14.4.15

WHEN HIGHER EDUCATION BREAKS THE SOCIAL CONTRACT.

The state-supported institutions of higher education in North Carolina have stuck at least one finger too many in the eyes of Republicans, and Republican majorities in the legislature are punching back twice as hard, most recently with a "productivity" measure mandating that all professors meet four classes per semester.

In Slate, we see the canonical response from higher education, A Good Professor Is an Exhausted Professor.
The professors forced into a 4-4 will simply pick up their research—and the labs where that research gets done, and those labs’ workforces, much of them nonacademics, Mr. Schalin—and move them somewhere that will fund them. With the inevitable cratering of UNC–Chapel Hill and NC State, the Research Triangle will become the Research Dot, and the 50,000 individuals North Carolina currently employs in Research Triangle Park—a massive conglomerate of nonacademic research labs located where it is precisely because of its proximity to Duke, UNC, and NC State—will have their livelihoods put in danger. It’s easy to sneer that the university isn’t a “jobs program” until you have to answer for your state’s brain drain.
That is, if there are sufficient job opportunities for those researchers elsewhere.
Indeed, if the UNC schools implement a systemwide 4-4 minimum with “success”—that is, if somehow tuition revenue doesn’t drop—there will be little to stop other meddlesome, ignorant state legislatures from following suit. This will accomplish nothing less than the wholesale obliteration of the public research institution and relocate all of America’s best scientific minds—and their labs and their discoveries—to the elite private universities. Want to grow up to be a molecular biologist, Iowa farm girl? Do you dream of studying in a world-class engineering school, inner-city Michigan boy? Better hope you get into—and can afford—Princeton or MIT.
What happens, though, if the elite privates don't expand their faculties or their entering classes?

Jonathan Marks of Phi Beta Cons doubts that the bill will produce "Improved Professor Quality."  Of course not.  Since when has a high-sounding title or a snappy acronym ever produced even half of what it promised?   On to the substance of his doubts.
Most criticism of the bill has focused on the importance of research, but I think the bill is wrong on teaching. I understand that the idea is to get tenure track professors into the classroom more. But although financial exigency may compel some colleges and universities to insist on a load of eight courses to save money on instruction, no one should be under the illusion that teaching quality will improve as a result. Even if  we imagine that research demands on professors will be reduced, so that they can meet them during the summer, and if we assume, conservatively, that professors will spend two hours of preparation for every hour they spend in class, that adds up to thirty-six hours for class and class preparation time alone. That does not include grading, mentoring, and attending to the committee and other volunteer work involved in governing a university. However professional and caring professors may be, they will have to cut corners with respect to, for example, teaching students how to write, or how to undertake long-term, multi-stage research assignments.
Indeed not. Critics of higher education have long complained of too much professorial reliance on multiple-choice test-banks (and more recently, canned presentations and online activities) and of too little homework and what there is returned in a dilatory fashion if at all.  The bill simply changes the reasons for these things, without changing these things.  And unless other states similarly degrade their job descriptions, there are still market tests.
People who love teaching more than research usually prefer to have the time to work closely with students, to offer them the guidance they need to meet high expectations, and to prepare to teach new things, rather than doing the same thing year after year. Super-teachers are not as mobile as super-researchers, but they are no less likely to want out if the bill’s supporters have their way.
Where I part company with Mr Marks is in his assessment of the prestige quest in higher education.  "As I have written here, I sympathize with the proposition that too many colleges and universities aspire to be research powerhouses, and agree that some now looking to advance in the prestige race by focusing more on research would do better to focus on teaching."  It's my traditional objection:  U.S. News sells those rating guides because ambitious and motivated students -- or perhaps their parents -- want to mingle with other ambitious and motivated students.  The excess capacity is in access-assessment-remediation-retention (and in faux prestige).  He's on stronger ground with this.
Speaking particularly of the humanities, [Georgetown's Jacques] Berlinerbrau concedes that “we erred … in politicizing inquiry to the extent that we did” and in bringing the “same dense and ideologically tinctured brand of” theory to bear on “our vast canon of texts and traditions.” Anyone who has been following the debate over the boycott-Israel movement on campus will understand that more teaching is not necessarily better if what’s being taught in classrooms is, for example, a simpleminded theory, barely, if at all, distinguishable from propaganda, that captures Ferguson and Palestine as two aspects of a single colonial and racist movement.

[George Washington University's Samuel] Goldman, to his credit, has written before of the case campus conservatives could make with other lovers of our “cultural inheritance” in favor of the liberal arts as precisely opposed to propaganda. Writers “like Tolstoy evade contemporary political categories” and pose questions that challenge any moral, political, or aesthetic commitments.” Some such robust defense of what is to be taught, and not only an emphasis on teaching, is needed. Merely giving further lip service to the amorphous category of “critical thinking,” or imagining, as one writer purporting to be an enthusiast for the liberal arts did this week, students as “content creators” and professors as “cognitive coaches” is unlikely to assuage the fears of those, both within and outside of the field of higher education, that we have lost our way.
Indeed. And expecting higher education to get better if those leftist conscience-cowboys teach four sections of self-despising multiculturalism and blame-America-first rather than one or two sections is to venture into Wolkenkuckucksheim.  But higher education is unlikely to abandon its adversarial stance toward the institutions and traditions that made possible their ability to deconstruct them in the face of pressure from legislators.

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