On the Demise of Universities

Yves here. Friend of the site Erasmus e-mailed Lambert and me about his post on Covid accelerating the conversion of universities from institutions of learning to money generators. As you’ll see, Erasmus has direct experience with some of the pathologies, which extend beyond colonization by MBAs.

By Erasmus, an academic in the humanities

Thank you for the Dec 7 post on the demise of universities. I know this terrain all too well.

Universities have become far more profit-oriented, and corrupted by administrative bloat and bullshit jobs (Graeber)/make-work (like “assessment” mandates), as well as by the customer service mentality of pleasing and placating students to the detriment of standards and solid education. There are plenty of books about various facets of academe, including satirical novels. The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed are useful, but there are plenty of silly articles there too, often written by well-intentioned administrators or English faculty. Parkinson’s Law and all his other insights should be rigorously imposed on the whole mess.

Standards have declined precipitously, which no one admits except curmudgeon tenured senior faculty. Grade inflation is a related problem. There is cheating and lack of study skills, lack of attention span, lack of discipline. A Harvard professor, Harvey Mansfield, has denounced grade inflation publicly, which is excellent, but most cannot do that. The high schools do not teach much, so students cannot handle college work, and there is a lot of partying and dysfunction and anxiety and superficial learning, often done in groups. The pseudoscientific obsession with metrics instead of the hard work of engagement and informed judgment means that student course evaluations (numbers) are important, and that corrupts the teacher-student relationship.

On tenure. Tenure can be legally revoked, but it is rare, and usually due to gross misconduct or something serious. Probably every college and university faculty handbook has a boilerplate section on emergency situations in which the administration can eliminate academic departments and lay off tenured faculty – this has happened. It has been rare up to now, but we will probably see more of it. The Medaille place mentioned in the post is a nothing school, but it is ominous.

Legally the university is a corporation, and you can usually find the faculty handbook on its website. Interesting reading. There are business/executive types on boards of trustees who don’t understand and/or don’t care about university customs and would love to eliminate all tenure. It is happening incrementally, with tenured faculty retirements being replaced with low-wage, contingent adjuncts, lecturers, “clinical” faculty, “assistant teaching professors”, and the like. Gigs instead of stable positions with the traditional ranks: assistant, associate, and full professor. In the UK a lecturer is a higher status than in the US system. Germany and France and Italy have their own systems. Of course, as you would expect, the Italian system (today) is the nuttiest, and unfortunately there is a lot of nepotism there, to the detriment of serious research and teaching. Italy gave us Vico and Eco and others though, so there’s that.

In my view, it is a massive, systemic fail of the faculty to not stand up to the bad decisions and greed of administrators and prevent a lot of this. Faculty governance is a pleasant myth, but faculty have lost a lot of ground over the decades. Some faculty are in denial and believe that what is customary will prevail. They do not understand the difference between custom and law. The faculty handbook is a ratified document, in force for making decisions.

Most faculty are cowards and careerists and sycophants who just want to be comfortable or gain status with peers, but this neglects the institution. They are politically inept, like the progressives (as Matt Stoller has observed). Most of them do not know how to get anything done. They do not understand power. It used to be that mediocre faculty tended to go into administration, but now there is an expanding administrative class that rules over the budget and faculty, and this is detrimental to the institution. Tenured faculty have not prevented the exponential growth in the use (exploitation) of adjuncts for undergraduate teaching. I say this as a person with a PhD from a public university that has had a unionized faculty for decades. It didn’t make much difference. My institution was the only one in the US charging tuition to PhD students teaching on its undergrad campuses – taking back money paid for teaching in the system (extremely low-paid, of course). This is one reason why I will never donate.

Yep, academic freedom is being undermined. It’s elusive if one can’t pay the rent and is a gig laborer for an institution run like a brutal plantation.

Yep, teaching is not job training. George Carlin had a few words on this topic – obedient workers are the desired product of the school system. There are various brilliant scholars who wrote worthwhile books on teaching, usually forgotten.

One insidious practice I have seen is the notion of “collegiality” being a factor in tenure decisions. The traditional categories, usually weighted, are teaching, research, and service. People have been sabotaged and denied tenure due to collegiality issues, which can hide bullying and nasty dept politics or bigotry. There are legal cases about it. It is vague and subjective, and there is no way for it to be imposed fairly as a standard. The AAUP has position papers for various issues on its site, as does the MLA (Modern Language Assn).

Books: Higher Education?, The Last Professors, many others document what has been happening.

Jacques Barzun foresaw a lot of what is happening in his book The American University. He dissected the parasitical centers and institutes that infest campuses. He has a chapter in there on an essay by William James (if I recall) on the “PhD octopus” which exemplifies the expansion of credentials and degrees. Barzun’s book Teacher in America is also excellent and worthwhile, in my opinion.

Camille Paglia (I know Yves views her work as uneven, but when Paglia talks about academia, she is perceptive) has written since the 1990s about the intellectual corruption in the humanities, and many other topics. In fairness, she has been teaching undergraduates for decades, and she was exiled from having a “normal” academic career because she was and is outspoken and direct. She is very serious about education and students. She was in the culture wars. She sees what is happening now.

There was a professor, Richard Mitchell, who wrote a delightful newsletter, The Underground Grammarian, later published as books. He also foresaw the coming idiocy. He denounced idiocy coming out of schools of education, and deconstructed the poor thought in their convoluted prose, which is similar to administrative prose. There are entire journals devoted to such bloviation.

The brutal economic conditions caused by the pandemic (well, due to lack of support from DC) are only accelerating processes that were already well underway for many years in US colleges and universities.

It is not enough to throw money at the problem – there needs to be substantial reform, and no upper administrator wants to cut off the branch s/he is sitting on. There was great expansion in the 1960s and 1970s, and some of those places might die out. Neoliberalism again.

When I look back at the wonderful teachers and professors I have known across multiple disciplines, and see the tremendous impoverishment of students today, it is heartbreaking.

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  1. LowellHighlander

    When I was employed as an economist within the Bureau of Labor Statistics, I was required to interview authorities in certain occupations and industries for my work. For that reason, I interviewed people at professional engineering associations, and one or two of them confirmed for me that the land-grant system (and consequently the GI Bill arising out of WWII) had given the U.S. a major advantage over other countries. This was because many, many graduate programs in engineering had sprung up or expanded in the 1950s and 1960s, in large part because so many more students (than prior to WWII) were now able to attend university, and the U.S. as a consequence did indeed produce much more “human capital”, particularly in science and engineering.

    And, as an economist, I fully agree that the neo-liberal model is destroying all this in its corrupting the institutions of academia so that they become “profit centers”. [Certainly, the ever-widening maldistribution of wealth and income, as seen in states’ decisions to steadily decrease funding for their public universities, also contributed mightily to this trend.] But this is what happens in empires: institutions become so corrupted that they no longer function. The sooner we all realize that the U.S. has become such a polity, the sooner we might be able to reverse course [although, I admit, I am anything but sanguine].

  2. John A

    Not sure if the 1980s British play ‘Educating Rita’ ever made it across the Atlantic, though it was made into a film with Michael Caine, so maybe. Rita is a hairdresser wanting to better herself by attending Open University and has tutorials with a worldweary English lit lecturer, Frank. The pair gradually get to know each other. At one point, Rita asks Frank if he could ever be fired from his secure tenure. His response is that the only sackable offence would be ‘buggering the bursar’.
    How times change.

    1. The Rev Kev

      A great film that as well as a great book. I have some of the author’s – Willy Russell – other works and when you read about his early life, you realize that Rita’s story is really his own story in disguise. But that era of ordinary people achieving higher education may be gone now. Mark Blyth once remarked that if today’s education system was around when he was young, that he would have ended up as just some yobbo hanging around the streets of Glasgow.

      1. icancho

        Yes, indeed. There are (small) legions of us provincial, working class kids who lucked out by growing up in the UK in that magic quarter century or so (~’45–’75) when, if you did well enough in O- and A-levels to secure an offer of a place at uni, all expenses were paid direct, and you got a living allowance on top! (£375 p.a.— sounds like a pittance, but, with care, and not too much beer, you could save on it).
        I’m with Mark Blyth— not in Glasgow— but without that visionary national social policy, I’d have been in the same boat, in another northern town.

    2. savedbyirony

      Great movie. MIchael Caine, Julie Walters, Michael Williams – what a wonderful cast. Saw it my junior year of HS and just loved it. Still a big fan of Dame Julie.

  3. jackiebass

    A big negative effect of this is the quality of research. At one time university research was trusted as valid. Now money has corrupted it to the point a lot of the research is questionable and not trust worthy.

    1. KLG

      True. Credit most of this to the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, along with the substantial decrease, adjusted for inflation, in federal support (NSF, NIH) for essential, fundamental scientific research during the neoliberalization of all things. Gresham’s Law in action, the bad money did drive out the good.

    2. David

      But even outside the big money areas, research has become a race to publish as much as you can, irrespective of quality, to get the right metrics for you and your institution. There are profit-making companies whose sole job is to act as F***b**ks for academics, signing them up and encouraging them to obsessively pore over how many people have read their work and how many, um, “likes” they have received.

  4. Fox Blew

    Thank you very much for this, Erasmus. Most especially citing Jacques Barzun. (Another darn book for me to read as Lambert would put it. Ha!) It all seems spot on to what I have personally witnessed in my little college town since the late 80’s. I would like to add John Ralston Saul to the list of folks to read/listen/watch on this subject too.

    1. Peconomist

      One more author, the late Canadian writer Robertson Davies who has much to say about the decline of the University as a teaching/scholarly institution.

    2. CanCyn

      As someone who just retired from the community college system in Ontario, all of this rings true to me. Especially the cowardice of full-time faculty (it isn’t called tenure in the college system in Ontario, but effectively that is what it is). Voting for pay increases contract after contract while the holes in the collective agreement just kept getting bigger and bigger year after year. Old timers protecting their bank accounts and youngsters living under the delusion that things would stay the same, not wanting to rock the boat.
      And yes the bloat of administration. And the contracting of private sector consultants to do everything from re-decorate to write curriculum. Assessments done by outside firms so that the college didn’t own the data and was therefore not subject to Freedom of Information requests. More and more administrators who know or care nothing for education. Bloated grades and high school graduates who arrive incapable of doing the work – and thus a whole new wing of non-academic support personnel created to help them succeed.
      This post also brought to mind IM dr’s comments of the other day the about the know-nothing, unmotivated residents he is encountering at his hospital. I came across many nursing students who needed remedial math and science help to get by in their college level courses. And watched this play out in real life – once when my father was in the hospital, I listened while two young nurses tried to figure out the drip rate for an IV for a new drug prescribed by the doctor. The IV bag was a different strength than what was prescribed so they needed to do some figuring. I had to intervene and have them call the doctor as they were clearly hopeless at the math required to determine the correct drip rate. So, indeed neoliberalization is not just hurting bank accounts, the crapification of our educational institutes is now having detrimental effects in many parts of our society. It is scary.

      1. HeadInClouds

        I’m currently working in the Ontario community college system (on contract) and see little hope of improvement. Full time faculty (i.e. tenured) have little incentive to rock the boat because they are comfortable and secure – this is in spite of the fact that many are left-leaning and consider themselves champions of social justice. Contract faculty (i.e. adjuncts) are too cowed to speak out because it could mean non-renewal of teaching contracts. Better to put your head down and hope you eventually win the full time lottery.

        The strike three years ago ended up being the longest ever, and then went to arbitration that resulted in no improvement for contract faculty (aside from superficial gestures). Most full time faculty I spoke to were begrudging participants. Some complained about the five weeks of pay they gave up to be on strike. A couple examples: One guy was disappointed because he was expecting 2017 to be the first year he made six figures, until the strike. Another told me he had to delay a bathroom reno. Boohoo, I thought sarcastically, but I held my tongue because, you know, solidarity.

        Meanwhile, things will only get worse. The pandemic is accelerating a shift to more online learning, and has given the colleges an excuse to freeze full time faculty hiring. Will be looking for a way out of the mess in 2021…

        1. CanCyn

          You’re right about that last strike. It was long and, in the end, pointless. I was a faculty librarian for most of my career and decided to try my hand at admin before I retired and had just become a low level manager when that strike happened. Being on the admin side I was shocked by the disdain for faculty openly expressed by many administrators. Between that us vs. them status quo and the faculty unwilling to rock the boat, I don’t see things changing for the better, ever. I had a 5 years-to-retirement plan when I got the management gig. I only lasted 3 years, just couldn’t take the nonsense anymore. Lucky for me I could afford to go. Good luck to you!

      2. Kouros

        I wanted to comment separately but the mentioning of the two nurses inability to calculate the drip rate is a combination of insufficient education as well as lack of training.

        I see education as providing the knowledge as well as furthering the ability to understand the nature of things. Training would refer to the ability to better and more efficiently deploy this knowledge by strengthening the pathways (brain and flesh muscles) that enable the realization of any objective/task.

        Somebody in the post that started this discussion also tried to emphasize the role of training and I totally agree that it is important. A deep level of professionalism does involve mastering of the knowledge and having the ability to skilfully deploy that knowledge.

        An example at limit: Stephen Hawkins had the brains, but in the end, he did rely on some very smart, skilled young ones, that were able to carry on many of the calculations necessary for his theorizing. Oh, the graduate student, the other lab rat of the research environment.

        1. CanCyn

          I agree that some on the job training is required but those nurses were on their own on the floor, they should have known how to calculate the drip rate. Nursing education is not pure theoretical learning, they get a lot of hands on ‘training’ along with their math, science and anatomy curriculum and should arrive on the job with those skills and abilities. That said, I agree that on the job training is an important aspect of work and one that we don’t do anymore. Now it is ‘orientation and ‘on boarding’ by HR, company propaganda for the most part. One of my early part time jobs was a cashier in a grocery store. We were toured through every isle, seeing what was where. We learned how to identify produce (there were no stickers on fruit in those days). We actually had to go through the produce dept before every shift to see what was on sale and what seasonal produce was available so we could identify it and ring it in properly. We were even taught the proper way to open a roll of coins! Unroll carefully, do not bang on side of coin drawer at risk of coins falling everywhere if you were wondering ;

      3. G

        I know of a university student in a teacher’s ed program who asked the professor for help on an upcoming test: “I don’t understand this adding fractions thing.” No trace of embarrassment. Nor was the professor fazed. This is normal. This potential future teacher cannot add 2/3 + 1/2.

        Many faculty have problems with writing. I’m not talking English as second language (ESL) problems – those I can understand – I’m talking native speakers who don’t know how to use a comma.

        Grading student writing, I decided to ignore most grammar errors. On the one hand, many ESL students were flat-out incapable of assembling correct sentences. I didn’t particularly blame them: but I couldn’t let them off the hook while penalizing native speakers (assuming I could even determine who was who, probably a no-no). On the other hand, many native speakers were at least as bad. I basically had a choice: fail half of them on English or grade them on the course content. I graded them on the course content.

        There’s an attitude problem too. There are students employed to edit writing for publication. When their errors are caught and corrected, they rise up in rebellion. “That’s how I like to do it.” “You need to respect my positionality.”

        Dictionary.com: “Positionality is the social and political context that creates your identity in terms of race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability status.” Like my child in public school, I suppose they are being taught novel pronouns, but not English grammar; how many genders there are, but not how to count them. The consensus on multiplication tables with other parents I’ve talked to: learn them on your own, or not at all. (What happens to the kids of the often working class parents who haven’t the time, patience or ability to do that?)

        Universities are changing mottoes and mission statements. It’s no longer about finding truth. It’s about changing the world. My fear is that they will succeed.

          1. G

            This is the story I heard from someone not familiar with the term, who had no idea it was an idpol thing. The main thing though is the sensitivity: whether they try out some ridiculous claim like that, or just act huffy or hurt, the students feel it’s not ok to be corrected.

        1. CanCyn

          Students’ sensitivity to correction is at unbelievable heights. I once explained the difference between a tattletale and a whistleblower to a student who called himself the the latter, saying, “I ain’t no whistleblower” when he clearly meant tattletale. I was smiling and clearly not giving him ‘heck’ but his angry reaction was as though I had just yelled and called him stupid. I was shocked. That was quite a few years ago, it has only gotten worse. I can’t even remember how long ago I was told that teachers shouldn’t correct work with a red pen because it is considered too harsh! I don’t understand how things have changed so much and it is not as though kids are particularly happy at school. They’re constantly talking about all the stress they’re under. I say this as someone who understands that the world has changed and there’s is much to be stressed about, but still, it is school for goodness sake. I had a math teacher in high school who used to throw chalk at us when we were wrong and I am pretty sure I had way more fun in school than kids today.

          1. G

            Some of my favourite teachers were mean. One took positvie evil glee in calling on students for answers and humiliating them when they got them wrong. But he was equal opportunity: the better the student, the harder he tried, until he got what he wanted. When one survived the attack and got it right (which was probably most of the time), he played all disappointment. Every right answer came with a flash of pride.

            The effect was to make us study hard and build camaradarie. He was a dedicated teacher who truly loved his students, and I think we loved him back.

            In my experience, there are few things more discouraging than praise for mediocre work. The best teachers make you work for it: but when you suceed (if you’re just not very talented, success can be something others might consider minor), you own it, and it’s worth it.

            Today, a teacher like would probably be called up on abuse or something. But I bet his students would stand by him.

            1. G

              It occurs to me that this dynamic of humiliation, pride, failure, triumph and camaradarie are only possible in a physical classroom.

              As an introvert who is happy to read a book, I have long wondered why we spend so much on classes. This social and emotional framework is the best example I can think of of something a book or a video (or a Zoom call) cannot replace.

              Of course universities are trying hard to commodify instruction. They want a course to be a package they can own, deliver, and reuse, while charging an arm and a leg. So the trend of draining all potential unpleasantness from education (even if in the long run it results in more stress) indirectly works to their advantage, making it even less likely that they would reverse course.

        2. fajensen

          There is a bright side to this: In 30 years no weapons designs will be possible because nobody will be able to do the figuring and manual writing without getting into duelling over where the decimal goes and which symbols to use. :p.

  5. 430MLK

    I think I posted Part 1 of this community college look at the state of higher ed in the comments to this week’s earlier post about universities. Here’s part two, which looks at some different marketing strategies and my college’s choice of a “Buy 9, get the 10th free” model.


    As a side note to the piece posted above–I wonder how much universities are even related to the ideas of learning and scholarship anymore. Where I live, the flagship for the state of Kentucky has a $2 billion+ budget that spans running healthcare/hospitals and Top 10 basketball programs to accumulating a surprisingly large cache of city and state real estate.

    Scholarship (mostly by Ivy and Ivy-adjacent trained scholars who have zero intellectual or emotional understanding of their city and region) is just how they get the tax breaks.

    1. KLG

      Nice to see that North of Center has returned. The first iteration was an excellent counter to the local cheerleading in Lexington. Regarding the University of Basketball, yes, it has a huge budgetary footprint. Twenty-plus years ago something called the Research Challenge Trust Fund (RCTF) was implemented as part of an initiative to make UK a Top-20 Public Research University by 2020. Fine. When it was pointed out that would require running three times faster than those ahead of UK who were not standing still (UCLA, Michigan, Berkeley, Wisconsin…even Florida and Georgia), crickets. And after all that money was spent UK is still the University of Basketball. But even that seems to be in disarray. Just the other day the Wildcats were taken absolutely apart by Georgia Tech. Oops.

      Long but a good look at the asininity of the University of Basketball’s plans, from the first iteration of North of Center, is also a good summary of what neoliberalization of everything education has produced:

  6. seabos84

    Sadly for us lowly peeee-on$, for decades The Noble Liberal Cla$$ has exalted their Tomes of Truth! & had pretty much nothing but contempt for the hard work of actually making stuff work. They have done a stellar job of looking out for themselves.

    “There was, thus, a turning point, which had not yet reached a clarity of options. No country moves forward more by ideas than America. And one of the problems of 1972 was that the idea system had become clogged by its own excessive outpourings. American intellectuals had written the Constitution, engineered turn-of-the-century reform, provided Franklin Roosevelt with his blueprints of reorganization, armed America with marvels of technology during th Second World War. They had been rewarded with a gush of approval, with an outpouring of funds, private and public, that had all but choked off fresh ideas – like a garden over-seeded and over-fertilized. The American idea system poured out paper after paper, study after study, learned investigation after learned investigation on the race problem, the urban problem, the environment problem, the television problem, the violence problem, the identity problem, until clear thinking was suffocated by the mattress of scholary investigation.”

    Prologue – The End Of The Postwar World, xxviii

    The Making of The President 1972, Theodore H. White, published 1973.

    [Background – White’s first “Making of the President 1960” won him a Pulitzer Prize. He grew up on Boston, went to Boston Latin & then Harvard, and was in Nationalist China during WW2 working for Time or Life? magazine.]

  7. jefemt

    Irony or paradox: banner ads accompanying this article on viewers right on my computer feature an ad for the sole four year university in the great state of Wyoming… UW. Go Cowboys!

    NB… Wyoming made a strategic decision scores of years ago to have a single University, to gather any of the scarce resources for higher ed into a single grantee/ beneficiary.

  8. CH

    So, let me get this straight. Navigation of this system is considered to be the “meritocracy” and those who manage to do it are deserving of their riches while the rest of us deserve our precarious and part-time gig work? Just checking.

    1. anon y'mouse

      considering the number of tertiary degree and higher holders who enjoy p/t work at the local starbucks, it ain’t just you!

      i knew a chem degree holding pizza delivery man for awhile. eventually he packed it in for the Electrician’s union.

      1. Arizona Slim

        Same thing happened to me back in the 1980s. I found that my university economics degree qualified me for such lofty positions as dishwasher, cashier, and shelf stocker.

        Color me as someone who is VERY skeptical of higher education.

        1. John Wright

          I remember the words of my late father, who graduated with a Notre Dame business degree in the 1930’s.

          He told of spending sleepless nights wondering what he would do.

          Eventually he interviewed for a job as a butcher at Safeway.

          He believed he got the job, over many other applicants, because of his experience at my grandparents’ small family grocery store.

          During the interview, he related that his experience “could help Safeway sell more meat” and told them how he would do this.

          He remained skeptical of investing too much in higher education.

          1. Hepativore

            An unlucky histologist here. I enjoyed my degree program and wanted to go into pure biotechnology research. To my chagrin I found out that most of the much-vaunted STEM fields particularly the S and E portions of it were being destroyed in the private sector by a combination of gig work, offshoring and insourcing with cheap guestworkers from overseas. This was part of process that has been happening since the Regan era.

            Now, I work in retail at a pet store with the only thing my degrees have gotten me is several thousand dollars in student loan debt which I am still paying off in my meager income. I honestly do not think that my job prospects are going to improve for the forseeable future. I am 36 and most R&D companies consider anybody older than their early-30’s to be over-the-hill.

            In all honesty, if I knew then what I know now after graduating from high school I would not have bothered with college. After all, few people work in their intended fields after obtaining their degrees and you will be shackled with student loan debt that you may never pay off. Many of my coworkers also have advanced degrees in various subjects but many of us have resigned ourselves to being retail wage slaves for the rest of our lives. Retirement is probably out of the question for many people younger than Gen-X.

            Likewise, I watched as my father had his tenured position as a university professor at the University of River Falls in Wisconsin instantly snatched away retroactively by governor Scott Walker. My father had been tenured for ten years and after Walker got rid of tenure for all public university professors within the state, many universities in Wisconsin responded by firing all of their older full-time faculty and replacing them with adjunct staff.

            My father was made an offer by the president of the university to be hired as an adjunct the following semester. It would have been a one-semester position for $12,000 and no benefits or promises of returning to the school next year. There was no way my parents could live off of that so they were forced to sell their house and move to Missouribecause of the low cost of living there. My father now works as a manager at an Ace Hardware store as that was the only job he could find at 65 and being at academia all of his career.

            1. The Rev Kev

              So sorry to hear what happened to you and your family. The word disgusted does not even begin to cover it. Not surprised that Scott Walker’s name comes into the mix though. There is no thought here about building up capacity in countries like the US and making use of talent. The sheer amount of talent and abilities going to waste must be staggering. Must be because most managers do not think much past this financial quarter.

            2. Robert Gray

              ‘ … and [a] after Walker got rid of tenure for all public university professors within the state, [b] many universities in Wisconsin responded by firing all of their older full-time faculty and replacing them with adjunct staff.’

              This is total fantasy. Scott Walker was a disaster but neither ‘a’ nor ‘b’ ever happened.

              Moreover, there is no such place as ‘the University of River Falls’. And, in the UW system, ‘the president of the university’ does not make contract offers to individual faculty or academic staff members at the constituent campuses.

              1. Hepativore

                Yes, UWRF does exist.


                Scott Walker did indeed get rid of tenure for public university professors within the state as part of a 2015 budget deal just like he got rid of the right of collective bargaining for public employees in 2011. During his terms, Walker tried to systemically destroy higher education and the careers of academic faculty while in office.


                My father was not given a “formal” offer by the UWRF president, it was an email circulated to all of the liquidated professors that they would be given priority hiring for the adjunct positions that their jobs were being replaced with.

  9. cocomaan

    As someone with experience in higher ed, and a couple of humanities degrees, Camille Paglia’s criticisms of the humanities cut so deep, so great to see her referenced here.


    This is a good example of her talking about teaching the humanities and what modern humanities have come to. I was blown away by this.

    I do agree that Paglia can be uneven, but that’s what the humanities is all about.

    1. lyman alpha blob

      Thanks for that – I always enjoy listening to Paglia. Her criticism of the postmodernists as ‘word choppers’ is spot on. I think that may be one of the worst results of neoliberalism – destroying the meanings of words to the point it becomes difficult to communicate at a societal level. And while the rest of us argue over what the meaning of ‘is’ is, the criminals in power are robbing us blind.

      Neoliberalism has also done a number on numbers. The article notes the overliance on assessments, presumably ‘data driven’ ones. We have had two successive school superintendents in my area who have openly admitted that math is not their strong point and yet they rely heavily on data driven assessments and will produce metrics for everything. I don’t believe they have a clue what they’re looking at. Our current superintendent was publicly embarrassed a couple years ago when a parent who does understand math pointed out at a well attended school board meeting that the grading software he relied on was a complete joke in dramatic fashion. As an accountant, I’m well aware that numbers can be manipulated to make them seem like they mean pretty much whatever the manipulator wants them to mean. Silicon Valley has made billions preying on people who don’t understand math to the point where we have unnecessary software for everything, tracking and monetizing every little action we make, and we are obviously at this point not the better for it.

      1. cocomaan

        I absolutely identify with the lousy data nonsense.

        In my work, I often had to work with the Institutional Effectiveness Office, which should be called the “Statistics Office”.

        I respect them and their knowledge, but often, these offices are tasked with producing data for whatever pet project is being promoted by administration at the time. That’s why I saw tons of turnover happen in that area, plus constant stress and alcoholism in the director. Lots of race-based statistics making that had to represent that the institution was failing to be accommodating to students of color on one hand, but also succeeding in every metric on the other. No wonder the poor woman turned to drink. “Let’s bake a cake using flour, but it has to be keto-friendly.”

    2. Alrus

      It’s unfortunate that this is hosted by Peterson. He starts the interview off by asking about “Neomarxism” which starts the whole thing off on the wrong foot. I don’t expect I’m going to hear about the corrupting influence of Capitalism and money in universities.

      1. cocomaan

        Yeah, you have to accept that he’s there if you’re not a Peterson fan (I like him but many don’t), but the interview does come across as Peterson interviewing her, and trying to understand her ideas, rather than him overwhelming the conversation with his usual.

      2. Kouros

        I some – not few – aspects, Peterson is a hack. And he’ll embrace the paradigm of the overseers, as long as he will have the ability to monetize his continuous gospel.

      3. lyman alpha blob

        I’ve never really listened to or read much by Peterson before but about halfway through the interview it started getting pretty clear why he is widely disliked.

        Paglia is uneven – at one point she’s arguing that historically men and women never shared labor duties and my grandmother who milked a few dozen cows by hand twice a day along with my grandfather, and then went in and did all the housework too would surely disagree – but she hits the nail on the head on a lot and plus is always a hoot.

  10. John B

    On top of all that, the raw material that universities must work with — high school students — is about to become much, much worse due to the coronavirus, at least in the US. They will have even fewer study skills, and much more mental illness. Those who can afford it may add another post-graduate year before college to compensate, but there are very few such programs; community colleges should start them.

    1. cocomaan

      Yikes, you’re right, and that’s depressing.

      My cousin is an English teacher in a rural area, economically challenged. He was telling me that the kids are getting stupider by the day. He is watching the assignments handed in degrade in quality.

      The older I get, the more I realize that learning is not about facts, but understanding how you yourself can learn new things. School is as much about the habit of learning as it is the content and we now have an entire cohort of kids whose habits have been undone.

      1. JWP

        By design. grades, grades, grades. That’s all there is. taking time to enjoy learning, something I have worked on, has led to lower grades because it requires time and going outside of the textbook and homework. Kids are able to enjoy what they learn if given the opportunity, yet from a young age it never presents itself. The advent of tech dominated lives and short attention spans makes it all worse too.

    2. Kurtismayfield

      The quality of work has dropped off a cliff. The kids are fried, and they do not think they will be/should be held responsible for their actions or work.

      Administrations are just doing a collective CYA exercise, because the failure rates have tripled.

      Parents don’t know what to do. At this point probably the most productive thing a parent can do with a remote/hybrid learning student is watch them work. Just watch them. See what they are doing, and how many distractions they have in their lives. One of the advantages of grade school environments is that the distraction is removed (for the most part) during class time. Not anymore.

      1. Eudora Welty

        This is slightly tangential, but I was 7/8 years old in 1967, and I remember noticing all the popular culture things I had to be current on (the Monkees, etc), and I specifically thought that the powers-that-be are making up all these things to pay attention to so that we aren’t paying attention to the things that actually matter. I was OK when I was a little kid.

  11. Lou Mannheim

    I spent a year as a “Career Coach” at an absurdly priced East Coast university. My job was a mix of office hours, hosting events for students/alumni/hiring managers, and creating Excel and Bloomberg training classes (there weren’t any).

    It was fun for a bit, until I realized the students had no concept of how competitive finance is. Everybody that came to me had big plans for a career on Wall Street – that’s nothing new. However, hardly any of them were going to get a look – their grades were middling, their communication skills needed work, and not nearly enough evidenced critical thinking skills (although on a conference call a hiring manager explicitly stated they’re not looking for that. Sigh).

    And then I made a presentation to the Alumni Committee, and that’s when I realized how this school is run. It was littered with wealthy PE and sell-side people, and the mantra was they wanted more alumni in the business. Why? Ego. It doesn’t matter that they’re ready or qualified, just get’r done or I’ll donate elsewhere.

    My brother has a PhD in History and taught for several years. He had to leave because he couldn’t support his family. He was also very discouraged by student apathy and all the administrative BS.

    I think this excellent post is part and parcel with the Great Inflation of the past 40 years. All the provosts and new layers, new buildings, coordination with private business, grade inflation, sports entertainment and the big contracts, all the bells and whistles that are entirely unnecessary for LEARNING.

    There is no solution.

  12. Anonymous

    Most faculty are cowards and careerists and sycophants who just want to be comfortable or gain status with peers, but this neglects the institution. They are politically inept, like the progressives (as Matt Stoller has observed). Most of them do not know how to get anything done. They do not understand power.

    I know this is tangential to the thrust of the article but I wish the writer had given examples of the evaluation of progressives?

    1. I wonder who the writer would define as progressives. For example Neera Tanden is billing herself as a progressive but that is to laugh.
    2. Maybe someone at NC could explain?
    Matt never responds to me on Twitter or I’d go ask him. In fact I did do that.

    I think Bernie (who is a Progressive), did an excellent job of speaking truth to power as well as organizing a movement. The fact that the powers that be ganged up on him to stomp on the movement is the reality of entrenched power these days. That is why I’m advocating for the formation of a new national party. The historical analogy I’m using is the anti-slavery movement. I would ask that people find everything they can and study up on that segment of American history as to how to proceed against today’s entrenched neo-liberals.

    1. freebird

      Bernie did a fantastic job right up til they ganged up on him right before Super Tuesday. From then until he conceded, had he been more politically ‘ept’, he would have used the power he had from the support of many millions of people to demand a concession or two before conceding. Such as Medicare for All, a 2d round of stimulus, police reform, or something. But he didn’t, instead he conceded and then campaigned harder for Biden than Biden did for himself. Pretending that he would get his ‘good friend Joe’ to actually do something progressive if asked nicely.

      I think this is what the author is getting at, the failure to play hardball LBJ style to get some compromise deals done whenever possible. And you don’t have to look only at ‘real’ progressives. If you look at the faux progressives like Nancy Pelosi etc., they have for many years started at the middle and allowed conservatives to call the tune. This is deliberate on behalf of donors/bribers, but some pundits still think it’s because of ineptness.

      1. Anonymous

        Thanks for the bit of analysis. And too, I just had my second cup of tea so I’m more wide awake now.

        You’re 100% correct about Bernie-he’s never been one to dig in when the opposition mounts a concerted attack. That really makes him much like the other members of the Democratic party who are more adept at slugging it out in intramural sporting events with other Dems than they are with taking on the true opponents in the GOP and big business. And in fact the blood thirsty cheerleaders who are on the outside of government (at least officially); those are who we should all be pushing on in a steady and consistent manner until we force them to yield.

        You’re right too about Bernie conceding to not make waves-he did that with Hillary. So he tries to avoid real confrontations when he needs to take a stand. Even when its not fun. So there’s a time to fight and a time to join. Bernie’s too easily swayed to be a joiner.

        Someday another Bernie Sanders type will come along and do what he did not-run as an independent and shred the Democratic Party: even if it means losing a battle to the GOP in order to win the larger war. Again, looking back at the formation of the Republican Party-the leaders gave up on the Whigs and that party finally died off but the new party-headed by Lincoln, carried the torch.

        Oh of another Abraham Lincoln.

        1. albrt

          “Someday another Bernie Sanders type will come along and do what he did not-run as an independent and shred the Democratic Party”

          How much time do you think humans have?

    2. Kouros

      Good luck with getting a third party running in the US. Since it is the states legislation that operationalize elections, you will probably find out that a third party to be put on the ballot (not for president, but for representatives), in many a state would need more supporters and signatures than there are democrats and republicans combined. Mobilizing such numbers is a daunting task that would be possible only if more than 50% of the population were to be unemployed AND HUNGRY.

      And if that were to happen, other legal technicalities would be brought up.

      And then the NSA, FBI, State Police, and the local sheriff would also be brought in. A lot of male candidates would start o be accused of childhood pornography, etc., etc., etc…

  13. Carolinian

    Perhaps it’s not just universities. Cities now compete with each other on the quality of their school systems. In my town a functional but aging 1960 high school was just replaced with a billion dollar megaplex complete with stadium, basketball “arena,” and fully equipped performing arts center. This spare no expense approach is apparently seen as necessary to compete with charter schools and private schools not to mention other towns.

    Which is to say that the neoliberals have introduced competitive pressure into the government/nonprofit world while seeking to reduce or eliminate it in the business world. I have no idea whether this change in culture is turning out better students but it almost seems as though these institutions have taken on a life of their own with education somewhere down the list.

    1. Lou Mannheim

      The competition is everywhere, I think. Government jobs are tough to come by, in fact anything that offers benefits and a stable wage is tough to get, and this was before the pandemic hit. There are a lot of people with advanced degrees and not nearly enough jobs.

      But at least the Nation got sports entertainment this year.

    2. J7915

      Few years ago had to go north of Manhattan, nyc over the East River to yonkers anyway beyong 208 st stop on the Ind. Anyway was chocked at the Columbia U stadium on the east river it would have severly embarassed the Union HS in Tulsa, Ok. And that stadium is being remodelled an embellished, with skyboxes no doubt. Have to drive by and see.

  14. Rod

    from CanCyn, as seen with my own two eyes:
    And yes the bloat of administration. And the contracting of private sector consultants to do everything from re-decorate to write curriculum. Assessments done by outside firms so that the college didn’t own the data and was therefore not subject to Freedom of Information requests. More and more administrators who know or care nothing for education. Bloated grades and high school graduates who arrive incapable of doing the work – and thus a whole new wing of non-academic support personnel created to help them succeed.
    Like Lampreys.

    and cocoman, seeing the other part, with my bold:

    the more I realize that learning is not about facts, but understanding how you yourself can learn new things. School is as much about the habit of learning as it is the content and we now have an entire cohort of kids whose habits have been undone.

    imo—the desire to Learn and acquire Knowledge must be developed first–any benefit–tangible or intangible–emanates from that center. It is not Performative.

    1. CanCyn

      Yeps and absolutely. Curiosity and interest in the world are driven out early. And you can’t really learn without them. Give me the wonder of a wide eyed child over the apathy and need to conform of teens and young adults with their focus on their phones and social media any day.

      1. fajensen

        To be honest, there has always been a trend in American education towards teaching “Facts”, and “Procedures” rather than teaching “free-form”reasoning. At least within Engineering.

        The ideal seemed to be to have a few really bright experts like Feynman figure out optimal solutions, then “communicate” their Thinking and Reasoning into checklists, nomographs, tabulated values and flowcharts for the lesser talents to follow. I believe it was considered to be some kind of efficient allocation of talent, not that “one didn’t want too much thinking around the place”.

        The Electrical Code in America is prescribing how to reach the design goals, the European one is the opposite, stating the goals, and not how to get there. Many, many discussions will flow from that in a multinational project!

        With “digitalisation” of course anything that can be packetised as binary choices will be boosted enormously by being very easy to digitise and once digital, costs nothing to distribute. Driving a tsunami of “rote learning” and “rote thinking” within all academic fields, meeting “the requirements” is what moves one forward, not understanding.

        Exemplified with essay grading “AI”, where Just mashing keywords into the text is what triggers the “learning objective”, which now is The Grade and not The Writing and Making a Coherent Argument.

        IMO, this way of learning allows too many to succeed. People with “frontal-lobe issues”, expressed by weak self regulation, lack of internal motivation and brains glitching out when corrected, instead of maturing and then making progress, we now have “Gamegate” minds showing up “early” at university level!

        Then they can use their credentials to move on into positions where they have authority and a budget.

        It will be one hell of a ride!

  15. David

    I’ve followed this at first hand in universities in several countries. It’s heartbreaking.
    At least it is for me, but apparently not for lots of others. Why?
    It has to do, I think, with what you think a university (or any form of education) is actually for. In Britain, which I know best, education of any type has always been seen by the ruling class as a ticket to a better life, and a means of preserving their privileges, but never as an end in itself. They sent their children to “public” (ie private) schools less for the education than to make social contacts and acquire a cachet which would financially benefit them for the rest of their lives. It was thus an investment with a promised return. The more intelligent of the ruling class’s children would go to Oxford or Cambridge, again less for the education than for the fact of having been there and getting to know people. They would then be best placed to get high-paying jobs in the City, or elsewhere in the Establishment, so that the ruling class could perpetuate itself.

    For the rest of us, especially those who studied humanities rather than subjects like law and medicine, education was an end in itself, and a way to escape from our origins into a better world. Fifty years ago, my Head of Department welcomed new students by posing the hypothetical question, Why Study Literature, as opposed to say, Engineering? It was, he said, a self-justifying activity. Such statements were as common then as they are unthinkable now. And more widely, successive governments then believed that an educated population was better than an uneducated one. But those were the days when the newly-elected Labour Prime Minister was a grammar-school educated economist who believed in technology. Twenty-five years later, the newly elected Labour leader was a public-school educated lawyer who believed in God.

    So what happened was that British elites, for whom education was first and last an individual financial investment, wrested back control of education from the more progressive forces of the postwar boom years. Above all, if individuals had to pay for their education, if failing their exams was a disaster, and if a degree was a minimum passport to anything like a decent life, elites could be assured of generations of servile, well-behaved students, unlike the bolshy lot that I was part of.

    Finally, this wouldn’t have been so bad if it hadn’t been for parallel social trends after the 1960s. The mindless worship of the individual, the infantilisation of young people and the move from seeing higher education as a privilege that had to be earned to a commodity that could be bought, has combined with the mangerialisation of institutions to produce something like a perfect storm. In my experience, students are less mature, intellectually and personally, less well-educated, more demanding of support and comfort, more frightened of failing and generally less well suited to university education than even twenty years ago. And the sterile managerialism and the cancerous growth of “administration” has actually exacerbated the problem. In the circumstances it’s surprising that things are not worse than they are.

    Not every country has suffered to the same extent. France, with its effectively free education, and its tradition of Republican education as a liberating device, was better until recently. But even there the poison is seeping in, as anglo-saxon management and grievance politics have started to take over French universities. The reaction of French student unions to the virus has been to demand better treatment, less to learn, less to write, more free time, and of course lower requirements for “vulnerable and marginalised groups” etc. etc.

    And the end of all of this? Societies where people have worthless degrees, where they can’t actually do the jobs they’ve been recruited for, where the best teachers leave, where the quality of teaching declines (never mind research) and the spiral goes ever downwards. As I said, it’s heartbreaking.

  16. SoCal Rhino

    In an engineering program decades ago, several of my professors openly expressed contempt at the lack of demands being placed on current students, with far too little time spent in classes and out of class work, and the ridiculous notion of grading on a curve,(Thinking a bit, these were all in the Physics department) at a time when incoming students were warned not to try to hold part time jobs and to expect to spend at least 40 hours per week on work outside of class. My student experience confirms that this trend started a long time ago.

  17. Robert Gray

    ‘Erasmus’ mentions in passing the late (d. 2002) lamented Prof Richard Mitchell. I subscribed to The Underground Grammarian back in the day and I will always remember an observation from Ben Jonson that Mitchell quoted as a sort of epigram:

    Neither can his mind be thought to be in tune, whose words do jarre;
    nor his reason in frame, whose sentence is preposterous.

  18. JustAnotherVolunteer

    The University of Oregon is currently offering a buy out package to long serving faculty and officers of administration:


    This pool includes both tenured faculty and career faculty and OAs who fall into the PERS tier1/tier2 buckets. Current new hires come in at tier 4 – a very different critter.

    Those who remember the IBM “voluntary transition” buyouts of the 90s will recognize the strategy. This undercuts tenure, may reduce some departments in ways that are not recoverable, and reduces pension liability since the sweetener here is a one time payout for health insurance rather then PERS support.

    The target pool are skeptical but the long term health of the UO is also dicey.

    Rock and a hard place.

    1. juno mas

      These “retirement” buy-outs are happening in the California community college system (~1 million students). They are offered to both administrators and tenured profs alike. Cutting costs is imperative when the incoming high school enrollment is down an average of 7-8%; AND International (Chinese) enrollment (high fee students) is more than 50% lower. My local community college has a $4M shortfall. (That’s huge, actually.)

      Faculty members have lobbied for tenured backfill of their lost positions. Only five positions have been approved; but not yet funded. The faculty is now predominately adjuncts (gig workers) at 70%. Yet people still strive for that Ph Ed. (which is shortened to PhD in their resume’ and administrative title).

      I expect the educational game will return to normal as the emergency vaccines prove effective over the Spring and Summer. My college is planning on in-person instruction Fall 2021.

  19. Calypso Facto

    I’m more well-known around these parts for attempting to demystify Big Tech’s functional machinations thanks to being a tech worker this past miserable decade, but I actually left the industry over the summer. In an attempt to switch careers I enrolled in a US undergrad state program that is well-regarded for remote learning and girded myself for jumping on the undergrad wagon in my upper 30s. I had gone to a non-university school in my 20s for something utterly unrelated to tech – fashion design – and had a tech support job through that round of school. When I left in 2011 it made more sense to stay in tech than make clothes. Earlier this year it seemed to make more sense to learn soil science or botany remotely while doing lesser-grade tech work remotely.

    Unfortunately I barely lasted two weeks because the remote learning experience – my own several years of working remotely and 2020’s exceptional pandemic/political fireworks aside – was so bad I was immediately infuriated at the cost and teaching style that I knew I would not be able to complete years of it, it would not train me for a job in any way, and I would be better served to get out ASAP and avoid the debt.

    Years of tech work has acutely attuned me to recognizing the software fabric behind any technical implementation, and the schools that were all recognized as remote learning leaders prior to the pandemic are firmly built on big tech’s toolset. I’m less bothered in this specific case by the security/data issues inherent there than the understanding of how colossally bloated and sh!tty the apps running the schools (Canvas in the front, Gainsight in the back for student admin, Google Apps for document, a patchwork for branded tech services for things like authentication, library services, collaboration) – because that means multiple layers of the school are dependent on the bloat inherent in those tech platforms that make their ecampus work. That means it will never get better, it will never get cheaper, and it will always get worse year over year as bigger teams have to be hired by school admin to keep up with the sales quotas issued by all those tech services they’re using.

    And then the classes themselves were in some cases links to Youtube videos of history documentaries made for tv, for discussion in the Canvas forum app. I thought I was going to faint from rage the first time I saw it and then I realized this is just how it is now. If my goal is to do more meaningful work with soil and plants I can get there by planting a garden and designing some open source hardware for monitoring in my spare time. I don’t know how to really comment effectively on what universities used to be – I know before I went in I thought they were still more-or-less a place where you went to learn and contribute to the body of human knowledge – fashion school was set up like an oldschool dressmaker’s academy, we cut patterns and sewed and were judged on the quality of our work rather than lecture. But what I experienced was not in any way job training or teaching how to learn or think critically. It was standard big tech marketing magic laid over a combo powerpoint and commenting module-making application, and i was expected to pay tens of thousands for the privilege. No.

      1. Calypso Facto

        Thanks Slim!!

        Yeah the apprentice-style model is vastly superior to teaching any kind of trade or skilled handiwork. For something like plant science I expected a lot of organic chemistry transitioning into greenhouse labs (that I’d be able to do in person after the pandemic ended). Imagine my disappointment to find that most upper level botany and plant biologist ‘jobs’ available now are computational (genomics). Years of learning to code for Big Tech and saving to leave for the verdant groves of academe only to find out that even the plant sciences are being driven to the software mines.

        edit to add: probably the most revolutionary act one can do now is refuse to learn to code and reject the entire premise for software eating the world

        1. Dirk77

          Yet, I have found working as a coder useful for the same reason you have: I easily recognize the [family blog] in using software where it isn’t needed and is actually harmful.

  20. Brian Westva

    I agree that higher education is failing. Sports, buildings, administrators, and social life is much more important than the over-priced “education” that students get. I teach forestry at a very small college in a rural state that has been struggling financially for years mostly due to poor management and a focus on athletics. The college has been saddled with a tremendous amount of debt to renovate buildings and build new buildings (for athletics) despite declining enrollment. It surprises me that the college was able to sell so many bonds. I surely wouldn’t buy any.

    I’ve been leery of the online classes and entire programs that are online. How can the majority of students learn online? I know most of my students don’t like online because they don’t learn as much. I think that online classes are mostly bull****. Sure they might work for some motivated learners but most college kids don’t fit into that category. When the history of our time is written online classes will be amongst TV, air conditioning, video games, fast food, cars, and neoliberalism that led to our demise.

    The thing that really gets me about higher education is all of the assessment and accreditation that can apparently be so easily gamed by the colleges. There is a large consulting industry to help colleges meet the criteria. The amount of critical thinking and review that goes into the accreditation process is minimal. It is more about creating a narrative that the college is meeting the criteria than actually self-reflecting on how do we improve.

    I know that many college students aren’t learning very much while they are at our school. Yet those students are eligible for sports and even get scholarships. All the while other students are paying full tuition and working hard to pass their classes.

    In our program we try to hold the line. We have expectations for our students. We make students do homework, papers, lab reports, lab activities, readings, projects, etc. we make students go out in the field even when it is cold or rainy. I’m always amazed to hear from students that professor X just has 4 tests in his/her class. That is shameful. Students have to interact with faculty and have to engage with the material. They have to think about what they are learning. They have to practice what they are learning. They have to demonstrate what they have learned. Not just pick one out of four answers on a multiple choice test.

    COVID should be a wake up call to higher education. Colleges need to cut out the BS ( admin, sports, etc) and focus on rigorously preparing the next generation. They will face challenges greater than any in the 20th century.

    1. Arizona Slim

      The part about making students go out into the field even when it’s cold and rainy brought a smile to my face. Because, no matter how bad the weather, the trees have to stay outside and cope with it.

  21. Alexandra

    Just some further observations from someone who has been in the trenches and is still trench-adjacent (lots of family and friends who are/were teachers or academics)–with apologies for length:

    I taught for 10-ish years as an adjunct at a couple of public universities in the Midwest (science and social sciences). Over that time I saw a precipitate decline in students’ ability to reason, learn, and communicate verbally.

    By the end, I found them incapable of basic “if…then” logical inference and they had little understanding of analogy. If I taught them that A + B = C, then asked on a test C – B = ?, they were totally lost. Their only learning skill was (poor) memorization, and they appeared to experience not just frustration but almost an existential terror when encountering subjects that either had no single answer, or where they were asked to discover the answer.

    My closest friend, one of the few who actually managed to secure a tenure-track position*, was recently telling me how she has to stay absolutely au courant with political correctness and rigorously self-police her own language because a single offended student could end her career. A slip up as slight as addressing a group as “you guys” is all it could take to tank her life’s work.

    *I don’t know of a single one of my former colleagues who has secured a tenure-track job unless they were (1) engaged in quantitative, scientific research or (2) male. If you’re female and in the humanities/social sciences, I guess you better learn to code.

    She has commented many times that her students can be ruthlessly judgmental and their judgments do not take context into account. This is how they’ve been trained to be from early childhood: totally literal, nuance-free memorizers of “content” and generators of “metrics,” trusting in any so-called authority figure to give them “the answers” (so long as that authority doesn’t use forbidden words), willing and eager to prove their own worth by policing their fellows… Perfect Orwellian employees and citizens.

    Are the universities broken or are they working as intended? I actually hope it’s the former.

    1. flora

      Their only learning skill was (poor) memorization, and they appeared to experience not just frustration but almost an existential terror when encountering subjects that either had no single answer, or where they were asked to discover the answer.

      Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001. It was promoted as a way to improve struggling schools, but it was soon clear the real payload was cutting public school funding for schools whose students did poorly on tests. This quickly created a ‘teach to the test’ k-12 public school evironment. So 10 years ago, say, students entering college were products of at least 7 or eight years of high-stakes, k-12, teach to the test teaching and memorization demands. Teaching was in too many cases replaced with rote drill; a change made necessary for public schools not to be docked funding and for teachers to keep their jobs. Silicon Valley digital education companies made money, of course. I think this form of teaching has had a very negative effect on students and teachers. It seems like a way to destroy what’s best in public k-12 education. (The rationales used to pass NCLB were based on questionable international testing metrics.) My 2 cents.


      1. Michael Fiorillo

        And the Common Core curriculum, largely funded by the Gates Foundation, explicitly rejected teaching context, instead focusing on sterile “close reading” of excerpts. Kids are barely reading short stories, let alone novels, in high school anymore. Increasingly, the kids don’t have the attention span or cognitive stamina to do it.

      2. Dirk77

        As a commenter stated in Lambert’s column about academia last week: “You educate humans and train animals”. Turning that around, if you train humans, but don’t educate them, what you will get are animals.

  22. JWP

    “The university is a corporation” can easily be turned into “the university is an extension of corporations” which is at the heart of why there’s no learning. The courses, especially econ, business, and other FIRE precursor departments have their curriculum basically laid out by the largest local employers and wall street players. So now everyone is learning tailored curriculum that ignores fundamentals and denies criticism in favor of trends and profitable models. No one like to learn this, it is boring, time consuming, and inapplicable in daily life unless you are at work for one of these places. This leads the average student, who is made abundantly clear they need a 3.5 or above to land a job at one of those places (the only well playing jobs), to do anything possible to get the grade including cheating and streamlining studying to answer specific questions as opposed to understanding concepts. I myself have done this because the material is so boring and I merely want to get the grade and get out of the class.

    Tack on the relentless pursuit of career centers, recruitment fairs, and emails with the subjects like “is your resume interview ready” every other day, it is an assembly line for turning students into corporate drones. Yet almost all students recognize it to some degree and either through economic, cultural, or familial pressures know its alm sot impossible to have a stable life without giving in, hence widespread depression and anxiety on campuses. I’d say upward of 80% of the student population has one of these at any given time.

  23. Edward

    Higher education does have problems and it is not organized to tackle this situation. Everybody is absorbed with their own problems and responsibilities. It is easier just to contend with your immediate situation and put off the long-term and global problems. The government is in the best position to respond to this society-wide problem, but we haven’t seen this kind of leadership in a long time. The demise of American education probably started under Reagan.

    One factor in the financial problems of colleges might be the wars and the bailouts. Does giving vast sums of money to the banks and military make everyone else poorer? That is my suspicion.

  24. An old carpenter

    This is an issue which has been discussed over a long time. One could start with Pitirim Sorokin’s “Social and Cultural Mobility” (1959), followed by Neil Postman’s “Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology” (1993) and “The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School” (1996) and, then, Christopher Lasch’s “The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy” (1996). The concepts in these books could then be combined with Clark Kerr’s analysis in “The Uses of the University” (1963). IMO such an exercise would show why the present situation, explained in detail by Benjamin Ginsberg in “The Fall of the Faculty and the Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters” (2011) was inevitable. Further cogitation might also show the part non-deplorable elites played/play in this saga.

  25. dmc

    Best post on higher ed I have read in recent memory, and I have read a lot of them.

    IMHO, cultural and organizational problems like these (and to this list I’d add the growth in student debt) are frequently the result of economic mistakes (misallocation of resources, ridiculous subsidies, etc.) We might as well admit it: in this case, the mistake is that there are too damned many universities in the US.

    So Erasmus can recommend “reform,” and he or she is correct, but the only reform that would make a difference is one that changes the economics. My recommendation would be for the Feds to get out of the student loan businesses and require the universities to make and hold the loans themselves. (Maybe the feds could stay in the game with needs-tested grants, or a program to buy down the interest rates.)

    Wah-la! Fewer universities. Fewer slacker students wasting their money and ours. Better focus among the schools and the students that remain. Lesser burden on the taxpayer.

    Major pain for faculty, I know, but there is major pain now, especially among underemployed and indebted graduates. Adjustment always hurts.

    Extra bonus: Nice real estate available to retirees.

    PS My Dad, a career K-12 superintendent, said that there is no such thing as higher ed, it’s just later ed.

    1. TBellT

      So Erasmus can recommend “reform,” and he or she is correct, but the only reform that would make a difference is one that changes the economics. My recommendation would be for the Feds to get out of the student loan businesses and require the universities to make and hold the loans themselves. (Maybe the feds could stay in the game with needs-tested grants, or a program to buy down the interest rates.)

      Maybe but first you have to change the economics that life in America without a college degree for most is cruelty stacked upon misery. Pretty much every other developed country treats non-college grads better than we do.

      1. dmc

        Agreed but part of the point is that American misery is gradually extending to more and more of us and a college “education” is no prophylactic. Given a choice between minimum-wage-slavery-or-unemployment without debt, and with, I’d take the former. Most people would; we can read Hobbes and Proust on our own. Fewer worthless degrees and less educational debt are a loss to no one except the higher ed institutions themselves. The revolution may or not arrive; but in the meantime perhaps we can get our universities to stop lying to us about what we’ll get in exchange for our dollars and our years and our hopes. And we can save our subsidy dollars, if any are left, for real bargains or the truly needy.

    2. Edward

      I wonder if paying students a salary could change some of the negative dynamics. Being a student is somewhat like working at a job, but without renumeration, at least in the immediate term. It would allow teachers to demand more from the students and probably reduce or eliminate grade inflation.

  26. doily

    This is a painful subject for me and there is much that resonates in the post and in a number of the comments (the decline of secondary education, reducing universities to garbage-in-garbage-out; the insolubility of treating students as customers while employers who call the shots want them to be products; the political naivete and cowardice of faculty who have abdicated university governance) . I have lived through the “rock and a hard place” dilemma between sticking with an academic career or taking the package, as one’s university, indeed one’s entire national system of universities, is ground into the neoliberal dust (I chose the hard place and learned to code).

    There were a few comments under Lambert’s original post from University of Chicago alumni. I am one as well (BA Economics class of 1982). The College of the University of Chicago was an incredible place in the late 1970s. There were fewer undergraduates than law school or MBA students, fewer even than some large suburban high schools. In my final year I had classes with fewer than a dozen students. It cost my parents and I very little (with financial aid and low interest loans). I started off determined to get to law school or get an MBA, but I was a student willing to be malleable, to be formed and produced by teachers who believed that inquiry was self-justifying and who controlled a core curriculum that included Marx, Freud, Dostoevsky, Joyce, Marcuse… I don’t know what’s on the core curriculum these days. I think they teach you how to code.

    Perry Anderson has a long historical perspective on the UK going back to Atlee’s Labour government in the 1940s in a recent New Left Review. In a section on the vicissitudes of the intelligentsia (if that’s what it can even be called anymore after the Blair era), I was struck solidly in the chest by this summary. In Blair’s early years, Anderson writes:

    “[In the Academy], hopes that [New Labour policies] would repair the damage left by the Thatcher period were soon gone, as it became clear that, on the contrary, the new regime was going not only to accept, but extend it, with still more far-reaching measures of managerial control and marketization. By the end of the New Labour era, the universities had been battered thrice over. First, with deep spending cuts and subjection of scholarship to crudely quantified targeting of output under Thatcher; then by imposition of corporate management systems, inflating bureaucracy at the expense of teaching and research; then by the introduction of fees converting students into customers, and of public—sc. market—‘impact’ as a criterion of promotion and funding. No other country in the advanced capitalist world saw a reduction of higher education to commercial logic so extreme. What was the reaction? Within the academy, a single scholar, Stephan Collini, published two books of eloquent protest, each well received; outside it, a single independent researcher, Andrew McGettigan, produced two books dismantling the economics of the changes, each well documented.* Neither to the smallest visible effect. The intelligentsia on the receiving end of two decades of brutal neo-liberal assault lifted scarcely a finger of collective resistance to it. Finally, after twenty-five years, when even its pensions were cut, token strikes (absences of a fortnight at a time), bungled by the union, ignored the majority of university teachers, and shutting down not a single campus, began in fits and starts in 2018, petering out fruitlessly in 2020—all belated, all confined to narrowly economic issues, none raising broader structural questions.”

    * Stafan Collini, What are Universities For?, London 2012, and Speaking of Universities, London 2017; Andrew McGettigan, False Accounting, London 2012, and The Great University Gamble, London 2013.

    Why did I quit? It wasn’t because of the transparent stupidity of inflating bureaucracy at the expense of teaching and research, the transparent stupidity of treating students as customers, the transparent stupidity of the ‘employability’ cross-curricular themes. And it was not about the sycophants, the cowards, the dysfunctional union, and the complete absence of organised pushback. The last straw was the ‘impact’ thing. I remember sitting in an “impact case study session” looking an ass dean across the table in the eye while we were literally being taught how to fudge and make shit up on our case studies, surrounded by young lecturers earnestly taking notes. It felt like a hopeless, intellectually bankrupt place to be.

    We could start all over with mutual aid societies, as Lambert suggested, but we would need to take over the libraries and the labs first.

    1. Dirk77

      Given how all the factories that weren’t shipped to China were sold pennies on the dollar, I’m sure you could get the library and labs cheap, as long as someone’s bonus was tied to it.

  27. HotFlash

    I was going to set this as a reply to Alexandra, but then it seemed a good response to JWP just below, Edward, and more up top. So yes, Alexandra, the universities and other educational institutions are working as intended, at least since 1971. That was the year that Lewis Powell wrote this memorandum (text courtesy of his alma mater, Washington and Lee University) at the request of his friend Eugene B. Sydnor Jr., who was education director of the US Chamber of Commerce, the original Big Business lobby. The program was accepted and carried out, funded by old-money tycoons like Richard Mellon Scaife and the cough-drop Smiths, as well as those johnny-come-lately oligarchs, the Kochs. They founded and funded business-oriented think tanks, speakers bureaus (available to college campuses and the ‘rubber-chicken’ circuit of Rotary, Lions, and other small-town service clubs, or really. They starteded magazines and, eventually, ALEC — yes, that ALEC.

    You see, they took Joe Hill’s advice, and we did not.

  28. HotFlash

    I was going to set this as a reply to Alexandra, but then it seemed a good response to JWP just below, Edward, and more up top. So yes, Alexandra, the universities and other educational institutions are working as intended, at least since 1971. That was the year that Lewis Powell wrote this memorandum (text courtesy of his alma mater, Washington and Lee University) at the request of his friend Eugene B. Sydnor Jr., who was education director of the US Chamber of Commerce, the original Big Business lobby. The program was accepted and carried out, funded by old-money tycoons like Richard Mellon Scaife and the cough-drop Smiths, as well as those johnny-come-lately oligarchs, the Kochs. They founded and funded business-oriented think tanks, speakers bureaus (available to college campuses and the ‘rubber-chicken’ circuit of Rotary, Lions, and other small-town service clubs, or really any group. They started magazines and, eventually, ALEC — yes, that ALEC.

    You see, they took Joe Hill’s advice, and we did not.

  29. Ep3

    First i want to thank YVes for the ability for me to run my mouth freely about the following:

    In my mid 20s i quit my full time job to go back to college and finish my accounting degree, as that was supposedly better than a factory job with retirement. I wasn’t totally blinded by teenage optimism. This is a big ten school. The professors all went on and on about the starting pay, and not to be tempted by leaving a firm too soon chasing that even bigger money. They laughed it off like everyone had such opportunity. They brought in former students to talk about this. Then when it came to the material, professors constantly waved off further lecture and questions about several topics, stating “you will learn that once you get working in a firm”. Then when testing time came, the tests were overly complex and detailed. Materials were reviewed beforehand. But testing, like the grading, is being based on a curve. So while i was getting Cs & Ds on tests, i would end the class with a 3.0-3.5 final grade. I feel they were whittling us out to get only the smartest (maybe not fastest, but quickest to adapt) students, while not really teaching everyone in the class. Heck it was really a ranking for their benefactors, the top 4 firms. (Funny story, Arthur Anderson’s name was everywhere one year. Then the next year it disappeared). Most professors were former employees who still maintained their connections in the firm.
    I went there to get a great education from a top business school. But my intentions were never to go work at the Top 4 and spend half my time living in one town, while traveling the country the rest of the time.
    I can only imagine what it’s like now. I was attending in 2003-2006. Half my accounting professors were former alumni that had been teaching there for decades. Then the other ones were younger persons who spent the majority of their time doing research.

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