Who Should Run the Asylum?

From The New York Times yesterday:

Business is booming at ConServe, a debt collection agency in suburban Rochester. The company recently expanded into a neighboring building. The payroll of 420 is expected to double in three years.

“There is great opportunity,” said Mark E. Davitt, the company’s president and founder.

What’s the opportunity? Collection on Federally backed student loans in default. Insane as that might sound, the student-loan disaster is good for someone.

Sure, every downturn may be an upturn for someone else, but we in higher education need to take this developing situation seriously. Though the people who are facing problems have already left school, our washing our hands of them helps no one and actually hurts the futures of our current students. Current and potential students are quite aware of what is going on with their older siblings who are struggling under mountains of debt. If we, as faculty of institutions of higher education, don’t take steps to ease the burden of student debt, the entire structure of higher ed will be altered without our input, for change has to come–and will.

Costs of education can be reduced in many different ways but it is likely many administrations will try to make faculty shoulder that burden instead of doing the sane and sensible thing and turning to faculty for development of rational and effective methods that don’t hurt undergraduate education but improve it. If we don’t counter such proposals, rest assured that the percentage of contingent hires will continue to increase and tenure will become even more rare than it is now–and education will suffer. Yes, we on the faculty know that such actions lead to false savings at best but, when even Vice President Biden can claim that it is faculty salaries fueling the spike in education costs, they will be trumpeted by administrations as claims that they are addressing the problem.

Because of the constant battering of educators within the public sphere over the past generation, few people trust the judgment of our faculties any longer. A New York Daily News editorial in March even referred the professoriate as “inmates” with no business running the asylum.

But the insanity of modern higher ed isn’t ours. It stems from institutions whose goals have little to do with education even though that is their purported duty. This has led to a schizophrenia that is likely to tear them apart.

If any one group can turn attention back to the real goals of education, it will be the faculty.

One of the major problems that has grown up around education is, of course, the bureaucracy. Because the faculty is not trusted, all sorts of systems of checks and oversight have been put into place, with increasing power, personnel, and budgets. Even the accrediting agencies–which should be faculty driven–have become huge bureaucracies whose edicts tend, for the most part, to engender more bureaucracy–not better teaching. Even something that should be as minor and simple as review of research proposals using student subjects has become an overweight system called IRB (Institutional Review Board). The AAUP, in a recent report on IRB rules:

notes that university departments, faculty committees, and trustworthy researchers themselves might be better suited for some of the tasks now assigned to IRBs and their staffs.

But that’s not likely to happen, certainly not as long as faculty are seen as “inmates.” In more and more cases, decision-making that should belong to the faculty is being co-opted by administrators, who then use the new duties as reasons for expanding their staffs, costing more money.

There are other areas where faculty should be involved, and in ways that keep costs down. But they cannot be when a high percentage of them are part-time or have been hired for a limited term. Without institutional memory and without “service” as an important part of the job, many of the duties of faculty get shifted elsewhere–the savings in faculty salaries being shifted to new administrative hires.

We faculty should also be rising up against the publish-or-perish culture that we have been an active (though often reluctant) part of building–to whose advantage? Not often ours; not often our students’. Though I do think all of us should be involved in research, at least a little bit, research should not be nearly as important a part of our job as teaching or service–and “service” needs to become more than committee meetings or joining in the bureaucracy. It needs to focus on faculty-driven improvements in the education we provide.

Again, only the faculty is in a position to improve education, or even to make education affordable once more. We need to use our expertise and strength to re-shape universities into stronger vehicle for education today and in the future. The “business model” will soon be collapsing around us and the bureaucracies enabled by politically controlled administrations and boards of trustees have done nothing more than create regimes reminiscent of the fiction of Nikolai Gogol. Through our organizations (like the AAUP, but including others), we have to show that we have the will as well as the expertise to do what these others have failed to manage.

In Philippe de Broca’s 1966 film Le Roi de Coeur, the inmates of an insane asylum prove more humane and gentile–and genuinely compassionate–than the “sane” German and English World War I warriors. At the end, soldier Charles Plumpick (Alan Bates) chooses them rather than the war.

Who is really insane, the people who are making education into a money-tree? Or the people who believe in education as a significant underpinning of a democracy, and who have dedicated their careers to making it so? It is up to us to convince the public (Plumpick) which it is.

2 thoughts on “Who Should Run the Asylum?

  1. Simple question that requires a complex answer. First, know that education helps your brain develop even if it’s of no use to you. It improves your concentration and gives you a level of seriousness and discipline that is required in later life. Most of this seems unrealistic but it’s actually very true. Primary Education is important because it teaches you the fundamental things that help you in society. After that, what you learn is basically general knowledge about things and detail about the subjects you choose. How does that help? Simply put, it helps if you want to pursue higher education and wish to go to university as you have background information about most subjects which helps you choose your specialty later on. Some people know what they want to be at a young age, but learning these things still has great importance as you really don’t know what will become of you later in life and it will help you in the long term should you choose to specialize in something else. If you don’t want to go to uni, then it doesn’t really help but it is enforced by families because at the time you’re at a young age and don’t know much about life. To summarize, just answer this question between you and yourself: Is it better to be educated then choose not to pursue further education OR not be sufficiently educated then decide to pursue something you don’t have much knowledge about? Simply put, the current education system that is found in most countries is a precaution for you in later parts of your life and so that you have a choice later on instead of no choice at all. Disclaimer: Nothing more than my own opinion, not based on a study or anything!

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