The Ideal of the American University: A Primer

At its idealistic best, the traditional vision of American higher education was one of beauty, dynamism and diversity. With undergraduate students able to take courses from as many as 40 different professors, with requirements designed to give as broad a taste of intellectual pursuits as possible, with “shared governance” assuring that corporate-style top-down influence is kept to a minimum, with academic freedom keeping lock-step attitudes (even within the faculty) to a minimum and with tenure guaranteeing stability, this framework could (when it operated effectively) keep intellectual exploration expanding and students learning without unduly onerous administrative restraint. The diversity of course offerings, faculty specialties and interests and institutional foci was monitored by accrediting bodies representing by visiting faculty panels whose recommendations were meant not for conformity but assurance of breadth and quality.

With the rise of free-market, neoliberal, corporatist concepts, this vision has been seen, increasingly, as atavistic. As inefficient and as lacking direction toward specific economic needs. Lacking profit incentives, it is seen as lacking respect to both student “customers” and the economic engines that many businesses feel higher education should be designed to support. As a result, factory models of standardization have been encouraged–to the extent that, at many for-profit online universities, course design is no longer the purview of the instructor–who has been reduced to the role of facilitator. The same sort of standardization is appearing, though to a lesser degree, at many more traditional institutions through the imposition of “outcomes” through which the course is evaluated. This makes all courses more and more homogeneous, making education more predictable (the intention) but less expansive and surprising (something that education, at its best, should be) and less encouraging of divergence of thought.

Shared governance, in part because of its onerous and ponderous nature, had traditionally protected classroom diversity. But it, too, has been increasingly under attack by those who believe in the efficiency of top-down decision-making. Administrators, looking jealously at their corporate brethren, see that their jobs would be much easier if they could only tell faculty what to do and see it done. This dovetails well with the new desire to see a college education as career preparation and not as preparation for citizenship and basis for career training. Until recently, a college education was not seen as professional training–that took place at a graduate level or on the job. Now, it is seen as little else. Like the move toward standardization, change is constraining American education, helping reduce what once was the best system of higher education in the world (for all its admitted weaknesses) to mediocrity (at most).

Academic freedom has long been another protector of the diversity of American higher education, making it as much a responsibility of the faculty as a right. For the system of American education, as it had long been envisioned, to actually work, academic freedom has had to be included as an educational necessity and not simply as the faculty perk that too many imagine it today. Academic freedom allows scholars to concentrate on their research without having to take into account the labyrinths of taste, morality and belief that make up much of American culture’s public sphere. It also allows scholars to serve the public debate without endangering their academic positions, creating a necessary bridge between the ivory tower and the rest of society. It also allows faculty to assist student learning in all of the diversity needed for promotion of democracy through informed and able citizens.

Tenure, as originally seen, operated as a means of protection for classroom diversity, shared governance and academic freedom. It was not job security but security for the system, giving faculty ability to refuse unwarranted intrusion into the classroom, to insist on shared governance and to protect academic freedom. It brought strength to the system more than it provided a right to the individual.

All of this is crumbling today, thanks in part to the reduction of the power of tenure by increased reliance on contingent hires, be they term hires or adjuncts. When, nationally, only a quarter of the members of the faculty are tenured or on the tenure track, the power of the faculty is curtailed. This means it becomes easier to impose standardized curricula even down to the level of book choice and syllabus creation. This means shared governance becomes much more difficult (for the faculty, as a group, is weakened). This means academic freedom can be invoked more rarely, its strength (as we have seen with the Salaita case) being constrained to a smaller and smaller group within extremely limited parameters.

Will our universities survive the neoliberal onslaught? I don’t know. They weren’t perfect before, but they were never meant to be. Education, after all, has always been part of the search for perfection, never perfection itself. That’s best for the students, the faculty and the society. When the ideal lies in diversity and not in a single perfection, human progress is possible. When the opposite becomes true, only stagnation can follow.

One thought on “The Ideal of the American University: A Primer

  1. “Tenure, as originally seen, operated as a means of protection for classroom diversity, shared governance and academic freedom. It was not job security but security for the system, giving faculty ability to refuse unwarranted intrusion into the classroom, to insist on shared governance and to protect academic freedom. It brought strength to the system more than it provided a right to the individual.”

    The erosion of the original vision of tenure (and it’s position has often moved throughout the history of public universities based often on moral principle or preferred mode of pedagological display) took a nosedive in the ideals of shared governance in the 1980’s and has been in decline ever since.

    Ask the Regents or President and they would tell you that; for one,
    the first (and often second year) students in need of unprecedented levels of necessary remediation so that they might optimize their experience with diverse class offerings and social connection, require the limitation, for the nonce, of course offerings within several departments which can have a flatten out the under student’s experience with diversity while increasing prerequisite completion rates. I would suppose (as I did in the past as well as now) then that exponential tuition and fees increases have not helped to increase a broader course offering for lower division students while, at the least, maintain funding for more focused upper division curricula well as graduate and post graduate study.

    By the 1990’s it was clear to even the most ignorant that remediation of incoming first year students was not the big part of the school’s budget as claimed. This was during an era when the Big Banks were recently given the green light to unite their depository and loan operations with high end market speculation a repeat of a junk bond market and over-leveraged borrowing to insinuate the epoch increase of buying and selling in some Orwellian crap game.

    The beginnings of the slide of tenured positions and the concomitant increase in adjuncts, contracted lecture series, began in earnest in the Clinton era.

    The traditional vision of a college experience did, indeed, become the reflection of the continuing influence of Milton Friedman’s “balanced wheel” and how that would include the reduction in federal funding for education and move toward a more “free market” form of funding for higher education. While he espoused such ideas thirty years previous, U.S. colleges and especially major public universities during the 1990’s endured what began the great emancipation for corporate interests to prevail in procurement and direction of funding towards neoliberal theory of colleges as but training grounds for their vision of commerce and GDP based upon less government involvement and more corporate decision-making within schools.

    When the focus of education is broad at the outset the outcomes will better avail the opportunities for upper division course offerings becoming more refined so that a greater number of students will move in more diversified professional, vocational, and trades areas. Conversely, when diversity and course choice is underwritten by commerce only, more students leave undergraduate schools with less capacity, fewer career choices, and the strikingly insidious phenomenon of indentured servitude created by the private-public student loan servicing agencies. So ominous that it increases the likelihood of loan default. Another great bubble of toxic paper to come and likely at the ultimate expense of the citizenry, taxing the poor at much greater rates than those incurred by the uberclass. For the latest students coming out of universities and colleges in the U.S. it is a brave new world of austerity as far as the laws will allow.

    As the U.S. moves further into the business model of higher education creating value determined by financial considerations alone, the original vision of higher education and it’s fading memory of tenure fall further into a picture of a gone world.

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