Hey! Deanlet! Leave those profs alone!

17 09 2013

Having given up on the Today Show many years ago now, I now read Twitter over breakfast in order to find out what’s going on in the world. This morning, everyone and their uncle were making fun of this article:

Harvard University on Monday became the latest elite institution that will seek to organize its online education offerings with the creation of a high-ranking administrative position. Although not a widespread practice, early adopters say institutions should consider following suit sooner rather than later.

The promotion of Peter K. Bol to vice provost of advances in learning adds coordination to the groundswell of experimentation with online learning at Harvard that includes, among others, edX, the massive open online course provider created in cooperation with the Massachusetts of Technology; the Harvard Initiative for Learning & Teaching, which supports learning innovation through grants and other programs; and the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, which uses a research-based approach to new teaching methods.

The article itself makes the whole thing seem totally harmless. Move along! Nothing to see here! Just another deanlet pushing whatever is left of real higher education towards the corporatization cliff. However, let me ask you this, how would Harvard faculty react if the administration appointed a deanlet whose job description was devoted entirely to overseeing their face-to-face teaching? If they’ve done it already, then things are worse than I ever imagined, but if they haven’t I think they’d freak. Setting up a new online education infrastructure allows new opportunities for administrative control over things that administrators simply shouldn’t control.

Why do we as faculty members let this sort of thing happen? Leslie Bary, writing in the new issue of Academe, explains this well:

The older language in which we think of our work, the assumptions we bring to our reflections upon it, and our beliefs about its fundamental purpose form an interpretive horizon that can make it difficult to recognize the full outline of what is happening. The transformation of the basic objectives of the university is so radical that one hesitates to believe that the signs could really mean what they clearly do. At the same time, the new university incorporates elements and appearances of the old one and speaks to us in familiar words. We are engaged in research, teaching, and service; we strive for new knowledge.

Without realizing it, we look back, addressing interlocutors of the past. We meet questionable new practices with objections…yet our voices fall without echo, the words missing their mark. We have misjudged the magnitude of the shift currently under way.

It’s important to note here that you don’t have to stop that shift from happening in order to improve both learning and your own job conditions. The idea is to bring the traditional safeguards of academic freedom and shared governance into the university of the future rather than treating them like a thing of the past. These things are good for the university as a whole whether most administrators recognize that fact or not.

I’d actually argue that the freedom to experiment without administrative interference is actually MORE important when building an online curriculum from the bottom up, not less. If professors can’t pick the technologies that work for the needs of their discipline and their classes without an administrator peering over their shoulder, they won’t want to experiment with any new technologies at all – unless, of course, they’re adjuncts or superprofs, which sadly might just be the whole point of online education in a whole lot of places other than Harvard.




6 responses

17 09 2013
Leslie Bary

Honored to be quoted by you and especially on that part/aspect of that piece –the most important part. NB, though: I’m Leslie with an -ie! 😉

17 09 2013
Jonathan Rees

I’m sorry, Leslie. I just changed it. As you may have read our President is an -ey Lesley so I’m just used to writing it that way. Still sorry I couldn’t get that Eisenhower story in there somewhere.

18 09 2013

I like the term “deanlet,” but I think here it’s more like “provlet,” and you know right away the level on which this guy will be operating: upper administration only; movers-and-shakers.
We can track the decline of the spirit of true higher education at least in the U.S. (as opposed to trend-and-branding, education-cloaked entrepreneurialism, and job training) by the shifting proportions of FTT faculty and administrators in institutions across the country. Every new administrative post created is another mold spore on the wall. At the time of my career crash the institution where I was an FTT had a ratio of nearly 1:1.
The strike the administration and trustees thought would give them the permanent upper hand unofficially bankrupted the school and led directly to the purchase of administrative control by a branch of the Unification Church. One of the institutions where I currently stand in front of students recently created a “Dean of Academic Engagement.” Silly me, I used to think academic engagement happened when a student got excited by a course or book or a simpatico professor.
Harvard seems to be more interested, like so many others today, in joining the elite of the operators who dwell among the top 1% in wealth and power than in their original mission. Top-down re-creation of “higher education” is not the way to stay among the top 1% in true learning and teaching, I’d think…. But then, as an old Beyond the Fringe skit had it, “Perhaps I’m very old-fashioned.”

18 09 2013

I don’t know why my comment is so oddly paragraphed. I thought I had it under control! While reading, please insert your own paragraph mark after “Unification Church” and another after “simpatico professor.”

19 09 2013

Reading for class, Johnston and Saad-Filho, eds., Neoliberalism: A Critical Reader, chapter 6, pages 65-66, on the “discursive power that neoliberalism brings to bear as a political project” — very interesting and eerie discussion of the cooptation of democratic discourses. Explains very well why, despite using same words, we and new administration are not necessarily talking about the same thing: a discursive/communicative situation we ignore to our detriment.

9 08 2014
Leadership & management lessons learned directing IRIS: Part 1 | Dawn Bazely

[…] be on alert: your face time with me is limited and I am judging your performance on whether you are hindering or helping me in delivering my main 2 missions. I will be writing about the draining experience of dealing with the York University […]

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