Holding Professors Accountable in the Midst of Political Attacks on the University

I was a participant in a roundtable on public higher education last Friday that included two UNC faculty members, a senior associate dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, two current students, a state legislator (Republican), a business man who is also a big donor to UNC, a former member of the UNC board of trustees (from the financial world), and the executive directors of two right wing think tanks in the state, including the notorious Pope Foundation (which has recently changed its name to the Martin Institute.)  The Pope Foundation, as well as the John Locke Foundation (the other group represented), has been consistently critical of UNC courses in women’s and sexuality studies, requesting syllabi and then criticizing specific professors and courses in the public media.  More generally, they have both been scornful of the language of “diversity.”

The context for the conversation was a forthcoming book by our ex-Chancellor and the founder of our undergraduate program in entrepreneurship in which they argue 1) that universities cannot and should not be run like corporations, and 2) that the basic social contract that generated support for public higher education from 1950 to 1990 is now badly strained, if not completely broken.  Their book sets out to find a way to repair that broken compact.  So the goal of the round-table, which was filmed, was to discover if there was any common ground on which to build in the effort to heal the rift.

Substantively, not much was accomplished.  Everyone was on their best behavior, perhaps because being filmed.  Our right wing guests didn’t have much to say; they mostly listened.  Everyone affirmed the idea of a liberal arts education; everyone seemed to sign off on the notion of “access,” another key theme.  Similarly, there was no push-back against the idea that the universities of North Carolina were an economic driver—and a major reason why we were not Mississippi.

Our businessman philanthropist was the one who said we, as a society, were failing to invest in our future—and that tax cuts had gone too far.  No one really took up that point, although the state legislator was willing to say that tax cuts needed to stop—and that “maybe” we had gone too far in that direction.  When asked about the legislature’s thinking about higher education, he denied there was any hostility to it.  The legislature simply faced a number of competing demands when it came to budgeting—and all of those demands were legitimate, good things to support.  He made it sound all ideology-free, just a matter of making do with the available resources.

It didn’t help that our dean told the group that North Carolina was still the 4th best state in the nation in terms of its support of its higher education system. (NC started out in 2008 as one of the best–and the pace of cuts here in NC was similar to the pace across the whole country, so we did not fall in this particular ranking.) That fed an unjustified complacency in the room—unjustified because it allowed everyone to ignore the ways recent actions have hurt instruction on our campuses and limited access.  The egregious mandate from the Board of Governors (which rules over the whole system, as distinct from the Board of Trustees for each individual campus) that only 25% of tuition increases can be used to fund need-based aid never came up.  (I have seen that number reported as 15% in the UNC Alumni magazine; I was pretty sure it was 25%, but could be wrong.)  Thus, as the BoG approves tuition hikes, it makes sure the most vulnerable are hurt by them.  Their rationale was that more affluent students should not be “taxed” to supplement the fees of less affluent students.

I have a friend who attends BoG meetings regularly.  He confirms that they hate Chapel Hill in ways that they don’t hate NC State or the other schools in the system.  There is no consistency either to their hatred or to their ways they would like to transform UNC, Chapel Hill.  He characterizes the BoG members as the wealthiest people from their rural communities—who have witnessed the precipitous decline of those communities after the death of tobacco and textiles and the furniture business (the three pillars of the NC general economy prior to 1990.)  NC was never a rich state, but it was one that functioned for all of its citizens.  Now we have a very prosperous middle of the state—with per capita incomes that rival Connecticut’s—yoked to a depopulated east (except for the booming ocean front resorts) and an Appalachian west where the poverty levels match those of Mississippi.  Governing a state that is both Connecticut and Mississippi is well-nigh impossible.  But the legislative power rests in the hands of the white Mississippians.

Those rural legislators—and the supporters that they have appointed to our Board of Governors—have no remedies.  They don’t know any better than anyone else how to revive the dead economies of the places where they grew up and where they still live.  They look at Chapel Hill and see an elitist, rich, and complacent institution that takes thousands of kids from the Raleigh and Charlotte suburbs, while taking one or two top students from the rural high schools, turning up their noses at the rest.  So they (Chapel Hill) sneer at us (white Southerners), while stealing away our best and brightest—who they turn into Democrats and snobs, people who are never going to come back to the dying towns they grew up in.  And while they are turning down our kids as not good enough, they (in the name of diversity) are giving slots to all those blacks, Latinos, and Asians who have crowded into the outer suburbs and inner cities of our state.

When it comes to solutions, these guys (again, I am going on the reports of my friend) swing wildly and incoherently between free market fundamentalism and socialism.  They can move from praise of the market to suggesting all kinds of state interventions on the turn of a dime.  They don’t know what to do, but they know who the enemy is, and they want to lash out and do some hurting.

None of that came to the surface in our polite conversation.  The right-wingers in the room would, I assume, distance themselves from the no-nothings.  But the real conflict is that these educated, smooth right wingers (Paul Ryan types) are against public education.  They are Milton Friedman acolytes.  Education is a private investment that families make in their future—and schools get lazy, complacent, and inefficient when not subjected to competition and the resultant market discipline.

I am not as hostile to these arguments as most faculty members are.  And maybe when I expressed my version of anti-complacency, I was guilty of trying to placate the right-wingers in the room.  (Note that all of this is implied; they did not articulate any such arguments in our conversation.)

Here’s how I make the case.  I was in a room with some financial world people—hedge fund managers, and folks at Goldman Sachs—just shortly after the election in November 2008.  The financial guys (and they were all guys, about 10 of them in a mixed crowd of about 25 total where the other 15 were not financial types) all agreed that the Democrats (Nancy Pelosi was their particular bête noir; I guess because dissing a woman was better in their eyes than dissing a black man) were going to screw the nation’s economy horribly with their urge for regulations and taxes.  Nothing about the financial collapse seemed to have altered one iota these guy’s confidence that they knew what they were doing—and about how to best organize the nation’s economic well-being.  Sure there had been some mistakes, but they knew how to fix them.  Just keep those no-nothing politicians from messing things up.

My reaction was predictable.  These guys need to be accountable; there needs to be watch-dogs, and there needs to be consequences for bad results.  And my argument is that it works no differently for teachers.  We should be accountable for outcomes.  We claim we are teaching these students—and should hardly expect the public we claim to serve to be satisfied when we assure them: “Don’t worry.  We know what we are doing and we know your kids are learning lots and lots.”

That’s not good enough.  To take just one example: there is now tons and tons of research that shows that presenting information (in no matter what format: a book, a lecture, a power point presentation) has very little impact.  People do not learn things by being told them.  Active learning produces vastly better results for the retention of information and the fuller comprehension of that information (as demonstrated by the ability to put it to use in different contexts).  Yet many of my professorial colleagues resist that finding.  Lectures and reading books worked well for them—with no thought about the fact that they are outliers or for finding ways to promote learning for the majority of their students, not just a talented minority.

Even more basic.  We are now required to state the course’s objectives on our syllabi—and are encouraged to think about how our pedagogical strategies and our assignments (what students are asked to read, write, do projects or reports on etc.) might lend themselves to achieving those objectives.  Again, many of my colleagues think of this as philistinism, as creeping corporatization.  The nerve of asking that we define “outcomes.”  I have no patience for such responses.  We (the professors) are the anti-intellectuals we claim to abhor when we refuse to a) take seriously the research about what enhances learning and what does not, and b) refuse to self-consciously and critically think about our own goals and strategies in the courses we teach.

In short, the public has as much right to ask teachers to justify their practices and to reform them when results are not particularly good as they have the right to insist that bankers be regulated by external watch-dogs.

The measures are the hard part.  Numerically based assessments of learning outcomes are crude at best, and worthless at worst.  But stricter assessment of outcomes is coming—and it is in the interest of professors to be deeply involved in the establishment of the metrics.  I am reasonably confident that qualitative assessment will be our friend, not our enemy.  My bet is that such assessments will prove, rather conclusively, that education does not scale well.  There are not many efficiencies that will actually produce better results.  As teachers, we should stand staunchly and unequivocally for getting the best results for all of our students—and such results are not going to be achieved (in most cases) by on-line courses or 350 pupil lecture courses.  In some select instances, on-line instruction may prove effective—and we (the professors) should embrace such cases.  Any money saved can be used to promote more hands-on teaching in places where that is required.

In short, just as we would be appalled at doctors who did not make use of data about results to influence treatment of future patients, we as professional educators should be eager to discover what works well and what does not—and have it guide our future practice.  To run away from such self-study, screaming “corporatization,” is irresponsible and, in my view, indefensible.  It also suggests we are terrified by what we might discover—which belies our publicly displayed confidence that we know what we are doing.

We are rightfully resentful of—and resistant to—a knee-jerk hostility to universities as elitist and left-wing, and to the professors as under-worked and over-paid sycophants.  But that doesn’t entitle us to a free ride and a total refusal to change our ways.  I am going to allow myself a gross overgeneralization: I have seldom met any group more conservative (in the sense of clinging to the established ways of doing things) than a faculty that prides itself on being progressive, even revolutionary.

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