The peonization of Higher Education | The Triangle

The peonization of Higher Education

Why should anybody not be able to have the college education I got? I spent four years getting my bachelor’s degree, followed by eight earning my master’s and doctor’s degrees. I never paid a penny of tuition, or borrowed a penny, either. My undergraduate tuition, at Queens College of the City University of New York, was paid in full by New York State. In addition, I had a scholarship that paid my other educational expenses. I attended two graduate schools, Brown University and Washington University in St. Louis. I had a full scholarship at Brown, and a teaching assistantship at Washington. Tuition was fully paid at both institutions. After I completed my residence at Washington, I received a scholarship that enabled me to research my doctoral dissertation for a year in London. After my classes finished, I was able to support myself while completing my doctoral dissertation on a project at Yale and as a lecturer at Queens College. I did not live rich, but I paid my bills and got to visit a dozen or so countries — I figured a European historian should know the terrain a bit. After 12 years, I owed friends and mentors a great deal, but not a red cent to anyone.

The world has changed since then. College debt is now the largest single source of private debt anywhere in America, even exceeding the medical debt that still annually bankrupts hundreds of thousands. Students carry loans that burden them for years, if not decades, pauperizing themselves and their families. Some, even with loans, work two and three jobs just to keep their heads above water. Education is now a form of indentured servitude.

The vast majority of student debt is owned by the federal government, at interest rates that compete favorably with your local loan-shark. Higher education used to be an investment in culture, citizenship and professional training. Now it is a punitive extraction of labor as the price of entering a workforce that, for most, demands more for less.

No, not every public university was tuition-free when I went to school, but some of the best were (New York, California), and all were far cheaper than today’s. As states’ support for public education decreased, the federal government propped up the techno-university system by compounded taxation that has resulted, in effect, to a modern serfdom.

Why can’t students get the education I got, and that most developed countries give? There is not a single defensible reason for it. Why can’t the federal government forgive student debt? Because those trillions need to go to corporations and the obscenely wealthy, so they can pay few if any taxes at all. It is a system alright, or a shakedown. What it is not is a society devoted to the common welfare, the coming generation, or anything remotely approaching what was once imagined as a democracy.

Faculty are not in better shape than they used to be, either. They, too, work harder for less, and with less security than they have had in nearly a century. There are many reasons for this, also none of them justified. The crucial issue here is the decline — not to say evaporation — of tenure, the system by which faculty can, after showing sufficient competence (now upgraded, by administrators who seldom show any of it themselves, to “excellence”) over a span of time to achieve ongoing employment at one’s institution until retirement. Job security is, of course, a crucial issue here, both for the individual faculty member and for the faculty as a whole. Faculty continuity is critical to the maintenance and promotion of academic standards, to freedom of expression without fear of reprisal, and to what is called shared governance — the co-equal participation of the faculty in the mission and development of the institution and the deployment of its resources. No university worthy of the name can properly conduct itself without a tenured faculty.

That makes a robust discussion of tenure, or what is left of it, all the more urgent. It has become urgent enough even to be noticed by The Chronicle of Higher Education, usually a mouthpiece of administrations and boards of trustees, which largely devoted its April 16 issue to the subject. Most of what was written was rubbish, but the article by William Deresiewicz, who does often think out of the box, struck me as of some interest. Deresiewicz thinks the best way of retaining tenure, or what’s left of it, is to divide the professoriate into two distinct groups: research and teaching faculty. Each group would have its own standards for achieving tenure, but neither would interact with the other. Research faculty would devote their time exclusively to producing scholarship (Deresiewicz says nothing about who would conduct graduate education, that is, education devoted to producing the next generation of scholars). Such faculty, he asserts, typically have no interest in teaching, or aptitude for it: “There is no shortage of brilliant scholars and scientists,” he says, “who are utterly incompetent as teachers, and utterly indifferent to their incompetence.” On the other hand, many academics who are gifted teachers — some of them scholars retired from active research — are treated as second-class citizens, and if hired as so-called teaching faculty have no opportunity for tenure. Deresiewicz thinks it would be wise to recognize that teaching and scholarship are separate skills but of equal value in the life of the university, and so should have comparable recognition and reward.

Extending tenure to teaching faculty would help keep it alive for all, but Deresiewicz also wants us to keep what he perceives to be another reality in mind: that the idea of shared governance in a university system that is increasingly corporatized is simply an illusion. Trustees and administrators have always run the joint, and it will help faculty to recognize that it will only be more so in a competitive and commercialized academic marketplace. For faculty to do so will not only save them a lot of time and frustration in a game utterly stacked against them, but in shedding the pretense of managerial responsibility they will be able to unionize, preferably on a national level, and thus exercise the only real power they might have, namely the government-recognized right to negotiate fair and decent working conditions — tenure among them.

Deresiewicz is both right and wrong about these things. There are faculty more suited to teaching than research and vice versa, but plenty who can do both well, and good reasons for exercising both skills: a formal division between teachers and scholars might benefit a few, but would I think impoverish the university as a whole. In any case, that division, which as a matter of practice has been made by administrators, has had nothing to do with actual aptitude but has been simply a means of creating a second-class body of faculty with reduced salaries and benefits and without job security.

Deresiewicz is right that shared governance in the present academic world is a joke and that unionization may be the only way for faculty to protect academic freedom, not to mention more mundane interests. But to surrender the idea of governance is to give up on the soul of higher learning, and that would be as profound a blow to society itself as I can imagine. Yes, academics must unite collectively on some level if they are to make a stand for the values they should represent. But they should not give up the ship simply to have a more comfortable berth in the lower quarters.