Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Future of Universities

Consider a unifying threat to the liberal arts from Republican governors as outlined in this IHE article. Among the major reforms, they would:

A. Compensate universities on how many graduates receive jobs
B. Support the slashing of traditional liberal arts programs or majors that do not directly generate employable outcomes.
C. Support professional majors that directly correspond to the needs of the market.

A, B and C are based on the assumption that university education is about "getting a job." That's it. There is no other purpose to go to university. Second, once one adopts this thesis, there seems little one can do to convince them otherwise. Or is there?

Let's start with a different theory about the university, and let us concede that one fact is people attend university is that "getting a job" is one motivation. I argue it is still possible to have a conception of the university that can accommodate this motivation of students without making all other reasons for the university's existence subsumed by it. That's the problem with the Conservative want for reforming state universities. They seem dedicated to the proposition that the only optimal reason people attend university is employment. In a wider conception of the university, the university does more than train potential employees.

Let me list what I think the university does, and we can start from there.

1. Universities transmit cultural knowledge onto a new generation of young people.
2. Universities re-socialize people into productive citizens by exposing different populations to each other in a variety of settings.
3. Universities train the mind in terms of reasoning, writing, and reading.
4. Universities innovate existing science and technologies as well as existing frameworks and knowledge.
5. Universities showcase the aesthetic multiplicity of the human condition.

Now let's set the Conservative thesis about higher education off to the side. In truth, I am only calling this the Conservative thesis in response to the article above.
6. Universities train potentially-employable people.

From the above list, 1-5 resonate on a different level than just simply being places that train people to get jobs. 1, 2, 3 and 6 are student-focused outcomes. 4 belongs to the scholars of the university alongside 5, though 5 could belong to the whole community. I would say 1 imbues every other subsequent number after it, including 6. But notice, down our list if we took the whole of 1-5 versus someone that did not attend university, the employability drastically goes up such that 6 can be an anticipated outcome. In this way, I see 6 as more of an indirect benefit from 1-5, but the Conservative thesis can be counted as a direct benefit also. I might be wiling to see it both ways. My only point is that 1-5 share a relationship to 6 even though people want to make universities all about 6.

On the list above, we can accept that 1-6 exist in harmony with each other. When one receives more attention than any other one, universities become close-minded and adopt a narrow-minded culture. Currently, the economic anxiety of college educated professionals weighs on everyone's mind, and 6 is in the driver's seat when Governors take a long look at their public institutions. However, without the public financial support or respect for knowledge in general, 6 is unlikely to carry the day without 1-5. If  people use 6 to evaluate universities, then the research culture and all other benefits of the university will be sacrificed for 6. I don't think it is slippery slope to anticipate turning public universities more and more into community colleges. For the public university, the point is to be sensitive to 6 without sacrificing 1-5.

Why Exactly are 1-5 Needed?

Assume that a university did fund a public university based on the employment outcomes of its students. The line of reasoning is that university's are accountable for the employment of their majors. This choice puts universities in the driver's seat where market forces determine them. Market forces take on a life of their own, and university's cannot be responsible for that which determines them, and in some cases overdetermines them. First, students decide on their own majors. If a student majoring in English literature never took an internship, only went to class and indulged in hedonism for four years, then the university should not be responsible for the self-determining choices of its youth. Second, as I said, market forces are in a state of constant flux often moved by factors way out of our control. Therefore, the university should not be responsible for what it constantly cannot be responsible for. Ought implies can. it. The attribution of responsibility is misplaced.

Universities can control what they charge to students. They can control how they are structured and what they implement. They CANNOT control markets such that setting them up to be responsive to markets will always be reactionary and such thinking will set universities up to fail.

1-5 are needed for the purposes of having a culturally-literate society. We want citizens to vote and make the best choices. We want people to reason well, be informed about the world and make good choices all around. We want people to draw connections between various contexts and elicit connections concealed from the surface. A person should appreciate the contexts that come before herself as well as those contexts alive in her own unique situation.

More than that, given that markets change over time, if we funded universities based on student employee outcomes, universities might inadvertently generate too much or too little of one "commodity." During recessions, many undergraduates go to law school, seeing a J.D. as an often more useful degree than an MBA. Recently, however, lawyers haven't prospered since there are too many of them. If all of a sudden accountants are no longer needed and all we did was emphasize accounting to the students for the market need over the past five years, the university has created a situation in which someone is trained only to do one thing. Another recession that takes out accountants and they're toast. However, the argument goes if the same student had taken a decent spread of liberal arts classes, that student will have the skills such education engenders and might be more-rounded to bounce back from the fate that might befall her. As such, a strong liberal arts background improves the bounce and the skills people need throughout life beyond their employment. In that way, 1-5 are best served by a liberal-arts intensive undergraduate degree with chances for the student to determine themselves.

Let's restate this line of reasoning. 1, 2, and 3 pass on skills to the student that improve him beyond simple economic focus of 6. At the same time, however, 4 and 5 support the existence of 1, 2, and 3.

What to Do?

Now that I have more clearly delineated the problem, we can do several things to reduce the cost of the university in general:

1. The Professoriate can take a much more active role in administration. The bloat of administrative cost to universities came at the cost of professors not wanting to volunteer their time while at the same time the ascendancy of university bureaucrats that specialize in administration without ever having been scholars themselves. Public universities might want to think about adopting Australian National University's model. They have two tiers of faculty: research and teaching. Developing a teaching faculty with little or no research expectations might improve the quality of teaching.

2. With the professoriate taking more of an active role in the university, cutting inefficient and redundant administrators can make a difference.

3. Introduce an Americorp benefit of reduction or elimination of student debt of Ph.D.s that decide to teach at a public institution and pay them a modest salary with benefits.

4. Restore pre-Recession support for higher education.

5. Have a nation-wide year of employment or service for college students. Pay them a modest stipend and reduction in student loans and have companies use the massive federal database to match potential candidates to future employers. Centralizing this process might make it easier to monitor the employment conditions of young people.

6. Experiment with online courses as well as online pedagogy. If Ph.D.s get involved with this from the beginning, then it is harder to eliminate our relevance when colleges do want to go this route.

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