Monday, February 3, 2014

An Identity Crisis Grips American Higher Education

In 2012, the average annual cost of attending a four-year public university was $15,100 and a private university was $32,900. The cost had risen 1,120% since 1978—four times the increase in the consumer price index. Student debt had also increased—to a trillion dollars (more than auto or credit-card debt). One in five households had student debt—a third of which was in default. In a poll by the Carnegie Corp. and Times magazine, 96% of senior higher education administrators said the sector is in crisis—40% saying the crisis was severe (as if there were any other kind). Crises, at least in America, have a tendency to go on, even becoming the hackneyed status-quo.
Gene Budig, whom I remember as the chancellor at my first university while I was enrolled as a young lad, points in an editorial to “skill mismatches” and cost-containment problems as the underlying culprits in the crisis. I contend that in doing so, he conflates education with training regarding mismatches and oversimplifies the cost problem in that it could also apply to business just as well. Reading his opinion piece reinforced, or explained, the sense I had had as a student that Budig’s last university was substandard, even marginal, in an academic sense.

 Gene A. Budig, former Chancellor of the University of Kansas (a third-tier school with an understandable inferiority complex)  (Image Source: College Advocacy Board)
Budig claims that colleges and universities “need to synchronize their work with businesses.” For example, Microsoft estimated that between 2010 and 2020, the American economy would annually add more than 120,000 additional computing jobs. In 2012, American colleges and universities produced only 40,000 bachelor’s degrees in computer science. However, it is difficult to construe how full employment or industrial policy is the obligation of colleges and universities rather than governments. Furthermore, the proliferation of professional schools at universities suggests that any mismatch based on skill is hardly behind the crisis in American higher education. In fact, the movement of American professional schools away from education in order to emphasize skills may be a contributing problem. American higher education may have lost its moorings and thus wandered off to functions at odds with itself. To put it simply, education is not vocation. Theory and reasoning do not willow down to critical thinking, as in problem-solving, and praxis.
Not surprisingly, the business school at Budig’s last university was all about skills. Although the skills taught in the auditing class bore little resemblance to the actual tasks in an audit (implying that more of a match would solve the problem), it could also be argued that the business school was in a virtual no-man’s land between vocation and education. In terms of skills, the technical orientation missed the rather obvious matter of how the conflict of interest between CPA firms and their clients is part of the audit itself. In short, the school failed at both rather than being merely insufficient in meeting the firms’ needs.

Notably, the dean at my next business school told the new MBA students on our very first day that we would not use what we learn at his school in business for at least ten or fifteen years. The content of the courses was not geared to the immediate needs of business. Rather, an understanding of business itself, its disciplines, and its relation to its environment comes into play, he explained, only at senior levels of management, where conceptual understanding  may even be more important than skill. That dean’s orientation is in line with a business school being part of a university rather than a vocational training institute. Budig, in contrast, views colleges and universities through the lenses of job training. Accordingly, he misconstrues higher education itself into something it is not. Losing an understanding of what education is permits it to be used in ways that are at odds with what it is. In other words, if universities gravitate increasingly toward providing skills useful to employers, then the provision of knowledge will suffer because other institutions in society are not going to pick up the slack on what is academia's native turf. A double-shot of training (at school and at work) leaves a void as far as higher education is concerned.
As an alternative to trying to be a corporation, law firm or hospital, a university could focus on what only it can do from its own vantage-point. Namely, while other institutions must be oriented to daily tasks, the classroom can afford students with a unique perspective—that of understanding via theory and reasoning. It is no accident that colleges have had scholars on faculty. A person working in a corporation is unlikely to get much on why it is that a human organization functions at all. A person is also unlikely to bet the opportunity to theorize on the history of American constitutional philosophy while preparing for a case at a law firm. Pondering the nature of disease is thankfully sidelined at a hospital as physicians try to save lives. Understood rightly, a college education is a luxury.
Indeed, we have lost touch with the historical role of a college education as a respite (i.e., break) from the office during which one can satisfy one’s intellectual curiosities in becoming educated. Budig’s claim that universities should do more to satisfy business skill flies in the face of the basis of higher education. It is no wonder that it is foundering under its own weight.
The heavy weight manifests in one major way through cost increases far beyond inflation. Although Budig urges cost-containment, he treats it almost as if it were simply a business problem. He ignores the sector’s unique aspects. For example, the rather unique ideological culture at colleges and universities enables the proliferation of academic programs, majors, and staff offices geared to particular causes.
Student housing has become uncompetitive in price due in part to the proliferation of programs, and thus staff, that are only tangentially related to providing housing. Insufficiently moored in established disciplines, many schools taking students as customers have created additional majors to satisfy consumer demand. Here again, the concept of student is being misconstrued using a paradigm from another sector—that of business.
Even the concept of scholar is increasingly being misconstrued. At “universities” like Walden and the University of Phoenix, faculty are regarded by administrators as employees whose content can be overseen by non-experts. This essentially de-professionalizes professors. It should be no surprise that the “product” being taught is inferior at such profit-centers. Even at traditional colleges, the distinction between lecturing and research has been blurred or misunderstood.
To reduce senior professors’ teaching loads while hiring adjunct (i.e., part-time, mostly non-academics) to make up the difference on the teaching can be challenged on two fronts. First, far from being a hindrance, giving lectures (literally, “professing”) can be a welcome break to scholars otherwise engrossed in the labors of writing or lab work. To be sure, the grading of large classes should be done by graduate students, given the value of a full professor’s time. To reduce a senior scholar's teaching load is quite another thing. Expanding the lecturing obligation (with assistants handling the administration and grading) to go along with two seminars a year  in the scholar's sub-discipline would effectively capitalize on the mature knowledge on campus  without over taxing it. Promising senior scholars one class per term is at the very least counter-productive from an academic standpoint, as the distribution of seasoned knowledge is minimized. Even if the perk would seem to be necessary to gain "the best and the brightest" according to some human resource calculus, perhaps the applicants wanting to teach only one class per term are not the best and the brightest after all.

Additionally, universities could hire more full-time lecturers (i.e., teaching only) rather than add more higher-salaried professors to fill teaching loads (even assuming tno “teaching credit” is given for research). The lecturer-professor distinction is unique to academia, so it should be no surprise that the identity crisis plaguing higher education has taken a toll in terms of managing the costs of teaching with respect to maintaining an optimal balance of lectuers and professors.
Cost-containment in higher education has also been undone by the artificial (and unique) “market” of guaranteed (and subsidized) student loans. It has been all too easy for financial aid offices to max out the students’ allowable debt as tuition and fees have not coincidently risen. In effect, the increasing budgets of colleges and universities have been enabled by a known pool of debt. It is of no concern that not even bankruptcy can relieve an unemployed alumnus of the crushing psychological and financial burden that comes with de facto default. Lest it be argued that less of a mismatch of skill would solve this problem, one might consider the less-than full-employment equilibrium that has become the default in industrialized economies. Even to link student loans to eventual employment implies the category mistake wherein education is rendered as essentially job training.
Having been the president or chancellor of three universities, Gene Budig can be taken as representative of the perspective of experienced governance in higher education in the United States. From my standpoint, that perspective has succumbed to a dominant value in American society—a value expressed in the works of William James and the orientation of Ben Franklin toward praxis. Americans are known to laud “movers and shakers” rather than philosophers and artists. Europeans are perhaps more balanced in this regard. Rather than contort universities into full-employment engines, as if knowledge has value only to the extent it is useful in someone’s job, vocational training institutes could be created, leaving education to the colleges and universities, where even the professional schools would be free to be knowledge rather than skill-based. This is already the case at the professional schools at the top of the Ivy League. Sadly, the message has not percolated through the system. In fact, most universities actually regard the undergraduate degrees in the professional schools as doctorates!
In conclusion, Gene Budig evinces what is wrong with higher education, rather than how it can be fixed. Fundamentally, to be in line with one’s nature is to permit one to excel, whereas to be something at odds with what one is can spell disaster. This lesson could hardly come from skill and practice. It is ironic that schools most oriented to skills may still be quite distant from what the practitioners need. As much as the schools’ faculties want to pretend to inhabit corporations, hospitals, and law firms respectively, rest assured that the schools are on the university side of the divide and thus considerable distance with respect to “meeting needs” of “the real world” is inevitable. Yet the venture effectively stifles the schools’ participation in the “knitting” of academic life. The result is “crisis” in the sense of an identity crisis. In effect, higher education has lost touch with itself as it has unwittingly swallowed one of the dominant values in American society. Nietzsche writes that a philosopher cannot be a person of his or her own day. Might this also be true of academia—and not as a vice or drawback, but, rather, as a diamond that has been inadvertently covered over in the rough.


Gene A. Budig, “Beating America’s College Crisis,” USA Today, January 7, 2013.