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Welcome to the Future of Academia October 25, 2010

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Culture, Education, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Teaching.
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Following up on the “Sad Stats” post below, perhaps it isn’t too hard to discern a trend here, in this excerpt from a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, “Putting a Price on Professors”:

As budget pressures mount, legislators and governors are increasingly demanding data proving that money given to colleges is well spent. States spend about 11% of their general-fund budgets subsidizing higher education. That totaled more than $78 billion in fiscal year 2008, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers.

The movement is driven as well by dismal educational statistics. Just over half of all freshmen entering four-year public colleges will earn a degree from that institution within six years, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

And among those with diplomas, just 31% could pass the most recent national prose literacy test, given in 2003; that’s down from 40% a decade earlier, the department says.

“For years and years, universities got away with, ‘Trust us—it’ll be worth it,'” said F. King Alexander, president of California State University at Long Beach.

But no more: “Every conversation we have with these institutions now revolves around productivity,” says Jason Bearce, associate commissioner for higher education in Indiana. He tells administrators it’s not enough to find efficiencies in their operations; they must seek “academic efficiency” as well, graduating more students more quickly and with more demonstrable skills. The National Governors Association echoes that mantra; it just formed a commission focused on improving productivity in higher education.

This new emphasis has raised hackles in academia. Some professors express deep concern that the focus on serving student “customers” and delivering value to taxpayers will turn public colleges into factories. They worry that it will upend the essential nature of a university, where the Milton scholar who teaches a senior seminar to five English majors is valued as much as the engineering professor who lands a million-dollar research grant.

And they fear too much tinkering will destroy an educational system that, despite its acknowledged flaws, remains the envy of much of the world. “It’s a reflection of a much more corporate model of running a university, and it’s getting away from the idea of the university as public good,” says John Curtis, research director for the American Association of University Professors.

Efforts to remake higher education generally fall into two categories. In some states, including Ohio and Indiana, public officials have ordered a new approach to funding, based not on how many students enroll but on what they accomplish.

You need to read the rest of the article. It’s too long to copy here, but I’ll end this post with the voice of one professor who tries to argue why it can’t all be boiled down to retention, exams, funding and profit:

Mr. Dunning teaches two classes a semester and has won several teaching awards. His salary of about $90,000 a year also covers the time he spends researching Russian literature and history. His most recent book argues that Alexander Pushkin’s drama “Boris Godunov” was a comedy, not a tragedy.

 Mr. Dunning says his scholarly work animates his teaching and inspires his students. “But if you want me to explain why a grocery clerk in Texas should pay taxes for me to write those books, I can’t give you an answer,” he says.

His eyes sweep his cramped office, lined with books. Then Mr. Dunning finds his answer. “We’ve only got 5,000 years of recorded human history,” he says, “and I think we need every precious bit of it.”

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