Inhabitants of the Ivory Tower

A conversation about issues in higher education

Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Truck Farmers of Higher Education

I have alluded to this before in the post, The Only Commodity People are Willing to Pay For And Not Get, but I think it's a little more descriptive to consider the idea of Professor as Academic Truck Farmer.

A truck farmer, for those who are not familiar with the term, is generally a produce farmer
who markets his produce directly from the back of a truck along the roadside where passers by may stop to purchase his produce. In this way he bypasses middlemen and the retail grocer who add their profit margin to the prices they pay the farmer. A truck farmer can theoretically make more money by marketing directly from his roadside perch while giving the consumer a price break.

Well, in a sense, the same thing is done in higher education where institutions send out their professors to offer the product (i.e., classes) in close proximity to customers (i.e., students). This usually takes the form of distance education through online learning, compressed video, or direct instruction where the professor carts his weary butt off to some remote site to teach a class in a compressed time frame, nights or weekends to a (usually) small group of students in proximity to where they live -- a type of roadside academics.

What makes this different from truck farming is that it is a form of prostitution -- we function as the whores for the institutions pimping our services. Whereas in earlier times distance education was an honest attempt to be of services to remotely situated constituents, distance education is now a true oxymoron -- a lot of distance between professor and student and not much education. The motivation has shifted from service to corporate greed and profit.

Some argue that this is a natural and logical evolutionary stage in higher education, adapting to a climate of intense competition. It is true that competition has intensified with institutions in the same region doing everything they can to steal students from one another, almost universally at the expense of quality. Hell, there isn't even much pretense that what we offer is worth having. There is even a private, church-affilliated institution in my service region that is offering a doctorate, yet they don't have even one damn person on faculty with a terminal degree.

I really don't ascribe to conspiracy theories, but this is how it works:

1. The institution loses enrollment, so institutional leaders build resumes by building empires; we are no longer a university, we are a university system. We now have presidents and vice presidents, but also chancellors and vice chancellors. We also have more students when the satellite campuses are counted, even though they are taught by pretty much the same faculty with exponentially bigger teaching loads;

2. State departments of higher education that once controlled for needless duplication, distribution of resources, and capital expenditures have been rendered ineffective by intense legislative lobbying from campus leaders who want that empire. And they go along with it;

3. Accrediting bodies will accredit almost any institution or program, even though the institutions and programs violate the standards the accrediting bodies once had. They want to keep their memberships;

4. Students demand that courses be offered and degrees conferred without any expectation that they have to do anything. When their desires aren't met or faculty try to maintain standards, they complain to their legislative representatives who complain to campus administrators who beat up on faculty, manipulate the reward system, unilaterally alter transcripts, and admit students with IQs below freezing;

5. Young faculty buy into the role of truck farmer because they think the new face of higher education is the way higher education is supposed to be and they want to keep their jobs. Older faculty who once had a reasonably strong grip on such matters as curriculum, teaching loads and advancement through the ranks have been rendered irrelevant by power grabs from the plantation owners, i. e., presidents and boards of trustees. Faculty roll over and play dead, engage in futile battles, or just give up. Faculty loyalty has shifted from loyalty to the institution to loyalty to the professions, to no loyalty at all -- even to good teaching.

It may not be a conspiracy, but it sure seems to be better-than-chance collusion. And so, we are truck farmers.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Reflections on death at the university

A university is like a small community within a community. The inhabitants are a separate but intimately connected part of us, within our little towns and large cities, and often they are us. They may lead two lives, one at home in the larger community with their mothers and brothers, fathers and sisters, aunts and uncles, cousins and friends... the other at the academy where they gather to be enlightened and stimulated by the power of minds and the creative energy of their souls. Some even live there, in a home away from home, or in the only home they have ever known, having no other family, other than the one they make at university. For them, special times or holidays such as Ramadan, Eid, Chanuka and Christmas are lonely and difficult, and some end their lives because these times are unbearably sad for them.

Sometimes a university becomes a place for tragedy that lasts, and lasts, in the minds and hearts of those who were there. In Texas, a young man climbs a tower to look down on fellow students making their way to classes... and kills as many as he can with his rifle. Nobody knows why. In Iowa, and Berkeley, California, doctoral students murder their professors, and themselves, for reasons that can only be imagined. In a time long passed, students gathered by the thousands on campuses, and were beaten, maimed and imprisoned for protesting a war that should never have been. At Kent State University, Ohio, nearly 40 years ago, four students were murdered and numerous others wounded by the national guard troops that were sent to... what?? Protect them from themselves?? Protect society and the institution from members of the family who were just trying to say to their government, "you are wrong." ??

But the most tragic, most horrendous, most senseless, most unforgivable, happened in Baghdad, Iraq a few days ago at a university that is over 800 years old. Over eighty students were murdered, and many more badly wounded, by car bombers and suicide bombers whose sick, twisted, perverted minds reside at the lowest levels of animal life. The victims were mostly girls, young women whose wombs carried the possibility of forging a brilliant future for a wonderful country of courageous people struggling to find their way through terrible chaos. I don't have enough tears in my old eyes to quell the anger and sadness over what has fallen on them... and us.

When it comes to unspeakable acts against humanity, a university should be sacred ground where inhabitants are protected from such craven cowards. But what makes this event even worse - if that is possible - is that it appears to be part of the sectarian exchange of death between Sunni and Shiia. This is happening where thousands of college students have a Shiia mother and a Sunni father, or the other way around, at a university where it is natural that hearts and minds should reach across divides. They came from families whose neighbors and best friends include Christians and Kurds and Turkmen, where Muslims exchange Christmas gifts with their Christian friends.

I am smart and well educated, but I do not understand. Words fail.