May 4, 2012

On Academic Crisis

Filed under: university,writing — jrice @ 11:07 am

I’ll interrupt my Eating with Children posts (and desire to publish a non-academic book) with some thoughts on the continuing crisis in the university. I’m doing so because I’ve been with this crisis previously (Missouri) and I’m seeing it follow us to our current place of employment (Kentucky).

On the one hand, we are “surprised” that the age of the subsidy has ended. We are surprised even thought state funding for higher education has been on a downward spiral for some time. We are also surprised even though the housing/economic crisis, which has greatly affected the current incarnation of the university crisis, happened years ago. As sales, property, and capital gains taxes dried up, universities have known that state resource shortfalls from these loses would trickle down (people don’t vote politicians out of office for cutting higher education funding). And the universities who benefited from stimulus money knew that such funds were limited and would eventually be gone.

So, how have such universities prepared?  On the surface, to someone like myself not actively involved in upper administration, not very well. We have come up with few responses to a crisis that has been obviously present for some time. Either “it can’t happen here” or half baked schemes or something else has contributed to this lack of response. When we do come up with a response, it is fairly cliche and not very helpful.

One such response is the myth of online teaching. The belief is that if we offer a bunch of online courses in the summer, we will get massive enrollments, and such enrollments will provide the needed revenue. That has been true for some schools. But for big R1 schools with no ethos in this market nor experience in what to offer, how to offer,  and what to offer to whom, the anticipated windfall never occurs. School X, who has spent years building an online audience and reputation, is doing well. A school like Kentucky or Missouri, completely out of the loop for years,  is not.

Related, there is the myth that tons of new customers are sitting idly by waiting for us. What often happens, however, is that with online education at a school such as the one I work for, you get the same students you already have. You aren’t increasing revenue as much as shifting it from fall or spring to summer. We are also assuming that X amount of expendable income is waiting for us to grab it. Students, already taxed heavily for their education with tuition, fees, course adopted books, and such, don’t necessarily have additional dollars for summer education. In the summer, many go to work.

We have many other cliche or commonplace schemes:

  • Consulting. Like a Doonesbury cartoon, we imagine our humanities skills as worth hiring out for consultation. Not that various industries, too, have economic concerns in the current market and are not all looking to drop five figures on someone lecturing how to write a proposal, but that we assume such instruction is in high demand as is.
  • Summer camps/continuing education. Many people want continuing education. But who is, at this point in time, paying on a large scale? Will public schools pay for their teachers? Aren’t they suffering from cuts as well? Kids? Do they want to spend summer studying humanities based topics? Maybe. But for how much? Can one run a big time program (not to mention, develop it and build it throughout the year) in order to support such a program and make a profit?

Finally, to generate money, you need capital to invest. To run a summer program (assuming it will be profitable), you need money to develop it and promote it throughout the year.  To build and support online courses, you need to maintain the proper infrastructure. To attract and retain students (whose tuition is still a major bread winner), you need to attract and support faculty. When universities ask their faculty to “get creative” in generating new revenue, they don’t:

  • Offer capital to do so
  • Offer appropriate training to do so

However valuable our PhDs in the humanities are, they didn’t come up with much expertise in being an entrepreneur.  My knowing where to start, without assistance, is like asking me to be in control of my building’s plumbing. I know nothing about plumbing, and I’m likely to make a bigger mess than I started with.

And that is what we see right now. We are more likely to make a bigger mess with hodge-podge everyone for his/herself mentality than a coordinated effort with specific goals in mind. I already see it: one department offers 14 online courses in the same subject my department offers 4. Historically, only a few courses make in summer. Now, 18 courses can fail as students are distributed thin. We cannibalize each other in an atmosphere of panic and anarchy.

All is not hopeless, of course, But all is not carefully thought out either. We are supposedly the experts at the mythic notion of “critical thinking.” Whatever that may be, it’s time to start enacting it.  No doubt painful decisions will be made. But creative ones, too, can be made when we abandon tradition or the commonplace in favor of other types of thinking. What is that thinking? I am one person. I don’t claim that all knowledge is on to me. But in a faculty of 800- 1,000 or so, we would think that creativity and critical thought could occur. Of course, the lack of such thought got us into this mess in the first place, but that is another matter.

Maybe more later. I wrote this quickly, so I’m sure I’ve left out a lot of ideas I’ve had lately.

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