26.3.19

WHY IT MATTERS.

Two opinion columns make the case that the land grants and mid-majors and regional comprehensives are in the same business as the Ivies and ought behave accordingly.

We start with an anonymous whinge in The Guardian from someone purporting to be on faculty at one of the selective institutions you've probably read about in U.S. News.
I teach at an elite American university – one of the oldest and best-known, which rejects about 90% of applicants each year for the small number of places it can offer to undergraduates.

In this setting, where teaching quality is at a premium and students expect faculty to give them extensive personal attention, the presence of unqualified students admitted through corrupt practices is an unmitigated disaster for education and research. While such students have long been present in the form of legacy admits, top sports recruits and the kids of multimillion-dollar donors, the latest scandal represents a new tier of Americans elbowing their way into elite universities: unqualified students from families too poor to fund new buildings, but rich enough to pay six-figure bribes to coaches and admissions advisers. This increase in the proportion of students who can’t do the work that elite universities expect of them has – at least to me and my colleagues – begun to create a palpable strain on the system, threatening the quality of education and research we are expected to deliver.
I suppose I should be heartened that the Varsity Blue fallout discovers what access-assessment-remediation-retention looks like at the top of the academic food chain, and, in a perverse way, perhaps I should be encouraged that the students at wherever this is have enough initiative to advocate for their own accommodations, rather than rely on the swarms of deanlets and deanlings in the various special education retention offices to take care of things.

Apparently those students also have enough initiative to mau-mau this individual, who would rather get an anonymous whinge off to Manchester and couch it in such a way as to call out the least likable part of the Elite, rather than to note, publicly and proudly, that his job is to say No and uphold standards, and then get back to the research he claims these snowflakes are keeping him from finishing.

There are too many wimps and not enough Grumpy Old Road Foremen in higher education.  "The Grumpy Old Road Foreman would note something more along the lines of 'If you [snowflakes -- ed] spent half as much time studying as you're spending attempting to game the system, you wouldn't have to game the system.'"

Sadly, no.
Every unqualified student admitted to an elite university ends up devouring hugely disproportionate amounts of faculty time and resources that rightfully belong to all the students in class. By monopolizing faculty time to help compensate for their lack of necessary academic skills, unqualified students can also derail faculty research that could benefit everyone, outside the university as well as within it. To save themselves and their careers, many of my colleagues have decided that it is no longer worth it to uphold high expectations in the classroom. “Lower your standards,” they advise new colleagues. “The fight isn’t worth it, and the administration won’t back you up if you try.”

In comparing stories, we have also found that such students strive to “work the system”, using university procedures to get the grades they desire, rather than those they have earned, and if necessary to punish faculty who refuse to accede to those demands. It is perhaps unsurprising that students whose parents circumvent the rules to get them into elite universities are often the ones who become adept at manipulating the university system in a corrupt way.
There are unqualified students and whatever analogue to jailhouse lawyer fits in higher education, no matter where you go.  Deal with it.

It came to this, though, when the faculty abdicated its stewardship of the curriculum.  Do we have to produce red hats with the legend

MAKE FACULTY GOVERNANCE GREAT AGAIN!

The management fads and boutique intersectionality are hazardous to faculty careers.  This anonymous complainant sees it.
Students who represent money, whether in the form of their parents’ donations or athletic prowess that attracts viewers and media coverage, are simply worth more to universities as long-term sources of revenue than the faculty themselves. However well-known our names might be, most of us can easily be replaced from among the army of un- and under-employed PhDs struggling for a place in a shrinking labor market. We, not the rich students, are expendable.

For untenured faculty members, the pressures created by this setup can be a threat to their careers: it’s very difficult to teach well, let alone do the research and publishing necessary to keep your job, when you’re being hounded to provide a remedial education on top of an already heavy set of official duties.

Even for tenured professors, whose jobs are supposedly secure, becoming known as someone who won’t “play ball” by giving the sports star or the legacy an easy pass can mean exclusion from important opportunities and sources of support. So we suck it up as we recap our lectures for students who couldn’t attend due to golf team practice, or teach them skills most Americans learn in high school, or create extra credit assignments to bring up their marks.

This kind of thing has easily added 10-12 hours a week to my workload, and I know I’m not alone in that respect. As one of my colleagues put it, the unskilled and entitled students will “eat you alive”. Over the past decades as an instructor, I have seen my teaching workload increase dramatically despite holding the same number of courses in the same subjects. What has changed is the proportion of unqualified students in the classroom.
Perhaps the trustees can dip into the reserve army of unemployed faculty for a while, but eventually they'll eat their seed corn.
University presidents serious about this program will have to treat their research faculty with more respect as their sycophants in the retention ponds turn on them. (Yes, I am deliberately being churlish here. I earned a research degree and was hired for my research skills. Skimpy pay raises and increased special-education responsibilities do not much for the morale do.)
(Have I really been raising this argument for fifteen years? What's that line about it not being given to me to finish the task and yet I must not give it up?)

Moreover, an overworked contingent faculty is unlikely to add many Nobel Prizes or genius grants or what have you for the development office to brag on.  The Ivies might have begun as finishing schools for social-climbing Dunces, and perhaps to that status they shall return.

That might be an opportunity for the state universities, whether the basketball factories, flagships, land-grants, mid-majors, or regional comprehensives, to gain by default.  Margaret Renkl elaborates.
The idea of a college search would have been foreign to me as a high-school senior. Of the two flagship state universities, I picked my mother’s alma mater and was admitted simply by having my ACT scores sent there. When I got to Auburn University in the fall of 1980, Pell Grants, work-study assignments and low-interest federal loans were still plentiful enough that students like me — people not impoverished enough or brilliant enough to earn a full ride — could nevertheless get a good education, even if their parents couldn’t afford to pay a dime. It never crossed my mind that I was “settling” for something less than an elite education. I was grateful beyond belief to be going to college at all.
Been there, did that. At the time, there was one flagship state university in Wisconsin, and their thing was not basketball or football.  I suspect, though, that the emergence of college searches as a thing is a consequence of several causes: rising prosperity, at least for some people, and the increasing focus on access-assessment-remediation-retention as the objectives for higher education, with the obscure institutions lowering their standards.

That's the other side of the fractured social contract; Ms Renkl trots out the state universities' grievances.
Cash-strapped legislatures too often balance their budgets by cutting funds to higher education, resulting in catastrophic tuition hikes. Provincial yahoos too often serve as university trustees or administrators, energetically erecting barriers to the kind of wide-ranging curiosity that a university education is supposed to foster. Tenured professors retire and are too often replaced by adjuncts so underpaid and so shamefully overburdened that their work amounts to exploitation. And that’s just for starters.
Note the "shameful overburden" again. Much of that, and much of the legislative expenditure, is about paying for high school a second, or a third, time.  Moreover, the reliance on contingent faculty destroys the institutional memory.  Eventually the administrators will discover that the pool of deanlets and deanlings to screen for genuinely decanal office has been fished out.

I'll let Ms Renkl have the final word, though.
My sons are getting much the same kind of education at the University of Tennessee that I got so many years ago at Auburn and that my husband got at the University of Georgia. With some exceptions — just as there were decades ago — our sons are being challenged intellectually and supported emotionally. They are making friends who will be their friends for life.

As with my oldest son, a large state university isn’t the right fit for every student. There are many kinds of schools and many kinds of students, and I understand that. What I don’t understand is why so many people seem to think you can’t get a good education at a rank-and-file state university — not Berkeley or the University of Virginia, but still the kind of school the vast majority of young people in this country would feel grateful and honored to attend.

In the end, students who want an education will get an education wherever they go to school. No cheating required.
Indeed.

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