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Monday, March 26, 2018

Monday, March 26, 2018

Responding to Bulk Cuts in Qualitative Fields: the Case of Stevens Point, Part I

There may be one benefit of Republican downgrades of the University of Wisconsin system in recent years: insight into the kind of public colleges that austerity and #faketenure will create.  At the system's Stevens Point campus, the administration has used an induced budget deficit to propose the closure of thirteen arts, humanities and social science departments, whose savings are to fund the expansion or creation of majors that seem more directly connected to existing jobs. UW's modified tenure rules allow the firing of tenured faculty when their lines are needed for other higher priority programs, so faculty layoffs are likely as the main source of any budgetary savings.  The result is to be the conversion of the humanities into service units for vocational majors.

This idea of the humanities as service providers of basic skills may sound strange to people acquainted with the riches of literary history, philosophy and multiple languages--or who assume that policymakers still want graduates steeped in common national culture.  But the service humanities are  baked into a vocational model that enjoys bipartisan policy support.  I've tried to focus our collective attention on this before, after service status was indicated by the bulk closures of humanities departments at SUNY Albany in 2010.  The current case is worse. Not only has the administration at the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point (UWSP) proposed the closure of many more departments than Albany did--"American studies, art (but not graphic design), English (other than English for teacher certification), French, geography, geoscience, German, history (social science for teacher certification would continue), music literature, philosophy, political science, sociology (social work major would continue) and Spanish"--but it openly champions the humanities service model.  

Here I'm going to argue that the main objections to this model have rested on a valuable public-good intuition about higher education that we should develop. In Part 2, I'll analyze the administration's strategic planning, which is defective in illuminating ways.

One important criticism is that the plan relegates the students of central Wisconsin to second class citizenship.  MLA Executive Director Paula Krebs rightly described the plan as an insult to working-class students who, because they can't go to the Madison flagship, are to be given a limited-option, second-tier degree.  Students from well-resourced high schools and affluent families can study anything they want in any depth at UW-Madison.  Meanwhile, rural or poorer or older or more rooted students get the limited job-training menu at UWSP.  The original vision of statewide university systems was democratic: a citizen would not get a lesser education because of location or lower income.  The new Wisconsin plan is stratification and inequality within the system.  This will intensify growing income inequality outside, and inject lower qualifications into a rural economy that needs exactly the opposite.

A second objection has targeted the plan's overt subordination of qualitative to quantitative and technical fields.  On the UWSP campus, the Save Our Majors coalition mounted the campus's biggest protest since the Vietnam War.  In demanding a new and inclusive planning process, the coalition wrote a letter that "acknowledges the university must change but says students and central Wisconsin residents oppose the current plan to address its $4.5 million projected deficit by targeting humanities majors."

The Stevens Point Journal reported, "at one point, one student’s speech turned directly to the chancellor.  'We feel expendable. This is how many students feel,' Ethan Cates, a senior philosophy and Spanish major, said.  'I want you to see how much anger and frustration there is.'"

Many people pointed out the irreplaceable content of arts, social sciences, and humanities courses (I call these SASH for short, to avoid saying ASSH).  This was summarized by a student sign:
The SASH fields are as empirical and instrumental as STEM and professional fields, but in their own domain: they discover and spread knowledge about culture, society, relationships, and every kind of individual distinctness.  And it's true that no problem on earth can be solved without better SASH knowledge that we have now, including problems that seem mainly technical.  Students get this, which is why so many double or triple major to combine expertise in domains like wildlife ecology and Spanish.

The public good intuition combines two insights.  One is that study should not be rationed according to ability to pay.  Another is that the full range of human interests and capabilities need to be brought to bear on public problems.  The U.S. should double down on qualitative and interpretative thinking, not cut it in half.  It should also build its capacity to link qualitative and quantitative methods, not subordinate the former.  The country's political crisis is arguably the result of a population that is not smart enough about hard qualitative situations. The same goes for Facebook and Cambridge Analytica opinion manipulation, which will only be addressed with better syntheses of interpretative and data skills.

One hard qualitative problem comes from the state of Wisconsin itself.  It is losing its younger population to other states--in the typical community, the youth population fell 22 percent between 1990 and 2010.  A recent study of the problem began with the insight that the state can't stop brain drain with policies that target young people as individuals.  That is because their decisions to stay or leave involve the overall community culture, including a range of amenities from housing, outdoor recreation, coffee shops, arts facilities, and many other things that create the look and feel of a place that will attract not only you but your friends and peers.  Understanding the problem means understanding both individual and group subjectivity. How do you make young people feel like they can have they life they want in Wisconsin?

Help on this kind of public problem could come from graduates of UWSP's proposed new major in Geographic Information Science.  But GIS majors can't understand multi-causal cultural and psychological interactions in GIS terms.  Quant approaches need to work with--really be embedded in--qualitative socio-cultural studies. These need to include education in languages and the intersecting identities that affect everyone's real world decisions.

Now, the UWSP's restructuring statement claims that they have this covered.  They are making the liberal arts more relevant by rehousing them.
We must resist the false choice between providing a broad, well-rounded education or narrow professional and vocational pathways. As one strategy, we will reimagine traditional liberal arts majors for students seeking applied learning to improve their career potential. Second, we will strengthen our core liberal arts curriculum. Preparing students for engaged citizenship, ensuring that they graduate as broadly educated and well-rounded lifelong learners, and equipping them with the kinds of professional skills that we know are essential for career success in any field—these are things we owe to all students regardless of major. 
UWSP's leaders say they aren't downgrading the liberal arts but reimagining them. They aren't marginalizing the liberal arts but strengthening their core.  They aren't going to crank out job-ready technicians but create well-rounded citizens.  They aren't narrowing Stevens Point education but broadening it.  Eliminating majors and departments doesn't demote their content but generalizes it.  But what is the evidence for this claim?

In regard to the public document, the answer is none.  In fact, the administration makes it clear that they will sacrifice the "well demonstrated" value of "traditional liberal arts" degrees to training for  "the careers available to [graduates] in central and northern Wisconsin"-- even as young Wisconsin graduates, for decades, soon leave those jobs. (See the Jobs comments for Plover, adjacent to Stevens Point.)   The UWSP administration wants
programs that allow students to study the liberal arts in order to build specific skills and achieve career-oriented outcomes. For example:  
• Rather than a general major in English, can we create a more focused program for professional writing and publishing in a digital age? 
• Instead of comprehensive majors in French, German, and Spanish, how can we equip graduates in health and business careers with the language and intercultural skills they might need to do their jobs in a diverse global society? 
• Instead of a Philosophy major, can we develop offerings in applied ethics for the next generation of professional leaders? 
• In place of broad majors in Political Science and Sociology, can we explore the creation of more career-minded programs in Public Affairs, Criminology, or Legal Studies?
The answer to each question is yes you can, but only by narrowing and dumbing the curriculum down.   Having real "language and intercultural skills" is a process that takes many years. "Engaged citizenship" doesn't happen in one or two general education courses, but through full course sequences in history, political science, economics, literature, and sociology, where the results need to be actively integrated by each student who moves through the curriculum.

For every possible combination, 21st century learning requires depth through immersion and integration across fields, not surface familiarity through a handful of electives. It requires more coherent course sequencing, much better advising, and independent student projects. It means "research-learning" for every student. That can only be supervised by regular faculty who are themselves research-active, and have the working conditions that allow teaching and research to coexist.  

None of this is achieved by swapping out liberal arts and sciences majors for vocational ones.  In fact, it looks as though the growth of vocational majors is partly responsible for the "limited learning" that scholars have been detecting of late.  The most likely outcome of UWSP's plan is to transmit reduced budgets directly into reduced learning for its graduates. The plan lowers the possibility of the alternative, full-scale creativity learning of the kind I discuss here and at length in The Great Mistake. 

It's a deep mystery why ostensibly democratic societies don't make a bigger effort to offer the same quality of learning to regular people that they invariably offer their elites. For example, the most influential single major in the U.K. is arguably Oxford's program in Philosophy, Politics and Economics. This is partly because of the highly selected students who enroll at this super-elite university, but it is also because of the program itself, which integrates many SASH disciplines over an intensive three-year course.  USWP's "core liberal arts curriculum" will be painfully half-assed by comparison, and not just compared to Oxford but to any undamaged state college.  

The challenge of 21st century higher ed is to bring the whole university population up to a higher standard.  We have to undo the stratification that afflicts the current system, and that has lowered overall U.S. university outcomes to its current level of international mediocrity.  UWSP's administration proposes to perpetuate and intensify stratification by ignoring the results of educational research, to the obvious disservice of its students and its region.

The current response to the plan reflects a contrary, public-good understanding of higher ed, in which university systems allocate learning without regard to the wealth of a region or its students.  It reflects an awareness that UWSP's administration is offering a quality rationing plan.

Cynics will say that this is what you'd expect when career managers and political appointees design a university curriculum.  You'll obviously get a structure that doesn't pass professional muster.   You'd consider it only because its authors have the power to impose it.  But we might more generally see the UWSP proposal as a reflection of an administrative-political subculture, one appealing, in spite of nods to citizenship, to a private-good sense of the value of college as residing in salary increments.  This is a subculture, however.  It has fallen woefully behind current popular demands for universities with broad public benefits and advanced academic standards.

Photo credits: Stevens Point Journal


Anonymous said...

Is the administrative subculture indigenous, or was it created to serve ruling class interests in a class war? I don't think the private good-business model just sort of happened, because I don't believe in magic. It was planned and deliberately carried out in higher ed and other fields since about 1970.

3rd Tyrant said...

It's hard, from the perspective of someone in the Humanities to find anything to disagree with in this article.

I would say, as a Republican who is embarrassed by the GOP, it's current leader(s), and this horror in Wisconsin, that not all Republicans agree with the Governer's simplistic and mercenary view of education, and worry about how widespread the truncated perception is of the importance of what is taught in the majors slated for demolition.

Admittedly, we are ill-equipped in some ways to counter such bald-faced and unthinking aggression. We often eschew aspirations to power, having long ago recognized that this pursuit is not intrinsically the pursuit of a happy or good life, necessarily. We often try to make arguments to people who are unable or unwilling to understand them--both of which mystify us (especially when those people are running a university). We are shocked, naively, at cronyism, and think, naively, that the public shame of being a crony or a cronyist will curtail its practice. We join the Founders in believing, maybe naively, that most people will exercise self-restraint and not act self-interestedly when to do otherwise is obviously damaging to something good (like a functioning Humanities curriculum). This behavior is baffling to me, though I can academically get my brain around it, just as I can understand the physiology and chemistry of sociopathy. Unfortunately, an understanding of it does not even slow it down, and when one of these is in power, I struggle to know what to do, finding their behavior to be utterly ruinous, I can hardly adopt the same strategy in opposition.

We can learn a lesson from our own curriculum, such as "Horatius at the Bridge." We must force the fight into the narrows at Thermopylae or hurry those who would ruin the Humanities into an unready conflict so, though there will be losses, it will be the lopsided 3000 Greeks to 20000 Persians, or the remarkable 400 dead English and 6000 dead French at the battle of Agincourt.

But, of course, what we don't have is money, and "concupiscencia radix malorum est" (translated by Chaucer's Pardoner as "The love of money is the root of all evil" in Chaucer's Pardoner's Prologue).

Unknown said...

@3rd Tyrant I sure don't disagree with what you are saying. If you were part of the UWSP administration, how would you deal with the budget problem? If the faculty as a whole were to make a plan, what would it be?

WIteacher said...

I don't disagree with the general thrust of this article, but as a Wisconsinite, I do find some of the statements you make about a "democracy" to be mystifying. Yes, indeed, in what I would describe as a functional democracy I believe (I have to believe) we would all agree that it benefits each and all to provide a high-quality education to every person. But, we are not in a functional democracy (let's not forget Wisconsin is one of the most gerrymandered states in the nation). I think it is very evident, from pre-K-16, that this administration understands the power of a good education and has therefore done everything they can to undermine our education system exactly because providing quality public education undermines their regime. And so, when you say "It's a deep mystery why ostensibly democratic societies don't make a bigger effort to offer the same quality of learning to regular people that they invariably offer their elites", the word that I find most important is "ostensibly". I wish that we could unite and fight, as 3rd tyrant describes, for this fundamental right for all. But too many people are willing to accept the destruction of public education (in the name of elected decisionmaking? In the name of "not my problem"?), and too many people are willing to vote Republican, even when the WI party has repeatedly shown its disdain for education and for democracy alike.

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