“It’s the End of the University as We Know It”

The following piece was published originally on the website of the AAUP chapter at the University of Akron. Although it addresses issues at their institution, none of those issues are specific to their institution alone.
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{The title of this post] was, quite literally, the take-home message from President Scarborough’s State of the University address. In it, he presented slides that made the case for challenges facing mid-range public universities like The University of Akron at a time of shrinking resources. He sent the audience home with a bound copy of glossy articles to support his claims. But is the future as dire as these articles would suggest, and, if so, are the proposed initiatives the best way to react? Or will they make a perilous situation even worse?

And will these initiatives indeed make UA a great, nationally known university, or will they provide only a misleading “look” of quality, while undercutting what actually makes a university great?

Challenges Facing Universities

In spite of the articles’ bleak predictions, the schools that are actually in trouble right now are the for-profit online institutions like the University of Phoenix, where enrollment has dropped precipitously by some 50%, and small, under-endowed private colleges like Sweet Briar. At UA, freshmen enrollment is in fact up 5%, and state support is up 2%, so the wolf is not at the door. Although we are given supposed analogies with the healthcare industry, where larger hospitals and physician networks are taking over smaller ones, this is a faulty analogy, for there is no higher education equivalent of the Cleveland Clinic absorbing state universities.

In response to the purported crisis, the administration has rolled out a number of “initiatives.” Faculty who object to these initiatives are publicly characterized as resistant to any change, oblivious to the realities of higher education, and stuck in a “70s mentality.” Vice-President for Advancement Larry Burns is quoted as saying that faculty just do not appreciate what is needed to stabilize university finances and increase enrollment (The Buchtelite, November 10).

In fact, faculty who have devoted their lives to higher education appreciate very well that we must always look for better ways to do things. Faculty are well positioned to help the administration develop initiatives that can advance the university, determine how best to implement changes, and to suggest ways to strengthen existing programs. In fact, faculty have offered to do so, only to be ignored. The reality is, without faculty support, even the most well thought out and needed initiative will fail, which is all the more reason to genuinely involve faculty in the process of change from the very beginning.

Quality or Just the Appearance of Quality?

The new “initiatives” might, at first glance, give UA a façade of high quality. But at the same time the administration has under-resourced exactly what actually makes a university a high quality institution: dedicated, permanent, full-time faculty members and a strong support staff.

An especially egregious case of substituting a façade of quality for actual quality is the “rebranding” of UA as “Ohio’s Polytechnic University.” This expensive rebranding—which may yet become a renaming—is being carried out in the face of widespread opposition from students, staff, alumni, parents, faculty, retirees, donors, and community leaders. We are shown slides with the names of prestigious “tech” schools like Cal Tech, Georgia Tech, and MIT, with the implication that the “tech” label alone will put UA in their league.

But the name alone will never make us the “great national” university the slides promise. If this were all it took, then ITT Tech and Ohio Tech (the real one, the trade school in Cleveland that teaches auto and truck repair) would have highly regarded graduate engineering programs.

Similarly, the administration has announced a Center for Data Science and Information Technology, with an operating budget of close to a million dollars a year, and a promise of post-docs attracted to the university. Curiously, this Center does not anticipate any new faculty hires, even though at least a dozen could be hired for the annual cost of its director, associate and assistant directors, and workshops. The Department of Computer Science, where presumably the imagined post-docs would flock, is strapped for faculty already and does not even have a doctoral program.

In a nod to the arts, the administration declares us a center for dance because Dance Cleveland will be using unused studio space at the university. However, no new dance faculty have been announced for an already seriously understaffed program.

In a misguided attempt to make UA well known, money continues to be poured into a football team which draws the lowest attendance nationally of any team in its division. This year, while saying that the university cannot afford more tenure-track faculty, the administration has increased football scholarships by nearly three-quarters of a million dollars. Overall, the football team costs at least as much as the salary and benefits of eighty (80) tenured or tenure-track faculty.

In order to entice more freshmen to come, the administration has announced a package of heavily discounted General Education courses. So far it has not been working very well as a recruiting technique; three-quarters of those taking the cut-rate courses (and costing the university badly needed tuition dollars) are our own students, already at the university. The courses are also being offered entirely online, in spite of being advertised as “blended.” The online format has been conclusively demonstrated to work extremely poorly for underprepared freshmen. It seems those few new students the initiative has lured to the university are being set up for failure.

With a nod to freshman retention, the administration has also hired Trust Navigator, an untested start-up company with no background in student advising, led by someone who is now under investigation for fraud. Trust Navigator, which is being paid $840,000 with money saved by gutting the Office of Student Success, Off-Campus Student Services, and the Office of Multicultural Development (which served primarily students of color), is providing 16 minimally-trained “success coaches,” each assigned 275 freshmen, with whom, it is trumpeted, they are expected to establish a close bond and for whom they are expected to act as mentors during their once-a-month half-hour meetings. If the administration has any evidence of the program’s success, they have not yet shared it. Again, the focus on appearances and preference for outsourcing leaves students without needed services

The administration has turned its attention to graduate students as well as freshmen. The purported goal is to increase the number of graduate students at UA, but there will be no one to teach them unless there are enough qualified faculty—and generally only tenured/tenure-track faculty can attain graduate faculty status. At the same time, we now hear of plans to slash the funds available for graduate assistantships, which would mean that the best students will go elsewhere, and UA will be forced to admit weak and marginal students or else have very few graduate students at all. This is scarcely the way to create a high quality graduate program.

What is Needed for a Great University?

So what would in fact be required for a “great” university? For starters, more full-time, competitively compensated, permanent faculty. The salary and benefits of UA’s full-time faculty members total less than 15% of the overall operating budget. Even in tight financial times, there is plenty of room to increase their numbers and salaries and expand their benefits.

While technically no faculty members were let go during the July layoffs, if faculty retire or leave and are not replaced, the effect is the same. Just since last year, UA’s number of tenured/tenure-track faculty is down some 10%. About fifty departed over the summer, and exactly one was hired to start in fall 2015. The number of tenured/tenure-track faculty at the university is the lowest it has been for at least a generation.

Less than half of the teaching at UA is done by full-time faculty, versus the 80-90% at the institutions the administration expects us to emulate. No flashy gimmick will do as much to increase enrollment as will increasing the number of highly qualified full-time faculty members. Students nationwide consistently say that they choose a university because they believe it will offer high quality courses taught by excellent faculty members, preferably in small classes. Shrinking the size of the faculty and replacing them with adjuncts who are often hired at the last minute works against this goal.

There is strong evidence to suggest that student retention and persistence to graduation is substantially increased when students are taught by dedicated, full-time faculty, who can convey their excitement for their field while making close connections to students. And yet this goal too is undercut when full-time faculty are replaced by underpaid and under-supported adjuncts who commonly must commute between multiple campuses while trying to scrape together a living wage. (UA pays adjuncts at the lowest rate in northeast Ohio.)

The quality of a research university, such as UA, is ultimately based on the quality of its research and scholarship. As one marker, currently UA receives only 5% as much external research funding as does MIT. Research and scholarship can only be expanded and maintained at a high level if the university finds, hires, and retains the very best faculty members—and not just a small handful, but hundreds of them, as at the prestigious “tech” schools to which we are supposed to aspire.

And yet the apparent plan is progressively to replace tenured faculty with non-tenure track faculty whose heavy teaching responsibilities would seriously curtail their ability to be scholars as well. In many disciplines, such as the natural sciences and engineering, it is all but impossible to attract and keep the best teacher-scholars without the protections of tenure.

Even worse, the President points proudly to the number of “full-time” faculty at UA even though a ballooning number—now some 15% of the full-timers—are “visiting faculty.” Their numbers have gone in the last few years from just a handful to over 100. These “visitors,” many of whom have been visiting for years, are actually not visiting from anywhere but the greater Akron area. As officially “temporary” instructors, they cannot even be represented by the Akron-AAUP.

Visiting faculty are hired on a year-to-year basis and, although they are paid better than they were as adjuncts, their pay is still insultingly low—lower than a brand-new bachelor in Education would make in the Akron public schools. Most of these positions have been “visiting” for more than a year already — a clear indication that they are strategically important. It is time to begin national searches for full-time TT or NTT positions based on these strategic needs.

The President asserts that he wants The University of Akron to be a great, nationally recognized public university. And yet all of the expensive initiatives, the repeated assertion that we neither can afford nor need tenured faculty members, and the administration’s indifference to the programs that actually help students will weaken, not strengthen the university.

This is not a matter of a few missteps or of a failure to communicate. This is taking the university in the direction of ruin. State institutions like The University of Akron do face challenges. But if the present trend continues, our challenges may become insurmountable.

 

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