Thursday, April 17, 2014

Why universities are unsustainable

      I’ve written about the unsustainability of the contemporary college and university system on this blog before. What prompts another entry is the publicity attending the recent announcement that a vice-chancellor of the University of Maine received a $40K pay increase last year while simultaneously prescribing a cut of $36 million for the University of Maine systems. Needless to say, those protesting the cuts (chiefly to academic programs and academic faculty) suddenly had a cause célebre. This revelation dramatically highlights the root problem, as I see it: American colleges and universities are academic institutions no longer. They've become corporations.
    The administrator's boss defended the pay raise. The chancellor--top banana of the university--explained that other state universities paid these people 1/3 again as much as her $205,000 salary. (Does any faculty member at UMaine earn that much? I doubt it. Even at my instiution, Brown University, where faculty salaries are higher, very few do--and if so, then for the same reason: they'd command higher salaries elsewhere.) The University of Maine was in danger of losing her to another institution, he said. She was doing a good job; better pay her what she’s worth—so runs the argument, if by good job we mean balancing the budget on the backs of academics because  university administrators had failed miserably to convince the state legislature to make up the difference. The chancellor's argument assumes a corporate model. In such a model, the administrators who run the corporation are the executives, the faculty are labor, and the students are both consumers and product. Is the corporate model the best way to conceive of education?
    Certainly it has some advantages. As a corporation, a university is likely to run more efficiently. The focus is on turning out a successful product. Proliferation of administrators on the financial end of things means that universities are now run as businesses, with the goal of increasing income: from investments, from consumers (student tuition), from donors (wealthy alumni), from government (agency grants for research; legislative funding), etc. (Never mind that UMaine's lobbyists and fundraisers weren't persuasive enough; they need hire better ones. Of course they'll have to pay them more; which means even less money for academics, unless these fundraisers can do what all their predecessors failed at.) No doubt university income has increased overall, yet somehow the cost of getting it, keeping it, spending it and growing it is outpacing the income itself. For in order to get more science grants, schools have to spend money on high profile scientists who require state-of-the-art laboratories—which are enormously expensive and getting more so exponentially, like the cost of high-tech medical care. In order to get more money from donors, the students mustn’t only be educated; they must be kept happy, which means expensive support services including counseling, pleasant accommodations, excellent food and plenty of food choices, high grades, and positioning for a successful career. Colleges and universities have become like Lake Wobegon in that regard, where grade inflation—now the majority of grades are A’s, in case you don’t know—means all students now are “above average.” In order to get more money from investments, universities compete to hire the best financial managers, those who might otherwise be running hedge-funds for the super-rich, and whose salaries make the $205,000 of this vice-chancellor look like spare change.
    The business model becomes self-perpetuating in the sense that other schools are now regarded chiefly as competitors and only secondarily as cooperating allies in a larger educational ecosystem. And the schools themselves are run on competitive models. Granted, students had always competed for better grades, and now that competition is less keen. This is because students are now regarded both as consumers and product. Don't upset them with bad grades, don't flunk them out unless they're beyond saving. The competition now takes place in the labor market—that is, among faculty. Whereas until about 1970 the supply of and demand for full-time, tenured faculty was about equal, after 1970 in an effort to save money--this was when they began to be run like corporations--universities began hiring cheap labor (adjunct, part-time professors) and paying them by the course, thereby increasing productivity. An adjunct professor typically receives no fringe benefits such as retirement savings, subsidized medical care, decent office space (or any at all), and earns about 1/3 of the amount per course taught on average compared with a tenured professor. No wonder the percentage of adjunct professors in higher education has increased to the point where they now comprise more than half of the total faculty. In 1970 adjuncts made up only one-quarter, and that included many who wanted to work part-time. At today’s salaries, an adjunct faculty member who moonlights by teaching part-time at more than one institution and winds up with a full load of courses (equivalent to what a full-time professor teaches) earns about the same amount as a person who repairs bicycles, about $23,000 annually. Tenured professors cost their institutions at least three times that, and typically their productivity is lower in the sense that they teach fewer students. Never mind research productivity, or teaching effectiveness; it's all about per-unit cost.
    I’ve experienced this transition myself, having entered college in 1961 and begun full-time university teaching in a tenure-track position in 1971. By then the academic job market was beginning to contract. When I was evaluated for tenure six years later, the profession had already contracted so much that only 10% of those at my university were then receiving tenure; the rest were fired and had to look for jobs elsewhere. I was one of the lucky 10%. Among my friends in my graduating class holding the doctorate, about half were able eventually to get tenure and maintain the kinds of teaching careers that were common through the 1960s; the others were not. Later classes fared more poorly. Certainly, ebbs and flows in the economy and trends within academia have occasionally advantaged certain disciplines—ethnomusicology is one—but in general opportunities for university faculty have gotten gradually worse since 1970 and the profession is still contracting.
    Some dreamers hold up the old model of a collegial university, run largely by faculty on temporary leave from their academic positions, to return to them after serving time in administration, as an ideal to strive for once again. In that model, students were educated, not trained. Learning meant preparing to take one's place as a critical thinker and active citizen. Of course, that also prepared one for a career, not a McJob. A return to this educational model isn't likely, except at small institutions with targeted special-interest populations, such as Sterling College, which I wrote about here earlier. There are a few others like it. Instead, productivity will accelerate until even administrators price themselves out of the game. Distance learning via Internet courses is more efficient and costs far, far less than maintaining college and university campuses.
    The structure of higher education will change to accommodate this shift as soon as the consumers (students) are proved to be just as successful, if not happy, in their careers as a result of these MOOCs (massive on-line open courses), except that they won’t be open any more. Students still will have to pay for them. But many fewer professors and administrators will be needed. The professorial industry—and it will become one—will function in a way similar to the textbook industry, with a few widely-used market leader courses earning money for their institutions and authors, and several competitors attempting to break into the market. Students will remain in their homes, or perhaps in special buildings set aside for the purpose in their home communities, where they will sit at computer workstations or their equivalent in the next generation of distance-learning technology, which will include access to all kinds of resources to supplement course work—digital libraries, or whatever the next technology brings about. Of course, maintaining the technological network where all this will take place is immensely expensive, but the cost will be borne—as it is now—by government, the military, corporations, and ordinary citizens. Imagine how much money is being spent even now just so that most everyone can connect to the Internet: trillions of dollars. (Look at your own bill for Internet service, smartphone, tablet, cable, dsl, and so forth, and multiply that by the millions of population using them throughout the world.)
    That will be the new shape of higher education worldwide, for the trajectory of the corporate model, once in control, moves inexorably to increase productivity and decrease per-unit cost, while real costs (such as climate change, growing income inequality, and so on) are meant to be hidden. And they stay in hiding until exposed by ecological economics. Ironically, when this tranformation in higher education occurs, vice-chancellors such as the one at the University of Maine whose salary was raised significantly while her actions resulted in fired faculty and eliminated degree programs (and a few riffed administrators, be it said), will find themselves looking for a job somewhere else. Some will survive, but most won't.
    The old collegial model of the university was a participatory community, not a top-down corporate hierarchy. Musical communities will continue to provide participatory models, and ultimately these are more sustainable. Again, and perhaps ironically, it is the Internet that is helping to level the playing field. More on that in a later post.


  1. Hi Jeff,

    Your analysis is, as usual, trenchant. While I share your pessimism (which, I have to say, is probably harder given both my age and job!), I have to wonder if the future of the university as an institution is in such grave trouble, or if it’s the university as an institution that’s the root of our problems.

    As you no doubt know, certain elite institutions such as Brown, Harvard, et al., benefit not just from having great faculty and students, excellent resources, long histories, etc., but they also benefit from the social connections that they facilitate amongst the student body. I think it's the country club aspect of college life that could sustain some institutions, for better or worse. While social media and on-line communities may help elongate or initiate or enrich (or impoverish or outmode) such communities and relationships, I think it'll be the campus life that sparks them and maintains them. Of course, equitable access to such opportunities is already imperiled; we’re familiar with the unfairly low rates of access for financially challenged high school students, and there’s also the elite privilege of legacy admissions. Sure, there could still be some vertical movement up the socioeconomic ladder that universities can facilitate, and we’ll probably hear more about those stories than others, but I imagine the trend will only continue to diminish that movement (unless, perhaps, the recent Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action has the predicted trend of sending universities to look for socioeconomic diversity rather than color diversity).

    When I saw your title, however, I had a very different thought about why universities are unsustainable. This thought relates to the other, multi-perspectival, and more problematic meaning of “sustainable.” And because that meaning is problematic, I should define the way I think of it: sustainability is not just a synonym for “maintain” that implies (in some cases) a sense of the static, but rather as an approach to the world that seeks to analyze and change it by considering the interconnections between the primary realm of environment together with social justice, economics, and aesthetics. (As you know, the usual approach is “economy, equity, ecology,” but I’m not a fan of the three-legged stool because it gives equal weight to those; and anyway, in the business world, where sustainability is a hot topic but has acquired a bad rap, economy ends up trumping the others.)

    Anyway, what I thought when I first saw your title is this: if universities continue to educate future generations in the same economically oriented ways that lack any sense of equity and beauty and, especially, any understanding of the natural world, then the graduates themselves will further the implosion of modern human civilization. We have to upend the entire model of education, and yet, given your analysis of the situation in academe, that’s not likely! I think that climate change, ecologically destructive behaviors, waste, injustice, and economic bubbles will destroy the universities before their own corporatizing will. I’m not sure which is worse, though: universities as we know them imploding or universities as we know them fanning the flames of current global crises. Either way, for someone who only recently received tenure, it’s a depressing thought — but, if nothing else, it incites me to do what little I can to provoke change.

    Thanks again for the thoughtful post.


  2. Great post- thanks so much. with best regards, Phil