While New Faculty Majority appreciates the efforts of the Obama administration to address the critical problem of the skyrocketing cost of higher education and its effects, particularly on the students and faculty who are saddled with crippling student debt, we call on the administration to consider more carefully the full ramifications of the policies it is currently advocating.
Ironically, the majority of the faculty at colleges nationwide work in conditions (making less than $25,000 per year working full time hours) that do not allow them to repay their own student debt, if college teaching is their primary source of income. Like other workers in the US, college instructors have seen their profession turn into low-wage, part-time, unbenefited jobs rather than into respected employment capable of supporting a family. The policies that the president is advocating in his new plan would exacerbate, not alleviate, this problem.
If the president wants to hold colleges accountable, then he should demand that they disclose the numbers and working conditions of the majority of the faculty, and acknowledge the significant research that shows that faculty working conditions are among the most critical factors affecting student success. He would admit that graduation rates are meaningless at institutions where faculty are discouraged from holding the highest standards possible by adjuncts’ economic precarity and lack of access to meaningful due process protections, and by tenure-track faculty’s out-of-control tenure requirements.
If he were to talk to students as we do on a daily basis, he would learn that they don’t want MOOCs and other quick fixes that are being implemented without input from students or faculty. He would learn that the vast majority of students, especially the most disadvantaged, crave what students at elite institutions take for granted: accessible, supported faculty able to engage in the basic human interaction and mentoring at the heart of good teaching, the intellectual research at the foundation of good teaching, and the intelligent use of technology–not as a substitute for real teaching and learning, but as a tool in the service of human beings rather than as a cog in the machine of what has become the big business of higher education “reform.”
Students spoke in this recent Public Agenda report http://www.publicagenda.org/files/student_voices.pdf, but interestingly it was barely noticed by anyone in higher education. Among its findings: “Advisors, counselors, and faculty members who offer support and guidance that is accurate, accessible, and tailored to students’ educational and career goals are in high demand and can be hard to come by.” They are hard to come by because institutions have created working conditions that place significant obstacles to their accessibility.
Higher education has a history of imposing “high quality/low cost” strategies without regard for their hidden and long term costs. Employing 75% of the faculty on a temporary basis has been the most devastating in terms of fiscal and human costs, and we are alarmed by the likelihood that policies currently being proposed will perpetuate such effects. The employment of faculty on temporary contracts has extracted quality teaching out of dedicated faculty members not because of a basically exploitative employment structure but in spite of it. It has devastated a valuable human resource, churning through several generations of college faculty and turning college teaching into something that people do only if they can afford to, and at the high cost of respect, proper remuneration, and retirement. And of course significant research compiled by the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success (www.thechangingfaculty.org) shows the detrimental effects of degraded faculty working conditions on student learning conditions, especially the learning conditions of the most vulnerable, least advantaged students.
We call on the president to listen to an authentic cross section of student and faculty voices and to consider both the quality of education, and the quality of life of the majority of the faculty, in devising higher education policies going forward.