Sunday, May 6, 2012

Drawbridge up after Fifteen Warhol Minutes?

In regard to the current crop of hand-wringings about the fate of higher education, it’s fun to be aware of the nuances.

Columbia University professor Andrew Delbanco, for instance, in his Massively Over-reviewed Big Yawn (many a recent “Moby” has involved “the fate of higher education”), has his own style, commenting recently in an Inside Higher Ed interview that, high on the list of problems was “the transformation of the faculty into contingent workers.”

So, where does he go with that?

Nowhere. Blink, he’s back in his comfort zone, on a higher plane: “college… is a battleground for the American soul.” Him and Rick Santorum, right?

Rick has Satan himself roaming around the quad, while Delbanco has a band of angels.

And now read one of Delbanco’s recent reviewers, the Princeton historian Anthony Grafton, who boldly asserts, about academia, at the least, a shake-up is coming, and possibly something more dramatic.”

Really? And what might that be?

Maybe he doesn’t say, because he doesn’t really know. After all, most of higher education in the country is not at Columbia or Princeton and, in Grafton’s phrase, “The distance from this world”—he speaks here of community colleges—“to the one that Delbanco and I know best is very great.”

I don’t know about that. Where do they think their grad students are headed?

They’re off to community colleges, many of them, and if they are lucky they will get one of the last and fast-disappearing permanent jobs there.

Or they will have to line up, as this 59-year-old Harvard Ph.D. does, every semester, at different colleges, to beg for one-semester jobs.

I mean, what kind of tenured radicals are you guys, anyway? This is the best you can do?

This limp moaning about higher education’s battle for the American soul? That it might lead to a shake-up?

Or something more dramatic?

Well, enough about them. They were just writing stuff that was trendy at the time anyway. No real talent. No dramatic sense at all. Just luck. Connections. 

(Look, this is Cringing Liberal Elite here, himself, cringing, but also covetous and bitter, just like Rick S. and, say, Dr. Gingrich himself say.)

Anyway, for real action you want somebody who’s not all that distant from the nation’s community colleges, who knows something about the territory outside of the world “Delbanco and I know best.”

You want Dr. Terry O’Banion, whose recent blog post, in a series on “college completion rates” sponsored by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, is built around the novel idea that community colleges are enjoying their “Andy Warhol fifteen minutes of fame.”

Now there’s some culture for you. There’s something the youth of today can identify with. It’s perky. It’s now. It’s on sale.  

Whatever, the message is clear: We’ve got fifteen minutes to clean this higher ed thing up—not at the so-called “elite” places, no. At the real center of higher ed today, which is the community colleges, which we’ve got to keep accessible, and affordable, and, well, some third thing too.

And Dr. O’Banion, is he wringing his hands about financial problems and lack of support, and the quest for “souls,” like Delbanco and Grafton?

Of course not.

I mean, this is a guy who has inspired at least two—count ‘em, that’s two: or is that just too quantitative for you pinko elitist liberal humanists?—awards.

Awards recognizing cutting-edge practitioners: The Terry O’Banion Student Technology Award created by Microsoft,  and the Terry O’Banion Prize for Teaching and Learning created by the Educational Testing Service.

Truth, O’Banion does a little hand-wringing too:

“Many of the full-time faculty who created the current levels of success for community colleges are retiring in hordes, with only a few graduate programs to prepare their replacements.”

I mean, I guess that is a problem, the lack of graduate programs. I had not thought of that, I must be honest with you. I wonder if Grafton and Delbanco know about this.

But at least O’Banion knows something about the real world, being the Senior Higher Education advisor to Walden University, where they've nailed it on costs: recruit the hell out your prospective student population, and have the fortitude not to throw money around on instructional expenses.

According to Modern Language Association’s keen site on the academic workforce, Walden employs exactly zero—that’s none and no and less than any—full-time tenure or tenure track faculty among its employees.

And, among the 1800 faculty reported? Only 100 full-timers.

Well, not everything is perfect, of course, and O'Banion does, in his AAC&U piece, worry about having to "increasingly rely on adjunct faculty who—dedicated though they might be—are not provided with offices, long-term departmental/institutional training, or basic incentives to provide for students outside the classroom."

Which reliance, come to think about it, can’t increase too much more at Walden, where full-timers account for .5% of faculty, but never mind.

Anyway, I don’t know about soul, but that’s some righteous cost control!

And look here, they’ve got the soul too—the nation’s hardest working feeler of your pain, yes, I mean Mr. William Jefferson Clinton, is the Honorary Chancellor of Laureate International Universities, Walden’s corporate parent.

So how did that happen, tenured radicals?

Grow up, Grafton and Delbanco, and stop worrying about your soul, and mine, and everybody else’s, and wringing your hands and pretending there’s nothing we can do about costs.

Of course there is! Rely entirely on adjunct and contingent labor.

Yeah, sure, both Grafton and Delbanco recognize that “universities can increase productivity and lower costs.”  And Grafton, in his review, allows that “Adjunct and contingent faculty often do an amazing job.”

That’s just like Dr. O’Banion, who clearly thinks that, even if they don’t have job security and offices and all that stuff, adcons are at least sometimes “dedicated.” Well, he doesn’t come out and say it, but I’m reading between the lines.

Here’s what seem to be the consensus on adcoms: we’re often amazing and at least sometimes dedicated.

That’s good, and thank you, but here’s the thing. Somebody like O’Banion has made his choice. He’s betting that the supply of dedicated-enough adjuncts and contingents will never dry up, in spite of his notion that the “hordes” of full-timers now retiring cannot be replaced.

But he knows that the full-timers can be replaced, and at a much lower cost, as they have been for forty years all over the country.

And Grafton and Delbanco and their tribe? What's their strategy?

Pull up the drawbridge, make sure the moat is filled with alligators?