• Home
  • About Us
  • Guest Posts

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

The Crisis of Higher Ed Realpolitik: a Visit to Connecticut

You never know exactly where contradictory visions of higher ed are going to have an edifying head-on collision.  There was one last week in New Britain, Connecticut, where I had gone to speak at the annual meeting on shared  governance and student success of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system. It was organized by the wonderful program committee in the photo at left (photo thanks to Wanda Warshauer).

The overriding issue was the CSCU president's proposed consolidation of the state's community colleges into one college (with three regions, three presidents, twelve campus "CEOs" etc), a plan that continues to roil the system in spite of having been critiqued last year by the regional accreditor.  Meanwhile, in the morning, I called for a massive expansion of higher ed's social benefits, which I said would involve state buyouts of tuition and the funding of many more tenure-track instructors as well as more widely distributed research.   At lunch, Rep. Jahana Hayes (D-CT), of the first-year congressional cohort that includes Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, gave an excellent twelve-minute summation of the social power of education.  The question is, she said, were your students "important enough to you for you to stand in intercession until they could stand on their own" (11" here).  How do we free education from its current policy shackles? This is one of the great questions of our time.

Let's go in the order of the day.  At 9 am, my lecture argued that higher ed is undermining itself by focusing on only the most familiar fraction of its value, individual wage benefits.  Policy discourse leaves most of the story blank.

What's missing are the "external" or public pecuniary / monetary benefits (upper right quadrant), and all the non-pecuniary or non-market benefits, which are themselves more than half the total.  The focus on job training and wages by major is miseducating the public about what integrative higher learning really does.

The next hour featured a student panel that proved the point about non-monetary effects. Five students of varying ages described their non-traditional journeys to graduation over the kind of obstacles that our anti-social public policies have made all too common. The family of one speaker, who'd wanted to be a computer engineer, lost home and work in the 2008 crash when he was in the 7th grade.  The family spent years living in by-the-week motels as they went from city to city and state to state looking for permanent jobs. Meanwhile, their son never attended formal school again, until a GED program and various CSCU instructors helped him back into the system.

On the same panel a 53- year-old single mother said that after years of working she went back because "I got tired of other people controlling my livelihood. I knew that I could do more, be more.  I wanted to help people, and knew that I could be of greater help."

Three other speakers related their own struggles for education. The common issue: higher ed is about knowledge, capability, personal development.  It addresses a large and varying set of non-monetary issues.  Better pay plays an accepted but minor part, and on this panel was not central enough to mention.

I noted that none of these working-class students at working-class colleges mentioned that pecuniary metric du jour, upward mobility.  They focused on  Bildung, a word nobody used. It is mass Bildung: arguably the core higher ed goal is Bildung for all.

This brought us to Rep. Jahana Hayes. Her pre-Congress career was as a teacher, one who started as a teenage mom and then as a community college student who worked three jobs before graduating from Southern Connecticut State College, who then taught for years before becoming Connecticut Teacher of the Year and then 2016 National Teacher of the Year,  after which she ran for Congress, thinking it was a test run to prepare the ground for somebody else to run and win in 2020.

Her talk was anchored in a deep personal sense of the power of teachers to negate their students' self-worth with dismissive talk or treatment--or to make it possible for them to fully inhabit the world.  I came from a place, she said, where we were told in a range of ways you are nothing, your community is bad, your people have no value.  She said,
I have to remind people at every turn: nobody chooses to struggle. . . Our responsibility as leaders, as the adults, as the community is to hold people up until they can stand on their own, and then send them off so they can pull someone behind them. . . That's what happened in my life, when people stepped in. . . .
She said,
Everything I learned about school, I learned at school.  We have so many people who touch down on campuses like this, and for the first time have real conversations, with fidelity, about controlling the narrative about their education.  Just because they're not having those conversations at home doesn't mean their families don't care about them. Maybe it means, just maybe, that they don't have the ability or the capacity to control those conversations. 
I grew up in a family where my grandmother could not have been more loving, could not have been more giving, could not have been more invested in my success.  But she didn't know how to translate that level of investment, that level of commitment, that love she had for me, into a conversation that was academic. So as a teacher, I always stood on the premise that it's not kids' responsibility to learn different, it's my responsibility to teach different. And I think that if we always lead with that--that everybody has value, that everybody has a gift, that everybody gets to be here, and should have access,
and then she paused because she was on the verge of tears. So was I.  The whole room started to applaud.

She said,
it's amazing how raw this is for me, because. . . there were so many people, when I was a high school dropout, or I was a teenage mom, or I was a community college student, who had just given up on me and written me off. And I tell you, we can't write people off.  We can't decide that they're done. What we have to do is figure out how to put them back on track, and get them in the pipeline, and on the road to success and that road is going to look different for everybody.  There are different ways of doing and being.
And once you are graced with--when I started this journey I did it because I was the beneficiary of so much undeserved grace. Now I have a responsibility--I have a responsibility to use my voice, to use my platform, to use my experiences, to use my struggle, to help insure that somebody, even if it's one person, does not have to endure the same things. To help change hearts and minds, so that the people on the other side, who have already made up their minds, they have an opinion about who certain groups are, what certain groups do, how certain groups feel--about how people act--to help them change that opinion. . . .
In a conference the other day . . . I had to remind people that I was a SNAP beneficiary--not because I didn't want to work, but because I was underemployed, working three jobs, going to college full time. So  when you think about someone receiving SNAP benefits, I hope that you now begin to think that that person can become a Congresswoman. There are so many people in this room, there are so many people on this campus, there are so many people in this community, who are in the journey.
Jahana Hayes would not deny education as job benefits, even as that was subsumed by education as a journey whose supreme value she had proved.  I was struck by her fully democratized idea of value--"everybody has a gift"--that cannot be dealt with through standardization, which is, as an administrative reflex, itself bound up with marginalization.  Thus we get to her principle of "teach different." And that is essentially what every talk I heard all day was doing.

In the afternoon, I went to the panel on "Creating a Family-Friendly Campus," with presentations about basic issues like easily accessible lactation rooms and free child care by Meredith Sinclair, State Senator Beth Bye, and Fiona Pearson, who previewed arguments from her forthcoming book, Back in School. 

There was also Laura McCarthy's presentation on transition programs for what are sometimes called at-risk students.  The programs initially had low retention and completion rates. The instructors did a reoganization based on their immersive experience, and these rates got much better.  Here are some principles:

Free -- hmm, interesting idea. In conjunction with the others, which are all Hayes Principles. Mass Bildung.

Here's what we the instructional masses looks like--with Wanda again playing Waldo, and CCSU president Toro on the left.

And there was also the look on Jahana Hayes's face when I said, "at some point we'll be needing you back in education." 
"I do miss it," she laughed.

I said she showed why her crew could change the frame in Congress: they could end the hollowing out of social structures precisely by invoking the capabilities of absolutely everyone.  It's the Great Refusal of racist and related social stigmas on which neoliberalism depends.

At the end of the day, the Faculty Advisory Committee to the Board of Regents had a session on the issue overhanging the day--the president's CC consolidation.  It seems to have started with the claim that the consolidation could save tens of millions of dollars on a half-billion or so of a system operating budget.  It led, however, with the motto of "Students First," arguing that consolidation would allow simple student access to multiple campuses.  I mentioned above that the regional accreditor seriously challenged the proposal last year, but it is back in retooled form, with a simultaneous plan to conform all 12 campuses' curricula to a Guided Pathways template.

My own limited reading on the issue didn't explain what problem they have to which the solution is consolidation + Guided Pathways.  One good newspaper overview is here.  A faculty petition with concise opposing arguments is here.  The systemwide update document is here, where a slide summary starts on p 39; a key slide at 47 claims the system must be consolidated to solve a student registration process with 35 separate steps.  (One faculty member told me the slide is "ridiculous"; another said, "even if the 35 steps are real, students to whom it would apply constituted 1.12 percent of the student body in Fall 2018" . . . with an average of 1.3 percent.)

The consolidation uses the faculty's language of "student success," but otherwise is a managerial initiative that seemed unrelated to the educational issues we were discussing.  It felt to me like a legacy project.  The system president who's championing the plan, Mark E. Ojakian, was the previous governor's Chief of Staff when, in 2011, he was assigned to create the current CSCU system by pushing the community colleges into a common structure with the four-year campuses. No one had much good to say about the results then--nor could anyone point me to evidence of financial savings.  That same governor later appointed Ojakian to be the president of the system he'd created, and now he's back for a second rearrangement of the arms and legs of his creature.

I spoke to him briefly at the start of the day: he was pleasant but uninvolved, and disappeared quickly (unlike the chair of the Board of Regents, who stuck around and chatted with me and various attendees).  The consolidation was not developed in consultation with faculty and staff on the campuses.  Hence the head-on collision between unrelated models of problems and solutions coming from frontline people on the one hand and a politically-wired system office on the other.  The results are predictable: demoralization and confusion, and a low chance of meaningful results.

It also seems like an example of the sort of pragmatism that finds its problems under the proverbial lamppost, and so ignores the bigger problems in the shadows.  It doesn't actually seem pragmatic to me.  So I used my talk to insist that debates in higher ed today were not between realism and idealism, but between two kinds of realism.  The dominant one is a realpolitik, whose opening move is always to cast its opposition as well-intentioned but naive about real-world rules.  But what this move is really trying to forestall is actualy a competing realism.  I called this "public realism" (still fussing with terrminology).  Public realism is much more ambitious than realpolitik, wanting among other things adequate funding for all of higher ed's nonpecuniary effects, which means high quality instruction and research at what are now thousands of underfunded open access institutions much like the ones Ojakian wants to consolidate.

Consolidation is a realpolitik distraction from the real issue, which is that Connecticut, though the No. 1 richest state by our preferred funding metric of personal income, has cut its funding for its CCs by nearly 12 percent just in the last four years.  The longer trend is dismal: though Connecticut appropriations are above national averages, they are still 19 percent below their 2008 levels, while tuition is 41 percent higher.  Here's the SHEEO wave chart for CT:
A group of faculty described this root problem in an editorial that should be read in full:
In an historical context, the apparent fiscal crisis that precipitated the [Board of Regents’] Students First plan grew out of years of declining levels of state support for higher education that became especially acute in the aftermath of the 2008-2009 economic crisis. The state’s eroding budgetary condition imposed fiscal austerity on the system that simultaneously resulted in increases in students’ costs/debts and cutbacks in student services and opportunities.  Full time professors were replaced by adjuncts; retiring academic advisors were not replaced; hours of operation were reduced.
Educational quality declines when capacity declines: it's realpolitik's own idealism to think otherwise.  

The Connecticut system's related root problem is that it's not affordable.  From the California vantage, Connecticut charges very high tuition for community college- over $4400 a year.  (True, it is half the tuition charged by community college in New York State, but I'm sure we can agree that $10,000 a year for first-rung local college is insane.)

Ojakian might thus have been expected to focus on two things as president: lowering tuition and raising state allocations in wealthy Connecticut.   (He could also have taken care of student bureaucratic hassles the old-fashioned way, by quietly instituting a common application form, which I'm told by faculty and students was promised when he formed the system back in 2011.) But these two issuse are not the leadership's focus.  The day's last session was dominated by faculty distress at a process that they feel is headed in the wrong direction in part because they have been excluded from it.

I'd said that we had been avoiding the effort to fund public colleges as public goods, which had meant the path of "multiple revenue streams" (aka privatization).  The key point is that none of these have  worked out as promised. I counted 12 types.

 There are exceptions to the rules in the "reality" column, but I believe these are the general rules.  Most relevant to consoidation is the second item from the last: I mentioned UCPath as a disaster that emerges from a type top-down standardization that blocks local efficiencies and if anything increases costs while making everyone's job harder. Decentralization is often more efficient than consolidation: UC Berkeley's failed Operation Excellence is UC's Exhibit A (see Section 3 for a 2016 update).

There are some things we can do to avoid these mistakes.  A simple one is policy rooted in history and evidence. Can you show that your last reorg saved a lot of money? Do you have an example of positive top-down curricular standardization?  If not, do you have a detailed plan that convinces the people actually doing the education? If you have none of these things, talk to people all over the system and try out something else.

Another is telling the truth about the damage these public-private hybrid models have already done.  It's the old Step 1 beginning: first admit you have a problem.  We have a national higher ed realpolitik, that failed.  Frontline faculty and staff have faced this. Top level admin should do the same.

The third thing we can do is a full reframing of higher ed along public good lines.  Virtually everyone I heard speak that day, from Jahana Hayes on out, already sees the transformation that would come from that.


Join the Conversation

Note: Firefox is occasionally incompatible with our comments section. We apologize for the inconvenience.