IT IS TIME TO HAVE A CONVERSATION ABOUT HIGHER EDUCATION

There have been dramatic changes occurring in higher education over the last decade. For instance, colleges and universities have expanded online programs to appeal to non-traditional students. Even though these programs have been initiated with little public discussion, it is laudable that they target students who work full time, cannot afford attending a campus, are raising children, or are older than students who enter college directly from high school. In addition to the non-traditional students, appeals are made to youth to pursue degrees at home. For example, the television commercial showing a young woman in her pajamas declaring that she is taking a course online is one kind of metaphor for this trajectory.  

In addition, powerful and wealthy lobby groups have sought to transform higher education in ways that promote their political agendas and ideologies. They have pressured universities, public and private, to downsize or eliminate certain academic programs, particularly in the liberal arts.  Media education commentators and these same special interests have advocated universities to further prioritize so-called STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), mostly at the expense of the humanities and social sciences. 

To facilitate the transformation of higher education wealthy individuals, such as the Koch Brothers, have bankrolled the hiring of certain faculty or the construction of certain research and instructional programs that promote so-called “free market’ economics. 

Also, in an increasingly competitive market for students, universities have built upscale dormitories that include exercise facilities, high-end food courts, and high-tech classroom buildings, all to increase enrollment. Increasingly simplistic metrics are being used to determine student wants and needs, performance potential, and post- graduate job satisfaction. Academic programs “infantilize” students and professors by monitoring greater facets of the instructional process. 

Furthermore, with a forty-year downward trajectory of support for public higher education, universities have been shifting more toward contract research: high tech military research and corporate funding for new generations of commercial products in agriculture, technology, transportation, and drugs. Some universities have prioritized research that would lead to commercial success.

These trends are not surprising given the truism that the educational process since the industrial revolution, particularly higher education, has always served the needs and interests of dominant sectors of the economy. During the 1960s Clark Kerr, President, University of California, argued that the “multiversity” was needed to support American capitalism and to aid in the development of US national security in a world threatened by international communism.

However, there also is a long tradition in higher education that contradicts the view that institutions should just serve the interests of economic and political elites. Universities have promoted the study of the humanities, have stimulated the development of curricula that connect scientific theory to human beings and nature, and have encouraged discussions about how to create more just and humane societies. To protect this more hallowed conception of the university, faculty, through collective action, were able to popularize and institutionalize the idea of “academic freedom.” Academic freedom defended the right to free and unbridled debate on issues of relevance to scholarship and public discourse. In addition, to academic freedom, the American Association of University Professors and other organizations of educators have called for “shared governance,” arguing that the faculty should have a right and an obligation to participate in decisions about the educational and research activities of the university.  

From time to time, the model of the university promoted by economic elites, boards of trustees at universities, and many university administrators has clashed with the ideal of the university as a place where more fundamental societal issues are discussed and debated. Recently, boards of trustees and university presidents have been making decisions of import to educational and research, like those suggested above, without faculty discussions. Shared governance is being replaced by non-transparent decision-making by the few.

Two examples from Purdue University are illustrative: Purdue University’s unsuccessful bid to help manage the Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory and the purchase and incorporation of the online Kaplan University into Purdue Global University. In both cases, it was declared after the fact that transparency, that is having an open conversation about the strengths and weaknesses of the university commitments, would violate the secrecy that was necessary during critical negotiations with government bodies or corporations. While this may be correct it is also possible that the Purdue decision-makers knew that the commitments they were ready to embark upon might be opposed by many faculty and students.

In the Los Alamos case, Purdue was to partner with the Bechtel Corporation which had been a co-manager of the nuclear facility. The National Laboratory announced it was opening a bid for a new contract because under Bechtel’s management health and safety at the nuclear site had been compromised (See Rebecca Moss, “Two Leading Bidders for Lucrative Los Alamos Lab Contract Have Checkered Safety Records,” Pro Publica, May 8, 2018).  Also, data had shown that Bechtel, a leading global engineering firm, had incurred criticisms for contracted work around the world, including in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Bolivia (See Matthew Brunwasser, “Steamrolled,” Foreign Policy, January 30, 2015).  Moreover, the Los Alamos bid would require serious conversation about the use of nuclear power as an energy source, building new generations of nuclear weapons, and the growth and expansion of nuclear weapons programs around the world. Discussions in the university community about whether Purdue University should bid on the Los Alamos contract would have been important for the intellectual integrity and the public face of the university.

The belated public announcement of Purdue’s acquisition of the Kaplan online university became controversial in part because there had been media reports in recent years of Kaplan’s failures in educational performance and job placement, coupled with the generation of enormous student debt incurred by Kaplan students. But these issues were not part of discussions raised in the university community until after the Kaplan/Purdue connection was announced. And there was little opportunity to discuss the efficacy of online education, the appropriate mix of online and on-campus combinations (so-called blended programs) and whether the state of Indiana should support the new Purdue Global or allocate resources to make regional campuses and technical colleges more user friendly for non-traditional students (See Doug Lederman, “Online Options give Adults Access, But Outcomes Lag,” Inside Higher Education, June 20, 2018.)

Since there was no full airing of the issues around Kaplan, online education, blended education, the appropriate consumers of new educational programs, and who the faculty teaching in online programs would be, confusion and skepticism remain (except for statements from the Purdue Administration and members of the Board of Trustees celebrating this new venture).

Nancy MacLean, in Democracy in Chains, argues that special interests advocate a whole host of public policies, about privatizing public institutions, deregulating the economy, and downsizing social safety nets, which are not popular with majorities of people. So, she says, their advocates, have contrived to circumvent democratic input and thus eliminate opposition. 

In sum, higher education in recent years has experienced a substantial shift from transparency and shared governance with faculty and students to non-transparency in decision-making. In addition, decisions are made about trends in higher education with declining input from the public.  Non-transparency breeds discontent among faculty, public cynicism, and a growing awareness that higher education is less about the public good and more about private aggrandizement.

 

Harry Targ