Pass, Fail

Perhaps a free post secondary education isn’t what it truly provides due to the “conformity and the silencing of debate” at all levels of education. I feel this is happening in my children’s elementary and high schools too. Click here to read the full article or an excerpt below. I have bolded text below, which explains how those in authority make everyone conform.

 

An inside look at the retail scam known as the modern university

 

Illustration by Leif Parsons

 

The older university administrative class, with its sobriety and appreciation of the real ends of the university, no longer exists. Instead, presidents and vice-presidents act like ceos as they jet around the world and post pictures of themselves on their institutions’ websites cutting ribbons, shaking hands, and receiving clown cheques. They are also busy building around themselves large cadres of expensive staffers dedicated exclusively to serving, well, them. As money is siphoned from academic programs through attrition, it is channelled into a host of middle-management positions. For instance, in my university there are some fifty-six employees in just three administrative departments—communications, student services, and the registrar’s office. And that is only the tip of the iceberg. To get a real sense of the staffing proportions, consider that in 2014 there were 516 permanent and contract staff members working for the university and 259 permanent and term faculty members. In other words, the number of those employed to support the work of the institution was more than double that of those employed to do the work of the institution.

Follow the money, and the proportions get even worse. Despite the rhetoric of large faculty salaries gobbling up precious university resources, the numbers tell a different story. According to 2013–2014 data from the Canadian Association of University Business Officers, the proportion of university budgets dedicated to faculty salaries dropped from a 32.1 percent share—already comparatively low—to just 29.4 percent. By comparison, the growth of the administrative set has been staggering. From 1979 to 2014, central administration and staff ballooned by three and a half times, while the size of the faculty merely doubled.

A business working on such a model might not necessarily go bankrupt, at least not right away. It might even prove, for a time, extremely lucrative for certain high-ranking executives and shareholders, as it was in 2008 and afterward for American banks. But if assessed on its ability to generate and distribute real wealth, its emptiness and unsustainability become clear. In this way, universities are able to continue functioning because parents, students, and governments keep supplying them with capital, assuming there will be a genuine return on investment. But since the institution no longer produces anything, no such return is forthcoming. Its “product”—cultivating intelligence and learning—has been abandoned in favour of far less demanding activities delivered by staff members who are amenable to the new ethos.

These are the “student services” personnel who are populating our universities in ever-greater numbers and draining our budgets. Student counsellors, academic program counsellors, recruiters, assistants to the recruiters, managers of the recruiters, program directors, program coordinators, program advisers, facilitators of academic success, project officers, curriculum support personnel, technologists—the list is endless. Spending on the student services sector in Canadian universities increased an incredible six-fold between 1979 and 2014. Because such employees have achieved a certain critical mass, and because they work directly for, and find favour with, upper-level administrators, they are now a sector unto themselves, with their own agenda and power within the institution.

That agenda? As one of my friends put it to me recently, the student services cabal is no longer there to support faculty in their work of educating students “but to compete with them to define the student experience.” And what is the experience they wish to define? Fundamentally, one in which students are made to feel happy, empowered, valued, and the centre of their own learning experience. The student services department itself will guide students to this beatific end and shield them from cantankerous faculty (like me) who insist on raining on the parade by actually attempting to teach them something.

If you think I overstate the matter, consider this: I know of faculty members who have been summoned by student services staff members to “discuss” a grade with an unhappy student. Never mind that grades are not designed to make students happy, but rather to encourage them to grow intellectually by setting goals just beyond their reach; and never mind that, as a matter of university policy, students are considered adults and, as such, are required to take their complaints directly to their professors. But because the institution allows this to happen, student services staff members are able to intervene in academic matters for which they have no qualifications. As a result of their actions, your sons and daughters may well feel happy and empowered and valued in their programs. What they won’t be, however, is educated.

There is a chorus of people these days telling my colleagues and me that our institutions of higher learning have never been healthier, that we are graduating more students in more disciplines in more technically advanced ways than ever before, that things simply couldn’t be better. How is one to respond to such claims?

Carefully, as it turns out, or else it’s the unemployment line for you. But not having to be polite when others are speaking shamelessly is what academic freedom was meant to protect. The upei collective agreement states that the academic freedom of faculty members guarantees their right to criticize both the university and their faculty association without fear of reprisal. When institutions go off the rails and forget their mandate, we are called upon to say so, clearly and unambiguously, and university administrators should listen. What happens instead? Gag orders, personnel disappearing without explanation, buyouts with hush money changing hands. In other words, if you exercise that right in order to protect the well-being of your students and your institution, you’ll likely not be around for very long.

At my university alone, we’ve seen the departure of some five vice-presidents, the university comptroller, seven deans, and a host of directors over the past four years. Why? No one knows because no one talks. But the effective truth of the situation prevails nonetheless—a sense of menace and fear rather than collegiality and open debate. Contract and sessional staff who speak up are, of course, completely vulnerable. But even tenured faculty members are not immune to various forms of pressure and harassment. Roadblocks to promotion, the shrivelling of departments through non-replacement of faculty positions, refusals of sabbatical applications—all these tools are available for the enforcement of conformity and the silencing of debate.

If you are mocked and denigrated for years on end, whether passive-aggressively through the slow clawing back of your budgets or through the Disneyfication of your course offerings (Religious Studies 211—“The Whore of North Africa: Augustine Gone Wild in Carthage”) by more “progressive” colleagues, sooner or later your rational self might tell you that the game is up, and you might stop doing what it is you do (serious study of texts and historical events, honest lectures with real content) and start doing what you are expected to do (keep an increasingly disengaged and intellectually limited group of young people entertained or otherwise distracted for three hours a week).

Though entirely understandable, this is a self-defeating strategy. You dumb down your lectures to keep your subscriptions up and to justify your courses in the eyes of the administration. The dumber they become, the less justification there is for continuing them and the more the administration sneers when it hears your defence of the ennobling powers of the humanities and the arts. So why wouldn’t you just go along? Why not inflate Susan’s and Bill’s grades to ensure that they have a nice experience and don’t feel disrespected? Why not indeed, if doing so comes with the added perk of avoiding catching hell from students and administrators for refusing to say that two plus two equals five?

Because the worst fate for our children, yours and mine, is yet to come. Because when the easy pleasures of youth run out and self-affirmation is all students have left, what will remain? Not just bad work and the dreary distractions of the modern entertainment industry—all of which can be tolerated, as bad as they may be—but the absence of something to live for, the highest and most beautiful activity of their intelligence. To cheat them of that is the real crime, and the most profound way in which modern universities have betrayed the trust of an entire generation of young people.

 

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