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Monday, December 31, 2018

Monday, December 31, 2018

2018 in Higher Ed: Openings Here and There

2018 carried on with 2017, and on the big themes needs no separate higher ed news roundup.  We faced our POTUS of infinite need, who continued to obliterate attention to all issues other than himself, though there has been improvement in the containment structures. 

Since the issues are a disordered West, and a world not extending the mass capabilities required to defeat permanent war and climate chaos, that's not nearly good enough.

When people like Dave Berry looked, they did find a lot of post-2017 stuff in the world at large, but it wasn't encouraging.  Amazing things happened: American life expectancy fell.  But my topic here is some subtler improvements.  One change was that by lying at three times the rate of 2017, POTUS made his lying three times less efficient.

On higher ed, Robert Kelchen has a good 2018 top 10 list.  I also had a good one in 2016, when I identified 8 issues that in 2018 were still running rampant and not yet fully addressed.  Later, at the end of 2017, I was thinking mostly of the power of the public-good model in dealing with the Thomas fire.  The vast firefighting apparatus showed nonmarket public capabilities spreading benefits far and wide.  I'm still inspired by it. 

There were also some forms of emerging awareness in 2018.

Public Access to Public Knowledge.   The University of California is leading a fight for cheaper subscriptions to Elsevier's journals, which has become a contest with its overall business model.  (Lisa Krieger had a good overview in the Mercury-News.) Elsevier and its handful of peers generate 30-40% margins by getting publicly-funded research results for free, also getting the researchers' labor and expertise for free, changing those researchers a publication fee (in many cases even on the subscription model), and then charging their libraries for access to the knowledge created by their research. 

Scientific publishing has become a classic example of privatization as as a mechanism for letting private entities pocket public subsidies, and, in this case, also limit or reduce the circulation of knowledge. The important features of this year's fight are, (1) the university openly pressing for public-good standards; and (2) its officials enlisting faculty in a common battle.  May both continue in 2019.

Thinking STEM and non-STEM graduates together as advanced knowledge workers.  We normally imagine the "crisis of the humanities" in contrast to the assumed well-being of science, but this is not the institutional case.

The single most shocking higher ed piece I read this year was called "Changing demographics of scientific careers."  The authors used a "survival model" to quantify the "half-life" of a scientific career in 3 selected fields.  I knew that scarcity of grants and tenure-track jobs was hurting younger STEM researchers, as an even more acute scarcity has done the same in the arts, humanities, and qualitative social sciences (SASH). But I didn't know about the academic attrition.
The time over which half of the cohort has left the field has shortened from 35 years in the 1960s to only 5 years in the 2010s. In addition, we find a rapid rise (from 25 to 60% since the 1960s) of a group of scientists who spend their entire career only as supporting authors without having led a publication.
Both of these changes are mindboggling. 
 
The authors explain this shift as an effect of "team science," in which large, complex research groups need large numbers specialists. Team science generates employment-- but not the lead authorship on which research careers depend.  That doesn't quite explain the finding, which a reduction of a disciplinary cohort's half life from 35 to 5 years.  

I realize most of those STEM researches get industry jobs--or are doing quant modeling in investment banks.  But they are nonetheless lost to basic scientific research.  I'm struck by the incredible waste of intellectual capability, in which half the people a field trains are gone in five years time.  I also note that like the humanities, STEM has developed a two-track faculty problem, in which PIs and permatemps get the same educations but work in separate and unequal careers.  Science postdocs aren't exactly "starving artists," but assuming these 3 fields aren't exceptions, STEM is now losing or degrading massive amounts of its own brainpower.  The same thing is happening with musicians, journalists, writers, actors, and other high-skill workers now constantly trying to do SASH brainwork in the face of precarity or marginality or poverty or both.  The better salaries in STEM industry shouldn't blind us to the thwarting of intellectual desire and contribution.

Academic employment needs to be fixed by government and industry.  Government needs to fund research positions, and industry needs to pay more taxes for long-term knowledge.  These 2018 findings could help both along along.

Public Value of Research. 2018 brought wider awareness of financial conflicts of interest in big money science, especially medical science (here's one NYT roundup).  Science has been victimized by the market ideology of the post-Reagan period, which posits that private market incentives always increase efficiency of outputs, including research outputs.  In reality, financial goals can distort, misdirect, suppress, or block research. 

In 2016, the Chroncle of Higher Education profiled Marc Edwards, a scientist who had offered independent analysis of water quality to Flint when a city manager had toxified Flint's drinking water to save money. The plot thickened in this followup piece, in which a war of FOIAs continues to raise public-good issues about research.
  
In 2018, we took a couple more steps into a wider policy discussion. It goes beyond the old time solution of disclosing and managing conflicts of interest to eliminating them. This would happen in part by 1) the increased public funding science whose results are 2) fed mainly into a public domain pipeline rather than licensed directly to the public sector.  There are plenty of new ideas out there (Gerald Barnett is one such fountainhead), and they need to be tried out this coming year. 

The return of arts and humanites (SASH).  In 2018, the Chronicle Review singlhandedly published all the "decline of the humanities" articles that were dreampt of in America.  The supply is now exhausted.  Boycott any retreads you see in 2019.
  
Peak liberal arts phobia appeared in the Wisconsin-Stevens Point model of turning humanities departments into service units for applied STEM and business majors.  Translating a solid regional university into a vocational center is political and budgetary suicide, as continuing UW austerity in 2019 will show.  More generally, more technical training won't solve any of the world's important problems.  Climate inaction, rising authoritarianism, military destruction, transphobia, starved public services, health care turmoil, toxic masculinity, opioid addiction, educational mediocrity, forever wars--every single challenge the planet faces requires combined technical and sociocultural knowledge.  Universities should watch Stevens Point's own goal and run in the opposite direction. 

Decolonizing the university.  In December, we ran two pieces on the university's colonial roots and impacts (Dylan Rodriguez; Anneeth Kaur Hundle and Ma Vang). What would actual decolonization look like?  

One literal definition would be the university version of giving valuable concessions back to their indigenous forbears--like returning the Yosemite concessions, now held by Aramark, to the descendants of Ahwanheechee Miwoks).  

Short of that, universities would systematically replace their overwhelmingly white senior management. I tend to focus on resources. Decolonization would mean that UC campuses like Merced and Riverside, which educate more underrepresented and/or disadvantaged students, would have more per-student resources, not less.  The same goes on a national level-- we would flip our upside-down funding model, in which the students most shortchanged in K-12 have the fewest higher ed resources, and the most lavishly educated through high school get places with the most.  

Decolonization also means fixing extreme funding inequalities between divisions and departments, in which fields like sociology and ethnic studies, which address vital social problems while serving higher shares of students of color, have a fraction of the resources awarded to others.  You can look forward to more research on this in the year to come.
 
Many thanks for reading this year, and happy 2019!

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