We have now fully transitioned into the second wave of the COVID crisis for higher education. Educators and students, having survived the sudden and painful transition to remote education, are now turning to the fall and frantically searching for a less painful and more meaningful educational experience than the one they just endured. I’m beginning to see hopeful signs in the sector-wide collaboration in this phase. Within a week, there will be an announcement of the first initiative that will demonstrate what a proportionate response could look like. Stay tuned for the details.
But the third wave is coming fast. It will be a financial crisis that tears at the social fabric of academia and threatens to unmake colleges and universities as we know them, not only because of the economic hardship itself but also because many academic institutions do not have the unity of vision and effective governance to navigate this next wave without a great deal of distracting and destructive infighting. As the early budget cuts are starting to roll in, so are the early skirmishes being fought in faculty senates and in the academic press.
As I read one harbinger of the next wave of the crisis—”Bashing Administrators While the University Burns” by Gabriel Paquette in The Chronicle—I was struck by just how intimately related the coming challenges are to many of the themes covered here in e-Literate. If we want to weather the coming waves with as little permanent damage as possible, we would do well to revisit these lessons afresh and consider them as intimately connected to academia’s core challenges rather than as one niche of debatable importance.
It’s easy to read Paquette’s piece as the expected administrator’s response to a labor dispute with faculty brought on by budgetary pressures. But if we read the piece more closely, there is a lot here to unpack.
Take this passage, for example:
Myths provide comfort but offer little practical guidance. It is easy enough to conjure a vision of a lost academic paradise where philosopher-kings served as presidents, and departments were semiautonomous cantons. This paradise, the myth continues, was decimated by the irruption of centralized authority, the eclipse of academic [sic] by corporate values, and the corruption brought by private philanthropy and athletics. The only chance for redemption, according to this view, is a restoration of the prelapsarian idyll.
If such an idyll ever existed, its heyday coincided with an age when universities were bastions of race-, gender-, and class-based privilege, with a minute fraction of the population enrolled in higher education. This scholastic arcadia could not withstand the pressures brought by the expansion of access to (and democratization of) higher education, the conversion of universities into vehicles of social mobility, the administration of enormous government contracts and grants, and universities’ newfound status as economic bulwarks of entire communities. The resulting transformation gradually made traditional modes of academic organization obsolete. What replaced this beloved anachronism was not necessarily superior to it. But it was a form of management better suited to the complex, large-scale multiversity.Bashing Administrators While the University Burns
Back in 2017, when describing research on cultural differences in learning, I wrote,
We are currently facing two civilizational educational challenges. By “civilizational,” I mean that they go beyond country- or region-specific challenges. They are unprecedented in the history of humanity. The challenges I’m talking about are universal access to quality education and universal lifelong learning, both of which are almost certainly ones that you’re well aware of. But we don’t talk enough about how unprecedented they are, what we need to learn to do differently to meet them, and how we could go about learning what we need to learn.Research in Translation: Cultural Limits of Self-Regulated Learning
Notably, that post was about a study examining the differential impact of teaching techniques in MOOCs on students from different cultures. Yes indeed, the world has changed. As much as there has been good reason to decry the early hype and continuing shortcomings of the MOOC model, nobody was asking this kind of research question back in the good old days of the Great Depression. (The previous one.) We cannot commit ourselves to the ideal of equal access to quality education for a global population of 7.8 billion people and simultaneously remain committed to the ideal of small in-person seminars as the paragon of quality education. The two are simply incompatible. I am not suggesting that we lower our standards. Rather, I am suggesting—and I believe Paquette is suggesting—that we take a good hard look at how much our standards may be influenced by hidden assumptions of privilege. Why should a “quality education” for the 21st-Century masses look identical to the “quality education” of the 19th-Century elites? Where do these ideas of quality come from? Whose goals do they serve? And what trade-offs do they entail?
Among the drivers of the much-lamented “administrative bloat” are government regulation and student services. The former has added layers of compliance most university denizens applaud, including the creation of offices to uphold civil-rights laws and Title IX, unmistakable signs of social and political progress. Similarly, the advent of a vast support apparatus is not an affront to the university’s academic mission. The monochromatic student body of yesteryear has been replaced, felicitously and partially as a result of faculty advocacy, with a heterogeneous one more reflective of society’s diversity at large. Students from less privileged backgrounds often depend on support services to flourish, with staffs large enough to meet high demand.
This faculty critique of the contemporary university is predicated, then, on a surprising ahistoricity. Such critiques obscure from view the rationale for current structures of governance.Bashing Administrators While the University Burns
This part of Paquette’s argument is more complicated. On one hand, there are many reasons why administrative costs have grown dramatically, not all of which are as straightforwardly benign as Title IX compliance. On the other, the very complexity of these decisions is further justification for the careful and cool-headed accounting conversation that Paquette calls for.
Consider robo-graded homework platforms. Why do they exist? Five or ten years ago, publishers would tell you it’s because faculty appreciate the labor-saving convenience. (They have better answers now, but those answers have nothing to do with why robo-graded homework platforms were created to begin with.) Faculty will often tell you it’s because they just can’t grade multiple homework assignments a week in a 400-person class, even with the help of TAs. Why do we have 400-person classes? Because as universities strive to teach more students without having access to proportionately more money, it turns out that large lecture classes are very cost-effective. In a different sector, they would be called “profitable.” They generate more revenue than they cost. Where does that extra revenue go? It’s hard to tell in many cases because a lot of colleges and universities are allergic to this kind of accounting. But one place that money often goes is to subsidize courses and programs that would be called “unprofitable” in a different world. Foreign language departments. Upper-division and graduate programs. Is this the right educational trade-off to make? I don’t know. I’m not sure there is one universally correct answer to that question.
But I do know answers to two different questions that are highly relevant to the previous one. First, was this set of trade-offs made consciously by most institutions? No, it was not. The vast majority of the people involved in making the incredibly complex chain of decisions that are relevant here—down to how many graduate students academia should be producing in different disciplines—are almost completely ignorant of these economics. They certainly are not trained to have sophisticated conversations about them (even if their institutions were capable of performing the necessary accounting, which many are not).
Second, could a different set of technology-assisted trade-offs have been made? For sure. Technology is good at reducing the cost of repetitive work that requires relatively little judgment. For example, when I was a product manager at Oracle in the mid-2000s, I was shocked to discover that most faculty were still copying students’ final course grades from their electronic LMS grade book and pasting them manually into their electronic registrar grade book. Every minute spent doing so was a minute less that a given instructor had to perform other, higher-value work. If you work at a college or university, think about how much of your day is spent performing such mind-numbing tasks, like manually entering data into a spreadsheet when that data exists somewhere else in electronic form. Academia could have relentlessly sought out such inefficiencies first. But they didn’t. They still haven’t.
Here’s another example: Businesses understand that losing paying customers is bad. If they go away, not only do you lose the revenue, you also have to spend money to attract a new customer to replace that revenue. Many universities treat student retention as a mission issue. They’d rather not fail their students that way, all things considered. Not all universities even see it as that much of a problem. So-called “weeder” programs are still all too common. But in reality, in addition to being an issue of ethical responsibility, retention is also one place where universities leak money. This is an area where the institution can be more financially sustainable by serving its students better. Technology can definitely help with this problem in multiple ways. And yet, many segments of academia have been slow to prioritize retention, as well as the related challenges of degree completion and time-to-graduation.
Hang together or hang separately
Ultimately, Paquette is not as focused on taking sides in an adminstration/faculty budget war as he is on pointing out that war is not the answer:
Denunciation, recrimination, and grandstanding are pit stops on the road to oblivion. This is not to say that faculty criticisms of university leadership are unfounded or invalid. But they are a dead end unless accompanied by the constructive aim of collective betterment. The allure of mounting the barricades is almost irresistible, but what’s the point if we all end up guillotined? What use is rehearsing old grievances if students balk at further indebtedness, and our revenue models collapse?
I anticipate one of two scenarios in the coming years. In the first, the familiar feuds persist, and the university edifice crumbles, with old enmities slight consolation for those who remain amid the ruins. In the second, instinctive self-preservation and mutual interest incite faculty-administrative cooperation, institutional moribundity is reversed, and a new university is erected on the foundations of the old. Viva la revolución, indeed.Bashing Administrators While the University Burns
In one of my earlier posts on COVID, I quoted Ben Franklin as saying, “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” That is as true intra-institutionally as it is inter-institutionally. In recent months, e-Literate has proudly featured two guest posts by Susan Baldridge, co-author of The College Stress Test. Both posts were about having hard internal conversations about institutional change. They may have seemed tangential to e-Literate‘s core focus. They were not.
What does it mean to be “e-literate”? When I came up with that name many years ago, it was meant to be self-deprecating. But it also contains a serious message I believe in passionately, now more than ever. Academics—educators—take literacy very seriously. It is a word with deep meaning and many nuances. A life-changing word. E-literacy is a kind of literacy. Today, as we all learn how a funeral or a wake over Zoom can be meaningful and resonant, as we learn how social media can be used simultaneously to bring us together and tear us apart, as we struggle to support friends and loved ones and colleagues and local businesses and total strangers from a distance, we are learning to be more e-literate. Just as literacy is about more than employing the technology of the printed word, e-literacy is about more than EdTech. It’s about culture. It’s about understanding how we change ourselves—consciously or not—when we choose to depend on certain tools in certain ways. And it’s about making mindful choices.
We are entering the third wave of the crisis. If you want to understand what that means, then just turn on the TV news for five minutes. This is the moment when either we all come together or we all fall apart.
We need to think harder, and we need to share what we are learning with each other so that we can learn faster together. That’s what the written word was invented for. That’s what literacy is about.