Last week, Jeremy linked to two lectures that former Princeton President Bill Bowen gave at Stanford last month. I know Bill Bowen because he was a close friend of my late father. The last time I saw him (which had to have been the 90s because my mother was still alive) he told me about this database that he was funding (since was still at the Mellon Foundation). That turned out to be JSTOR.
Sadly, if you’re an academic of my general age group you probably know Bowen because of a rather unfortunate report he co-wrote in 1989. I’ll let Marc Bousquet take up that story from page 15 of the greatest book about higher ed ever written:
“Like many scholars of my cohort, I entered graduate school in 1991 informed by a common sense about academic work that was significantly influenced by the 1989 Bowen report, which projected what it emphasized would be “a substantial excess demand for faculty in the arts and sciences” by the mid 1990s, with the consequence that early in the millenium we could expect “roughly four candidates for every five positions.”
Of course, things did not work out that way. As Bousquet explains it, that’s because Bowen defined adjuncts out of the picture entirely. Bowen couldn’t see that the cost-cutting priorities of administrators everywhere would render his market-based analysis moot. While I can forgive an economist and a former university president for failing to recognize that current administrators are willing to stamp on the basic interests of their employees, I would still remember that track record when considering the labor-related implications of Bowen’s work.
Well, as you might imagine, those Standford lectures were about online learning and (to a lesser extent) MOOCs. I’ll quote the .pdf version of the talks because it took less time for me to get through them (well, the second one about online ed at least):
It would be easy—but incorrect—to infer from this line of argument that the development of online courses has to be a responsibility of each individual campus. Reliance on purely “homegrown” approaches would be foolishly inefficient and simply will not work in most settings. It will not take advantage of the economies of scale offered by sophisticated software that incorporates features of well-developed platforms, including effective peer-to-peer interactions. Furthermore, many institutions simply do not have the money or the in-house talent to start from scratch to create sophisticated online learning systems that can be disseminated widely. Nor would it make sense to re-invent “wheels” that can be readily shared.
In other words, not only is Bowen willing to sacrifice the jobs of faculty members whose students might migrate into massive online courses in the name of lowering college costs, he’s willing to sacrifice the jobs of designers who would make those massive online courses possible. I don’t think Bowen consciously wants to put a target on all of our collective backs. However, mass academic unemployment is simply the inevitable consequence of administrative policies that support cutting costs (especially labor costs) at all costs. What was true for contingent academic labor in the 90s is, thanks to MOOCs, potentially true for academic labor of all kinds today.
In a Guardian higher ed chat last Friday, Tony Bates pretty much boiled down the elephant in the room into a few terrific sentences:
The main reason government and business is interested in MOOCs is their potential for removing many of the costs associated with higher education, namely the cost of teachers. Indeed, in the USA is there is concerted attack on the whole concept of education funded through the state. Those pushing MOOCs though appear to think that all that matters in education is delivery of content.
Bill Bowen has done a lot of good in the world of higher ed. Read the text of the second lecture and you’ll see that he hasn’t bought into MOOC-mania entirely. However, anyone who wants to solve whatever problems higher ed has needs to confront Bates’ reality check directly. Otherwise, they’re part of the problem, not part of the solution.