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Why Inefficiency Is Good for Universities

By MICHAEL BERUBE         March 27, 1998

Academe Today [Copyright: Chronicle of Higher Education].

A tiny chapter in Newt Gingrich's conservative manifesto, To Renew America (HarperCollins, 1995), "The Coming Crisis in Higher Education," contains an obligatory passage of contempt for college professors. Curiously, though, Gingrich has relatively little to say about entrenched '60s radicals and other countercultural misfits with tenure. Instead, he vents his spleen on those backward, hoary faculty types who resist the forces of profit and efficiency.

He takes as his main example those who opposed the 1995 attempt by J. Michael Orenduff, then chancellor of the University of Maine, to create a "virtual campus." The plan, which would have allowed professors across the country to lecture to thousands of students at interactive-television sites throughout Maine, "was a brilliant effort," writes Gingrich, "taking advantage of some of the latest developments in information technology."

Most faculty members rightly saw the virtual university as both a debacle in its own right and a harbinger of bleak years ahead. But Gingrich's mania for technology leads him to castigate faculty members at the University of Maine for behaving "like any other guild or labor union" in trying to protect their jobs. If American automobile workers had avoided technological change the way American faculty members do, Gingrich writes, the car companies would be bankrupt today.

Let's put aside the fact that our nation's auto companies receive so many federal subsidies, in the form of tax write-offs, that they can hardly be said to be operating in a free market. Let's imagine instead, as Gingrich implicitly asks us to do, what American universities would be like if they were run like car companies. University C.E.O.'s would "earn" 180 times the wages of their workers and would award themselves multimillion-dollar bonuses even in years when enrollment numbers dropped or professors were laid off. University faculty and staff members would be unionized, but their unions would be led by management-friendly executives who acceded to company plans to freeze wages and trim benefits. Major components of the university curriculum, from introductory composition to intermediate calculus, would be assembled in Mexican maquiladoras (U.S.-owned factories) by "teachers" working for a few dollars a day.

Last but not least, university infrastructure and safety standards would gradually erode, to the point at which a minor dent in a classroom wall would cost $1,200, plus labor, to fix, and entire buildings would burst into flames whenever students accidentally bumped into their rear doors.

However facetious this extended analogy may seem, it is important to point out to our elected representatives and to the public that a university system run like a car company would be both absurd and destructive. We need to explain this, because many people who are neither plutocrats nor conservatives, including a growing number of university provosts and presidents, are charmed by the prospect of "new technologies" that will enhance "distance learning" and usher in an era of universal education via the Internet -- a sort of Microsoft version of the Age of Aquarius.

College faculty members will need more than good arguments and strong unions to counter that naive mindset. We also will need to be, in a crucial sense, sound traditionalists. That means we will need to espouse the virtues of a strong introductory curriculum in the liberal arts, a substantive program of general education for all students, and close faculty-student contact even in the early years of undergraduates' careers.

Taking such a "traditionalist" position may be trickier than it sounds at first. There already are a number of self-designated "traditionalist" groups in academe, from the National Association of Scholars to the American Academy for Liberal Education. But for all their complaints about contemporary trends in higher education, they generally have not opposed the push by some policy makers, trustees, and administrators to reshape universities into the corporate mold -- to "maximize" profits, evaluate departments and programs by their "efficiency" and "productivity," and reduce the number of tenured faculty members by replacing them with "canned" courses and new information technologies.

How is it possible, then, to stand up for the values of the arts and humanities -- taught by flesh-and-blood professors, to classes of 30 or fewer students -- without appearing to be either a Luddite or a reactionary? And how is it possible to harness the legitimate concerns of the National Association of Scholars or the American Academy for Liberal Education in such a way as to make their constituencies realize that the corporate agenda will do more damage to universities than any number of seminars on the politics of lesbian desire?

We need to get them to look more closely at the Gingrich scenario -- or at the University of Phoenix, for that matter -- in which universities are modeled on auto makers, and ask how they would address student writing and faculty advising, for example. When you're "teaching" 10,000 students by satellite or over the Internet, there's no way you can read and grade their papers, counsel them on their courses, work with them on their prospective careers, or write them letters of recommendation for jobs and postgraduate programs. Personal, individual contact with students is one of the most costly and inefficient services a university can provide. It is also one of the most valuable -- and the most educational.

I realize that at many large universities, including my own, one-on-one instruction and close student advising are rare. Not long ago my wife and I were speaking with two professors in the economics department -- the parents of one of our children's playmates -- who were mystified by the fact that we were spending weeks grading papers. They wanted to know why we didn't just feed our students' test scores into the scanner. We had to explain to them that we were actually reading and commenting on our students' work.

That encounter, like many others, reminded us that a pseudo-corporate system of rewards already operates at most research universities: The more contact you have with undergraduate writing, the lower your salary. So we may not get very far with administrators if we invoke faculty engagement with student writing to explain why we have to fight corporate efficiency.

And yet, precisely because I work at a large state university -- where many professors do simply run their students through the scanner, so to speak, and where incantations of "new technologies" excite many administrators more than evocations of "arts and humanities" -- I know that the public to which Gingrich and Company appeal has complex, contradictory opinions about higher education. The same parents and legislators who want us to be more efficient deliverers of education as a product also demand that undergraduates be treated as individuals, rather than as so many Social Security numbers to be processed at the end of the term.

On one hand, professors at Illinois are beset by the dictates of the Illinois Board of Higher Education, a corporate bunch who want to see more faculty "productivity," as measured by the number of "instructional units" -- warm undergraduate bodies -- processed by each faculty member. On the other hand, we must address the fears of parents and incoming students that faculty members already are so "productive" that they rarely interact with their students, let alone advise and counsel them.

Parents and students are therefore astonished -- and delighted -- to learn about disciplines in the liberal arts in which students can devise courses of individual study or take seminars with limited enrollments. Of course, many students and parents are more interested in the career training that a major in finance or accounting provides than in the individual attention available in the liberal arts. All the same, every chance I get, I direct incoming undergraduates and their parents to horribly inefficient courses, such as seminars and studios, in which knowledge is treated as a process rather than as a product.

The problem is that the goals of the liberal arts -- "critical thinking," for example, and "intellectual cosmopolitanism" -- are usually intangible, whereas the costs of the liberal arts are all too tangible and (for efficiency-minded administrators) all too high. Therefore, we in the liberal arts have a special burden to bear whenever we insist that we are (or should be) a central part of the mission of higher education: We must convince administrators that a better university for students in the liberal arts is, above all, an inefficient university. It is a university where student writing is copious and carefully read, and where students themselves are names, faces, and advisees, not modular production units.

I have nothing against using the Internet as a teaching tool. In fact, I'm using it this semester -- not to eliminate faculty jobs or to lecture to thousands of students, but to create a "listserv" for the 26 undergraduates in my writing-intensive course, so that they can send their comments on one another's work to each other by e-mail. Certainly, new technologies have their place in the university. It's just that the idea of workplace efficiency, like the idea that the faculty work force should be "flexible" (in the sense of "fireable at will"), is alien to the ideals of education -- and should be treated with great skepticism by any educator.

To make that case effectively, faculty members at all institutions, and in all disciplines, need to stress to administrators and policy makers the importance of undergraduate instruction and advising, small class sizes, reasonable teaching loads, student writing, and, for advanced undergraduates, perhaps even practicum seminars or collaboration with professors.

Administrators will reply that inefficiency is expensive, and that every undergraduate class can't be run like a seminar with an enrollment of 14. That's quite true -- just as it's true that most colleges need to figure out how to do more educating with less money. But perhaps we could generate new revenue for students and teachers by initiating some real university reform -- say, capping the salaries of administrators, football coaches, and men's basketball coaches, and diverting the excess to those inefficient departments whose faculty members actually devote their time to educating people.

Michael Berube is a professor of English and director of the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Copyright (c) 1998 by The Chronicle of Higher Education
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