For years I’ve been thinking about ways of explaining higher education’s present and future. My peak higher education model is out there, for example, notorious and grim.
Beyond that, I wonder if we should think of our time as a transition period between two different ages of American academia. We can posit that there was a certain phase of the college and university experience from around 1990-2010. It had certain characteristics: massively increasing enrollment, growing curricula, decreasing public funding, booming financialization, faculty adjunctification, expanding administrative staff, etc. That phase needs a name, which is doesn’t yet have. We can also posit that that phase has passed, coming to an end around 2008-2012 with the financial crisis and the end of total enrollment growth.
That academic phase hasn’t been clearly replaced yet. The new phase’s nature isn’t fully evident. Perhaps its outlines will become apparent after several years of change. I’ve speculated on what that next higher education phase might look like here and elsewhere. But for now, let’s consider the present as a moment in between those two phases. That’s our time, right in the midst of a switching period, a liminal space, marked by uncertainty and instability. We’re in a boundary zone.
In that spirit, let me offer one of my favorite Antonio Gramsci quotes:
The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear. (one source)
If this transition state metaphor is right, it helps explain some morbid symptoms: the current tide of college closures and queen sacrifices*. Change is rarely painless, and institutional transformation without wide-ranging growth means cuts in certain areas. Increasing overall financial and demographic pressures place more stress on campuses, some of which can no longer bear up. The future is arriving and there are casualties.
Let’s consider examples.
Over the past month there have been several stories of colleges closing. The president and board chair of the College of New Rochelle (New York) announced they will probably shut down by the end of summer or calendar 2019. Why is this happening? It comes down to money, of course, but not how you might think. CNR is unusual in that enrollments there have actually been healthy, due to a strategic pivot towards a health care focus. What is killing them is a financial scandal from several years ago, one which saddled the college with a debt they simply couldn’t repay.
At the same time Bennett College, a historically black women’s college, is battling its accreditor in court, trying to retain accreditation in order to allow its students to receive financial aid. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACS) removed its accreditation, deeming Bennett financially unsound, and Bennett immediately filed suit to keep it. A student-led petition calls for Bennett’s chief financial officer to resign:
The Vice President of Business & Finance, Mr. LeRoy Summers Jr… has failed to progress under his finical guidance. He has continued to fail to keep the board properly informed which insight, has gotten us to this place of accreditation status. His nonchalant attitude, towards the students for which he works for, can no longer be silenced, tolerated, or ignored.
Why does this struggle matter? Immediately, losing accreditation will most likely end Bennet.
Other closings and threats of closing are in the air. The Oregon College of Art and Craft (noted previously) has scheduled its closing for the end of this May. On the east coast, Hampshire College is enrolling a handful of new students this fall amid public pleas for a supportive partner. Given its small endowment and persistent funding strains, Hampshire could well shut down. Enough Massachusetts colleges have recently closed or threatened to do so (Mount Ida College and Newbury College; Wheelock College merging with Boston University in a radical bid for survival) that the state government is developing policies to ease the passing of the next ones.
Meanwhile, queen sacrifices* and related strategies of cutting have been cropping up.
Linfield College in Oregon will cut tenure-track and tenured faculty. On the table are apparently around 20-25 jobs, or about 15% of Linfield’s full-time faculty members. The reason is, unsurprisingly, declining enrollment, which means reduced revenue. Oregon Public Radio shared an email apparently from the college president, explaining that:
“A part of the college’s restructuring and academic prioritization process will be to eliminate some faculty positions that were consistent in a time when we had more than 1600 students, but are not sustainable in our present circumstances [1,240 students]…”
Apparently the administration sought to launch a program prioritization process, but the faculty balked, so the cuts will proceed from the top down.
The five majors that will be eliminated are classical studies, ethics and value studies, engineering science, environmental outreach and interpretation, and environmental policy and project management.
The 10 minors that will be cut are anthropology, arts management and administration, classical studies, economics, European studies, Latin American studies, music, public relations, social media, and TV production.
The three certificates being discontinued are geographic information systems (GIS), project management and social media. The associate of arts degree in English, which currently has no students enrolled, is also being eliminated.
As usual, lots of humanities are on the chopping block. I’m surprised at the science and business cuts; perhaps the programs failed to enroll students or ran into other problems for local reasons.
Why the cuts at Carroll? My readers know the drill: “declining undergraduate enrollment contributing to a loss of revenue.”
Art History, Religious Studies, French, German and Music. Minors in German, Music and Latin will also no longer be offered. At the graduate level, we are also suspending enrollment in the M.S. of Deaf Education.
Once more, this is a question of shifting campus resources from underenrolled majors to those more likely to attract students:
Any savings from this evaluation will be re-invested to strengthen our academic programs. Investments will support the reorientation of existing programs to better meet the needs of the 21st century, and to create new programs that will expand the curricular offerings of the College.
This might not be a classic queen sacrifice if no faculty are let go. No word on that yet.
B-CU interim President Hubert Grimes called for salary cuts, employee layoffs, and an unpaid furlough — measures he said were needed to rescue the embattled university.
…and so on. There are more cases, which I faithfully record in the FTTE report. But this is enough for now. My point is made and readers may be depressed.
American higher education may well be in a transition stage. These cuts, closings, and crises are signs of a system in flux. Clay Shirky called the previous stage a Golden Age, and perhaps the next stage will have such a recognizable character that we come to agree on its name. Maybe its nature will be divided or simply unclear, given the breadth and diversity of our sector. Either way, for now we must cope with the uneasiness and instability that comes with transitions.
In this post’s title I used the word casualties. That’s because I don’t want readers to lose track of the human suffering involves in these stories: careers upended, student work sapped of its reputation, unemployment, local spillover effects, depression, and the fading of delicately wrought cultures.
I also used the word to draw attention to the fact that these things are occurring, and that American academia is not a shiny happy city on a hill right now. All too often the national conversation about higher education focuses on a handful of elite institutions, which are faring quite well. Instead, we should look at the whole sector. I’m using the above examples to shift our gaze.
Today’s final words on transition and change are from the criminally underrated 1990s tv series Babylon-5:
The future is all around us, waiting in moments of transition, to be born in moments of revelation. No one knows the shape of that future, or where it will take us. We know only that it is always born in pain.
*Queen sacrifice: my term for when a campus removes tenured and tenure-track faculty.
(thanks to Stephen Landry on Twitter and many people by email and DM; bricks in transition by Alan Levine; mountain to lowland photo by the European Space Agency)