What faculty colleagues are reading and recommending:
Suzanne Mettler. Degrees of Inequality: How the Politics of Higher Education Sabotaged the American Dream. Basic Books: 2014.
Higher education has a long history of serving as one of the key pathways to upward social mobility for generations of Americans, and none more so than in the decades immediately following World War II. Beginning in the 1980s, however, this began to change as, to quote the author of this very timely book, “our system of higher education has gone from facilitating upward mobility to exacerbating social inequality.”
Suzanne Mettler is the Clinton Rossiter Professor of American Institutions at Cornell University, where her work has focused on questions of public policy, civic engagement, and social inequality. This, her most recent book, looks at the changing role higher education has played in American life, particularly in regard to social mobility in recent decades, and the picture she paints is a discouraging one. Her central argument: In the past public higher education policy played a key role in mitigating social inequality, but today that is no longer the case; alarmingly there are growing indications that the higher education system in America today, contrary to the experience of much of the rest of the world, is now serving to make class differences even more rigid.
In Mettler’s eyes the causes of this are many and complex. They include the conservative drift of American politics beginning in the 1980s, with the growing tendency among some policy makers to view higher education as something pursued for personal benefit rather than as a public good; changing financial aid policies that have placed increased burdens on the student; decreasing fiscal support for public colleges and universities at the state level; and the growing share of federal education dollars directed toward the for-profits. All of this has meant that what was once public higher education has now become increasingly privatized as more and more of the costs of such education are borne by students and their families. As a result, while affluent students are attending college at rates higher than ever, the number of students from middle-class and poorer households has declined in recent years. As Mettler points out, in 1975 the United States led the world in its percentage of adults with a college degree; today it ranks twelfth.
Social class is also important in determining the quality of the higher education students are now likely to receive. While the affluent continue to afford a high-quality education at elite public and private institutions, increasingly, poor and middle-class students are forced to navigate a maze of community colleges, second-tier public institutions, or are drawn to the for-profit institutions with their easy promises—the last example’s creating a legacy of potentially crippling student debt. The days in which elite universities and colleges regularly acted as meeting place for students from all socio-economic backgrounds seem a thing of the past. Social class is also important in determining the quality of the higher education students are now likely to receive. While the affluent continue to afford a high-quality education at elite public and private institutions, increasingly, poor and middle-class students are forced to navigate a maze of community colleges, second-tier public institutions, or are drawn to the for-profit institutions with their easy promises—the last example’s creating a legacy of potentially crippling student debt. The days in which elite universities and colleges regularly acted as meeting place for students from all socio-economic backgrounds seem a thing of the past.
All of these topics, and more, are examined in detail. Though much of this may be familiar territory, at least in its general outline, the book’s strength is in the meticulous manner in which its arguments are laid out and the detailed evidence presented in their support. While it is at times a bit wordy, particularly in its discussion of public policy (but then, this is Mettler’s métier), the book is highly readable and, at 272 pages (including notes and index), is relatively brief.
Those of us connected with the CSU, with its long-standing commitment to providing Californians of all backgrounds access to an affordable, quality education, will find this book an insightful explanation of how public higher education finds itself in the precarious state it is in today. It’s one of the best surveys of the state of American higher education I’ve seen in years.
Degrees of Inequality is not the lightest summer reading, but if you are at all interested in the external forces shaping what the future may well hold for us, listening to what Mettler has to say is a must. (Thomas Krabacher, ASCSU Senator, Sacramento)
Henry A. Giroux. Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education. Haymarket Books: 2014.
Densely worded and at times redundant in its passionate protest against the corporatization of higher education, this book is, nonetheless, another example of required summer reading. Giroux, who has studied public policy for years, and who, as a lifetime academic, knows whereof he speaks, keeps sounding the alarm even as the fire is engulfing the building. As Giroux points out, private enterprise has become the paradigm for how higher education models itself: the business of the university now is business, with faculty acting as entrepreneurs, presidents as CEOs, and students as customers.
While we have heard all this before, and while, in fact, we experience it daily, we may also need to be reminded, as Giroux does incessantly, that among our benefactors, philanthropists like Bill Gates, are (pardon the pun) the very gates opening up universities for Trojan horses: Their foundation support intends “to produce students who laud conformity…[they] believe job training is more important than education, and view public values as irrelevant.”
Nor do faculty themselves escape Giroux’s critique. He warns that professors “must overcome an intense obsession with the demands of their own circumscribed professional pursuits, rejecting the privatized notion of scholarship and agency that dominates academic life.” All of us, he claims, must put the common good at the forefront of what we do, or we are lost. The book feels like a mirror held up to our present condition in public higher education, and yes, it’s sometimes hard to look such truths in the face. But if, like me, you find your university reflected on almost every page, your own hopes and fears flung back at you, it’s a worthwhile read—if only to fire you back up for our work together in the fall. (Susan Gubernat, ASCSU Secretary; East Bay)
Benjamin Ginsberg. The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters. Oxford University Press: 2011.
The title captures the book’s focus well. What is the appropriate role of the faculty in contemporary institutions of higher education? Have they become “all-administrative universities?”
Benjamin Ginsberg spent his career, spanning almost four decades, as a faculty member at Cornell and Johns Hopkins. His interactions with faculty and administrators at these two universities, and his research on many others across the country, provided the data for this book.
Ginsberg sounds a dire warning regarding the current and future role of the faculty in shared governance, a current and contentious issue in the CSU. He asserts that since the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, the faculty’s influence in American universities has diminished significantly while the administration’s role has expanded dramatically. He insists that administrators have wrenched control from the faculty.
He lays part of the blame at the feet of the faculty and part of it to the composition of the teaching staff. Many faculty members have contributed to their own downfall by withdrawing from active involvement in governance. Commitment to teaching and research to achieve tenure and promotion, coupled with the lack of value attributed to participation on committees, task forces, etc., have convinced many of our colleagues to “abdicate the throne.” In addition, the incredible decrease in tenure-track or tenured faculty has exacerbated this trend. Whereas 67% of the faculty in the United States in 1970 were on a tenure track, only 30% are currently. (This has occurred in the CSU as well, but efforts are underway to reverse this trend in our system.) In addition to the diminution of control by the faculty, Ginsberg insists that academic freedom has been destroyed with, in his words, the “fall of the tenure system.”
The other factors he analyzes to explain the rise of the “all-administrative” university are growth and external mandates. Many colleges have increased their student populations tremendously during the last few decades, and multi-campus system-wide offices, as well as state and federal mandates, have created a host of new administrative responsibilities. However, his conclusion after assessing these issues is “administrative growth is an internally generated phenomenon more that a response to external forces.” He maintains that administrators have expanded their ranks and staff support far beyond what is required and hold endless (often unnecessary and meaningless) meetings, strategic planning sessions, retreats, conferences, etc. As a result, according to Ginsberg, the proportion of the budget devoted to administrative functions has grown disproportionately. He further asserts that the 2008-2012 budget cuts have been used at many campuses as another excuse for exacerbating these changes; tenure-track faculty numbers have decreased while those of administrators have increased.
Though Ginsberg highlights a very critical issue, I have two major criticisms of this book. Most importantly, he often utilizes what I have warned my sociology students about constantly, namely, “proof by example.” He cites some incredible instances of administrative abuse at a number of universities. But he has little systematic data from the 4,500 institutions in our country. This may be a widespread phenomenon but I am not convinced by the information he provides.
Secondly, I was irritated by the snide tone used throughout the book. He constantly called administrators “deanlets” and “deanlings” and used terms such as “administrative psychobabble.” This rhetoric was unnecessary and offensive to me as a former occupant of administrative positions. His final conclusion is “With the ever-growing legions of deanlets and deanlings at their command, senior administrators increasingly have the capacity to circumvent the faculty, seize control of programs, oversee research activities and meddle in the curriculum.”
What is to be done? Ginsberg recommends getting representation on governing boards. Our faculty and students have seats on the Board of Trustees, and some members of the CSU-ERFA (Emeriti and Retired Faculty Association) Executive Committee have suggested that we do so as well. He also suggests using the media to inform the public about abuses.
Some of the examples he uses are outrageous. He describes administrative corruption such as theft, insider dealing, academic fraud and plagiarism, as well as administrators “ignoring their nominal responsibilities in favor of shirking, squandering and stealing.” I have never heard of such instances in the CSU. He mentions a few much less egregious cases at UC campuses but never cites one example from our 23-campus system (the largest system of public higher education in the country). This is another reflection of his incredibly limited data. The highly provocative title is not warranted by the unsystematic and incomprehensive information.
In light of Ginsberg’s conclusions, I would recommend the following:
1. That CSU-ERFA, ASCSU, and our campus counterparts encourage our faculty colleagues to be involved in shared governance or “shared leadership” as Chancellor White refers to it. We might want to survey them to find out why they are or are not participating in running our campuses.
2. At both the system and campus level, we should conduct a systematic assessment of changes over the last few decades in the number of administrators, the percent of the budget being used for these positions and their staffing support, and the involvement of faculty in critical decision-making processes.
In the CSU, have we experienced “the fall of the faculty” and “the rise of the all-administrative university”? After my 40-plus years in both roles in our system, I don’t think so. But I don’t have sufficient data to support that conclusion. (Bill Blischke, ERFA Liaison to the ASCSU; Dominguez Hills)