A Portuguese colleague (who has good reasons to remain anonymous) has brought to our attention some very important and worrisome recent events/developments pertaining to research funding in Portugal and Europe, which are described below. Academics in Europe (and also outside Europe) wil do well to pay close attention to these developments.
UPDATE: Perhaps my original phrasing was ambiguous, so to be clear: I am not the author of the post below, rather it is a guest post by the Portuguese colleague in question.
This post serves as a warning, and a plea for help, to academics around Europe.
Thomas Frank has a nice analysis up on Salon.com on college tuition and debts. In it, he points out that the crisis is of long duration, and people have been asking for more than a generation when the “college bubble” will burst. Along the way, he shows that a number of standard explanations (overpaid professors, insatiable student demand for gymnasiums, etc.) don’t make any sense, at least not on their own. His concluding point, though, seems vitally important. Here’s a good-sized chunk of text (with significant ellipses); I’ll follow with a couple of additional thoughts:
Back in March, I wrote a long piece about the effects of institutional debt on the current, destructive trends in U.S. Higher Education. In the same vein, there's a new article by Michelle Chen up at The Nation discussing a new report by the Debt and Society group called Borrowing Against the Future: The Hidden Costs of Financing U.S. Higher Education.
The report concerns the ways in which debt manifests itself throughout the system, and how these various forms are tied to one another—thus the titlte of Chen's piece "Colleges Are Buying Stuff They Can’t Afford and Making Students Pay For It." But Chen is right to highlight the institutional debt side of the equation, which has been overlooked despite the fact that it appears to be a structural driver for other forms of debt and institutional disinvestment in education, etc. She also emphasizes the degree to which one of the most pernicious consequenes of rising debt: the degree to which it makes even public institutions essentially subservient bond ratings agencies.
In the long run, however, these amenities often don’t pay off in terms of revenue for the schools, which grow increasingly beholden to bond investors. Those financiers, in turn, often favor not the highest-quality schools but rather “the safest prospects for investment.” Because of market pressures, the researchers warn, “bond markets can reward behaviors that generate greater revenue but are at odds with the goals of public higher education.” In other words, do you want your university’s future budget projections dictated by a Moody’s rating?
Or, as I've been arguing for awhile, rising institutional debt is what is making 'revenue at any cost' into a management imperative that trumps all others and essentially stripping institutional leaders of the freedom to make management decisions on the basis considerations like their institutions' primary missions, the best interests of their faculty, staff and students, etc. I urge folks to read the whole piece.
There’s a new piece up at TheAtlantic by Elizabeth Segran on the adjunct crisis in U.S. Higher Ed and the growing movement to contest the situation. The piece has a number of helpful aspects, including providing a summary of some of the most recent research on the effects of adjunctification on faculty, students, and the overall shape of the institution of U.S. Higher Education. Especially welcome is the recognition that, aside from its obvious economic consequences and its effects on student outcomes, faculty precarity has significantly eroded academic freedom, scholarly production, and done a great deal to compromise the university as an institution of learning and critical thought. This makes it all the more disappointing that the solutions the author seems most inclined to accept would only improve the economic situation of contingent faculty while doing nothing to make them less precarious or offer more support for research and scholarship.
In what follows, I’ll explain the above in a bit more detail.
As Protevi likes to keep reminding everyone on Facebook, it's been awhile now since I first started arguing that we haven't been paying sufficient attention to the role of institutional debt as a driver of the increasingly alarming developments in U.S. universities, especially those in the public sector. I've gestured in this direction before on NewAPPS, but the appearance of a new piece on the subject by Josh Freedman on Forbes.com provides a perfect opportunity to develop the point a bit more.
Let me begin, then, by making a fairly bold claim. Taking the problem of institutional debt seriously makes it possible to provide a consistent account of many of the major problematic trends in U. S. higher education: rapidly accelerating tuition costs; significant declines in financial aid coverage; cuts to or elimination of low-enrollment departments and programs, experiments with mass-market distance learning and online education, and a general move toward 'Responsibility Centered Managment' (RCM) administrative models; dramatically increasing pressure on faculty at the level of compensation, workload, job security and working conditions; the outsourcing of many university functions to private contractors; building booms, especially those aimed at increasing campus amenities or leveraging university owned real estate for commercial purposes; and finally, continuing increases in administrative spending, especially in development offices and other areas concerned with financial management and business operations.
All of this, which may otherwise seem contradictory and difficult to make sense of, can consistently be referred back to the urgent pressure that rising institutional debt imposes upon university operations: the need to maintain a sufficiently robust revenue stream to satisfy credit rating agencies and thus keep borrowing costs, and the costs of servicing existing debt, from exploding. Freedman provides, especially in the later parts of his article, an excellent discussion of how this works.
The story is here. I think there are two things to note here:
1: the threat to jobs of our colleagues: "The head of the University of Maine System said Friday that further state budget cuts could force the system to shed 95 jobs, on top of its plan to eliminate 165 in the next budget year."
2: the use of the seemingly neutral and technocratic term "revenue shortfall" here: "Page said the potential funding cut of nearly $10 million – part of an across-the-board spending reduction to cover a state revenue shortfall – could force the system to eliminate another 95 jobs in the year that starts July 1."
The problem with the use of that term is that it hides deliberate decisions by Maine politicians to cut state taxes, thereby creating the "shortfall" that is then the pretext to gut the university. I'd say this is a perfect example of ideology, as the hidden ratchet effect of taking previous decisions as unquestionable baselines.
Discussion on FB of this post at Leiter Reports about rejection led me to remark:
I hesitate to say this, since I made it through the wars by dint of being married to the right person, but here goes. My wife likes to say "you can't take rejection personally; there are too many factors involved that have nothing to do with your qualifications. [Wait two beats.] In fact, you can't even take acceptance personally, for exactly the same reason."
Further reflections below the fold, taken from a talk on inclusivity in conference organizing (points which hold, mutatis mutandis, for hiring decisions) at the APA Eastern, 2013. (See also this post, on why we should change our frame away from "job market".)
There's a worrying piece over at Inside Higher Ed quoting the president of "a mildly selective private nonprofit institution that is tuition-dependent" saying that the institution has begun to reject some applicants that it would previously have admitted because of worries about meeting outcomes targets in the ratings system proposed by President Obama in his Higher Education Plan last year. Not surprisingly, the effect of this shift has disproportionately affected applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds — and while this is only one case,* it seems to neatly exemplify what many have feared will be the effect of the proposals.
I've written before — and I plan to write more — about the effects of prestige races on the state of higher education in the U.S. Until now, these races have been fostered primarily by the proliferation of ranking systems (US News and World Report, etc.) as structuring elements of the enviornment in which institutions are operating. It is not difficult to link competition for prestige to the sorts of spending and other institutional policy decisions that have led to rising costs of attendence and increased institutional debt loads** — all of which has also created pressure on institutions that traditionally serve less advantaged populations to abandon or de-emphasize those missions. The Obama proposals, as the article shows, seem to have already added to that pressure without even having been put into effect.
*There are definitely reasons to think carefully about what type of institution is being disucssed here, which may not be typical of those doing the most to serve students from disadvantaged populations.
**See, for instance, this New York Times piece from 2012
In his critique of Posner’s economic analysis of law, the late Ed Baker offers some remarks that might help us to understand current developments in educational policy. Posner defends what we will now recognize as a number of the core commitments of neoliberal policy, in particular the fundamental efficiency of markets and the price mechanism for the optimal allocation of social goods. The more people want something, the more they are willing to pay, and so goods get bought and sold (as they move from those who value them less – sellers – to those who value them more – buyers) until everyone is as happy as they can be, given constraints on resources.
However, one additional factor needs to be put into the equation: undergraduate student-workers, who do lots and lots of service and clerical work: checking books out of the library, answering phones in department offices, and on and on. Marc Bousquet estimates in How the University Works that UG student-workers are the largest labor component, by number, at some big public schools.
Should they be part of the bargaining unit, or should the bargaining unit negotiate their work conditions and limits to the number of them employed relative to full-time clerical workers, is a good question, but one or the other is needed I think.
On February 18, the tenure track and non-tenure track faculty who make up the University of Illinois-Chicago faculty union UICUF Local 6456 will walk out of the classroom and onto the picket line for a two-day strike. Barring a dramatic change-of-heart by university administrators at the bargaining table the weekend, it will be the first faculty strike at a major research university in a very long time....
Every entering UIC student takes at least one writing course; most take two. Not surprisingly, our writing courses are overwhelmingly taught by lecturers (i.e. non-tenure track faculty), on year-to-year contracts and paid a standard salary of $30,000. Furthermore, although the administration carries on endlessly about the importance of merit, they’re unwilling to mandate a promotion track for non-tenure track faculty, the whole point of which would be to reward merit....
The term “shared governance” is invoked to disguise this evisceration of power but what it mainly means is that faculty senates can “advise” the administration and the administration can then do whatever it wants. To call shared governance real governance is like saying your dog has an equal say in how your household is run because sometimes when he whines he gets fed.
One of our issues in this strike is to take back decision-making power over the issues that matter to us — curriculum, teaching conditions, the distribution of monies, and the like. The administration is fighting ferociously to retain that power — since giving it up would in effect be returning it from management to workers.
This is how you obfuscate, ladies and gentlemen: "There's a good reason for that, says Rex Ramsier, vice provost at the University of Akron, where Gallagher is teaching one class. "Institutions have to be very mindful that if we simply tried to staff every course with full-time faculty that have full benefits, the cost of higher education at any institution would go up 30 to 40 percent potentially," he says. "The public's not going to accept that."
Notice the conflation of instructional labor costs and total costs (including admin salaries, fixed costs (building construction and upkeep, etc), which go to the bottom line of the school, and "cost" to "the public."
There's another equivocation there, between the public qua set of individual consumers (in which case we're talking about "price" to them -- tuition and fees) and public qua set of individual taxpayers.
Why is this important? A public uni could recoup its increased labor costs by two means.
This piece up at Salon gives a good narrative account of the problems with the for-profit college industry. These colleges prey on vulnerable students, making sunny promises about life after graduation. Once those students enroll, the colleges pocket the students’ federal grant and loan money. An alarming percentage of the students don't even finish a class, much less obtain a degree of any sort. What they mainly obtain is student-loan debt. The industry thus combines an incredibly brazen rent-seeking to protect their access to student financial aid with a basic finance-capital accumulation by dispossession: student loans are unforgiveable, even in bankruptcy, and so these students will forever be owing ever increasing amounts of money, which gets sent directly to Wall Street.
There was a story in today's NYT about a number of colleges that are lowering tuition, sometimes drastically. The argument is that they can do this without loss of revenue, since so few pay full tuition anyway. Thus, they are lowering tuition and cutting financial aid and making a splash vis a vis the current concern over high tuition.
The article makes a number of useful points: that colleges have done a terrible job at advertising how few people actually pay the official tuition amounts that sound so scary, or that there is a significant phenomenon of high tuition causing a perception of quality. But one obvious point goes utterly unmentioned in the NYT coverage: that cutting both tuition and aid hurts the most economically vulnerable and benefits the less vulnerable. (The NYT mentions that the college it most focuses on will retain mert-based scholarships, but fails to discuss the effects of cutting need-based.)
All of which leads me to float a suggestion for discussion - one that I once raised with our university president at a party, predictably being responded to with a chuckle and a raised eyebrow: let's raise tuition. A lot.
This Slate article* about the recent Johns Hopkins plan** is symptomatic of a seriously -- and unfortunately widespread -- mistaken approach to the political economy of higher education, namely, a short-term and ahistorical focus on the TT section of the entire labor system, mislabeled as "the job market."
Abstracting for the moment from the details of the Hopkins plan, the article's premise that "there aren't enough [tenure-track] jobs for PhDs" is an unfortunate reification of the multiple decisions of university administrators to produce the current situation by their hiring decisions. The endorsed conclusion "therefore we should restrict the number of PhD students," by unquestionly accepting the premise, just reinforces the dynamic that produces the current situation.***
Quite a morning on Facebook. First, someone posted a link to this NDPR review, which prompted this reflection on my part:
The choice of doing a review or not on Objectivism entails a bit of a double-bind: "sunlight is the best disinfectant" (or less obnoxiously, "let's let the marketplace of ideas* do its work") vs "recognition lends legitimacy." The choice of reviewer is equally problematic: with a highly polarizing topic the choice of a friend or a foe stacks the deck and neutral observers are difficult to find. The Stanford EP article on Objectivism was discussed critically along those lines a while ago if I'm not mistaken.
Subsequent discussion led me to this Forbes column on (often privately funded) university centers for "free market oriented policy research."
The good news: NYU and the UAW have agreed to allow graduate teaching assistants to hold a union election.
The "sigh" moments come in the first and last clauses here:
Outside the South, graduate student unions are common in public higher education (where collective bargaining rights are determined at the state level), but have been the source of years of organizing and legal struggles in private higher education.
In the discussion that followed Anca Gheaus' guest post on the gender situation in the German academy, there was some mention of the fact that in many European job-markets, faculty searches are not truly 'open,' so that internal candidates are strongly preferred to those from outside the hiring institution. Clearly, when taken to an extreme—institutions becoming highly resistant to hiring anyone but their own PhDs and/or post-docs—such a practice can be very detrimental to any process of diversification within the academy. But I wonder if there might not be other situations in which an over-emphasis on 'open' searches is actually detrimental.
I'm thinking of the situation in the U.S. academy, where the norm is very strongly against not only hiring a department's own PhDs, but also hiring any currently employed non-tenure track faculty into tenure lines, or even adjuncts into full-time NTT lines. Given that the galloping precaritization of the professoriate as a whole is fast becoming a structural crisis, I wonder if it is not time to examine the possible merits of encouraging departments to commit to making at least a certain percentage of their full-time and TT hires from within the ranks of their current part-time and NTT faculty.
The University of Florida has been given permission to hire "100 faculty members to fill new positions it will create as part of a push to join the nation’s top 10 public research institutions," The Chronicle reports. [HT Pete Boettke] According to the university, the main fields targeted for expansion "are life sciences, massive data, cybersecurity, Latin American development." Given demographics and geography, the first and last of these priorities make eminent sense, of course. (I ignore here the non-trivial issue to what degree Florida should be investing in higher education rather than, say, in K1-12.)
Now, earlier in the year this very same university made national headlines by acknowledging that it is basically terminating its PhD program in economics. Given that "massive" data-mining is increasingly taking over economics, there is some logic in this decision (recall and here, here). But before any philosopher has misplaced schadenfreude over the demise of the once-imperial human science in the face of market-forces, it is worth noting that the economics department was "offered the opportunity to move to the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences but opted to remain within the business college and become smaller." One wonders what is known about the investment priorities of the Gator's college of LAS. For more on the internal political economy at UF called "responsibility-centered management", see here.
Universities as corporate bodies are institutions with amazing longevity. They have a demonstrated record of adaptability, re-invention, and expansion. They have seen the rise and fall of Feudalism, the Reformation, the growth of capitalism, expanding suffrage, Communism, Nazism, and innumerable break-through technologies (including print, telescopes, radio, TV, etc.) One does not show such durability by exhibiting special moral courage nor by clinging to the status quo. Rather, one does so by shrewd opportunism and a firm eye on strategies that ensure long-term survival. None of this is to deny that there are not failed (e.g. Palencia) or zombie universities in which the academic ethos struggles against clientism, nepotism, state control, and a whole list of -isms taht promote mediocrity (many of which intimately familiar to us in Europe).
Only a fool bets against universities. One has to be a huge fool to bet against North American universities; these thrive in an extremely, competitive environment. To be clear: their thriving can come at the expense of many academics (e.g., adjuncts); their thriving is compatible with being a rich source of profit to alternative parties (e.g., Apple); their thriving is also compatible with providing governments with tools to spy on the whole world (enuff said). What's good for universities is not necessarily an unmitigated good. Now, for that whole, amazing history of the university, philosophy has had some place in the curriculum. Nothing lasts forever, of course, and philosophy may have changed essence along the way...because just saying.
Michael Kremer calls my attention to this post by Alex Usher (itself a response to this one). The significance of the post is three-fold: (i) one of the big corporate players in MOOC (massive open online courses) world, Udacity, is changing its strategy from competing with traditional universities to focusing on corporate training--this is accompanied by very forthright commentary by one of the intellectual (and corporate) pioneers of the very idea of MOOC; (ii) the mainstream press is silent on (i); (iii) there is, in fact, no mechanism to keep score on the opinion-leaders of the mainstream press (who have by-and-large been cheerleaders for MOOC and their corporate sponsors).
Anyway, here is a generous excerpt from Usher's post:
There was a big story in MOOC-world last week, which the mainstream press has surprisingly yet to pick up on; namely, that Udacity, one of the three big corporate MOOC players, has just left the building.
Udacity, if you recall, was created by one Sebastian Thrun, a computer scientist at Stanford. It was he who kicked off the current MOOC craze by opening up one of his computer science classes to the world, and then finding out that 160,000 people around the world had signed up. Thrun left Stanford to start Udacity which, along with Coursera and EdX, has been part of the Holy Trinity of the MOOC revolution.
Last Thursday, Fast Company Magazine put out a story (hagiography?) on Thrun, which contained some staggering statements from the man himself, including:
(on looking at data on drop-outs) “We don’t educate people as others wished, or as I wished. We have a lousy product”.
(on providing remedial education) “These were students from difficult neighborhoods, without good access to computers, and with all kinds of challenges in their lives… it’s a group for which this medium is not a good fit”.
(on the value of Udacity courses) “We’re not doing anything as rich and powerful as what a traditional liberal-arts education would offer you”.
From a guy who cockily said he was on the verge of finding a “magic formula” for education, and that by 2060, thanks to MOOCs, there would only be 10 universities, this is some funny stuff.
Male-only-invite philosophy conferences occur frequently in Germany (recall this discussion). The right thing to do is to contact organisers and, if need be, point out women who have been doing good work in the respective field. There may also be a case for male invited speakers to lobby for the inclusion of (more) women as invited speakers (see the petition initiated, in part, here at NewAPPS). Depending on the particular academic environment where the conferences happens, this can lead to an environment more accommodating to women. Due to the structural problems with the German academy, the beneficial results of gendered conference campaigns are likely to be limited to the expressive value of having women amongst speakers. This is, by itself, a lot.
This story about La Salle University's (Philadelphia) plans for a new business school really has it all: a manufactured sense of urgency, the decision to spend endowment funds and take on debt to finance construction of a luxury facility, the sense that the race for prestige trumps all other considerations.
Because of the steep competition, the university has chosen to pay for the building from endowment funds, a 2012 bond issue, and $15 million in alumni donations - 57 percent of which have been secured.
"We made the decision to do it that way rather than conduct a seven-year capital campaign," said Brother Michael J. McGinniss, La Salle president. "We wanted to get the business school up. It was more of a competitive and tactical decision."
In the end, the university’s rationale for the campaign relies heavily on a narrative of state defunding. For example, as a Detroit News article relates, “President Mary Sue Coleman called the campaign ‘audacious’ and said no gift is too small since universities need philanthropy with states no longer able to support them to the degree they must for schools to be globally competitive.” This narrative seems difficult to square with the actual role of the endowment in funding university operations. The endowment contributes only 4.5% (of its total holdings) to the general operation funds of university each year. The principal stays invested. Thus, if we look at the breakdown of revenue sources at the university in 2010 the endowment contributed only $253 million. Student tuition however generated over $1 billion, while state funding totaled $315 million.
The endowment clearly has very little to do with making up for lost state funding. Its purpose lies elsewhere. And that elsewhere is in the university’s move to behave more and more like a hedge fund, mobilizing donated capital to secure new revenue streams. It does this by taking advantage of its tax-exempt status to build up a hoard of money that it then invests around the world in shady funds and places it would rather the university community did not know about. In so doing, the university is slowly becoming an important player on Wall Street but to play with the “big boys” it needs more and more capital, which requires constant fundraising campaigns. This money is destined for investment not students. Little of it will ever reach students in the form of scholarships or be used to offset increases in tuition.
The SUM seems to be the sort of thing many universities should have:
Inspired by the Quebec student movement of 2012, the Student Union of Michigan (SUM) is an organizing platform based at the University of Michigan dedicated to fighting the privatization of higher education and instead building a truly democratic, open university run by students and workers. We stand in solidarity with student and worker struggles around the world.
McKenzie's review of McGinn's book raises three distinct, larger 'issues:'
(1) How much incivility in reviewing is still acceptable?
(2) Do Oxford UP and other prestigious academic presses apply different 'rules' for 'senior' figures?
Let's ignore (3), really. When I mention him in what follows, it is only to discuss (1-2).
In my opinion (2) is the more important issue because it gets at the political economy of our profession. For, let's be clear; McGinn and OUP are not isolated cases. Here are some other examples: today I read a polite, albeit devastating review of a book by Strevens (Harvard UP) that recounts a whole host of problems, including "failure to reference properly the remarkably rich research tradition." All the reviews of McGinn's 'triple' (see the links in discussion) make clear that he was permitted to allow himself to systematically ignore ongoing discussions in pertinent areas of scholarship. Whatever one might think of Nagel's Mind and Cosmos, however enjoyable and provocative, one cannot accuse it of generous engagement with informed, alternative views.
Nevertheless, the researchers had good news for colleges at the bottom line: Yes, college is still a worthwhile investment for both individuals and society. When the California Master Plan for Higher Education was enacted, in 1960, only 10 percent of Californians had a college degree, and the earnings gap between degree holders and non-degree holders was 35 percent. In 2010, they say, that earnings premium was 43 percent—higher than in the past, but still half the figure cited in the College Summit report. But, the researchers point out, the wage gap is higher now not because wages for college-degree holders have gone up, but because wages for people with only a high-school degree have gone down.
And the researchers note that getting that college degree has become increasingly risky, mostly because of the cost of education. As late as 1990, both men and women graduating from California public colleges would have almost no chance of “financial distress,” or what the authors define as having student-loan repayments in excess of 15 percent of their income. In recent years, however, those burdens have become more pronounced. Thirty-year-old men graduating from the University of California system have a 38-percent chance of financial distress, and women have a 55-percent chance.
The response of the political class to the university's claim to a
special status in relation to the polity has been crude but effectual:
if the university, which, when the chips are down, is simply one among
many players competing for public funds, really believes in the lofty
ideals it proclaims, then it must show it is prepared to starve for its
beliefs. I know of no case in which a university has taken up the
The fact is that the record of universities, over the past 30 years, in
defending themselves against pressure from the state has not been a
proud one. Resistance was weak and ill organised; routed, the professors
beat a retreat to their dugouts, from where they have done little
besides launching the intermittent satirical barb against the managerial
newspeak they are perforce having to acquire....