Crises, What Crises? Reflections on University Governance

It should come as no surprise to readers of this blog that one of my interests – beyond 1980s action movies, Central Asia, and contemporary literature – is higher education reform, specifically concerning higher education in the United States. By fate or by choice, I will spend most if not all of my 20s in some sort of university or another (Princeton, Göttingen, Berlin, Oxford, or Harvard), hopefully getting a rich education at these places even as discussion of a crisis, or multiple crises, of the university mounts. This December, I commented on an article by Mark Bauerlein on research culture in American universities, as well as the excellent book The Last Professors by Frank Donoghue.

Sometimes it seems that young people interested in university reform and the academy have to be Catholics and atheists simultaneously. On the one hand, there’s the pressure to publish, take the right seminars, and play the part of the ambitious young graduate student wanting to become a famous professor; on the other hand, anyone seriously interested in a career in higher education owes it to themselves to read the numerous books published in the last two to three years on how the finances, labor economics, and arguably intellectual quality of higher education are in crisis.

Yet until recently I felt that Oxford was lacking in fora in which it was possible to have these kinds of conversations. Sure, look at the lecture offerings at Rhodes House or the Examination Schools for a term, and you’ll see countless talks on “leadership.”

But the concept of “leadership” promoted at these kinds of events always felt a bit odd. The speakers were usually Prime Ministers, business leaders, or public intellectuals. They spoke of “leadership” as something that had more to do with discipline, self-control, and a triumph of the will than with any concrete matters: how to manage an institution’s budget; how large institutions interface with state, regional, or national governments; and how institutions like NGOs, universities, or states are actually administered and governed. Oxford students looking for conversations about university governance – at a time when this was supposedly a prominent issue – had few options.

Killin' it in my leadership studies seminar!

But several weeks ago, after a discussion with a close friend similarly interested in higher education (he would like, perhaps, to be a law professor), we thought it might be an interesting idea to get together a group of other young people interested in university governance, to talk about the topics we thought weren’t being properly addressed in the leadership studies canon.

And so we did: this past week, a group of several other students and I met for an initial meeting of what we’re provisionally calling a “University Governance Group.” While the core group of people for the first meeting were all Rhodes Scholars, they otherwise came from a reasonably diverse set of backgrounds. Some had gone to Ivy League institutions; others had gone to flagship state institutions á la UC Berkeley or University of Texas. There was a nice mix of men and women. Some people, like myself, had already gone down the road of a more academia-oriented career, while others, just as intellectual but less foolish, remained grounded in the world of ideas while also keeping actual career paths open.

Over scones and tea, we had a pleasant discussion of some of the basic issues in university governance and finance today. I include the following account of our discussion (with the names and identities of the participants other than myself anonymized) both in the capacity of a secretary for the group; but I’m also publishing it in the public context of this blog because I think these issues are broadly important, and hope that our discussion might inspire wider conversation among young people interested in reforming the American university. (Anyone interested in reading some of the same stuff that we examined can check out this review article.)

Crises in academia, what crises? We started our discussion by trying to diagnose the diverse structural issues going on in the academy today, and identified, I think, at least four major issues. In what follows, I want to try to provide a synthetic account of what we discussed – broken down across what I saw as the four major issues, but also providing some sense of the back-and-forth in our conversation. 

For one, there’s the issue of rising costs: as legal academics like Paul Campos (Colorado) have exhaustively shown, the inflation-adjusted cost of higher education has risen greatly since approximately the 1970s. (Interestingly, this is more true of law and business schools than undergraduate education, but not so true of community colleges.)

Why this happened is not totally clear, and any satisfying explanation is bound to be polycausal. One factor might be the shifting meaning of a university education: if in the 1960s and 1970s a university education was more about the specific cognitive skills you gained in the course of an education (in other words, kind of a commodity), by the 2010s, a university education serves as much of a signaling and insurance function as it does an educating one. Just as healthy twenty-somethings might be willing to pay for health insurance they’re unlikely to need, even the most intellectually self-assured, confident, and bound-for-success high school graduate will understand the value in getting that Harvard A.B. as an insurance mechanism. In spite of initiatives like that of the venture capitalist Peter Thiel, which actually encourage and pay students not to attend college, many smart kids are still perfectly willing to take out huge loans to go to Yale or Cornell – if not always UC Riverside or the University of Washington.

Staple 'em to the back of English PhDs

Mentioning loans highlights a second reason for why education got so expensive, which I will only gloss here but deserves rigorous examination – the US federal government’s subsidization and backing of student loans, essentially without real oversight. Many commentators have observed similarities between this practice and the federal backing of housing mortgages, which was a major cause of the 2000s housing boom and bust. Just as policymakers with the most benevolent intentions of encouraging the virtue of home ownership subsidized people with no business buying a house into taking on huge levels of mortgage debt, one wonders if we are seeing a similar process when the federal government backs people taking on hundreds of thousands of dollars to go to film school, crappy law schools, or cash cow master’s degrees in the humanities.

More than that, one of the participants to the discussion offered an interesting observation / question. In so many other industries – law being a good example – we’ve seen the telecommunications and computing revolution of the last thirty years shred through established business models and encourage more corporate business models (contract-based employment rather than lifetime jobs, heavy use of outsourcing, benefits for relatively few employees, heavy disparities in wealth between employees and a shareholding / managerial élite). Law firms initially employed cheap document review firms to outsource work that fancy first-year associates used to do, but with the rise of ever-smarter machine learning algorithms, and the ability of firms in India to do that same doc review for less, even this initial wave of outsourcers is threatened.

But one of our conversants questioned why universities – even as they’re threatened by e-learning companies like Udemy – seem so slow to incorporate these cost-saving measures. Why don’t more universities, she asked, seem to outsource paper grading to Indian firms? And if they really are, why don’t we see more universities competing on cost if they are able to find savings in labor arbitrage and better telecommunications? It’s not apparent if, or why, there is a unique set of institutional economics that make it harder for universities to economize on health care, pensions, or grounds upkeep than for hospitals, large corporations, militaries, etc.

A second major crisis concerns the issue of academic labor. As projects launched by adjuncts across America point out, the last thirty years has seen a casualization of academic labor marked by both an absolute decline in the number of tenure-track, full-time positions that include benefits as well as a rise in the number of casualized adjunct positions. More than that, observers of American universities frequently comment on the fact that graduate students serve as a cheap source of teaching labor.

Increasingly, universities seem to resemble a strange two-track system, where a tiny élite of research academics writes obscure books, teaches little, and are fêted as intellectual leaders, while a large corpus of lecturers, adjuncts, and graduate students does the majority of the real work. The universities win in saving on teaching costs and being able to say that they have the best philosophy department in the land, but good luck trying to raise a family even as a dual-income couple working as adjuncts – or trying to get a good education as a student taught by frazzled “visiting assistant professors” shuttling from community college to State U. to flagship university in the same, or sometimes different metro areas.

Frank Donoghue provides, I think, a compelling reason for how we got to this point, although it’s not yet clear how, and if, it will break down. Even though there’s a lot of (justified) discussion about the plight of adjunct professors, one odd thing about any discussion of academic labor in the last thirty years is that this increasing awareness of the academic proletariat coincided with an (arguably accelerating) awareness of celebrity professors. I’d find it interesting to research whether as many academics were famous in the 1970s in the same way that so many professors are today: not just Richard Dawkins, or Amartya Sen, or Jeffrey Sachs, or Alan Dershowitz, or Niall Ferguson; but also slightly less publicly known figures like Martha Nussbaum, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Judith Butler, Jared Diamond, or Noah Feldman.

Niall Ferguson in China

Partly because they need private funding and hence publicity to survive (see the next point), universities covet these superstar academics, brands and mini media empires in their own right. Take Ferguson, for example: which other schools can claim to have a historian on their faculty who produces successful television documentaries, and whose books sell not just in the Harvard Coop but also in Costcos across America (the latter is intended as a compliment – seriously). Granted, Harvard doesn’t need the publicity, but for a school in the position of Emory, or Texas, or Arizona, or Notre Dame, the addition of a public, celebrity figure like Ferguson (whose more serious work is also excellent, I’d add) can do a lot.

And so, oddly, even as schools employ large staffs to encourage people to donate money to keep universities financially alive (again, see the next point), they engage in often costly headhunting battles with other schools for the top professors. So long, Frank Donoghue observes, as schools are not descending to the level of competing on cost and convenience, they largely compete on the level of prestige. And having a couple of prominent professors on staff isn’t a bad way to do that. Endowing with a couple of million of dollars a “Global Studies” Department with a core of these kinds of academics would be cheaper than building a new chemistry lab, and could boost the school’s profile quite a bit.

The weird thing, though, is that this star system coexists with a highly exploitative adjunct labor market. The two markets barely touch one another, which is part of what fuels a young graduate student’s anxiety: bust your ass now and you might rocket ahead to celebrity academia; don’t, and you’re doomed to teaching Intro Composition on a diet of ramen noodles until you’re seventy. In effect, the top twenty or thirty universities in America are engaging in two businesses at the same time: one, a struggle for prestige (an aura created by prominent professors and big donations, which is a self-perpetuating cycle); the other a struggle for cost savings, in which adjuncts are thrown onto the grist mill as schools try to maximize their tuition revenues while keeping costs down.

Could any exogenous shocks break this system? There’s been much excitement over online education initiatives, such as Khan Academy or recent moves by Stanford professors to teach Computer Science courses online. Enthusiasts note that the open nature of these courses allow students with Internet access, even if from a dusty Internet café in Afghanistan, to have access to high-quality content they wouldn’t have access to otherwise.

But we lack the de-institutionalized credentialing mechanism we need to break content out of universities more powerfully. And humanists and social scientists are probably right to fear for their professional future in a world in which credentialing becomes more granular, and more skills-based. Some social scientists whose work directly concerns policy could probably find posts in think tanks or more directed policy research institutions, and it’s important to recall (as one person pointed out in conversation) that many of the great humanists we venerate today were effectively gentleman-scholars – in other words, they were independently wealthy. What forms humanistic and social science research would take on in this brave new world – more creative because less bound by university conventions? Crushed as students migrate away from the liberal arts to discrete skills-based courses? – remains unclear to this author.

A third crisis concerns the collapse of state support and the hunt for alternative sources of funding for universities. Americans often contrast the diversity of private institutions in the USA (Ivy League, religious institutions like Notre Dame, women’s colleges like Smith, liberal arts colleges like Swarthmore) with the huge array of “state” institutions, but they’re often unaware of how private some of these “state” institutions are. A major flagship university like the University of Virginia, for example, receives only about six percent of its total funding from the State of Virginia, and in California, my home state, the absolute level of California state funding for the UC system has declined (in inflation-adjusted dollars) by about twenty percent since the 1990s.

To make up for this shortfall, universities have resorted to a number of tricks. Often times, they simply raised tuition or “student fees” for students. Other times, they increased student numbers (to generate more fees) without simultaneously hiring more teachers or improving facilities.

At still other times, they lowered the number of, say, Virginians attending UVa and encouraged more Californians (who paid higher out-of-state fees) to come and attend. A perverse situation developed. A top student from Salinas or San Luis Obispo might wash out in admissions at the UCs and end up paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to get the prestige factor of Virginia, while a similarly talented student from Fredericksburg or Annandale could have her dream of studying in Charlottesville shut down – only to be admitted at Berkeley and attend for a similarly huge price. (Often, this political economy of college admissions took place at the same time that universities were subsidizing higher education for illegal immigrants, but that’s another story …)

.. except to your in-state flagship institution.

More than that, state universities began to follow the lead of private institutions in looking to private donations as a source of funds. This partly explains the proliferation, since our parents’ generation, of “development offices” on university campuses. I had often been skeptical of whether professional fund-raisers were really doing valuable work for universities, but a look at the statistics, at least for the UC system, overturned my biases: even as state aid declined by the aforementioned 20 percent since the early 1990s, private gift aid to the UC system increased by almost 300 percent in the last decade alone.

In a sense, this is wonderful news: the issue is less that Americans don’t value higher education than that they may prefer to privately fund it in targeted slugs rather than fund it through taxes. But this trend also raises questions about the political economy of private donations. Are wealthy individuals more likely to donate to Harvard Business School, or to a writing and composition center at UC Merced?

This fundraising culture also creates new mindsets and entitlement mentalities among alumni bases and, to a certain extent, fractures the funding structure for universities. At Princeton, for example, Robert George, a prominent professor of politics and Republican ideologue, has successfully institutionalized something called the James Madison Program, a research center where George can hire lecturers (often of a similar conservative bent) to teach fully-accredited Princeton courses without outside oversight of these individuals’ credentials.

This is great news for people who support George’s particular politics – an interest in anti-abortion rights politics, comparing homosexuality to National Socialism, and authoring the so-called Federal Marriage Amendment. They can donate freely to the James Madison Institute (rather than the General Endowment) to support courses in line with a particular ideological agenda.

But for someone like myself – who might have voted for George H.W. Bush in the past, or Jon Huntsman in GOP primary today, but violently rejects George’s and other Republicans’ obsession with policing Americans’ personal and sexual lives – the existence of something like the James Madison Institute makes me skeptical of donating to Princeton’s General Endowment at all. I am appreciative of my Princeton education, and want to give back, but just as alumni more sympathetic to George might refuse to donate because Princeton employs Peter Singer, I simply don’t want a penny of my donations going to any of Professor George’s projects through any general spending. I’d much rather, for example, donate to a smaller fund to encourage German majors to do summer research in Berlin.

Call it entitled, call it overly political or ideological – but the point is that university development offices’ attempt to encourage alumni to view themselves as individual donors rather than members of a state- or university-wide community encourages alumni to incorporate ideology or personal politics into financial donations. (This is also partly why you are likely to see lavishly endowed Judaic, Armenian, or Hellenic Studies at many universities thanks to the generosity of wealthy donors, but relatively few permanently endowed Afghanistan or Burkina Faso Studies Centers.)

Finally, a fourth major crisis concerns what I’d call intellectual preparation and intellectual professionalization. Someone brought up Louis Menand’s recent (and excellent) book, The Marketplace of Ideas, which goes into the history of the American university and makes several concrete suggestions for university reform. (For readers interested in this direction of argument, I would also highlight Stefan Collini’s work, including the recently published What Are Universities For?)

Specifically, Menand, a Professor of English at Harvard, laments the rise of professionalization in graduate programs in the humanities. It’s a common story that I see all too often interacting with other graduate students. For a mixture of reasons personal and institutional, people often end up spending seven to ten years to complete a PhD in English. They’re trained to think of themselves specifically as scholars of English literature rather than well-educated analysts, writers, or social scientists. Sometimes, they originally signed up for the programs because they wanted something more than what their undergraduate education offered – but they got sucked into a decade-long commitment.

They often don’t get real academic jobs, and it’s here that the professionalization ethos strikes back; if you’re claiming that you really, actually need a specialized eight-year doctorate in English literature to be qualified to teach Shakespeare at a university level – that you need so much über-specialized education – it becomes difficult to later say that this specialist education was “really” just a training in critical thinking. It’s one thing, in other words, to convince the McKinsey recruiters that your two-year Master’s in Economics conferred generally useful critical thinking skills. That’s probably true anyway, and even if it weren’t true, you only spent two years, anyway, so you can’t be easily discredited as someone trying to transition from an utterly different domain (academic economics) into consulting. But try to make that case as a thirty-four year old ABD in sociology, or history, or American studies, and it’s a different story. This is partly why so many graduate students, tragically, end up severely delaying those moments that traditionally took place in the late 20s and early 30s of middle-class and upper-middle class Americans: professional momentum, serious relationships, marriage, home ownership, children, and settling down and becoming part of a community in a metropolitan center.

What to do? Menand suggests that universities produce more PhDs and that the system become less professionalized. I agree, but only partly. It seems to me that in fields like History, an absurdly tiny number of schools produces the vast majority of people working as professors in what I’d call major institutions. If you go to graduate school at a place like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Chicago, Columbia, Berkeley, or Oxbridge, your success is by no means guaranteed – but at least you’re still in the running.

Louis Menand's fine "The Marketplace of Ideas"

It’s not totally clear to me, for example, why an otherwise excellent institution like the Ohio State University should be in the business of enrolling people for a six-year PhD in History if it is unlikely that graduates of those programs can reasonably aspire to jobs, or some combination of jobs that would constitute middle-class employment. Too often, it seems to me, universities engage the (often naïve) dreams of young twenty-somethings that they, too, can be a fashionable professor of “cultural” studies one day – but only if they sign up to teach intro courses at sub-minimum wage levels as a grad student for several years, and then to be unceremoniously jumped on a Hobbesian job market after their funding runs out and they’re ABD.

Here’s a suggestion: why not have those top five-six institutions should continue to exist and offer the five- or six-year PhD, but have other institutions offer a less rigorous, but less career-destroying three-year PhD? I often meet people who want some more education in the social sciences or humanities after a standard undergraduate curriculum, and want to engage in some kind of rigorous research. But they’re also clever enough to realize that while engaging in this sort of study for two to three years might be fun and interesting, doing it for six or seven could be crushing to their familial or extra-academic professional ambitions.

(Incidentally, this, I think, is why many Americans on scholarships to the UK will do a two-year Master’s or a three-year D.Phil. before cashing out for yuppiedom via a job in consulting or being a product manager at a tech company. However great the temptation, people interested in higher education should not denigrate these people, but rather see them as caught between intellectual interests and the perfectly reasonable desire for economic stability, and the ability to pay off the huge debts incurred thanks to crisis No. 1 listed above).

In a world where we had a few top programs, and a bevy of three-year PhD-lite programs, it seems to me, we might have the best of both worlds. It’s important to remember that scholarship – or at least good, rigorous scholarship – does matter. We need institutions able to foster the kind of study of languages, critical immersion into debates, and time spent doing real research in archives and libraries, often in distant and expensive lands of which we know little.

For example: if you want to develop a cadre of something more than instapundits á la Thomas Friedman ready to chime in on, say, how Russia views the ongoing massacres in Syria, it might help to devote the resources to training a few people to learn Russian and Arabic (and maybe Persian or Hebrew, too, which all takes time), learn how Russia interacted with the Arab World throughout the 20th century, and force them to learn how to write not only dry scholarship but also shorter stuff explaining how the USSR and, now, Russia views its interests in that region. For that, we need programs where people have the time and space to learn Russian, read Soviet scholarship from the Cold War on Syria, read through the Politburo archives, etc.

Between serious scholars and journalists, please, someone, put this man out of business

But if people want to devote less time than all of that requires to studying the Middle East, say, that’s fine too. Of course, the skills they should anticipate acquiring and the career outcomes we should expect of them will be different from people in a six-year “real” PhD program. People in the three-year micro-PhD to get better acquainted with the literature and problems from a serious angle – and then take that training into an NGO, the US military, or a corporation, without having totally lost touch with reality from being in the academy so long.

The one hang-up about this proposal, as I see it, has to do with finances from the university’s point of view, particularly those universities running the micro-PhD program. It’s true that the schools in the élite bracket of, say, history PhD programs or (though less true) chemistry PhDs do make use of their graduate students and adjunct labor to teach classes. But it’s precisely part of the marketing pitch at the Princetons (or Amhersts, or Pomonas) of the world that they feature classroom contact with real professors.

But turn your gaze to larger institutions – an Ohio State, a Texas, a University of Southern California – and the situation is quite different. Less buoyed by huge endowments, a non-insigificant part of these schools’ revenues comes from student tuition. That means they have a strong incentive to enroll more students. Which means more papers to grade, more intro comp courses for English ABDs and adjuncts to teach, etc., etc. Could a university with the business model of Ohio University (a small public university in Athens, OH, not to be confused with its giant cousin OSU in Columbus), or the University of Oregon (giant state school), or the University of Vermont (a small public university that aims to be a “public liberal arts college”) manage both to handle the incoming freshman horde with cadres oflow-paid academic labor … and give out stipends in the neighborhood of $20,000 a year to people on the micro-PhD … and try to give those micro-PhD students something approximating a rigorous education, being taught by the “real” professors with a more élite provenance? I’m not sure – that’s a lot of moving parts.


So where’s the good news? I’m not yet totally sure – but I do know that it’s essential to diagnose a problem before you attempt to propose solutions for it. But it’s also important to understand how, institutionally, different actors – Presidents or Vice-Chancellors, Provosts, Deans of Faculty, etc. – are or are not in a position to address these challenges. We need to have more conversations with people who do work in development offices, to get a better technical understanding of where, precisely, the money comes from. It will also be interesting to speak with people who work in university-affiliated sub-institutions (hospitals and libraries) to learn how these quasi-autonomous units view the financial and labor economics problem in universities today.

In the next meeting of our group – likely to take place in mid-April, we’re going to try to expand the conversation in the former direction. We’ll be having a discussion with a special outside guest to talk about what, precisely, University Presidents and Trustees do; what the power dynamics are between different major institutional actors; and how to think about how reform happens through the diffuse governance structures of universities.

Breathtaking, but built on shaky foundations?

I’ll make sure to take notes on that conversation, too, and will blog about it shortly after it happens. But if anyone, particularly any Oxford students interested in joining this conversation, has anything to add, contact me, and I’ll see if we can find a way to incorporate more people into what I hope continues to be a stimulating discussion.


One thought on “Crises, What Crises? Reflections on University Governance

  1. ozifrog

    I am an ex professional turned academic in Australia. Here we have a division between the “sandstone” universities (established earlier, higher profile, perhaps our equivalent to ivy league) and more technical universities, with more focus on churning out graduates with an ability to start a career. I work at the latter category. PhD’s at our uni are ‘PhD lite’; 3 years full time, not as rigorous, pushed for the sole reason that the number of PhD’s on staff affect government funding levels.

    I am one of those on the teaching track, which I love, but am just as interested in combining this with true scholarship and research. Our workload models function in such a way that the research active are rarely in front of a class, and the academic apartheid between researcher and teacher is very clear. Not to the benefit of students, I might add.

    In the business school, the pressure to be a cash cow, via high volumes of full fee paying international students, is paramount, and undermines the quality of the academics and the courses. We attract more international students as the visa conditions incentivise occupations with shortages, such as accounting, and much of the rest of the university then runs on the funding we generate. We have no say in the use of this in terms of governance , for despite being the generator of cash we are viewed as not as important as schools of medicine, science or arts. It is an odd governance situation I have not seen in the corporate world.

    As staff, the workload model is where fundamental reform needs to begin, as this dictates where we spend our time. In terms of governance, it is a shame the pen pushers in administration cannot sit in on a few finance 101 lectures. It would do their budgets wonders…and the faculty budgets is where the real change could take place.

    In Australia, I believe reform in the higher education sector is vital; it is a mess. I also believe it will take decades, as significant cultural change will only come with a change of the academic and governance guard.

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