So I’ve been reading Piketty. For an economist, he writes really well. While some of the math is a little over my head, it’s still pretty easy to find lots of points with which I agree. While I’m not done with the book yet, I can already tell that David Graeber is right when he explains that the overall argument in Piketty’s Capital is a lot tamer than Marx’s:
Piketty…begins his book by denouncing “the lazy rhetoric of anti-capitalism”. He has nothing against capitalism itself – or even, for that matter, inequality. He just wishes to provide a check on capitalism’s tendency to create a useless class of parasitical rentiers.
“Parasitical rentiers?” Hmmm……What industry does that remind me of? Give me a minute! I have it at the tip of my tongue…
I. “How American Universities Turned Into Corporations”
There was a TIME Magazine article a little ways back by the guy who did that “Ivory Tower” documentary that tries to explain how American universities turned into corporations. There’s not really anything in it with which I disagree, but it nonetheless makes me uncomfortable.
No, I do not feel tacitly responsible for ripping off my students: Exactly the opposite. The article treats colleges and universities as if they’re monolithic entities when, in fact, they’re filled with factions: Administrators, faculty, staff, students. Focusing simply on the faculty administrative divide: Everybody’s administration does plenty of things that they absolutely hate. Did the faculty request that new climbing wall in the gym? No. Did the faculty suggest the last thirty deanlets that the administration hired? Of course not. Did the faculty request that the university start hiring adjuncts? The vast majority of us weren’t even around when that started, but we get blamed for it anyways.
Want to know how universities turned into corporations? Corporations decided they wanted to stop paying taxes. In response, governments cut back on funding universities and administrators started behaving like corporate executives in order to make up for the shortfalls. Of course, corporate executives expect everyone to take the fall for their bad decisions so that they can go merrily along, falling upwards into their next high-paying job.
Here’s a cautionary tale out of my university that explains how this principle plays out in real life. Last December, the system decided that our budget needed a three million dollar haircut. The President announced that fifty faculty positions, including tenure-track positions, would be cut. A bunch of my friends in our campus AAUP chapter went into long meetings with the President to see if those cuts could be directed elsewhere. The cuts went down to twenty-one non-tenure track people, but the President then raised the teaching load of most of the faculty (except those with “administrative duties”) to a four-four. Of course, my friends supported no such thing, but the President claimed that the AAUP had supported her plan. What they did was accept the assumption that the three million haircut was inevitable, and since a university is not a democracy, this was the result.
That’s how academic capitalism works. Administrators may consult with a wide range of people on campus, but the decision is always theirs. Yet in the press, everybody on campus gets the blame. Blaming the faculty for the corporate university is like blaming gas station attendants for Exxon’s record on global warming. The culpability is not shared equally.
II. Academic capitalism is not very good at academics or capitalism.
Staying in the Colorado State University System, the edtech-obsessed among you may have seen some really interesting news over at e-Literate that my friends Phil Hill and Michael Feldstein have broken. Apparently, a whole bunch of public universities are developing their own online education consortium. I was kind of surprised to see that Colorado State University in Fort Collins is involved because we kind of have our own online education arm already, but who am I to argue with “progress?”
Indiana University has been the driving force behind the creation of a new organization to develop a “learning ecosystem”. At least ten schools are being quietly asked to contribute $1 million each over a three-year period to join the consortium. The details of what that $1 million buys are unclear at this point. The centerpiece for the short-term appears to be a contract with Instructure for use of the Canvas LMS. But there are also hints of ambitious plans regarding learning object repositories and learning analytics.
Frankly, I have no idea what a learning object repository is, but I do know that $1 million is a lot of money, particularly when my own school, CSU-Pueblo, was just asked to cut $3 million from its budget. Not only that, the folks up north also want to build a new football stadium in downtown Fort Collins and the system wants to build a new campus in South Denver. Is this really a good time to start a giant online endeavor WHEN YOUR SYSTEM ALREADY HAS ONE? If universities are businesses and students are our customers, shouldn’t we do something more to help our existing customers first? That’s not exactly good capitalism.
It’s not good academics either. As Michael explained in another part of that first post I quoted:
At the recorded CSU meeting, one of the presenters—it’s impossible to tell which is the speaker from the recording we have—acknowledges that the meetings were largely conducted in secret when challenged by a faculty member on the lack of faculty involvement. He cited sensitive negotiations among the ten universities and Instructure as the reason.
Similarly, here’s Phil explaining the risks to shared governance inherent in this project, which is called “Unizin”:
In the Unizin content repository case, what would be more natural is for the provosts to first help define what learning content should be shared – learning objects, courseware, courses, textbooks – and under what conditions. After defining goals it would be appropriate to describe how a software platform would facilitate this content sharing, with CIOs taking a more active role in determining whether certain scenarios are feasible and which platforms are the best fit. Throughout the process faculty would ideally have the opportunity to give input on needs, to give feedback on proposed solutions, and to have visibility in the decision process.
Whether this type of open, collaborative decision process is happening behind closed doors is not known, but the apparent need to keep the process quiet raises the risk of pushback on the consortium decision.
Fearless executives don’t ask permission of their faculty or their students. Unfortunately, it’s the faculty that are supposed to provide a check on the excesses of academic capitalism, yet the vast majority of us have been effectively silenced because we’re either too scared or too compromised to say what we really think about what’s going on around us. Of course, I think that stinks, but it’s also a really terrible strategy for surviving into the long run.
III. Welcome to my nightmare.
So why would the universities involved in Unizin feel the need to keep things quiet from their own faculty? I would suggest that the answer to this question is because they know how faculty feel about a really important part of this project and they want to keep that information from them – namely MOOCs. Yes, it appears that I will soon be working in the same system as a MOOC provider, or at least a provider of something that looks awfully MOOC-ish to me.
While this argument is not featured in any of Phil or Michael’s Unizin’s posts, I wrote Phil and asked him to lay out his case that this thing at CSU-Fort Collins will look MOOC-ish for me. Here’s how he responded:
2. Phil wrote me that:
“For Unizin in general, we have heard from several sources that heard pitches to CIC schools that MOOCs were core part of mission,” then he noted that MOOCs are listed on this slide as part of Unizin’s core mission, alongside flipped classes and badges. In other words, everything I love is available in one place!
3. He also noted that a white paper from the provosts involved has statement about MOOCs.
While I haven’t cleared this analysis through either Phil and Michael, it looks to me that once you open up a learning management system to admit more people and close off a MOOC to restrict it to paying people, you have something that looks like the average Provost’s wet dream: Scores of paying students with very few of those nasty faculty there to muck up the revenue stream by demanding nasty things like a living wage and health benefits.
Is any of this a direct assault on my job? No, but it is an indirect assault on my university. As I suggested in my Academe article, when administrations get deeply involved in edtech decisions it becomes really easy for them to direct resources from the jobs of living breathing professors to technology designed to scale up the education process beyond recognition. While tenured people like me might not be on the cut list anytime soon, if every school demands its own MOOC (or MOOC-ish) endeavor we may not have any students left to teach before too long.
To those of you who suggest that this is a good thing because it will save students money, I’d urge you to spend some time with a typical corporate-minded college administrator to realize that you’re barking up the wrong tree. As Piketty understands, corporate capitalists do not check themselves. It’s up to the political system to check them on everybody’s behalf. Since we don’t get to vote for our college presidents, shared governance is all we have left. If that’s too inconvenient, then my ultimate nightmare will likely ensue sooner rather than later.