Protest Envy

Peter Wood

This article was originally published on April 13, 2011 on the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog.

Today, April 13, has been declared “Take Class Action Day” by the AAUP and a collection of faculty unions, which have called for a “teach-in.” We are invited to contemplate the seven “Guiding Principles” for the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education. The project originated with the California Faculty Association last fall, which summoned the support of other faculty unions at a conference in January.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reported on the January conference, and in February, Jason Jones’s writing on the Chronicle’s ProfHacker blog promoted the April 13 event. At the end of March, the AAUP newsletter urged its members to plan April 13 events and let the AAUP know. The protest, however, seems to have been a damp firecracker. As far as I can tell not much is happening. If the AAUP Web site has a list of today’s events, it has been artfully buried on the dedicated page. I can’t find it. There is a Facebook page for “April 13 ‘Day of Action’” which has, as of 3:00 on April 13, garnered a total of 348 “likes.”

The rhetoric of the organizers of the event is rife with references to the protests last year in England (which I wrote about here), as well as to the recent protests in Egypt. A flouncing video aimed at turning out the academic masses for today shows crowds pouring through the streets of London and Cairo. Clearly we are witnessing an instance of the American academic left’s protest envy.

I critiqued the “Guiding Principles” in “The Campus Left’s Nostalgia Party-RSVP,” in an essay posted on the Manhattan Institute’s useful Minding the Campus website. As penetrating as my analysis was, I don’t take credit for the lackluster turnout for this would-be day of national consciousness-raising. The problem seems to be the message itself. “Take Class Action” is an attempt to rally faculty members behind the idea that the flagging fortunes of public higher education can be restored with a noisy call for greater public expenditures (“Quality higher education in the twenty-first century will require substantially more public investment over current levels”) along with the usual fodder of more “inclusiveness,” more “diversity,” and less accountability (“Quality higher education in the twenty-first century cannot be measured by a standardized, simplistic set of metrics”).

These are themes perhaps not quite as inspiring as overthrowing Middle East dictatorships. But they might well have moral gravity similar to that of the English youths who rioted for days on end over a tuition increase.

I don’t want to declare the unions’ approach utterly hopeless. Maybe it can be ginned up to some semblance of life: a zombie existence, to go along with its neo-Stalinist poster art. A second try is scheduled for May 17, the “formal launch of the campaign,” according to the AAUP. But I have my doubts.

Chilling Out

The teachers unions threw their all into the Wisconsin protests over Governor Walker’s proposals to eliminate union dues check-offs and many components of collective bargaining. This was not simply a one-state battle. The unions bussed in activists from across the country. Despite flamboyant tactics and Democratic senators fleeing the state in an effort to deny the Republicans a quorum, the pro-union side lost the legislative round. The teachers then pinned their hopes on turning the election for a state Supreme Court seat into a referendum on the new law. They lost that too.

These are developments that cannot help but be dispiriting to those who see education at all levels as an instrument to transform American culture in the direction of even greater emphasis on identity groups, multiculturalism, and class struggle. This conception of education coupled with the idea that the public has a moral responsibility to pay for the whole social-justice-through-educational-intervention agenda has lost much of its capacity to mobilize public sentiment.

The Bubble

Along with many others who have taken up the topic, I have referred to this public disenchantment frequently. It is by no means limited to higher education, but it is a critical component of the “higher-education bubble.” That is to say, a substantial and increasing number of Americans are looking at higher education as a doubtful proposition. It costs way too much in relation to its likely benefits; the claims made on its behalf as a secure “investment” (of time as well as money) are viewed with growing skepticism; and the evidence is mounting that, for many students—an absolute majority—the credential of a college degree is backed by very little in the way of improved skills, worthwhile knowledge, estimable development of character, or commendable habits.

Bubbles are economic phenomena and the “higher-education bubble” can be concisely phrased in economic terms. In a forthcoming issue of the Academic Questions (the National Association of Scholars’ quarterly journal) Richard Vedder and his colleague Andrew Gillen at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity write that “the defining characteristic of a bubble is unsustainable growth,” and when it comes to higher education there are two such trends: college costs and enrollments. Vedder’s tireless tracking of the empirical data in his Innovations posts and elsewhere give us a gauge of how much the college degree has been overvalued and oversold in the last few decades.

But while a bubble is an economic phenomenon it is not only an economic phenomenon. It also has psychological and sociological dimensions. Higher education depends to an extraordinary degree on trust. Students, their parents, and the broader public have to believe that what takes place in a college education is intrinsically valuable. When the evidence mounts, as it has, that many students don’t carry all that much away from their formal studies, we can turn to other rationalizations. The social networking among students offers a benefit; college is also a place to mature intellectually though informal learning; the opportunities for internships and study abroad make a difference, and so on. If all else fails, we observe that, no matter what, the college degree is still an indispensable credential for good jobs and graduate school.

These are (to change the metaphor) sandbags heaved onto the levy: They work to an extent but the river is still rising. Richard Vedder’s Innovations essay, “The Decline of American Public Universities,” captures what is happening in one of the low-lying areas. Public universities are slipping badly in areas such as average pay for faculty members relative to private colleges and universities and academic reputation. Legislatures are proving less generous with subsidies than they once were. And private colleges and universities have learned how to skim off the best students, further depressing the reputations of the public institutions and tempting them to race to the bottom of the applicant pool to fill their classes. The state universities, by and large, have elected to compete in foolish ways: sports, entertainment, and “student services” (e.g. bureaucracy) have gotten in the way of education. And if Vedder is right, federal financial aid has smoothed the way for private colleges and universities to gain ground at public institutions’ expense.

To be clear, those of us who write about the higher-education bubble do not limit the bubble to public colleges and universities. The vulnerability extends to many kinds of institutions, especially small second-tier private colleges. But the public university systems are leading the way because the gap between what they pretend to be and what they actually are is large and conspicuous.

Weigh this against the recent events Wisconsin. Though there is definitely a cord of public sympathy with teachers that extends to the faculty of public colleges and universities, it is frayed. A large portion of the public looks on the faculty as rent-seekers who are far more interested in preserving their own perquisites than they are in educating their students.

As with Wisconsin, so with much of the country, including California, where today’s fizzled protest first took shape. Demanding “substantially more public investment” at this moment sounds so out of touch with the political, social, and economic reality, it is hard to see what the organizers of this protest had in mind. Of course, they planned it before Wisconsin offered its hard lessons for the public-sector unions. But not before the avalanche of other evidence of the public’s declining confidence in higher education.

What Really Ails Higher Ed?

I am not opposed to protest. I do it myself. But it is important to protest the right things. Protesting the public’s growing doubts about higher education isn’t a very winning strategy. That’s because those doubts, though sometimes overstated, are grounded on the public’s perception of real problems.

This column represents the end of six months during which I have been writing twice weekly on the Chronicle’s Innovations blog. The editors have graciously allowed me latitude in both the length of my posts and the topics. I have more than once veered off into matters that might not immediately appear to deal with the future of higher education. That’s because I have been making the case that American higher education is in the midst of squandering its prestige and its public legitimacy. This is a large theme and requires many forms of evidence. The systematic exclusion of political and religious conservatives from faculty appointments is one form of evidence. The abuse of academic freedom by turning it into a license to propagandize students is another form of evidence. The vulgarization of the curriculum and the deliberate coarsening of the tastes of students is yet another. And so is too the attempt to demonize the competition coming from for-profit institutions; the mistreatment of faculty members and students who decline to march lock-step with the prevailing campus orthodoxies; the promulgation of “reforms” that turn out to be efforts to lock in place the ideological preferences of the academic left; and the stunning lack of curiosity about matters that the academic left has decided by some mysterious act of collective will are not open to discussion.

American higher education prides itself on its intellectual breadth and diversity and seldom tires of asserting it wants more of both. That is indeed the second of the Guiding Principles for today’s “Class Action” protest: “The curriculum for a quality 21st-century higher education must be broad and diverse.” But the breadth and diversity is largely an illusion. We have “breadth” in the form of an enormous number of superficially specialized courses that do not cohere into any meaningful curriculum, but dance around in a loose arrangement of easygoing distribution requirements. The idea of prerequisites is in steep decline outside the hard sciences and mathematics, and even more so the idea of a genuinely orderly sequence of courses leading from basic to advanced understanding of liberal-arts subjects. As for “diversity,” nearly everyone recognizes this means a curriculum that panders to identity group interests and has nothing to do with fair-minded representation of the diversity of ideas.

One of the real pleasures of writing these columns for the Chronicle has been to watch the scrolling out of the comments from Chronicle readers. (Readers who come to the columns through reprints, I fear, miss this component.) From the start I have been graced with respondents who were in high dudgeon that the Chronicle even allowed me space to say things that offended against their pieties. I grew accustomed to a handful of respondents who, no matter what I wrote about, found it of crucial importance to inform other readers to beware that I possess unwholesome opinions on a great variety of topics.  Whenever I was momentarily without an example of the raging self-regard and defensiveness of the guardians of the academic status quo, a Chronicle commenter—or two, three, or ten—would rush to repair the deficiency.

The lack of self-awareness in these comments I take as a kind of collective testimony that American higher education is wrapped securely in its ideological complacency. Of course, those kinds of comments are not the only ones. In many others, I hear faculty members gripped with apprehension about the situation we have brought on ourselves.

I would not want to call that situation a crisis. It is too slow-moving and ponderous. Legitimacy is leaking out of the American university like air from a slow leak in a tire. Some can drive on a bad tire for quite a while without noticing. But others have indeed begun to notice. This is my contribution to the April 13 celebration.

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