Humanities in the Age of Austerity: A CFP

While I wasn’t afforded a photo-op and ceremonial signing moment in the North Dakota Quarterly office, this call-for-papers is among my first acts as the new editor of NDQ:

As readers of the Archaeology of the Mediterranean World, you guys always get the drop:

Humanities in the Age of Austerity

In 2016, the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of North Dakota made the decision to cut support to the nationally-recognized and century-old public humanities journal, North Dakota Quarterly. This included defunding the position of our long-timer managing editor and support for our office assistant who was reassigned elsewhere on campus. These cuts were part of series of large budget cuts at the state level which impacted all state institutions including colleges and universities. The way in which the cuts happened spawned both outrage and critical reflection on the priorities, organization, and leadership present at the state and university levels. While the impact of the UND budget cuts were distinctly local, their significance resonate around the world as education, culture, and the humanities face the growing challenge of fiscal austerity.

As part of the transformation of North Dakota Quarterly, we are excited to announce a call for papers dealing with the humanities in the age of austerity. We invite contributors to consider how the humanities can and should understand and respond to austerity both in the context of higher education and in the public sphere. References to UND and the situation with NDQ are encouraged only in as much as they make a larger point concerning the humanities, and we are seeking national and even global perspectives on this pressing issue.

The plan is to publish the contributions in an edited, digital volume in the spring of 2018 and then as part of an annual paper volume of North Dakota Quarterly in the fall of 2018. Contributions of any length and in any genre are welcome. Deadline is February 15 or earlier. Please send contributions to billcaraher[at]gmail[dot]com with the word “Austerity” in the subject line.

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.

Teaching Tuesday: The Great Mistake and Higher Education Budgets

Christopher Newfield’s The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them (2017) should be required reading for anyone who is interested (or contractually obligated to be interested) in the University of North Dakota budget debate. Newfield served on various campus and system wide committees at UCSB and in the University of California System during several rounds of drastic budget cuts in the early 21st century. His experiences collaborating with his colleagues, pouring over the budgets, and interacting with regents, administrators and the public have imparted his scholarship with a hard-won practical edge that both makes it more immediate in impact (this is not a theoretical book), but also demonstrates the conceptual fractures that exist throughout the current conversation about higher education.

Newfield centers his argument on the broad concept of “privatization” which he used to describe the process whereby public universities turn to private capital, services, and institutions to support their public mission. He explains the process through a six step chart where each step inform the next. It begins with the university retreating from public goods which results in the need to seek outside sponsors and regular tuition hikes. These provide a reason for public funding to be cut, especially during economic downturns, and not restored, increasingly amounts of this deficit shifted to student debts, the growing use of private venders in a quest to do more with less, uneven backfilling across systems where students who would benefit the most from high levels of investment receive the least funding, and a growing maze of arguments based upon “post-productivity capitalism” where credentialing a workforce matters more than training the next generation of leaders.

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Newfield claims his book is meant for parents and even students who are struggling to understand why higher education appears to struggle to fulfill its promises, but the book actually speaks to a much wider audience and brings together a much confusing and complicated set of discourses that have all claimed particular insights into recent changes in higher education.

For example, “privatization” serves as a useful way to understand how universities have explicitly retreated from working toward the public good. As Charles Dorn’s recent book has attempted to show, universities have shifted their attention more and more to engaging with the market in ways that range from their emphasis on “work force development” to public-private partnerships seeking to monetize university research. Newfeild add nuance to this kind of privatization, by seeing it as both a cause for the fiscal (and cultural crisis) at the university as well as a result of this crisis and the shift toward a viewing the market as the ultimate arbiter of public good.

Elsewhere in his book, Newfield discuss the breakdown between the desperate need for universities, their administrators, and their supporters in the legislature to make they case to the general public for universities as a public good. He demonstrates the complicated political and cultural context for – to use Stefan Collini’s term – “speaking of universities” in the public sphere. In part, university administrators are stuck between the eroding confidence in public institutions (despite their quiet ubiquity in our everyday life) and growing confidence in “free market” technological solutionism, the potential of commercialization, longstanding (if mostly quietly held) belief that the poor are morally or intellectual deficient, and persistent, misplaced faith in the rising economic tide lifting all ships. These are powerful currents in the public discourse that both shape the views of university administrators (and faculty) as well as the views of the general public to whom any appeal to the public good must be made. 

Newfield even engages the conclusions reached by Arum and Roska in their widely read and cited Academically Adrift which argues that in many cases, universities fail to improve fundamental student skills. Newfield shifts the responsibility for these failings from faculty, institutions, or even students to the existing funding models of higher education which tend to support students at private schools or upper tier public institutions with higher levels of funding per student which allows for more intensive teaching practices that emphasize writing, reading, and one-on-one . At UND, for example, funding cuts will lead to larger classes, less teaching support from graduate assistants, and increasing reliance on digitally mediated approaches to instruction and evaluation. While digital tools may serve to bridge in part, Newfield emphasized that, in general, digital solutions have not yet delivered on their promise to make conventional teaching practices obsolete. There will be risks and these risks will both cost money and impact student learning.

Finally, Newfield does take the reader into the weeds of higher education finance with a brilliant little discussion of how sponsored research (predominantly grants) impact the bottom line at universities. Generally speaking, in contemporary academic culture, grants are seen as an important source of income for universities. Despite this, it is well known among administrators, at least, that grants often cost the university money despite the fact that most grants bring with them funds for the indirect cost designed to support the cost of administering the grant, the ongoing investments in research infrastructure, and the longterm cost of the grant in depreciation of equipment and maintenance. In general, Newfield demonstrates, the cost of research exceeds the funds provided by most major federal grants and this gap is covered by other funds. This is intentional as the federal government, in particular, hoped that by limiting the funds not directly focused on research, they will force universities to be more efficient. Instead, it has pushed universities to do research at a loss and continue to go after grants – year after year with growing intensity – to feed the research beast and like a Ponzi scheme director who is increasingly worried about investors making a call, universities must continue to push for grants or, more frequently, seek to privatize support for public research through partnerships with companies, moving tuition dollars to cover research losses, and endowments. These moves, in turn, compromise research for the public good by making it increasingly beholden to private interests (via corporate partnerships and fund raising).

Newfield’s book is sophisticated, smart, and very readable, and unlike many books that seek to understand and resist the current climate in higher education, Newfield’s book shows all the signs of adding persistent value to the ongoing conversation.  Go and get it. 

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.