The Lost Soul of Higher Education in America?

The more time I spend researching American research universities, the more I realize that they are consistently under attack. A new book, The Lost Soul of Education, by a history prof at Yeshiva U, Ellen Schrecker, clearly wants the ‘old days’ where life was stress free and lazy around the university?

As they came to rely ever more heavily on tuition payments, they diverted resources to whatever would attract and retain students — elaborate recreational facilities, gourmet dining halls, state-of-the-art computer centers, and winning football teams. At the same time, they slashed library budgets, deferred building maintenance, and – most deleteriously – replaced full-time tenure-track faculty members with part-time and temporary instructors who have no academic freedom and may be too stressed out by their inadequate salaries and poor working conditions to provide their students with the education they deserve. Meanwhile, rising tuitions are making a college degree increasingly unaffordable to the millions of potential students who most need that credential to make it into the middle class.

Unfortunately, the competitive atmosphere produced by the academic community’s long-term obsession with status and its more recent devotion to the market makes it hard for its members to collaborate in solving its problems. Institutions compete for tuition-paying undergraduates and celebrity professors who can boost their institutions’ U.S. News & World Report ratings. Faculty members compete for tenure and research grants. And students compete for grades after having competed for admission to the highly ranked schools that will provide them with the credentials for a position within the American elite. Until the denizens of academe – and their off-campus supporters – recognize the need for collective action not only to restore their lost public funding but also to rededicate themselves to their core educational missions, American higher education will not emerge from its current funk.

The interview is fascinating and highlights  the polarity of demands that various stakeholders (faculty, administrators, students, alumni, community/region, parents, federal/state gov) from higher education.  For example, on the subject of academic freedom, Schrecker states,

But academic freedom does more than just protect an individual professor’s freedom of speech. It is also a professional perquisite that ideally enables faculty members to protect the quality of higher education. They do this by maintaining control over their own and their colleagues’ academic responsibilities. That autonomy is a crucial element in the structure of academic freedom; not only does it keep irrelevant political, personal, or economic considerations from subverting the educational process, but it also ensures that qualified academic professionals are in charge of that process. It operates through a variety of practices and procedures, like tenure and faculty governance, that have evolved over the past century to protect the independence of the American academy. After all, scholars and scientists cannot merely follow orders; the new knowledge they produce must come from the unfettered interplay of their trained minds with the data they collect. Similarly, as teachers, academics can develop their students’ powers of rational and independent thought only if they are themselves autonomous within their classrooms. When outsiders intervene and override the professional judgment of academics in key areas like curriculums and personnel, they threaten the integrity of higher education.

Again, read the whole interview, but its amazing how she can decry competition throughout and among universities and demand total self-regulation by current members (wonder how she feels about self-regulation in energy or financial markets?).

Her use of the term “outsiders” and their threat to the “integrity of higher education,” speaks volumes to this humble analyst. I recommend she sit in her favorite chair, grab a class of her favorite beverage, and listen to Bruce Springsteen’s Glory Days. Maybe she’ll realize that she’s not alone in pining for the past.

BTW, if you read the whole piece, you’ll see where she cites 12 fired professor during the McCarthy Era (late 40’s to late 50’s) as evidence that professors are under threat. WOW!!! Seriously?  I get that this is her area of specialty, but please update your data.

Any thoughts? I can’t wait to read this book and will be be sure to integrate some of her arguments and research into my work on American research universities.

via News: ‘The Lost Soul of Higher Education’ – Inside Higher Ed.


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