Higher education is ailing. It hasn’t been destroyed – yet.

Over the past week a discussion about the future of American higher education has unfolded across the web.

Things began with the publication of new enrollment data.  I commented on this, and Josh Kim responded, as did commentators on his column.  I replied on this blog, and also reflected on the peak higher ed hypothesis.  Meanwhile Adam Harris interviewed me about all of it, a piece which somehow became the Atlantic’s second most widely read piece a few minutes ago.

Twitter conversation has built up around the topic.  Robin DeRosa found a powerful keyword which might unlock a way forward. Kyle Johnson took issue with seeing only public institutions serving the public good, and Amy Pearlman developed the point.  Wesleyan University president Michael Roth weighed in:

Joe Murphy identified a very relevant unfolding story. And Chris Mayer offered perhaps the starkest response so far:

I think two writings hovered over our thoughts throughout the discussion.  One is The Great Mistake, written by Chris Newfield, humanities professor, blogger, and terrific Future Trends Forum guest (here’s my review of the book).  There Newfield makes the case that while America once saw higher education as a public good, at least in terms of public colleges and universities, we’ve come to view it as a private benefit.  Hence the defunding of public higher ed, especially at the per-student level.  Chris urges a cultural transition so that we return to the former public good approach.

The second is what I’d like to write about for the rest of this post.  It’s an article on Alternet* with a very powerful headline:

Here’s How Higher Education Was Destroyed in 5 Basic Steps

The author is Debra Leigh Scott, a playwright and short story author, as well as the founder of Junct Rebellion.  Junct Rebellion is:

an organization established to raise awareness about the demise of the American university system, through its corporatization, its rampant practice of adjunct faculty labor abuse and its steadily eroding concern about the quality of education provided to students. Our goal is to reclaim higher education through building a coalition of educators, parents, and students.

Which sounds awesome.

In her article Scott outlines a series of steps that, as she terms it, destroyed higher education.  They include: defunding public higher education, a la a cited Newfield; attacking the humanities politically and culturally; decreasing tenure until the majority of instruction is done by adjuncts; reducing faculty governance in favor of a “managerial/administrative class”; swapping academic culture and public funding for “corporate culture and corporate money”; disempowering students by a combination of increased testing and debt.

These steps connect and combine, as with politics and labor (“This is how you break the evil, wicked, leftist academic class in America — you turn them into low-wage members of the precariat”).

Overall, I approve of this message.  Scott hits on major issues that have transformed American higher education.  I also applaud her citing Inside Job (2010), my favorite financial crash film (and hilarious critique of academia: seriously, go watch it).

However, the article has some problems which, as they often crop up in these discussions, should be noted.

First, it makes that classic slip of using the word “administration” to mean the top tier of campus administration.  For example, the article refers to “administrative salaries [such as] coach salaries and outrageous university president salaries” and “president salaries [that] went from being, in the 1970s, around $25K to 30K, to being in the hundreds of thousands to MILLIONS of dollars” (capitals in original).  However, “administration” also means all non-faculty staff.  So that includes presidents as well as custodians, high priced football coaches along with librarians, IT staff, residence life staff, grants officers, administrative assistants, development office workers, etc.  Yes, that entire population has grown… and for reasons worth exploring, such as the rise of new services (think instructional design or digital librarians), the expansion of preexisting ones (mental health and physical wellness), the effects of new regulations, the physical amenities arms race, and a rising standard of student care.

Second, on the adjunct issue, the piece blames corporate forces for adjunctifying the professoriate.  This removes the serious and unaddressed culpability of higher education itself.  Research-I universities, for example, have been overproducing PhDs for a generation, and it’s folly to think their leaders – those academics – didn’t see the results.  (We’re still doing this, by the way.)

Third, the piece focuses largely on American conservatives.  For example, “[i]t’s a win-win for those right-wingers… further benefitting the right-wing agenda.”  Elsewhere, “conservative elites have worked to defund higher education explicitly because of its function in creating a more empowered, democratic, and multiracial middle class…”  The problem with this is that it misses how bipartisan the transformation of American higher education has been.  Blue states as well as red have reduced funding for public universities.  It was the Obama administration that follow the Bush(2) in ramping up high-stakes tests – then went further, and openly tried to reform higher ed.  To pick one little example, I live in one of the most deeply blue states (Vermont), and we are either 49th or 50th in public funding for higher ed, depending on your source.

On a related point, the author dismisses the realities of state politics far too quickly.  “Under the guise of many ‘conflicts,’ such as budget struggles, or quotas, defunding was consistently the result.”  Those budget struggles have been quite real, and don’t need quotation marks to dismiss.  Many state legislatures have faced serious pressures in allocating funds.  Think of rising health care and pension costs, for example, which rise even more quickly in states with especially aging populations (like those in the northeast, home to an awful lot of universities and colleges).  Consider rising (albeit wrong-headed) fears about crime, which drive state lawmakers to spend more on prisons and police, especially in states with strong penal unions, like California.  Recall that some states underfunded some key areas, including states that received over-optimistic investment advice from Wall Street, and are now desperately trying to figure out how to proceed.  Meanwhile anti-tax feeling is widespread in red states and blue.  In this environment, increasing funds to public universities – and it’s an increase we’re talking about, since in the generation Scott covers we vastly grew the number of students taught – is enormously challenging, if not impossible.

Fourth, and now we get into language, the article just goes too far – and for someone as gloomy as I can be about the future of higher ed, that’s saying something.  It overstates its case in what must be a rhetorical use of hyperbole to shock audiences into action.  “[H]ow do you kill the universities of the country…?”  “[H]ere is the recipe for killing universities…” “Step V: Destroy the students.”  “Academia should not be the whore of corporatism, but that’s what it has become.”  This becomes self-defeating, because it’s simply too easy to disprove, and also because it can depress rather than enrage an audience.  (And can we really call academia a whore?)

No, American higher education hasn’t been destroyed.  In fact, by 2013 it taught more students than ever before in its history.  Although my readers know what’s happened since, this country’s colleges and universities still teach an awful lot of people while producing large amounts of world-class research.   Elsewhere, we find that “the scholars and intellectuals of the country been silenced and nearly wiped out.”  We have actually grown faculty numbers, despite turning most into adjuncts; they haven’t been wiped out.  As for their silence, that this occurs should shame university after university… but at the same time, so many faculty have become public intellectuals thanks to digital technology that it’s hard to count them.  Scott’s own voice, for example, had been heard.  Both silence and speech are true for faculty, and it’s just inaccurate to only mention one.

“[T]he entire [academic] institution has been hijacked, and recreated as a machine through which future generations will all be impoverished, indebted and silenced.” “All”?  According to the last data I’ve seen one third of students graduate without any debt at all.  Partly that’s due to rising income and wealth inequality, as well as to inexpensive programs (hello, community colleges!).  Again, I’m not trying to downplay the true problems – I’ve been writing about them for years! – but want to make sure we see a more precise and useful picture in order to better get at higher ed’s future.  I don’t mean to police tone, but instead to suggest ways of more effectively mobilizing an audience.

And again, I don’t want to set aside this article.  Scott hits five major steps that we all need to see.  I’m glad her piece reached the Alternet audience.

Where does that leave us?  Large areas of American higher education are suffering.  Their business model might not work any longer.  Student debt is unprecedented, dangerous, and continuing to grow.  Partly in response, enrollment has dropped, which is placing even more pressure on campuses and their flailing business models.  These and other trends are weakening parts of this sector’s ability to thrive or even survive.  We may have passed peak higher ed.  American academia is sick, if not ruined, and the course of the disease, as well as its possible treatment, are uncertain.

We need to keep thinking hard about this – and thinking together, as with the web-mediated discussion with which I began this post.  That’s the best way to inform our actions if we’re going to turn around an ailing academic enterprise.

(Amy Pearlman and George Station recommended adding the Debra Leigh Scott article into our discussion.  I appreciate their weaving new threads into the conversation.  Thank you.)

  • The column seems to be a reprise of a 2012 blog post.  I’m not sure why it’s being run now.  If I had more time, and a better understanding of the publication history, I could dive into what’s happened over the past six years.(HT Trevor Griffey)
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6 Responses to Higher education is ailing. It hasn’t been destroyed – yet.

  1. Terri Givens says:

    Thank you for putting some nuance into this discussion – I was just going to rewrite an upcoming column for IHE to say that one of the problems with the discussions about higher ed is the lack of nuance and the need to keep in mind that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Generalizations are very problematic. And I agree that private schools, in particular small private schools, can and are serving the public good, schools like Menlo College are majority minority and are serving a much different population than they did only ten years ago, and the same is true of most of the private schools in California. As the demographics of the state have changed, the students we are serving have changed, and we need to catch up with their needs and provide the services that will ensure that they can be retained and graduate in a timely manner. That would go a long way in solving a lot of the problems that I see in our area.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Thank you, Terri, for your thoughtful response.

      Changing schools to meet a changing population is a major move. It takes some significant administrative help – hence “admin bloat”. And it also requires faculty members to rethink their educational experience.

      Has that IHE column appeared yet?

  2. Chad Kainz says:

    What I wonder is if we’re repeating history. Roughly 100 years ago, higher education changed with the rise of the research university. Are we experiencing a similar shift?

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      That’s a fun comparison.
      Difference is, this time the call is coming from inside the house. America built R-Is to catch up with what great European – i.e., German – universities were doing. Now we’re facing an internal challenge, that combination of demographic, financial, and workforce changes.

  3. Here’s what I wrote a friend who recently posted the Alternet reboot to a closed adjunct email list,

    ❝In case you want to expand on your post, Debra originally published it on the Homeless Adjunct blog as “How The American University was Killed, in Five Easy Steps,” August 12, 2012, https://junctrebellion.wordpress.com/2012/08/12/how-the-american-university-was-killed-in-five-easy-steps/ (754 comments). Comments on the original post run through 2017, although most appeared in 2012 — and most of those in August. Some are long enough to be free standing posts on their own, many with good links and well worth reading too (although surely not at a single sitting) — even some by trolls, who were better mannered then.

    Forbes [extended discussion thread] and other online pubs picked up the piece, and it was also widely re-blogged. Unfortunately no one checked links before reprinting on Alternet, which originally reprinted the post October 17, 2012 (97 comments). I do wonder about Alternet not giving provenance or checking links.

    The 2006 Lingenfelter report cited in the opening is no longer on the SHEEO site, although a number of other articles are. Wayback Machine search is having issues, but I found a copy in the Raging Chicken archives, https://ragingchickenpress.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/Paul-Lingenfelter-Unfunding-Higher-Ed.pdf. When it’s working again, I’ll search for the Pluck Magazine review also cited


    The original post’s durability is an argument for blogging. A less than heartening takeaway here — enough has been written, read, commented on and shared for some time by now, all without making much of a dent or leading to to significant change. More of the same won’t cut it ❞

    Back when the original came out, Rolin Mo commented on it in cMOOC (don’t remember which one) discussion where I’d posted the link.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      My dear Vanessa, many thanks for this trove of a reply. I especially applaud your digging through links and celebrating blogging!

      It’s fascinating to see this post’s stories history through comments and reprints. She really hit a nerve.

      I’d like to follow up by exploring what has and hasn’t changed since 2012.

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