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Monday, August 20, 2018

Monday, August 20, 2018

Faculty Need do Better Than This

This spring and summer, the Chronicle Review has published a series of faculty essays that agonize over the fate of the university in general and of the humanities in particular.  

In itself, this is a good thing.  The university does need to redefine its destiny, and yet the policy world is doing this without faculty voices.  But our work needs to be better.  Last week's entry is a case in point. 

I mean a piece by Adam Daniel and Chad Weldon called "The University Must Be Defended." It's a retort to responses to the authors' initial essay at the end of July, "The University Run Amok!"  

In that first piece the authors have an important core point:
The university is what it is today, in part, because of the atrophy of other public institutions, which has left universities to fill a widening void. Higher education is in a precarious position; so too is the American republic. In order not just to save themselves but to fulfill their social role, universities need a more refined understanding of their responsibilities to the public — and of how to meet them in ways that are consistent with their own animating purpose.
All true.  So what do the authors say should be the more focused public missions of the university core of teaching and research?  I couldn't tell you.  From here the piece goes sideways until it concludes like this:
Democracy does not need a prophet; it needs a public. And universities can help sustain, nurture, and establish that public by bringing knowledge out into the world and defending it as a common good. The history of American universities and that of the American republic are interwoven, and so too are their futures. It is not enough to save the university; we must redeem American public life.
Sounds like Daniel and Wellmon want the university to reverse mission creep and return to the core functions of teaching and research.  At the same time, they want it to do even more.  They call on the university not just to offer health education or STEM degrees to the public but to "sustain, nurture, and establish" the public and also to "redeem American public life."   Introducing knowledge to society and then defending it--through high-cost research, permanent PR campaigns, continuous donor solicitation, political lobbying, and advanced community services--is what got us where we are in the first place.  Daniel and Wellmon end their piece by calling for more of what they oppose.

What went wrong here?  Three things.  I bring them up not because this piece is bad but because it has features shared by most of today's academic jeremiads. (I should add that I admired Wellmon's co-authored review of The Great Mistake and his own book on the earlier history of research universities.)


1. Idealized causality.  Daniel and Wellmon spend much of the piece in a recital of intellectual touchstones of university history--presidential views in California, Wisconsin, Chicago, the passage of the GI Bill, etc.  They omit institutional analysis, even in the form of one case study.  They mention several candidates. Take Shanghai-based "UVA Global Llc": they note its existence, but what does it mean?  Does it spread the university core (teaching and research) to a new international public, making it good?  Is it a branding exercise offering substandard courses taught by exploited adjuncts, making it bad? What process produced it? Was it driven by board members with business interests in Asia? Was it invited by Shanghai officials concerned about limited access to higher education for local students?  We don't know--it's status here is as another thing UVa does.

They also mention UVa's 67-member police force.  What about it? Does it drain money from the classroom? Is there something about a university police force that is likely to intensify racist campus incidents or white supremacist marches, or to de-escalate them? Do the authors think universities should return to their core (and save money) by eliminating campus police departments?  Or are campus cops a sign of democracy (the institution could control its own police) or of its failure?  The essay doesn't discuss what the effects are of such units of the university, whether they are bad or good, or what their causes are such that they could be reversed.  

2. Sealed budget envelope. Daniel and Weldon don't have a budget analysis. The first paragraph lists a few top-line numbers, but these don't mean anything in themselves. Is the University of Virginia's $3.2 billion operating budget big or small?  Does it mean efficiency or inefficiency?  Is the medical school draining the campus or bringing it new net revenues?  Does managing so many units distract from academic development,or enhance it? 

The same questions arise for UVa's investment company: it is good, partly because it avoids paying management fees to commercial providers, or bad because its overhead is high?   How about buses?  Big campuses run bus systems for lots of reasons: to keep parking lots to a minimum, keep student cars off campus, keep student and employee cars off city streets, increase campus unity, reduce their carbon footprint, etc.  Is this bad for the instructional and research budgets, or good? Is it bad for the "common good," or good?  We can't tell from this piece.  

One author, Adam Daniel, is "senior associate dean for administration and planning." He presumably has data that could answer such questions.  He doesn't bring these to the table.  In general, we can't address issues of scale and impact without data analysis that uses net budget figures, broken down by relevant units, seen in cash-flow relation to others- for starters.

3. Unspecified social concepts and agents.  What do "democratic," "common," and "public" mean here? In the final paragraph that I quoted, these terms are more or less interchangeably good.  Elsewhere, public is bad, as in this passage that I found especially captivating.
The fate of American universities over the course of the 20th and now 21st centuries has been inextricable from the fate of American society more broadly. How can they fulfill their democratic responsibilities but avoid the endless accretion of functions that risks undermining them? How can universities adjudicate among their proliferating purposes? 
Scholars such as Christopher Newfield have consistently called for universities to recover a "public good conception" to overcome their capture by private interests. But it is precisely such a vague public commitment that makes the contemporary university’s situation untenable. The conflicting interests of the public, the systematic and long-term disinvestment in public institutions more broadly, the amalgamation of public and private interests — all of these make any return to an unalloyed commitment to an idealized "public" difficult and ill-advised. The university’s democratic commitments have become too centrifugal, pulling apart its interests, energies, and purposes. To save itself and to better serve its democratic purpose, the university needs to be not more but less reactive to public demands. (emphasis added)
One consequence of the ascendance of the "American" model is that it forced universities to justify themselves in public terms. But today the only widely shared moral language, the only commonly accepted way to talk and think about ideals and purposes, is the rubric of economic utility. 
Here the public hurts the democratic university by forcing it to meet too many demands.  But which public? The university hasn't kowtowed to poor students or immigrants or Native Americans or working-class students or students with 1050 on their SATs.  It hasn't bent to the will of transgender activists or anti-student debt advocates or non-Christians (in spite of the claims of U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions).  Nor have most universities bowed to the employability agenda and purged their liberal arts and sciences.  Daniel and Wellmon don't specify the public agents that they think have been pushing the university around.

I have the same problem with their claim that the university has been hurt not by private interests but by the critique of them--that is, by the work of a "vague" "public good conception" of the university that they attribute to me.   

In The Great Mistake (just released in paperback!) I expend 10,000 words on this public good conception. Perhaps all of them are vague. But my two-sentence definition has been (1) negative, as not the reduction of the total effects of higher education to the private pecuniary good of a higher salary (a defining feature of neoliberalism in universities); and (2) positive, as "a good whose benefit continues to increase as it approaches universal access" (New Stage 1).  The first of these is in fact similar to where Daniel and Wellmon end up in their zig-zag towards a concern with the dominance of economic utility.  The second overlaps with well-established theories of network effects, social goods, and common wealth while also rejecting human capital theory (see Wendy Brown, Simon Marginson, Susan Robertson, et al.)

There are many weaknesses in terms like "public" and "social"--see Jason E. Smith's valuable critique of David Graeber's term "positive social value" in Bullshit Jobs.  But Daniel and Weldon don't define their concepts so that they could show how "public" has hurt universities more than or instead of "private."  The effect of the passage I cited is that of two academics seeming to strip "democracy" of "public" in its diversity, rather than beefing up shared governance so universities could better design their (democratic) response.

On to one of the responses: their omission of political forces drove Cathy Davidson understandably crazy.  Her piece is a good resumé of five key features of the last forty years of policy doctrine that Daniel and Wellmon left out.  The first four are businessize (management), privatize (revenue sources), vocationalize (teaching), and austerityize (all public universities).  Only two of those are real words but you get the picture.  It's important to me that we see how they are all based on treating higher education as a private good.

In their reply to Davidson, Daniel and Wellmon note correctly that universities are also perpetrators and not just victims of outside forces.  Davidson seems to have helped them concede that the political world's "private, market-based approaches" did influence the university's loss of educational focus. They don't note the reason for this, which is that much or most of the value of educational effects, the non pecuniary and nonindividual effects, can't be returned to the person who paid for them, which invalidates the market pricing mechanism that is supposed to result.   But their acceptance of the existence of market failure gets us back to the starting gate at least, which leads them again to their call for a "democratic model" without the content to show how it would be different from what universities do now.
As you can tell from this post, I'm increasingly focused on how better methods can help get us out of the blocked debates we're suffering now.  Obviously for me that involves the interdisciplinary field of Critical University Studies.  It is grounded in existing university research across the disciplines. It examines the lived relations of academics to their workplaces (see the recent posts by Elin Danielsen Huckerby and Lizzie Swan).  It helps fix the three problems I've discussed.  It tracks institutional causality and studies resource flows.  It also uses what the philosopher Anna Alexandrova calls "explicit mid-level constructs" to link universities to political discourses, economic forces, and state power.  In any case, we all need to help each other do better.

Other recent pieces: there's Jeff Williams essay on academia's self-promotional imperative (a good example of CUS linking institutional changes to work experience). And Michael says don't miss the comments on this newspeak redefinition of shared governance.


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