Friday, December 3, 2010

When A College May Be In Decline: Know the Warning Signs

A colleague at a far-flung university (well, far-flung from where I am, not flung at all from where s/he is) wrote to say that, for the first time since she's taught there, she thinks the place is in decline, and it made me wonder how many other colleagues at a various institutions (community college, state university, private college, private university) feel the same way--and what the warning-signs of "decline" might be.I'll use shorthand and simply refer to the institutions as "colleges."

Of course, two major factors have nothing to do with the internal workings of the colleges: 1) The wrecked American economy; and 2) Americans' deeply ambivalent (at best) attitude toward higher education and the public funding of it. I see these factors only getting worse, especially when one of the two major political parties seems gleefully, manically, and maniacally anti-intellectual.  The House of Rep[tile]s will disband its committee on global warming, for example.  As with trickle-down economics (and why did people ever think that metaphor portended anything good when, at best, people would get trickled on?), the GOPers are unamused by data.  Not that he Dems are any day at the trickle-factory's beach.  I'd rather watch a dog vomit than listen to almost any federal politician or politico-celeb at this point.  Seriously.

But I disgorge, I mean digress.. . .  Anyway, the two major factors above have immediate impact on the internal workings of colleges: more use of adjunct-faculty, salaries not even keeping pace with inflation, large class-sizes, evaporation of benefits, and overall a kind of dreary bottom-line approach to everything, where before some vision and hope might have been found. I mean, everybody knows there always is a bottom-line; it's when the bottom-line becomes excuse for every decision, the lead in every campus mandate, that things get Dickensian.

In such a climate, different offices, departments, and sectors of the university become like silos or bunkers, with everyone hunkering down, the not so subliminal message being "actually, we're not all in this together, and don't have a nice day."  Often this means that directives or plans set out by higher-level administrators are ignored or undermined--or are drawn and quartered, as every unit pulls in a different direction, if pulling at all.  Usually, then, the higher up the administrator, the more out of touch he or she gets with what's really going on.  People start to shine him or her on, withhold information, and, to borrow a term from a Karl Shapiro poem, "back-scuttle."

Once a college--or any institution--starts going after benefits or salaries, one temptation on the part of those who run the place (boards of trustees, regents, legislators, higher level administrators, and so on) is to get legalistic: "Well, we aren't legally bound to keep giving you that benefit," e.g.  That's to be expected. ("We are not all in this together.")  At a college, however, this quickly becomes dicey because so much of what faculty and staff do is off the books, not part of the contract.  Informally advising student groups, attending students' performances, helping to recruit students, contacting alumni, helping with fund-raising: faculty, especially, are more likely to take part in such things when a) they don't have tenure (this would be called self-interest), b) they feel the place is treating them not merely as contracted employees, c) and they sense the place is at least holding steady and maybe getting better.  Once they get a strong whiff of legalism, stagnation, and/or decline, however, they are more likely to take a punch-the-clock attitude, teach their classes, fulfill the other basic duties, and get off campus.


I wasn't surprised to hear that a lot of this stuff was taking place at my friend's college, which is different in kind from mine.


There may be other signs, depending upon one's institution.  Younger faculty may be less productive than those from older generations, and the standards for promotion and tenure may be so murky and/or inconsistently applied that most of them will skate to tenure anyway--or get denied tenure for reasons that seem fickle. The inconsistency cuts both ways.

A high percentage of departments may be dysfunctional, and the dean, provost, division-head, or vice president may be too overwhelmed, too implicated in the dysfunction, or too close to retirement to do anything about it.  Dysfunctional departments are like open sores on the body of the campus.

Private colleges face a particular challenge because most of them are so tuition dependent, so that while they may talk a lot about rigor and idealistic curricula, their main goal is to recruit and retain enough warm bodies. Moreover, the "liberal arts education" may be getting more and more arcane and frivolous, especially when so much information is so readily available.  It may be that a moderately motivated autodidact can get a perfectly sound liberal-arts education online, in libraries, and from used bookstores. However, the reader over my shoulder is now howling with counter-arguments about the need to be guided by good professors, the conducive atmosphere of liberal-arts seminars and "residential education," and so on. The larger question about whether liberal arts colleges are keeping pace with larger societal changes obtains, however--or sure seems to do so, from this p.o.v.  It's counter-intuitive, I know, but at liberal arts colleges, where high value is placed on critical thinking, one rarely sees critical thinking applied to assumptions, definitions, and bromides affiliated with "the liberal arts."

My friend and I did caution each other about what Randall Jarrell once called "Golden Age-ism"--a form of nostalgia.  He wrote that, "in the Golden Age, people probably went around complaining how yellow everything looked."  For my friend's sake, I wish s/he were merely nostalgic, but she isn't.  The evidence of financial, functional, administrative, and collegial decline is just too overwhelming there.   Still, one needs to look for things that may be better now than they were before.  And keep looking. 

While one must guard against nostalgia, one must also confront the fact that American educational institutions, their basic structures and assumptions, are now about a 100 years old (some are older, of course)..  In October I went to a conference at which an expert spoke about this.  He noted that the current high school system is one pretty much rooted in the 1920s and 1930s--when child-labor laws made it necessary to put kids somewhere during the day, and when there was a push for "universal literacy."  Most high-school curricula, schedules, and systems now are hopelessly unrelated to the society into which the students will go--in which they already are.  Higher ed is a fusion of 19th century aims: (the cultivation of gentlemen and gentle-ladies) and a mimicking of English education (William James is quite good on this subject)--plus a post-World War II model tailored to educate returning soldiers (and their wives) and get them ready to participate in the economy of what had become an empire. 

The expert at the conference noted that most managerial/administrative structures at colleges spring from these old days, keep repeating the same errors, cultivate dysfunction, and respond to change about as well as Archie Bunker.  He also noted that, fairly soon, many corporations won't care who has a college degree or where from.  Why?  He thinks many corporations won't have traditional employees but will work with independent contractors.  So that, say, if you can design a new widget and can prove you can design a new widget, no one will care if you have a B.S. or a B.A. or, in the event you might have earned one, no one will care where you went to college.  The expert also said that several "futurists" predict that, soon, a doctorate will be given to an illiterate person--in computer science, for example.  And if the person both has a doctorate and is good at what s/he does, no one who matters will care that s/he can't read--or that she hasn't read the Odyssey.

At my own institution, I'm not quite sure what to think.  Some signs seems good; others, not so much. The place has always spoken openly about a list of "aspire-to" colleges--colleges it would like to emulate, with regard to quality of students (as measured by SAT scores, at any rate), size of endowment, and ratings. I don't see us moving up that list any time soon.  Because of the economy and a lot of other factors (some of which I've mentioned above), my college and a lot of others may find themselves (at best) in that phase of musical chairs when the music goes off: "okay, everybody freeze where you are."  A lot of places are frozen where they are (at best) and hoping (to shift to Oz) that they won't be "melting, melting" any time soon.

"Do we live in interesting times?" I asked my colleague at the far-flung place. "Define 'interesting'," s/he said. (What a professorial response!).  "Car-wrecks are 'interesting'," she added.
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