December 22, 2003

Missing the Forest for the Trees

In her review of Derek Bok's Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education (which I briefly noted here), Erin O'Connor suggests that Bok has overlooked a number of key areas:

In focusing almost exclusively on athletics and corporate-funded research, Bok ignores some of the major ways universities might be said to be 'selling out.' There is no mention anywhere in the book of the fact that across the country, tuition is skyrocketing even as classes are closing, departments are downsizing, and resources are becoming ever more scarce. There is no mention anywhere in the book of the fact that on many campuses, upwards of half of all undergraduate teaching is now done not by fulltime faculty but by undertrained, underpaid graduate students and by a poorly paid and often uninsured corps of part-time, non-tenurable faculty (more than 40% of the professoriate works part-time; 70% of part-timers make less than $3,000 a course). There is no recognition that the campus labor movement that has so many university administrators up in arms and that loudly and regularly accuses universities of sacrificing its educational mission to economic interests is a predictable and logical outgrowth of universities' attempts to cut costs by cutting academic corners.

Quite right. It is remarkable how frequently the critics of the commercialization of higher education fail to register one of the most significant aspects of the corporatization of the academy: that is, the restructuring of academic employment from a full-time salaried profession with an unusually high degree of job security to a part-time, low-wage sector with little to no job security whatsoever. Athletics is an easy target. And it's not hard to recognize and object to transparently politicized assaults on "tenured radicals" and the liberal academy. But the real threat to tenure comes not (or not yet) in the form of a direct and explicit attack on the institution but rather in the form of a steady erosion: an indirect attack that is no less effective for coming unannounced (effective in part, of course, because it still too often goes unnoticed by those who should be vigorously opposing it).

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at December 22, 2003 09:43 AM

The labor practices of academia must make hardened capitalists blush. If GM tried to treat its UAW employees this way there would be rioting in the streets.

Posted by: dr toak at December 22, 2003 12:56 PM

The university functions to reproduce bureacratic labour and ideology, which might be summarised in the phrase "screw the worker every chance you get." Bok used to run the flagship of the US university system. He didn't get to that position by establishing a soviet. To denounce the current conditions of academic labour, Bok would have had to more or less reject his work, i.e., keeping major US corporations supplied with unquestioning little drones and stoking the fires of The Great Manure Spreader.

But really, as thick as he is, Bok seems fairly typical -- even for non-administrators. This is why i have a hard time mustering sympathy for academics. It's the old Klasse an sich/Klasse fur sich problem, but as ideological functionaries of the established order academics almost willfully choose to avoid anything even hinting at class identity. The ideological function of academia and its denizens requires just this sort of willful ignorance of ones social roles and positions. Accession to such knowledge therefore requires the self-negation of the academic subject.

And another thing. One of the ideological functions of the university is criticism. This is so the system can correct itself when the old ideas stop working. (It also conviently lends everything an aura of liberalism) By defining itself solely as a site of repetition and reproduction (of ideology, of labour, of individual social capital) the university ceases to be of use to the established order.

Posted by: che at December 22, 2003 02:21 PM

This thread doesn't really seem to be hoppin'. I'll just go slightly off-topic and mention another kind of commercialization. My second alma mater is an "urban university" (whereas my first was an elite liberal arts college). My guess is that over half the undergrad classes are vocational by now, and a lot of the non-vocational Arts and Letters depts. are primarily distribution-requirement support for the vocational ones. In business alone you have separate Business Admin, Finance, Accounting, International Business, Management, and Marketing majors, plus something called MIM which I can't remember the real name of. There are likewise multiple education majors, multiple engineering majors, counseling, social work, conflict resolution, and speech therapy. The physics and philosophy majors have been abolished as I remember (though classes are taught for support) and there really only seem to be two healthy A&L majors -- English and History.

The political-correctness / postmodern stuff people shriek about is a very secondary factor -- many in history and English are pretty "traditional", and very few are devout postmedernists or leftists.

(So why do **I** bitch about postmodernism? Because of stuff I read and conversations with friends on their way to and from grad school).

Posted by: zizka at December 23, 2003 08:15 PM

I wonder what the numbers and comparisons given actually mean. Consider this
"upwards of half of all undergraduate teaching is now done not by fulltime faculty"
Now how is undergraduate teaching measured? By amount of hours spent in classrooms or in the actual number of classes taught or some other metric? A simple example of why this can be misleading.

Say there is a class with 50 students. In addition to the lectures headed by a professor, there is 1 weekly tutorial which are headed by grad. students. So say there are 25 students per tutorial. Now this class will have 1 professor and 2 grad students. It will be strictly correct to claim the following :
Lectures : 1
Tutorials : 2
Total : 3
we can get
% classes taught by faculty : 33.33%
% classes taught by grad. students : 66.66%

Now anyone who has been in college will know that this scenario I have just mentioned is rather common. But the way these stats are considered can be very misleading. There are different ways of manipulating these calculations to have different results.

Following this line of thought, we can then ask more legitimate questions about "more than 40% of the professoriate works part-time".

I am not claiming that these numbers are right or wrong. The point is that we need to have multiple sources of information before we pass judgement.

Posted by: Passing_through at December 24, 2003 11:02 AM

The other "commercialization" issue is the pressure on researchers in areas of the social sciences to get funding even if they don't need it to do their research (or very little money) in order to fund grad students as RAs and the university through overhead. This diverts them away from doing things that are less fundable which are often of better quality in my opinion. A lot of stuff that is funded (more so outside the US) looks totally not what a university ought to be doing. Also when you are thinking how you can please funders rather than what is the best science, your overall creativity suffers.

Posted by: David at December 25, 2003 04:12 PM