Tuesday, January 20, 2009

New Administration of Barack Obama: Challenges to American Higher Education

As the inauguration of the new president nears, I’m wondering what effect the change in government will have for education. I’ve just read a thought-provoking article in the Chronicle for Higher Education that addresses some of the questions confronting higher education today in the wake of serious economic downturn. This is Jeff Abernathy’s “Into the Wild.” Abernathy is vice-president and dean of Augustana College in Illinois.

I blogged some time ago about my hopes for the new Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (http://bilgrimage.blogspot.com/2008/12/ive-been-ho-hum-about-most-of-mr.html). In that posting, I reflected on what I hope will happen in the Department of Education, given the new Secretary’s promising history in the area of early childhood education.

My thoughts this week have turned to higher education, a subject about which I have blogged repeatedly here. I’m thinking of the crisis of American higher education these days (a crisis of leadership that I’ve addressed in numerous postings) because more and more stories are breaking regarding the effects of the economic downturn on higher education. I believe these stories will become more numerous in the coming year.

I also think they will call on us to look carefully at what we have allowed higher education to become—to examine how we are letting university leaders with little understanding of or respect for academic life reduce higher education to a numbers game, thereby betraying historic commitments to academic excellence. If we address the growing economic crisis in higher education as a purely economic matter, we will contribute to a serious problem that has developed in our university and college life in recent decades, and will further undermine American higher education.

The problem? As many of my postings on this theme in the past year have noted, our institutions of higher learning are increasingly led by boards and presidents whose claim to fame is numbers crunching. Ask faculty, who do the actual work of teaching and of carrying on the legacy of the founders of universities, what is wrong with higher education, and you will get an earful. And a consistent one at that. And an instructive one, which could well be used as a model for reform, if anyone chose to listen to faculty and not the big women and big men on top, for a change.

Faculty in many institutions note increasing workloads and decreasing support for their classroom work: frozen salaries, tenure on hold, imperatives from on high to teach ever-increasing numbers of students with ever dwindling resources. And as these challenges to the pursuit of academic excellence—serious, fundamental ones—face teachers in many universities, the salaries of top administrators, including presidents and CFOs, skyrocket.

Frozen faculty salaries while those at the top are augmented when they are already grossly out of proportion with the salaries of those who do the real work of keeping academic traditions and founders’ legacies alive . . . . This demoralizes faculty, makes faculty cynical, siphons off commitment as they pursue their important teaching tasks; it raises questions about what universities really value, and whether academic excellence is really what presidents and boards wish to highlight. And these considerations of grossly overpaid top administrators do not even take into account the considerable perks and lavish benefit packages enjoyed by many top leaders of universities, many of which are not even disclosed to faculty, staff, and students, particularly in private colleges and universities.

As this situation has developed—and as it has unfolded in direct relation to similar trends in corporate economic life under the neoconservative political administrations of recent years—what has been the response of university boards, who are charged with ultimate supervision of their institutions, of assuring that academic goals remain paramount in the institution? Boards have generally been part of the problem. Many boards are dominated, after all, by the very culture of neoconservatism that has gotten American higher education into the mess it is now in.

Boards are increasingly dominated by powerful business and political leaders who see the dollar as the bottom line. Who give carte blanche to ruthless top administrators who assure profit in a university, even if that profit is earned at the cost of shoving faculty into a quasi-feudal status in which faculty rights are violated and faculty voices are muted . . . .

Many university boards are now under the control of those who have little understanding of or sympathy for academic life and academic excellence, and who appoint and defend presidents who are equally unqualified to lead academic institutions. Under the leadership of such boards and such presidents and CFOs, academic institutions in the United States are now in serious danger—danger of losing their souls, of selling themselves out as institutions committed to academic excellence and to shaping culture by imparting to students the core values necessary to keep democracy alive. Some universities I am monitoring—rare ones, I’ll admit, but they do exist—have sold their soul to neoconservative polity to such an extent that they have placed their chief academic officer under the supervision of their CFO!

The solution? In the situation of increasing stress that academic institutions will be going through now as a result of economic downturn, it would be advisable for boards to reassess the performance of presidents in areas other than the economic (and even there, in the economic area, it would be advisable for boards to look beyond glitzy charts prepared by presidents and their CFOs and to do some sober numbers-crunching of their own). It would be advisable for boards to ask how presidents are actually (as opposed to rhetorically) strengthening the academic life of their universities, and serving the mission of their universities. To look at what students are learning, and whether they are learning, and how the values the university professes to cherish are being transmitted to students—effectively (as opposed to rhetorically) transmitted.

Will this solution be applied in many universities, under the impetus of economic downturn? I doubt it. From my experience as an academic administrator whose work has required him to interact closely with university boards, I do not have much confidence that many boards will begin to look carefully at the growing discrepancy between what their institutions profess and what they practice. I do not expect university boards, on the whole, to call to accountability presidents who are grossly undermining academic excellence. It was those boards who placed the presidents in the positions of power the presidents enjoy, after all.

What I do look for in coming days, and am already seeing in some institutions, is this: more freezing of faculty salaries, more setting tenure aside, increased teaching loads for faculty, and more draconian penalties for faculty who dare to protest. In a few institutions, I am seeing worrisome signs that the economic downturn may be used as a pretext by some presidents (with board approval) to target and dismiss faculty who are critical of those presidents’ betrayal of academic excellence and of the legacy of their universities’ founders.

If this happens—and I expect it to happen on some campuses I am monitoring—I also do not expect to see accrediting bodies doing their job and protecting academic freedom of faculty. Some accrediting bodies—notably the Southern Association (SACS), which oversees colleges and universities in the Southeast—have a history of giving generous benefit of the doubt to presidents and boards, in situations of conflict in which faculty allege that their academic freedom has been violated. In states that afford faculty no legal protection against unjust dismissal—so-called right-to-work states, which are numerous in the very geographic area covered by SACS—faculty also lack any strong legal recourse when they are dismissed for reasons that are clearly spurious.

If the economic downturn does not result in attempts to address the crisis of soul in American higher education, and if university presidents and boards are continued to be allowed to get away with attempts to rob faculty of rights necessary to assure academic freedom, I do not foresee a bright future for American higher education. I do not see a bright future because the problems of higher education have become systemic, deeply entrenched, and intertwined with issues of economic power and prestige that are not easily resolved.

There was a time in which I held hope for a fix to the substantial problems I’m describing. I did so because I saw them as rooted primarily in the lust for power on the part of out-of-control egotistical top administrators intent on shoring up their power over others. The longer I have worked in academic administration, however, the more I have come to recognize that these problems are rooted in both unjust use of power over others and in economic motives that encourage top administrators and boards to turn too many universities into feeding troughs for those at the top.

One of the reasons faculty have to be relegated to quasi-feudal status in universities reorganizing themselves along neoconservative economic principles is that more and more money has to flow to the top, to support the lavish (and increasing) salaries and perks of those at the top. That money has to come from somewhere. When no questions can or will be raised about the inequity of salary distribution from the top down to the lowly faculty, then cuts will always be made at the bottom, if economic times are grim.

And boards will not protest or demand a reconsideration of the unequal distribution of salaries within the university, because many members of university boards are there not merely for the power they expect to enjoy as board members, but for the economic perks, as well. It has taken me some time to recognize many of the ramifications of the economic games being played with some college boards, because those games are skillfully hidden.

At several institutions at which I have worked and with whose boards I have interacted, for instance, it has seemed strange to me that fundraising has been carefully controlled—and even discouraged—at precisely this time in which a developing economic crunch has been on the horizon in the past five years. At such a time, one would expect a president and her or his board to turn intently to a strong fundraising program. Then I began to think about why these particular presidents and their boards were unwilling to empower and support their fundraising officers, particularly when they had outstanding fundraisers at their disposal with proven track records of success in that area.

As I reflected on this anomalous situation, I began to realize that key board members did not want strong fundraising programs, insofar as those programs would threaten those board members’ control of the university’s fundraising activities—and would threaten, as well, the perks those key board members received when they brought in grants. What had appeared to me as all about (and only about) ego and power—the need of the president and key board members to take all credit for any fundraising coups—began to appear in a different light, as I observed the economic benefits coming to board members who sought to control the fundraising of the university, and even to run off talented fundraisers with a proven track record of success.

It’s about a feeding trough, sad to say, at which the privileged few intend to keep feeding, as they shove the many away. And this is not lost on faculty, who see the clear disproportion between the amount of work they are required to do and the amount done at the top (though those at the top are loud about how hard they work for their high salaries). The reduction of the university to a feeding trough for the big men and big women on top is not lost on faculty, who see the discrepancy between what they are paid for doing the real work of the university, and what presidents and CFOs are paid.

And so to the Augustana story with which I began this posting: the story Jeff Abernathy tells is a powerful one, because it sketches an alternative future for institutions of higher education faced with economic downturn. Abernathy notes that Augustana has responded to the current downturn both by tightening its belt significantly, and by hiring more faculty.

Why the latter? In Abernathy’s view, keeping a strong faculty even (and especially) in times of economic crisis is essential to keeping academic excellence alive, because gifted and devoted faculty are a college’s greatest asset. Augustana College has decided that, even (and especially) in times of economic crisis, it must build towards the future—and it is doing so by hiring the best faculty possible in as many numbers as the college can afford:

Building on the faculty strength that is already here, we're hoping to be excellent for generations. Being greedy now, in this most fearful of markets, might just be the right path to the kind of riches we value most: excellence in student learning and growth.

My hope for the new administration in the area of higher education? Study the Augustana model. Do all in the government’s power to encourage academic excellence in higher education. See that faculty are valued and rewarded, and that academic freedom is promoted.

But be aware that in doing this, the greatest foes you will encounter will be within the academy itself: they will be sitting on university boards and in the top administrative positions in universities. And if you open the can of worms—the economic can of worms—that several generations of neoconservative political and economic models have created within our universities and colleges, be prepared for a fight. People who have created a comfortable feeding trough for themselves and have shoved everyone else away from that trough will not relinquish the trough and allow others to share without a fight.

But take heart as you do battle. Listen to the courageous, prophetic words of the founder of Bethune-Cookman University, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune:

I listened to God this morning and the thought came to me, “Any idea that keeps anybody out is too small for this age—open your heart and let everybody in—every class, every race, every nation.” We must remake the world. The task is nothing less than that (emphasis in original).*

It is, in the final analysis, all about creating democratic institutions (including academic ones) that keep nobody out. Our democracy depends on offering strong educations to everyone. And it depends on building academic institutions that do not serve the needs of the few—that become feeding troughs for a privileged elite, and shamefully, for an elite administering the university rather than for an elite served by the university—but that recognize and reward the merits of everyone. The task of remaking the world of our participatory democracy demands nothing less.

*"Address to a World Assembly for Moral Re-Armament," July 1954, Caux, Switzerland.