Start with a lament about the state of Canada's universities, appearing in Los Angeles Review of Books.
Administrators have been slowly taking control of the institution for decades. The recent proliferation of books, essays, and manifestoes critiquing this takeover creates the impression that the battle is now on. But that is an illusion, and most writers know it. All the voices of protest, many of them beautiful and insightful, all of them noble, are either cries of the vanquished or merely a dogged determination to take the losing case to court.Ah, for a market test. It came to this, dear reader, when the faculty first acquiesced to administrative usurpations, because the usurpers appeared to be on the side of the angels.
Faculty members are the ones who are now accountable, but no longer to their peers and students and no longer regarding mastery of their subjects. Instead, they are accountable to administrators, who employ an increasingly wide array of instruments and staff to assess their productivity and measure their performance, all of which are now deemed eminently quantifiable. In place of judgment regarding the quality of their work we now have a variety of “outcomes” used as measures of worth. Student evaluations and enrollments (i.e., popularity), learning as determined by “rubrics,” quantity of publications, amount of research dollars, extent of social “impact” are the things that count now. In other words, only things you can quantify and none of which require judgment.Management fads all. How's that working out?
Liberal arts and science programs are quietly being transmogrified through pressure from technology and technological modes of education so that their “content” is increasingly merely an occasion for the delivery of what the university truly desires — well-adjusted, administratively minded people to populate the administrative world we’ve created for them. The latent assumption in all this is that what is truly important is not what students know or how intelligent they are, but how well and how often they perform and how finely we measure it.Even that, dear reader, is deficient.
If you think I exaggerate, consider the deliverables universities are forever touting to students today: “collaboration,” “communication,” “critical analysis,” “impact.” All abstract nouns indicating things you can do or have, but not a word about what you know or who you are. No promise to teach you history or politics or biology or to make you wise or thoughtful or prudent. Just skills training to equip you to perform optimally in a competitive, innovative world.
But as for fundamentals, everyone understands and agrees about the path to be taken: administrators are free to govern the university in whatever way they see fit so long as the mandate is furthered. If this requires some rough play to get the job done, so be it. If it requires, say, serially violating collective agreements to assert dominance and set precedent; or creating new review bodies to undermine existing faculty review bodies and then populating them with administrative plants to get the desired results; or tampering, directly and indirectly, with administrative and faculty hiring committees; or cultivating and compromising Faculty Association leadership; or badgering and abusing recalcitrant professors until they quit or can be fired, or buying off critics of the administration through generous funding of their programs and starvation of others — so be it. You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. But as Albert Camus once remarked, the quality of an omelet has nothing to do with how many eggs were broken to make it. And in this instance the “eggs” in question are not negligible. They are the very foundation of our universities — the hard-won principles of collegial and democratic governance, of a dedication to truth, fair play, and reasonable debate, of freedom of thought, and of the long tradition of our collective wisdom that is now being cavalierly dismantled by people who do not have the wit to understand its meaning or significance for our civilization.Wait, what, there's some value in all those ancient hegemonic discourses? "In the all-administrative university we cheat students of a real, substantial education, the most deleterious consequence of which is the erosion of their ability to speak, think, and write seriously about themselves and their world." Somewhere, Charlie Sykes must be chuckling.
Rigor is difficult and unpopular; pandering is easy and pleasant. And since the whole world panders to students in order to extract from them a portion of their considerable resources, why resist the flow? It’s the world they live in and have come to expect, after all. Better simply to repackage pandering as rigor — e-learning, digital literacies, competency-based programming, personal learning agendas — and simply deny there is a problem.The information technologies might be new: the pandering has been with us for some time.
Young people aren’t doing very well these days. Mental health numbers are off the charts for a generation of kids that has effectively been raised and educated by screens. They’re having trouble speaking, thinking, and making sense of the world. And yet the barbarity of the culture and universities is not lost on them. The belief we can continue reaping the economic and technological benefits of that barbarism while pasting some “soft skills” and some “social and emotional learning” on top of the existential mess we’ve made of our kids simply isn’t going to work. We’re at the point now where we need a serious intellectual and emotional intervention. Nothing less than Shakespeare, Woolf, and Tolkien will do if we’re going to save our children.Indeed. Restoring the faculty to their traditional role as stewards of the curriculum will also help. The article does make that point. There is work still to be done.
For our part, we juke the stats, we give in to pressures to pass students and make them happy. We stupidify our courses and water down our disciplines to survive. And worst of all for everyone, we ourselves have become intellectually and pedagogically second-rate through our participation in the decline.Thus Canada.
There's discontent with the administrative bloat, and the academic rot, at Stanford as well.
Stanford’s unassuming army of administrators are surprisingly dangerous: they drain funds, strangle student culture, and harm our education. The threat is not the fault of any one administrator: it would be ludicrous to argue that Provost Drell is intentionally shifting resources away from the classroom and towards [some nest of deanlets]. Instead, the fault belongs with the incentive structures of competing administrative offices who win prestige through more employees and more programs, regardless of skyrocketing costs.They could have listened, thirty years ago. Perhaps they hadn't thought it through back then. Now, restoring a state of good repair will be more difficult.