Wannabe U vs. Saving Alma Mater: Part I

November 18, 2009

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This fall, the Press published two books on the current state of the American university. Gaye Tuchman’s Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University is an eye-opening exposé of the modern university that argues that higher education’s misguided pursuit of success fails us all. James C. Garland’s Saving Alma Mater: A Rescue Plan for America’s Public Universities, on the other hand, argues that a new compact between state government and public universities is needed to make schools more affordable and financially secure.
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Last month, Garland reviewed Tuchman’s book on his blog. We asked Tuchman to respond to Garland, and what follows is a long conversation about the current state and future of American universities. Tuchman and Garland don’t agree on much, but their debate sheds new light on the many problems and promises of the higher education system in this country. What follows is the first half of the exchange. The conclusion will be posted tomorrow.

From: Gaye Tuchman
To: James C. Garland

I read your comments on my book with amusement and despair. Sometimes the same passage prompted both feelings. So, I wind up amused that a bright fellow like you did not understand that I was not condemning—or even criticizing—individual administrators or even the Wannabe U administrators. And I despair when a physicist, who presumably studies patterns, cannot understand that social scientists study patterns too.
I’m merely trying to describe the patterns that I’ve seen at Wannabe University and to say what I think they mean. The quote from C. Wright Mills (on the page across from the Table of Contents) captures how sociologists think: “Caught in the limited milieu of their everyday lives, ordinary men [and women] often cannot reason about the great social structures—rational and irrational—of which their lives are a subordinate part. Accordingly, they often carry out series of apparently rational actions without any idea of the ends they serve.” My job is to study patterns and figure out what they mean. I also teach students about patterns, including how in recent years an exaltation of market forces seems to have meant that the rich have been increasing their share of the wealth and the poor have indeed been getting poorer.
Your blog post suggests that you do not accept that sociologists study patterns. As you put it, “Sociologists see the world differently from most folks. They see patterns everywhere. A friendly pat on the shoulder establishes dominance; the celery sticks on an hors d’oeuvres tray mark the lowly status of the retiree. Who speaks first, who interrupts whom, who sits where, who has a wood desk and an office on the second floor—all of these are ‘tells’ about power and status, who’s up and who’s down, and what’s in and what’s out.”
My guess is that the patterns that physicists study are harder to see. (I’ve never seen a photon collide with anything, and I haven’t studied physics since an awesome course in high school.) But at least the photons don’t talk back, deny that their behavior is patterned or alter their behavior because they’ve read what you’ve written and want to prove you wrong. All of us engage in patterned behavior. If what we said and did was genuinely idiosyncratic, our well-meaning family and friends would have mumbled about our egocentricities and sent us off for medical care. So, the penthouse overlooking the East River costs more than an apartment that is just as large, but on the third floor. The office of the dean is larger and furnished much better than the assistant professor’s office, and the university president probably has a more expensive desk than the executive assistant who reports to him [or her]. And sometimes men pat one another on the shoulder when they enter a room; women rarely do that.
When a sociologist uses ethnography to find out how a phenomenon or a process works, one key is selecting a good case. Although the exception does tell us something about the rule, it’s often easier to locate patterns that matter by examining a typical case. As best as I can tell, Wannabe University is pretty typical. Our administrators seem pretty typical and our professors do too. Trying to transform complicated variables into simple measures seems pretty typical. Even the food court in the Student Union and the increasing percentage of courses taught by the contingent labor force seem pretty typical.
What I can’t understand is: Why do all these administrators think it’s great to ape the flaws of corporations and to transform complicated issues into simplistic and often phony metrics and also to objectify students as products? I had always wanted to think that administrators are smarter than that. Why do universities try so hard to be just like everyone else? Suppose that all of the chemistry departments are measuring themselves against the Berkeley department and all of the economics departments are measuring themselves against either Chicago or MIT. If all those departments are striving to be the same—only much better than average—how is anyone ever going to find out something genuinely new?

From: James C. Garland
To: Gaye Tuchman

Years ago I dated a smart, attractive woman named Kim, and things seemed to be going well until one evening we had an argument about whether my miniature black poodle, Lucy, truly liked me. Kim’s position was that dogs felt no emotional attachment to humans. Rather, over the eons, dogs had learned to mimic the patterns humans associate with affection in order to promote their self-interest. Humans deduced that face-licking, lap-sitting, waggy tails, and excited greetings meant dogs were their friends only because that’s what they wanted to believe. In fact, inside that curly poodle head lurked the mind of a cunning, cold-hearted opportunist. As far as I was concerned, that was the end of Kim.
But in truth she had a point. The only way one can tell what a dog or anybody else is really thinking is to view the world through their eyes. Anything else is just a guess, and we are prone to guessing wrong because of our own biases and because we’re usually not aware of how limited and incomplete our own view is.
When I was in grad school, one of my idols was Cal Tech physicist Richard Feynman. Feynman’s Nobel acceptance speech made a deep impression on me. In it he explained that to understand the world (in his case, the world of quantum electrodynamics) one has to look at it from as many perspectives as possible. Each new perspective, he said, fills in missing pieces, clarifies ambiguities, and corrects faulty assumptions and wrong conclusions. Only when one’s perspective is sufficiently encompassing, Feynman believed, can one have a balanced understanding that exposes the complexity of the world, with all its nuances and shades of grey. I suspect you can see where I’m headed with this.
Wannabe U looks at the patterns in administrators’ behavior, and I am sure you have accurately recorded the face-licking, lap-sitting, and tail wagging part. But the problem for me is that you’ve been peeking into administrators’ offices through a clouded window. You’ve never actually been on the other side of the glass to get a clear view, and that’s too bad. Had you spent a few years as a dean or provost or president, I’m pretty sure you’d have written a different book.
To be on both sides of the glass is why most senior “wannabe corporate managers” are also professors. Having taught classes, written books, advised students, and served on faculty committees in their earlier life gives them a balanced perspective that helps them do their job better. They know what it’s like to see the world through the eyes of a faculty member because they’ve been there.
Why, you wonder, “do all these administrators think it’s great to ape the flaws of corporations and to transform complicated issues into simplistic and often phony metrics and also to objectify students as products?” You go on to say, “I had always wanted to think that administrators are smarter than that.”
Well, surprise! They are smarter than that. However, your question and the way it’s framed say more about your preconceptions than about the people you hold in such low regard. But let’s get specific.
We’ll consider the U.S. News college rankings, and the game-playing that sometimes accompanies the push for higher ratings. I know you hate that, and so do I, and so does everybody else, even those who do it. All administrators whom I know despise these rankings and are acutely aware not only of their shortcomings (they measure market strength, not academic quality), but also their adverse social consequences. As Robert Zemsky observes in his new book, Making Reform Work: The Case for Transforming American Higher Education, “The rankings have become the scorecard of an admissions arms race that has encouraged a spiraling competition for students and faculty that, over the last twenty-five years, has dramatically escalated the cost of an undergraduate education.”
But now, let’s do a gedankenexperiment and imagine for a moment that you’re on the other side of the window inside the administration building, looking out over the campus. You’re the new president of Wannabe U, and you’ve just read a report about an unexpected enrollment shortfall. Applications are down, as are freshman class numbers. Furthermore, faculty members report that a large number of entering students are poorly prepared and need costly remedial classes.
As you finish reading the report, you receive a phone call from your admissions director. Applicant interviews, she says, confirm that a major cause of the decline is that Wannabe U’s ranking in U.S. News has slipped eight places, while those of peer universities have gone up. “You’ve got to do something to turn this around,” she says. “The damn U.S. News rankings are killing us.”
You don’t need your C.F.O. to tell you that declining enrollment translates into lost tuition revenue and state subsidy, which will likely mean faculty hiring freezes, layoffs of the classified staff, decreased morale, and canceled courses. Worse still, if this is the beginning of a chronic slide, the consequences will be catastrophic. You get a sick feeling in your stomach when you realize this isn’t your staff’s problem to solve. It is your problem. No buck-passing allowed.
And so, President Tuchman, how are you going to solve this problem? Are you going to take the high road and just ignore U.S. News and its flawed and misleading rankings? Before you answer, however, let me suggest you spend a few minutes looking out over the campus and thinking about all those smart junior faculty members in their crowded offices who are just launching their careers. And about all the groundskeepers and receptionists and staff employees who are struggling to afford rent payments and worrying about health care for their children. And don’t forget to reflect on the thousands of Wannabe U students who have placed their educational dreams in your hands. (Does it feel to you like you are “objectifying them, like products?”) All these people are counting on you to help them.
The burden of responsibility on one’s shoulders forever changes one’s view of the world, but it doesn’t distort the view. Rather it makes it clearer, because it reveals the tradeoffs. For Wannabe U’s administrators that messy world is a noisy, whirlwind, exhausting place where doing the “right thing” sometimes means that babies get divided. It is a place where compromises can prevail over untarnished virtue, where taking the high road can sometimes be the sure path to disaster, and where the eleventh commandment is “Thou shalt not don the cloak of self-righteousness.” I am looking forward to your answer.
P.S. You actually have seen photons collide. In fact you’re seeing them collide right now, by the zillions.

From: Gaye Tuchman
To: James C. Garland

I heard a howl rising slowly from the page. It’s baying: “Because you have never been an administrator, you can’t understand what it’s like to be an administrator.” Or, to invoke the old folk-saying: “Never judge an administrator until you’ve walked a mile in his black loafers [or her comfortable heels].” Frankly, I hate that question, but not because I don’t know a decent answer. Rather, the question suggests that there are so many limitations to human empathy that we can never hope to know one another, let alone to understand people from different times and places. We might as well dismiss attempts to write about medieval Chinese history, how Native Americans viewed the invading European colonists, and how members of Afghan tribes view the Taliban, not even to speak of how dogs see humans. (My colleague Clint Sanders studies dog-human interaction and tells me that my pugs will obey me better if I act like an alpha-male, the leader of the pack.)
Frankly, I don’t know what I would do if I were President of Wannabe University. A reporter recently asked me that question only he wanted me to pretend to be “President of Higher Education.” (Since being Secretary of Education pays better than my current position and might permit me to abolish student-outcomes assessment, I might be tempted to take that job.) I know that the administrators whom I have respected have generally liked people, had an extraordinary ability to size up people, have tended to forget colleagues’ worst traits until rudely reminded of them, and have been honest. They have cared about helping people, not about wielding power. We’ve never met, but you seem to be one of the honest, service-oriented administrators. I fear you are a dying breed and I regret that you and other service-oriented administrators may have read my work as a personal attack. I did not write Wannabe U to attack any administrators, not even the power-hungry who bounce from one university to the next. As one of my favorite deans reminds me, the president of a university also makes decisions under constraints.
For me, the real question is: What’s happening to American society? I want people to think about the de-churching of higher education, “one of the last revered American institutions … to have its ideological justification recast in terms of corporatization and commodification and to become subject to serious state surveillance.” As happened in the health care industry, an interventionist state is “demanding accountability and is decentering the professionals” who once taught in and led universities. It is doing so to guard its investment and its people and also to guarantee economy, efficiency, and effectiveness.
To fix Wannabe University and all of the other colleges and universities that are struggling to stay afloat I would have to be the President of the United States. Our public universities are starving for funds and they have been malnourished for decades now. Increasingly, public funds are going elsewhere as market forces define what matters. Were I President, I certainly would pass universal health care with the public option. Let’s decrease the cost of health care so that universities have more money to spend on classes, rather than on fringe benefits. Let’s revise the laws that criminalize all drugs and mandate harsh sentences. I would rather educate people than pay for their incarceration. Let’s insist that higher education is a public good and so reintroduce tuition-free colleges. We know how very much our country benefited from such schools as the City College of New York, which in its tuition-free days seemed to have churned out Nobel Prize winners.
Such federal, state, and local investments in education as a public good increasingly matter. We no longer have the most educated population in the world. There are significant disparities by race/ethnicity, gender, and social class in who enters, who stays, and who graduates college. I suppose I could rejoice that my own group, upper-middle class white women who attend selective schools, has the highest graduation rate, but my celebration would not serve the country very well. We both know that increasingly the United States is a multiracial society and that sometime this century white people will be the demographic minority.
At the turn of the twentieth century, some states realized that educating the children of European immigrants would benefit everyone and they invested scarce monies in higher education. What will it take to make policy makers realize that we must find a way to fund universal higher education rather than to place the burden of paying for education on the very people who are most in need?
I know you have strong feelings about this topic. (I’ve read your book.) Is there a way to get that funding without invoking market forces, which fund students rather than universities? I fear that your plan would exacerbate inequalities. The non-selective four-year colleges and community colleges that are most likely to educate working class and minority youth are the very colleges that are most likely to fail. When I think about the possibility that market forces might dominate higher education I see a great banner in the sky: “Market forces … from the people who brought you the great recession.”

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