Guest blogger Jeanne Zaino is professor of political science and international studies at Iona College.
In his provocative and deeply depressing The Last Professors Frank Donoghue warns that corporate logic has taken over the academy. His findings are confirmed by Andrew DeBlanco who, in his award winning College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be not only bemoans the demise of liberal arts education, but attributes it to several factors including the “commercialization of American higher education.”
Tellingly neither Donoghue nor DeBlanco call on humanists to rise up. Nor do they offer any real hope that the liberal arts generally, or the humanities in particular, can be resuscitated. Far from a call to arms, these books are elegies, laments, requiems. As Donoghue writes, “the conditions to which many seek a return – healthy humanities departments populated by tenure-track professors who discuss books with adoring students in a cloistered setting – have largely vanished.” Humanists, he goes on to predict, will in time “become an insignificant percentage of the country’s university instructional workforce.” In just a few generations they will have disappeared from all but the most affluent and vaunted of universities (where they will largely be seen more like relics and vestiges of a past life).
If we need any more proof that Donoghue and DeBlanco are right, just consider the news out of Elizabeth City State University. ECSU, a historically black college in North Carolina, recently announced that seven of its undergraduate majors may be abolished due to low enrollment. Among those designated as ‘low productive’ – history, physics, and political science. Three disciplines which have long been deemed essential to a well-rounded liberal arts education.
The announcement prompted swift reaction from historians and other educators who called it “troubling,” “tragic,” and “shocking”. While it is troubling and tragic, it shouldn’t be shocking. As colleges and universities across the country face declining enrollments and other financial challenges many are considering cutting programs regardless of their intrinsic value. For example, more than 10 percent of the approximately 250 programs in the University of North Carolina system have been designated ‘low productive’ and, as a result, are facing elimination.
And if we need further proof that corporatization has taken over higher education, consider what a former director of the University of Phoenix said when asked by “Frontline” whether “education is a business”? “I’m happy that there are places in the world where people sit down and think,” he said. “We need that. But that’s very expensive, and not everybody can do that. So for the vast majority of folks who don’t get that privilege, then I think it’s a business.” For the record, in 2011 the University of Phoenix had more than 300,000 undergraduate students, making it larger than most of the best known non-profit institutions.
The reality of life in the newly corporatized colleges and universities has enormous consequences for faculty – both current and prospective. Yet guidance in terms of basic tips designed to help us navigate this new terrain is difficult to come by. To that end, the following list, initially constructed as a tongue-in-cheek look at life in the ’21st century corporate academy,’ now rings less comical or even satirical than true and potentially (gulp) helpful?:
1. Customer’s, CEO’s, Cost centers… :
We know, you got your PhD in English because you didn’t want to think about such things. But show up at a college or university today and this is exactly what you will be dealing with. Those people in your class that you thought of as students, think again – they are customers. Customers who are paying lots of money and, as a result, customers who you must please. And the president living in the big house on the hill? He’s the Chief Executive Office who runs the college not with the help of a bursar but his (or in a few cases hers) Chief Financial Officer. So take off the tweed jacket and put down the pipe, life at corporate U is a far cry different than you may have expected.
2. It’s all about numbers (AKA getting customers in the seats):
Be crystal clear it is all about numbers – the number of customers (AKA students) in your classes and the number of customers (AKA students) in your program. If you don’t have ‘numbers’ (AKA clients, customers) how can you justify your continued existence? You risk being deemed ‘low productive’ and placed on the chopping block regardless of your intrinsic value.
3. Willy Loman was right:
In Death of a Salesman Willy Loman stated, ‘be liked and you will never want’. You may have thought that was relevant only to business people, but think again. Higher education is big business, it’s about money and getting customers (students) in the seats. You are part of that cog now and as such, your roll is to get customers (students) interested in taking your classes. How do you do that? One way is to get them to like you so they take you repeatedly and they tell their friends to do the same. Another way is to advertise. We’ve all seen that – a juicy or compelling title may just do the trick! Instead of ECO 101 try “The Economics of Sin”. Likewise, Michael Eric Dyson was on to something when instead of the basic (and boring) soc class he opted for “The Sociology of Jay-Z”.
4. Grade inflation is bad, but low retention is worse:
Grade inflation is bad and publicly frowned upon, but just try giving those customers the grades they really deserve. The truth is, faculty have been given mixed messages for years – ‘grade inflation is bad’ (wink, wink), but grades that are too low drive our customers away and who wants that? Truth is, no one likes to give higher grades than are deserved but at the same time, do you really burn down the house??? In the battle between inflation and retention, the later wins every time – so grade without thinking about the consequences to your institution and your job (AKA ‘line’) at your own risk.
5. Flip, spin, dance, & sing… :
You thought you’d stand (or sit) and lecture straight for two or three hours at a time? Think again. This is a performance and you are it, so get moving. What is all the rage now but flipping the classroom? After flipping goes by the way-side it will be something else. So flip or spin, but whatever you do, don’t just stand there and lecture. Today it is all about sales so you need to not only market yourself but your class. One way to do that is utilize new technology and innovative pedagogical techniques which appeal to young people. Keep them coming back for more (it aint easy, that’s for sure)!
6. Rate My Professor & Other ‘Customer Service’ measures Matter:
No matter what they say, Ratemyprofessor and other ‘psudeo’ measures of customer satisfaction matter. They may be unrepresentative and unscientific, but who cares about that! Administrators look because it gives them a measure as to who appeals to students, who is giving the ‘customers’ what they want and what they are paying for, and more importantly, who isn’t.
7. Yes, you were born too late:
If you are starting to feel like this is not what you signed up for, you’re right. If you are starting to feel like you may have been born too late, you’re not alone. After reading Donoghue’s book Stanley Fish said he feels lucky he wasn’t born fifty years later because the career he has wouldn’t be available to him then. Sadly and most unfortunately for all of us, he is correct.