Friday, May 21, 2010

The “Correction”: What Could That Mean In Our Higher Education Context?

This week is one where we have finally had the long awaited “correction” in the financial markets, as defined by at least a 10% drop in the value of the market say as measured by the Dow Jones average, since the high for 2010. So this week while I worked away diligently at my messianic ambition to improve the first year in American higher education, I lost a great deal of my savings, without doing anything specific to wreak this misfortune on myself. Now, since the low of the market post the collapse in fall 2008, that low being around March of 2009, admittedly, there are many weeks I did absolutely nothing specific to increase my net wealth, but it increased anyway. I am certainly an investor who had been waiting for, expecting, the “correction” to arrive.

Also, during this week, we have watched as an unprecedented number of lobbyists swarm on Washington like the horde of locusts they are, killing the crops that the rest of us hoped to raise. Here some members of Congress had been hoping for a “correction,” i.e. to reverse the trends of the past several decades and to impose on the financial markets and financial services industries some long overdue “corrections.” We are witnessing, no surprise, the spectacular clout of these lobbyists and the gradual evisceration of the bill designed to “protect” us by means of “correction.”

This has all got me thinking about what does the concept of “correction” mean in the higher ed context? We have certainly, most of us anyway, seen more than a 10% decline in our net fortunes. Has that triggered a “correction.” If we were to name a litany of abuses, profligate use of resources, priorities out of balance, can we say there has been a “correction” driven by the Great Recession. Just what would that mean?

I am not sure. But I know I have not seen it. Has publish or perish been modified? Have faculty workloads, a huge factor in the “cost” of higher education, been significantly increased? Has the faculty rewards system been significantly modified to reward faculty for greater measures of “productivity?” Have there been consolidations, shake outs? Have we decided to shift resources significantly to the most productive sectors of the academy (e.g. community colleges)? Recognizing that most of our students do not live on trust funds, have we become more “vocational” in our orientation as to the purposes of higher education? I could go on.

But no, I am not seeing a correction. I am seeing the status quo largely being maintained, but with severe cutbacks for the least powerful in the academy. I don’t think this qualifies as a correction. Outside of higher education so many societal elements mirror what has been going on in the business sector in terms of prioritizing, right sizing, down sizing, outsourcing, etc. But not higher education. What will it take? Truly the capacity of our culture to resist change in truly phenomenal.

And this has implications, profound implications, for the focus of my work in trying to get colleges and universities to make significant changes in the ways they organize and execute the beginning college experience. We just aren’t hurting enough yet for a correction. And I am not betting we are going to have one, on the macro level. So I am going to push on as I have been for the last 35 years pushing for “corrections” at the micro level, i.e. the institutional level, and especially in terms of what we do with, for and to our new and transfer students.

-John Gardner

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