Punting on Higher-Ed Reform; or, Austerity is For Other People

In the pre-Civil War United States, there was a burgeoning literature and rhetoric that sang the praises of chattel slavery with increasing gusto in response to the abolitionist critique that also flourished in those years. These defenders (almost all of them southern whites) of enslaving African Americans resorted to the argument that slavery was a “positive good,” a benefit to both slave and master. Indeed, they contended, it was the very sheet anchor of social harmony in the moonlight-and-magnolias Old South. The childlike, inferior slave needed the structure and paternalistic care of a kind but stern master to survive in the modern world. These arguments, of course, were laughably absurd both then and now. But it gave the increasingly desperate defenders of an increasingly untenable worldview the comfort and assurance they needed to submerge their anxieties. Abraham Lincoln, with his usual trenchant wit, saw right through this proslavery charade, noting that “although volume upon volume is written to prove slavery a very good thing, we never hear of the man who wishes to take the good of it, by being a slave himself.”*

I was recently reminded of that quote when I read a recent interview in Inside Higher Ed about yet another manifesto from Eminent Serious Men (always men, too; but that’s another post) about how to save American higher education. I am not saying that these reformers are engaging in the moral equivalent of defending racial slavery, so chill out. But I will argue that we are seeing a similar disingenuous process undertaken by, yes, increasingly desperate defenders of an increasingly untenable worldview  who are grasping for the comfort and assurance they need to submerge their anxieties. William G. Bowen and Michael S. McPherson–two of the most eminent figures on the higher ed landscape–have just written a brief (140 pages) but comprehensive “Agenda for Change in American Higher Education” (their subtitle) called, folksily enough, Lesson Plan. This week, the two authors jointly responded to a series of questions from Scott Jaschik, where among other things, they made the case that much of the crisis rhetoric surrounding higher education is “overblown” (Not so overblown, though, as to render their counsel and agenda unnecessary).

Bowen and McPherson are on to something, I think, about how the pervasive nature of “the-sky-is-falling” rhetoric with which our higher-ed conversations are being conducted leads us to focus on the wrong areas of need. But after this observation, I part ways with them rapidly and irrevocably. They assert, for example, that the fuss about student debt, what is often called “administrative bloat,” and the wave of small-college closings in recent years, is more hype than substance. However, they engage in a deceptive logic, demonstrated clearly in their assertion that

Controlling “administrative bloat” is not the key to bringing public college tuition down. The big thing pushing public tuition up is state governments’ reducing their real higher education spending per student as a result of budget pressures and expanding enrollments; total nonfaculty employment per student has barely risen at all in public higher education in recent years. Let’s not spend energy solving a nonproblem.

The diagnosis is correct–state governments’ evisceration of higher education funding is all too well-known. But “total nonfaculty employment per student” not rising? That’s a bit murkier. For example: every Dean, Associate Dean, or Assistant Dean within Academic Affairs divisions has faculty status (and is thus counted as “faculty”) in almost every college or university. But they are not “faculty” in the sense this metric would want to convey; the metric is likely under-reporting the phenomenon it measures. Moreover, in pure numbers, student enrollments have significantly increased in recent years, so even if that nonfaculty ratio holds steady, the raw numbers are increasing rapidly. Put that raw numerical increase against the raw numbers of Full-Time/Tenured or Tenure-Track faculty over the same period, and we’d see a much different story. Admin-to-faculty ratio trends over time are really what tell us about institutional priorities. There are more moving parts than Bowen and McPherson admit. Calling administrative proliferation a “nonproblem” is a cavalier dismissal of an issue that is far more complex than what we’re told here. Bowen and McPherson aren’t dumb; we can only conclude they are either deceptive, disingenuous, or both.

More problematic is Bowen and McPherson’s tendency to appear as if they’re proposing solutions to deep-seated problems while they actually merely drop back and punt. Addressing proposals for “free college,” for example, they observe:

A basic problem with making public higher education free in a society as unequal as ours is that the benefits of “free” will go disproportionately to people from higher-income families. Such students are more likely to go to college, they go to places like research universities that are more expensive to run and they go for more years because they are less likely to drop out. Making those advantages free is not the way to achieve greater equity! At the same time, making the colleges that low-income students are more likely to attend free isn’t good enough to meet their central needs. Eliminating tuition doesn’t solve the problem of covering living expenses, and we would rather see some of the money that would go to eliminating tuition for the affluent devoted instead to support for living expenses for disadvantaged students.

Yes. This is true. Our society has record levels of inequality. And free tuition doesn’t alter the trajectory of poverty that many children enter at birth, and yes, that skews the college-going population towards more advantaged demographic groups. But this pithy observation is, at the fundamental level, a dodge. Education–access to and credentials from–is the most powerful social mobility agent we have. To blithely dismiss increasing access because it wouldn’t immediately help the poorest of the poor is abdicating any role for higher education in reducing socioeconomic inequality. Bowen and McPherson’s point that free college isn’t a panacea is well-taken, but the implications they draw from it are, to say the least, short-sighted. It’s like arguing that since preventive surgery doesn’t actually cure cancer, no one should get preventive surgery–can we look at longer-term implications of a solution before we relegate it to the trash heap? For such prominent “national figures” in higher ed, this myopia is unsettling.

Bowen and McPherson save their most artful dodges, though, for their response to the adjunctification of higher ed. Why do we see roughly 75% of all credit hours taught by contingent and/or Non-Tenure Track faculty? WE’RE GLAD YOU ASKED:

The growing numbers of non-tenure-track (NTT) faculty teaching undergraduates have come about because of developments affecting both the supply of qualified people willing to take these jobs and the demand for people to fill these jobs at many institutions. On the supply side, the rates of production of new Ph.D.s in a number of fields (including some science fields) seems to have become uncoupled from the employment demand for Ph.D.s, responding instead to the advantages that having graduate students and awarding Ph.D.s afford to faculty members, departments and deans.

Lovey...have the visiting lecturer make me another drink, dear.
Lovey…have the visiting lecturer make me another drink, dear.

Again, on the surface, this is a reasonable take. But by (intentionally, I believe) resorting to the capitalist language of “the market,” Bowen and McPherson completely ignore the root of the issue. “Supply Side” and “Demand Side” are terms that render abstract what are in actuality very real and concrete phenomena. “The supply of qualified people willing to take these jobs” and “The demand for people to fill these positions” is a set of weasel-words to obfuscate the matter. Don’t blame us, we’re told; blame “the market.” Market Forces™ Ate My Homework. Let’s unpack the logic here. “Qualified people willing to take these jobs” implies that there were alternatives. “These jobs”–NTT, contingent jobs–are not why people do Ph.D.s. They are last choice for academic job-seekers, an underfunded and under-respected academic purgatory. And why do we have a larger “supply” of these “willing (gag)” and “qualified people?” You guessed it! THE REAL JOBS ARE GONE. Why are they gone? That’s where the “demand side” comes in. It is not vague, carved-in-stone Market Forces that account for the increasing demand by administrators for NTT/contingent positions. It is specific choices made by specific administrators that explain this. Funds are allocated to other places besides full-time/tenure-track lines. Why? For a variety of reasons: institutions who are strapped for cash want to up their FTEs, and this is the cheapest way to do it. There were other choices that could have been made about how to create “efficiencies” and “maximize funds,” but this is the choice that was made by real people who knew all the options yet still chose that one. And that’s the process on a national scale. So we have a neoliberal dialectic in place: qualified people compete for fewer “real jobs,” will take “fake jobs” because eating and rent are non-negotiable, thus there is a “demand” for the fake jobs. We’ll call it “market forces” so you won’t know where to point the finger.

What do Bowen and McPherson propose, then? Clearly the status quo is untenable right? Let’s see what the Agenda for Change in American Higher Education says:

In an era when colleges are, for very good reasons, trying hard to keep costs under control, granting all faculty the status, workload and pay of tenure-track faculty would be a big step in the wrong direction financially. We think it is reasonable to aim at a future in which substantial numbers of faculty would prepare for careers in which their principal responsibility would be undergraduate teaching, and in which they would not be judged on their productivity in the fields of research and scholarship. We are a long way from realizing that vision in our society, but we think it is a realistic and valuable direction to pursue, whereas trying through legislative fiat or some other means to create universal tenure-track appointments (or to mandate that a certain percentage of faculty must be on that track), is a nonstarter.


My initial observation is that maybe the crisis rhetoric isn’t overblown after all, if we can’t afford to pay all of our faculty a goddamn commensurate wage. But the larger issue is the same as we’ve seen throughout our tour of the Lesson Plan: Bowen and McPherson punt. Reducing adjunctification and increasing tenure-track faculty to the proportions we saw before the neoliberal war on higher education reached its crest is “a big step in the wrong direction financially.” That’s true only if you think that there aren’t other ways to either increase and allocate revenue, cut costs elsewhere, or both. And they misread the higher-ed landscape, where most faculty are employed in institutions where “their principal responsibility would be undergraduate teaching,” by conflating what happens at the elites with what happens everywhere else. (Your classism is showing, gentlemen.) And don’t even think about that “nonstarter” of mandating a certain percentage of faculty appointments must be full-time and/or tenure-track. Never mind that Princeton and Macalester, to pick two institutions that have former presidents named Bowen and McPherson, crow about their faculty being composed of around 80% FT/Tenured or Tenure-track. Or trumpet their amazing full-time faculty-to-student ratios. Or have a faculty handbook that SETS THAT VERY TYPE OF PURPORTEDLY NON-STARTING RATIO:

The number of faculty who may hold a full-time, temporary term appointment for more than seven consecutive years, or for more than six years in any ten-year period may not exceed ten percent of the number of tenure-track positions at Macalester.

Austerity is for Other People. Now get me a martini, Jeeves.

So once again we get a Bold Agenda to Fix Higher Education that purports to be serious, but wilts under scrutiny. Bowen and McPherson abdicate any clout and authority their experience and expertise might have given them and instead cave in to the altogether unsustainable quo. Engaging with root causes of our very real problems is a “nonstarter” or a “step in the wrong direction.” Don’t “spend energy” on a “nonproblem.” This is your “Agenda for Change?” American higher education has the highest fucking concentration of really smart, innovative, and resourceful people anywhere. Yet two men who’ve spent their entire careers advocating (albeit in a decidedly faux sort of way) for higher learning are telling us to basically give up–because solving problems is hard. There are good ideas for systematic reforms in both higher ed and the socioeconomic context in which it lives. There are imaginative, solutions-oriented agendas out there. Bowen and McPherson’s is not one of them.

What we need is leadership that loudly proclaims bold arguments for systematic reform and comprehensive solutions. But what Bowen and McPherson’s “lesson plan” gives us is the apathetic wheeze of the neoliberal consensus where “reform” is a surrender to the status quo and imagination has gone to die.


*Abraham Lincoln, “Fragment on Slavery (April 1, 1854?),” in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, ed. Roy P. Basler (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1953), vol II, p. 22.


7 Replies to “Punting on Higher-Ed Reform; or, Austerity is For Other People”

  1. This was excellent. I’m jumping out of hiding to make my second comment on your blog to say that… I currently work at Macalester as a PT adjunct, and thought you might like to know that the admin is currently working with the faculty to actively try to make NTT faculty working conditions better. We recently got benefits to kick in at 0.5 FTE. Right now, we’re working on titles and implementing a review process for NTT folks. A real one. Where we get like a title change and everything, and a pay increase! And the next thing is that pesky 10% rule you quoted above, because we are dangerously close to hitting it. And BTW, our NTT/TT-T ratio is currently around 50/50.. :/ The PT/FT divide is much greater.

    1. Thanks for that context; I’m so glad to hear that there’s change for the better happening there, in particular with the benefits–that’s really key. I hope the admin-faculty collaboration continues; that’s what we need!
      Thanks for the comment, and for stopping by the blog!

      1. I hope it continues as well. I don’t know how much longer I’ll be there, but as long as I am, I will do what I can so the folks who come after me can benefit from it.

        Hoping this doesn’t sound creepy–I really enjoy your writing and perspective (here and on twitter).

  2. I think that if you look deeper into what these folks are saying, it becomes even more insidious, especially in their claiming that free education for everyone would not fix anything and indeed, would basically be an entitlement for the well-to-do going to state flagships. These are not stupid people, and so when they further advocate that money that would otherwise reduce tuition for the affluent should go to low-income students, I can’t help but think that they know damn well what happens when benefits are means-tested. One need only look at the difference between Medicare, untouchable by the most right-wing of far-right Republicans, and Medicaid, which is surprisingly not held in high esteem by the elderly tooling around on their Medicare scooters.

    Because here in the Land of the Free, when you make a benefit means-tested, you’re creating a benefit that is understood to go to the poor, and by the poor, we of course mean the melanin-abundant. Means-testing a benefit means that the benefit is going to be demagogued like crazy.

    I’m also sort of disappointed (but unsurprised) that they don’t mention that the problem with Can’t Afford It is fundamentally one of ideology. Of course state legislatures (or provinces north of the border, or the UK’s parliament) *could* adequately fund faculty pay, but it’s not a priority. My wife has a story of her childhood piano teacher who said, “You make time for what’s important to you.” You could say the same thing for what you fund.

    Okay, that was a bit rambly. Done.

  3. To Assistant Professor, the comment about those on Medicare looking down on those on Medicaid or who should be receiving Medicaid is a generalization. Many of us on Medicare fully support an expansion of Medicaid. It’s the self-righteous right wingers who blame the poor for being poor that oppose Medicaid.

  4. Maybe try reading the book. So, for example, they give the facts and figure around the ‘administrative bloat’ claim, and show convincingly that administrative bloat is not driving increased tuition; the ratio of non-teaching staff to teaching staff has not changed; this mainly has to do with changes in classification (fewer typists, who were not classified as administrative; more IT people who are). In fact the ratio of ‘executive’ administrators to faculty has very slightly declined.

    Another example: they make a very clear and well-elaborated proposal for how to reduce dependence on ‘adjunct’ teaching, and, like you, squarely put the blame for the increased adjuncting on specific decisions by specific people within the institutions.

    The problem with making college free for everyone is that it would cost a lot of money, a great deal of which would simply subsidize the children of the rich even more than we already do. Better, in my opinion, to targe whatever resources we can get out hands on to support students from less affluent backgrounds and students who are likely to go on to contribute to benefiting less advantaged communities.

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