Broken promises in higher education
A good department chair is hard to find. Mine makes more than twice the average professor’s salary here. He teaches one course a semester. Dumps his busy work on staff. Scrolls Instagram during meetings. He’s in Japan right now. Or Australia. Honestly, I can’t remember.
Our chair only aspires to be like our president, who owns three luxury vehicles and spends every weekend at some country club, or on the slopes, or at a wine tasting.
Lawmakers in our state have sowed distrust of universities into the public, but for all the wrong reasons. They assume we, the faculty, make too much money. That we don’t teach marketable skills. That we’re lazy. Or that we’re harboring illegal immigrants.
Politicians never complain about the money our campus spends on landscaping, though. Or the hundreds of thousands we’re pouring into a football team that draws anemic crowds and pretty much always loses. They say nothing about my provost’s Bentley.
Our administrators could only do a worse job if they showed up drunk, or snorted cocaine through fun straws before budget meetings. For all I know, they do. But they wear suits from Brooks Brothers. So you can’t tell. The right blazer can mask a lot of incompetence.
Meanwhile, our students are literally starving. They don’t make enough money to buy groceries, or pay rent. Our financial aid office never deposits their loans on time, so the registrar drops them from all their classes at the last minute. We professors have to fill out extra paperwork and collect five or six signatures to get them re-admitted.
But we aren’t thanked for the extra effort. Last week, one of my bosses emailed the faculty and asked us to stop re-admitting students past the enrollment deadlines. Because it supposedly encourages a lack of responsibility, and makes more work for everyone.
The public thinks arts and humanities are worthless. But my department has a high graduation and job placement rate. We actually teach skills to our English majors — like building websites, writing PR materials, and drafting manuals for companies. And we also show them how to appreciate Shakespeare, if that still matters.
You’d think our upper administration would love us. But when we ask for more faculty lines, they tell us we don’t have enough majors. We don’t offer enough courses. We don’t produce enough student-contact hours.
We tell our deans we can’t offer more classes without more teachers. And if we can’t offer more classes, we can’t serve more majors. In turn, they plug their fingers in their ears and sing la la la can’t hear you. They’ve been taking pages out of the Trump playbook.
You’ll find trust in short supply on college campuses these days. Universities say they want students. In truth, they want tuition money and funding. Our fearless leaders hardly ever make conversation with the students they claim to care about. They work on the top floor of a building far removed from classrooms. To them, students are just numbers.
And so are teachers. My university actually computes my value to them every year. A single number represents how many classes I teach, how many articles I publish, how many conferences I attend, and finally my course evaluation averages. The number doesn’t even make sense. I think it’s 14.6. I’m told that’s above average. Yay, me.
Tenure means something entirely different, these days. Every university has their own guidelines and criteria. They’re supposed to write those down, but many don’t. They offer “workshops” for us untenured faculty, but the truth is you can get turned down for reasons that have nothing to do with your publications, teaching record, or accomplishments. So for all its fanfare about fairness and justice, universities aren’t that different from any other job where you can get canned for pissing off the wrong person.
It would be nice if universities made their administrators actually teach. That might help to hold them accountable. It’s hard to keep gassing up your Bentley if you actually have to talk with students who can’t even afford a computer to type their papers on.
My university doesn’t trust me much, either. They want me to attend conferences, but they won’t pay for them unless I fill out three different forms and get signatures from five people. Even then, they don’t always reimburse me for expenses like hotels.
The finance office has their reasons. Every college in America has caught a handful of professors cheating on their conference trips, claiming they went to a conference when instead they went sightseeing. Some office staff have even been fired for embezzling money.
Those people were punished. But as a result, everyone else gets treated like a potential criminal now.
I’m one of the lucky few who actually has travel funding — at least in theory. My friends at other schools have lost a third, or even half their travel budgets over the last year. They’re still expected to present at conferences. They just have to pay for them out of pocket.
Administration lies to us all the time. At faculty senate, they declare a fiscal emergency. When we ask them to invest in classroom computers and projectors, they yell, “We’re broke!” A week later, they renovate their own offices and announce plans to build a health spa on campus. Sorry, faculty have to pay for their memberships, though.
It’s just odd how the typical university always seems to find money for some things. But not others.
My university also jumped on the “civility” band wagon last year, adding clauses into their faculty handbooks and policies to strip away academic freedom. Our board of trustees are trying their best to sneak in language that gives them the power to fire any professor — tenured or not — for speaking up about pretty much anything.
Basically, they want to put a muzzle on teachers. They know we like to promote social issues and advocate for marginalized people. We also have a few things to say about net neutrality.
Higher education is riddled with mistrust. Administrations at many colleges don’t listen to or believe in their faculty. They talk about assessment and accountability, and ask us to write reports they never read. Meanwhile, they cook up alternative facts to promote their own agendas. Deans and chancellors tell us they believe in tenure and faculty rights, but they turn a blind eye to legislation that seeks to undermine us.
Half the country regards professors with deep suspicion. They think all we want to do is convert every teen we meet into a walking communist manifesto. Last year, lawmakers in Iowa considered a bill that would make universities document professors’ political affiliation. Subtext — too many professors are snowlakes.
Most people have no idea just how conservative most colleges are, though. Sure, you can talk about Judith Butler and Michel Foucault all day here. But you can’t actually do anything they suggest. A university is a business. It sells the idea of education.
But the President also seems to think I should carry a gun.
I’ve spent my entire adult life working in higher education, and I have no idea how to fix the whole thing. But I know where we can start:
First, stop hiring career administrators. Everyone who works at a university should teach at least one course. Obviously, I’m not talking about staff — you know, office managers, police, and janitors.
But since we’re here, pay them more. You can’t run a university without those basic services. So quit pretending they’re disposable labor.
Cut administrative salaries. There’s no reason for a dean or provost to make two hundred grand when adjuncts and TAs can barely afford rent.
Restore the funding that we’ve lost over the last decade. Some universities were practically gutted during the recession. We made up the money through other means — like raising tuition, canceling faculty lines, cutting programs, boosting class sizes, and increasing everyone’s workload. At some point, you can’t keep doing more with less.
Either pay adjuncts more, or give them full-time jobs with benefits. When you pay someone the equivalent of eight dollars an hour, you don’t inspire professionalism. You inspire mediocrity.
I’ve worked as an adjunct, and I can assure you that when push came to shove, I devoted more time to research than meeting with students. It was the only way for me to survive.
Hire more professors of practice. A steep hierarchy exists at most schools. Full-time professors earn higher salaries for publishing more articles and winning bigger grants. Instructors and lecturers are paid less, and they have to teach more. Sometimes four and five courses a semester.
I’ve been down that road, too. It’s a helluva lot more work to teach four courses and also try to publish a little. And yet these non-tenure track folks earn a fraction of the salary.
A professor of practice, in theory, makes the same salary and goes through the same promotion and tenure process. They’re just evaluated more for their teaching and service than their original research. That sounds fair to me. Some people enjoy teaching more than research, others vice versa. Universities should create opportunities for both. Some colleges already do this, and I think we should see more of it.
Stop jerking students around on tuition and bills. Process their financial aid on time, and quit dropping them from their classes the minute they miss a payment. It does nothing but breed resentment.
Doing this could restore some faith in the system. Bottom line, we need to start believing in faculty over administrators.
My opinion isn’t special. You can pull almost any professor aside, and they’ll tell you the same things I just did. The problem is that nobody listens to us. Because we don’t drive Bentleys, or shop at Brooks Brothers.
There’s a reason I write under a pseudonym. If I were smart, I’d just shut up and keep writing dry prose about obscure topics in small journals. But I tell my students that they have a voice. That they can change the world by reading and writing. I’ve got to walk the walk. If I don’t, I’m not keeping my promise. I can’t teach young adults to write stuff that matters, you know, if I don’t actually practice that myself. Anyway, this is just my humble opinion. Maybe I‘m as clueless as everyone else.