Sunday, August 10, 2008

Book Note: The Last Professors by Frank Donoghue

I just finished reading The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities by Frank Donoghue, who is an Associate Professor of English at Ohio State University. I read this because the chair of my department has asked the entire department to read it, but I would recommend it to all humanities professors or professors to be. And while it focuses on the humanities, many of the observations affect the future of the university world as a whole.

Unlike similar books, Donoghue takes a long perspective. Most books speak of a crisis in higher education beginning in the 80s, perhaps the 70s in the clash between corporate business values and the values of the university. He claims, instead, that this tension has been around for over a century, at least since the rise of monopolistic capitalists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But this is not just a book about corporate values of competition and the bottom line versus the last bastion of progressive thought and social formation of universities, but how universities increasingly appear like businesses, social institutions that were to form a well-rounded character and responsible citizens turning exclusively into job-training centers (which previously was considered one, and perhaps not even the most important, aspect of college education), turning professors into service employees.

One can see this in the life of a scholar from graduate student to receiving tenure has been increasingly set up on a capitalistic competition model. Increasingly, graduate students are being forced to publish early and often, with quantity often being favored over quality as signs of "productivity" (another market, rather than traditional university, value), having a well-established research-portfolio even before they finish their dissertations. Once they get a job, the competition only intensifies until they receive tenure. Increasingly, evaluations for jobs and tenure has turned to quantifiable metrics (of, what seems to me to be ultimately unquantifiable qualities). But there is a huge problem with this, since the typical publication of monographs has been university presses, which, themselves, are being forced into the productivity model (and, in fact, scholarly monographs were never really supposed to make money). The problem is that many libraries through the US have experienced cutbacks, and they cannot buy the books they used to, and libraries were and are the primary buyer of monographs. With such a state of affairs, university publishing houses only recoup about half the cost of publication of a monograph when the monograph is successful! With presses now being forced into looking at the bottom line rather than seeing if a monograph makes a significant contribution to knowledge, the cult of the monograph is in trouble. Indeed, since the monograph has become in the humanities the primary hoop to gain tenure, the tenure-decision process is being effectively outsourced to the struggling university presses, who, in fact, are not necessarily only taking the quality of a work into consideration, but also its marketability.

Both corporate and university representatives seem fixated on the idea of tenure. Business-minded people see it as a relic of an antiquated system, whereas university-minded people tend to see it as a guarantor of freedom of thought (if one can be easily fired, then how can one effectively express challenging thoughts and critical reflection--what university professors pride themselves on). Donoghue basically argues that both sides use faulty logic, but whatever the logic, the erosion of tenure is a fact. Indeed, more and more universities have found that adjunct and non-tenure eligible professors are far cheaper than their tenured counterparts. They are cheaper because they are usually on one-year contracts, they are paid by the class, and receive absolutely no benefits. Moreover, they are not given any leaves or sabbaticals to pursue research. This cheap teaching force is worn to the bone with no rights or privileges in the policies (such as hiring and tenure) that would affect them most. How big is this labor-force? Tenured and tenure-track professors constitute only 35% of college teachers throughout the nation (and this is not including TAs who are classified not as teachers but as students). This 65% of non-tenure eligible teachers is only likely to rise, reflecting the mindset of maintaining the bottom-line, in which university administration appears more like a managerial culture and the professoriate becomes cheap labor without little recourse to influence policy (as they traditionally have had).

Much of these trends can be seen in the rising number of for-profit universities (the most famous and the largest being the University of Phoenix). These universities run completely on a corporate model and, in fact, they are corporations or sub-components of larger corporate entities. In fact, many of these universities are publicly traded on the NYSE. Their goals also appear to be quantitatively rather than qualitatively oriented. They hire and fire their employees (professors) based upon non-reflective statistics--basically, student evaluations, without taking into account the various factors that go into a numerical rating of a course. These corporate universities do not grant tenure, make general policies about teaching and content control that professors, who have become depersonalized cogs in the machine, just have to take (or get fired). The long-cherished professorial value of autonomy (whether ever fully a reality) has completely disappeared. For-profit universities are attractive to students over 25 who want on-demand training--this, by the way, is the largest growing student population in the US. These universities have seen market forces and responded. They offer a stream-lined curriculum for "practical" job training, basically cutting out humanities or highly devaluing them even as they have them (for accrediting purposes).

On the other end of the spectrum stand the "prestige" institutions--this is Harvard, Yale, Princeton, etc. These institutions have a large enough endowment that they do not particularly have to pay attention to the vicissitudes of market forces and can maintain their humanities driven curriculum...but this means that the humanities will (or will again) become the privilege of the already privileged--they will be the only ones who can afford to send their children to these institutions, although they too increasingly have succumbed to corporate models of organization, but they have been resistant to them the most. Indeed, prestige in the US has become a commodity, quantified yearly in US News & World Report. Their method behind the rankings often goes unquestioned and most people just look at the rankings themselves--a remarkable lack of critical thought, the very thing that the universities ranked are supposed to cultivate. The magazine will rate several factors, somewhat arbitrarily privileging some of others (such as university presidents' peer reviews of fellow institutions, which is 25% of the rating--most university presidents cannot speak adequately of all aspects of all their peer institutions, but their reviews receive the most weight nonetheless). Since the general public looks at the ratings, however, universities now focus on those specific areas that the rankings measure, allowing market forces to determine what is important in university education rather than educators in order to receive a more prestigious rating.

The most effected institutions are, however, everything between the top prestigious institutions and the for-profit, stream-lined universities--primarily state schools. These schools are pulled in each direction, trying to attain prestige on one end, but focusing on stream-lined job training that responds to ever-changing market forces on the other end. They cannot compete with the prestige, on the one hand, because one of the ways that prestige is ranked is through exclusivity. While some of the brightest minds go to state schools (because of location issues, and money--state schools are much cheaper), they, by definition, cannot be exclusive. They attempt prestige through other means, such as attracting professors or pushing for higher output among their professors (again, privileging quantity over quality), but research grants move more and more to "practical" fields (Business) rather than critical-thinking fields (everything from English to Math). Being pressured from both ends, these institutions are most likely to shift to corporate models of productivity and the bottom-line, worried about making money rather than expanding knowledge, in the assembly-line of the factory production of the workforce.

In the end, in order to be prepared to respond to changing circumstances and resist these changes or redirect them into new models, professors and professors to be must situate themselves, becoming aware of institutional forces that, trying to maintain an idea of autonomy and individualism, professors have ignored. I tried to do this with religion in my conference at Columbia University this past spring, "Instituting Religion," in which speakers tried to expose some institutional forces that shape the places where we work and our very conceptualizations of our subject, such as funding, marketability, etc. (see Instituting Religion tags). The future of the university and the university professor appears to be a scary prospect, but it will be worse if we are not cognizant of it in order to rearticulate our position in the university and the role of the professor and the university as a whole in society.

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