August 28, 2013

Thomas Frank details the academia-big biz crackup

Those of us who are good liberals, good left-liberals, or even per the Slackhalla personality test making its way around Facebook, good communists (adjusts necktie and bowler hat, shaves full beard back to Lenin goatee) know that American academia has increasingly become a money-grubbing hog trough, starting from the president/chancellor level on down.

Thomas Frank has all the blood-spattered details of how this has wrongly played out, and is getting worse, in the latest issue of The Baffler.

Beyond the money-grubbing itself, with tuition, books, and increasingly, varieties of tack-on fees that are exceeded in their inflation-busting rate of growth only by medical costs, there's all the other ways in which Big Biz has penetrated the ivied walls.

First, there's a business management style. Professors? We only need enough to improve "the brand." For the rest, there's a growing pile of adjuncts. And, because we the Big U have fired more of the profs, the adjunct pool gets ever bigger, so we can flatten wages!

The "brand"? Ahh, here's where they can get away with it. Let's capitalize Ivied walls. At "select" universities, they overcharge because they know a "credential" in the name of a degree, with their select university's name on it, looks even better in the job market on a resume. That's why Dear Leader's idea of a White House-imprimatured college ratings list, one that would look like the U.S. News top 100 or something, not only would not lower college costs, it would likely raise them even more. Who wouldn't give their left ovary or testicle for a "credential" from such a list?

Of course, that's the next part of the Big Biz crapola. It's the idea that everything about education can, should, and will be quantified to something measurable and testable. It's why boards of regents and the new breed of presidents and chancellors, want to junk humanities departments.

I do disagree with one other thing in the essay, though, and that's Frank's claim that the typical 17-year-old going to college has little-to-no savvy of his or her own. Bull, at least when it comes to, say, the Ivies. Dear Mr. Frank: It's called "legacies." Look under "Bush, George W." There's plenty of ppl who know damned well already at 17 or 18 that it's a game to get the right collegiate name on that credential and nothing else. As for the debt amount at said places, it's not naivete but the Dunning-Kruger effect that leads said students to plunk down that much money.

Yes, it may be our neoliberal educational culture that pushes, steers, entices, or intoxicates many of said high-schoolers toward believing in the value of "the credential," but, per the old cliche: "It takes two to tango." Now, for high school kids who, as Frank says, aren't as savvy, I agree they're being exploited. But, for the young Princetonite gambling that he is indeed smarter, suaver and a better butt-kisser than anybody else? I've got a lot less sympathy for him. That's just like the largely white OWS protestors (actual Zucotti Park OWS) who, with their 25 percent grad degree percentages, were mad Wall Street didn't hire them with their MBAs and JDs, and suddenly discovered they had a socialist bone caught in their throats, which I blogged about at the height of the movement.

Here's the most pertinent information:
92.1% of the sample has some college, a college degree, or a graduate degree.
27.4% have some college (but no degree), 35% have a college degree, 8.2% have some graduate school (but no degree), and close to 21.5% have a graduate school degree. 6.4% in the sample agree somewhat or strongly that they regularly use Facebook and 28.9 percent use Twitter regularly.

The data suggest that 81.3% of respondents considered themselves White, 1.3% Black\African American, 3.2% Asian, .4% Native American Indian, 2.9% Mixed, 7.7% Hispanic, and 3.2% considered themselves some other group.
Whiter and much better educated than average. 

I'll halfway agree there that it's tough to avoid the tango. But, if you really were that liberal, you'd have gone to a different college and pursued a different career path in the first place.

A little bit of that is true for adjunct instructors, too. I mean, especially if you've been doing it for 10 years, and you've still never gotten a full-time position, I'm sorry, but that's going to be your lot for the rest of your natural born life unless you change careers. Now, if you want to keep accepting the misery, frustration AND low pay that goes with it, without looking to follow another path, then that's your problem. Now, if you're trying to get out, but still to a not-too-craptacular alternative, but haven't succeeded yet, I empathize. Remember, I'm in the newspaper biz, for now at least.

Indeed, Frank even addresses this, and the Dunning-Kruger effect, in talking about adjuncts, even if he doesn't also apply it to students, and doesn't cite the paradox by name:
Just about everyone in academia believes that they were the smartest kid in their class, the one with the good grades and the awesome test scores. They believe, by definition, that they are where they are because they deserve it. They’re the best. So tenured faculty find it easy to dismiss the de-professionalization of their field as the whining of second-raters who can’t make the grade. Too many of the adjuncts themselves, meanwhile, find it difficult to blame the system as they apply fruitlessly for another tenure-track position or race across town to their second or third teaching job—maybe they just don’t have what it takes after all. Then again, they will all be together, assuredly, as they sink finally into the briny deep. 
So, both students and faculty need to be like the medievals at the University of Paris and go on strike. (Forming a union, of students, and a better one, of faculty, where it doesn't exist, will be part of that.) However, per the paradox, and the fake meritocracy, and how much strength neoliberalist hypercapitalism has gained in academia, maintaining unity in such a strike will be a hell of an uphill slog. 

Frank, near the end, agrees with me, doing a skillful tease of the is-ought error while rejecting it:
What ought to happen is that everything I’ve described so far should be put in reverse. ...
But repeating this feels a little like repeating that it will be bad if newspapers go out of business en masse. Of course it will. Everyone who can think knows this. But knowing it and saying it add up to very little. ...

What actually will happen to higher ed, when the breaking point comes, will be an extension of what has already happened, what money wants to see happen. Another market-driven disaster will be understood as a disaster of socialism, requiring an ever deeper penetration of the university by market rationality. ...

And so we end with dystopia, with a race to the free-market bottom. 
He then mentions an alternative to the strike:
The only way out is for students themselves to interrupt the cycle. Maybe we should demand the nationalization of a few struggling universities, putting them on the opposite of a market-based footing, just as public ownership reformed the utilities in the last century.
Sorry, nationalization would be worse, if anything, as long as the current political classes are in charge.

Meanwhile, add to the problem: A "citation cartel" within academic publishing.

No comments: