Higher Ed Reformism: The View from the SLACs

Hey, look! It’s another sloppy, vague op-ed on how to “fix” higher education. It must be a day ending in “y!”


This time, it’s Steven Pearlstein, writing in the Washington Post to tell us how universities can do some “tough things…to rein in costs.” And the usual suspects are all here: administrative costs, “cheaper, better general education,” and–of course–getting those slacker faculty members to give up their summers off (HA), their esoteric research (HA HA), and light teaching loads (HA HA HA). Pearlstein’s essay is a mess, and it richly deserves the criticisms it’s already getting (Matt Reed’s Inside Higher Ed rebuttal is excellent). But lost amidst the admonitions to toughen up and work harder and cheaper is the same element that plagues so many of the lazy prescriptions recently on offer from various Dons who know exactly how to fix us: They do not know who we are.

Very few of the academics I know would recognize the higher-ed world for which Pearlstein offers his prescriptions.

Teaching loads at research universities have declined almost 50 percent in the past 30 years, according to data compiled for the American Council of Trustees and Alumni…In the egalitarian culture of higher education, once some professors won the right to teach less, their colleagues demanded the same. Before long, “two-and-two” teaching loads — two classes in each of two semesters — became the norm.

Today, research is the dominant criterion by which faculty members are evaluated. In deciding which professors get tenure, assessment of teaching tends to be perfunctory (few members of tenure committees ever bother to visit a classroom), and all that is required is competence. It is nearly impossible, however, for a professor to win tenure without publishing at least one book and three or four articles in top academic journals.

OK, everyone: speak up if this applies to you.

For the 75% of all college faculty whose appointments are contingent, the above quote is simply a fantasy, not reality.

For Community College faculty, it’s so inaccurate as to be irrelevant.

For those of us who are tenured or on tenure-track at four-year institutions, Pearlstein describes maybe half of our duties.

I can speak from my own experiences at both second-tier state universities and small liberal arts colleges (SLACs): It’s 4-4 loads that are the norm, often with the expectation that an occasional extra class of overload is part of the game. [1] Moreover, this load increasingly includes evening classes, as these institutions chase enrollment dollars in the part-time and adult-learner markets. For most of us, then–especially in SLACs–our criteria for evaluation privileges teaching first and foremost, with advising, service, and scholarship following in distant second through fourth places. So, Pearlstein’s lamentations regarding the proliferation of esoteric and useless research to the detriment of actual teaching are just plain wrong for the overwhelming majority of those they purport to describe. [2]

And Pearlstein is not the only offender–even more nuanced and informed approaches to higher education can fall into the trap of seeing only a few of us as representing all of us. Fareed Zakaria’s otherwise-excellent In Defense of a Liberal Education doesn’t move beyond the Harvard-Yale-Amherst perimeter in its discussions of topics ranging from rigor to access to the creation of informed global citizens. And it’s a shame, because expanding his scope to a landscape that includes SLACs, for example, would actually affirm some of his most important assertions about the social capital that a liberal education endows.

From all directions, then, critiques of the status quo in higher education base their prescriptions upon a narrow worldview, shaped in the halls of elite institutions serving elite constituencies. Academic classism runs rampant through the current discourse surrounding higher education in the United States. The picture we get from the Pearlsteins and Zakarias of the world is one of faculty comfortably ensconced in light teaching loads, researching Big Important Questions That You May Not Care About, and students who are either themselves deficient or at least ill-served by their institution’s Dons. And that is, quite simply, not the higher education landscape which most of us–faculty, staff, and students alike–inhabit.

What we so urgently need is what the current conversation ignores: the view from the SLACs. While “Liberal Arts College” may conjure up images of exclusive ivy-covered  buildings roamed by Izod-wearing bros with names like Chip, Biff, and Tad, the reality is much more complex. My SLAC’s primary demographic is the first-generation college student from much lower on the socioeconomic ladder, and it’s far from alone. A large portion of SLACs are the small-school equivalent of the lower-tier public universities; an academic home for students who weren’t competitive candidates for admission to, or simply could not afford, the elite institutions. Most of us have well north of two-thirds of our students on financial aid (more like 99% in my SLAC’s case). We often serve as the final two years’ worth of work in the nearby community college’s two-plus-two degree programs. We have talented students who, for family or employment or a welter of other reasons, elect to stay close to home. We have student-athletes who know they won’t be going pro, but can use sports as a way to gain access and financial support for a degree that would be impossible to obtain otherwise. We have locally-tied adult learners taking night courses while working full-time during the day. We serve students who want to be nurses or teachers or accountants, but wish to pursue corusework that isn’t solely career-focused. We are where students turn when they know that the 500-person lecture hall and anonymous advising of the state university won’t work for them. For some students, we are the first choice. For others, we are the last stop.

What the SLACs do (especially we non-elite ones), though, is come closest to realizing the democratic promise of higher education at its best. The small class sizes, the liberal arts core curriculum, the faculty advising, the fact that we are true academic communities by necessity [3]–we give students from outside the elite class access. Access to the liberal education touted (and rightly so) by pundits like Zakaria. Access to more than a narrowly-focused pre-professional program. Access to the resources many of them need to succeed academically–such as intensive advising, lower student-faculty-ratios, and faculty availability. In short, access to what everyone agrees higher education ought to provide.

We in the SLAC community also have prescriptions for reform, but they look a lot different than what the op-eds, thinkpieces, and book-length manifestos offer us. They tell us to focus on teaching. HEY-CHECK OUT OUR PROMOTION CRITERIA, OR OUR TEACHING AND LEARNING CENTER. They tell us to come up with more efficient general education classes that meet a variety of learners’ needs. WE’VE BEEN ON IT FOR YEARS. They tell us to leverage technology to improve student learning and retention. KICKING ASS WITH WHAT RESOURCES WE HAVE. They tell us to save liberal education. LET ME INTRODUCE YOU TO OUR MISSION STATEMENT AND CORE CURRICULUM.

But we are also among the most vulnerable members of the higher-ed landscape (a cursory glance at a list of institutions who’ve shut their doors in the last few years will confirm the observation). So we’ll tell you that what’s really needed to begin meaningful reform while preserving access goes beyond telling faculty to work harder and teach better. What we’ll tell you is to opt for policies that have tangible meaning, not just vague admonitions to be “tough.” How about restoring state and federal funding levels to what they used to be before the neoliberal evisceration of the last two decades? Pell Grants and state tuition assistance programs put more options at the hands of prospective students and their families, many of whom would select a private SLAC over a public university.How about examining the “crisis” mentality that surrounds STEM fields and allowing for a better balance in higher ed curricula and funding [4]?

But above all, we need a higher ed conversation that puts everybody at the table. Right now, the current advocates of “reform” give us ample reason to believe that they’d be incapable of seeing the table even if we launched it at their heads. The voices coming from community colleges, from contingent faculty, and from the SLACs have been too long ignored. We should–we must–do better. That’ll be the higher ed reform I can get behind.



[1] After eleven years at my current university, I finally have a 2-2 load–but only because I have an administrative appointment! So I really have a job-and-a-half. (I love what I do, and am fortunate to be doing it, but let’s not pretend that I’m in the professorial leisure class.)

[2] Worth a post on its own is the laughable way in which Pearlstein approaches the issue of scholarship and research (“Unfortunately, much of that work has little intellectual or social impact”). In 1950, he tells us, 13,000 journal articles were published. Today, it’s 72,000. See? Research inflation is destroying teaching! But the academy of the 1950s was far smaller and less diverse than it is today. It was the nearly-exclusive preserve of white men. Today, though there is much work to be done, the academy is approaching a more accurate reflection of our society. And with more, and more diverse, academicians comes an increase in both the amount and range of interests represented in scholarship. Worth noting is the fact that Pearlstein quotes two authorities in his assertion that research from Kids Today is essentially intellectual onanism: Page Smith and Derek Bok–Emeritus White Guys. In a column chock-full o’ old-white-guy logical fallacies, this may be the most egregious.

[3] At the very least, our small size and our tuition-dependent financial model dictate that faculty and staff work to create a truly student-centered community. When we work at our best, our material interests and our larger pedagogical ethos align well in the SLAC environment.

[4] In questioning the existence of a “STEM crisis,” I am in no way challenging the very real difficulties that face women and people of color in STEM fields; that’s an urgent problem that demands action.

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