Saving the University from Itself
by Andrew Ó Baoill
It’s not the best of times for the public image of America’s higher education system. Tuition (and student debt) creeps ever upwards; the AAUP’s annual report on the “status of the profession” seems increasingly like a poorly titled in-joke, as poorly paid contingent labor displaces the tenured professor of old; and there is little respite from the anti-intellectualism that pervades so much of public discourse.
One could choose to ignore the problems, to look on the bright side: the tension between educational attainment and economic stress provides students with a means to grapple with theory, to gain a grounded understanding of the lessons taught in class. Is not the coupling of the stress of ever-mounting debt with the open-ended possibilities provided by education not, truly, an example of the 'sublime', one that will impress itself on their consciousness, returning to the fore with each new balance statement? Can students not learn important lessons about impermanence and contemporary capitalism from their exposure to the travails of contingent faculty?
Of course. But this, I think, is to turn a blind eye to some of the very real problems for the contemporary academy. There is a crisis, it is equal parts existential and financial, and the responses so far have been half-hearted and insufficient to the very real challenge. Legislatures no longer see themselves as patrons, supporting a public trust, but rather as investors, who must see concrete ROIs in the form of entrepreneurial activity, jobs (and those in the actual colleges don't count), and up-skilling of the population. While I don't know if I'd count the radio star out yet, MOOCs have clearly killed the face-to-face lecture. And students have fully recovered from the weaknesses of the 1960s and 1970s and, prompted by a K12 system properly aligned to social mores, demand a university system that supports rather than subverts their deeply held convictions.
In the face of such issues, it's clearly time for big thinking. Modestly, I offer this proposal, as a means to edge us towards solutions fit for our times.
Perhaps the key is choosing our starting point: what are the features of our current system that can provide the kernel of our future success? I would point to two aspects, imperfectly developed as of yet. First, we have internships which have, unfortunately, been attacked of late, on the basis that the more competitive placements are available only to those who can afford to forego summer incomes, while supporting themselves in cities like New York and Washington DC. Few have focused on one of the benefits for institutions: that for much lower costs than a regular class - usually only a faculty member to grade the student's experience — universities and colleges can reap the full benefits of regular course tuition.
Second, an inversion of the tired old critique of contingent labor - that it's become the 'new normal' for the majority of those looking to work in academia; that it reifies and calcifies an unhealthy stratification within the academy; that it feeds on grad student dreams — is needed. Where is the recognition that the contingent model improves the flexibility and efficiency of the modern university, that it helps make the university more relatable to the general population?
These two developments, then, have important potential, even if we must acknowledge their limitations. While interns don't need classrooms or, for the most part, academic libraries, there are still costs allocated to the student intern by the institution, so the tuition received isn't free money: in addition to the obvious overhead for university administration, there is the unfortunate reality that interns still need faculty. The department of labor has been fairly obstinate in requiring that in order for interns to be denied the minimum wage, there must be a clear educational component to the project. Increasingly employers, who want to avoid joining the lines of those facing suits from those they've provided valuable experience to in the past, are leaning on educators to provide the necessary certification for their internships. It's a mixed blessing for universities, with tuition income depleted by the increased cost of faculty oversight.
And adjuncts are, well, there. Deny them office space and they'll nurse coffees in cafeterias or lounges. Deny them access to coffee machines, and you'll pass them grading in their cars on your way home. Their dedication may be admirable — and provides a counter to those naysayers who talk of exploitation - but, bluntly, it doesn't provide a good image for next year's customers, as they arrive with their parents to survey the facilities. It was bad enough when tenured faculty thought that they could avoid the white collar was purely a metaphorical designation. The adjuncts are more likely to comply with that unspoken dress code — instability and optimism help keep them on the right track - but still, they're there, in all their impermanence and ink-thumbed grading.
So, what then is to be done? Universities might respond to the continued pressure from politicians for more nimble, enterprise-focused activities by leveraging one of their greatest resources, their pool of indebted former students. Some, indeed, have gone partway in suggesting that universities lend directly to students, recouping tuition over a fixed term after graduation. The federal work-study program ensures that those at the lower end of the socio-economic curve are already turned into labor for their institutions, visible in libraries and offices, supplementing their Pell grants and federal loans while they are still on campus. But we could think bigger. Rather than recoup a percentage of income over, what, 10, 20 years, why not cut out not just the middle-man that is the lending agency, but the employer through whom human labor is turned into wages to be returned to the educator? In straightforward terms, why not have students, in return for tuition, sign up to provide a certain number of hours (or, realistically, years) of labor in campus units after graduation? There would still be a need for provision of housing and some form of meal plan to these graduates, so it's not cost free (though presumably these costs could be tagged onto each student's debt), but we could reasonably suggest that students spend, say, two years working in food service, or general maintenance, for each year of tuition. Get your degree, and be free and clear by thirty — who can say that these days?
The benefits to the institution would be sizable: the number of full-time employees (many of them currently unionized) who could be shed would be considerable. There would be no overwhelming need to provide a one-to-one conversion between current wage rates and the debt value to be repaid (as we know from old-style mining company stores), so these indentured graduates, as I call them, could potentially become a profit center for institutions, rather than the cost centers we currently associate with labor provision.
Still, there are some risks. There is a limit to how many jobs can be displaced in the core institution, so any university taking on this approach would need to take an expansive approach. Universities might consider using this new pool of available labor to expand its operations - to have graduates provide the labor used in the for-profit businesses spun out of engineering departments, for example. But, you object, that would displace the graduate students who currently undertake such roles - and potentially upset that particular applecart.
Concerns for the welfare of graduate students to one side — and remembering that many of them are increasingly unionized might alleviate our concern about their interests - corporate partners might be concerned about this expansion of universities into their territory. How is a university to be nimble and a paragon of the neo-liberal state if it brings broader swathes of activity directly into its tent? Universities might be increasingly on the same page when it comes to the commercial orientation of its activities, but no business wants to share its slice of pie, if it can avoid it.
So, there's a limit to what can be realistically expected of this plan - unless we turn our gaze inward. Here, if we are brave, is the true beauty and potential of this move. Internships are the perfect student experience: requiring few resources, while providing the same income as a small-group seminar. How could we make this approach even more efficient? Why, by reducing the only variable cost in the equation: the faculty oversight. Could not one of our indentured graduates provide this service? Close in age and experience to the interns, they will be able to provide peer evaluation of the intern's self evaluation (and, perhaps, be more forgiving when reading a critical employer evaluation, providing the added benefit of increased consumer satisfaction in return for the modest cost of grade inflation).
And the kicker that shows the true genius of this plan: as many internships happen over the summer, the room and board for the indentured graduates would come from surplus facilities, while being added to their debt at the usual conversion. Added efficiency, greater ROIs.
What's not to love?