Are You Working Inside a Bubble?

The following guest post is by Craig Vasey, professor of philosophy at the University of Mary Washington and a member of the AAUP’s national Council.

Signs of a coming disaster for American higher education are all around us. That’s why the AAUP Council, of which I am a member, endorsed the Occupy Wall Street movement and why we, with many other groups, helped launch the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education.

But here at Mary Washington, my institution, the prevailing attitude seems to be that this is not about us. It’s just not anywhere near as bad here as the situation in California or at big public universities in other states.  We’re not “open enrollment.”  We’re not 75 percent adjunct-taught.  We’re a liberal arts institution.  We have a 75 percent six-year graduation rate. Our student body is largely the traditional-age middle-class residential student. We’re insulated on a beautiful campus, and most of us are tenured or tenure-track. Similar sentiments can be heard on other liberal-arts and private-college campuses.  I agree: there is something exceptional, something “privileged” about these institutions. That’s what I’m calling the “bubble.”  

Yet all of us will admit that our students seem less well-prepared for college than they used to be (at Mary Washington, 19 percent of freshmen are now on academic probation.) All of us know that our students are taking on too much debt to get through school. (http://www.aaup.org/AAUP/pubsres/academe and http://www.pbs.org/wnet/need-to-know.) All of us know we’re going to struggle to put our own kids through college.  (Have you wondered how your grandchildren will afford it?)  All of us can see that the reduction of state and public funding for higher education over the last few decades, since we were undergrads, has been phenomenal and destructive. All of us here in Virginia know that higher education is under pressure to shift toward STEM instruction, to increase distance-learning, and to increase the number of graduates in ten years by 100,000. And we know what that means for “quality.”

Most of us at my institution agree that an increased amount of interference in our real priorities (teaching and research) is constantly visited upon us by the explosion of the accreditation and outcomes-assessment industries in the last fifteen years. We are evaluated, we self-evaluate, we evaluate the evaluations –for merit pay rankings that yield no raises. We devise instruments, then assess our student- learning outcomes, we assess the assessment instruments, we revise the instruments, we upload the results, and most of us think the whole exercise is a waste of our time. We all know that this invasion of bureaucratic priorities is a burden and an interruption. We also know our salaries have been frozen for years. We also know our administration is growing, and their salaries are too. Does this sound familiar?

When we look at it this way, we have to recognize that the future of higher education nationally and the situation we’re in here are linked.

Tomorrow: what we can do about it.

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