How Far Will This Spread Before It Stops?

New York University sociology professor Jeff Goodwin writes in today’s New York Times:

Should administrators be able to enrich themselves… at educational institutions? N.Y.U. is not a Wall Street firm, but a tax-exempt university that gets millions in taxpayer dollars, not least from student loans. In fact, our students have the highest total debt load of any university in the country. Rather than expanding, or paying huge salaries to top administrators, why doesn’t N.Y.U. do more to help its alumni pay off their debts?

That’s not even Goodwin’s main point. But it does help illuminate a problem faced by American culture in general: we are creating more and greater divides between those with the power, a new (and self-congratulatory) elite that also continues to amass a larger and larger percentage of American wealth, and the rest of us.

Our student-debt crisis is only the outgoing student side of one aspect of a wider crisis, for higher education. The Times ran a story the other day, spilling light on the obvious fact that an “elite” education is not even considered possible by many of America’s best students:

The pattern contributes to widening economic inequality and low levels of mobility in this country, economists say, because college graduates earn so much more on average than nongraduates do.

And graduates from “elite” colleges earn much, much more than other graduates do. That they tend to come from the same (already privileged) backgrounds goes without saying.

That student side of the current crisis in education is only going to get worse as commercial entities continue to set their sights on the tremendous amounts to money involved in higher education. Using the excuse of “technology,” they are in the process of further dividing elite and hoi polloi, just as has been happening in public versus private k-12 education. “Technology” is for the masses. Real instruction, involving teachers and personal attention… that’s only for the elite.

None of that, however, is Goodwin’s real point. He’s talking about the loss of shared governance at NYC. The facts of higher salaries for elite administrators and greater debt for most students are, in fact, consequences of a loss of shared governance–which is itself the result of the same divisive force between the rich and everyone else that the rest of the country is seeing.

Administrators and Boards of Trustees, today, like “leaders” in business and government, believe they know best. The rest of us should just do what they tell us, for we don’t understand and, furthermore, we don’t have access to the ‘full picture.’ Our needs and demands are parochial, narrowed to self-interest (this, they will tell you, is particularly true of teachers and of unionized workers of all sorts). For the greater good, we must be ignored.

This is a classic American divide, going back to the founding of the nation–going back long before even that. But the balance that long kept this nation from falling into chaos has ended. There is little to stop the grandiose plans of someone like NYU President John Sexton, plans to memorialize himself in buildings and institutional expansion and to pay top employees many times what NYU faculty make.

There is little to stop the elite anywhere in America any longer. The unions have suffered defeat after defeat and negotiate today from weakness where once they found strength. No longer does the middle class have the financial clout it had after World War II. And our politics are more controlled from the top than at any time in living memory. Goodwin writes:

Dr. Sexton… has recently professed his sincere belief in the principle of “shared governance,” the idea that faculty members as well as administrators should steer universities. And he admitted that he had not done all that he might to include faculty in the decision-making process at N.Y.U.

He can admit that because he knows he can act without regard to the faculty or its sentiments. He has won, at least for now. That’s the irony of the ‘no confidence’ vote of the faculty against him: it is meaningless.

Goodwin is still optimistic:

N.Y.U.’s trustees say they still have confidence in Dr. Sexton, so he is not about to lose his job anytime soon. But how long can a university president continue in office when he has lost the support of so many faculty members?

In Sexton’s mind, he can continue as long as he likes. Faculty sentiments, like the feelings of the majority of Americans (look at the current gun-control debate), no longer seem to matter.

It’s not time for us to give up, though we should all really be worried. It is time to take note of votes like that of the NYU faculty and to organize faculties on campuses everywhere. We need to insist, for the sakes of our institutions and, more importantly, for the sake of our students, that the balance of shared governance be restored.

Not just on campus, but in all of America.

One thought on “How Far Will This Spread Before It Stops?

  1. Nicely put. I couldn’t agree more. Though I wouldn’t say the no-confidence vote at NYU is meaningless. It’s too soon to tell. I hope it will encourage NYU faculty to play a greater role in choosing our next president. (We were shut out from the process, such as it was, that chose Sexton.) And fighting for faculty representation on the board of trustees. Time will tell.

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