Staying Enthusiastic As Higher Education Sickens

I know. My post’s title is morbid, especially coming on the heels of my previous post about the passing of my director and mentor. He would have appreciated the irony. During what would result in Dr. Wesler’s last semester teaching Kit co-taught a course with the dean of the College of Humanities and Fine Arts entitled, “The Archaeology of Death.” Kit began the semester strong in spite of losing a kidney and his bladder. Some class periods were handled by the dean while Kit was in Nashville undergoing chemo and radiation. As the semester progressed so did his cancer, this robust enthusiastic archaeologist who immersed himself in bones and dirt like a kid to ice cream was using a walker to move between his office and his Archaeology of Death class. Kit was literally taking care of business until the moment of his death.

Finding motivation to write, the desire, is like venturing out on a bitterly cold ice-covered January morning, doddering and tottering through snow and ice, wondering when your feet will lose their will and slide away, and then deciding, to hell with this and you go back inside and watch Netflix with the dogs and nap. There are good things out there, beyond the white snow and ice-covered streets, and the notion settles to go do something productive.

Is Higher Education really ill? Is it really sickening? Yes, I really do believe in some regions, in some states, Higher Education is certainly not feeling well. Illinois is having true problems. All of Illinois public universities could literally lock their doors at some point this spring and turn students away. From this article from NWITimes.com {link} Illinois Republicans are seeking to fund universities at 80% of FY2015 levels. I read that as a 20% budget cut. Budgets for community colleges would be funded at 90% of FY2015. Eastern Illinois University is owed $49M and is looking to lay people off {link}. Western Illinois University could layoff 42 people for the remainder of the academic year due to $7.5M owed to the school by the state {link}. In the Illinois governor’s budget to the Illinois General Assembly, SIU‘s budget was cut 30% {link}.

From a sense of sustenance, yes, Higher Education is being starved. In an atmosphere of scarcity people begin to turn on their own neighbors, their own institution, on their own administrators, on their own colleagues. Staying enthusiastic when Republicans attack education is rough.

Democrats are not attacking education. Maybe one or two misguided Democrats are, but by-and-large Democrats recognize the value education brings to society. Republicans, inexplicably, turn on the hand that has fed them, feeds them, actually, and seek to undermine the strongest of economic fabrics the United States offers. I was raised by educated Republicans. Hell, I realized last year I’m a registered Republican in my county of residence. When I registered in the 1980’s as a Republican I saw eye-to-eye with their ideology. Today, I can barely look a Republican in the eye. Many are educated, have 4-year degrees, Master’s Degrees, and Ph.Ds yet vote against the very institutions responsible for their education. It’s like slapping your mother in the face after she worked hard to raise you all those years.

I don’t want to turn this into an extended castigation of Republicans. Maybe I’ll save diatribe for later. In Kentucky, the Democrats in their stupefying apathy stayed home from the gubernatorial election last fall and allowed a Tea Party darling, Matt Bevin, to be elected as the 2nd Republican governor of Kentucky in forty years. Bevin has wasted no time in setting the clock back for Kentucky residents, mandating the demolition of Kentucky’s health care exchange, revoking voters rights of felons, and now is demanding a 9% across the board cut in Higher Education in Kentucky {Chicago Tribune}.

We are not touching things that touch the people of Kentucky,” Bevin had told reporters during a preview of his speech to a joint session of the state legislature. The address was televised statewide Tuesday [1-26-2015] night.

Yet, Bevin charges forward to eliminate Kynect and his new budget proposal cuts 4.5% from higher education in Kentucky for FY16-17. From my perspective, I see 18 students every Tuesday and Thursday morning, have a few dozen in my online classes, see several dozen of students walking the halls of my building, hundreds of students walking across campus, and I’m pretty sure budget cuts are touching those people, those students. So, bullshit, Matt Bevin. I call bullshit on your empty, thoughtless rhetoric and your short-sighted goals which will manifest in long-term economic damage to Kentucky.

No doubt colleges and universities suffer from budget bloat to some extent and make ridiculous purchasing choices. I have been employed in higher education since 1996 and while I have seen my share of bizarre budgeting choices at my university I know many people at other institutions have seen similar crazy budgeting choices. I know for a fact universities need to be better stewards of public money. If you’re shaking your head in agreement I also have to add a corollary comment. State governing bodies of public higher education tend to be staffed by bureaucrats who have little experience in higher education with the exception these board members tend to have college degrees, e.g. law degrees. The these boards, like the Council on Post-secondary Education (CPE) in Kentucky mandate policies which are not reality-based. In the mid-2000’s, our CPE promoted a 20-b-y20 program; 20% growth in enrollment for each public school by 2020. If anyone had actually bothered to examine Kentucky demographics they would have realized this goal was impossible since high school enrollment and graduation rates were expected to decline. The mandate also included a clause that enrollment gains could not factor in out-of-state students, meaning enrollment growth had to come from Kentucky’s population for the growth to count. Governing higher education bodies then implement nonsense unrealistic policies which yet have essentially the force of law.

My point in this example is to provide anecdotal evidence illustrating universities sometimes have onerous burdens placed upon them by governing bodies which create financial waste. To grow by 20% requires marketing, branding, advertising, recruitment, travel, visiting schools, attending conferences, and putting representatives of the university wherever potential students might be. People get hired; not faculty by the way. Communication officers, retention officers, marketing personnel, recruitment staff, professional lobbyists. Many of these people are not familiar with the university, not graduates nor even current students, who have no idea what programs are being taught, who cannot speak intelligently about good programs, and couldn’t tell you precisely what building homes a department.

Recently, Douglas Anderson in the Chronicle of Higher Education contributed an excellent essay highlighting better than myself. Here is one of the more poignant comments from Anderson:

the actual problems in educating our young people and older students have deepened, while the number of people hired — not to teach but to hold meetings to solve problems — has increased significantly. Every new problem creates a new job for an administrative fixer.” (“Clear the Way for More Good Teachers.” CHE. January 3rd, 2016)

I encourage everyone to read Douglas’ comments and concerns, and I agree with his solution. In the early 2000s, my university put faculty on the road (“Road Scholars”) to visit local middle and high schools in our service region. Over time, the university restricted travel funds for helping faculty travel yet they hired full-time staff who they then put on the road to visit schools. I would ask, Who is better to talk about Earth Science, Engineering, or Computer Science degree programs? A recruiter with a degree in marketing? Or, the faculty member who actually teaches the course and knows the degree program inside and out? If the university is paying for three positions at $30,000 per position, plus insurance and benefits, the total expense of those three people is well over $100,000. I’m curious; were our travel expenses of faculty visits to schools close to this cost? What is the value of putting a faculty person in a high school classroom versus someone hired to display a Powerpoint slideshow and array pamphlets attractively on a table?

Higher Education really does need to engage in some serious introspection and evaluation. Universities have been operating under a model 400+ years old. The tenure model is ridiculous, ineffective at best and destructive, at worst. As I pointed out above, tenure evaluations should include in-class observations by unbiased faculty peers and opportunities for professional staff to include input. Otherwise, the tenure evaluation process is fundamentally flawed. One proposal I have follows this format: a new faculty hire is given yearly contract for the first 3-4 years. The probationary time period gives everyone a chance to evaluate each other with work towards tenure. At the end of the 4th year, probationary tenure can be applied for. If successful, the candidate is given a 2-, 3-, or 4-yr contract (I’m open to negotiating), at the expiration of which the faculty person can be awarded full tenure. Just an idea.

I’ve written about this before but universities need to look inside themselves to find help for problems and to hunt down inefficiencies. Universities are full of people who are trained and educated to do precisely this, yet too many universities seek outside consultants for advice. I know why this is; it’s easier to blame a consultant for job loss, easier to shift blame, or shirk responsibility onto some 3rd party actor. People have fragile egos. We have friends we’ve known for years whose position was once a hot-seat of productivity and now is barely occupied or needed as the environment has changed over two decades.

Look, we are trying to effectively teach, conduct good research, and chief among all, educate our future peers and move our society forward by providing sound education to our population. This is nothing personal but you have a choice: either work to be progressive in your field and teaching, or seek employment elsewhere.”

Higher Education cannot sit and rest on laurels while the private sector evolves faster than MRSA, tuberculosis, or Ebola. Higher Education needs to constantly be in a process of self-evaluation, self-modulation, frequently reflective, perpetually solution-seeking, while using resources throughout the institution to improve the institution. Faculty and staff need to be both recognized for their potential to serve and solve problems and also recognize adaptation is necessary for Higher Education to remain healthy and vital. Higher Education is the “research and development” branch of our United States society, the source of our intellectual capacity, and fundamental fabric to our continued economic well-being. Starving Higher Education weakens our economic fabric and nothing good can come from budget cuts.

PAX

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