Western Governors: The Anti-Intellectual UniversityPosted: August 14, 2011
Editor: See Johann Neem's quote in the Aug. 26, 2011 New York Times article "Online Enterprises Gain Foothold as Path To College Degree."
During the last legislative session in Washington state, faculty and other supporters of quality higher education fought a losing battle against legislation to recognize Western Governors University (WGU), an online private institution based in Utah, as a state institution. Indiana and, more recently, Texas have also recently formed partnerships with WGU (http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2011/08/04/governor_perry_partners_with_western_governors_university)
I have long sought to figure out what troubles me so much about our legislators’ willingness to support this questionable institution. Was it WGU’s lack of teachers? Was it the complete lack of regard for research or for academic freedom? Was it that the state was outsourcing its public responsibilities? Was it that WGU, despite proclaiming to serve working adults, pays its president almost $700,000? Was it WGU’s labor practices, which undermine shared governance? Was it WGU’s misleading claims about its cost to students?
The answer, I finally realized, was something deeper. The fundamental problem with WGU is that it is anti-intellectual.
Of course, anti-intellectualism is a reality of American public life, and at times a good one. At its best, it ensures that intellectuals are both responsive and responsible to the broader public. At its worst, however, it undermines the university’s role as a sacred space for the promotion of knowledge.
This is shocking. WGU, and its for-profit online cousins, are opposed to the core mission of the university: to cultivate the life of the mind. Universities maintain—in fact they cherish—knowledge. They teach knowledge; they interpret and maintain old knowledge; they produce new knowledge. Those of us who teach and research joined the academy because we believe that knowing is worth more than money; the search for truth is a calling. To teach students and to pursue research is to engage in something worthy.
WGU, on the other hand, seeks to deskill the professoriate and students.
First, it has no faculty. It can barely be said to have teachers. WGU’s “course mentors” are not expected to develop course material, much less engage in creative teaching and research.
It’s not just about designing curricula, however. As all teachers know, the formal curriculum—what is on the syllabus—is a starting point. Much of the real thinking takes place in carrying out the syllabus’s promise—in the discussions inspired by assigned readings, in experiments that test hypotheses, and in conversations about papers and ideas. It is here that professors play a vital role helping students not just to complete assignments and pass assessments, but to become thoughtful, to ask good questions, and to get below the surface of things. (This is also why MIT can make its syllabi public without fear of losing students.)
The problem of deskilling is that teachers are no longer expected to be, or even allowed to be, models of intellectual life. They are simply facilitating students’ access to predigested material. Students at WGU may interact with “mentors” but not with scholars.
This is not meant as an insult to those who are employed by WGU. It’s a structural claim about the organization of work. As Adam Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations, if you carry the division of labor too far you give a worker “no occasion to exert his understanding.” Whether that’s good for society at large is one question, but certainly it’s a bad idea for an institution devoted to thinking.
But, WGU would respond, it focuses on students not teachers. The traditional university, WGU claims, is faculty-centered rather than student-centered. The reality is quite different. All colleges and universities must be responsive to student needs and the broader market. What’s really at stake is the balance of power between faculty and management. WGU redistributes power upward, to its management.
Moreover, WGU is not interested in students actually learning. Its liberal education requirements are laughable. The depth of its studies is insulting—its own promotional material tells students that they can finish a term’s length of work in a week. Unlike most American colleges and universities, WGU does not demand that students think, learn, and change as part of being educated. WGU, in short, not only deskills teachers, it deskills students.
Instead of students, WGU seeks customers. WGU’s education has no value other than the degree itself. It is completely utilitarian. There is no broader civic mission, nor any hope that college educated adults will learn how to be better women and men. Rather than offering a college education, which takes time, their promotional material asks potential customers: “How quickly would you like to earn your degree?”
The students who seek out WGU and other similar institutions are not to be blamed. Americans need, and deserve, high quality technical education. Whether WGU can live up to this goal without good teachers remains to be seen. But technical education is not the same thing as baccalaureate education. Both are necessary and valuable forms of higher education, but they serve different purposes and have different goals.
WGU and other institutions like it pose a challenge to the university that extends well beyond labor concerns. Yes, WGU has outsourced and divided labor in ways that threaten academic freedom and shared governance. But what makes WGU even more insidious is that it has outsourced thinking itself. It is no longer a university.
What became clear in debates over WGU in Washington state, however, is that our legislators do not value college education. All legislators want is to increase the number of people who can claim college degrees.
Editor: Please send your blog submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m especially looking for faculty in Texas and Florida to update us on the situation in those states.