Crisis in Higher Ed, Part 1

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Michael E Harkin

One major point of post-election commentary—apart from the fiscal cliff kabuki—has been speculation on  the agenda for President Obama’s second term. All evidence points to the Republicans remaining a revanchist, obstructionist force, despite the damage this has done, even to the point of threatening their relevancy as a national party. (A point I made in my post-election blog, and which was echoed by Maureen Dowd in the Times: This fact limits Obama’s ability to get any major legislative victories in his first two years and reduces the likelihood that the Dream Act or a cap-and-trade bill (this latter originally a Republican idea) will pass Congress. Rather than a legislative agenda, Obama would do well to focus on problems that can be dealt with through administrative action. Foreign policy will of course remain a priority. Domestically, there are a few things that might be tackled. Among the most promising and beneficial would be a sweeping reform of higher education. The federal government exercises almost complete power over American colleges and universities, since almost all of them receive federal funds in some form (primarily Pell grants, research grants, and contracts). A high-profile Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, who has the advantage of being a friend of Obama from his Chicago days, was broadly successful in his efforts to reform K-12 education in the first term. He should spend the second term focused on post-secondary education, which is much closer to crisis than K-12 has ever been.

First, we need to recognize the positive. American research universities remain the envy of the world. We produce more scientific knowledge, new technology, original humanities scholarship, art, and literature than any other country. Students from everywhere want to come here to study; having taught at highly regarded universities in both Europe and China, I can see why. Our faculty are second to none, our facilities state-of-the-art, and our students are, for the most part, curious and engaged. On the other end of the spectrum of American higher education, community colleges are one of the most effective anti-poverty programs ever devised. In addition to rendering education and vocational training, they provide social services such as childcare, medical insurance, and, yes, a sense of community, to poor and marginalized students. With very few exceptions (for-profit universities, for the most part) across all categories of institution, American higher education still does an excellent job fulfilling its various missions. It is precisely because it is such a national treasure that we should be so worried.

We face a series of interlinked problems involving resources, instructional staffing, and athletics—all involving large amounts of money. It is generally stated that in any university, instruction is the central institutional role. In reality, this is not consistent with the way that rewards are doled out. The scientist who obtains a $20 million NSF grant is much more likely to receive recognition and reward than is the skilled classroom teacher. But it goes well beyond this; we recently reached a tipping point in that half of all classroom instruction is now provided by adjuncts. The majority of these are casual temporary laborers, making as little as $2,000 per class, necessitating a huge teaching load, often carried out at more than one institution. This is brazen exploitation of a vulnerable class of people, ironically in many cases, a university’s own graduates. Moreover, for a public university, receiving taxpayer money to deliver courses to students, or a private university where parents and students are paying as much as $50,000 in tuition per year, this is nothing short of scandalous. It is quite literally a misappropriation of resources, a violation of fiduciary duty. This is a trend line that has been going on for some while, but which is now bound to attract attention and public ire. It is in the institutions’ own interests to reverse this trend, or face the consequences of defunding of public institutions and lessened alumni support. Clearly, this system disadvantages most participants: the adjuncts and students, most obviously, but also parents and alumni. Who benefits? It must be recognized that one beneficiary is the tenured and tenure-track faculty. Our salaries have increased with respect to most other professions during the past twenty years, and our teaching loads have dropped precipitously. When Andrew Carnegie founded the precursor to TIAA-CREF, a full-time teaching load was defined as twelve hours; today at research universities, the load is between one-quarter and one-half that. The professoriate must acknowledge this fact and be willing to take on additional teaching responsibilities; it is in our interest to remedy the gross inequities and disequilibria in the system.

But the main beneficiaries have been administrators. (Before unleashing the familiar faculty-member rant, I would stipulate that I have known many fine people in administration, and that my own father was a dean at a research university). It was reported earlier this year that the University of California system now employs more administrators than faculty members. Harvard pays their top five endowment managers as much as it pays the entire faculty of the university. Both numbers and compensation levels of administrators have increased precipitously, with terrible consequences both for the long-term fiscal viability and certainly the morale of the faculty and staff. As administrators are the ones setting salary levels, this amounts to corruption in a strict sense. Even at institutions facing budget reductions, and hiring and salary freezes, administrators, especially at the top, have been giving themselves pay raises. My back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that university presidents now make a salary somewhere between four and five times that of senior faculty—and many times that of adjuncts doing most of the teaching.

We need Secretary Duncan to set regulations on instructional staffing, compensation levels, and the explosion of administrators, perhaps adapting existing regulations defining allowable overhead on federal grants as a model for an acceptable percentage of budget spent on administration. The other horn of this dilemma is of course athletics, which will be the topic of a future column.

Michael E Harkin is a cultural anthropologist and ethnohistorian at the University of Wyoming. He is editor of the journal Reviews in Anthropology and co-editor of Ethnohistory.

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