Higher Education: As Simple as Possible, but No Simpler

I think it was Einstein who said “everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” Books on higher education have struggled with this sage advice over the past decade or so. The temptation to simplify complicated problems has led to either simplistic solutions (administrative bloat, “neoliberalism” and coddled students, et c.) or hopelessly complicated “word salads” where causality frequently takes a backseat to politically expedient rhetoric.

Not only are recent books on higher education a complicated and uneven mess of arguments, assertions, data, and policy, but they are proliferating at a remarkable rate. Over the past two years alone, dozens of books have appeared with optimistic profiles, evocative names (The New Education, The Graduate School Mess, For the Common Good, The Great Mistake et c.), and exuberant blurbs that prey upon the desperation of faculty and administrators alike to make sense of the changing campus landscape. (And they join a substantial bookshelf of “classics” that manage to feel hackneyed and naive at the same time.)

Preparing a syllabus for my spring course on the University of North Dakota Budget Crisis has proven particularly challenging. I’d like my students both to understand the main contours of recent higher education rhetoric and to gain a grounding in the complexities of data, policies, and attitudes that underlie this rhetoric. For every book like Newfield’s detailed analysis of university funding, there’s seems to be a few books like Cathy Davidson’s disappointing and largely derivative, The New Education. The cynic (and publisher) in me sees many of these books as efforts by publishers to leverage faculty discontent and cash in on the feeling of crisis in higher education.  

William G. Bowen’s and Michael S. McPherson’s Lesson Plan: An Agenda for Change in American Higher Education (2016) is among the more successful efforts to make things as simple as possible. It sets out the problems with higher education in the 21st century that is both grounded in a realistic understanding of the American political landscape and higher education and frank in its evaluation of the data upon which so many policy assessments are based. My favorite thing about the book and perhaps its saving grace is that it’s short.

In less than 200 pages, Bowen and McPherson offer a blunt assessment of higher education in the context of a the national conversation. They highlight the need for higher levels of educational attainment, higher completion rates and faster time to degree, disparities among students from disadvantaged groups economically, socially, ethnically, or racially, affordability, and the challenges of developing strong leaders in higher education. In general, they avoid offering simple solutions to complex problems. They do this, by both staying out of the weeds of the history of higher education in the U.S., which is a complex and diverse snare always ready to entrap the inexperienced scholar, and offering particularly blunt assessments of current affairs.

For example, $30,000 worth of debt for a college degree is not oppressive when set against the significant increase in future earnings that this degree will offer. In fact, compared to the average value of a car loan (which is about the same), most student loans are reasonable investments. They do, of course, note that loans taken out by vulnerable students to attend for-profit colleges with abysmal completion rates are no good investments. This perspective on higher education as an investment in future earnings reflects their realization that to remain dynamic higher education in the U.S. should rely on a combination of student, state, private, and federal funding sources. Loans reflect on methods that current earners, by repaying their loans, invest in future earners within the American economy. 

They recognize the disparity between the performance of students who come from disadvantaged economic or social groups, while also realizing that these students benefit the most from investments in their educational outcomes. Our current system tends to reward students from more privileged backgrounds with further investments while systematically underfunding institutions that cater to students most in need. This situation misses an opportunity to fulfill higher education’s potential as a way to give more students access to the upward mobility offered by a college education. In response, they call for more need based aid and less merit based aid. 

Bowen and McPherson understand many of the challenges facing higher to require strong, independent leadership, but that the current system in which university leaders are under unprecedented scrutiny from donors, boards, legislators, faculty, and alumni often stifles the development of innovative solutions. The tendency for university leaders to be risk averse and to follow well-trod paths under pressures to chase rankings, to pursue short-term opportunities at the expense of long-term change, and to ignore problems that require challenging, systemic solutions.

Bowen and McPherson do stumble, of course, as they seek to balance the need for sometimes painful changes against potential solutions. For example, they paradoxically call for shorter time to completion for Ph.D. programs while at the same time recognizing the overproduction of Ph.Ds. It seems to me that a longer time to completion for Ph.D.s would slow production by serving as a disincentive to some from the start, by increasing drop out rates, and by throttling the number of Ph.D.s produced by keeping programs filled to capacity for longer. This is not an appealing or socially sensitive response to the problem, but it is clear that calling for shorter time to completion in Ph.D. programs will only increase the glut of potential faculty on the market.

Despite this little slip ups, Lesson Plan is a short, incisive, and appealing little book that establishes the problems and offers some responses without making the complex challenges facing higher education any more simple than they need to be.

Math Labs and Jotted Scribblings

The ground floor of O’Kelly Hall on the lovely campus of the University of North Dakota is getting a well deserved upgrade. For those unfamiliar with this building, it was originally built as the medical sciences building as part of the medical school on campus (and to this day the west entrance to the building is inscribed with the words “Science Building”). It’s one of the Wells and Denbrook buildings on campus (for a nice survey of Wells and Denbrook’s contribution to North Dakota architecture, check this out) and shares the ambivalent (and perhaps even ironic) modernity of contemporary College Gothic design. The western part of the building dates to 1947 and the eastern part to a half-decade later.

The second floor of the building is where the department of history currently lives, and the ground floor  houses, among other things, the university’s relatively new Scale-Up classroom and the brand new “Meth” (actually Math) Lab. The space around these rooms is still being tidied up after some much-needed upgrades the building. Amid the almost-finished student study spaces and standing less than 20 feet from the Math Lab door is an unfinished cement pillar scrawled with measurements and arithmetic performed by workers remodeling the building. When the refit is completed the math on the cement pillar will be covered, but, for now, it provides a little practical motivation for students trudging toward the math lab each day.

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This is probably some kind of metaphor for higher education these days. Or maybe neoliberalism. Or something. It might be ironic.

Uberfication, Branding, and Competition

For this week’s reading in my graduate seminar on the history of higher education, I asked the students to read Gary Hall’s new book, The Uberfication of the University (2016). It’s sort and it’s thought provoking especially if read alongside work’s like Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas (2010) or Christopher Newfield’s The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them (2017). I’ll admit that the latter has informed my reading of Hall’s work, but even without it, The Uberfication of the University represents a subtle and intriguing take on the role of neoliberal ideas in influencing how universities function.

For Hall, the ride-sharing company Uber is emblematic of late capitalism, and his book looks at the impact of certain trends on the way in which the university functions both now and might function, in the future. Uberfication does not just refer to the hiring of low-cost, temporary, adjunct faculty and practices that allow universities to scale up or ramp down faculty across campus to serve student demands while keeping costs low. Uberficiation describes a larger trend in capitalism that promotes the creation of free-lance, microentreprenuers for whom the surveillance society of late capitalism has enforced a kind of the self-subjectification. This is largely done through the ubiquitous collection of data which has shaped our behaviors through the reinforcement of certain economically productive forms of self-discipline. As Hall notes, building on Foucault, the practices associated with surveillance society are normalized through eduction with has become designed to produce data that allows third parties (university administrators, for example) to assess learning as well as monitor student engagement, faculty performance, and educational efficiency. These practices tend to locate the educational process not at the level of the university, department, or curriculum, but at the level of individual performance. Smart faculty (like smart students) learn to “game” the system in various ways which are largely the intended consequences of the system from the start. The concept of uberfication, then, is as much about the use of data to shape individual behavior as it is the development of a permanently contingent workforce (although this is certainly parti of Hall’s critique).  

As a very simple local example from my institutions, we were recently threatened that instructors whose classes did not make enrollments consistently would be reviewed poorly in their annual reviews exposing them to the possibility of termination. While this outcome seems rather unlikely, the threat itself demonstrates the kind of shift that Hall identified. The use of data – in this case the rather coarse measure of enrollment numbers – to shape individual behaviors. It is difficult to blame individuals in this situation from shaping their courses to fit whatever expectations students (and administrators) have.

Hall’s book speaks to three regular themes in my musings on higher education: the development of personal (or institutional) billboards and brands, the use of data, and competition.

One of the key things that Hall connects to uberfication is the development of personal faculty brands (and I’d suggest, by extension, collective and university branding). Of course, I am familiar with the self branding and self promotion. My blog represents a particular crass example of this and the concept of branding extends to include The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota and my brief foray into podcasts, for example. While one could argue (and I have) that these are as much about promoting what I do as promoting myself, it is hard to escape the reality that data – page views, download numbers, even citations – represent a crucial measure for assessing the popularity of my particular view of the world and its wider relevance. I’m beyond checking my stats daily and fussing about why one post or another is more popular, but I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t generally aware of my own performance as a blogger and the performance of my press, for example. (As I was writing this, I posted to a Facebook page a link to my blog. Always. Be. Closing.)

In some ways, this desire to promote one’s own work extends to the level of the university as well. Recently, on our campus, there has been a spate of “billboard building” which doesn’t really involve the construction of literal billboards, but the desire to aggregate, name, and promote certain features of campus life allows for more granular and targeted monitoring of performance and message. It tends to be superficial, of course, just as personal brands tend to be, and have little to do with the creation of actual value or scholarship or even work at the university. It has everything to do with the promoting the institution as a brand.  

The second key feature of uberfication that I’ve been interested in is the use of data. Years ago, a buddy of mine, Mick Beltz wrote a short piece on the way in which online teaching (and I’d extend this to any number of active teaching classroom environments) promotes a vision of teaching consistent with the Foucauldian panopticon. I then riffed a bit on this in an article that was rejected everywhere I sent it. Our ability to monitor students while they work and learn has created a new level of data that allows a conscientious teacher to evaluate and shape learning as a process.

The same kinds of data, of course, can also shape how we as faculty teach and how our programs are funded on campus. For example, at my university, we are contractually obligated to use a piece of student retention called “Starfish” which allows the university to track students carefully through their careers, but also requires faculty to generate data about students (and in turn condition faculty to see engaging with students as a data producing endeavor). In other words, software like Starfish uses and generates data that supports student retention by mimicking, in some way, the rather more data resistant experience of faculty actually engaging with their students in a genuine and unstructured way.

(Part of this is a long tail, I’d argue, of professionalization that encourages faculty to see what we do as contractual structured engagements with particular kinds of work. As a result, unstructured work like a hallway conversation with a student or reading and thinking about a book fits awkwardly into standards articulated within in contracts.

On the one hand, there is no doubt that professionalization has been a boon to academia by creating a level playing field of expectations for job-applicants, faculty, and students. On the other hand, as we continue to seek fairness in consistently structured data points, we are also moving away from the personal connections that make education (and I’d argue academia) a rewarding place.)    

Hall does not shy away from observing that the core feature of uberfication is the role that competition plays in the the monetization of self. I’ve thought a good bit about how the “marketplace of idea” between and within college campuses has led to increasingly extravagant billboards and increasingly impoverished factories. Uber, itself, is largely a billboard (at best) that collects data (and monetizes it) to position itself more prominently (to collect more data and money). Uber has very little investment in the actual rides that are “shared.”

As competition becomes more and more of hallmark of higher education, Hall argues that the quest for data, assessment, billboard making, has fundamentally undermined the viability of higher education. Through time, higher education has changed from a densely integrated and personal experience where students and faculty work closely together to create education to an assembly line of requirements and, now, to a uberfied service that compiles and responds to data in an effort to promote the efficiency of their product. I share Hall’s fear that the uberfication of higher education cares too little of the wellbeing of its students and its workers and too much for demonstrable efficiencies that easily promote its mission to stakeholders and funders. 

Teaching Tuesday: Writing a Course Description for my Class on the UND Budget Cuts

This weekend, I put fingers to keyboard to produce a course description for my honors course in the 2015-2017 University of North Dakota budget cuts.

My course description had to accommodate three basic assumptions. First, students generally are not interested in their universities from an institutional or historical perspective. I once taught a class on the history of the University of North Dakota and most students found it boring in comparison to, say, Nazis or Romans. Second, the course has to have both specific learning goals (i.e. gaining a better understanding of complex institutions and UND in particular) as well as general learning goals (i.e. analyzing a range of documents to produce a narrative and analysis). Finally, it needs to produce something tangible and public. I’m thinking a little book titled A Student’s Guide to the UND Budget with an accompanying website.

So here goes: 

Between 2015 and 2017, the University of North Dakota experienced a series of seemingly unprecedented budget cuts. These results in a flurry of media coverage, cut programs, transformed priorities, and – perhaps most predictably – outrage. Faculty and staff lost jobs, academic, athletic and student programs were cut or modified, and campus life became punctuated with news of the latest cuts, public fora, and discussions.

Budgets are a fundamental aspect of most complex institutions, and in this way UND is no different than a company enduring an economic downturn or any other public institution experiencing retrenchment. The main difference between a university and these other entities, is that the university positions itself – at least for four or five years – as the source for a comprehensive experience that includes both most aspects of daily life (room, board, safety) and a student’s intellectual, social, and cultural life. Budget changes at the university can transform in basic ways a students experience during the fraught transition to adulthood.  

This course will explore the complex series of decisions, assumptions, and expectations that led to the 2015-2017 budget cuts at the University of North Dakota. Along the way, we’ll think critically about the history of higher education, the history of UND, and how complex institutions make decisions, execute plans, and respond to crises. We will explore these issues through a wide range of readings, projects that allow us to dig into various sources and data related to the cuts, and guest lectures from various people involved in the cuts.

In the end, we will produce a short guide for your fellow students (and maybe the general public) that explains what happened, how it happened, and why we should all care! (Let’s call it: A Student’s Guide to the UND Budget). The course will be fun.

College, Commercialism, and the Common Good

This weekend I finished Charles Dorn’s For the Common Good: A New History of Higher Education in America (2017) which I had assigned for my graduate seminar on the history of higher education. I was hoping that the book somehow updated the fine narrative histories of higher education offered by L. Veysey’s The Emergence of the American University (1965),or J. Thelin’s A History of American Higher Education (2004), but I was a bit disappointed. At the same time, Dorn seemed to avoid the temptation to write another higher education jeremiad.

Using a series of case studies starting in antebellum period, Dorn observes how higher education has embraced the notion of the “common good” or a sense of explicit civic mindedness.  By the first decades of the 20th century, however, a rising spirit of commercialism complicated calls for universities to promote the common good. This reflected demands of students who saw the university degree as a ticket to the good life as well as administrators loosely following in the footsteps of higher education leader like Andrew White and institutions like Stanford that embraced White’s blending of practical with theoretical learning. The tension between commercial goals of higher education and goals that Dorn associates with the “common good” become most apparent in the land grant universities which constantly negotiated the balance between practical learning designed to promote agriculture and industry in their states and earlier, humanistic ideals of education largely grounded in the liberal arts and including the study of Classics, literature, math, and the sciences. The same tension persisted in the development of normal schools in the U.S. which were established to accomplish the professional goals of training teachers, but, over time, embraced a larger mission that included both education in the liberal arts and more commercially oriented professions.

The strength of Dorn’s book is the detailed case studies which included private and state sponsored colleges in the Early National period (Bowdoin, South Carolina College, and Georgetown), the birth of agricultural and normal schools in the mid-19th century (Michigan State and San Jose State, respectively), and development of a distinctly western vision of higher education (Stanford), of colleges for women (Smith), and to serve African Americans (Howard) in the first half of the 20th century. And, finally, the emergence of the post-WWII university (University of South Florida) and community colleges (in New Mexico and Rhode Island). Dorn proposes that each of these examples manifests particular approaches to the common good from the idealized goals of creating leaders of strong character and morality in the Early National period to practical goals of land-grant schools, and the the economic goals of the 20th century university. At the same time, he returns regularly to trace the growing tension between commercialism and the common good over the course of the 20th century with the goals of individual achievement and affluence superseding the expectation to produce a civic minded graduates who aspire to do the most public good. The transformation of University of South Florida from a school designed to serve the local community, commuters, and the rapidly growing state’s regional needs to a school determined to stand as a top-tier national research institution with a major, residential campus, and a expansive curriculum and research agenda. The transformation of campus culture and goals at USF provides a nice model for how mission creep led to universities changing over time and how public oriented goals that prompted the development of USF gave way to goals more in keeping with commercial, individual, and institutional aspirations for growth, prominence, and wealth.

Unfortunately the narrow focus of most of the case studies in this book obscures the mechanics of these changes at individual institutions. Georgetown and the University of South Carolina (originally South Carolina College) clearly have undergone radical reimagining over their nearly 200 years of existence, but Dorn’s focus on their origins make it impossible to know how these schools developed into their current states. Moreover, Dorn doesn’t return to these types of schools later in his book leaving the reader to wonder how large, state, “flagship” universities and national comprehensive private universities encountered the challenges to their original public-oriented missions. The history of Smith College or even Howard University, while interesting and unique, does little to help us understand University of South Carolina, Michigan State, or Bowdoin. 

I also wish that Dorn had unpacked more critically the tension between individual aspirations for affluence and the growing commercialism of the university and the changing notion of the public good and civic mindedness. Over the past four decades a view of the market as promoting civic good and the common good has become so prevalent in the thinking about the public sphere and higher education that they two cannot be neatly separated. For many universities, the goals of “workforce development” and the public, common good are fundamentally the same owing to changes in the public discourse concerning the role of public institutions, the state, and individual engagement with the market. The absence of any discussion of neoliberalism and its impact on the character of higher education left the distinction between the public and private to stand like a 19th century strawman as irrelevant to higher education in the 21st as the liberal and Classical educational goals of 19th century universities.

 

Defending History: The Graduates’ Manifesto

I am really excited to share Defending History: The Graduates’ Manifesto with the world. This small book emerged over the course of my graduate historiography seminar. The student authors, Peter Baganz, Yonca Çubuk, Nicholas Graves, Joseph Kalka, Matthew G. Marsh, Janet Wolf Strand, and Susanne Watt wrote, edited and compiled this little book in response to learning that our graduate program had been defunded and the current cohort of graduate students would be the last for at least a little while.

The book contains a series of essays that explore the intersection of the budget cuts at the University of North Dakota, the character of higher education in the 21st century, and the role of humanities and history, in particular, in the past and future of American life. The essays are sharp, critical, and do not shy away from controversy or provocation.

The work benefited from a round of public comments that served as a kind of peer review. You can see the comments here.

The work concludes with a sweeping call to action that embodies the arguments throughout the book:

  • Apply historical thinking to higher education policy decisions.
  • Recognize the relationship between higher education and community building.
  • Understand that the historical success of the American university as a means of promoting prosperity is not necessarily linked to job creation.
It’s free, it’s provocative, and it balances the immediacy of the the UND budget situation with the perspective of history and the past.

 

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Teaching the UND Budget Cuts

As readers of this blog know, I’ve been posting my occasional thoughts about the budget cuts at the University of North Dakota. Most of my posts have focused less on the budget itself (which has not yet been finalized) and more on the impact of the cuts on the quality and character of life on campus. This continues a longer-term interest in higher education policy which also appears from time to time on this blog.

At some point, last month, I floated an idea of a book that would contribute in some small way to the institutional memory of the budget cuts. I’m still thinking about that and working with some collaborators to move that forward, but I’m also interested in teaching a class on the budget cuts at UND, and this seems like it will probably happen in the Spring semester of 2018.

I have a meeting this morning with two graduate student collaborators on the larger UND Budget Project, and I’m starting to get my ideas together on the goals of the class. At its core, I want the course to serve as a critique of modernity and the institutions that shape our daily life. My hope is that the class can serve to complicate the idea of “transparency” that administrators so frequently bandy about. Transparency and intelligibility are not, of course, the same things, and making a complex institution as transparent as possible rarely ensures that the moves an institution makes are understandable to its various “stakeholders.” To unpack the potential of transparent, modern institutions, we have to learn to read these institutions and to understand the limits and potential under which these institutions function. So that’s the main goal of the class:

1. To become more literate in reading the evidence produced by modern, public institutions and in understanding how various decisions, policies, and individuals shape the direction, goals, and performance of these institutions.

Introducing students to the complexities of modern institutions will, of course, be a challenge. My disciplinary instinct is to approach reading an institution like the University of North Dakota through the lens of history, but I also recognize that other disciplines offer a different, and perhaps more robust, set of tools for unpacking the complexities of modern institutions. From sociology and anthropology, for example, the development of institutional ethnography and the methods used by Bruno Latour to understand, for example, “who killed Aramais?” can also be applied to higher education and understanding, for example, “who killed women’s hockey at UND?” Taking a transdisciplinary approach to higher education includes reading broadly in higher education policy and criticism. So:

2. To locate the current budget situation and the institutional responses in the context of higher education policy, the scholarship on institutional dynamics in higher education, and the history of higher education in both in the U.S. and on a global scale.  

Finally, there is a certain tendency in higher education to look so intently to the future – toward innovation! – and to look back with such nostalgia, they suspend a critical engagement with an institution’s past. The history of the University of North Dakota is pretty poorly known and there seems to be a pretty strong impulse to forget the economic challenges that have long faced both the state and the university. While a certain level of historical awareness could serve to soften the feeling of “unprecedentedness” at UND, it could also help administrators, faculty, and students find new ways to understand how things like budget cuts have functioned to transform the institution in the past.

Unfortunately, the recent history of the University of North Dakota is pretty fragmentary with only sporadic efforts surrounding the 100th and 125th-aversary to produce critical, rigorous, and careful scholarly work. The good thing is that the University Archive is available on campus and well managed. Students will be encouraged to excavate the archives and find the best primary and secondary sources for the history of the university. So:

3. To place the recent budget crisis in the history of higher education in the state of North Dakota and at the University of North Dakota.  

Stay tuned for more on the “Budget Project” as it develops over the next 9 months!

For more of my thoughts on the UND budget crisis, this is the eighth installment in a little series. Here is part 1part 2part 3part 4part 5 part 6, part 7.]

Drones, the University, and the Making of an Institute

Yesterday I attended a UAS (Unmanned Aerial Systems) summit meeting on the campus of the University of North Dakota. The meeting was the first step in the establishment of the IUAR, the Institute for Unmanned and Autonomous Research. While the name of the institute sounds a bit like a dystopian fantasy where research happens without researchers and following some kind of formulaic diktat, it actually refers to various kinds of autonomous vehicles (drones, in particular, but broadly construed as well).

The meeting was “World Cafe” style, where people rotated through groups in 25 minute intervals brainstorming around a series of questions. I participated in three groups, one geared toward the future of these kinds of technologies (ancient historian as futurist!), one on data flow, and one on policy. The conversations at these roundtables were brisk, well-moderated, and productive, but they were also short!

So I’ve taken to the ole blog to respond more thoroughly to my experiences at the event. To be clear, I’m not really responding to the idea of IUAR in particular, but instead thinking about how people were talking about this initiative and how its place within my own developing thoughts about higher education.

1. Billboard or Factory?

One of the interesting themes in the conversation yesterday was the impact of the IUAR on the University of North Dakota’s reputation on a regional, national, and global scale. The presentations from administrators advocating for this institute were a curious mix of asking us to produce something (like a factory) and promoting what we already do (like a billboard). Now, I recognize that most good initiatives in higher education are part factory (promoting collaboration to produce new things) and part billboards (advertising what it is that we’re doing), but the current conversation around IUAR on campus seemed curiously skewed toward the billboard side of the equation.

The question that kept popping into my mind is whether this initiative is designed produce reputation or new knowledge? And if it is the latter, what kind of knowledge and technologies and approaches and ideas is it designed to produce? Or, in a more academic way, what problem is the IUAR designed to solve (see point 4 below)?

2. Surplus Energy.

One thing that interested me a good bit about the summit yesterday was how few faculty in the room worked on UAS technology or application as the main focus of their research. Many of us, however, had thought a bit about drones or used them in the field, but few of us considered ourselves experts in the field of UAS (although to be clear there were some folks with that expertise in the room).

For an institute like the one proposed to thrive, it will have to rely on surplus energy found in small pockets across campus. This surplus energy derives from faculty who have some, modest interest in some aspect of UAS technology, policy, or application, but not enough interest to shift our academic focus to UAS exclusively or even devote the majority of our time to the technical and political complexities of these devices. To make an institute like IUAR work, however, campus leaders need to convince us to dedicate some small part of our energies to the greater good of the institute. It is not quite as simple as taking whatever percentage of our energies we dedicate to drones and the like and shifting that to the work of the institute. There is a kind of friction that happens with a collaborative endeavor where energies are spent in organizing, adjusting our research agendas, institutional work, and other small exertions to, ideally, reap the greater benefit of shared labor.

There is always a balance and whatever the institute becomes has to do enough for those people investing in it to make it worth the exertion of energy. This is all the more vital for individuals who dedicate only a small percentage of their time to main focus on the institute. For someone like me, the benefits will have to be comparatively large in comparison to the small investment of time that I make thinking about UAS technology to be worth it.

3. Models for funding.

I’m intrigued about funding models in higher education. Recently a longstanding project on campus was critiqued and de-funded because it lacked a sustainable business model. At the same time, it is clear that not all parts of a university have to be self-sustaining. Some part of the university are so close to the university’s core mission that they needn’t have sustainable funding model to be vital to what a university does. For example, a library does not have to raise its own funds through fines and fundraising (let’s pretend) to fulfill its basic functions because a university without a library is hardly a university at all.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, universities often act like venture capitalists in supporting innovations in basic and applied research because they recognize that new ideas are often fraught with economic risk and uncertainty and are rarely structured with sustainability as a goal. The funding in this case tends to be entrepreneurial funding and focused on small pilot projects the demonstrate proof of concept or emphasize one step toward a larger goal.

The IUAR project is a bit of a hybrid. It is a top down project initiated by the president, so it has some of the characteristics of projects so deeply embedded in the core of the university to not require a sustainable funding model and perhaps amenable to funding through direct allocation of resources. On the other hand, the absence of a large number of on campus stakeholders (for example, I was the only person from the humanities in the room and maybe there were only three or four faculty from the largest college on campus, Arts and Sciences), suggests that this is a kind of a niche project that perhaps would directly benefit a small number of faculty and develop best through a funding model that emphasized the focused nature of the research rather than its broad standing across campus. These kinds of project either derive from entrepreneurial activities and receive funding like venture capital and then shift to a grant funded or “soft money” model later.

What was strange, is that there was clearly no plan for sustainable funding presented at this meeting. In fact, the participants were asked to help imagine ways to fund this initiative. While this was fine as the meeting was an informal brainstorming session, it did make me wonder whether this kind of project might have been better initiated with a small number of researchers doing very focused research. Or, alternately with a bucket of money for a certain length of time to support its broad mission. In the meeting, it felt betwixt and between, not broad enough to be part of the core mission of the university, but also not focused enough to be entrepreneurial.

4. Technology or Problems?

Part of the issue, of course, is that the institute as currently imagined will focus on a technology rather than a problem. Most academic research focuses around solving a problem and collaborations tend to focus around various aspects of a problem rather than technical knowledge. Hence, entrepreneurial funding goes to groups of collaborators who begin to develop a solution to a particular problem. The IUAR initiative appeared, at least from the meeting yesterday, to lack a clear focus on a problem. There were problems, to be sure, that ranged from technological challenges – battery life, lifting power, ands so on – to policy and perception issues, but none of these stood at the center of the conversation.

I wonder whether a new, academic, research institute should start small, use an entrepreneurial model, and focus on specific problems established by industry practices and application or basic research challenges would be both an economically better move on the part of a cash-strapped university as well as resonate more fundamentally with the way researchers approach technology.

5. Outcomes and Trajectories.

I wonder how an institute oriented around a particular technology will fare compared to an institute focused on solving a particular problem. On the one hand, it might be that an institute focused on a kind of technology persists more readily in the modern university climate and has greater opportunities to reward the initial investment in its development. Their mission is ambiguous enough to allow them to be flexible in a dynamic world.

On the other hand, I’m always interested in how we can evaluate the success of such institutions when they are not focused on contributing to the solution of a particular problem. If the IUAR is designed to be a billboard to advertise good work already done at UND, then that allays some of my worries, but if it is a factory, I worry that the lack of a clear product will make its viability pretty contingent.

Finally, as I’ve blogged about at other times, I’m curious how the proposers of this institute see its trajectory, and this involves both its growth and its decline (and termination). Baking the end of an institution into its origins offers a way to keep the the institution focused on its present mission, subverts the exhausting task of “strategic planning” or other forms of “continuous improvement,” and ensures that resources, personnel, and energies don’t become pooled in places by dint of tradition rather than productive outcomes. For an institute focusing on technology, establishing a trajectory might be more fraught, because the ultimate development of a particular technology through time is not always well anticipated, but it might also be particularly useful, because it would manage the intermediate term investment in something that might be short-term trend or represent a short-term need in the development of a particular set of technological challenges.

To be clear none of this is to criticize the IUAR before it even gets started. And, of course, I recognize that building consensus across a diverse campus is tricky and the origins of any new project is almost always a messy process. What remains interesting to me, however, are the moments of ambiguity that I encountered at the summit yesterday, and it will be intriguing to see if these are issues that the institute can resolve moving forward or fatal flaws in its conception.

Speaking of Universities

One good thing about traveling is (especially on “smaller regional jets”) is the opportunity to read. The seats and tray tables are really too small to do any substantial work on a laptop and my new MacBook Pro has a solid hour of battery life. So I had no excuse to do anything other than read.

I colleague recommended that I check out Stefan Collini’s Speaking of Universities (Verso 2017) because of my general interest in higher education policy and my specific interest in how people talk about higher education. I am also beginning to put a class together on the budget cuts at the University of North Dakota (based very loosely on a series of blog posts here) and their historical context both in higher education in the state and nationally.

The book is a pretty quick read in part because it is a compilation of previously published articles, reviews, and papers which are redundant and, in part, because Collini lays out his arguments very clearly at the start. He is writing in the immediate context of the sweeping changes made to higher education in the England and Wales in 2012. While some of the book does deal with the particular details of these reforms, the book remains a useful read for American academics because of a few salient take aways:

1. Speaking about Higher Education. At a recent meeting on campus, I suggested that part of the challenge facing UND isn’t so much the budget cuts, but how we talk about budget cuts. A couple weeks ago, it was announced that we’d cut our women’s hockey program and the arguments made to defend this move were largely economic ands budgetary. At the same time, the response to the cuts were largely emotional or grounded in arguments about university values. The asymmetries in the arguments made the university look bad because instead of talking about what a university means, UND administrators end up talking about relatively technical aspect of higher education administration (i.e. Title IX, cost/benefit, et c.).

Whatever the realities of these technical constraints are, people nevertheless look to universities to talk about values and leadership. In other words, even as UND faces significant budgetary issues, there remains a responsibility to talk about what a university means, if for no other reason than this is what the public expects.

Collini stresses the need to focus on how we talk about higher education and to resist the temptation to think of higher education as a business or an economic enterprise and communicate with that language. While there is no denying the economic constraints on higher education, Collini argues that the way we talk about about decision making, priorities, and value should reflect things that go far beyond the economic value or realities of the university. After all, we rarely talk about the truly important things in life using economic terms. 

2. Systems, Problems, and Competition. When academics are presented with systems and problems, our general approach is to try to break the system and try to solve the problem. The educational reforms in England and Wales involve a complex equation for how universities are funded. From the introduction of this system, universities sought ways to maximize their funding, in part, by playing within the rules of the system and, in part, by finding ways to subvert the system to their benefit. This is a product of both deep-seated academic practice of problem solving grounded in a healthy skepticism that any particular system of knowledge will, necessarily, provide the answers to particular problems. In other words, part of the process of exploring a problem and posing solutions is identifying the systemic causes for the problem and breaking the system when necessary.

This approach to academic problem solving is further amplified by competition. As administrators and legislators push universities and programs to compete with one another, it is natural that they will increasingly attempt to subvert the various systems set to manage or constrain that competition. This is simply the nature of academia (and I’d suggest that it is not radically different from the behavior of interests in a market economy). Various systems put in place to measure academic productivity will be broken by academics.

3. Higher Education and Markets. At the end of the day, Collini takes great pains to emphasize that competition, the language of business, and economic motivations will not work because universities do not do their best work when they are not chasing the market. Unfortunately, this is where Collini’s work falters a bit. He does little to offer a clear definition of how we know that universities are doing their best work.

This issue, of course, is the crux of Collini’s argument. It is fine to suggest that we talk about higher education in ways that more authentically reflect the motivations and practices that take place across university campuses, but it is another thing to come up with a compelling discourse, narrative, or even basic language that embodies the wide range of successful outcomes across the modern university campus. The modern university has developed in parallel with the changing economic forces, managerial attitudes, and market structures, and these cultures have shaped in uneven ways the development of disciplinary attitudes across campus. In other words, the main challenge facing how universities speak may not be an adversarial relationship between the world of higher education and the world of policy, markets, and politics, but the deep interpenetration of these worlds has done more than add a layer of “edu-speak” jargon to higher education, but transformed it at the base.

Collini’s work reflects one strand of the higher education conversation that tends to see the rarified air of pure science and the humanities as the authentic academic discourse and the language of applied science, managerialism, and markets as somehow external to the university. While I tend to agree that higher education should speak about things other than markets, business models, and competition, I also think that the strongest future for higher education involves a public language that embraces a plurality of views and discourses. 

The University of North Dakota Budget Crisis in the Classroom

At a meeting a week before spring break, one of the student representatives expressed concern about the University of North Dakota budget crisis impacting teaching (and learning) on campus. He noted that low faculty morale and a lack of confidence in university leadership did little to motivate learners and had become a distraction. I think this must be true, but I’m also not sure what anyone can do about it. The entire campus community is being impacted by the budget cuts, and so it is hardly surprising that it is seeping into the classroom.

[This is the sixth in a series of blog posts on the UND budget crisis go to part 1part 2part 3part 4, and part 5.]

In my graduate historiography class, we’ve embraced the opportunity to discuss the impact of the budget crisis, in part, because it impacts the academic careers of the students in the class. Because our graduate program was de-funded, there will be very few courses available for our M.A. and D.A. students in the next year or so, and we will admit no funded students next semester. In other words, these students will witness a lull in our graduate program that will directly impact their education.

After some discussion, we decided that the best response from this class could be some kind of apologia or manifesto defending graduate education in history and the humanities more broadly. We agreed to open to make our work one to the public, first through a series of critiques by faculty and graduate students in our department and then to the wider community for comment. This work would fit into both a broader discussion of public humanities (for the students) and as part of a wider effort to document the impact of the budget cuts “on the ground.”

I read the first draft of their work this weekend with great interest. It’s pretty good, and my point in this post isn’t to call the students out on their work, but to note a few trends in their work that I think characterize the current budget situation at UND.

1. Causal Confusion. One of the most striking things about their work is the confusion about where the budget cuts that impact them originated. Most students blamed the legislature for the reduced funding to higher education, but some vaguely blamed “the administration.” What was consistent is that none of the students entirely grasped the process of budget cutting on campus and the various levels of responsibility and accountability. This suggests that the administration’s efforts to communicate how the budget cuts worked have not made it to the level of the students most effected by them.

While it is easy to say that my students needed to dig a bit deeper to understand administrative processes and the like, it is nevertheless an interesting situation that the regular drumbeat of communication from the administration did not appear to shape their views. Whether this reflects a commitment to a “post factual world,” a bit of lazy research, or a failure of the administration’s communication strategy (or a bit of all three) remains difficult to know right now.

2. Historical Context. The other issue that was a bit disappointing to me was the lack of historical context for these budget cuts. While the first draft showed a broad awareness that similar budget cuts had taken place elsewhere and that cuts to the humanities fit within a pattern that oscillates between seeing universities as workforce training and being seen as places to build civic identities and common values deeply rooted in the humanities. What was absent was any effort to locate these cuts in the history of the state or the university. 

These aren’t the first budget cuts at UND, and there is plenty of evidence available for how the university has dealt with similar cuts in the past. More importantly, there is a long pattern of attitudes toward the larger mission of higher education both at UND and across the state available both in published works, like L. Geiger’s history of the university, and in the university archives. 

Again, my inclination is not to blame the students for this oversight, but, of course, as historians you would imagine that they’d have attacked the problem using their historical toolkit. Instead, students were drawn into current rhetoric which sees these cuts and unprecedented and approaches the problem of the budget cuts in a fundamentally ahistorical way. This frees the administration to act without any kind of commitment to historical practices, processes, or (with all due caveats) tradition. It is difficult to make the case that history matters without engaging history fully in diagnosing and assessing the problems and potential solutions.

3. Petroculture. One thing that I did notice right in the background of many of the contributions to this effort is the looming specter of oil and some linked the budget shortfalls and budget cuts on the decline of oil prices. A subtle strand throughout the work is that history and historical thinking would have helped the state and the university better anticipate and adapt to the mercurial fluctuations in oil prices.

It is curious, though, that unlike many places in the world where oil has had a major impact on the local economies, none of the humanities institutions in North Dakota have yet to promote or develop a sustained interest in petrocultures. Petrocultures or Oil Humanities describes any number of approaches to economy, history, literature, or culture of oil production and consumption across various disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. They absence of a focus on oil and the humanities in North Dakota has left the state unprepared to engage the challenges of the oil economy and petroculture. As the state prepares itself to be even more accommodating to extractive industry, there is greater pressure for scholars and students of the humanities to provide a critical foil to these developments.