AAUP versus Obama

Professor FichtenbaumPresident Obama’s new higher education plan has won quite a few reactions.  Few have been as passionately critical, thoughtful, and significant as this one from the president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).  Rudy Fichtenbaum demolishes the plan at length.

I’d like to identify some of Fichtenbaum’s major criticisms, as we’ll probably hear most of them again as the White House plows forward with this strategy.

  • The killer K-12 comparison: “The President’s plan will do for higher education what No Child Left Behind has done for K-12 education.”
  • The new ratings system won’t work: “in reality measuring the output of our colleges and universities in a meaningful way is simply not possible.”
  • Faculty aren’t responsible for increasing tuition: “rising costs have not been a result of higher faculty salaries, but rather growing administrative costs.”  And those administrators?  “If anyone has lost touch with reality it is the metastasizing army of administrators with bloated salaries…”
  • The best solution to rising tuition is more money: “If we were truly interested in increasing graduation rates, we would provide more funding for K-12 education to insure that students were better prepared for college. If we were truly interested in controlling or reducing tuition, we would increase public funding of higher education both at the state and federal level…”
  • And how to raise that money? Two ways: “by taxing the rich, particularly the top 1% who have benefited disproportionately from government bailouts and have been the recipients of the lion’s share of income growth since the 1970s. One way to accomplish this would be through a financial transactions tax.”
  • Skewed campus politics: “the administration says they plan to consult with colleges and universities. The problem, however, is they mean they will consult with college and university Presidents and not with the faculty who must actually do the teaching, much less the students they claim to assist.”
  • And the results? “The President’s plan…  will lead to more testing and to dumbing down the curriculum by a majority of faculty who no longer have the protection of tenure and therefore will be forced to teach students simply to take tests.”

It’s a powerful document.  Do you think college and university faculty will rally behind its critique?

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22 Responses to AAUP versus Obama

  1. Perhaps. But Congress won’t The public won’t. His alternative (a transaction tax) isn’t a plan with a serious chance of passage. Comparing a plan that was built around what is actually possible in this climate to one that is little more than a hypothetical construction doesn’t strike me as helpful.

    The universe we live in is one where public funding has been cut, and the solution we favored through our lack of a coherent response to that has been for students to accrue much more debt. That hasn’t just been for one year, but every year, ten years in a row, we’ve pointed fingers and pushed this on to students.

    That’s not just the legacy of administration or legislators — that’s all of our legacy, including faculty. You don’t get to say you had nothing to do with it because of some plan you proposed that had no chance of being passed. People — faculty included — need to own this result if where going to ever get anywhere.

    • Well said, Mike.
      I do think it’s worth saying that, at present, expanded public funding for higher education is one way to reduce family costs (setting aside taxes). That hasn’t really been discussed, partly for the reasons you mention. I wonder if the few states experiencing economic growth – i.e., North Dakota – will attempt to boost spending on higher ed.

  2. Barbara says:

    Remember this old argument to occupy the university and have “headless” schools?: http://chronicle.com/blogs/brainstorm/off-with-our-heads-schools-without-administrators/27449
    I think we lost that war. Even in my community college, I see VP positions continually created and inserted in lines where they serve no purpose but to justify their existence.

  3. While I agree with the bulk of Fichtenbaum’s criticisms, I think he did not take the most constructive approach. The biggest weakness in the plan is the perverse incentives it creates, and Fichtenbaum doesn’t give them enough detailed attention. ANY evaluation of higher education institutions which depends on graduate rates — especially an evaluation that involves funding consequences — creates pressure to dumb down curricula to increase graduation rates. This plan creates that pressure without ever *acknowledging* that it creates that pressure, never mind having clear precautions in place to avoid it. There are other evaluation criteria proposed, but the other criteria are also rife with perverse incentives. The plan’s emphasis on “alternative approaches” like competency-based curriculum suggests movement in the direction of evaluating competencies — which I cannot imagine being instituted on any meaningful scale without standardized testing, and all the perverse incentives we objectively KNOW that creates. Another proposed evaluation criterion is

    However, what I think Fichtenbaum gets right is that he focuses primarily on how Obama’s plan is based on MISDIAGNOSING THE PROBLEM. The entire farce of NCLB was based on misdiagnosing the problem: “LOOK AT OUR READING/MATH/SCIENCE SCORES COMPARED TO OTHER NATIONS! OH NOES, OUR SCHOOLS ARE FAILING!” Actually, no. Our well-funded suburban schools are and have always been doing quite well, and if we only considered test scores from those schools we’d be back in the top five or ten nations in any given measure of education. Where we are failing is in educating all our children EQUALLY — which NCLB’s various “accountability” mechanisms actually made worse rather than improving in the slightest. Our failure to invest public money in our public education system in a thoughtful and JUST manner is not just a problem in primary and secondary schools, but also a problem in higher education — and this plan’s misdiagnosis of the problem as something else The problem isn’t rising costs, it’s declining public support. The way to correct the problem of declining public support is to INCREASE PUBLIC SUPPORT.Similarly, higher

  4. Dagnabbit! A glitch submitted that comment while I was still composing it. Oh well. The gist of my comment should be clear enough anyway.

    • Constance Campana says:

      It was clear–excellent. “The problem isn’t rising costs, it’s declining public support.” As long as education is divided by demographics, we just need to do what we’ve been told to do: follow the $$. Every time I hear of a new gym or building being added to a campus somewhere, I inwardly flinch. Every time I hear the results of a Board meeting, I wonder what really happened. It’s true–the problem is not rising costs, nor is it rising faculty salaries. The administration’s salaries are the highest they’ve ever been–meanwhile, many staff are let go. Our priorities are skewed. We need public colleges the same way we have public high schools. Until then, our schools will be judged by their amenities rather than their educational worth.

      • msolpersson says:

        Here, here! Little and young New Zealand is in the same waka ( Boat – in Maori). Does this plan give any indications on how and who will collect the data needed to decide which institutions are doing our students justice and what monies will be wasted figuring that out? Does student voice enter into this discussion at all?

        Just wondering…Was tertiary study in the USA ever offered free at any point in time? I was raised in Canada and most of my academic study has been done here in NZ and in both of these countries at one time it was? How was it supported then I wonder?

        Thanks for the eye opening comments and blog post!

    • Indeed it was.
      So the new class structure of America (hollowed out middle, ever richer 1%, growing underclass) drives class divisions in education, both K-12 and higher ed. And these plans exacerbate them.

      • More than that, even. I don’t think that these plans simply *happen* to exacerbate those problems: Ultimately, I think they must be *intended* to exacerbate them. At this point, there is so much consistency in the overall pattern of education policy in specific and economic policy in general that I can only judge that Hanlon’s Razor cannot justly be applied: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” The consistency cannot be explained by stupidity, I think, and intent must be inferred.

        Of course, the intent itself is foolish and self-destructive in the long run: No society can survive for many generations over which an ever-growing share of the benefits of that society accrue to an ever-shrinking minority. Socioeconomic self-destruction must eventually follow, an inevitable effect of the cause, a pattern observed again and again throughout history. But that’s where stupidity comes back into play: Collectively, humans seem utterly incapable of any substantial long term thinking or historical perspective.

        Or perhaps I’m just grumpy today. My government’s persistent, stupid pattern of substituting high explosives for any sort of rational foreign policy makes me cranky.

        • Constance Campana says:

          “…utterly incapable of any long term thinking.” Right! Just having a long thought is a miracle. Perhaps the way we think is determined by how we communicate. My students don’t read like they used to; so much of what they say is canned. Not cranky here–depressed–

  5. tall20 says:

    His plan for Higher Ed is as disastrous as his K-12 this market based reform testing debacle and if colleges don’t stand up to this sorry plan it will be over for colleges to.

  6. msolpersson, thank you for the NZ perspective (and the new word, for me).
    There isn’t much of a student voice in this plan. Perhaps we can infer that graduation rates and employment results stand in that position.
    Yes, some schools did offer education for free or very cheap. Cooper Union, for example, in New York City (until recently). Some state schools (public institutions, partially supported by state government funding) charged very low tuition. There was a wave of these in the 1960s and 70s.

  7. Robert Goldstein says:

    It’s really easy to identify some incidental (even substantial) waste, be it a new gym or new VP of Student Happiness and Impressive Technologies. But that is quite different from identifying the year-after-year-after-year drivers of tuition increase. (See “Why does College Cost So Much?” by Archibald and Feldman) If you want to bring down tuition long term, you must understand the differences.

    Critical to understand that different actors have different motivations and agendas. Should higher ed serve the public interest (so let the public pay) or should it merely offer opportunity to individuals (so let the students or parents pay). What role should prestige play? (None for the public, but does seem to be important to many individuals.) Is content delivery the main thing (so we need more profs and less non-academic services) or is the overall experience and maturing of the students critical? How much of that is supply and how much demand? How much has simply become the “standard of care” that colleges cannot compete without? Would more colleges actually increase supply and reduce price?

    I have to disagree that “measuring the output is impossible”. If it’s impossible, how do we know we have a problem? OTOH, *simple* measurements of such a multi-faceted system are bound to lead to unintended consequences.

    Fundamentally, we can’t fix anything until we have some clear notion of what we really want to optimize. Otherwise, removing the fat from higher ed will be as effective as removing the fat from government.

    • Constance Campana says:

      I don’t want to bring down tuition so much as I would rather there not be tuition, period. I’ve seen too many very bright students unable to go to or finish college because they couldn’t afford it–or they go verily into debt. I realize what I want is not possible. I dislike that prestige plays the role it does; it divides people. That might happen anyway, but the start toward that divide could be the same for everyone. I would like education and access to medical help to be rights. I honestly don’t think it’s moral to have to pay for these things that keep us alive and that open our minds. Everything else, yes. And I think if enough people wanted these things we might have them. But, maybe not. I know the world, our world, doesn’t work this way. But the way it DOES work is not just short-sighted–it’s indifferent.

      • Well said, Constance. It seems that both sectors (health care and education) are ill-served by the market model in 2013.

        Abolishing tuition – would that take something like a Marshall Plan to accomplish?

    • I think you’ve hit the proverbial nail, Robert. The problem of assessment requires some consensus over an enormously complex and diverse sector, with 4500 or so different institutions. And we’ve never really had anything like consensus on it before now.

  8. My dear thephilosophicalprimate, I hope your conjecture doesn’t prove out, because I’d have to join Constance Campana in depression.
    One objection does come to mind. Why would Democrats so ardently pursue such a course? They have been the party of education for most of the 20th century. And yet we see so many Dems taking a lead in this campaign: the president, his former chief of staff, Al Gore’s director (who made _Waiting for Superman_), many governors and other mayors. What happened to that party? Were they persuaded to join this strategy?

  9. Constance Campana says:

    Robert, I keep thinking about your statement: “Fundamentally, we can’t fix anything until we have some clear notion of what we really want to optimize.” My first response (not always my best) is opportunity: in education, the ‘fat’ seems to be used to attract ‘fat’. The paying population at my school has increased. I have had more students than ever before tell me that there is a ‘hold’ on their account; they want to add my course but they can’t, yet. Of course by the time they can add, they have to pay extra fees, etc. These tend to be the middle class students. But I am wondering what others would optimize.

    Also, msolpersson–an anecdote: Two years ago, a few administrators at my school decided to offer ‘better’ dorm accommodations to those who could pay for them. They proposed this idea exquisitely and fooled no one. The outcry from students and alums and faculty was overwhelming. In truth, it was the students who did not allow this change.

    And thephilosophicalprimate, I am grumpy, too, and for the same reasons.

    Thank you Bryan, for this blog. I’ve needed to hear from others. And I agree–where have the Democrats gone? Headstart was cut by 40% in RI. Yikes. Sorry–I think I need to see some real sacrifice on the part of the monied–that would give me a little hope. And that won’t happen.

  10. Glad to help, Constance. We need more conversations about what’s going on with higher education.

  11. VanessaVaile says:

    Reblogged this on As the Adjunctiverse Turns and commented:
    Thoughtful analysis of AAUP response to #ObamaEd plan for HE accompanied by equally thoughtful discussion in comments, SOP for BA’s posts, following recommended as antidote to high drama and unrealistic solutions

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