Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Summary of "Tough Choices," E. Schrecker

This chapter, out of Ellen Schrecker’s book, The Lost Soul of Higher Education: Corporatization, the Assault on Academic Freedom, and the End of the American University, seems microcosmic of what the her entire book must be about. Entitled, “Tough Choices: The Changing Structure of Higher Education,” this chapter takes a macro-level perspective on the many economic and, to some degree, social changes that have confronted higher education, and how institutions as a whole have dealt with those changes and been affected by them. Couched in terms of an assault on academic freedom broadly, Checker covers three main categories of those changes and effects: “Economic Crisis and Academic Realignments,” “Research and the Corporatization of the University,” and “Administrative Expansion and Accountability.” These three categories, I sense, are helpful to divisions in discussing the three major takeaway ideas from this reading.

First, “Economic Crisis and Academic Realignments.” Schrecker begins her analysis of the economic changes/ challenges facing universities in the 1970s, when the country experience its worst recession since the end of World War II. Although the dire predictions of “universities going under” hardly came true, the growth they had been experiencing previous to this economically tumultuous period noticeably slowed. The causes of the slowdown were multifold, including inflation, state contributions decreasing, and the federal government shifting aid from institutions to individual students. These factors combined to prompt universities to make numerous adjustments, many of which were not oriented toward academic exceptionalism. Faculty job cuts, Schrecker notes, were numerous, as was the raising of tuition prices so that fewer students could afford college. At the same time, in order to attract those paying customers, universities reoriented their marketing strategies towards providing amenities and, in varying degrees, pleasing the student consumers through grade inflation. Moreover, based on student demand, certain disciplines were, in essence, squeezed out of importance (i.e. “traditional liberal arts” and the humanities) as students looked for majors providing them with “practical” skills. Through all of these changes, Schrecker argues, the curriculum in higher education suffered, as did the faculty who delivered it.  For example, when schools “scrambled to meet demand” by “adding more vocationally oriented courses and staffing them with contingent faculty members,” those faculty members held much less job security and conferred a “more tenuous relationship” with the students.

Schrecker’s second major point in this chapter is that universities, because of those aforementioned changes and many others, have a “growing participation in the market” which is “also reshaping the university’s other major activity: research.” Based on the competitiveness of the university, as well as their own personal drive, faculty researchers have been forced to operate within a more and more constrained institutional setting. Not only is their operating budget highly constrained, but also the nature of their work is often dictated by market demands or legal requirements. Their research results produced within these constraints not only has to be original, but it usually has to be profitable in order to garner enough financial support for the project through fruition, as well as to lure financial resources for their next endeavor. This is especially true, Schrecker notes, for research that requires large infusions of cash like the natural sciences; the humanities, on the other hand, pursues research that “is less expensive and is usually supported by [the] institutions in the form of sabbaticals and course releases.” One major factor in the constraint that particularly natural scientists/ researchers feel is the fact that research money largely comes from the federal government, which, since World War II, has dispensed its money in a highly competitive process with very particular strings attached. For the “big science” researchers that win federal grants, their work is subject to many administrative and political requirements and strictures; for individual researchers with “more modest, though not necessarily less worth, projects,” they lost out to an even greater degree. Clearly these (relatively recent) developments/ realities have dire consequences for all university faculty and their academic freedom.

The final major point Schrecker makes concerns the administrative infrastructure that has inhabited universities as a result of those above developments. For example, she states, the competition for higher enrollment, lobbying efforts for state and federal aid, and application for innumerable research grants has required additional staff to “handle the load.” In fact, she points out that at many institutions (certainly including our own), administrative staff outnumber the faculty population and administrative costs make up an ever-larger percent of their operating budgets. In turn, those administrators have developed their own professional organizations, created their own set of status hierarchies, and continually increased their specialized knowledge so that they have effectually entrenched their necessity to the university’s ever more corporatized operation. However, Schrecker points out that it is still a question whether academic administrators have expanded because they gained more power, or if they gained more power because they expanded. Nevertheless, the robust administrative apparatus is all but taken for granted at many universities today. More consequentially in terms of academic freedom, those administrators often demand a considerable amount of authority and flexibility in the work they carry out. Thus, the formerly democratic decision-making processes at the university were altered according to the two primary constituents of university employees: faculty and staff. Although Schrecker notes survey data that shows most employees believed shared governance worked well on their campus, my impression is that the possibility for tension and conflict based on that duality is omnipresent. Finally, Schrecker speculates as to whether divisions within the professoriate “may very well be more of a threat to its traditional position within academe than the corporatelike ventures of its business-oriented administrators.”

My questions based on my reading of this article are:

Given these multifaceted developments, could their effects on universities ever be un-done? Would the majority of people involved even want that reversion?

How could potential divisions within the professoriate be resolved given the wide variety of academic disciplines, and their highly diverse interests and institutional constraints?

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