In an op-ed published by the Providence Journal in Rhode Island, James Baar identifies “Four Crises That Dog Higher Education”:
1. Inflation of product cost.
2. Deflation of product value.
3. Enablement of social and moral dissolution.
4. Lower-priced, knockoff and fraudulent competition.
Given the space constraints on most op-ed pieces, Baar addresses each of these topics fairly succinctly. So, I suspect that if he had more space, he might have been able to address somewhat articulately at least some of the concerns that I am about to express.
First, I don’t believe that anything can be dogged by a crisis. A crisis is the climax of an escalating situation; it is not a condition. And the word “dogged” suggests an extended condition. But perhaps some editorial assistant, rather than Baar himself, is responsible for the headline.
Second, I don’t think that it is either accurate or helpful to assert that higher education is in crisis. American higher education is still, by every measure, the most admired and emulated system in the world. Ginning up the notion that American colleges and universities need to be in “crisis-mode” has invited all sorts of radical “solutions” and “reforms,” most of which have turned out to be very ill-conceived or, worse, to have served other interests. In fact, I think that there is much evidence that, over the past three or four decades, higher-ed leaders have adopted the rhetoric of cyclic crisis and then have adopted one “innovative” solution after another that has only made things worse.
States have been cutting their support for public higher education either because the political leadership is ideologically hostile to public education or because it is, like most of our university leaders, more interested in grandiose projects than in sustaining existing institutions (or infrastructure) and services. In either case, the public good has been sacrificed to advance the political or professional ambitions of individuals. Perversely, “privatization” has encouraged our universities to develop a distinct administrative class even as it has also involved dramatic reductions in state support. So, just as the politicians have diverted the subsidies for public higher education into other privatization schemes and tax cuts, our administrations have diverted institutional resources from supporting instruction to building corporatized bureaucracies.
These are chronic, interconnected problems that will eventually lead to a crisis when the skewed priorities are no longer sustainable, but let’s be clear, they are absolutely not irreversible problems: state funding can be restored even with some relatively modest reversal of the now relentless tax cutting, and administrative bloat can be reduced even more dramatically than instructional support has been being reduced in order to feed the bloat.
Third, the way in which Baar describes the problems is itself symptomatic of the ways in which the corporatization of public institutions has made it difficult to define problems and solutions without using corporate language and corporate concepts. Indeed, this may be the actual core problem: that is, corporatization is the source of most of the problems, and something other than corporate thinking is going to be required to frame effective solutions to those problems. So, the premise that corporatization is beneficial is flawed, and it therefore cannot produce “solutions” that somehow transcend its own unfeasibility. Like most other public institutions, colleges and universities are simply not corporations and cannot be successfully operated as if they are corporations.
Fourth, beyond the fact that the corporate slant is fundamentally problematic, Baar’s individual assertions themselves are certainly arguable, if not simply inaccurate. “Product cost” is not “inflated”: adjusted for inflation, the cost of a college education has remained relatively flat, even if the out-of-pocket cost to students has escalated. Likewise, “product value” has not decreased: although it may be true that the current cohort of college graduates is not doing better economically than previous cohorts of graduates, there is manifold evidence that they are doing much better than their peers who do not have degrees and that each level of educational attainment correlates more than it ever did with increased average income. In short, having a degree is increasingly an economic necessity, even if the economic pay-off for having a degree is less than what it previously was.
Moreover, since the current cohort has been saddled with more student debt largely because of ideologically-driven or other politicized decisions, the comparison of the earning power of a graduate today to that of a graduate from some earlier period is not really a level or even meaningful comparison of the performance of—the “outcomes’ produced by–the colleges and universities from which they are graduating. For the most part, the same people who have been demanding “better outcomes” have been insuring that they will be much more difficult to achieve. If we accept the way in which those people have been framing the problem, we are committing ourselves to trying to resolve an illogical equation.
On the “low-priced, fraudulent competition”–the almost endless succession of digital “alternatives” to colleges and universities that have amounted to one investment “bubble” after another—one must keep asking, as I have done previously in posts to this blog, why we have been and continue to be so intent on “transforming” higher education by reactively trying to compete with “innovations” that have been so obviously not what they have been advertised as being. More specifically, we need to be asking why our administrations have, in effect, taken the bait in one corporate confidence scheme after another. Honestly, the lack of results produced by these “transformative innovations” has been so laughably unambiguous that the failure of “vision” among our own leadership is simply preposterous—actually scandalous—even if it has rarely been described in that way.
Finally, in the midst of the corporate rhetoric, Baar inserts his third “crisis” area—the “enablement of social and moral dissolution.” Certainly, our campuses are struggling with some very vexing social and moral issues–the most chronic of which may be the way in which cases of sexual assault are reported, investigated, and resolved. But, this idea that our campuses are dens on iniquity strikes me as just another timeworn “Far Right” talking point about permissive, “liberal” education. Indeed, the inclusion of this point here is more than somewhat incongruous because the “corporate” and “religious” wings of the Far Right are now more at odds than they have ever been over “moral” issues such as LGBT rights and access to contraception. For every “Christian company” such as Hobby Lobby that has been at the forefront of “protecting religious liberty,” dozens of major corporations have very clearly indicated that they don’t want any part of such divisive issues. To the extent to which those companies still provide benefits to their employees, they want those benefits to apply to everyone, without any taint of discrimination. So, in this case, the libertarian and corporate wings of the Far Right seem to be in agreement.
But, one does not have to look very deeply to see how ideologically complicated these issues have become. For instance, if one narrows the focus to campuses and even to the issue of sexual assaults, the concerns over how fraternities are contributing to this problem, as well as other problems, have led to very serious reappraisals of the continuing role of “Greek life” in campus life. But the most outspoken defenders of the fraternities have included some corporate leaders, who continue to extol the lifelong benefits of the relationships formed with fraternity “brothers.” Moreover, the “Religious Right” has been largely silent on this issue—I suspect, because fraternities are very traditional and patriarchal institutions.
So, in the midst of these complexities, it may be convenient for those on the Far Right to continue to negatively equate progressivism with permissiveness, but for the rest of us, it is not particularly enlightening or helpful.
James Baar’s complete op-ed is available at: http://www.providencejournal.com/article/20150627/OPINION/150629394