Monday, June 22, 2009

So let's do less research and solve our economic problems in higher education, says professor

This is the kind of article that reaffirms for me why other nations tend to do consistently better when it comes to educating their students. It also reaffirms the trend that certain college administrators have of embracing the business models without actually thinking about all the possible consequences past saving a buck or two. Professor Joseph T. Johnson's recent opinion piece for Inside Higher Ed on "Less Research, More Economies of Scale" made me wonder about a few things, and it seemed a bit insensitive as well. Allow me to make a comment or two. Cites come from the essay unless otherwise noted.

On the issue of legislatures and their appropriations (or the recent drastic cuts in said appropriations), according to Professor Johnson, when colleges claim this is a problem, he labels it as "that response is hollow." Let me tell him and his peers what is hollow. The fact that this nation simply refuses to put their money where their mouths are is hollow. The fact that, allegedly, we want a well-educated workforce but refuse to pay for it, because heaven forbid it may mean paying some more taxes, rings hollow as well. And while legislators face various pressures in terms of what to fund, education certainly is important, and it is an investment. The fact is that legislatures across the nation have been slashing educational funding for higher education pretty much with impunity. There is evidence that someone with more education will earn more in the long term (says the Census Bureau here; hell, even the Canadians say it here. And I just ran a very quick search. If I actually put an effort, I can get you more). I am not an economist, but as I understand it, if someone earns more, they are likely better able to pay taxes thus increasing the revenues for the nation. But, as many business people say, you have to spend money to make money. So when colleges say that yes, lack of state funding is a problem, it is not just some hollow words. The fact that some states decide to cut funds and impose caps on tuition revenues is the height of hypocrisy. Education is not going to pay for itself, unless the good professor wants to teach for free, which I doubt. Then again, based on his essay, he probably just wants to be part of the small cadre doing research.

Professor Johnson also states that when the colleges look at economizing in terms of personnel, it "is directed at administrative and logistical workers, rather than faculty. . . ." Yes, we can grant that faculty make a big chunk of a college's expenses. However, schools are not pointing too much at the deans, vp's, provosts, and other high level "administrative workers." They usually point at the support staff like secretaries, librarians, and janitors, the people who keep the place running. When in reality, the ones who are costing quite a bit are the higher level college administrators. There is a reason why U.S. News and World Report named Higher Education Administrator as one of the best careers for 2009. Must be nice. Ironic too that the people getting the cushiest deals are putting the ax on everybody else. I am not seeing the big honchos taking pay cuts or getting laid off. So it may seem there is still much work to do for the sake of that efficiency.

And when it comes to faculty, what the professor does not seem to recognize is the increasing reliance on adjuncts, so if anything, the colleges are already cutting back on the faculty under the excuse of increasing efficiency and cutting costs. Here is just one story on the adjunct issue. In the interest of disclosure, yes, I was adjunct faculty at one point, so I know what I am talking about.

Johnson's idea in large part goes back to the notion of making a distinction between researchers and teachers. This is not new; Professor Johnson is basically advocating a two-tier system between the "elite" researchers and the teachers in the trenches. He writes as one of his suggestions: "Eliminate the scholarly activity requirements of most instructors on the undergraduate faculty and assign responsibility for research and developing curricula to a small cadre of professors." And I am sure that Professor Johnson would be happy to be part of that small cadre that tells everyone else how to teach in the interest of setting a uniform standard. The same kind of uniform standards that basically have turned public education into an extended exercise in regurgitation of "basic" facts that leaves students woefully unprepared when they get to college. We can certainly talk about the costs of remedial education to colleges (see this article from The New York Times for instance, and here is at least one study on the topic).

But what is truly offensive is the idea that teachers somehow do no research and simply teach like automatons to whatever they get in some mass produced textbook. In fact, Johnson says "there is no reason for this teacher-supporting research to be done by the instructor him or herself, rather than by the small cadre of professors, whose job is to research and develop curricula." Oh really? We just should forget the idea that teachers, the good ones, engage in thoughtful, reflective practice and do actually engage in research. Just don't tell these folks or these folks. And I am sure the folks at the National Writing Project will be happy to shut down so they can have the people like Professor Johnson impart their "wisdom" on their teaching practice. I am sure the various professors that I know because I work closely with them for information literacy training, and who I know do teacher research in order to improve their practice as educators, will be reassured by the proposed elitist model of the economics professor.

At the end of the day, the bottom line is that education is not a business, no matter how well those for-profit schools do (and thus give the impression we can simply slash and burn educational institutions). Education is a universal right, not something for just the priviledged or the lucky few who can afford it. Maybe instead of suggesting that we simply cut back on actual teachers, make the remaining faculty into researchers without any teaching duties, and teach to the outsourced book, we should actually look at what is working in the classrooms. And maybe, just maybe, we need to send some of those primma donna professors with a little too much free time back into the classroom to teach. After all, the main reason of a university is to educate. Besides, it is not as if the faculty are being that productive anyways in terms of research, according to recent surveys. And why are they being less productive? Because of all the cuts already happening in higher education. And it is not because some, as the article or Professor Johnson in his essay imply, because some teachers may be marginal scholars. By the way, the comments on that article I just linked from the Chronicle of Higher Education News Blog are worth a look as well.

I will grant that to teach undergraduates you can probably do the job with a masters' degree just fine. This may be proven by the many adjuncts with masters who work as lecturers and contingent faculty. Having said that, it does not follow these folks are somehow lesser scholars who don't do good research or are not reflective scholars. In many ways, these people are probably better teachers than a lot of professors with doctorates in our colleges. Just ask any undergraduate.

And I finish with another disclosure note: I am a graduate of the National Writing Project (here is my site where I did it). The teacher researcher model is something that not only I believe in, but that I have taken with me and embraced in my work as an academic librarian. To have some economics professor denigrate that in the interest of some elitist notion of "researchers versus lower level teaching faculty" is certainly offensive, and I can only hope more teaching faculty will respond to the article.

P.S. Allow me to offer a list of other ways that employers use to save some money in a tight economy without having to lay off people. I will suggest that this can work in our campuses too. Here are "11 Ways Business are Cutting Costs Without Firing Employees." Just a thought.

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