One problem that has received plenty of attention is the astronomical rise in the cost of higher education that is either preventing some from thinking of college at all or resulting in them graduating with crippling debt that strongly inhibits their career choices and lives. A graduate with large student loans is more likely to be tempted by a soul-killing but high-paying job than one who is free and clear. The rise in college costs has far outstripped inflation.
Noam Chomsky gave a talk on The Death of American Universities where he discussed this and other issues that is worth reading.
Take me: I went to college in 1945 at an Ivy League university, University of Pennsylvania, and tuition was $100. That would be maybe $800 in today’s dollars. And it was very easy to get a scholarship, so you could live at home, work, and go to school and it didn’t cost you anything. Now it’s outrageous. I have grandchildren in college, who have to pay for their tuition and work and it’s almost impossible.
These days, the average annual cost of tuition and fees for attending a private university is about $27,000 (and can easily run into $40,000 for more elite ones) while even attending a public university with in-state tuition and fees averages around $9,000. Room and board can add another $15,000.
So why is this? Chomsky looks at the causes and one is the corporatization of the university structure and the rapid growth of a very highly paid bureaucracy, something that I myself have witnessed first-hand at my own university.
In the past thirty or forty years, there’s been a very sharp increase in the proportion of administrators to faculty and students; faculty and students levels have stayed fairly level relative to one another, but the proportion of administrators have gone way up.
Another factor is that competition for students has resulted in universities spending a lot on enhanced residential, dining, and recreational facilities, all of which cost a lot to build and maintain.
There are those who claim that the university should be run like a business. We are not exactly like a business though we certainly share certain features. The key differences are (a) tenure, that enables faculty to research controversial areas and take them where the evidence leads, however unpalatable the results, and (b) shared governance that says that major decisions should be arrived at in consultation with at least some sectors of the university. It is these two features that distinguish a university from (say) Exxon, and for good reason. They are deliberately created institutions that enable scholars to discuss major issues and make arguments that may be unpopular but need to be aired.
But these are also the very features that are threatened by the increasing corporatization of universities. In the traditional view of the university, leaders of the universities are primus inter pares, not CEOs of corporations who wield strong executive power. Ideally they should be scholars and colleagues of the faculty who take a few years leave of absence from their departments to be at the helm of the institution and upon completion rejoin the ranks of faculty. This made them sensitive to the needs of the local community.
But what one now sees is the growth of a professional administrator class who float around in their own world. One symptom is the explosion of highly-paid, high-level administrators who seem to see themselves as corporate executives and entitled to all the perks and privileges that go with it, including the right to unilaterally speak for the institution. This attitude also sees shared governance as a nuisance and is what lies behind the calls to end tenure. While overt calls to end tenure are sometimes espoused, especially by university governing boards that tend to be stocked with corporate types, a more subtle way that is being achieved is by shrinking the fraction of tenure track faculty and replacing them with contingent faculty who can be more easily cowed and controlled because they can be summarily dismissed.
Chomsky says that the rise of faculty who are adjuncts who have few rights, are not part of the decision-making processes, and have no security, has made it easier for this bloated administration to control faculty more easily. And this corporate model adopted by the universities from the for-profit sector is all about control, so that workers are fearful of saying or doing anything that might risk losing their jobs.
This idea is sometimes made quite overt. So when Alan Greenspan was testifying before Congress in 1997 on the marvels of the economy he was running, he said straight out that one of the bases for its economic success was imposing what he called “greater worker insecurity.” If workers are more insecure, that’s very “healthy” for the society, because if workers are insecure they won’t ask for wages, they won’t go on strike, they won’t call for benefits; they’ll serve the masters gladly and passively. And that’s optimal for corporations; economic health.
This is not to say that there was ever a golden age for universities in the past. In some ways, there has been progress with increased diversity at all levels and with student voices now being more involved in governance, though the staff are still largely excluded. But the issue of a growing bureaucracy and the increased numbers of temporary and insecure faculty is a real problem.
One good sign in that with the rise in the numbers of temporary faculty, there is a growing recognition that the system has to be modified so that, while not necessarily giving them tenure, provides them with much greater security and status than they have now and also integrates them into the life and decision-making processes that are a major part of faculty life. These discussions have begun around the nation and at my university.