Thursday, January 16, 2014

Report to Tony Grafton, two years later

A few years ago (November 2011), Historiann tagged me, and other academic bloggers, to write a piece that addressed Tony Grafton's article at the New York Review of Books, where he goes over the different explanations that one can find in recently released books as to who is to blame for the crisis in US higher education. As Historiann explained:

Grafton concludes that given the tremendous diversity of the American “system” of higher education, we need more fine-grained and close-up studies of how higher education is working–or not working–for American students, administrators, and faculty, and the larger communities they serve. . .

and therefore she had call us, the academic bloggers, to contribute to the project. I was then a tenure-track, Assistant Professor in a mid-sized religious university at a mid-size city in the Midwest. I got tenure last year.

I have been thinking about that piece lately. I went back and re-read it. It is a clearly optimistic post. While I recognize that I may have skipped some unsavory things because I was a nobody on the TT, I recognize where my enthusiasm was coming from, and I believe I was giving an honest account of my perceptions. To be clear, I DO NOT think I was naive them. However, I am becoming more pesimistic by the day. This is due to a combination of internal factors (specific to my university), and external factors. Let's see:

These are all quotes from the original post:

My university has a well-earned prestige in the region, as a rigorous liberal arts institution where students receive an individual attention from faculty. It is true.

Search committees usually look for candidates who have a research agenda but also is committed to teaching and challenging the student.

The administration backs, as much as it is possible, the product it sells.

To sum up: I love my job, I like my colleagues and my students. My Dean is awesome and I don't have major complaints about the administration.

In addition, I would say that the student population hasn't changed that much in the past few years. So where is the problem? Except for the complains about the administration, everything I said still holds. At some point, I wondered how sustainable (high tuition, high discount rate), the model my university provides is. And here is the first crack: apparently, not too much. There are budget problems, former cash cows that don't meet enrollment targets. And what you get from some of the higher ups is a mixture of disconcert, paralysis, and "let's try many things and see if something sticks". In short, we lack a vision for the future. And it is scary. The Chief Academic Officer, probably the most lucid of all of the higher ups, resisted the MOOC fad for over a year, putting his job on the line for it. At the same time, he wants to take as many classes as possible online, and the support we get to do it is minimum. And he is the good guy. At this point, most faculty just want a vision and leadership, and it is not happening.

And I didn't even mention external factors (maybe in another post). I wonder, of all the bloggers who contributed to Historiann's call, what do they think about what they wrote now. Does it still stand? Have you changed your outlook? Just curious...



  1. My institution has been devoting a lot of energy to "Visioning Excellence" (the Chancellor's term for doing the kind of ten-years-down-the-road longer term thinking that you see lacking at your institution. The "Vision" seems to consist mostly of finding ways for STEM fields to work together to capture external funding and spin off technological businesses. Nothing wrong with that, but you have to look hard to find anything in the vision that has anything to do with research in the humanities, much less teaching in the humanities.

  2. I work for a Catholic institution (that belong to the same order as the current Pope), so they have to pay lip service to the humanities. I wonder for how long

    1. By the way, thanks for commenting. I discovered your blog, and I am reading it instead of preparing my classes for tomorrow

  3. I wrote on it.

    1. Thanks for writing about it. I'll go to your blog to read. I am really curious as to whether certain specific issues my university is going through is clouding my judgement about the entire state of higher education, or if things really are deteriorating. When you read what is going on at CSU-Pueblo, via More or Less Bunk, you don't have much reason to feel optimistic