Friday, June 05, 2015

Why We Fight: Resisting the Incursion of Free-Market Technique in US Higher Education (An Educator's Manifesto)

(This is a brief excerpt of a paper I'll be delivering in July in France at a colloquium on "Resistance in the work of Jacques Ellul")

We are now being told that a transformation is under way in American Higher Education. This transformation is commonly explained by two major factors: 1] cuts in state support for higher education, and 2] increased competition from non-traditional educational institutions (e.g., on-line “universities” such as the University of Phoenix, Argosy University, and Capella University). Universities have become dependent on tuition due to decreased external (usually state) funding; in fact, nearly half (47%) of the national average institutional cost of educating a student is paid for by tuition,[1] up from 23.8% in 1988.[2] Today, roughly 71% of all US graduates finish their schooling in debt[3]; their average indebtedness rose to $29,400.00 in 2012 – an increase of 25% over an average indebtedness of $23,450 in 2008.[4] Furthermore, the addition of new technologized education platforms, on-line universities, MOOCs (“massive open on-line courses”) and the like have only exacerbated the situation by drawing students away from traditional colleges and universities, making those institutions even more tuition dependent. In alarming rhetoric, we are told by administrators that academia is in an existential crisis which demands executive action without regard to the wishes, needs, or aims of faculty:

Unprecedented problems confront our campuses. Institutions ignore a changing environment at their peril. Like dinosaurs, they risk becoming exhibits in a kind of cultural Jurassic Park: places of great interest and curiosity, increasingly irrelevant in a world that has passed them by.[5]

Many governing boards, faculty members, and chief executives believe that internal governance arrangements have become so cumbersome that timely decisions are difficult to make, and small factions often are able to impede the decision-making process.[6]

In response to these systemic economic problems, university administrators across the country have introduced with surprising consistency – to the dismay of faculty and of many staff but with the encouragement of governing boards – sets of policies that, while no two universities may have exactly the same response, still contain a number of curiously similar items: the elimination of tenure, diminution of faculty’s role in shared governance, the remediation of “curricular stagnation,” an increase in (faculty) productivity, the control of costs, etc.

Notwithstanding the sacrifices that have been borne – almost exclusively – by faculty and staff around the US in the last several years (faculty salaries have essentially flat-lined in the last few years and in many cases have not kept up with inflation[7]; the proportion of full-time, tenure-track faculty has been steadily decreasing[8] while at the same time 25% of all US adjunct faculty are forced to supplement their income with public assistance such as Medicaid and food stamps[9]), I choose not to question immediately the need for greater institution-wide productivity or the control of costs. Indeed, as I shall soon argue, these are critical issues for the survival of higher education in the US; just not in the same way, or for the same reasons, as argued by administrators and governing boards. However, I believe that three of these issues – tenure, shared governance, and the so-called “curricular stagnation” – are a red herring that places an even greater burden on both full-time and adjunct faculty, threatens academic freedom, denies administrative accountability, commoditizes curriculum, and will, if left unchallenged, hurt students.

I believe that US higher education is on the verge of adopting a “free-market” model of higher education, a top-down structure of bosses and workers, a commoditization of information that mirrors the technological society, that focuses not on the needs of students as citizens and people, but on the culturally-derived desires of students as consumers and future functionaries of the free market.

[1] Woodhouse, Kellie. Public Colleges' Revenue Shift, Inside Higher Education, April 13, 2015. Accessed April 15, 2015 from:
[2] Bidwell, Allie. Colleges Get More State Funds, but Rely on Tuition. US News & World Report, April 21, 2014. Accessed April 16, 2015 from:
[3] The Institute for College Access and Success. Quick Facts About Student Debt, March 2014. Accessed April 16, 2015 from:
[4] Ibid.
[5] Kellogg Commission on the Future of State and Land-Grant Universities. Taking charge of change: Renewing the promise of state and land-grant universities. (Washington, DC: National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, 1996), p. 1.
[6] Board of Directors, Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. AGB Statement on Institutional Governance. (Washington, DC: Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, 1998), p. 3.
[7] Curtis, John, and Thornton, Sarenna. Losing Focus: The Annual Report on the State of the Profession, 2013-14. Academe (Washington, DC: American Association of University Professors, March-April 2014), p. 5.
[8] Jaschik, Scott. The Disappearing Tenure-Track Job. Inside Higher Education, May 12, 2009. Accessed May 12, 2015 from:
[9] Jacobs, Ken; Perry, Ian; and MacGillvary, Jenifer. The High Public Cost of Low Wages. The University of California at Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, April 2015. Accessed June 2, 2015 from:

No comments: