenue for the CSUs ($300 million of which is ongoing), a $240 million funding increase for the UC system (plus an additional $130 million for deferred maintenance), funding for legal services to support undocumented students, and more.

With this large new investment in higher education, Newsom’s budget proposal said that that he was trying “to increase access to higher education, improve student success and timely degree completion, and to better ensure that college remains affordable by freezing tuition at current levels.”

And yet, despite the commitment of over a billion dollars of new revenue to the U.S.’s largest community college and public university system, little of that money is likely to go where it is most needed: to reducing class sizes for introductory college courses, and to replacing poorly-paid temp job for college instructors with professional positions at living wages.

The reason is simple, and ideological: today’s higher education administrators— in California and around the U.S.— are committed to a version of what they call “student success” that marginalizes questions of class size, teaching load, and the working conditions of faculty from their definition of success. For them, student success means reducing the number of students who do not receive credit for and thus have to retake college courses, increasing the percentage of students who earn a degree, and reducing the time it takes for students to complete their studies. To achieve these changes, administrators hire education statistics gurus to track students, and bring in counselors and tutors to move students along “guided pathways” toward a degree. Learning is measured by the percentage of students who receive Cs or higher in their classes, because the accumulation of credits toward a degree is what matters most. Success is defined by graphs showing upward progress on certain key metrics, especially “time to degree.”

All levels of California’s public higher education system reflect this thinking. In 2010, the Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy at CSU Sacramento issued a report called “Divided We Fail.”  It found that 70% of all students who enrolled in California’s community colleges did not receive a degree within six years. In response, the California Community College system formed a Student Success Task Force, which issued a 77-page report in 2012 that put forward eight recommendations for increasing retention and graduation rates. None included suggestions for improving students’ teaching and learning environment.

Instead, the report defined student success as “Percentage of community college students completing their educational goals; Percentage of community college students earning a certificate or degree, transferring, or achieving transfer-readiness; Number of students transferring to a four-year Institution; [and] Number of degrees and certificates earned.”

Increasing undergraduate students’ retention and graduation rates is a worthwhile goal, since students who accumulate college debt and do not receive degrees are generally worse off than students who did not enroll in college at all, at least from a financial perspective. The problem is that this "get a C" vision of student success sidelines what students learn, or how they learn. In many schools’ strategic plans and student success initiatives, discussions of teaching quality are entirely absent.

When teaching and learning is included in student success initiatives and university strategic plans, it is often to promote the latest inquiry-based pedagogical strategies, grouped under the label “active learning.” Active learning is also a worthwhile project for colleges to support. But does it really mean merely introducing technological gadgets like iClickers to a classroom? If not, active learning requires reducing class size to facilitate student-led exercises and regular feedback from faculty.

Active learning can also mean showcase courses rather than widespread availability. This then leads to the celebration of a few small classes because they are “active” and not because they are small. By hailing what is old (teaching) as something new (innovation), administrators distract the public from  the fact that most of their curriculum is taught by underpaid, overworked faculty in classes that are far too large to support those students, particularly those most at risk of failing or dropping out.

California’s Community Colleges 

I have personally witnessed this framing of student success as something to be achieved by administrators and staff, and not by teachers or teaching, while serving as a member of the “Student Success Committee” at Long Beach City College, and as a lecturer in U.S. History and Labor Studies at CSU Dominguez Hills.

When I taught U.S. History at Long Beach City College in the Fall of 2017, I was one of 687 part-time lecturers at the school. We made up 43 percent of all employees at the school, and 68 percent of all faculty. We taught 43 percent of all courses, and we earned approximately $3,000 per 15-week course. Capped by state law at 3 courses per semester (a full-time teaching load is considered to be 5 courses per semester), the average lecturer at LBCC earned less than $13,000 per year, was ineligible for health benefits, and had almost no job security.

From what I’ve gleaned from various surveys of lecturers across the country, and also from informal conversations with colleagues at both LBCC and schools in the CSU system, there are a few major survival strategies for those who are paid so poorly to teach college courses:
  • work outside of higher education full-time, and treat community college teaching as a side gig for extra income; 
  • teach 7-10 courses per semester spread across at least three schools (usually other community colleges, sometimes also CSUs) to get around the cap on 3 courses per school; 
  • rely on a spouse’s income, sometimes while taking care of small children at home; 
  • or do this work while taking out loans as a graduate student (usually at a local University of California campus, but sometimes from a CSU campus).
Every one of these adjunct strategies for surviving poverty wages limit the amount of time that they have to spend on any given student.

This problem is exacerbated by how adjuncts in California’s community colleges are paid. Adjuncts are not salaried employees, but rather are classified as hourly employees who are only paid for the time they spend in the classroom (3 hours per 3 credit course per week). This sends adjuncts a very clear signal that they are not paid to prepare class lesson plans or course syllabi, to meet with students outside of class, to respond to student emails, or to grade student work. And if they’re not paid to do any of these things, then what incentive do adjuncts have to give students assignments that they will have to spend time grading, let alone teach students how to write?

Horror stories emerge from working conditions like these. At one CSU school, I met someone who taught 5 courses per semester while sometimes teaching additional courses at LBCC and other local colleges to make ends meet. This meant solo teaching of 200-400 students per semester across multiple schools, and in one case as many as 600 students in a semester. How could one person possibly do this? Her method was to administer online multiple choice tests produced by textbook publishers so that she didn’t actually have to read or evaluate student work at all.

This is just an extreme form of a more general problem: the reliance of many if not most community college faculty on easy-to-grade multiple choice tests and worksheets, instead of deeper and more transformative work teaching students how to read and write papers.

Another colleague of mine who teaches at a community college in Orange County told me that she knew multiple instructors at her school who also worked on the side for web sites used by college students to pay someone to write their papers for them. In other words: these community college teachers were paid so poorly, and felt so demoralized, that they got into the business of helping college students cheat by writing their papers for them.

Because LBCC lecturers are represented by a union, and the union bargained to be included in campus governance and receive payment for service, I volunteered to serve on a committee to supplement my income while teaching at LBCC.  That I was assigned to the campus “student success committee” was just an effect of my teaching schedule, and not because I knew what student success was. What I learned was that on average, more than 30 percent of LBCC students do not complete the courses they enroll in, and completion rates for African American, Asian American and Latino/a students tend to be lower than those of white students. And yet despite the school’s “integrated plan” celebrating its embrace of “flipped classrooms, bootcamps, compressed classes, and integrated wrap around services such as counseling and study skills” to increase equity and completion rates, at no point did members of the student success committee discuss the possibility that perhaps paying its faculty poverty level wages was NOT a recipe for “student success.”

Instead, the meetings were organized around fast-paced presentations of student completion rates and strategic plan goals, combined with reports from other committees, with the actual committee’s work not always easy for me to discern. I never raised my concerns about low teacher pay and demoralizing working conditions in committee meetings, partly because I was new and still learning, and also because I ended up leaving the school after one semester after deciding that I could not justify teaching for so little money.

LBCC is hardly unique in California’s 114-campus community college system. More than two thirds of California’s 60,636 public community college instructors were part-time lecturers in Fall of 2017. That semester, they taught 46 percent of all community college courses to almost 1.6 million students. And, according to my calculations, their average salary was just over $13,000 per year at each institution.

That same semester, only 62 percent of students enrolled in California’s community colleges passed basic skills courses, and only 72 percent passed courses for credit— with numbers far worse for students enrolled in online programs (or “distance learning”).   As a result, though there has been substantial improvement in the past decade, less than 50 percent of California community college students graduate or transfer to other schools within 6 years.

There appears to be a correlation between low teacher pay and poor student performance (page 5).  But for ideological reasons, California’s community college administrators don’t talk about this issue in relation to student success initiatives. So the vast majority of the state’s community college faculty continue to be told that there is no money for living wages, while their schools increase spending to hire more administrators, data analysts, counselors and tutors--in the name of equity and justice.

The California State University System

The politics of student success in the California State University (CSU) system— the largest public university system in the U.S., with 430,000 undergraduates on 23 campuses— are similar and related to those at the state’s community colleges. People who work for the CSUs like to call it “the people’s university.” Because it is primarily a teaching rather than research university, and 95 percent of CSU students are from “in-state," its student demographics more closely reflect youth demographics in California more broadly: more than 50 percent of its undergraduates are people of color, forty percent are Latino/a, and one third are the first in their families to attend college.

Unlike the University of California, the CSUs have not relied upon enrolling out of state and international students to offset declining per capita support from state legislators. Instead, their response to the great recession has been to grow their way into fiscal health on the cheap. This involves consistently exceeding the state’s funding based on projected enrollment, and enrolling between 15,000 to 20,000 more students than even the CSUs plan for. Then first year student class sizes are pushed to the legal limit established by the local fire department (usually packing 60 in a room). And finally, the schools have raised individual undergraduate student tuition and “student success” fees to offset budget cuts.

Full Time Equivalent (FTE) Students


This strategy has produced extraordinary growth within the CSU system, with CSU Northridge, Fullerton, Long Beach and San Diego now enrolling more than 30,000 undergraduate students every year. Indeed, CSU Northridge now has more undergraduates than UC Berkeley, and is second in the state in undergraduate full-time equivalent enrollment only to UCLA.

Why enroll so many more students than planned for? One reason is because the CSUs are required as part of the California Master Plan to enroll the top 33% of high school graduates in California, and the number of eligible high school graduates and community college transfers has grown dramatically the past 15 years (though enrollment is expected to level off). Another reason is that most CSU campuses, unprepared for the spike in eligible applicants, had admissions policies that guaranteed access to either all eligible applicants or all eligible “local” applicants. This combination of demographic change and quasi-open admissions has produced chaos on CSU campuses across the state in the past few years.  Administrators have used the chaos to justify increased tuition and fees on students and reduced numbers of transfer students at over-enrolled (or “impacted”) campuses.

In the meantime, the CSU has aggressively lobbied the state legislature for more money, but have largely not channeled that money into teachers and teaching. Before the great recession, government funding for public higher education in California was based upon a “marginal cost” formula that presumed that a new tenure track professor will be hired with the addition of 19 new full-time equivalent students.  When the Brown administration tossed this formula out the window during the early 2010s, the CSU responded to the combination of budget cuts and growing enrollment pressures to hire the cheapest faculty possible.

So while the percentage of tenure track faculty in the CSUs grew a modest 7.4 percent between 2010 and 2017, the percentage of part-time lecturers grew an immodest 41.8 percent. For the first time in CSU history, tenure density has dropped below 40 percent, and at some campuses is essentially the same as at community colleges (which often provide their students with newer classrooms and smaller class sizes).

The effect of CSU’s growth strategy upon students is especially stark at one of the schools where I teach, CSU Dominguez Hills. CSUDH was built following the Watts rebellion to partly serve the nearby predominantly Black and Latino/a communities of Compton and South Central Los Angeles. As other Southern California CSU campuses began to turn eligible students away the last few years, CSUDH became a “backup school” for Southern California residents who wanted to live at or near home but could no longer get into CSU Long Beach, Northridge, Fullerton, or Los Angeles. In the past two years, CSUDH’s undergraduate population has grown 9 percent, and its first-time first year student population has grown 57 percent.

CSUDH epitomizes growth on the cheap. Despite 75 percent of incoming first year students needing remedial English or Math assistance, and 61 percent being the first in their families to attend college, they are thrown into 60-person introductory and general education (GE) courses taught mainly by adjunct faculty. Since 5 courses per semester is considered a normal full-time faculty workload, this pushes the number of students that many adjunct faculty teach above 200 students per semester. Unable to provide their students individualized attention, it is common for faculty to resort to assigning multiple-choice tests rather than more time-intensive assignments through which students can develop their reading and writing skills.

The warehousing of first year students is profitable. The tuition of just 6-7 of the students enrolled in a 60-person course covers the salary for their adjunct instructor (which hovers between $4-5,000 per course, or less than $50,000 per year if they have what is considered a full-time teaching workload). The other 90 percent of student tuition from these GE courses is siphoned off by the administration.

This system also reinforces racial inequality in our society.  The students admitted to CSUDH and then thrown into these large courses taught by overworked and underpaid adjuncts are being set up to fail. Approximately 25-40 percent of the students in the Introduction to U.S. History course, regardless of whether they’re taught by adjuncts or tenure track faculty, receive grades so low that they do not receive credit, even though they paid for the course and can’t get their money back.

Discouraged by these and similar experiences, more than 20 percent of first year students at CSUDH drop out after the first year. Less than half of full-time first year students are likely ever to earn a degree from the school. Student poverty and the challenges of balancing school with work and family play a role in these low retention rates. But I suspect that creating an alienating learning environment in which students are treated like numbers makes students rightly question the value of the education they’re receiving.  One overcrowded classroom after another encourages them to see college as every bit as oppressive and irrelevant as their high schools might have been for them.

CSUDH has some of the worst retention rates and time to degree rates in the CSUs, but the difference is of degree rather than kind. Roughly 40 percent of all first year students in the CSUs don’t get degrees within 6 years, thought that is an improvement over rates a few years prior.

Commitment to improving the teaching and learning environment of the CSUs varies widely across its nearly two dozen campuses, but in my opinion is largely lacking from the Chancellor’s office.  The CSUs have recently embraced their own form of “student success” planning, which they call “Graduation Initiative 2025,” to address high student fail and dropout rates. Though CSU research indicates a connection between tenure density and student success, and some CSU campus administrators have gone so far as to declare that “an engaged faculty is essential to student success,” the Chancellor’s office has decentralized the process of creating plans to increase student retention and graduation rates, and only seven of the CSU’s 23 campuses chose to make increasing tenure density a priority (pages 31-33).  CSUDH was not one of them.

The argument for increasing tenure density to promote student success is not an argument that adjunct faculty are bad teachers. It is an argument that they are overworked and underpaid teachers. It is an argument that in this system, the majority of teachers have few incentives other than charity to give their students the support they deserve. Though tenure track faculty at the CSUs are burdened with excessive teaching and service workloads compared to faculty at the UCs, and, depending on the campus, may also face severe class size issues, their higher pay and more permanent position can sometimes provide them with the ability to give their students more attention than lecturers who are teaching 200-300 students per semester while earning poverty wages.

But increasing tenure density is not a significant priority for the CSU Chancellor’s office. When the California Faculty Association, the union for CSU faculty, lobbied in 2018 for state revenue to increase tenure density, the Chancellor’s office opposed it on the grounds that they do not want the legislature telling them how to spend their money.

When the CSU lost, and the legislature gave the CSUs $25 million that could only be used to increase tenure density, the Chancellor put the money into its graduation initiative funds, and distributed the money equally across its 23 campuses even though most campuses’ graduation initiatives did not include plans to increase tenure density.

This is what happens when teaching is seen as peripheral to student success. It leaves faculty struggling in their off hours to “follow the money” and fight just to be included in plans to improve undergraduate education.

Now that Governor Newsom has offered the CSUs hundreds of millions in new revenue, CSU Chancellor Tim White has announced that he anticipates that most of the new money that the CSU receives will go toward increasing enrollment and reducing the time to graduation for students. Neither goal is bad per se.

But so long as the CSU depends on a growth model of continuing to hire low-wage temps for faculty to teach first year students, then steering students’ tuition revenue and fees away from teachers and teaching into tracking and advising, it’s hard to believe that any of the CSU’s lofty goals for “student success” will amount to anything more than enrolling more students to pay more money for a lower quality education.

If we let that happen, then we as educators, and the people of California, will have failed our students.
Posted by Chris Newfield | Comments: 5

Monday, January 21, 2019

Monday, January 21, 2019
By Vineeta Singh, Lemon Project Postdoctoral Fellow, Omohundro Institute, College of William & Mary.

This is the second in a series of talks from the MLA panel, "Race and Critical University Studies." The first was "Insurgent Genealogies."

In 2015, the University of Virginia’s “President’s Commission on Slavery and the University” established a multi-institution consortium of “Universities Studying Slavery,” (USS) to allow historians to collaborate on research and share best practices for attempts at reconciling institutional histories and institutional values.

In the last three years, the consortium has grown to include 38 universities in the U.S., Canada, and Britain. It is primarily an historical rather than literary or even interdisciplinary intellectual community.  It is located squarely in the South, where the institutional reluctance and incapacity to address the already hypervisible histories of slavery and white supremacy more broadly have molded a very different “crisis consensus” than at the University of California and similar schools. Because of these divergent evolutions, USS work gives Critical University Studies other ways of approaching the presentism, exceptionalism, and focus on amelioration that CUS work is frequently charged with. 

After finishing an Ethnic Studies dissertation studying the history of U.S. higher education as it reflects and intensifies the conditions of racial capitalism, I recently began a postdoctoral fellowship with The Lemon Project: A Journey of Reconciliation. This is the College of William & Mary’s initiative to study the university’s history with racial violence and to “rectify wrongs perpetrated against African Americans by William & Mary through action or inaction.” In learning with the Lemon team and other members of the USS Consortium, I have come to regard the practical and creative work of students, scholars, and activists working with such initiatives as a model for how to do a critical study of American higher education. The work is allowing us to address the color line as a central driving force in the history of U.S. higher education. It looks toward an immanent reconcilability of studies of race, racism, and racial capitalism in higher education with “critical studies about the casualization of academic labor, the privatization of the public university, and the uncertain future of U.S. higher education,” as Heather Steffen put it in the proposal for this panel.

The conflict between the study of CUS and of race might be boiled down to the hope, on the one hand, that the public research university is fundamentally a progressive good, whose expanding reach has or will index the growth of values consonant with social justice, potentially including the dismantling of white supremacy, heteropatriarchy etc.; and, on the other hand, the conviction that since the U.S. nation-state is a guarantor of white supremacist capitalism, its system of higher education, functions like all state apparatuses is a house where “only the most narrow parameters of change are possible and allowable.”

In my research and in my work with the Lemon Project I have joined a generation of Black Studies, Ethnic Studies, and American Studies scholars and historians who are attempting to work through this disconnect. Like the first generation of identity knowledge workers who brought identity knowledges into some kind of institutional relationship with the academy, our labors represent a kind of reconciliation--not the end of an antagonism, but its continuation by other means. Creating new, uncomfortable, and generative proximites, this reconciliation work has less to do with the affective labor of creating friendly relations and more to do with the institutional work of creating a shared political community for the perpetrators andi targets of crimes against humanity. Or better yet, for knowledge producers, it is akin to the accounting practice of ensuring that two sets of records are in agreement.

In general, universities have tried to reckon with their racist pasts through enrollment, historical study, memorialization, and of course reconciliation. Among the most inspiring successes are enrollment initiatives tailored for black students.  For example, Rutgers and Georgetown are seeking to build recruitment relationships with descendant communities.  Rutgers University’s Scarlet and Black Project’s historical study puts anti-black and settler violences squarely in the center of university history rather than, as in the past, seeing them as appendages or amendments to a history of great white men and families. 

Some universities are also engaged in countercommemoration, in which they rename campus landmarks after the enslaved laborers who built them, or after black historical figures associated with campus space. This helps black students and other students of color see themselves not just as descendants of the disfranchised but as inheritors of radical traditions of resistance and study.

Notably, the Brown [University] Steering Committee was a direct result of a reparations debate. The same year Ruth Simmons became Brown’s president, conservative author David Horowitz published a full-page ad in student newspapers across the country including the Brown Daily Herald titled “Ten Ideas Why Reparations for Slavery is a Bad Idea—and Racist Too.” When the paper’s editors refused to print a retraction or relinquish the money the paper received for the ad (as student activists recommended), protestors “stole an entire day’s press run of the paper” (pages 58- 59). The steering committee’s final report notes that the “stolen” papers were actually returned, but also that the story of the “theft” appeared in newspapers across the country, casting the university as a poor defendant of “the free exchange of ideas” (ibid.) The following year, when a class-action lawsuit was brought against a cohort of private corporations built on profits from the slave trade, including FleetBoston bank, founded by the same family of brothers who endowed Brown University, and when think pieces like Harvard Law professor Charles Ogletree’s New York Times essay warned institutions like Brown, Yale, and Harvard to brace for a series of similar suits, Brown’s president Simmons convened the steering committee, in their words,“not [to] determine whether or how Brown might pay monetary reparations, nor… to forge a consensus on the reparations question. Its object, rather, was ‘to provide factual information and critical perspectives to deepen understanding’ and enrich debate on an issue that had aroused great public passion but little constructive public dialogue.” 

The most visible of this work, however, is the focus on eliciting an official university apology—ostensibly, although evidently not always, as a prelude to a commitment to material investments; administratively, of course, the investment is in rehabilitating the image of the institution.

Although the USS consortium’s name implies a focus on the pre-1865 period, in practice its associated initiatives have used the hypervisibility of the slavery conversation to bring attention to racial formation, racial capitalism, and racialized violence more broadly.

The initiatives frequently cite Saidiya Hartman’s formulation of the afterlives of African chattel slavery to trigger a momentary removal of the veils of commodity fetishism and fiduciary responsibility, the justification used by, for instance, Jesuit priests selling 272 enslaved Americans to keep Georgetown University’s doors open in 1838.  They ask, as the Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation at Georgetown does, how this historical “lack of moral imagination—the inability to see black human beings as deserving of equal dignity” persists in the present and in planning for the future.

By addressing the long history of the U.S. university as a crucial site in the creation and consolidation of American racial capitalism, such work overcomes the bias alleged to be at the heart of current CUS work. Partnering and collaborating with USS schools and scholars would help CUS practitioners do the same.

In doing so, Lemon-style initiatives also move against the tendency to treat the university as an exceptional site. The undergraduate class syllabi such initiatives inform connect the university’s slaveholding to its role in fomenting and maintaining Jim Crow segregation laws and norms off campus.

At William & Mary, student activists have further connected these conversations to the university’s ongoing use of prison labor. Their work underscores the continuity between African chattel slavery and contemporary mass incarceration and residential, educational, and occupational segregation, as well as workers’ rights and health inequity, as much on campus as off. In leveraging a crisis to create a coalition, such initiatives, mostly born of student, faculty, and community organizing, are another iteration of the kind of coalitional labor that has historically animated the fields of Ethnic Studies, Black Studies, Latinx, and Gender Studies. And they are a coalition that easily makes common cause with CUS’s wider concerns.

Amelioration, the desire to manage the effects of a crisis, rather than confronting its root causes, is important to the institutions sanctioning such initiatives. As they try to tidy up unsightly and embarrassing student protests into at least surveilable, if not exactly manageable initiatives, the frequent use of the appellation “project” (instead of center or institute) in their titles indexes an uneasy triangular relationship among an administration’s desire to be absolved of past wrongdoings, historians’ attempts to “narrow the range of permissible lies” an institution can tell about its own past, and the institution’s inability to reckon with the scale of the oppression in which it has been complicit (page 173).

Yet the persistence of the scholars tasked with these efforts of memory, repentance, reconciliation, healing, and redress, speaks to their personal and collective investments in making possible another university. They also provide an intellectual community for people like Professor Hilary Green, an historian working at the University of Alabama, who single-handedly researched, designed, and implemented an alternate campus tour highlighting the presence of enslaved laborers and craftsmen on campus. Green has personally given her Hallowed Grounds tour to over three thousand visitors and students, and last year, along with earning tenure, received funds to hire student workers to expand its reach.

Green’s work is, frankly, a personal inspiration, and a model of the kind of reconciliation I envision for students of CUS and racial capitalism: it begins with a confrontational practice that forces students and visitors to recognize the racial violence embedded in the campus landscape.  Rather than waiting for institutional or disciplinary approval, Green has been reconciling the institution’s accounts with local common senses about the predatory relationship between the academy and communities of color. She is now also able to use university resources to further her transformative work.

This is also a core tenet of the interdisciplinary identity knowledge formations: to refuse the positioning of racial violence as an aberration in the history of the United States or of capitalism, and to place it at the center of these narratives. One effect is that the narratives have to re-articulate their own objects.  Another is that the rest of the campus so-called community builds “racial stamina”—the capacity to engage in meaningful dialogue about systemic racism.

In situating racial violence as a constitutive element of institutional histories, such projects keep the campus in a generative state of crisis.  This creates the possibility to answer the call for imaginative scholarly coalitional work..  I’m thinking in particular of Roderick Ferguson’s The Reorder of Things, which shifts our focus away from grand revolutionary narratives (or even the heroic model of grant-writing templates) and towards “the small things” that can enact critical forms of community—forms that make minoritized subjects agents rather than silent objects of knowledge.
Posted by Chris Newfield | Comments: 1