What do educators fear in 2013?
I’ve meet with thousands of people in higher education over the past year. Those people include deans, librarians, media specialists, tenure-track professors, CIOs, CFOs, presidents, adjuncts, all kinds of administrative staff, and not enough students. That’s because it’s part of my job to talk with people from colleges, universities, and other cultural heritage institutions, since I’m a higher education speaker, consultant, and facilitator.
Among many, many other things, I’ve been struck by how sad and worried they are.
That’s what this post is about. Yes, these people also shared hopes, dreams, positive expectations, and optimistic plans. But never in my professional life have I heard so much fear coming from educators.
I’m not going to critique these anxieties or situate them against positive alternatives. Here I would like to share these people’s expressions of anguish. This post sits with those fears for a while, as the expression goes.
The biggest fear is economic. There’s little confidence out there in higher education’s business model. Most people who talked to me described being worried about cuts to their units and campuses. These are new, additional cuts, coming after more than half of decade of the same. Some of them see reductions following a drop in incoming students, either because of institutional or demographic reasons; this is especially sharp for tuition-driven schools. Others describe monies spent on purposes they dislike, or see as inappropriate: athletics, other units, administrators. People often mention recession; nobody says “recovery” unless they’re being ironic.
Nobody – not one person – anticipated significantly increased financial support from anywhere.
These economic concerns tie into professional fears. People from most institutions see professorial tenure declining and adjuncthood on the rise. Some librarians fear that most people do not understand their value. Technologists see ever-escalating support needs. Students, both traditional-age and adult, look upon the job market with dismay.
Nobody speaks of a possible resurgence for tenure. When I posit a scenario wherein higher ed starts expanding tenure (“The Serpent Devours the Mammal”), they smile and laugh.
Yes, there’s a great deal of technology fear. Distance learning (usually MOOCs) will destroy face-to-face classes. Data will dehumanize the college experience. Lifelong immersion in technology has degraded the Millenial generation. ebooks will kill The Book. Technofear is a constant.
People also cite a nervous politics, refreshingly deemphasizing parties and partisanship. Instead they decry a bipartisan public cynicism about education as a whole. They worry about state governments. They fear K-12 is a disaster, sending them ill-prepared students, or that K-12 is good-hearted but being gutted and ditto the results. And they fear the very rich. Time and again audiences cited the wealthiest, the 1% as having a pernicious influence on education: driving learning towards training, shifting funds to the wrong spots, reshaping policies.
They don’t mention political heroes who will help them.
I’ve left off the names of schools and people because I want to distill and appreciate these fears on their own terms. Besides, they echoed everywhere I went, across the US and ranging over different institutional types: public libraries, liberal arts colleges, community colleges, state schools.
These aren’t rarely expressed feelings. The fears arise so often that, as a speaker, I have to take care to reenergize each crowd, lest my talk end as a dirge. Time and again a melancholy pall settles over a previously sprightly audience. I don’t know if these thoughts appear in trade journals and public discussion about colleges and universities, but they are vital expressions of American higher education in our time.
Once more, I don’t mean to imply that the .edu sector is universally gloomy. There are many inspired voices of inspiration. This post simply identifies a current of fear, respects it, and sets it into the blogosphere for our reflection.
What are you hearing along these lines? If you’re in this world, what do you fear?