Tuesday, July 13, 2010

NY Times on the Country-Clubization of American Higher Education: Money Flowing to Adminstrators' Pockets, While Students and Faculty Suffer

Sam Dillon's recent New York Times article about how college and university presidents are now spending their schools' money confirms a point I've made repeatedly on this blog: namely, that many top administrators in American higher education today are earning top dollars, while faculty needs--and the needs of students--receive short shrift.  As I've noted, higher education in the U.S. is modeled more and more on the corporate world whose representatives now dominate the governing boards of colleges and universities.

In the process, the importance of education is being lost sight of, as is the value of a liberal arts education rooted in the core values of the humanities, values necessary to sustain civil society.

Dillon reports that while many colleges and universities are spending less and less on faculty salaries and student instruction, they are spending more and more on their administrative sectors, on legal services, and on public relations.  Though the article does not specify this, the rise in spending in the administrative sector is directly related to the burgeoning salaries of many university presidents, along with those of their administrative teams--of their CFOs in particular.  And the rise in spending on legal services has to do with the shoddy treatment of many faculty members by schools intent on operating more like a corporation than an academy, which end up eliciting legal challenges from faculty whose rights are violated.

The article cites Richard K. Vedder, who studies the economics of higher education, and who notes that university presidents are now frequently pushing for elaborate athletic centers and state-of-the-art student union buildings, while cutting money for classroom needs.  Vedder decries this development, which, in his view, represents "the country-clubization of the American university."

These disturbing trends in American higher education were brought home to me all over again this past week, when my elderly uncle in Houston and his son called to tell me they had gotten a solicitation letter from the United Methodist HBCU in Florida that hired Steve and me in 2006, and then fired us after a year, after its president promised us jobs there up to our retirement.  The solicitation letter asks my 90-year old uncle to consider buying a first-class seat for the school's football games--though he lives in Texas and the university is in Florida.

Needless to say, given what this school did to Steve and me, my cousin and uncle were decidedly unhappy to receive a solicitation letter from the school.  Their unhappiness deepened when I told them the school had their names in its database because I had given a donation to the university following my aunt's death in 2006, shortly before I began to work at the university.  A notice of the donation had gone to my uncle as my aunt's survivor, and to their son.

Steve and I had also gotten the same solicitation letter last week, though I've written the university a number of times to ask that it stop sending any such requests to me.  There's something . . . rather tacky . . . about firing folks whom you've placed in a situation of debt (we bought a house when we were promised jobs at the university up to retirement), and then asking them to donate money to you, no?

This school has announced in the last year or so that it intends to build a glitzy new 16,378 square-foot athletic center to the tune of nearly $5 million, and a posh new 62,175 square-foot residential center for students costing $6 million, though in the year I was academic vice-president of the university, I had to fight to get money to renovate classrooms whose walls were, in some cases, literally falling in on the students sitting in them.  And I fought unsuccessfully for funds to renovate a building that housed both classrooms and faculty offices that was in equally deplorable shape.

Stories like this suggest to me that we're a culture in crisis, because they indicate that not a few American institutions of higher education are no longer taking seriously their covenant with the culture at large to focus on strong liberal arts education and produce students who will have the values and know-how to keep democracy alive in the 21st century.  Meanwhile, as university presidents act more and more like CEOs of ruthless corporations and market their schools accordingly, the money that rolls in from these ad campaigns goes disproportionately into the pockets of presidents and their CFOs--and not to faculty and students.