Home / Dave Brockington / The Commercialization of Academia: A Case Study

The Commercialization of Academia: A Case Study


I’ve been sitting on this post for over 20 months; writing it, editing it, deleting it, writing it again. It was initially inspired by a book review written by Stanley Fish in the New York Times, which generated some online discussion, then the University of Virginia firing and subsequent unfiring of Teresa Sullivan last summer. Finally, we there is the effect that Coursera specifically and MOOCs in general will have on our understanding of the role of higher education. Higher education in the United States is facing a series of challenges, from the erosion of legislative support for state universities and colleges, the emergence of Coursera and its ilk, to a whole scale reassessment of the role of higher ed. In America, the concern is that the sector is being pushed towards a mission dedicated solely to the production of vocationally-equipped graduates with skill sets easily measured, all administered in a commercial framework driven by ever changing business models glossily packaged in the buzzwords fashionable to the day .

We’re already there in Britain.

In immediate response to the firing of Sullivan at Virginia, Siva Vaidhyanathan wrote an excellent piece at Slate. The following two passages are pertinent to this post:

The biggest challenge facing higher education is market-based myopia. Wealthy board members, echoing the politicians who appointed them (after massive campaign donations) too often believe that universities should be run like businesses, despite the poor record of most actual businesses in human history.

Universities do not have “business models.” They have complementary missions of teaching, research, and public service. Yet such leaders think of universities as a collection of market transactions, instead of a dynamic (I said it) tapestry of creativity, experimentation, rigorous thought, preservation, recreation, vision, critical debate, contemplative spaces, powerful information sources, invention, and immeasurable human capital.

The book that Fish reviewed, by Naomi Schaefer Riley, posits two arguments. First, Fish notes “the increasing tendency, on the part of students, legislators, administrators and some faculty members, to view higher education in vocational terms and to link questions of curriculum and funding to the realization of career goals.” Second, an argument that Fish suggests as a not-so-subtle critique of tenure predicated on the belief that “academic freedom” is an archaic practice that doesn’t meet the demanding needs of an increasingly globalized society.  Or something like that.

These two issues, the commercialisation of academia and the erosion of academic freedom, are tightly interwoven. The erosion of academic freedom (and, concomitantly, tenure) has side effects, magnified when combined with a concentration on teaching specific skill sets in a vocational manner rather than more general cognitive / critical skills. In other words, teaching a set of facts and practices with “fairly definitive answers” as opposed to teaching students how to think and engage critically with the material, whatever that material might be and whatever direction critical engagement takes the student.  Side effects include the loss of autonomy for the professor, in both research and teaching, the loss of individuality for the student, and the treatment of the latter as little more than a revenue stream, the former mere content providers.  Indeed, the mission of the entire enterprise (erm, university) becomes devoted to enhancing revenue streams, in which the production and dissemination of knowledge is useful only insofar that this can be exploited towards the end goal of profit.

I can offer some insight as to where this is headed based on my experience at an English university for the past ten academic years.  The elimination of tenure in the early 1980s was one of Margaret Thatcher’s many innovations allowing the commercialization of British universities to be a generation ahead of American institutions.  When our current Vice Chancellor (the British term for what is usually called a university President in the US) was appointed, she re-branded the institution “The Enterprise University” (italics in the original) and added the self-styled “Chief Executive Officer” moniker to her title.  The message was clear: we’ve now completely evolved from an institution of higher learning to a full fledged commercial enterprise.

Of course, the observed outcomes from this case study may result from different institutional arrangements and practices native to the UK, and possibly due to the culture and a decade of idiosyncratic management unique to my institution.  However, I believe that they’re also to some degree a function of the lack of tenure, lack of academic freedom, and the explicitly enthusiastic commercialisation of higher education in the British system.

First, some institutional differences.  In the UK, prospective undergraduate students do not apply to universities, they apply to programs.  Once accepted, there is considerably less breadth of education, and more concentration on the discipline covered by the program to which one applies.  At my institution, students accepted on to a program take the classes which that program instructs them to take.  We do have major-minor combinations, but those can not be designed by the student, but are pre-approved by the university through a cumbersome process known as “validation”; and these are limited by a number of variables, not least “timetabling”. The program I run, Politics (which at the time of writing is a minor only program), has four partners as majors: International Relations, History, Economics, and Law. Meaning, if you want to take political science at my institution, you must major in one of the aforementioned four disciplines. Electives, while they exist, are highly limited (and choices pre-ordained).  Finally, students progress through the program as a cohort by year; they don’t have the ability to take a mix of first- second- or third- year classes, but have to complete the entire “stage” before being promoted to the next “stage”.

This has an obvious benefit to the university as a business. It’s far easier to assess the impact of discrete programs in economic terms and their overall contribution (or lack thereof) to the bottom line. In an institution run explicitly on a business rationality without any sort of employment protection for the academic staff, this leads to employment insecurity — programs can be eliminated with no consultation, based purely on economic rationale.

This can be a strength of the system, but the economic rationale is often flimsy. Moreover, institutional instability is the norm. Since my hiring, my department has been part of four different names / structures, and is due to be part of a fifth come July. The university itself was “rebranded” three years ago with the assistance of two outside consultants. My undergraduate degree program, over which I have served as the “programme manager” since 2006, can serve as a warning. When I was hired, we offered the full range of undergraduate degree options: a “single honours”, a major and a minor. Two years later, it was reduced to a minor-only. Two years after that, I led the effort to completely re-design the curriculum, which resulted in the validation of a new major (no single honours) in 2007, which admitted its first students for the 2009-10 cohort.

Before that cohort of students could so much as finish their first year, I received an email on a Saturday morning while still chair of Politics & International Relations, that the politics major was being pulled and we could no longer recruit students for the upcoming 2010/11 year. The timing was awkward; beyond it being a Saturday morning, we had just recruited a full cohort to commence study that September, most of whom had informed their other choices that they were committed to my department.  While we never received an explanation for the closure of the degree (it is retained as a minor only option, and we still have an excellent IR degree), the best I could work out is that it had to do with marginal variance in revenue streams from the central government.  Simply put, the university receives (received) more money per head in teaching grants for some students than others; the social sciences are funded at the lowest amount (for understandable reasons; some disciplines require infrastructural outlays for instruction that others do not). With the central government capping the total enrolment of the university, there’s a logic to enrolling students that bring in 120% of the funding the baseline student represents.

In other words, if my assessment is correct (again, the decision making process was opaque) this decision wasn’t about eliminating a loss-making unit, but rather simply about enhancing pre-existing revenue streams.  Which, if you’re a business, makes rational sense.  And this is how a university-as-business operates. But should a university be primarily concerned with its revenue streams and “profit centres” (yes, we have those), or its core mission as an institution dedicated to the production and dissemination of knowledge?

I’m not suggesting that universities ought to be run at a loss at the level of a specific institution.  However, they do serve a public good, and should be treated as such, including some degree of state support, rather than concentrating primarily as a business. Furthermore, it is in the interests of the primary stakeholders of a university — the staff and students — to have institutional stability, yet treating the university as a business leads to considerable instability, both in terms of the institution itself and the people who populate the institution.

This has been the one constant in my experience.  Each of the ten academic years I’ve been at my current institution has been subjected to some fundamental reorganization, to the point where my colleagues have a joke about it: it’s a Mao-esque permanent revolution. In this time, my department has been based in two faculties under four (soon to be five) deans, housed in three (soon to be four) “schools”, with four different heads of school, and my department has had five chairs. The university writ large has seen a massive building program, the consolidation of branch campuses on the main campus, the reduction in faculties from eight, to five, and then a year later four. Physically, my department has moved offices twice in two years, and for some three times. We’re facing yet another physical move in the summer of 2014, as our extant offices are redeveloped into on-campus housing for students. My own major has been reduced to a minor twice; once in 2005, for reasons that remain somewhat mysterious but corresponded with the sacking of two colleagues. Following the byzantine process of validation, which I’ve now achieved a certain proficiency at, it relaunched three years later, only to have it suddenly pulled on that Saturday morning, three years ago.

Again, there is a logic to this.  When new administrators come in, they have a strong incentive to make their own mark on the institution as they seek to enhance their career prospects.  When the end goal is instruction and research, making one’s own mark is best served by institutional stability as the metrics she or he will be judged by benefit from stability. The problem is, these are difficult to measure, and even when measured, are glacial to change. Anybody who has researched the relationship between research outputs and movement in departmental reputation (as I have) can attest to the long time lag before a heightened (or reduced) publication profile nudges ranking tables. However, a profit and loss statement is a metric that benefits from clarity, and also one where new policy can have an immediate, gratifying effect. When the end goal is enhancing revenue streams with the corresponding metric of success being the balance sheet, institutional reorganization can serve in achieving this goal (or at least appearing to). Strange results occur, however; one institutional redesign recently resulted in the dispersal of the social sciences across three faculties, and my department ended up being housed in the School of Management.  We’re not there because of a natural intellectual and pedagogical fit with disciplines such as shipping and logistics or human resources, but for reasons less clear and minimally articulated. My cynical guess is that we represented an enhanced revenue stream to somebody.

Ironically, mere months after the major in politics was pulled, the (then relatively new) Dean of the Business School launched an initiative, which is the establishment of a “School of Government”.  This took over two years to plan, consuming up considerable time of several of my colleagues (during which there was no guarantee that it would fly), yet the proposal, bizarrely, did not automatically include the revival of the politics major.  Rather, the goal appeared to be the launching of a theoretically lucrative public service MA program aimed at current and prospective members of the civil service.  While both intellectually and pedagogically this is an attractive proposition when contrasted with our current situation, the Dean has made it explicitly clear that one of the primary motivators of this initiative is to enhance revenue streams. I was perhaps the only member of my department fully in support of this proposal, as I’m attracted to the notion that being part of a School of Government makes more intellectual sense to colleagues outside of my institution, and more pedagogical sense to prospective students interested in studying politics at my institution.

However, the institutional insecurity created by both a university run on commercial lines, coupled with our specific experience over the past decade, led to understandable concern about the proposal. Not because of intellectual or pedagogical fit, but rather because of the business model of the new school. If it doesn’t break even, all of our positions become untenable. Hence, the major selling pitch of the new school concentrated on enhancing revenue streams through professional programs aimed at serving civil servants, to enhancing international recruitment, to “blended learning” via on line offerings. While late in coming, the politics major was finally given the green light to resume as it became obvious that this would be a cheap way to enhance the income of the new school (and yet again, the timing was awkward). Given the logic of a business model designed to replicate a commercial enterprise, the dean is acting rationally in this proposal. While he sincerely wants a School of Government for its own sake, he is likewise adroitly reacting to the shifting incentives created by the central government in his motivation for the creation of new revenue streams.

In 2010, the United Kingdom dramatically slashed central government support for the teaching side of universities, replacing said funding by allowing English and Welsh institutions to triple tuition effective with the 2012-13 cohort (and the overwhelming majority of universities in England and Wales did select to raise their annual tuition to the maximum of £9000) . Where state universities in the US have seen an erosion of legislative support coupled with the ineluctable steady rise in tuition, here in the UK it was accomplished as a big bang (variance in the institutional arrangements of government illustrated). Astonishingly, there were fewer students applying for places in 2012 than there were in 2011 or 2010, as the new tuition rate applies to the 2012 cohort, but not earlier cohorts. To remain sustainable in a competitive marketplace, universities as commercial concerns must adjust their business models (unless you’re, say, Cambridge or Oxford). This is not simply my analysis, but rather it’s the party line communicated relentlessly up and down the food chain at my institution.

There are other consequences of moving to a full business model of the university, including the recruitment of non-academics to fill key academic managerial positions, additional tiers of highly paid middle management, and a perceptible anti-intellectual bias and a lack of intellectual curiosity amongst the academic administration, which is just a bit ironic at a university.  Finally, there’s the effect on staff morale.  I’m in a fortunate position as my department remains among the most collegial I’ve been associated with in 20 years in this business as a graduate student and faculty member, but even here the stress is beginning to create fissures. Yet in spite of the permanent revolution we have to endure, our department has achieved and maintained a rather high ranking in The Guardian.

This isn’t a self-serving defence of the old order, nor is it me taking advantage of a visible platform to air personal grievances. I love my job, and I’m fortunate to get paid to do my hobby. Rather, I’m suggesting that the move to a fully commercial model has consequences for the theoretical mission of the university. Knowledge isn’t static, although the Riley book that Fish reviewed would seem to suggest otherwise. Universities acting as commercial enterprises which lack academic freedom (and hence tenure) result in incentives that can, and indeed will, institutionally slow the progression of knowledge.

I had no problem contemplating the uncertainties of graduate school 20 years ago, having a perhaps naive faith that I wouldn’t be the one to take a bullet, but that I’d survive the battle to get a job in the end. I did. However, would I now recommend this career move to my undergraduates considering emulating me by training for my career? Increasingly, the answer is no.

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  • cpinva

    the current monetizing of higher education in the US is simply the logical progression of events, stemming from the monetization of primary & secondary education. it’s worked so well for the little ones & the teens, it only makes sense to convert the process all the way through.

    what’s that old saying, about “knowing the cost of everything, and the value of nothing”?

    • Incontinentia Buttocks

      There’s also a slightly more positive–if no more successful–aspect to what’s happened in general and higher ed in the US. In the face of growing social inequality in this country and the ongong destruction (and deligitimation) of our always limited welfare state, education was left standing as the only sort of public investment that was seen as both legitimate and effective. It thus stands in as a substitute for a more justly structured economy and a real social safety net. Today’s friends of public education often see it as a potential social equalizer. But it simply cannot perform this function by itself. Education can only work democratically in a society where masses of people are not struggling to attain their most basic needs, as more and more Americans are. Education will not by itself create economic equality…and democratic education needs, as a precondition, substantially more economic equality than our power elite is interested in providing for.

      • John Protevi

        That’s a very important point, IB.

      • DrDick

        Very true. As any number of studies have shown, externalities (poverty, high crime rates, etc.) have as much impact on educational outcomes in poor and minority school districts as the measurable quality of the teachers and educational materials.

        • Linnaeus

          There’s a recent article that I can’t find now that explained that Finland’s success in education (which is now being put up as a model for other nations) has as much to do with what the Finns did outside of the educational system as what they did within it.

          • DrDick

            I saw that as well.

            • dollared

              The Atlantic published it.

      • Joel

        True, and in the US the cost of education keeps moving away from the grasp of those who need it most in order to attain social and economic equality. In the ~35 years between when I entered a public university and my children did, the price has increased 20-fold. (During the same time period, the CPI increased by a factor of four.)

    • Rabbi Hillel, on one foot.

      All that is, can be bought and sold.
      All that cannot be bought and sold, is not
      All that can be bought and sold, must be bought and sold.

      This is the whole of the Law and the Prophets — the rest is commentary.

      Baruch atah ha Shuk, dayan ha emet.

      • Colin Day

        This is the whole of the Law and the Profits — the rest is commentary.

      • ChristianPinko

        I remember reading years ago that an Arab Sheikh was interested in buying the Alamo in Texas. He was informed decisively that the Alamo was not for sale. So apparently there are some things that are still sacred in the United States, things like killing brown people who don’t speak English.

        • rea

          You know, I doubt the mission at San Juan Capistrano is for sale, either. Not selling historical monuments isn’t tied to white vs. black or brown.

      • catclub

        I always think of a certain Neocon/AIPAC magazine when that final word appears. And it fits! (For the original Hillel quote.)

    • DrDick

      Come on now! Everybody knows that nothing has any value if you cannot make money off it!

  • rea

    A specific example of the general insane notion that everything can be reduced to competition in a “free market” (did Jesus have a better business model than the Buddha?)

    • Linji Yixuan

      If you meet the Buddha on the road, demand his outcomes assessment self-evaluation report, in Word and PDF, no later than Friday, April 5.

      • Rabbi Hillel, on one foot.

        +n, for all positive values of n.

      • Bill Murray

        so which deity is it that needs the TPS reports?

        • Sly

          Scientology, obviously.

    • This is actually a problem with all economics as a whole not just the “free market.” Some things can not be reduced to the variables used by economists to measure things. Not everything is even about production yet alone profit.

      • sparks

        And some things that can be reduced to variables in an economic formula are done so badly.

        • Linnaeus

          “Assume a ladder…”

          • sparks

            Assuming perfect competition is enough of a bloomer on its own.

            • Also assume only Portugal and England exist and only cloth and wine are produced.

      • Christian Sieber

        Frankly, a lot of things are pretty easy to measure or at least to evaluate.

        – Reading comprehension
        – Writing abilities
        – Critical/logical thinking
        – Creative thinking
        – Application of scientific method
        – Applied epistemiology (i.e. bullshit detection)

        All of these are core skills that a university education should promote, and which I think most professors would agree can quite easily be measured in one way or another. They don’t lend themselves to a *profit and loss* statement though, which is what the overall thrust of this post is about, and the problem that Brockington is addressing.

        Let’s not take that too far and say that all of these things are simply unmeasurable, because that isn’t true at all. What is true is that the system is *neglecting these things* in favor of either the raw black ink, or in favor of skills which belong to a vocational school (even a white-collar one) rather than the actual purpose of a university.

        • Marcus O. Fazomi

          We have decimated and devalued all other learning and vocational institutions outside of the university system. With the narrow and limited exceptions of certain professorial positions, every time one requires a university degree as a job qualification, the problem grows.

  • c u n d gulag

    What I see, is that in the new model, businesses are trying their best to off-load the cost of evaluating potential in candidates, and training that potential, onto either the individual, or the government.

    I was, until 4 years ago, a Trainer and Training Manager at a large telecommunications company, and watched this “evolve” over the past decade.

    In the old model, companies interviewed candidates (sometimes, depending on the job, requiring that they have HS or college degrees), and assessed talent, potential, and ability and willingness to learn, before hiring them.
    Liberal Arts educations (HS and/or college) were desirable, since, in theory, the candidates had a relatively broad spectrum of knowledge.
    Remember, companies were looking for an individuals potential aptitude, in which to invest.

    Then, they trained those candidates, hoping that they were good employees and stayed with the company for a long time, since evaluation, training, and investment in benefits and retraining was expensive.
    In Unions, they had apprentices, which where something along the same lines happened.

    Now, companies don’t want the trouble and expense of training people.
    They want an endless supply of qualified trainees, whose education/training was paid for by the individuals, or the state.

    They want candidates with a specific set of talents and training/education – no longer is a Liberal Arts background desirable – it’s barely acceptable. You’re liable to be, “too well-rounded,” and too likely to “think outside of the box.”

    This new model make it cheaper to run their business.
    They can keep salaries low, and benefits – if any – cheap.

    And if people don’t like it, they can always leave, and there’s an endless supply of cheap trained labor to replace them – fairly quickly.

    This is a monumental change in the way that companies used to look for, and hire, employees.
    And to fit this model, they are, to maximize their own profits, demanding that government retool the entire education system, to fit their profit-making model.

    And so, even more than before, the “usual suspects” will be screwed – “We the people,” and “our governmnet.”

    All, to fatten the wallets of sociopathic piratical corporate piranha’s, whose wallets are already strained – but, well, they can always get another wallet – offshore.

    All of this is happening, as we’re discussing this over the internet.

    • guthrie

      This exactly fits my experience and observations here in the UK.

      • PGervais

        @ c u n d gulag, guthrie

        This is very interesting to me professionally ; I am studying higher ed policies in the U. S., among other things, and up to the mid-2000s the quasi unanimous position of business representatives in public forums (Congressional hearings around the time of the Spellings Commission, say) was to ask for better cognitive skills and work ethic, as well as better mastery of reading and writing comprehension (while, funnily enough, never saying out loud that Liberal Arts program as supposed to provide just that – I suppose they were afraid to be seen as pandering to all these bearded commie Professors).

        You describe a huge, momentous change here, except that I don’t quite see how it can work in practice. How can “a specific set of talents and training/education” be defined in most business situations (especially in services -aren’t complex, unpredictable interactions with other human beings kinda core to the whole workflow)? If an applicant turns out to consistently misunderstand or miscarry the instructions he/she is given, and contributes no imporvement ever, isn’t that a problem? Isn’t this approach consistent only with the Fordist approach to business, with taylorized chains of production on which robotic humans perform one simple task, and wasn’t this model supposed to be dead and buried because it was not flexible, not adaptive, and highly wasteful in human resources?

        Maybe I am trying to whistle in the dark here (after all if you are right my job may vanish into thin air before I get even close to retirement age, which at that point will presumably be 75 or so anyway), but I am wondering if this trend you are describing is sustainable in the face of possible negative side-effects. See the current Costco vs. Walmart debate -and if you have any further insights, again I would be very interested!


        • c u n d gulag

          For every Cosco, there are plenty of Wal-Mart wannabe’s.

          And I suspect it’s not sustainable.
          But, if it’s not, what are we talking about?
          After all, these employees are merely people – and not rich ones – so who’s gonna give a flying feck about ’em?

          The NY Times is too busy telling me damn near every day how tough it is on those making “only” $400,00 to $500,000 a year to live in the city, buy a new luxury car every few years, eye a bigger condo, and still be able to afford private schools for their poor little wannabe Masters of the Universe.

          No one cares how the janitor at their school, or the waitress at the cafeteria down the block, tries to make ends meet on less than 1/20th of that salary.

          If you’re not rich, you’re flotsam and jetsam which can be jettisoned when needs arise, or at the first opportunity.

          • PGervais

            Um, thanx for the answer, but that’s not quite what I meant. Politically your description is obviously right, they don’t give a ***, all these moochers and losers can go to ***. Granted, agreed, and it may not change before we put their head on a stick (erudite reference here).

            But my question was more put to the Training Manager and less to the LGM participant: is the business model you are describing spreading -and spreadable- everywhere, and at what economic cost? After all, if even at Walmart, which employs arguably the least skilled workforce available, the used-tissue-in-the-trashcan approach to employees does eventually create problems, wouldn’t that be even truer -and occurring faster- in other settings? And what does “qualified” mean in this new world? Is a disgruntled, barely alphabetized halfwit “qualified” because he/she knows how to use SQL databases? Or are you still under more or less implicit orders to try to avoid halwits and recruit alphabetized people?

            Anyway… Just wondering. It does make a difference if we are fighting a temporary madness which cannot survive long even within the framework of advanced capitalism, or if this is the definitive model and Marx was right all along about pauperization.


    • Loud Liberal

      All, to fatten the wallets of sociopathic piratical corporate piranha’s, whose wallets are already strained – but, well, they can always get another wallet – offshore.

      Capitalist n. a sociopathic, piratical, corporate, piranha.

      Works for me.

  • Andrew

    That is absolutely fascinating. It definitely mirrors (presages?) events in the United States, though over here some of the call for vocational effectiveness comes from the students and is predicated on the reasonable complaint that universities have made learning for learning’s sake too expensive. But it doesn’t sound as bad yet here.

    Tuition, though, is probably worse here, and while lack of governmental support is a big factor, a lot of it (possibly most) is due to morally challenged administrators and trustees obsessed with empire-building.

  • Helmut Monotreme

    (did Jesus have a better business model than the Buddha?)
    in Europe, yes, when his followers managed to become the official religion of the western Roman Empire, and used their monopoly power to shut down all competitors.

    • What about in Thailand, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka? Did Buddha have the better business model for South East Asia?

    • Cody

      It is definitely safe to say that Jesus’s business is far better then Buddha’s. He even managed to properly leverage the synergy inherent in Europe to obtain a dictatorship of sorts in Catholicism.

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  • Carbon Man

    We’ll meet again,
    Don’t know where,don’t know when,
    But I know we’ll meet again, some sunny day.

    • John

      You are the worst.

    • John Protevi


      • Carbon Man

        We’ll meet again,
        Don’t know where,don’t know when,
        But I know we’ll meet again, some sunny day.

        • Malaclypse

          Subtext remaining text, Jennie dearest.

          • Carbon Man

            We’ll meet again,
            Don’t know where,don’t know when,
            But I know we’ll meet again, some sunny day.

        • sharculese

          You would have to be a fundamentally broken failure of a human being to take this much joy in other people’s struggles. Get help, Jenny.

          • Carbon Man

            We’ll meet again,
            Don’t know where,don’t know when,
            But I know we’ll meet again, some sunny day.

            • sharculese

              And yet it still hasn’t stopped you from living a life of barely repressed anger and frustration, constantly lashing out any anyone different from you. It sounds like the people who know how to not be miserable got the better end of the deal.

            • Uncle Kvetch

              This explains a hell of a lot.

              What a sad, pathetic little life you must lead.

            • spencer

              Yeah, this does offer a hell of a lot of insight (assuming it’s true). You really are a horrible person, Jenny, but one to be pitied instead of (or perhaps, as well as) loathed.

            • TribalistMeathead

              Which explains why you have all this time to post here between 9 am and 5 pm. Because you’re such a hard worker.

          • Linnaeus

            Carboniferous Man’s status anxiety is always amusing.

          • Loud Liberal

            Don’t know who Carbon Man is, or, what he’s trying to say. But, apparently his name is Jenny.

    • c u n d gulag

      And the result of that, Carbon Moron, will be more epically narrow-minded imbeciles like you to compare the finger-paintings your poo-poo stained hands created, with theirs.

      Hint: Don’t eat your boogers after finger-painting with your poo-poo – or anyone elses, for that matter.

      Feckin’ eedjit…

    • TribalistMeathead

      “degrees like that make you even less employable (and more indebted) than if you had just an HS diploma”

      If you ignore every single job out there that requires a Bachelor’s in any field, sure.

      • Carbon Man

        We’ll meet again,
        Don’t know where,don’t know when,
        But I know we’ll meet again, some sunny day.

        • somethingblue

          Pancake Studies.

          • Carbon Man

            We’ll meet again,
            Don’t know where,don’t know when,
            But I know we’ll meet again, some sunny day.

            • Cody

              It is pretty obvious that you have no familiarity with reading comprehension.

              Nonetheless, as a EE I can assure you that liberal arts are important. Certainly not for everyone to get a degree in, but at least even engineers need to know how to communicate effectively. It’s basic to being human.

              • Davis X. Machina

                And if you want to write for O’Reilly, they’re essential…

        • TribalistMeathead

          A Bachelor’s degree in any field, Captain Reading Comprehension.

          • Carbon Man

            We’ll meet again,
            Don’t know where,don’t know when,
            But I know we’ll meet again, some sunny day.

            • sharculese

              As I said last time you threw this tantrum, a women’s studies degree would probably have been more useful to me than the one I did get. I can see how this would be difficult to understand, since you seem unable to cope with civilized society.

              • c u n d gulag

                Carbon “Moran” couldn’t get laid with a fistful of pardons in a women’s prison.
                Or, come to think about it – a men’s one, either.

                • John Protevi

                  Extorting sex from prisoners is not funny. Don’t go there. This is a trope of yours, but IMO it’s way out of bounds.

            • c u n d gulag

              It might make a better person.

              I’d try to explain that to you, but I’d have better luck getting a fern to understand Quantum Mechanics.

              Reminder to self: Stop feeding the troll!

            • TribalistMeathead

              It doesn’t. But it allows you to get an entry-level or higher job in a field that requires a Bachelor’s degree in any field. I mean, you are aware that there are jobs that only require an undergraduate degree in any field, right? Because you’re such an expert on employment?

        • Aaron B.

          Walrus Biology!

      • Medrawt

        Aside from the fact that the last time I looked the actual employment stats for humanities vs. STEM didn’t look like the yawning hellpit people think, this is a weirdly overlooked point.

        My job requires a bachelor’s degree, in that you probably wouldn’t get an interview for the position if you didn’t have one. But it doesn’t require a specific educational background. I have a white collar office job that pays mid-5 figures, and the skillset I’m supposed to bring to bear is something like: the ability to write clear English sentences, an intermediate facility with Excel, a comfort with manipulating numbers*, a learned (in-house) knowledge of applicable industry knowledge and regulations**, and the ability to problem solve where applicable. It seems to me that there are basically a LOT of jobs like this one out there, there’s no degree that’s a particularly better or worse preparation for them, and there’s no accounting for them in the rhetoric of “this is what you need to get a job these days!”

        * I don’t mean “comfort manipulating numbers” at the level of physicists or economists – I never took calculus and my last math class was intro to statistics my first year in college. I’m not bragging; I wish I’d taken it more seriously at the time. But I need to be comfortable figuring out percentages and superbasic statistics, running projections of what would happen if things changed, etc.

        ** really the most important thing. You’d never learn this material until you actually took a job in this industry, so it’s expected that we’ll be trained after hiring, and then we’re tested on the training, and you won’t last if you can’t learn and apply the knowledge quickly.

        • Linnaeus

          This is similar to my own experience. I’m a Ph.D. candidate, and although you don’t need to be one to do what I do, you wouldn’t get in the door without a college degree at least. The backgrounds of the people who work where I do are reasonably varied, because, among other reasons the owner of the company hires for “trainability” rather than for a specific academic background. The knowledge that I use in my day-to-day work I got by being trained on the job to do it; you would only have learned it in maybe a handful of programs and even then in a pretty general way.

      • cpinva

        “If you ignore every single job out there that requires a Bachelor’s in any field, sure.”

        how many jobs actually require a bachelor’s degree, vs an employer demanding one, so they can tell all their buds at the country club that even their file clerks have a college degree? consider all the “legal” jobs, that don’t actually require admission to the bar. i think the term for this is “job requirement inflation”.

    • sharculese

      Practical uses for a women’s study degree: figuring out how Jenny’s childish hostility towards women relates to his childish hostility towards gays.

      • Keaaukane

        You don’t need a women’s studies degree to diagnose narcissistic sociopath terrified of his own latent homosexuality.

    • spencer

      The market for STEM majors isn’t as robust as some people would have you believe.

      • Loud Liberal

        I suspect that that is because the STEM market remains primarily in the destinations of “jobs shipped overseas.” Until American STEM degree holders have been conditioned (through long term unemployment), to willingly compete with third world STEM degree holders for jobs, overseas is where a large part of that market will remain.

    • Art101

      Ummm….the bulk of college graduates hold “business” degrees not degrees in “xyz studies” and some of the biggest complaints from employers are lack of critical thinking skills which usually come from a rigorous liberal arts education.

      The trend lines in the field of computers grew until the entry level jobs were Free Marketed over to India or filled with imported cheaper labor driving the # of available jobs and the potential earnings down.

      Companies are now struggling to fill middle and upper level IT jobs because the applicant field with actual lived experience no longer live in this country or were downsized out of the field years ago.

      But it’s always more fun to create a boogie man and if targets women and minorities (xyz studies = gender and racial studies) all the better I suppose.

      • Cody

        Seriously. I struggle ever to find a job posting for “entry-level” STEM anymore. You need 10-20 years of experience to get your resume looked at, but they’re not willing to hire anyone to give them this experience.

        I assume this is just a furthering of the trend requiring training to be done before a company hires.

        • Linnaeus

          Back when I worked in a laboratory (life sciences, mid-1990s), I remember competing with Ph.D.s for entry-level lab tech jobs. I just had a B.S., and that was all you really needed to do my job.

        • Bill Murray

          Interesting, I just walked down to my department’s job board and about 10 of the about 15 job possibilities posted specified entry-level. So I think it really depends on the field.

    • I suppose we should pity you, Jenn. All you have in your life is your own personal misery. It’s all you’ll ever have. You try to fill the void with rage and envy and frustrated triumphalism at everyone who suffers any setbacks.

      But it doesn’t change the fact that all you have is misery.

    • It looks like someone really likes Vera Lynn.

      • GFW

        I understand the necessity of troll suppression, but am I the only one frustrated by reading the rest of a conversation and not knowing what the troll really said?

        • Honestly, no. If there’s anything really interesting there, it’ll come out in the unaltered comments in some form or another. Since the threshold for WhiteCliffing is pretty high, generally it’s pretty much pure trolling that’s being zapped, not anything creative, clever, or somehow likely to inspire insightful discussion even by others.

  • John Protevi

    I haven’t even finished the piece before I wanted to affirm this point:

    When new administrators come in, they have a strong incentive to make their own mark on the institution as they seek to enhance their career prospects.

    Since 1996, LSU has had 4 Chancellors, thus averaging a little more than 4 years in office each. The Provost turnover is faster than that by a good bit.

    • And they need solid lines on the c.v. to move on to the next gig. “Did a good job keeping things going; worked well with faculty” just doesn’t do it.

    • rea

      LSU’s frst president, incidently, while unable to make his own mark on the institution, certainly went on to make a strong mark on Atlanta and Columbia, SC.

      • John Protevi

        He’s listed on a plaque outside the bell tower as “W T Sherman”

  • TribalistMeathead

    Dave, is the UK moving towards a society where more and more white-collar jobs now require an undergraduate degree? It didn’t seem to be the case 13 years ago, when I spent a semester there and university enrollment among 18-to-22-year-olds was somewhere around 10%.

    • Dave

      It’s not ‘moving towards’, it got there at least a decade ago. And Uni enrolment for the post18 cohort has been well over 35% for a long time.

    • sibusisodan

      One of the stated goals of the mid-Blair era was to get to 50% of young people enrolling in university (or was it graduating? I forget). So it’s gone up quite a bit, although 10% sounds low to me for only a decade ago. I think it’s now at around 40%, but this is for the under-30 cohort.

      AFAICT, yes the UK is moving towards requiring a degree for pretty much everything. Combined with the introduction of student-paid fees, this is producing an interesting outcome – much more US-like, in that your average student now has to work out whether £9k a year is actually value for money for whatever course at an institution. I know this is a way off US fee levels, but it’s novel for us.

      • TribalistMeathead

        10% was a statistic thrown at me by a poli sci prof ca. 2000 – guess his figures were wrong. I was under the impression that the UK wasn’t even close to us in terms of the number of entry level positions that require a college degree as recently as, oh, 2005 or so.

  • thelogos

    I’m glad I left the world of academia, this just depresses me.

    • Uncle Kvetch

      I’m glad I left the world of academia, this just depresses me.

      Me too, and me too.

      • Malaclypse

        Me too, and me too, too.

        • I still like it.

          I’m pretty glad not to be in the US system at the moment, though. For all the weirdness and crises going on now, I actually feel pretty good about the fact that we don’t (in my institution) have an adjunct underclass.

          • I think adjuncts may be an entirely US phenomenon and fairly recent one at that. They did not exist at Grinnell where I did my undergrad degree. Nor were there any at SOAS. Needless to say we don’t have them here at UG either. I never even heard of the term adjunct until 2004-2005 when I was back in the US after getting my PhD and applying for jobs. Then I found the blog site of The Invisible Adjunct. But, I still have never seen one in person.

            • Cody

              The Invisible Adjunct. But, I still have never seen one in person.

              Was this on purpose? Because I got a really good laugh out of t.

            • Linnaeus

              But, I still have never seen one in person.

              If you ever get a chance, visit my university. You’ll see plenty.

            • mds

              They did not exist at Grinnell where I did my undergrad degree.

              Right, but Grinnell is primarily an undergraduate liberal-arts-and-sciences teaching institution, or at least it was. That often makes a difference.

              • It still is a liberal arts undergraduate college with some strong science departments. I majored in history. But, I also graduated “when the world was young and long before the war.” Bonus points if you can guess the year from the quotation.

                • JKTHs


                • Bill Murray

                  It’s from Stan Ridgway’s song Camouflage which was on the Big Heat. Which came out in the mid-80s. I too graduated around that time from a different midwestern primarily undergraduate (engineering not liberal arts) college

                • Murray it is from Stan Ridgway’s title track “The Big Heat.” They do not appear in the song Camouflage. The Google is wrong about that. Go click on the actual link and read the song lyrics. The song is from the 1980s, but there is a lyric in the song that gives a different date which is the specific year I graduated.

              • John

                Also, Grinnell is in the middle of fucking nowhere. How are you going to find a bunch of unemployed PhD’s willing to work for adjunct wages in Grinnell, Iowa? A place like that probably needs to give out full-time non-tenure-track jobs to get anybody to be willing to go there.

                • Actually the jobs are all tenure track and they are highly competitive.

                • mds

                  Also, Grinnell is in the middle of fucking nowhere.

                  Dude, I know it’s Iowa, but they still have paved roads and airports. “An hour outside Des Moines” is not actually “fucking nowhere.” It’s not like it’s the University of Wyoming, or something. Grinnell also always struck me as a fairly nice small town. And there’s certainly ample production of new Ph.D’s going on elsewhere in the state. Would people please stop acting like Iowa is indistinguishable from North Dakota?

                  [Starts sobbing into “Iowa: A Place to Grow” sweatshirt]

                • Davis X. Machina


                  Train to Boston: Three hours.
                  Car to Chicago: 4 hours.

              • (the other) Davis

                I spent my post-PhD years adjuncting at an undergraduate liberal-arts-and-sciences teaching institution. Though compared to what I hear from many adjuncts on the internets, I was getting a pretty damn good deal.

              • DrDick

                It is also located in the middle of nowhere without easy access to graduate students or recent graduates to recruit as adjuncts.

                • It is not that far from University of Iowa. It is about a one hour drive from Iowa City.

                • mds

                  Wait a minute, DrDick … Aren’t you the guy who’s at the University of Montana? Take that beam out of your eye before it breaks one of your house’s glass walls. Er, I mean, don’t run with scissors, or your king will be a one-eyed man. Oh, you get the point.

                • Uncle Kvetch

                  Take that beam out of your eye before it breaks one of your house’s glass walls. Er, I mean, don’t run with scissors, or your king will be a one-eyed man. Oh, you get the point.

                  Pull that tooth out, or everyone will go blind!

                  No, that’s not it either.

                • DrDick

                  We also do not have a whole lot of adjuncts here (and we are a flagship state university), for exactly the same reason and most of ours are our own graduates or faculty spouses. I taught in the adjunct market in Chicago for several years before moving here and it was a completely different world there owing to the abundance of colleges offering graduate degrees. Grinnell is also a fairly well endowed private school, as opposed to a grossly underfunded state college.

            • Small highly selective liberal arts colleges rarely have adjuncts. They’re rich and they have a teaching focus which is part of the brand.

              At big universities, grad students and adjuncts have for a long time been a critical part of the teaching force.

            • Dave Brockington

              In my department, we do have something resembling adjuncts. Not many, but in two cases they fit the model.

        • (the other) Davis

          +1, and +1.

  • Sooner

    I like Siva’s description of higher ed. However it fails to include the main source of the public (and recent graduate’s) indifference to higher ed’s demise. When a current graduate faces such dismal prospects of employment, and certainly employment that allows them to service the debt accrued while getting their degree, they and their families see the college they left as a bitter symbol of largess at their expense. Whether it be infrastructure or athletics or law professor’s making $240k, it isn’t hard to see that the average person believes there is a lot of fat to cut at these universities who plead for more public dollars. From the 90’s to current, employees at major universities found themselves on the nicer side of the aisle when it came to pay raises, schedules, work atmosphere (due to those lavish infrastructure upgrades), and accountability. Now that those unrealistic expectations of employment are propped up by loans, in conjunction with dismal prospects for most of those outside, the pleas will go unanswered.

    • Linnaeus

      At the same time, universities provide a lot more services than they did years ago, and those services are things that parents and students expect to continue. There’s a point at which you’ve cut all the fat and now you’re cutting bone.

      • mds

        Also, there’s frequently a tendency to cut the bone first, and leave most of the fat. Infrastructure, athletics, professional school salaries, administrative costs: these are not usually the target. No, it’s the sociology department’s really cushy tenure-track assistant professor slots that get cut, so that tuition can … continue to rise faster than inflation. Or because the endowment took a hit, there has to be a multiyear hiring freeze that applies to faculty and support staff, but not to senior administrators.

        • BigHank53

          Who does the hiring and firing? Talking about getting the foxes to guard the chicken coop…

        • John Protevi

          mds is right on the money here. yesterday on campus there were several tours of prospective students and parents. the undergrad student guides (free labor in exchange for the line on the résumé) were all about the gym and the union and dorms, all the “hotel / spa” features of campus. (It doesn’t hurt of course that the LSU campus is very nice, what with the Stanford-style architecture and the live oak trees.)

      • Sooner

        Agreed. However I will say that it seems many times that those with expectations for such niceties are the same folks who are not in the economic bind mentioned above. It is the large and growing portion of students that find themselves at a net loss with a degree that don’t demand, and can’t afford those additions. And the same folks who demand those services also demand that their taxes be lowered.

        • Linnaeus

          However I will say that it seems many times that those with expectations for such niceties are the same folks who are not in the economic bind mentioned above. It is the large and growing portion of students that find themselves at a net loss with a degree that don’t demand, and can’t afford those additions.

          Often yes, although I’m also thinking of services that are used by students from a variety of backgrounds: campus mental health services (at my school, you’re put on a very long wait list before you get to see someone), services for students with disabilities, ubiquitous internet connectivity, etc.

          And the same folks who demand those services also demand that their taxes be lowered.

          Yes. The disconnect is astounding.

    • AcademicLurker

      dismal prospects of employment, and certainly employment that allows them to service the debt accrued while getting their degree, they and their families see the college they left as a bitter symbol of largess at their expense.

      universities who plead for more public dollars.

      There’s a connection here that I think you’re missing. Tuition’s gone up because the public dollars in question have been continuously cut for the last 30 years.

      • Sooner

        Well I’m not sure it’s necessarily a 1:1 ratio. And whether it was tuition or tax money that propped up an unneccessary amount of largess is neither here nor there. The situation remains the same that no one wants to pay for it now, or at least not to the extent they’re going to be concerned about cheaper, perhaps less quality, alternatives.

      • Sooner

        I will say it certainly isn’t a 1:1 ratio at public law schools.

      • mds

        Tuition’s gone up because the public dollars in question have been continuously cut for the last 30 years.

        Harumph. “Universities who plead for more public dollars” should read “universities who plead for the same level of, or smaller cuts in, public dollars.” CCNY didn’t start charging tuition in 1976 because of professors demanding solid gold yachts. Yet from these threads you’d think the transition happened because faculty suddenly became a rentiers.

      • John Protevi

        there are two sides here, decreased revenue from state aid AND increased expenditures both lead to tuition hikes. Here’s a hair-raising tale from California illustrating that double whammy: http://keepcaliforniaspromise.org/404

  • JoyfulA

    The changes haven’t spared Cambridge and Oxford, which moved a pile of money from academic publishing to student scholarships.

  • ChrisTS

    I would like to better understand some of the trolling on this site.

    Is Carbon Man ‘Jennie’? Is there a single ‘Jennie’?

    • John Protevi

      Yes, it’s the same guy.

    • Incontinentia Buttocks

      Jenny, Jenny, who can I turn to?
      You give me something I can hold onto
      I know you think I’m like the others before
      Who saw your name and trolling on the wall

    • cpinva

      “Is Carbon Man ‘Jennie’? Is there a single ‘Jennie’?”

      a low level troll, that can be killed with a single short stack of pancakes. butter & syrup not required.

  • Birdman Berto

    I do sympathize with the erosion of tenure, but, having been at-will all my life I find it difficult sometimes. I’m just being honest, not snarking.

    • I personally think that the US model of tenure is not necessary. We have long term contracts and a very strong union and this provides a lot more equal protection of faculty than does tenure.

      • Fake Irishman

        Fair enough — but faculty at private universities in the U.S. can’t unionized because the NLRB has ruled that they are “management” They only have organization rights in some states.

        • Fake Irishman

          .. at public universities. (hit the “reply” button too quickly)

      • I’ve come more and more round to this view, being in the UK. Tenure is not infinite protection, contrary to many people’s (including my own prior) belief. Tenure isn’t even “can’t fire” or “can’t lay off”.

        More importantly, tenure triggers onerous and capricious job review. I had a probation thing, but it was much milder than tenure. That makes it easier to spread protection around. So our post docs get “permanent” status (though not funding) after a certain period.

        Of course, I don’t think it’s likely that the US would see a trade off of tenure in exchange for increased protection. More likely we’ll seen the continued shrinking of tenure lines and assaults on existing lines until most everything is at will/adjunct.

        Organize, folks! And tenured people, so solidarity. Don’t be a Velleman.

      • Either strong tenure or a strong union should work, but increasingly both are unavailable.

        Neither necessarily prevent firing dead wood, or changing directions when warranted, or student-centered policy. It’s unhealthy social relations that do that.

        • But strong tenure is inherently divisive. Even if you have a large number of tenure lines, it’s still the case that tenure doesn’t benefit post-docs, grad students, or any support staff.

          Furthermore, if we keep the current tenure granting mechanism, well, bleah. I’d rather separate permanence of employment from protection of academic freedom from promotion. (Obviously, these aren’t entirely separable. But how many people are not grant tenure not because they were incompetent but because of whim, personality, or “Oh we could do better?” How reliable are these decisions?)

    • (the other) Davis

      At least in STEM fields, the job security, work culture, and freedom afforded by tenure play an important role in attracting and retaining people who could otherwise go make a bundle of money in the private sector. Tenure is not the only way of achieving this, but switching to an at-will model would be a surefire way to destroy it.

      • Matt_L

        Yes, this is the main issue that people do not understand about tenure (both inside and outside the academic workplace). It applies to universities as well as K-12 in the US. Tenure is a cost savings over at will employment.

        Tenured professionals and their employers are trading salary for security. If you went to an all at will workforce you would have to pay a lot more to attract not only researchers, but also effective teachers in the long run. Sure, you can hire a bunch of adjuncts to teach biology 101 or English composition, but you cannot build a research lab doing that or establish a graduate program with adjuncts.

        • mpowell

          Well, as mentioned elsewhere, long term contracts and a union might really be a better system. It could also have prevented many of the current problems if there was actually a union pushing back against the administrators increasing cheap adjunct hiring. I don’t think tenure creates the kind of organization or solidarity that a union does. They may be illegal according to the NLRB, but then that’s your problem.

      • Tybalt

        Can someone tell me when management got itself grafted onto technical fields? How did this happen? STE would make sense to me. STEM must be a management invention.

        • Linnaeus

          The “M” stands for “mathematics”.

          (Pardons if you were being snarky.)

    • BigHank53

      There are fields where tenure is indispensable. Do you want folks researching drug safety to worry about Eli Lilly complaining to their bosses about hurt fee-fees? Should professors worry about flunking any kid whose uncle works in the state legislature? Should any literary criticism I publish* conform to Randite political theory?

      *I’m not.

      • You know other democratic countries, mostly in Europe, but also elsewhere like here in Ghana manage to avoid these problems without tenure. A combination of long term contracts and strong unionization seems to work pretty well. I am not worried about failing any students. I don’t work in drug safety, but I have not heard of that being a problem here either even though Ghana produces quite good pharmaceuticals (things like blood pressure medicine, allergy medicines, etc.).

        • (the other) Davis

          I would certainly not be opposed to this system instead of tenure here in the US, so long as there is *some* non-monetary benefit attracting good teachers and researchers to academia. However, as noted elsewhere, the NLRB apparently would have a problem with the unionization side of this.

      • mds

        Do you want folks researching drug safety to worry about Eli Lilly complaining to their bosses about hurt fee-fees?

        Hell, there’s a fair chance that’s happening even with tenure. At least someone with tenure and a decent grant portfolio can still laugh it off, though. But let the grant renewal not come through, and if you have a reputation of not playing ball, administrators will be bringing tape measures into your “spare” lab and office space almost immediately.

        And of course outside the sciences there’s the occurrence of “The president and the board have overridden the department’s decision to grant tenure because of the recipient’s politically inappropriate views.” Which, despite all the flatulent bloviations from wingnuttia about academia, is almost universally aimed leftward.

    • TribalistMeathead

      I mean, I do. I’ve been an at-will employee all my life, but I’ve never honestly had to worry about being fired for expressing an unpopular opinion.

      • Joel

        Same goes for me.

        Ironically, at my university it’s the life-long union employees sitting around collecting fat pensions the state can’t afford who are most critical of the tenure system.

    • TribalistMeathead

      And the whole “having been an at-will employee all my life” thing is a red herring, anyway. At-will employees are never fired without several warnings unless it’s a really egregious situation. No employer could afford to fight all the wrongful termination lawsuits from firing employees because their supervisor didn’t like the color of the tie they wore that day.

      • Vance Maverick

        Adria Richards?

      • Bruce Leroy

        At-will employees are never fired without several warnings unless it’s a really egregious situation.

        Yeah, that’s not true. At-will means they can fire you for whatever reason they want, unless its prohibited by law (e.g. sex or race discrimination, ADA stuff, union contract). Its not very easy to prove wrongful termination.

        • Bruce Leroy

          oops, the text should be the quote and the quote the text.

        • TribalistMeathead

          “Its not very easy to prove wrongful termination.”

          No, but it is really easy to hire an employment attorney on contingency who’ll sue for wrongful termination…

      • Jordan

        That …. REALLY depends on who you work for, and what type of job you are doing.

      • You’re Not Fired

        With regard to being an at-will employee, you’re generally not fired without some kind of egregious misbehavior on your part (hand in the till, physically violent with colleagues or clients, stopped doing the job, etc.). Nope, you’re not fired without cause. However, if they want you gone, your contract is magically “not renewed” at the end of the year. Depending on how good your working relationship has been, they may or may not decide to give you a heads-up before the contract expires. How do I know? Because after many successful years at a number of higher ed institutions, it happened to me.

  • Steve

    I guess what always amazes me is that theoretically the professoriate is the most canny class of people there is, but it can’t figure out how to keep their jobs and institutions from turning to seed.

    • Humanities Grad

      There’s really no big secret here, is there? Professors are employees. Like employees everywhere, they don’t control the institutions (corporations) where they work.

      Decisions regarding trends and practices in higher education are, in many cases, being made with no (or very little) input from faculty. So it shouldn’t be too surprising that faculty members haven’t been able to control that process–in a lot of cases, they haven’t really been part of those processes.

      • Linnaeus

        This, too.

      • Steve

        You’re right, there is no special secret; uni faculty behave like employees everywhere. Not sure i buy that there’s a huge distinction between faculty and administration, though. They’re the same class of people and there is overlap. I wonder if the issue is simply that faculty have little interest in institutional preservation if their own livelihoods are not immediately at stake.

      • mds

        Professors are employees. Like employees everywhere, they don’t control the institutions (corporations) where they work.

        Indeed, once upon a time, groups with such titles as “faculty senate” actually had some say in the governance of colleges. That seems to be less and less true. (See also my earlier comment above about administrators interfering in departmental hiring and tenure decisions.)

    • Linnaeus

      There’s a lot of inertia combined with a disinclination among many in the professoriate to see themselves as labor. The two combine to inhibit potentially fruitful collective action.

    • Good point, but the administration generally has absolute power over the university and the faculty are just workers there. Going up against the administration at best gets you nowhere and worst gets you fired most times. So like most people in successful authoritarian systems there is little active opposition most of the time and it is generally not very effective.

    • BigHank53

      They trained for academia, while the MOTU and their acolytes are trying to turn higher ed into General Electric. They’re on the bottom* of the power structure, and have remarkably few levers to pry at administrators and legislatures with.

      *Students’ opinions are worth as much as the opinion of the last cheeseburger you ate.

    • (the other) Davis

      theoretically the professoriate is the most canny class of people there is…

      In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not.

    • guthrie

      Most real academics, i.e. those interested in teaching and/ or research, are simply not interested in becoming managers.
      In ‘the good old days’ the university was effectively managed by the professoriate, but those days are long gone. Now, it is managed by a cadre of professional managers.

      Of course many of the managers used to be academics, but they effectively abandon any academic aims when they become managers.
      It isn’t as if there was a sudden violent take over. Rather the spread of insidious management, as they promised to take over and organise some of the dull stuff that academics find gets in the way of research or teaching. Then over time the managers insinuate themselves into cracks, positions of power, and take over more and more functions, until voila, the academics find themselves as mere employees, rather than the foundations of the university.

      • mpowell

        This was an unfortunate trend. But here we are.

        • guthrie

          Yup, here we are, the problem is that it is all rather depressing and there doesn’t seem a way out of it. Here in the UK we have 3 main party’s. All agree with neoliberal economics, one a bit less than others after its own recent experience of boom and bust. All think that privatisation of public services is a good thing, although they quibble about the details. All agree that more managers with targets is a good thing.
          Meanwhile the media are as much in control of things as ever, and the BBC is repeatedly humbled and attacked on a regular basis. (although since it is basically a tool of the establishment it wasn’t exactly going to lead a revolution)

          Basically there’s nowhere to apply the political or indeed cultural pressure needed to improve things.

      • Yes, this is a good description.

  • Murc

    Slightly tangential, Dave, but I might suggest some alternative framing here:

    The erosion of academic freedom (and, concomitantly, tenure) has side effects, magnified when combined with a concentration on teaching specific skill sets in a vocational manner rather than more general cognitive / critical skills.

    You speak about vocational training and about critical thinking and analysis skills as if they’re two separate things. This sort of implicitly accepts the idea that there are things you learn in college that are useful to getting a job, and things that are “nice to learn” but aren’t strictly speaking necessary.

    That’s actually true to an extent (I’ve taken my share of somewhat useless electives) but I would submit in this case it’s less than helpful. Many if not most people do view college as, essentially, vocational training. You go there to acquire job skills, so that you can get a fulfilling job, or at least a well-paying job that can finance a fulfilling personal life rather than attempting to do something like raise a family on 25k a year. This becomes more and more true as debt load increases.

    But I would argue that critical thinking and analysis skills are part of said vocational training, vital parts. The framing should be “failing to teach critical thinking and analysis skills means you have failed in your mission of providing effective vocational education, because the expansion and maintenance of vocational skills is highly dependent on those things.”

    That’s different, in my opinion, than saying that these skills should be taught alongside the more obviously vocational ones. Because a non-trivial number of people are going to respond to that with “I’m already beggaring myself to attend college, and you want to load another five thousand dollars in MORE courses onto my back that aren’t directly related to my major? I just want some job skills so I can graduate and start earning.”

    And what you want to tell those people is “these are part of your job skills and your earning potential will be massively adversely impacted if you don’t have them.”

    • Dave Brockington

      A good point. Subtle, though; the common usage definition of vocational is closer to how I used it in the post.

  • Speak Truth

    Shorter Dave Brockington: “We’re academics. Economics is for ‘little people’.”

    • Economics is Obrunistani Juju.

    • Davis X. Machina

      Speak Truth: Half right.

      • Tybalt

        Speak Half-truth. Which is an improvement.

  • guthrie

    This fits with my own observations in the last few years and what I have read.
    One way of putting it is that universities have been taken over by managers.
    Managers aims and objectives are different from those of other staff, as suggested in the post and I agree with that.

    There are numbers examples of how managers have destroyed and damaged university provision in the UK. One was the closure of one of UCL’s departments, for no clear reason that a professor working in it could find out. He also noted the massive increase in office staff with no useful purpose.
    Another example was the University of Warwick closing its philosophy department for the sort of reasons given in the post:

    These examples are multiplied up and down the country, and are undoubtedly damaging university provision.

    Relatedly, exactly the same sorts of behaviours are seen in the Police. Multiple anecdotes from many individuals indicate that the police service suffers from promotion hungry middle and senior officers fiddling figures or introducing unnecessary and wasteful new structures which take a year or two to get working. They work for just long enough for the manager to get promoted on the back of the successful implementation of whatever it is they have introduced, and by the time the wheels fall off they are elsewhere.

    A business and a university have fundamentally different aims, and mixing them simply does not work.

  • guthrie

    Those of you with more time and interest can read through Professor David Colquhoun’s record of the destruction of the UCL department of Pharmacology.

    It records first hand the increasing numbers of managers, pointless management speak, and the destruction of academic freedom.

  • Jeffrey Beaumont

    Seriously, someone just ban the serial trolls on here.

  • guthrie

    From Colquhoun’s blog, on the bullying of academic staff who object to insane management plans:

    “Academic staff are going to be fired at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL). It’s possible that universities may have to contract a bit in hard times, so what’s wrong?

    What’s wrong is that the victims are being selected in a way that I can describe only as insane. The criteria they use are guaranteed to produce a generation of second-rate spiv scientists, with a consequent progressive decline in QMUL’s reputation.

    The firings, it seems, are nothing to do with hard financial times, but are a result of QMUL’s aim to raise its ranking in university league tables.”

  • Dave

    Just saying, but a LOT of what is talked about in the OP as ‘commercialisation’ reads more to me like pure incompetent self-aggrandizement. Last-minute decision-making, closed loops of reform and re-reform, repeated efforts to make ‘initiatives’ with no noticeable effect except disorganisation – this is just people being bad at their jobs. Possibly because they’re academics who don’t understand the real economics of their situation. We have seen in recent years that many UK universities are completely incapable of leveraging what THEY think their reputation is into a profile that is of benefit in a changing political and economic climate. But they keep trying.

    • The admins are actually *very* good at their jobs: rent-seeking, career advancement, keeping the faculty off-balance, schmoozing at admin conferences, flattering business folk and their government cronies, and so on.

      • Dave

        Not in the UK, which was the subject under discussion. We don’t have a ‘professional’ admin class yet, or at least not one that has risen to VC level – almost all our ‘leaders’ were at one point genuine academics, before they drank the koolaid…

        • John Protevi

          I think the writing is on the wall in that regard. I followed the Middlesex story quite closely (friends of mine used to work there), and that sure looked a lot like the US: http://proteviblog.typepad.com/protevi/middlesex/

          In any case, almost all American university admins came up through the ranks before becoming professional admins. Though I do admit that a few high-profile Presidents are politicos. For example, Robert Gates was President of Texas A&M between stints in government as CIA chief and Sec of Defense.

          • I think management capture is very real as are effects of bureaucratization.

            Part of the issue is that most sensible academics don’t want to do management. It’s hard and it is very time/energy consuming. Much of your time is spent dealing with the bad or the tedious. You have to make decisions which often seem aribitrary to you but people first don’t pay attention then complain like crazy. Stupid rules, forms, committees, decision procedures, authoritarianism, etc. are all reasonable effective responses to those issues. It takes a lot to push back on them.

            I now have my most formal management role (in academia) that I’ve ever had. I’m PI on a reasonable large project. I can see myself having to resist certain tendencies. I also feel those pressures (the amount of form filling and procedure learning is pretty high…higher if I want to do a good job).

            For example, I’m pretty happy to have lots of discussions about various decisions and to devolve decisions often, but that often works better in theory, esp. when the decision is more or less arbitrary. Getting people to recongize quickly that we can go whichever way is really hard. And sometimes I’m (rightly or wrongly) pretty convinced about what we should do and I’m also pretty sure no further discussion is going to change my mind. At that point, I *reaaaaally* just want to make it and move on, because I’ve ton of other stuff to do.

            On the flip side, I just made myself a bit of a PITA to people senior to me (in an area) because I disagreed with their decision and had a ton of evidence for my view. It devolved to the point where I agreed to accept the decision for now (time pressure) but wanted a rationale later. That’s not being taken well.

            It’s possible that I’m being superstupid there (as always), but I don’t *think* so. I would accept a rationale of “It’s a rule”, but afaict it’s not. It’s a decision that a bunch of people think is superobvious, but I don’t think it is. So, now I’m feeling rather grumpy about that :)

            Ok, rambly bit over. If we want an administration that’s responsive, we need a structure that makes it so, and active participation of the faculty as faculty not as people who were faculty and may be so again.

            • John Protevi

              Hi Bijan, thanks, that’s a very interesting and I think accurate description of the individual level conversion into management feeling / thinking.

              On the institutional or better industry-wide level, the problems are I think:

              1) early and one-way conversion to professional admin track (people in their mid-30s sometimes, right after promotion to full prof — they are often head-hunted w/in schools by admins looking out for up-and-comers)

              2) big salary differences coupled with addiction to the new income (i.e., you buy a new house the mortgage on which can only be paid off by a Dean level and above salary; then you can’t go back to faculty even if you wanted to)

              3) easy mobility between institutions (this is often desired: the upper admin / board of trustees can bring in a hatchet man — I suppose there are hatchet women too — from outside to do the dirty work, which can be done w/o personal loyalty [hey, I’m from outside and I just call ’em like I see ’em]

              4) quick turnover on the way to the next job (see #3)

              5) use of external head-hunter firms to avoid state Sunshine Laws (for public schools, obviously)

              6) combining 3, 4, and 5: institutional inferiority complex / grass is always greener outside: of course shiny new professional suit X from Y school is better than anyone here at Z school.

              There’s probably a few more factors but that’s a start I think.

              • John Protevi

                W/r/t point 3: ease of movement among schools is facilitated by increased standardization of admin procedures w/in schools: one balance sheet looks like another. Thus institutional memory isn’t as important as it once was as we have bureaucratized what used to be inter-personal dealings. (This is potted Weber, I know, but I think there’s something to be said here.)

                • Oh this.

                  It’s bad inside the uni. Tough enough that key support staff see new cool opportunities (more power to them!), but we have this stupid “High level admins can’t stay too long in any one school but must be rotated whether anyone wants that or not”. Random destruction of career long relationships for no good reason I can see.

              • Thanks John. You’re points seem spot on.

                1 and 2 seem very fundamental and yet relatively easy to tackle.

                3 and 4 are hugely corrosive because they lead to a lot of thumbprinting and CYA. You want to make a big decision that has wide effect…it matters less if the decision is mid to long term good, just that you made it.

                Our promotion criteria are heading this way. If you want to claim e.g., teaching goodness, it’s not enough that you are an excellent teacher (that’s “expected”) you have to have some broader departmental or institutional effect. So, now you have a bunch of people looking for showcase projects. Not good.

                Frankly, I think we should strive for a civil service + politician model, where the “politicians” are term limited faculty who are either elected or selected by lot. The civil service keeps the place running, but there’s less jockeying for the next admin plum.

          • John Protevi
  • Tracy Lightcap

    Three comments:

    First, the entire framework of what Diane Ravitch calls GERM (Global Education Reform Movement) is grotesquely misplaced. The question I usually ask visiting parents where I teach is a simple one: “How many of you are working in the same jobs today that you were working in 20 years ago?” There is usually a very small show of hands. GERM presumes that by responding to “markets” – it’s in quotes because, as Dave’s post shows, there usually isn’t anything like an actual market involved – pressures reflected in revenue streams colleges will “deliver value” or something. Problem = that works now, but it won’t work for those graduating today 20 years down the road. Those graduates will find that the more specific their training, the faster it will become obsolete. In terms of “value delivered” this is a very bad bargain. It means societies as a whole will incur much higher retraining costs in the future with attendant problems in investment. Generally educated people, oth, can be trusted to be creative enough to restructure their skills to meet new situations with much less fuss. Now, of course, if you really want to put educations on a collision course with the taxpayers, treat this like a plus – more students for us going forward! – instead of a cost.

    Second, this isn’t the biggest problem with GERM in terms of its social costs. Tying education to “markets” (actually public policy decisions) obviously put the credentialing process at the center of the acquisition and accumulation of knowledge at risk. That can’t be tied to market pressures of whatever kind without undermining it; that’s the whole purpose of tenure, as Max Weber pointed out a century ago. That in turn undermines the prospects for societies to advance economically, since it is increasingly technical and scientific development that drives growth. This will – believe it – show up as a problem pretty soon. Mainly when countries that haven’t embraced GERM – India and China – will begin to steal a march on advanced capitalist democracies that have.

    Third, in the long run, I don’t think GERM has much chance. The problems above are part of it, but the real opponent for GERM is much more formidable: universities as institutions. The university system has seen similar dire predictions in the past. The invention of the printing press led to a spurt of do-it-yourself books – including the first programmed learning texts – and predictions that residential universities would collapse. Result: they grew like weeds. The invention of film led to a proliferation of filmed courses by leading experts – Feynman’s introduction to physics is on youtube – and predictions that residential universities would collapse. Result: they grew like weeds. Now we find on-line courses and GERM and yet more predictions that residential universities will collapse. And, I’m betting, after the Depression is over, they will grow like weeds. The reason is simple enough: going to college is an institution, a lot like getting married. People do it because a) it works, albeit in ways we don’t really understand, and b) it is something that people of a certain age and station do. Up against that the latest management nostrums usually come a cropper.

    Well, enough.

    • rm

      We need bumper stickers.




      Stuff like that.

      • When I was in college it was “one scotch, one bourbon, and one beer.”

        • Bill Murray

          but John Lee Hooker was still alive then.

    • Jeffrey Beaumont

      I hope you are right.

    • Murc

      Generally educated people, oth, can be trusted to be creative enough to restructure their skills to meet new situations with much less fuss.

      I will note that, postwar, when we were re-designing our primary and secondary education systems, people from the business community were brought in to comment, as it was assumed that a large part of the education system was to prepare people for work.

      The general consensus was “give us people who can read and write and reason, and we can train them to do whatever else needs to be done. We just need the raw materiel.”

      Sometime in the past thirty or forty years, so, industry in general came to the conclusion that internal training was for suckers and started screeching about how our schools needed to turn out people prepared to already do jobs that previously required extensive hands-on training.

      • Good point.

      • mpowell

        Internal training doesn’t fit the model of:

        “We can fire you anytime we like and will.”

        “Okay, as soon as my resume is in place, I’m moving on to the next job.”

      • PGervais

        Um, no, it’s not true. Up to and including the Congressional hearings in the mid-2000s on the 21st c. workforce and stuff like that, business representatives said exactly what thay had been saying postwar -and even outside Congressional hearings, actually (see ).

        If there has been a change it’s in the last few years -see the post by c u n d gulag way at the top.


        • PGervais

          Oops. Can’t use links correctly, apparently. To “see” what I said one could “see”, just click on the last sentence. Beware, it’s a pdf (bt not a humongous one).

          Sorry about that


      • This really happened? Because I’d always thought that’s how it had worked, but was beginning to think I’d imagined it.

        I really wasn’t expecting that a masters’ from MIT would make my job prospects worse than they were when I finished undergrad.

    • (the other) Davis

      The problems above are part of it, but the real opponent for GERM is much more formidable: universities as institutions.

      For all there is to criticize about them, I would argue that the prestige schools (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, etc.) play an important role in maintaining the university-as-institution. These schools will probably always represent the epitome of high-quality education in the public mind, and will thus stand as the prototypes of what advanced education should look like. And I can’t imagine that the privileged parents who send their kids to those schools will ever put up with the MOOC phenomenon.

  • KD

    Great article, these are relevant:
    n+1’s article http://nplusonemag.com/bad-education
    the atlantic’s in the basement of the ivory tower http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/06/in-the-basement-of-the-ivory-tower/306810/


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  • bradp

    Monetization allows for more efficient trading, allowing the parties of a transaction to more freely and accurately place value on what they want and what they offer.

    We discuss things in terms of future revenues generated and current costs and other statements of monetary value so that we can comprehend complexities that would otherwise be based on bias and intuition. Like advanced stats in sports, they are always going to give you an incomplete picture, but otherwise you are going to be saying things like “He just wins ballgames”.

    What are the other methods for allowing current and prospective students to comprehend the value that they are receiving from a university, and similarly, what other methods are there for students to provide feedback as to whether they are satisfied or not?

    • bradp


      despite the poor record of most actual businesses in human history.

      Compared to what?

      Universities do not have “business models.” They have complementary missions of teaching, research, and public service. Yet such leaders think of universities as a collection of market transactions, instead of a dynamic (I said it) tapestry of creativity, experimentation, rigorous thought, preservation, recreation, vision, critical debate, contemplative spaces, powerful information sources, invention, and immeasurable human capital.


      • John Protevi

        If you have to say “what?” to that “complementary missions / dynamic tapestry” description, you haven’t paid close enough attention to universities. Now is that a somewhat flattering self-image? Sure, somewhat. Does it get to the heart of things. IMO, yes.

        • bradp

          Those are all certainly worthy qualities for a university to strive for.

          The problem is that that paragraph basically reads in a similar manner as “Cars shouldn’t have gas burning engines, they should get us from point A to point B in comfort and safety.”

          Does that make sense?

    • John Protevi

      Hello Brad:

      1) “future revenues generated and current costs”: this gets to high specialization / high content curricula vs critical thinking / skills development. If you spend a lot of time in school learning current method X, that’s not going to help you that much when X goes out the window and everyone is scrambling to learn how to do Y. So you don’t really have a good chance at guessing your future revenues from a high content curriculum. You could get lucky, hit the ground running, and stay using the same technology you learned in school. Or you could be unlucky and be out-of-date in 5 years. So the counter to that is to leaven the content with some skills development. Now you could say that learning technology X will demand skill development that can be transfered to learning technology Y, but that’s a tough sell I think.

      2) socialization / networking / just having fun / expanding your cultural horizons, etc are “value” if you insist, but how are you going to monetize them? But the feedback part is pretty easy. You ask people what they feel about their college days. And what I hear is many, many, many people looking back at college and saying that those parts were the best parts of their school days, and that those school days were among the best days of their lives. The question, why is work life so organized that it doesn’t allow that sort of thing? The Onion, as always, is right on the money: http://www.theonion.com/articles/find-the-thing-youre-most-passionate-about-then-do,31742/

      • bradp

        Good morning John! Thanks for a quick and thoughtful response.

        I agree with everything you have said here, but its a little off point. I am concerned not so much with what a university should offer, but how they determine and accomplish it.

        At its most basic, the process is: prospective students have money, the university provides the education for the money. In theory, its the need of the university to satisfy the student demands in order to obtain the finances to continue. The give and take of monetary exchange should be (but obviously is not always) what balances the needs and desires of the student against the costs to the university.

        In short, if there is no business model, what replaces it? Do we give academics grants to cover living expenses to do as they please? I don’t really get it, and I grant that could simply be a symptom of ignorance.

        I certainly could buy the idea that extreme focus on the business or monetary side of education may lead to universities undervaluing those things that are not easily translated into monetary value.

        But I don’t know how you fix that either.

        • John Protevi

          At its most basic, the process is: prospective students have money, the university provides the education for the money. In theory, its the need of the university to satisfy the student demands in order to obtain the finances to continue. The give and take of monetary exchange should be (but obviously is not always) what balances the needs and desires of the student against the costs to the university.

          Hi Brad, well, I know you’re perhaps going to roll your eyes at this, but I’ll say it anyway. :)

          This presupposes the current neoliberal atomization of society and commodification of education (you buy a credential and look to the ROI of your time and money spent in college). But it didn’t used to be (completely) like that, and need not always be like that. We could go to a no-user-fee inter-generational compact system in which progressive taxation foots the bill for the current generation of kids, who, as they get out of school and earn more money, foot the bill for the generation of kids in the future.

          IOW, human capital is an infrastructure issue and its development should be socialized: you pay taxes for roads rather than user fees, and there’s no reason not to do with with college. (Of course you have to think in K-16 or even K-24 terms, so that you don’t just reproduce class lines. And you have to reduce the college wage premium by supporting the social wage and improving working class lives, or better, that part of the working class that doesn’t go to college.)

          Now, how to get there from here in political terms? Good question. But the first step is seeing the history and thus the contingent nature of the current set-up.

          My co-bloggers and I do quite a bit of blogging on the “political economy of higher education” here: http://www.newappsblog.com/economics-of-higher-education/

          This one puts most of my cards on the table: http://www.newappsblog.com/2010/09/the-political-and-economic-dimensions-of-higher-education.html

          • bradp

            IOW, human capital is an infrastructure issue and its development should be socialized: you pay taxes for roads rather than user fees, and there’s no reason not to do with with college.

            I’m sure you can anticipate how I feel about this, so I’ll be brief

            This sounds very much like what I asked about: “Do we give academics grants to cover living expenses to do as they please?”

            Do we rely on administrators and other academics to self-manage?

            • AcademicLurker

              You could make much the same objection re: roads. Do we give road builders grants to cover living expenses to do as they please?

              It’s not that there are no mechanisms in place to deal with it if road construction companies start pocketing public dollars without building any roads, it’s that the mechanisms don’t rely on individual consumer choice.

            • John Protevi

              1) You can arrange things so that there is over-sight, fraud investigation, and so on. But basically, 2) you do have to trust people sometimes.

              So, to the first point: the whole “ZOMG there’s rent-seeking / featherbedding / regulatory capture!!!” thing I think ignores the fact that you can have multiple checks and balances so that yes, someone is guarding the guardians who are guarding the other guardians. It comes down to incentive structures. And yes, one issue is rogue over-zealous regulators, the Inspector Javert syndrome. Like this guy: http://www.examiner.com/article/should-steroid-investigator-jeff-novitzky-be-punished-before-barry-bonds. They have to be over-seen as well.

              To the second point: there’s a view of human nature that allows neolibs and neocons to collaborate. At base there’s an idea that people only do things for self-interest AND that there is a fallen human nature. So we’re selfish AND lazy, so we have to force folks by fear of losing their jobs to actually work, especially in government work, because we all know those dudes are just feather-bedding.

    • John Protevi

      Like advanced stats in sports, they are always going to give you an incomplete picture, but otherwise you are going to be saying things like “He just wins ballgames”.

      I’m a fan of the complementary approach: stats and eyeballs. And ears: a good manager is a good psychologist. IOW, there is something called “team chemistry” even though it’s harder to see in baseball than in basketball or football.

      In any case, what you have here is a false dichotomy: it’s not advanced stats vs bromides. There’s plenty you can do with just eyeballs and ears. For instance, it didn’t take advanced stats for scouts to identify Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays.

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