Monday, June 29, 2015

Race, Terror, and Tenure - On Collective Outrage

by Antar Tichavakunda, PhD student, University of Southern California Pullias Center for Higher Education

There’s been a lot of talk, criticism, and collective outrage about the decision to weaken tenure and shared governance at University of Wisconsin at Madison. The anger is well founded.  Scholars from institutions across the nation and across disciplines expressed their opinions and often, harsh criticism of the decision. The widespread response is not a surprise; it affects the majority of scholars and higher education, as we know it. It’s in our nature to voice our opinions on events, decisions, and policies that impact us.

Around the same time, in early June, I went on a tweeting rampage after a Texas cop pointed a gun at unarmed black partygoers and brutalized a bikini-clad girl. Of course Twitter provides an avenue to voice opinions and gauge how other people feel about an event.  A day later, I checked around the #edchat hashtags and perused different academics’ Twitter profiles to see their thoughts. Surely education scholars would want to decry police brutality.  I was happy to see that some scholars took a stand. Others however, with little more than a retweet concerning the recent brutality, were passionately critiquing the UW-Madison decision to weaken tenure.

I say this not to imply that scholars were wrongheaded to inveigh against the UW-Madison decisions.  I also do not think scholars should be mandated to tweet or broadcast their thoughts about every issue. I say this to pose a question—what is worth our outrage? I tweeted about the lopsided amount of tweets of scholars who seemed more concerned about tenure than police brutality against black children.  Someone responded to my tweet saying, “You’ll find that most of us advocate for more than tenure, at least I do.” I did not offer a response before because I did not have one.  After the racist terror attack in Charleston, SC however, I have the words.

Ironically, my words were birthed in the silence of others. Although many people took a stance, many scholars, who focus on education related issues, did not state their opinion on the matter. Audrey Watters, an education writer with a focus on education technology, tweeted, “#BlackLivesMatter and the silence of ed-tech should remind us of how ed-tech speaks with corpses in its mouth.”  The silence concerning police brutality and the Charleston Massacre in the #edchat hashtag was deafening. There is something insincere about tweeting about the best methods of blended learning when police are filmed brutalizing black teenagers. Education research is important. The lives of black students however, are more important.  Discrimination, images of police brutality, racist killings, and extrajudicial murders of black people have physical and psychological impacts.

Many people outside of the academy are outraged. Stewart Butterfield, CEO of Slack, rightly critiqued a Wall Street Journal article that claimed that institutionalized racism did not exist. Butterfield does not have an academic background, but as a human, was compelled to respond.  Some are calling for philosophers to be more engaged in public life. I’m calling for some scholars to do some soul searching. Tenure affects higher education as a whole. What’s happening to Black lives right now—the police brutality, the terrorist attacks, and the biased media coverage—affects more than higher education. The physical and symbolic violence on black lives are attacks on humanity as a whole.

As Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Scholars feel comfortable talking about and critiquing higher education policies because they all have a stake. You don’t need to have a focus on academic freedom to fight for it. In a like manner, you don’t need to have a focus in Black Studies to say Black Lives Matter. An egregious crime on humanity should elicit outrage—collective outrage. What good is our background in analytic thinking and research if it cannot be used to fight for humanity? Many scholars are outraged and have made it known.  If you cannot see how these attacks affect you, if you feel uncomfortable voicing your opinion, if you feel like this is out of your jurisdiction, then this blog is for you.  Your silence speaks volumes: "In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."

Bill Tierney, USC Pullias Center for Higher Education

I had lunch with a retired colleague today and we discussed a bunch of topics.  It’s been quite a week.  Millions of people get to keep their health insurance.  Millions of other people get to get married, or at least have it as a possibility.

As typical of older academics, I suppose, at some point our discussion turned to the diminishing numbers of tenured faculty and the changing conditions of academic work.  My friend wondered who younger faculty would have to speak with if the tenure ranks grow even thinner.

I mentioned that I knew what he was saying, but that throughout my academic life my graduate students always have been my closest colleagues.  I see them on a day to day basis; we’re all in the Pullias Center and we constantly bump into one another; I can go weeks, even months, not seeing a faculty member who is a good friend.

I’ve long said that I learn as much from my grad students as they do from me.  I also half-jokingly have said that I am a “full-service advisor.”  I don’t think advising is just about academic work, and over the years I’ve had an awful lot of conversations about an awful lot of non-academic topics in my office.  I hope I have been helpful.  I know I have learned a great deal.

However great a week it has been I have not been able to get the news about Charleston out of my head and heart.  I am not religious, at least in a church-going sense, but that he killed people in a church I found particularly unsettling, vicious, evil.

My conversation with Antar earlier this week, and then the blog he wrote, coupled with a similar conversation with my former advisee, (who is headed to UC-Riverside as a postdoc!)  Raquel Rall helped me think through what my responsibility is not to simply speak out on matters of education, but also on the tragedy that has occurred in Charleston.  We changed the Pullias Center’s website:

I don’t think I would have done that if I had not spoken with Antar and Raquel.  I know that what we do in the Center is aimed at equity, but the question I always ask myself is:  is it enough?  What more can I do?

Martin Luther King’s well-known statement that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” is what came to mind this morning when I heard the Supreme Court finally ratified gay marriage.   Like most gay people of a certain age I could never have imagined it when I first realized I was gay as a teenager.  But King’s statement makes it seems that the movement toward justice is inevitable and accretionary, step by step.  Perhaps it is.  But murders such as those in Charleston make justice seem not inevitable at all – unless we hear what Antar is saying in his blog, and act. 

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Summer Reading Series - Ryan Craig's College Disrupted

by Julia Colyar, Council of Ontario Universities

Too often these days, I start my mornings with a cup of coffee and a negative news story about universities. Yesterday it was a critique of paper topics at a humanities and social sciences conference. The journalist (Margaret Wente, “Adventures in Academia: The stuff of fiction,” The Globe and Mail, June 2, 2015) wondered what Northrop Frye might think of a paper entitled “Whiteness, Nihilism and Class in Grand Theft Auto V.” Ultimately, her assessment turns to the familiar topic of the payoff of university studies:

Not all humanities and social-science scholarship is this bad. But it’s no wonder that the aspirational children of new Canadians are flocking into business, science, pharmacy, accounting, and other practical studies that will pay off in a good career. They have no time for this rubbish. 

The rest of the article can be found here: No doubt Wente would point to a decline in enrollment in arts and humanities programs as evidence of “not having time for this rubbish.” Indeed, though enrollment in Ontario universities has climbed in recent years, enrollment in arts and humanities degree programs has decreased by about 5%. This “crisis in the humanities” has been a topic of interest across North America for a number of years.

I’m not sure the humanities are in crisis—I think it depends on who you ask and where she or he is located (institution, discipline)—but I do think the public discourse related to “practical studies” and “university studies” is troubling. Ryan Craig (2015), in his recent book College Disrupted, wonders: “Will degrees become as impractical and amusing as debutantes?” (p. 98). Craig is concerned about returns on investment, among other things. He argues that a university education is increasingly unaffordable and without clear knowledge and skills outcomes. Part of the high cost of university education, he argues, is that institutions have bundled too many non-education expenses into their budgets—expenses like campus buildings, dining facilities, athletics, research and a growing number of administrators. Academic content is, to some extent, also bundled. Craig notes that “the content bundle includes remedial course work, general education courses and advanced courses in the major” (p. 99). Taken together, content and functions are paid for by (too-high) tuition and fees. Unbundling is similar to shopping for music on itunes: a consumer can buy a song rather than the whole album. Craig believes an equivalent arrangement is not only a good idea for universities but an inevitable future.

Unbundling detaches “all the things universities have taken on that don’t relate to student outcomes” (p. 99). Unbundling will decrease costs for students (and institutions), improve outcomes, and better prepare graduates for jobs. As part of unbundling, Craig advocates for more online courses and programs, competency management platforms (which allow students to map expeditious pathways into their job choices), and double-click degrees (“a degree that is accompanied by a transcript that an employer can double-click on to learn a lot more about the course and the competencies the student has demonstrated” (p. 115). In sum, Craig argues, “colleges and universities need to prepare to satisfy students who are increasingly looking for proof of the return on their tuition investments, or how their programs connect to jobs and income” (p. 119).

There is a lot more in College Disrupted to think about. His early chapters—before turning to the unbundling part—include important points about costs to students and families, online teaching and learning opportunities, student debt, and the problem of graduation rates. Because I am interested in student access, and in particular access for students from low-income backgrounds, I read the first few chapters with great interest. It is certainly worth thinking about how increasing access to college has not necessarily happened in parallel with increasing graduation rates at US institutions.

However, unbundling, as Craig presents it, is built on the foundation of instrumentalism and an insistence on direct connections between degrees and jobs. Unbundling would rid a university education of “all the rubbish.” I wouldn’t argue against degrees as stepping stones to employment success, but I don’t think the link should be, or needs to be, that overt. A degree is bundled. A degree includes breadth and depth experiences. A degree provides learning experiences that are hard to measure and likely include career preparation, not just job placement. It seems worth noting that degrees, in name, literally signal broad experiences: students earn bachelor of arts or science degrees (among other degree types), not bachelor of History or bachelor of Chemistry degrees.

Universities are also bundled, though not all students participate in each of the elements. What is perhaps most interesting about Craig’s book is the ways he critiques the expensive “extras” universities now offer, but also identifies them as valuable parts of his own undergraduate career. His discussion is replete with co-curricular tales of his years at Yale, including the tidbit that he met his wife in a first year literature course. A bundled experience was good for him, I guess, but isn’t necessary for students today.

Craig and Wente’s focus on job outcomes for graduates, and their various critiques of the ways in which universities mis-educate students and over-charge, is certainly not new. The public discourse about rising costs and graduates working at Starbucks has been around for many years. It seems these kinds of presentations are challenging to respond to. And though I disagree with the idea of unbundling (as well as the ascendency of “practical studies”), I appreciate the questions both Craig and Wente raise. Craig asks: “Which of these items [the content bundle, admissions, research, facilities management, housing, health care, credentialing, food service, athletic facilities, career guidance and placement] should be at the core of a university?” (p. 100). Wente wonders: “I wonder what Northrop Frye would make of modern English studies?” Both questions seem like something university community members might talk about.

Craig, R. (2015). College Disrupted: The great unbundling of higher education. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Wente, M. (2015, June 2). Adventures in Academia: The stuff of fiction. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from :