Tuesday, May 2, 2017

THE CRISIS OF HIGHER EDUCATION IN THE 21ST CENTURY


Harry Targ

From comments prepared for the statewide meeting of the Indiana American Association of University Professors, April 28, 2017, University of Indianapolis

Prelude to an Historical Analysis

On Thursday, April 27, 2017, President Daniels, Purdue University, announced to the university community a dramatic new program that he and the Board of Trustees had been fashioning in secret for months. Purdue University, a self-proclaimed world class university, would be acquiring Kaplan University, one of several controversial for-profit on-line universities that have emerged over the last twenty years. According to an article in the Lafayette Journal and Courier:

Daniels said the agreement with Kaplan-an affiliate of Graham Holdings Company-both allows Purdue to fully break into the growing online education sector, which the university wasn’t prepared to do on its own, and to serve more nontraditional students who are unlikely to attend a residential campus (Meghan Holden, “Purdue to Acquire Kaplan University,” Journal and Courier, April 28, 2017).

The campus community was stunned by the announcement which it learned about through a hastily called special meeting Daniels assembled with selected faculty and an e-mail announcement to the faculty. Some of us, including members of the Purdue chapter of AAUP were asked to respond to this dramatic new development in The Chronicle of Higher Education. I was quoted as follows:

Faculty should have input on educational policy matters ….Issues to be addressed should particularly include the academic integrity of whole degrees offered on-line...   One would assume, since issues of staffing, developing credit, connecting with the traditional Purdue campuses are all issues of relevance to  faculty who should have been consulted and informed.
Another Purdue colleague, David Sanders referred to the “Walmartization” of higher education, the provisioning of quick cheap degrees. “When speed and cost become more important than quality, faculty are going to object.” (Eric Kelderman,”Purdue Faculty and Students React Warily to Kaplan Deal,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 28, 2017).

The dramatic developments at Purdue University highlight a number of issues that bear upon the mission and purpose of AAUP as a protector and advocate of faculty and the integrity of higher education in general. Among the questions that should concern us are the following:

1.Who makes decisions involving higher education?
2.What is and should be the standards and vision of higher education?

3.What role do and should faculty play in higher education?

4.Are there changes occurring in the realm of economics and politics that are threatening our vision of quality education and the long-standing principle of “shared-governance” in matters of educational policy-making?

 An Historical Analyses

According to Clyde Barrow,  (Universities and the Capitalist State: Corporate Liberalism and the Reconstruction  of American Higher Education. 1894-1928, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1990) the modern university had its roots in the period of rising capitalism after the Great Depression of the 1870s to the 1890s when mergers created an economic system in which a few hundred corporations and banks came to dominate the entire U.S. economy. Interlocking directorates of corporations and banks created a system of financial speculation, concentrated wealth, and a capitalist state. The capitalist state through pro-corporate and banking regulations, the allocation of tax and other benefits for the wealthy and powerful,  and military mobilizations, such as President Cleveland’s use of the United States army to crush workers during the Pullman strike of 1894, helped create twentieth century monopoly capitalism. 

Higher education, once dominated by theological pursuits, was refashioned to serve the needs of modern capitalist society. The need for scientific and technical skills coupled with a trained work force stimulated the establishment of educational institutions that could produce credentialed graduates who would serve the capitalist system. Also theoretical work and classroom education was required to educate the young to celebrate the blessings of the economic system and the conduct of the government. Young people learned about the desirability of market economies, the country’s long tradition of democratic institutions, and the manifest destiny of the United States as it conquered the North American continent and established a global empire from the Philippine Islands, to Cuba, to Central and South America.

Barrow provides data to show that members of university Boards of Trustees, the key decision makers in these institutions, came largely from big corporations, huge banks, and law firms which served big business. Some universities from the Midwest and South were led by trustees who represented regional manufacturing and finance capital, but their outlook and interests paralleled those from the major universities of the Northeast and the major state universities. There were never representatives of broader citizens groups such as labor unions on these boards.

During the early twentieth century, Trustees worked to establish an administrative class that could carry out the day-to-day operations of the university and manage the faculty who were the producers of the mental products the university was assigned to produce. Managerial procedures were adopted to control mental labor in the classroom and the laboratory. Metrics were institutionalized to evaluate the rates of productivity of the faculty; from measuring enrollments, publications, and the rankings of the university.

Federal and state governments and foundations funded the construction of a national university system that would serve the interests of twentieth century capitalism. Major foundations generated studies, did surveys, and made recommendations that found their way into institutions and policies of both public and private universities. During periods when domestic crises, such as depressions, and international ones, such as World War I, stimulated critical analyses from universities, faculty were disciplined or fired for challenging the economic system or state policy. The educational mission was to serve the interests of the capitalist elites and the state, not to provide a venue for critical thinking and debate about issues important to society.

Barrow summarized his findings about higher education:

Individual institutions were developing into centralized corporate bureaucracies administered according to nationally standardized measurements of productivity and rates of return on investment. The entire educational enterprise was being restructured within these standards as a production process that was increasingly integrated into local or regional markets for labor, information, research and professional expertise. The process was more and more a planned undertaking directed by the federal government. The construction of a national ideological state apparatus oriented toward solving the problems of capitalist infrastructure, capital accumulation, and political leadership within a capitalist democracy was well under way. (123)

This description of the emergence of the modern university system about one hundred years ago bears resemblance to the wrenching changes that are occurring in higher education in the twenty-first century. First, the further consolidation of capitalist class power in higher education in the current century comes in the aftermath of the Great Recession that began in 2008. United States capitalism continued its transformation from manufacturing to finance as rates of profit from the latter declined. Financial speculation led to banking failures and the collapse of the housing market. Consumer demand shrunk due to rising structural unemployment and falling real wages. And the cost of state support for the provision of education and various social safety nets programs rose. Economic crisis was used to justify austerity policies that included significant reductions in support for higher education.
Second, the economic shocks were used by Boards of Trustees, and their advisers in think tanks and political organizations, to demand increasing efficiencies in the production and teaching of knowledge. Programs that could not be justified as good “investments” became vulnerable. The humanities disciplines had to be justified by their use value to the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines.

Third, metrics have become omnipresent. Colleges and universities are using quantitative instruments to measure “creativity,” “critical thinking,” “personal satisfaction,” “teacher effectiveness,” and faculty “productivity.” University administrators strongly imply that if the activities at their institutions are not measurable in the narrow numerical sense, they should not be supported.
Finally, as the experience of academic critics one hundred years ago of child labor, anti-union policies, World War I, and financial speculation suggests, the nature of debate in the university is circumscribed. University policies, in response to organizations of professors and students, have expanded rights to “academic freedom” and have provided some job security through tenure. But attacks on tenure (which is a right to job security that all workers should enjoy if they perform their duties) are spreading as the twenty-first century “reconstruction of American higher education” proceeds. 

To forestall these trends, faculty and students, as Barrows suggests, need to understand that “education has been and remains a contested terrain.”  Most educators believe that the primary purpose of the university is or should be to stimulate a “marketplace of ideas.” However, the history of higher education, he says, is really about how the university can serve the preservation and enhancement of the capitalist state.

The Crisis of Higher Education
The crisis of higher education involves the efforts of economic elites and politicians to transform education to serve the twenty-first century needs of the larger economy and polity, and not necessarily, the citizenry at large. Barrow provides us with a useful paradigm from which to assess developments in all public institutions including colleges and universities. Power and control resides in Boards of Trustees and political elites and to a lesser extent university administrators. Their lens on educational policy is shaped by unfolding economic and political interests.

If we continue the narrative from the time period Barrow studies, we can identify the growth in higher education with the post-war United States economy, sometimes referred to as the “golden age.” After World War II economic priorities shifted to stimulating manufacturing, mass production and consumption, creating consumer and military demand, the expansion of education, and the provisioning of opportunities for higher education. Higher education became affordable for middle class Americans. War veterans had access to education via the GI Bill. Whole educational systems were constructed in big states like New York and California. Systems of community colleges were established to provide opportunities for poorer and part-time students. The size of faculties increased dramatically. Professional associations and journals increased to facilitate credentialing of new generations of faculty. And in response to uprisings in the 1960s over war, racism, and student rights universities expanded educational programs to overcome traditional “canons” of scholarship and education that left out the examination of the experiences of masses of people (particularly people of color, women, workers, immigrants). The post-war economy boomed and so did higher education.
However, economic stagnation (nationally and globally) began  in the 1970s. Rates of profit declined. Consumption could not match production. Governments no longer could allocate sufficient resources to fund public programs (a political problem) and those who were critics of the modern social democracies marshalled their wealth and political muscle to challenge the vary premises of public policy.

By the late 1970s, Democrats as well as Republicans began to endorse government policies (internationally and domestically) that called for declining government support for social programs; deregulating finance, manufacturing, and markets; and the privatization of public institutions and programs. The policy agenda and this latest phase of capitalism was called neoliberalism. Some commentators refer to the economic policies adopted in the era of neoliberalism as “austerity.”

Below the political radar the billionaire Koch Brothers established The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in the early 1970s to support client state legislators, create “expert” think tanks on various policy issues, write model legislation on subjects as varied as health care, labor issues, creating charter schools, and transforming higher education. The neoliberal agenda, as was said, was endorsed to varying degrees by both political parties, and was most effectively institutionalized in state governments. Indiana in the era of Governors Daniels and Mike Pence was a model for applied neoliberalism.

Sometime in the late 1980s I heard Rush Limbaugh celebrate on his radio show the neoliberal victories that had been achieved but he declared that the one institution “we” had not been able to shape and control was the university. And that has been the project of endorsed by ALEC, state legislators, rightwing advocacy groups, and university administrators all across the nation.

As an essay by Anthony Paul Farley in a recent issue Academe suggests:

Recent struggles over higher education have taken place on the terrain of austerity, where a new ‘business’ model of higher education has called for the dramatic reduction of labor costs through such means as the elimination of tenure and the replacement of full-time academics with adjuncts. The idea of higher education as a public good has, it seems, very little purchase in the discourse of austerity.  

Everything that can be measured is measured. Money becomes the measure of all things. This metaphysics of austerity has consequences for things not measurable in monetary terms. If the value of an academic discipline cannot be measured in such terms, then it does not exist.

Starving the Beast: Cutting Support for Higher Education

Purdue University President Mitch Daniels testified March 17, 2015 before a subcommittee of the House of Representatives Committee on Education and Workforce on what he calls higher education reform. He also spoke during that week to the American Council on Education and the Brookings Institute. A centerpiece of his recommendations was “income share agreements” whereby students partner with investors, particularly alumni, who would provide funds for their education in exchange “for a small share of the student’s future income.” 

Daniels was touting this idea in addition to new cost-saving policies at Purdue University, such as offering three-year degree programs, using different metrics rather than course hours to measure student preparation, and tuition freezes. He has also urged a reduction in costly federal regulations.

Although some of Daniels’ proposals and programs at his home university have merit, the conversation he and other administrators around the country are having about rising tuition and the accumulation of years of debt ignore the major reason why costs and tuition are rising. In addition to the cost of higher education attributable to increased faculty salaries; layers of new administrators; the creation of new luxury amenities to attract students (housing, food, and recreational facilities), tuition has risen because state government financing of higher education has not kept pace with expenditures.

The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities issued a report on May 1, 2014 (“States Are Still Funding Higher Education Below Pre-Recession Levels”) which provides data to show that higher education funding remains below 2007-2008 pre-recession levels in 48 of 50 states. This means, according to CBPP: “the large funding cuts have led to both steep tuition increases and spending cuts that may diminish the quality of education available to students at a time when a highly educated workforce is more crucial than ever to the nation’s economic future.”

CBPP reports that since 2007-2008 state spending on higher education is down 23 percent, or $2,026 per student. Tuition increases have been substantial in public colleges and universities from fiscal year 2008 to 2014 ranging from $253 in Montana to $4,493 in Arizona.  In Indiana tuition increased by $1,191 during this period. CBPP notes that in 1988 colleges and universities received 3.2 times more of their revenue from state and local governments than from students. That ratio declined to about 1.1 times more from government supports than tuition in 2013. Put another way the report states:

“Nearly every state has shifted costs to students over the last 25 years--with the most drastic shift occurring since the onset of the recession…Today, tuition revenue now outweighs government funding for higher education in 23 states…”

Not surprisingly Daniels’ idea that students find a rich supporter in exchange for future student earnings came from proposals made by free market advocate Milton Friedman in the 1980s. Friedman, the University of Chicago economist, was the most significant descendent of so-called “free market” economists who believe as did President Reagan that “government was not the solution; government was the problem.” From the vantage point of 2015, the privatization of all education, including higher education, is on the agenda of wealthy conservatives such as the Koch Brothers and the powerful state legislative lobbying organization, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC funds state politicians who support the elimination of public institutions, such as education.

Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, argued that during periods of economic or political crisis, changes have been introduced to weaken government and the maintenance of public services. The CBPP data suggests that the deep recession of 2008-2011 was an occasion for ALEC and the politicians and educators they support to reduce resources available for higher education. Despite the long history of government support for higher education, public schools from kindergarten through high school, libraries, roads, and police and fire-fighting services, the recession offered the occasion for influential and wealthy elites to pressure for policies that reduced state financial support for public services and a shift toward their privatization. In addition universities became even more dependent on big corporations, banks, and the military.  Finally, tuition increased and students had to pay a higher share of the cost of their education.

Throughout much of U.S. history public education, including higher education, has been seen as a public good. The land grant system of public higher education was instituted in 1862. From then until the recent recession, public colleges and universities educated large percentages of the young and generated much of the scientific and technical knowledge that stimulated the U.S. economy, based on substantial public support and low student tuition. 

After World War II, returning veterans became eligible for free higher education under the GI Bill. The program led to the training and credentialing of a whole generation of young people who went on to become educators and researchers, and also consumers of products manufactured after the war. The so-called economic “golden age,” from 1945 until the 1970s, was driven by research and development initiated by GI Bill recipients. These college graduates became members of the largest middle class in American history. 

As Bob Samuels author of Why Public Higher Education Should Be Free put it:

“I actually believe that we should and could make all public higher education completely free. We’re currently spending around $185 billion on higher education annually—which includes spending on for-profit schools, which have very low graduation rates and high debt rates, as well as on merit aid for wealthy students. Given current enrollment, I estimate that it would cost about $155 billion to fund public colleges and four-year institutions completely. My argument is instead of funding the individuals, we should just fund the institutions directly” (quoted in Rebecca Burns, “Why Can’t College Be Free?” In These Times, June 13, 2014, http://www.inthesetimes.com).

However, advocates of “higher education reform” at least those collaborating with economic and political elites who advocate policies depriving government of financial resources, sometimes called “starving the beast,” envision a day when all public institutions are privatized. There is much evidence that the privatization of education will increase gaps between rich and poor and may leave the latter with inferior educations. The Daniels plan will rely on wealthy benefactors to support students while tuition costs continue to rise and those who still seek a college education will continue to accumulate a lifetime of debt. 

Without a return to affordable publicly supported higher education, large proportions of young, intellectually curious, and talented students may be deterred from pursuing higher education which will have negative consequences for the entire society.

Additional Negative Consequences to Higher Education of the Neoliberal Paradigm
STEM

In a 2015 article Lindsey Russell, an ALEC Director of its Education Task Force, wrote an essay entitled “STEM-Will It Replace Liberal Arts?” In it he reports Bureau of Labor Statistics projections that from 2012-2022 there will be a growth of 13 percent in the STEM related workforce. As a result he poses the question reflected in the title of his article. His answer, although he does not say so directly is a qualified “yes.” He does quote a Forbes magazine article that suggests that STEM graduates need “critical thinking skills” to pursue their careers. These skills, the article asserts, along with those in communication, are what a Liberal Arts education can provide. In an interesting statement he says about STEM and Liberal Arts:

“STEM is the present and the future, and STEM related fields are projected to grow by more than 1 million by the year 2022….Liberal arts education may seem irrelevant today, but it is necessary if America’s youth are to become successful members of today’s STEM-dominated workforce.”
However, some empirical studies challenge the claims about preparing for a “STEM-dominated workforce.” Such analyses, and claims about shortcomings in the American educational system, go back as far as the Soviet Union’s launch of “Sputnik.” In a 2014 volume,  Michael Teitelbaum (Falling Behind? Boom, Bust and the Global Race for Scientific Talent, Princeton Press) challenges the periodically claimed view that the United States is somehow “falling behind” in the production of scientists and engineers and in his words, “advocates of these shortage claims have had a nearly open field in politics and the media.”

In addition, in a Bureau of Labor Statistics Monthly Labor Review, May 2015 article entitled, “STEM Crisis or STEM Surplus? Yes and Yes,” the following conclusions are reached based upon extensive research:

*Since the STEM labor market is heterogeneous there are both shortages and surpluses depending on the particular job market segment.”
*In the academic market there are noticeable oversupplies of Ph. D’s.

*In some sectors of government jobs there are shortages of STEM-trained personnel.

*In the private sector, there are some areas were STEM demand is great, in others
where oversupply exists.

*Levels of oversupply or demand vary by geographic region.
Perhaps the most damning statement on STEM training and jobs comes from an article by Hal Salzman, “STEM Grads Are at a Loss,” US News, Sept. 15, 2014 declaring that: “All credible research finds the same evidence about the STEM workforce: ample supply, stagnant wages and, by industry accounts, thousands of applicants for any advertised job.”

While debates continue about the need to prioritize STEM in the educational process, a more important discussion should involve the substance and role of what usually is called “the Liberal Arts.” Should Liberal Arts be seen as only a training ground for honing critical thinking and communications skills or does the Liberal Arts project go much deeper?

Henry Giroux, Professor of English and Cultural Studies, McMasters University, Hamilton, Ontario, posted an essay he called “Neoliberal Savagery and the Assault on Higher Education as a Democratic Public Space,” on September 15, 2016 in which he claimed that political pressures to change and marginalize Liberal Arts had its roots in the theory and practice of neoliberal ideology, an ideology based on a crude vision of markets, privatization of public institutions, and the reduction of all of social life to commodification.

Metrics and Infantilization

At Purdue University and elsewhere administrators have advocated and enforced the use of metrics to measure the quality of the university, the “products” that are being produced, the level of “satisfaction” graduates had with their educational experience, feelings of job satisfaction among faculty, years taken to graduate, quality of jobs attained by students, employer satisfaction with graduates, trends in grades and probably others. In addition increasingly only certain professional journals are ranked high enough to warrant faculty promotion and references from only selective universities warrant consideration in tenure/promotion cases.

Therefore in virtually every phase of the education process there has been a radical transformation from qualitative to a reductionist and narrow empiricist set of university assessments. University administrators use the metrics provided by polling organizations to justify the neoliberal policies they endorse. As the section above suggests, the shift to prioritizing STEM education is defended on the basis of some empirical research to the exclusion of findings that would suggest a different set of educational policies. Numbers have replaced analysis.
The shift to metrics has been accompanied by the socialization of administrators, faculty, and students to reflect on their own performance in terms of the numbers. Numbers of articles rather than their quality become primary. Grades over knowledge acquired becomes prioritized. Numbers of students enrolled in classes, distribution of grades, amount of use of new technologies are all part of the reduction of education to the simplest common denominator. And in recent years, new university bureaucracies have been created to help “mentor” faculty and students to better perform to the metrics. The intellectual curiosity, the passion for knowledge, the encouragement for faculty and students to pursue those questions that enticed them into intellectual work are diminished as everyone is reduced to performing by the numbers.

Impacts on Faculty

Along with putting roadblocks in place for faculty to form unions, there has been a growing attack on the tenure system. Tenure means job security. Tenure means that faculty cannot be arbitrarily fired. Tenure means that after going through a period of performance and rigorous review, faculty have some job protections. And tenure means that faculty, in a work setting in which the free flow of ideas is vital, are protected from controversy in their teaching and research. Abolishing tenure is a high priority in higher education.

And, of course, there has been a qualitative decline in the percentage of college and university classes taught by tenure or tenure-track faculty and a concomitant rise in courses taught by graduate students and adjuncts. As state legislatures reduce financial allocations of resources, universities hire low paid adjuncts, often on a course-by-course basis at extraordinary savings. Of course, if an adjunct gets to teach four courses at more than one university, her/his time is spent traveling with little time to keep up with relevant literature and do research which in the long run reduces the chance for securing tenure-track employment.  
And finally, returning to the new Purdue/Kaplan story: it is assumed by Boards of Trustees, spokespersons for ALEC, corporate executives, and politicians turned university administrators that on-line education is just fine. Although on-line education may have a place in the matrix of a total academic career, the appropriate mix of campus and on-line coursework; interpersonal/electronic contact; and reading versus videos and power points on computer screens needs to be discussed all across the campus. Particularly, the Kaplan model of on-line education, even for the millions of non-traditional students, requires critical scrutiny. 

The Bernie Sanders proposal for free higher education for all should be part of public policy debate. Also, programs of additional support for regional campuses and community colleges, extension programs, extended hours on campuses for course offerings and other programs to meet the needs of non-traditional students might be part of a discussion of educational opportunities. It may be that several approaches in the long run might better serve the educational needs of  non-traditional students than new collaboration with for-profit on-line firms with dubious performance records.

What Next? 

In a 2010 essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus made a series of proposals to address some of the crises of higher education today. They began by noting that tuition for public and private colleges had doubled compared with a generation ago. Rising educational costs required parents to commit large financial outlays, second only to house mortgages, to their children’s education. Alternatively students have had to take out loans that will burden them for their entire lives.

Among the proposals these authors made were the following:

-Institute free higher education for all who seek it.

-Maintain course requirements that lead to knowledge in history, the arts, sciences, and reasoned discourse.

-Provide secure full-time teaching jobs for every classroom. Eliminate the system of staffing classrooms with graduate students and temporary adjuncts who receive one-sixth the pay of the regular faculty.

-Pay presidents and other administrators salaries commensurate with public employees, not CEOs of Wall Street banks and corporations.

While our wealthiest and most powerful institutions-- corporations and banks, the military, and the health care system-- have come under some scrutiny in the new century, until recently higher education has remained hidden behind a wall of mystery even though everyone pays lip service to it as the hope for the future.

With enduring economic stagnation coupled with rising gaps in the distribution of income and wealth, education is offered as an escape route from poverty. We need to broaden public discussion about our assumptions concerning higher education; assessing its costs, accessibility, educational quality, and workplace security.
And for faculty the task is to organize effective political/lobby groups to defend the ideal of the university. In every college and university setting discussions should be organized about the strengths and weaknesses of the neoliberalism policy agenda, with particular emphasis upon its consequences for higher education.