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August 24, 2003

Outsourcing Education

The New York Times is calling attention to a situation most academics have known for a long time--squeezed university budgets (free subscription required) are weakening the university system. The article focuses primarily on students facing cuts in course offerings that make it more difficult to graduate in a reasonable time. The University of Illinois, for example, has been forced to cut over a thousand classes while the University of California has been forced to delay the opening of an entire campus. With a booming population of college-eligible students, combined with budget cuts as high as 10%, this problem will only be exacerbated in the years to come. The article makes some solid criticisms against how the budget cuts will affect students, who provide one of the more powerful leverage points available in enacting any kind of change in university practice. After all, according to the current logic, however illogical it might be, students who are paying higher tuition but aren't getting into the classes they need essentially represent dissatified customers.

Students and administrators, such as Robert Shelton, provost of UNC-Chapel Hill, have claimed that these cuts have damaged "the educational experience." This shouldn't diminsh the hard work and increased efforts of thousands of academic laborers who strive to create the best courses possible, often with tremendous limitations of large classes and small budgets.

But the Times article glosses one of the major problems of the university in the early twenty-first century: its intimate ties to what Richard Ohmann calls a post-Fordist logic of "flexible accumulation," in which universities are managed like for-profit companies. According to Times reporter, Greg Winter,

For their part, universities are scrambling to keep valued faculty members. Confronted with bigger class loads, less time for research, fewer administrative aides, less money for graduate assistants and salary freezes, tenured professors are vowing to leave — and occasionally making good on their threats.

"It still looks good from the road but, oh Lord, there's a lot of suffering inside," said Chris Hart, a spokesman for the University System of Maryland, which has been struggling to retain faculty. "Professors are saying, `You can't support my research, so I'm taking it elsewhere.' "

Their departure, or even their increased teaching time, can have a domino effect, college officials say, because universities are so heavily dependent on the research grants professors secure from industry and government.

"It is a tremendous cash cow," said Fred J. Antczak, associate dean for academic programs at the University of Iowa, noting that the university takes in $350 million in research money each year. "If we start getting hurt on those figures, I don't know how we stay solvent."

While I'm well aware that the modern research university was built on the funding support of monopoly capitalism (Carnegie, Ford, Mellon, etc), this "need to turn faculty research into revenue" (Ohmann xxiv), the attempts to run univeristies like corporations with "flexible labor," is something that will only damage the mission of higher eductaion in the long run. I'm not looking for a return to some "Golden Age" of higher education (after all that so-called golden age often excluded women and people of color), but I do think that outlining these vulnerabilities, such as taking these student complaints seriously, and looking at university budgets in relationship to this year's tax subsidies that overwhelmingly favor the wealthiest people in the US, might help to score a few points.

I've just started Ohmann's new book, The Politics of Knowledge, but so far, I'm finding many of his arguments quite convincing. It's a great place to start for thinking about the current academic labor market and the privatization of the university in these "interesting times."

Posted by chuck at August 24, 2003 11:25 AM

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I blogged this story this morning, too. Since my dept. had six faculty members accept the state's early retirement offer, our enrollments are super-tight, and we've had to up our course sizes for at least a year.

About a year and a half ago, I was a participant in the Sam Nunn Policy Forum on Commercialization & the University, which focused on 1980's Bayh-Dole Act, which permitted universities to patent federally-funded research. To many observers, the Bayh-Dole Act helps drive the managerial style you describe in your post.

For instance, Eyal Press and Jennifer Washburn wrote an interesting story on this in the Atlantic a few years ago (Washburn was an invitee for the SNPF, so the essay was part of the prereading). It's online here (http://www.mindfully.org/GE/The-Kept-UniversityMar00.htm).

Here's a key paragraph:

[A]cademic administrators throughout the country turn to the private sector for an increasing percentage of their research dollars, in part because public support for education has been dropping. Although the federal government still supplies most of the funding for academic research (it provided $14.3 billion, or 60 percent, in 1997, the latest year for which figures are available), the rate of growth in federal support has fallen steadily over the past twelve years, as the cost of doing research, particularly in the cutting-edge fields of computer engineering and molecular biology, has risen sharply. State spending has also declined. Berkeley Chancellor Robert Berdahl says that California now supplies just 34 percent of Berkeley's overall budget, as compared with 50 percent twelve years ago, and he claims that other state universities have suffered similar cuts.

Posted by: Jason at August 24, 2003 6:58 PM

I caught your post on this right after I'd blogged it. I'll keep everyone posted on Ohmann's book because, despite the potentially difficult days ahead for humanities in the university, I think the definition of the university will continue to be contested for a long time.

Posted by: chuck at August 26, 2003 9:00 PM

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