There Is a Better Way

I have previously reposted a number of items by University of California at Santa Barbara Professor Christopher Newfield, taken from the “Remaking the University” blog that he runs with UCLA Professor Michael Meranze (I suggest you subscribe).  The essay below was posted today under the title Top Trends for 2016 Higher Ed: Earth-Two Edition.  Cleverly taking as his starting point DC Comics’ invention of an alternate — and better — Earth, Chris offers three telling examples of how our higher education system might function more effectively.  Science fiction, or common sense?  You decide.

Top Trends for 2016 Higher Ed: Earth-Two Edition

By Chris Newfield

Since Flash Comics writers discovered the existence of Earth-Two in 1961, readers have been tracking unexpected divergences between the paired planets that exist in parallel dimensions.  The Earths have generated divergent histories with more or less the same people. This makes it easy to study the effects of variable reactions to structural forces like culture, law, and economic policy, since backward leaders and our unfortunate “human nature” reign on both worlds– as on the other Earths DC Comics has discovered since.

There’s one other thing:  Earth-One is considered a Silver Age and Earth-Two a Golden Age planet.  The terms derived initially from the age of comics in which their lead superheros evolved, but came to be applied to the quality of the planets themselves.  Life is better on Earth-Two: less impoverished, less tyrannical, less hypermasculine in leadership styles, and less inclined towards multiple gun deaths.  Some believe that the lower, Silver Age status of our Earth-One results from its lower cultural intelligence.  This inclines it to manage social relations with fixed procedures and peer communications with programming.

How do the Earths compare on major university trends?

1. Both Earths experienced our old friend permausterity that we’ve discussed before.  In 2015, a small uptick in state appropriations left outlays nearly 20 percent below their pre-recession levels (summary page 8). Meanwhile, the historic backfill for state cuts, student tuition hikes, became politically untenable, as UC President Janet Napolitano found out when she couldn’t get even a piece of her 5% a year for 5 years through Sacramento. A second solution, ed-tech, was to step into the breach with massive savings through technological efficiency at the same level of quality.  That fix failed completely, though many politicians continued to flog it.

The upshot for 2016 is that real funds for the educational core will stay flat or fall as a share of overall expenditures, even as the student share of public college expenditures has grown from 1/2 to nearly 2/3rds of the total.  So Earth-One’s 2016 default will be sagging public college quality as these institutions and their less-privileged students fall further behind the instructional and research trends set by the wealthy private universities, which in 2015 were richer and more exclusive than ever.

Stratification between public and private will be echoed by more of the same within public systems. The public flagships will stay afloat while the more vulnerable campuses drift into whatever shallows will keep most decks above water. Nick Fleisher and Richard Grusin discussed cuts at the important Wisconsin-Milwaukee campus, which educates a large urban population while dealing with unjustified reductions.  These diverging fates were intensified by a tradition of gross inequality in per-student funding across state systems: Sara Goldrick-Rab and Tammy Kolbe discussed the lopsided figures for the University of Wisconsin system.

E1 academic leaders no longer dream of fixing a problem that endangers the core purpose of public colleges, which is equal education.  E1 citizens didn’t vote for the deterioration of quality of campuses serving the poorer and more remote parts of states while their tax dollars support the flagships that serve the most non-resident students, but that is what they are going to get. They face a renewed elitism of public college education, right when universal quality is more necessary than ever.

Humans are no less foolish on Earth-Two. But E2 has better communication from grassroots to the executive tiers, where for cultural reasons they care more about how C-suite decisions affect life in the trenches.  Thus E2 Napolitano started 2016 by telling her staff:

Stop bringing me these nickel solutions.  Stuff like UCOP Venture Capital may be good PR, but will generate a drop in the bucket if we’re lucky. You realize it’s not 1995 anymore?   Non-resident tuition is a band-aid–anyone can do the math.  I know UC students who couldn’t get detailed paper feedback from the faculty we’re not hiring even if we passed out handguns at every campus gate.  I don’t want to see another Jerry budget with just 4% for us again. I need a 16% state funding increase each year for five years, starting now.  Tell Jerry “tuition is frozen forever” if he rebuilds state funding levels.  Make a list of exactly how all of the new money will go to the educational core–I mean 100%.  First explain what the hell UC “educational quality” is.  Call some actual UC instructors why don’t you?  Tell Jerry we won’t spend one new dime on executive comp.  We’re going to announce a two-year freeze on executive hiring.  And please, start de-gunking the ridiculous bureaucratic processes around here.  Re-engineer something rather than just make campuses comply with more standardization.  And call those guys that say we can get 2001 low-tuition and good funding for another 30 bucks a year or whatever it is. Figure out how we can support it!

No Earth-One president would talk like that.  And yet it follows from two Earth-Two cultural practices: (1) open, reciprocal communication between execs and the least powerful of their institutional cultures–undergraduate education, disciplines without extramural income, low-income students; (2) the refusal to sacrifice weaker units for the sake of the strong.  E2 senior managers move from educational needs to  budget requests rather than the other way around, with the goal of quality for the whole.

2. Massive student protests against racism.  In 2015, both Earths saw large anti-racist protests sandwiched between, on the one hand, ongoing police killings of unarmed Black people followed by the non-indictments of key shooters, and on the other, the Supreme Court’s triple-jeopardy reconsideration of affirmative action in the Fisher case (triple because the 2013 Fisher decision was already a retread of the 1990s Hopwood cases that were decided by Bollinger in 2003). Racism on campus (Missouri, Yale, Ithaca College, etc.) showed itself to rise from campuses failing to shelter students from the wider social regression.  E1 and E2 political leaders had tolerated or encouraged a boom in economic inequality and tolerated or encouraged the resegregation of the American school system. Meanwhile, the US college system also became Separate and Unequal: most new white students went to more selective, wealthier colleges while most new students of color went to less selective and poorer mass institutions.  Colleges continued the minoritization of students of color even as they formed pluralities or majorities of student bodies, and did not explain and demand strong race-conscious policies. They outsourced racial politics and social integration to their offices of student affairs, and on Earth-One and Earth-Two alike, didn’t generally make students of color feel like they were first-class citizens on their own campuses.  Faced with intensive protests, E1 senior managers offered to listen better while rethinking some specific instances of their tradition of concealing their complicity with larger racist forces (like the presidency of Woodrow Wilson).   Structural changes stayed off the table.

Meanwhile, on Earth-Two, a staffer in the University of Missouri Office of the President read a content analysis of anti-racist student demands across the country.  She saw that the most frequent were for more faculty of color, more student diversity, more courses on race, ethnicity, and sexuality theory, more institutional support for students of color, more diversity training, and better mechanisms for reporting, sanctioning, and preventing hate crimes.  Wow, the staffer thought, these are the demands of the 1980s! Why didn’t we met these years ago?

In early 2016, she tracked down E2 Mizzou’s substitute president and spoke as follows:

Look, our protesters are the children of the students who denounced the lack of faculty of color back in 1985.  Most of higher ed has spent the last thirty years screwing around.   University managers look like racist tools because they can’t do much better than the right-wingers that run Congress and the Supreme Court.   Here is part of the speech I suggest you let me write: “I support racial equality of outcome, not just of opportunity.  The fact that society maintains racial disparity in everything–income, wealth, health, longevity, education, you name it–doesn’t mean universities need to.  So as of today, my administration stands for equality of racial outcomes.  Now we need to figure out how to get that at Mizzou Earth-Two.  You’ve heard of the flipped classroom?  Mizzou will start with the flipped administration.  We’ll put students in charge of designing the grievance processes and curricula that they prefer. Student affairs staffers and faculty will act as a support structure for advice and counsel.  Then students, faculty, staff, and senior managers will hold a series of quiet meetings and loud town halls–what do you all call them? General Assemblies?–in which we’ll hash out the results democratically.  STudents won’t decide on their own, but they will lead the process.  Another thing we’re going to do.  My colleague, the new head of the Columbia flagship campus, will work with the Missouri system as a whole to equalize funding across this great system. We have a plan for a leveling up over a five year period.  Our goal is to fund the campuses with higher percentages of students of color at the same per-student level as the largely white flagship campus.  We need equitable funding for equitable racial outcomes, and Missouri is going to lead what I am sure is going to become a national trend.”

3. Admin’s Autocracy Crisis: The newly-installed head of the University of Iowa, Bruce Harreld, drew new attention to himself by saying that professors who failed to prepare lessons should be shot. On Earth-One, faculty awareness of domineering Boards and weakened Senates had been growing throughout 2015. One piece called it Veblen’s Nightmare.   In E1 Iowa, the main response was a librarian’s eloquent repudiation of President Harreld’s comments, which broke with the taboos of a faculty deference culture that had been helping administrators ignore or override faculty expertise even in core faculty arenas.   In an email to E1 Harreld, Lisa B. Gardinier explained,

There are many schools of pedagogy and, being a university, there are several, if not many, good ways to plan lessons, classes, and curriculum, and our academic freedom extends to teaching in the way we see fit to the content on which we are trusted to be experts, preferably with adequate support and opportunities for the development and improvement of our teaching skills throughout our career. Poor planning is an unfortunate waste of both the instructor’s and the students’ time and research but is not a capital or corporal offense, leading me to the second part of your comment.

For a university president to use the term “should be shot” so flippantly, and just a week after the most recent highly publicized mass shooting and in a tense atmosphere of racist law enforcement violence, is horrifying and unacceptable. For someone who claims to sideline his vision to that of the university community, to casually suggest potentially lethal punishment as consequences for failure to comply with a narrow perception of the correct way to fulfill one of our duties, is irresponsible and unprofessional. You may not have been kicked out since your appointment, but not for lack of trying, and nor is anyone is advocating for bodily harm to come of you or anyone complicit in your hire.

Earth-One greets Lisa Gardinier’s open critique as an act of individual courage and candor.  Earth-Two, being more culturally evolved, sees it as an act of public witness in an institutional context, pointing toward collaborative emulation with a goal of social health.  Others take up the challenge of frankness, writing E2 Harreld with non-anonymous appraisals of his performance and its effect on their feelings about their institution and their work.  The E2 Academic Senate encourages public statements as expressions of an ethic of general participation in self-goverance.  Over a few weeks, as open exchange becomes the rule rather than the exception, flaming and trolling all but disappear, as their function of nuking the enemy becomes less attractive psychologically.  The same goes for retaliation and shunning, twin norming procedures whose coercive and negative effects become deceasingly acceptable as more people survive and even thrive on commentary.  Iowa becomes a model of open governance by generalized peer-review.  It becomes an experiment in combining stable and regularized structures with an ethics of disclosure.  Once someone names this the operative community, and E2 President Harreld enthusiastically joins in, the chair of the E2 Iowa Board of Regents responds.

When we hired Bruce, we were following the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) script that said we needed to take ownership of the university away from faculty, staff, and students.  We felt entitled to brush off the AAUP’s rejection of our procedures, and rule through negative stereotypes of various university subgroups.  Now my earlier dismissal of faculty critiques as “embracing the status quo of the past” seems kind of dumb.  Since I’m too old to change, I’m announcing my resignation from the Board, so I can find a sphere where my kind of unilateral top-down decisionmaking still makes sense. Universities need every single person’s full intelligence or they don’t work.  I wish Iowa all the best.

These three examples from DC Comics archives show Earth-Two does better not by having special Jedi foresight and discipline but by having open institutional cultures.  Their universities are less managerial and more democratic, less autocratic and more proceduralist, less algorithmic and more widely informed.  Luckily, Earth-One can learn from the more advanced cultures of Earth-Two.

A belated and hopeful Happy New Year, whichever planet you’re from.

 

One thought on “There Is a Better Way

  1. Let us suppose all the demands of the disenfranchised are met, and, as some have advocated, post secondary education is “free”. What is the outcome that no one discusses. We are at the edge of a world where knowledge is fungible and transferable across geo/political boundaries. Does equal and open access level the playing field in a world moving towards competency rather than degrees by credit accumulation? Then one needs to consider that there is an analysis that says that we need 1 Ph.D. for two masters prepared equivalents to 7 with certificates or similar qualifications.

    E1 and E2 models and all the citations therein are based, as noted, on restoring a model of the past and trying to correct those problems. The other piece to address is that the costs of the university have changed with the extensive infrastructure that has evolved around the educational expectations including amenities and sports for example.

    E1 and E2 in this article and in much of the ululations is looking at the institution in isolation to the world that is changing. The “Ivory Tower”‘s walls are breeched and the institution needs to see itself in a more geo/political context.

Your comments are welcome. They must be relevant to the topic at hand and must not contain advertisements, degrade others, or violate laws or considerations of privacy. We encourage the use of your real name, but do not prohibit pseudonyms as long as you don't impersonate a real person.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s