In Delaware, Dramatically Different Conceptions of the Current State and the Future Prospects of Higher Education

Earlier this month, Dr. Patrick T. Harker, President of the University of Delaware, wrote an op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer expressing his views of the American university and the faculty of the University of Delaware. His op-ed is available at: http://www.philly.com/philly/opinion/inquirer/20150205_Universities_must_adapt_to_meet_student_needs.html

After an open meeting of the membership of the University of Delaware chapter of AAUP, the Executive Council composed the following response.

 

Response to Harker OpEd

 

Following the publication of President Harker’s OpEd in the Philadelphia Inquirer, faculty members across campus were justifiably offended by its characterization of higher education in general, and, specifically, the faculty, students, and of the University of Delaware. At a time when the University of Delaware is engaged in recruiting students and planning a capital campaign, it is puzzling why President Harker would write “smart students are seeking innovative and less expensive degree paths.”  He states that faculty members “decide what to teach and when, depending on their interests and availability” and calls for higher education to “move away from faculty wheeling and dealing of faculty tenure and preferences” in determining curricula and other educational matters.  These statements, along with his claim higher education should “deliver learning that suits the customer” is an affront to the mission of university education and to core values of academic life.

The Executive Council of the UD/AAUP shares the feelings that have been expressed by faculty members and believes that the OpEd and what it represents should be the subject of concern across campus.  The AAUP held a membership meeting on Monday, February 16.  On very short notice, more than fifty faculty members attended the meeting at 5:00PM on a cold and snowy afternoon.  At that meeting, the Executive Council resolved to write a response to President Harker’s OpEd and share it with the faculty.   The following response to President’s Harker’s OpEd is an expression of the sentiments and views expressed at the membership meeting and a brief considered judgment of the current situation of higher education, particularly at the University of Delaware.

 

Our Academic Values

Faculty members at the University of Delaware are highly educated, self-motivated professionals who have a particular calling that should be recognized, valued, and fully acknowledged, especially by the President who represents our institution to the outside world.  Faculty members are engaged in preserving and formulating fresh insights into past knowledge, and engaged in new creative expression and developing innovative knowledge.

Crucially, we participate in a profoundly valued and privileged educational relationship with students.  Our relationships with students are based on mutual respect, the fact that we as faculty have knowledge and skills that we seek to impart to our students, and in this process, develop their competencies, their personal integrity, and their appreciation of the worlds of scholarship, research, and creative expression.   We seek to provide students with the skills and knowledge to make their way in the world in a variety of important ways.  Our work is predicated on the belief that students should have the skills and knowledge to succeed in the occupations that they choose, that they should have the sensibilities and knowledge to participate as citizens in a democratic and multicultural world, and that they should have the background to fully realize all their abilities and capacities.

Academic freedom and shared governance at the University of Delaware are fundamental to fulfilling these missions.   They are at the core of the AAUP and the Collective Bargaining Agreement, the University Faculty Senate, and the Faculty Handbook. The freedom of faculty members, both individually and in our community of teachers and students, to have primary responsibility for the curriculum, for the content of the courses they teach, and for participating fully in shaping the policies and direction of the University are crucial to the vitality of academic life.   These aspects of education should not be determined by managers distant from the worlds of scholarship and learning. Working with our colleagues in the Administration, we as faculty members have both the right and, indeed, the responsibility to work together to enhance the conditions for developing new knowledge and for improving the quality of education based on academic values.

 

The Crisis of Higher Education

In his OpEd, President Harker seems unaware of these academic values and the mission of the faculty. President Harker’s OpEd assumes that higher education at institutions like the University of Delaware are facing a financial crisis of such magnitude that a rapid and drastic change must occur in the way education is provided.   The OpEd takes for granted that the financial condition of higher education can only get worse, that doomsday is fast approaching, and only a farsighted vanguard of elite managers armed with scientific truth can save the day.

As faculty members, we know first hand that the anxiety and stress of paying for higher education by students and their families is a harsh reality.  Students and their families are burdened with debt that is, often, at best hard to manage and, at worst, a financial condition that prevents them from buying houses, cars, securing their retirement, and participating fully in economic life.  Many students, moreover, are being priced out of higher education despite their abilities to benefit from it.  Many students are working to keep their debt in check and, as a consequence, either prolong their education, drop out, or shape their occupational goals based on financial need rather than their values and interests.  No one in higher education is more concerned about these financial burdens than the faculty members who are in constant contact with students.

In addressing these financial issues, we must fully recognize their sources.

First, the costs of higher education have been shifting from state governments to students and their families. Decades of tax cutting, especially for corporations and for high-income earners, along with an ethic that stresses the personal rather than the social benefits of higher education have led to deep reductions in government financial support for higher education.  These cuts have led to increased tuition at state institutions.  Moreover, the federal government has increasingly moved away from grants to loans in providing financial aid.  These shifts are an attack on the foundations of the American middle class and the hopes and aspirations of working people.

Second, in some states such as Wisconsin and Louisiana, extreme cuts in state funding are a clear ideological and political choice rather than an economic necessity.  Some states, including California, Virginia and Minnesota, have reversed this trend and increased funding for higher education, and others have stabilized state funding.   This shows the political rather than the economic causes of cost shifting to students and their parents. Fortunately, the University of Delaware has not suffered as much as most institutions from reductions in state funding.

Beyond these issues of government funding, the ways in which institutions, including the University of Delaware, allocate their resources should be considered before crying gloom and doom.  As UD/AAUP commissioned reports have shown for many years, the University of Delaware is in excellent financial condition.  What is problematic is budgeting for education. Nationally, as well as at the University of Delaware, expenditures on faculty are not the cause of increased costs to students and their families. In recent years, the percentage of the funds budgeted for instruction has actually gone down relative to other budgetary items.  As the February 17, 2015 Review editorial points out “administrative employees at universities has doubled over the past 25 years.  This administrative bloat has taken place at the same time that the proportion of full-time faculty to part-time faculty in American universities has decreased. It’s hard to imagine that the increase in administrative staff has not had an impact on the ability of universities to hire faculty. . . .”

 

For-Profit Higher Education

President Harker’s OpEd claims that the market is “sorting out” the financial crisis of higher education.  Far from this being the case, the market in higher education, and the for-profit sector that President Harker sees as leading the way to a better future, is contributing to current problems.  Our national student loan debt stands at well over $1 trillion, much of it owed to private banks in loans that cannot be cleared through bankruptcy.  A scandalous portion of that debt is paid to for-profit institutions that shackle students with high interest loans and do not deliver what they promise, all the while wasting precious federal education support funds.  According to the Boston Globe’s Megan Woodhouse, “the US Department of Education estimated that 72 percent of the for-profit programs at 7,000 schools produced graduates who earn less than high school dropouts.”  The collapse and subsequent federal lawsuit against for-profit Corinthian Colleges is only the tip of the iceberg towards the future that President Harker envisions.  He holds up the for-profit Minerva Schools, an entity that he advises, as one of the for-profit saviors that will right the sinking ship of U.S. higher education “at a radically lower cost.”  Yet Minerva’s tuition is 92 percent of the cost of University of Delaware in-state tuition, and has none of the infrastructure expenses that contribute to our high quality education including the Institute for Global Studies, Residence Life, numerous research centers, and, above all, classrooms and laboratories where actual students and actual teachers meet to learn from one another.

 

A Crisis of Confidence

President Harker has minimal contact with members of the faculty, has had no direct communication with the AAUP for years, and, based on his OpEd, may not be aware of what faculty members actually do.

Survey after survey has demonstrated that our University suffers from very low morale.  President Harker’s OpEd has the potential of turning dismal morale into a true crisis, a crisis of confidence in his leadership.  Such a crisis of confidence cannot be repaired by public relations, slogans, or claims of respect and admiration for the faculty that directly contradict his OpEd.  Indeed, such gestures can only do more harm.

The University of Delaware needs leadership that unites us rather than divides us, that does not seek to create ever greater distinctions among faculty and pigeonhole them into ever tighter boxes, and that is truly grounded in our research and educational missions rather than in abstracted and false measurements that do not capture the contributions faculty members make to knowledge, students, and the community.

Contrary to President Harker’s dismissive portrayal of us, faculty at the University of Delaware are always adapting to an evolving academic environment by developing new courses, programs, and methods of instruction using and creating technological and pedagogical approaches.  As faculty members at the University of Delaware, we will continue to fulfill our commitments to the preservation and growth of knowledge, and to our students despite distortions such as President Harker’s OpEd that inflame rather than enlighten public opinion of higher education.

 

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