University Students and Cambodia’s January Violence: Global Lessons from Cynical Youth

Massive public demonstrations in Phnom Penh, December 2013

Massive public demonstrations in Phnom Penh, December 2013

by Teri Yamada, CSU Long Beach

“It seems logical: College graduates have lower unemployment and earn more than less educated workers, so, the thinking goes, the fix for today’s anemic growth in jobs and wages is to make sure that more people earn college degrees. But that’s a common misperception, deflecting attention from the serious work that has to be done to create jobs and improve incomes” (Making College Pay, NYTimes Op Ed, Feb. 12, 2014).

I have been going to Cambodia during academic downtime to work on literacy issues since 1995; yet, this past December was quite definitely different. I imagine  Phnom Penh felt this strange prior to the 1997 coup— the palpable anxiety and underlying fear represented by the eerily uncrowded streets.  Something felt very wrong on December 30 just standing outside the arrival terminal at Pochentong Airport.  And unexpectedly, everyone I knew was talking about political change—including the tuk-tuk drivers—in an atypical expression of public outspokenness.  So I wasn’t that surprised to get an early morning phone call from a close Cambodian friend a few days later telling me not to leave my hotel room today no matter what.

monks

Cambodian monks at January 3 demonstration threatened by the special police.

The previous day at the office, the Cambodian staff—all college graduates—had been live streaming the massive demonstrations of garment workers in “Freedom Park” near the new American Embassy. Organizing was taking place via Facebook and other social media while the “real situation” was missing from the official Cambodian TV evening news .  On January 3, the “special police” disbursed the large gathering of garment workers and their supporters, including youth and Buddhist monks, by shooting into the crowd—killing five and wounding an estimated forty others, including onlookers observing from second-story balconies—as many of us watched or received updates via social media.   This violence included clubbing saffron-robbed Buddhist monks.  A lesson seen before in Cambodia and elsewhere: State power trumps cultural values.  For the rest of my short stay,  I saw military police on every major street corner and huge rolls of nasty looking barbed wire distributed strategically along the major boulevards of central Phnom Penh.

The average garment worker in Cambodia is a rural young woman, age 16-30— now around 600,000 in number working largely in sweatshops— most of them unable to read or write Khmer fluently, working up to 80 hours a week for $125 a month including overtime. Next time you walk by Target, check the label on the designer T-shirts: “Made in Cambodia.”

Investors see Cambodia as an ideal place to make garments given its low wage costs and huge supply of young workers, many from rural areas where jobs outside of subsistence-level farming are scarce.… Chan’s dreams for the future are not uncommon. She’d like to have a family and children. And she’d like to have the money to send them to school so they can get good jobs and not have to work in a garment factory. While she is not ashamed of what she does, she doesn’t want her future children or even her 13-year-old sister following in her footsteps. “I’ve told her not to quit school,” she says resolutely. “I’ve told her not to come here, never to come here. ( DW, “Cambodia garment worker dreams of better future,” Feb. 02. 2014.)

 “Though progress has been made in terms of encouraging girls to attend primary and secondary school, a third of Cambodian adult women are still illiterate,” Ms. Channay said.  (The Cambodian Daily“Females Still in Need of Better Access to University Education” Oct. 8, 2012)

Not mentioned in any of the reportage about garment workers’ organizing was the support of a large number of college students now facing unemployment in Phnom Penh and elsewhere in Cambodia.  What unifies college students and garment workers is their mutual despair and disgust over government corruption, with its tentacles in the education sector as well.   The garment worker Chem Chan, mentioned above, has a younger sister who will encounter “barriers to success” in her school due to the very people running the public education enterprise.

 An investigation by two NGOs has uncovered a network of Education Ministry officials stealing schoolbooks that were intended to be given free to students, and then either selling them back to schools or in local markets. The investigation, conducted in December and January, found that officials at district education departments had intercepted the delivery of the official school textbooks, funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), and had created three revenue streams for personal enrichment. (The Cambodian Daily,  “District Education Offices Stole Free Books for Students,”  Feb. 13, 2014. )

While in Cambodia this January one of my Cambodian colleagues, who works in the government sector, asked me to review an English translation of the Prime Minister’s forthcoming education reform policy that proposed changes in both the public and private education sectors.  Anyone involved with the education sector in Cambodia hears about corruption in the public schools.  This has worsened over the years, starting with underpaid school teachers whose salary has increased so slowly from $60 to $120 a month during the past 15 years or so depending on your status as a K-12 or college instructor.  (Over the past few months garment workers were striking to improve their monthly wage from $90 to $130/$160 a month).   This means most teachers must have outside jobs to survive or ways of making money in the classroom: they may sell paper and pencils to their own students, or work independently as  motorcycle taxi drivers after school.  If you are a college teacher, you probably teach at three or four different institutions even if you are lucky enough to have a full-time job at one university.  This makes it impossible to update knowledge of your discipline or conduct research.   The salary for a full–time job at a public university is about $180 a month, plus some options for overtime; some private universities may pay more, but my colleagues tell me that outside teaching jobs are about $8 an hour.  It takes at least $400 a month to have a middle-class lifestyle with a family of four in Phnom Penh these days, with the cost of good private education for your children a significant expense.

I was pleasantly surprised by the new education reform policy since it actually listed many aspects of corruption known to everyone—the first step for change is to admit there is a problem.  Aspects of this corruption includes teachers and other ‘entrepreneurs’ selling the test questions and answers to the national university-entrance exams prior to the test; an online business where one can call or text  and get the answers to the test.

 In the past few years these examinations have been fraught with increasing amounts of large-scale bribery, cheating and intimidation, with the collaboration of many teachers and Education Ministry employees who occupied important supervisory positions in administering exams. Some of the bribing and cheating methods are outlined by an eleventh grade math teacher who sought anonymity in an interview with the Post.  He said: “The principal examination supervisor, sent from the Ministry of Education, had many ways of being corrupt because he controlled all aspects of the testing process, oversaw both the students sitting the test and the markers who corrected the students’ papers.  School teachers usually just monitored the exam. If they wanted to be corrupt they normally had to collaborate with the principal supervisor.”   (The Phnom Penh Post, “How $200 can buy exam pass,” 17 June 1994)

National High School Exam candidates each spent an average of 120,000 riel – about US$30 – on bribes over this year’s two-day testing period to secure exam answers, according to independent research released yesterday. Social researcher Kem Ley’s report Turning a Blind Eye purported that 92 per cent of students were involved in bribery or cheating during the exam, which is conducted under the supervision of high- school proctors, teachers and police officials. “We also see that 55 per cent of answers were copied from their hand phone after the answer was made and sent around by email,” Ley said, noting social media site Facebook had emerged as a popular means to cheat during this year’s exams, which took place on August 6 and 7. (The Phnom Penh Post, “Exam cheating rampant: report,” Aug. 22, 2012).

Not mentioned in this new education reform document for Prime Minister Hun Sen is the lack of training for proctors or examiners (since one gets paid for grading these examinations, connections will determine who gets the job not qualifications); no option to get a copy of your child’s test to see if it has been graded correctly; no process of appeal.    Essentially there is no accountability or transparency in the national college-entrance examination system.   How a child does on this exam determines whether he or she will receive a scholarship for university education or get into a free public university.

When you talk to Cambodians about this corruption among teachers in the education sector, many are surprisingly sympathetic.  That is because they know that survival on $60-$120 a month is tough, especially if one has a family.  Therefore it doesn’t shock them that schools are selling textbooks that should be distributed for free or that teachers are selling test questions and answers in advance of the national exam.  At the same time, they are outraged; but that anger is directed toward the government not the individual teacher perpetrator.

Once these “successful” high school graduates have advanced to college and completed their BA degrees, they face enormous competition for scare jobs:

As a recent university graduate with a degree in accounting, one might expect Sady Seang Saoly to be ideally placed to take advantage of Cambodia’s rapidly growing economy. Instead the 23-year-old from Kampot province is downbeat about his prospects two years after leaving university. “I and many friends I graduated with still have no jobs. We are very worried,” he said in a recent interview….Despite the Education Ministry citing a 37 percent rise in university graduates from approximately 8,000 in 2005 to around 11,000 last year, coupled with one of the most rapidly growing economies in Asia, high unemployment continues to plague young Cambodians. Only about one in 10 recent university graduates were holding down a job, according to statistics in 2005 from the Youth Star NGO. Between 1996 and 2006, the youth labor force in Cambodia grew by 78.7 percent from 1.29 million to 2.3 million, compared to 6 percent on average in ASEAN countries… “Economic growth in the last few years has been driven mainly by growth in the garment, construction and agricultural sectors, which don’t necessarily employ a lot of university graduates,” Hem said.

Sandra D’Amico, managing director of human resources and recruiting agency Hr Inc, said that despite the large number of graduates, many are unprepared for the rigors of the business world. “There remains a mismatch between the education provided at university versus what employers need,” she said. One major problem is the emphasis on rote learning at Cambodian universities, D’Amico said, when critical thinking skills are needed to learn quickly on the job. Another is that universities offer students little in the way of career guidance (Cambodian Daily,” “Recent Graduates Find Job Prospects are Bleak”  Sept. 9, 2007). (1)

The anonymous authors of the Prime Minister’s new education reform policy, echo D’Amico’s comments above.  They complain about the higher education sector producing graduates with majors and skills that are not aligned with business needs.  Sounds like U.S. politicians’ complaints about higher education in America.

We also have our own special form of higher education corruption in the U.S., the result of a poorly regulated private ed industry—both for-profit and non-profit—that promised future non-existent jobs and used federal funds to subsidize an education scam that indebted millions of young adults.  The 2010 Frontline expose College, Inc. about inflated and false data used to seduce students into debt still remains relevant four years later.  For an update see Forbes reportage “How the $1.2 Trillion College Debt Crisis Is Crippling, Students, Parents and the Economy.”  And then there is the example of Corinthian Colleges under investigation by California’s Attorney General Kamala Harris:

A year ago, if you were Jack Massimino, CEO of  Corinthian Colleges, you might have been feeling pretty good.  Despite extensive evidence from congressional and media investigations that Corinthian, along with other big for-profit colleges, has been abusing students — luring them with deceptive recruiting, offering high-priced, low quality programs, and often leaving them without jobs and deep in debt — you seemed to be getting away with it.  Almost 90 percent of the revenue for the schools you operated — Everest, Heald and WyoTech colleges — was easy money: federal taxpayer dollars from student grants and loans, about a billion dollars a year.  You yourself were taking home over $3 million a year in compensation some years (Huff Post Business, “Federal and State Law Enforcement Dramatically Escalate For-Profit College Probes” Feb. 6, 2014).

I’m thinking, in the State of California, of the Bureau of Private Post Secondary Education, which remained legislatively impotent and underfunded for over  twenty years  while scam, predatory vocational training schools established themselves in our under-regulated state.  There are scores of online law schools in California, none accredited by the California ABA.  The issue of law schools, even those accredited, attracting students into an overcrowded profession while leaving them in deep debt, is addressed in  Brian Tamanaha’s controversial Failing Law Schools (U Chicago P, 2012).  As quoted in The Chronicle of Higher Education article, “Law School Professor Gives Law Schools a Failing Grade,” Tamanaha writes : “Law schools are thriving, kept afloat by students making poor judgments to attend, while the federal government obligingly supplies the money to support their folly.”  (2)

povertyrates

What we can say about a college education is that those with one have the lowest rise in poverty rates in the U.S.

And some law firms complain  that law schools are not training students as they should, in practical skills like writing contracts. An Education Week article frames it this way, “it appears that standardized-test results are positively correlated with a shallow approach to learning.”  Stephen Dubner of Freakonomics fame,  observes:  “tests have increasingly come to be seen as a ritualized burden that encourages rote learning at the expense of good thinking”. That assessment is confirmed by empirical data, including a study published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, which characterizes the learning of high test performers as “superficially engaged.”   “The students are not to blame, but it does mean that law teaching now involves shaping learning for a generation that has been encouraged to memorize rather than engage in critical thinking” (The Chronicle of Higher EducationLaw School’s Failure to Prepare Students…It’s Complicated,  Dec. 11, 2013).

Our situation sounds more and more like Cambodia’s: children trained in rote learning (teaching to the test via No Child Left Behind); an essentially unregulated private higher education sector without quality control; an increasing number of college graduates who don’t fit the job market, which is actually underperforming or collapsing.  And we also see flawed management in our own institutions and misuse of funds.

In a world where globalization with its glossy ideological promise of ‘raising all boats’ has stalled out, while  higher education is still advocated religiously as the path to economic success, we should contemplate the creation of new policy that actually produces economic restructuring so that all these college graduates might find meaningful employment instead of taking to the streets.  As a recent op ed (Feb. 12, 2014) in The New York Times points out: “On its own, more college won’t change the economy’s low-wage trajectory.”  That is so both  in Cambodia and the United States.

NOTES

(1)  See Sandra D’Amico’s excellent study, “Higher Education and Skills for the Labor Market in Cambodia” (2010)

(2)  See also “Law Schools on the Defensive Over Job-Placement Data” in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

OTHER REFERENCES

“State of the Union: The Poverty and Inequality Report, 2014,”  (The National Report Card), The Stanford Center on Poverty


The Revolution Will Not Be Televised : Deconstructing the CFHE News Briefing (February 12, 2013) on Funding Hi Ed.

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised : Deconstructing the  CFHE News Briefing (February 12, 2013) on Funding Hi Ed.

tumblr_mhbhstLtSM1r4tplxo1_500Teri Yamada, Prof. of Asian Studies, CSU Long Beach

“Contemporary society, observed the late Cornelius Castoriadis, has stopped questioning itself.  Lack of genuine questioning —at once a questioning of self and society—is fundamental to the political deadlocks of contemporary social life”

(Anthony Elliot  from “The New Individualist Perspective: Identity Transformations in the Aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis”)

At the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education (CFHE) news briefing, three scholars representing faculty across the U.S. strongly advocated for a change in state and federal funding of public higher ed. Their request— stop capitulating to a dysfunctional NEW NORMAL — was directed at politicians and administrative leaders with the power to change a funding system that longer works for most Americans.

Three scholars—Professors Samuels, Fichtenbaum and Glantz—presented    different common-sense solutions for funding public higher education based on tax reforms or spending state and federal dollars more wisely.  All proposals attempt to reverse the privatization trend in public higher education that shifts the expense from the state and federal government onto the most vulnerable families and individuals.  These scholars share the concern that a failure to fund quality public higher education equally for every American gradually leads to a diminished democracy with a two-tiered class system.  It is past time to rethink this problem and take action to correct it.

  • Bob Samuels in “Making All Public Higher Education Free” argues for reallocating monies used for state and government education subsidies. According to his research, the cost for free undergraduate public education in 2009-10 was $127 bil.   The total amount of state and government dollars currently allocated to college-saving programs, grants, subsidies and student loan expenses would cover this cost AND stop the horrendous problem of   student debt.
  • Rudy Fichtenbaum in “How to Invest in Higher Education: A Financial Speculation Tax” proposes a responsibly administered, modest tax of no more than .5% on speculative financial transactions.   The U.S. had a small financial transactions tax from 1914 to 1966.  Its diminished relative now supports the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.  Many other nations— Great Britain, Singapore, France and Finland, for example— have a financial speculation tax with the subsidiary benefit of reducing speculation while providing funding for public projects.
  • Stanton Glantz in  “Financial Options for Restoring Quality and Access to Public Higher Education in California: 2012/13” suggests we reset student fees to the 2001 level.  Glantz provides an analysis to show that a $48 tax per median California taxpayer would restore the state to that 2001 level.  Otherwise, the offloading of public higher education costs to private individuals will continue to make education less affordable to the public.  A tax like this in each state would return public education to the status of a public good.

The facts in these three proposals were reported on a number of online education venues. I was disappointed, however, in reportage that failed to emphasize the despair faculty feel over the current damage to public higher education.   It is authentic concern and frustration that compel faculty to develop such proposals.   If this trend of defunding continues what is positive about our current public higher ed system will be tossed out in the madness of  “efficiency” reform.  We will end up with a one-size-fits-all commodity education for children who cannot afford private colleges: a second-class education for second-class citizens.

The Chronicle of Higher Education (CHE) and Inside Higher Ed (IHE) reporters papered over the political message of failed leadership, although the IHE reporter did quote Glantz’s comment on urgency: ”We’ve got to get policy makers and individuals who represent institutions to stop wringing their hands and address the problem.”   Samuels, Fichtenbaum and Glantz were unified in criticizing the failure of college presidents and political leaders to question and mitigate the negative influence of neo-liberal economic policy on public higher education.   It is unconscionable to passively accept the New Normal as an excuse for maintaining a dysfunctional status quo.  Inaction is not an option.   In contrast, NEA reporter Mary Ellen Flannery more accurately emphasized the urgency of the faculty message, the reason for this news briefing.

It is also interesting that no reporter took advantage of Glantz’s suggestion to contact a college president.  Since the “failure of leadership to question and create change” was the seminal subtext of the three faculty proposals, it is ironic that most reporters would adhere to status quo coverage of facts not message.   Glantz’s suggestion would involve more effort, perhaps impossible in the face of time constraints imposed by short deadlines.  The Chronicle of Higher Ed blogger had his post up within hours of the event.  Calling a few campus presidents may not be an option with a two-three hour deadline.  This is not the moment, however, to reflect on the decontextualization and flattening of news that occurs in the immediacy of the tweets and blogs of “networked time”.    Glantz’s suggestion would necessitate finding a campus president “engaged enough” to have read the three proposals and “brave enough” to respond to reporter’s questions with the possibility of an “unpopular” quote ending up in print for all to read.  Easier and safer for a campus president just to ignore it all.    Perhaps for the next set of research proposals, CFHE organizers will send notification in advance to an array of campus presidents mentioning that reporters might call.   And if no president is willing, interested, or able to respond, that type of dismissal and disengagement from faculty concerns is itself newsworthy.

Those of us teaching in the public higher ed domain are watching our administrators dismantle the liberal arts mission of our institutions while denying such action or blaming the New Normal for it.  They can’t help it; it’s not their fault; the state budgets made them do it; STEM matters.  Administrative emotion has become coldly authoritarian.  If capitulation to the New Normal continues,  those disciplines hardest to monetize and located in small programs and departments—foreign languages,  philosophy, ethnic studies—will be eliminated as  tenure lines are not replaced.  Following the SUNY model, general education requirements will be streamlined into pathways as public universities reduce  “product lines.”  Pressure to graduate everyone in four years mandates a factory-like system for state colleges.  Does the public care?  We think they should.

What will be lost in ten years is the cultural space that our institutions once provided for intellectual experimentation and development.  They provided a safe haven for learning, which valorized choice over restriction, community engagement over individualism.  If this efficiency trend continues, our students will be managed through a three-four year delivery pipeline with diminished chance to change a major or even add a minor.  The spirit of discovery, which may take more than ten minutes, will be wrung out of the institution.

It is ironic that those in political office who do not teach demand “efficiency and quality”.  They have no idea about the sorry state of the technological infrastructure in our classrooms.  Their fantasy of a speedy pipeline education that utilizes “cheap” online instruction will not make the United States more competitive in the global economy.  Nor will our streamlined “student product” satisfy the “worker needs” of 21st century corporations.  Our administrators in their “detached engagement” tell us this new normal is a done deal.  It is all about improving efficiency to provide a “good-enough” education for the 99%.


tumblr_mhno6tPDb61r4tplxo1_500


Fear and Trembling: Nov. 6 and Public Higher Ed.

Hurricane Sandy and New York City

Our hearts go out to our colleagues and everyone on the East Coast battered by  Hurricane Sandy, the second October megastorm in two years.   May an outcome  of this devastation be the recognition of climate change   and the beginning of a rational public policy and action to address it, including the construction of  a more resilient electrical grid and  public infrastructure.

Fear and Trembling:  Nov. 6 and Public Higher Ed.

A deep existential dread pervades many of my colleagues in education  as Nov. 6 approaches.  And it is not just because we are in California with its problematic Prop 30, which would be the  coup de grâce  to public education if it fails.   This election could signify the closing of opportunity for any significant pragmatic action to protect what remains of public higher education across the country. The outcomes on Nov. 6 could be a further blow to unions, who despite faults, have worked hard to protect workers rights in the face of a relentless onslaught of big money, and reactionary legislation to gut them.

And I can be counted as one educator in this election season disappointed by the lack of debate on the state of  defunded public higher  education across the nation and the instability for young educated adults in the new lackluster economy.   I can see the impact of a dramatically changed economic reality on my students since the fiscal collapse of 2008: seniors about to graduate troubled by their chances on a job market that provides no career stability or upward mobility.  One of my students, a talented software programmer in the gaming field, works from contract to contract  asking for a permanent position at each job with no result.  Or there is the mature student, a biology major in my capstone course, who has survived rising  tuition costs in the CSU with a “good job” at Starbucks and may have to stay since jobs in her area of expertise are scare; or her partner also in the science business who does get highly paid contracts, but they are all short-term and he worries constantly about  the next short-term job.   This is an age of contingency for all workers, blue or white-collar,  and my students wonder whether they will ever have the economic security to even start a family or own a house.  The American Dream feels  very fragile to my graduating students in California in an age of business opportunism eager to exploit contingent labor.  This is a global trend , of course, pitting young educated adults against each other in the hunt for more stable jobs.

Is it the same across the states? Just last month many of us received the following message from  the American Association of University Professors (AAAUP) explaining the seriousness of union busting in Michigan:

 Dear AAUP Members:

In attacks on working families similar to those we saw in Wisconsin and Ohio, the Michigan legislature and governor have decimated collective bargaining rights in the state. In Michigan, this has been done not in one omnibus bill but with an onslaught of individual bills, railroaded through committees with the arrogant attitude, “your voice doesn’t matter.”

Fearing this pattern might continue though the next legislative session, and possibly lead to a so-called right-to-work state, the labor movement has initiated a ballot campaign to amend the Michigan constitution. The proposed amendment would protect the basic right to negotiate for fair wages and benefits with an employer.

Our friends and colleagues in Wisconsin and Ohio stood their ground and fought back with the power of collective action reminiscent of the 1930’s. It is now Michigan’s turn to carry the movement forward.

As we have seen over the past couple of years, corporate special interests have amassed staggering resources to use in their attempt to destroy collective bargaining rights. We therefore appeal to our AAUP colleagues from across the country to join us in preserving the labor/management relationship that has been so successful in creating the American middle class.

Our colleagues in Michigan need your help. To see how you can help, please visit the Michigan AAUP conference website (http://www.miaaup.org/).

Rudy Fichtenbaum President, AAUP

In California, funded by super PACS (including Karl Rove and the Koch Brothers).we have Prop 32 on the Nov. 6 ballot that would make political action close to impossible for unions here.   May we shake off the dread and act to make sure this doesn’t happen as we inspire our colleagues to become politically engaged by getting out the vote this week.  This is all hands on deck!

In his recent blog .”…Same as the Old Boss”  (below) Bill Lyne  provides a case study of the ongoing privatization of public higher ed in Washington State:

In a move that would make Dick Cheney proud, Education Secretary Arne “Aren’t I cool because I play basketball with the president” Duncan recently convened a secret meeting of higher education bosses to help him figure out how to do to higher ed what he has done to K-12.  According to a report in Inside Higher Ed, the meeting included top officials from prominent MOOCs, other players in online learning, veteran experts on course redesign, college administrators, people from powerful foundations, leaders of several of the major higher education associations, technology vendors, and for-profit college representatives.

“Few actual faculty members were invited to the meeting,” reported IHE. “And no high-profile faculty advocates attended.”  In the doth protest too much portion of the program, “education Department officials repeatedly said during the meeting that they recognize the leadership role faculty must take in any teaching and learning developments.”

Yeah, well if you’re not at the table, you’re probably on the menu.

In related news here in Washington, Governor Gregoire has now made her appointments to the Student Achievement Council, a longtime state bureaucrat with zero education experience is now running our community college system, and Rob McKenna thinks college professors are blowhards who should be turned into temp workers.

For those who haven’t been reading the fine print, the Student Achievement Council almost exactly fills the footprint left by the recently deposed Higher Education Coordinating Board.  Scott White is probably rolling over in his grave after the bill he introduced to scrap the bloated and ineffectual HEC Board has only produced a lot of wasted time and money to replicate the HEC with the SAC.

The governor’s appointments to the SAC all seem like fine people, but while the names have changed, the lineup overall is distressingly familiar.  A bunch of lawyers and managers and a token student (who will, depending on her willingness to go along, either be co-opted or marginalized), none of whom bears much resemblance to an actual educator.  As with every other task force, board, council, and committee appointed to ride herd on public higher education, there is no faculty member, no one who does the work of education, no one who knows from daily classroom experience what student achievement might actually mean.

For the past thirty years, U.S. public education has been going to way of U.S. health care.  Like health care, education is something that should be a right that has been inexorably turned into a commodity as a public good has been made more and more available for private profit.  The funding model has shifted from taxation to debt (much to the delight of the financial industry), eroding both the accessibility and quality of college.  Real educators generally object to this shift, which is why the new appointees to the SAC were chosen precisely because they are managers and not educators.  Kind of the same way that the people chosen to run health care are always managers and not doctors.

As public higher ed was eviscerated over the past four years, the HEC board stood by and didn’t raise a fuss, choosing instead to do endless tuition studies and produce lots of charts with pretty blue arrows.  It’s a pretty safe bet that the new SAC can be counted on to be just as acquiescent.

 Meanwhile, just down the street at the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, Olympia perennial Marty Brown has been named Executive Director.  When last we saw Mr. Brown, he was throwing a fit to any reporter who would listen about the faculty contract at Western Washington University.  Despite the fact that Western professors’ salaries, adjusted for cost of living, ranked in the bottom fifteen percent in the country, Mr. Brown felt it was “a mistake” for the Western trustees to negotiate a contract with the faculty that included small raises.

This disdain for faculty, along with his complete lack of experience as an educator, should help Mr. Brown fit right in at the SBCTC, where hundreds of well-paid managerial employees with benefits oversee a system that is well on its way to becoming a sweatshop.  At some of Washington’s community colleges, up to 80% of the faculty are badly paid part-time itinerant workers with no benefits.  As SBCTC Director, Mr. Brown will have access to study after study that shows what a difference well-qualified permanent faculty can make.  He will also have the expertise of thousands of professors readily available.  The smart money is on his taking advantage of neither, instead continuing to rely on the squads of non-classroom consultants and “experts” who will continue to peddle the notion that doing more with less has no effect on a student’s education.

 Alas, these also seem to be Rob McKenna’s confidantes.  Mr. McKenna has made education the centerpiece of his gubernatorial campaign and he certainly gets it right when he talks about how he wants to increase funding for higher education.  And he consistently recognizes the damage done by years of cuts to higher ed.

 But when he gets down to specifics, it becomes clear that the Attorney General has drunk the managerial Kool-Aid.  In a higher ed speech at WWU’s Munro Institute this summer, Mr. McKenna cogently made the case about higher ed funding, but then moved into the trickier areas of instruction and teaching.  After a few banal remarks about online learning and “blended courses,” he launched into this observation about the nature of teaching:

 “We’ve got to move from a model where you always have a teacher or a professor who is, as someone put it, the ‘Sage on the Stage’ to where you’ve got a professor or a teacher who’s the ‘guide by your side.’  This is a phrase that I learned from Sam Smith at Western Governor’s University (WGU), I thought it was pretty striking.”

What seems novel and striking to Attorney General McKenna is actually pretty old and tired.  “Sage on the stage” and “guide by your side” have been around since at least the early 1990s and have been co-opted by the for-profit education movement as a way to demonize professors as pompous windbags and convince prospective student customers that a badly paid unqualified pal on the other end of a digital connection is better than a genuinely qualified instructor.  (The irony worth noting here is that almost every time some self-styled education expert trots out the sage-on-the-stage insult, he or she is usually speaking from a stage to a passive audience, just as Rob McKenna was at the Munro Institute.)  It’s no surprise that McKenna picked this up from Sam Smith, the lobbyist for WGU, where they have no faculty, just “course mentors.”

 McKenna’s lack of connection to real educators becomes even clearer when we take a look at his higher education position paper.  Buried near the end is a proposal to eliminate tenure, a move that would guarantee Washington’s universities would never again be able to recruit high quality faculty.

Chris Gregoire, Marty Brown, and Rob McKenna are doing nothing to improve the quality of higher education, but they can take solace in the fact that they are right in step with Arne Duncan.  Though they all come from different points on the ideological compass, they all firmly agree that major policy and funding decisions about higher education are best made without any actual educators in the room.

When the Duncan cabal got down to their business of identifying the obstacles to their brave new world of McEd, the things they pointed to were financial aid rules, pesky accreditors demanding some sort of accountability, and the “faculty culture” created by those nasty professors who stayed in school into their thirties and took jobs paying much less than they could have made as business people or lawyers, just because they don’t really care about students.

Given their mania for efficiency, it’s probably a good thing that Arne’s army kept the professors out of the room.  They would have just muddled things with questions about massive disinvestment, the difference between real education for responsible citizens and job training for docile employees, and why everybody in the room was sending their kids to real colleges while claiming that the MOOCs were good enough for everyone not in their tax bracket.

 The NFL Referee lockout demonstrated once again that nobody protects quality, integrity, and safety like organized, professional practitioners and that bosses, no matter what manner of pious bullshit they may publicly spew, are mostly interested in squeezing workers as hard as they can.  The bosses who have now focused on higher education are determined to make sure that today’s children get tomorrow’s education equivalent of replacement refs.

(permission to repost granted by the author)

 


We Are All Corporate Professors Now (and what to do about it): Summer Reading Mashup

The Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP) is the largest (and only public) university in Cambodia. To teach there you must be registered as a member of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
Photo taken by Teri Yamada, June 2012.

I have just returned from six weeks in Cambodia.  Since 1996, I have worked there for most summers  to assist Khmer colleagues rebuild the higher education sector.  The Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP)  has a number of buildings spread throughout the city.  The RUPP building shown at the left contains the science labs which were stripped of every item and turned into holding pens for pigs by the Khmer Rouge (1975-1979).  Not only was the entire material infrastructure of the country dismantled and destroyed so was the intellectual infrastructure with over 90% of teachers, professors, judges, lawyers, doctors killed with the back of their head smashed in with a club  (bullets were too precious to use) or they died  from hard labor, extreme exposure, or from starvation, or a variety of illnesses — malaria, dengue, influenza, etc.  At least 90% of all library materials were destroyed as the Khmer Rouge used paper from books to roll cigarettes or for fuel.  I mention this because during the 1950s and 1960s Cambodia had the best public school system in Southeast Asia and now remains in  runner up place for the worst.  It has been very difficult for Cambodia to reconstruct the intellectual capacity it once had in the late 1960s to be competitive in the new global economy.  There are unknown consequences to dismantling a functional, however imperfect,  public education system.  Of course, in our case, it doesn’t require the Khmer Rouge.

We Are All Corporate Professors Now (and what to do about it): Summer Reading Mashup

by Teri Yamada, Professor of Asian Studies, CSU Long Beach

Over the past few months a number of excellent academic writers and public intellectuals have published information on the “corporate professor.”  Some contend that the formation of this role is aligned with the politics and economics of an “inverted totalitarianism” that has been overtaking American democracy since the 1970s (Hedges).   The question arises: How can we protect shrinking public spaces of open discourse—our own university’s capacity to protect and foster academic freedom and diverse research—in an age that promotes brand over content?

For how we got here, start with Ethan Schrum’s “A Bibliographic  Essay on the University, the Market, and Professors” in The Hedgehog Review (Spring 2012).  This is a nuanced, well-researched historical overview that covers the two major structural shifts in the  “constantly changing university”: post WWII and the ascent of neoliberalism from the 1970s.   The general public, which once viewed public education as a common good in the 1960s, has been propagandized into a perceptual shift that valorizes free markets and the university as a private good.  It is during that thirty-forty year process that unknowingly and unintentionally we became corporate professors.

With Schrum’s overview as a basis, continue to explore the role of the corporate professor in Gaye Tuchman’s essay “Pressured and Measured: Professors at Wannabe U.”  also in the same issue of The Hedgehog Review.  Here is her understanding of the historical and economic context in which we find ourselves:

            “Student consumerism, the control of faculty through metrics, the endowment, the division of athletics, and the commodification of education are all linked in a fairly straightforward manner. Emphasizing the individual right to profit for decades—indeed, the rights of the individual over the responsibilities of the individual to the group—neoliberalism has been identifying education as a private good.  It has also stressed the virtue and ubiquity of modern corporate organization, especially its ability to compete in a global economy and to “grow profits.” In part because universities have adapted to these tenets, in part because they have been conforming to the “best practices” of other institutions, in part because states have been putting their money into other activities, such as funding prisons to force miscreants to take responsibility for their actions, the relationship between higher education and the states has changed. Colleges and Universities have become ever more corporatized…. (They) have struggled to find alternative revenue streams, such as sales of and royalties from faculty inventions. Designing new regulations to promote productivity and to spur professorial compliance, they reward conformers and punish shirkers.”

Within this historical context the corporate professor, according to Tuchman, is “increasingly regulated by an accountability regime, a politics of surveillance, control and market management disguised as the value-neutral administration of individuals and organizations (italics mine).  it is the structural analog of an audit culture.”  We are all familiar with the imposition of student assessment metrics by our regional accrediting commissions, most significantly over the past decade as their own accountability came under scrutiny through the federal government’s displeasure over graduation/retention rates and PELL grants.

In response to assessment demands outsourced to us by our own university management under pressure from accrediting commissions seeking to prove their own accountability to the federal government, we have embedded student learning objectives in courses and programs; measured them through a variety of instruments; written reports on outcomes.    We email our reports to assessment coordinators or administrators who coordinate that process.  They gather this data into massive, time-consuming reports which they forward to regional accrediting commissions in preparation for site visits.  All of this to prove that we are “accountable”; yet, I have never received feedback from management on any annual assessment report or plan that I have submitted.   Under the threat of program elimination, reluctant corporate professors have slogged through assessment report production. We must prove through data and assessment that we and our programs are “valuable.” Through  our efforts, in a sort of halo effect, academic managers acquire “value” and subsequently our accreditation commissions.  In this way we have inadvertently become conformists of value.

The time-consuming nature of program and course assessment is a topic taken up in Dave Porter’s “Assessment as a Subversive Activity” in  AAUP Journal of Academic Freedom (2012, v. 3).  Since it is a response to two previous articles in AAUP JAF (2011) critical of the “relentlessly expanding assessment movement,”  it provides a good overview of critical opinions regarding the whole university assessment regime.  Porter has a point in reframing the problem of assessment in terms of a “lack of institutional integrity and the manipulative managerial style of administrators who do not understand the learning process and educational systems sufficiently to implement assessment programs effectively” (2).  That resonates as true; however,  faculty are not in a position to fire incompetent administrators. Only the campus president has that authority.  Not a single administrator with multiple negative faculty evaluations on performance reviews has been fired during my twenty-two years on campus.

We are experiencing a structural flaw in the organization of the “public” university: administrators exercise much more power over faculty through the assessment regime than faculty do over administrators. I suggest we seek an adjustment. Our colleagues at the University of Virginia have demonstrated success in rebalancing power  through concerted collective action,  enabling the reinstatement of Teresa Sullivan.  We could begin to change the management/faculty power imbalance by rotating qualified faculty into a significant number of administrative roles for three-year terms with an option to renew. Could academic senates facilitate structural change by voting to implement this type of plan as a five-year pilot program? The reduction of highly paid administrators would result in cost savings with the potential of a better managed public university.

There is a dangerous correlation between the assessment/metrics regime and the loss of creative space for research in the corporate public university.  If research doesn’t generate money through patents or grants, if a project’s outcomes can’t be quickly measured for short-term gain, then it  has no measurable value in Corporate U. And it if can’t be measured, it appears to have no value.  Moreover the metrics of assessment are now wedded to the corporate professor’s tenure and merit pay.   This culture of accountability ensures the public that tax dollars are not “wasted on useless professors.”   Different points are assigned to various types of publication.  A certain number of points must be scored over a certain number of years to receive merit pay with little recourse for grievance. Texas seems to be particularly keen on this type of standardization (3). A culture of surveillance of this nature is not conducive to risk-taking in research. Thus we undermine our own global competitive edge through a narrow-minded accountability regime.

Several scholars and think tanks have published commentary and reports  that express concern over the decline of research institutions in the U.S. Some attribute this to the corporate culture of the university that emphasizes individual competition over collaboration, and quick money over larger, expansive forays into the unknown (2).

Wrapping up, here is an email advertisement I received last spring in advance of our regional accrediting commission’s (WASC) annual assessment gathering (ARC) with its many vendors (1).  I have removed the company’s name for legal reasons; the bold type is theirs.  It reminds me of a billboard I saw in Phnom Penh recently selling “newness’” as fashion (anything new and trendy must be good so buy it!):

We couldn’t say it any better than WASC

“U.S. higher education is in the midst of a paradigm shift.  We face economic, technological, political and social challenges and more change is on the horizon.  It is clear that we must transform higher education … but how?” – ARC webpage

We couldn’t have said it better: New paradigms, New media. New methods. New modalities.  Each aimed at delivering the ultimate student experience, all for the greater good.

At XXX Systems, we know student outcomes are your highest priority.  And that colleges and universities today are also looking to improve business performance – by containing and reducing costs, by branding themselves to attract the best students, by standardizing and automating business processes.

Not to mention keeping pace with an unforgiving environment of reporting and accountability.

To stay ahead of these disruptive events and paradigm shifts, you need a disruptive technology —  you need XXX Enterprise …a twenty-first century academic management system that’s InnovativeIntegratedIntelligent” (4).

 FOOTNOTES

1. WASC may be listening to criticism from both the federal and local levels. See Fain’s  “Rise of the Accreditor? See also Keep’s “The Worrisome Ascendance of Business in Higher Education.

2. For example see Atkinson and Stewart, Kiley, Clay, Chomsky, and Nelson below.

3. Adjuncts tragically are even more marginalized, see Berrett’s “Underpaid and Restless: Study Presents a ‘Dismal Picture’ of Life as a Part-Time Professor.”

4. For another view on disruptive technology see Neem’s “Disruptive Innovation: Rhetoric or Reality?”

READING/REFERENCE

Atkinson, Robert and Luke A. Stewart. “University Research Funding: The United States is Behind and Falling.” Information Technology and Innovation Foundation report. May 2011.

Atlas, Ben. “Chris Hedges on the Inverted Totalitarianism and the Commodification of Culture.” December 12, 2010. Benatlas.com

———. “Chris Hedges on the Corporate Neofeudalism.” December 12, 2010. Benatlas.com

Berrett, Dan. “Underpaid and Restless: Study Presents a ‘Dismal Picture’ of Life as a Part-Time Professor.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 20, 2012

Chomsky, Noam.  “Academic Freedom and the Corporatization of Universities.” University of Toronto Scarborough, April 6, 2011.

Clay, Rebecca.  “The corporatization of higher education: The intermingling of business and academic cultures brings both concerns and potential benefits to psychology.” American Psychological Association Monitor on Psychology. 39.11 (December 2008).

Donoghue, Frank. “Tenure: Yes or No?” The Chronicle of Higher Education. July 14, 2012.

Fain, Paul. “Rise of the Accreditor?” in Inside Higher Education. July 10,2012.

Giroux, Henry A. “Beyond the Politics of the Big Lie: The Education Deficit and the New Authoritarianism. Originally a Truthout Op Ed.  June 19, 2012.

———.“Zombie Politics, Democracy, and the Threat of Authoritarianism – Part I.”  Peter Lang.  June 2011.

Higgs, Steven. “Commodifying Education: The Corporatization of the American University“. Counterpunch. November 2011.

Jaschik, Scott. “U.S. Decline or a Flawed Measure?”  Inside Higher Ed. October 8, 2009.

Keep, William. “The Worrisome Ascendance of Business in Higher Education.”  The Chronicle of Higher Education.  The June 21, 2012.

Kiley, Kevin. “How to Stay on Top.” Inside Higher Ed. June 15, 2012.

———“Big Target, Bigger Cuts.” Inside Higher Ed. January 18, 2012

Neem, Johann. “Disruptive Innovation: Rhetoric or Reality?” Inside Higher Ed.  June 26, 2012.

Nelson, Libby A.  “Where Will the Money Come From?” Inside Higher Ed. July 12, 2012.

Porter, Dave.  “Assessment as a Subversive Activity”  AAUP Journal of Academic Freedom, 3 (20012).

Roberts, Yvonne. “The Price of Inequality by Joseph Stiglitz — review.”  The Guardian, July 13, 2012.

Somek, Alexander. Individualism Oxford University Press, 2008.  Review in The International Journal of Constitutional Law

The National Research Council. “Research Universities and the Future of America.” 2012

Wilson, Robin. “Faculty Power Brokers at UVa.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. July 1, 2012.


Transforming the Knowledge Plantation: “We Have a Dream”

By any measure of moral greatness,  a culture is judged by its treatment of the most vulnerable.  In the case of knowledge workers in our higher education sector that would be contingent and adjunct faculty.   With a Masters or Doctorate degree in hand, facing a crushing job market for tenure-track hires, those who honor and respect knowledge and aspire to the noble profession of teaching find themselves on one of Dante’s rings of hell as adjuncts.  Exploited as cheap-labor academic field hands on plantations of higher learning, they earn as little as $1,000 per course with no benefits.  No wonder the graduate students who curate Online PhD have produced the following statement and graphic:

                                           The PhD’s Job Crisis

“A consequence of the “Great Recession,” states across the country have been mired in debt and forced to make dramatic cuts to higher education. As funding for higher education constricts, fewer tenure track academic positions for recent graduates are opening as universities increasingly turn to economically cheaper adjunct and part-time professors to instruct their ballooning classes. Amid this reduction in the demand for PhDs is the fact that the United States is producing a record number of doctorates. The result is a job crisis for PhD candidates and ultimately the diminished quality of education in America’s higher education system.”

“We Have a Dream,” Anne Wiegard’s welcome address at the New Faculty Majority Foundation Summit on January 27, 2012 (Washington DC) inspires us to move forward together for a better Education America.   Teri Yamada

Anne Wiegard, President, President, New Faculty Majority Foundation

“We Have a Dream”

Thank you all for making time to travel here and join us.

Deep in my heart

I do believe

We shall overcome some day.

I am a child of the Sixties.  I lived just outside of Washington DC when Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke there on August 28th, 1963, inspiring millions to march forward toward civil rights for African Americans.  His words had a profound effect upon me.  They still do.  Much of what he said in his visionary “I Have a Dream” speech applies to all movements for social justice, including the one which brings us to Washington this weekend.  Though the scale and gravity of the Civil Rights movement obviously and vastly overshadows ours, please allow me to liberally invoke King’s language to set the stage for what we hope will be a landmark moment in the movement to secure equity for contingent academic workers and transform higher education in America.

In a sense, like those Civil Rights workers who came with King to our nation’s capital to cash the check the architects of our republic had written, a promissory note guaranteeing all citizens the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we are here to cash a check, too.  Our nation’s founders acknowledged that a true democracy cannot survive without an informed citizenry.  They were implicitly signing a social contract honoring the belief that education is the cornerstone of this nation, a belief that is more widely held now than ever.

It is obvious today that the American higher education system has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as the majority of its faculty is concerned, not to mention the millions of students whose educations are indirectly compromised.   College and university faculty spend decades preparing for and engaging in a profession that does not make good on its promise to provide commensurate, equitable economic and social status.  Instead of honoring its obligation, the University of the United States has given the majority of college and university faculty a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’

But we refuse to believe that the bank of higher education is bankrupt.  We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of academic freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to Washington to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the ghetto of contingency “to the sunlit path” of equality.  It would be fatal to overlook the urgency of the moment. Our legitimate discontent will not pass until there is change. The NFM Summit is not an end, but a beginning.

But there is something that I must say to all of you who stand on this threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place in the university we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for equity by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.

We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into counterproductive antagonism. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the contingent community must not lead us to a distrust of all administrators and tenured faculty, who, as evidenced by their presence here this weekend, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. We cannot walk alone.  Let us join hands with anyone who wishes to ensure that all of our children and grandchildren will develop the advanced knowledge and skills they will need to meet the challenges of the 21st century, for such higher education cannot be achieved without empowering teachers  to reach their full potential as well.

As we talk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.  We can never be satisfied as long as our colleagues are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating “For Tenure-track Only.”  I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have fought for decades at great cost to yourself and your families. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for equity has left you battered by the storms of persecution or benign neglect. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.   We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

Go back to your campus in Chicago, go back to your campus in Colorado, go back to your campuses in Georgia and Michigan, go back to your campus in New Jersey, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.   Together, we shall overcome.

Posted with permission of the New Faculty Majority  3/10/12

Editor’s note:  This well attended event —”Reclaiming Academic Democracy: Facing the Consequences of Contingent Employment in Higher Education”—had  comprehensive coverage in Inside Higher Ed:

1. Lee Bessette “New Faculty Majority Summit:  Can We Bridge the Trust Gap?

2. Lee Bessette “The Time is Now: Report from the New Faculty Majority Summit”

3. Lee Bessette “Among the Majority”

4. Brian Croxall “Reporting from the New Faculty Majority Summit”


Western Governors University (WGU) Is in Your State: Deconstructing the Academy

M4 Rally, CSU Long Beach

Western Governors University (WGU) Is in Your State:  Deconstructing the Academy

        Teri Yamada, Professor of Asian Studies, CSU Long Beach

In our cultural echo chamber of deception, as Joseph Goebbels   said, “If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.” The media has served business well in the production of panic over America’s imminent fall in the global economy. We are told that our decline in global competitiveness is due to the failure of “traditional public education.”

For the past several years, the Lumina Foundation for Education   has been calling for the United States to increase higher education attainment rates — the proportion of the population that holds a high-quality postsecondary degree or credential — to 60 percent by the year 2025. This call — known as “Lumina’s Big Goal” — has been embraced by many others. Foundations, state governments, national higher education associations, and President Obama have all issued their own call for increasing the proportion of Americans with high-quality degrees and credentials.

Their way to meet this goal is to alter the “unchanging public education system” through disruptive technology and privatization. In this mythic death and rebirth struggle, we must rid ourselves of the ossified, brick-and-mortar educational institutions and embrace the redemptive and disruptive online learning platforms of virtual education.   Stephen Ehrmann refers to this phenomenon as “the rapture of technology” (1).

The big money behind rapture technology ensures the effectiveness of its propaganda. Public discourse on education has been remolded to focus on the cause of its “failure” defined as teachers and their unions.  And remedies are offered in the form of privatization through vouchers and charters, online delivery, and school funding tied to the measurable outcomes of retention and graduation rates.

The result is contested cultural space over  the meaning and value of education. For example, the Lumina Foundation promotes its definition:

“Quality in higher education must be defined in terms of student outcomes, particularly learning outcomes, and not by inputs or  institutional characteristics. The value of degrees and credentials…rests on the skills and knowledge they represent.” (2  )

Compare this reductive utilitarianism to the “affinity philosophy of learning” embedded in the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s cutting edge digital media and learning initiative ;

“If it were possible to define generally the mission of education, it could be said that its fundamental purpose is to ensure that all students benefit from learning in ways that allow them to participate fully in public, community (creative) and economic life (3 ).

Both Lumina and MacArthur advocate a shift from an instructor-centered model of education to a student-centered learning model; but MacArthur’s frame does not erase  “teachers” from education although it does reshape their role as instructors.  The Lumina value of reductive utilitarianism is the basis for the WGU model of learning.  The goal of this learning is to demonstrate competency over a specific vocational skill set defined by measurable outcomes.

WGU began in 1995 when several governors of western states decided to create a virtual university to confer “competency-based” degrees.  They had the following concerns (4):

  • To accommodate access of rural students, the governors wanted delivery of cost-effective education at any place, any time;
  • The rising cost of education combined with population growth would surpass the capacity of the brick-and-mortar institutions; there would be no more money to build new campuses;
  • State colleges were not producing enough skilled graduates, and the graduates they were producing had uneven skill sets.  So a competency-based degree, certified by a third party, seemed to make sense “in an employment climate where it is commonplace to question what it means to have a degree” (5); they had corporate support for this plan;
  • The governors felt their state colleges had been unresponsive to these problems so the governors decided to shake things up, “to foster innovation in higher education institutions.”

The governors embraced a competency-based, online delivery model that required re-conceptualizing the function of “traditional” faculty in higher education.   This re-conceptualization is called “unbundling”: the splitting off into distinct functions of a faculty role and assigning each function to a distinct human agent or technology.

Unbundling enables virtual universities to control costs by increasing “instructor productivity” (6).   Research and university service are removed from the role of “faculty.”  Academic advising is not recognized in this world-view as part of a faculty’s role in the university.  The remaining component —instruction —is further unbundled to the following five distinct activities:

  • Designing the course;
  • Developing the course through the selection of instructional methods and course materials;
  • Delivery;
  • Mediating a student’s learning process (such as identifying learning styles);
  • Assessing levels of competence.

These five activities are then assigned to technology or separate agents. In this way, the traditional understanding of “faculty” is deconstructed.  WGU does not offer instruction directly but brokers “learning opportunities” through various technologies. Advisers (mentors/monitors) assist students in choosing the “learning opportunity” to achieve a certain goal.   Those who design the courses and programs belong to WGU Program Councils consisting of faculty members and industry specialists.  WGU agents are all contract laborers; there is no tenure.  So we are left to contemplate Jerry Farber’s concerns, expressed in 1998:

If you take the new developments in educational and communications technology, lift them up on a millennial wave of technological enthusiasm, integrate them into the competency-based/outcomes movement in education which has persisted in one form or another since the 1970s or earlier, and put them in the service of corporate interests, which are moving toward a de facto takeover of higher education, you come up with a rough approximation of what appears to be happening in a great many colleges and universities at the turn of the century (7 ).

ACTION PLAN : Check to see if there is a stealth bill  to establish WGU as an “official branch” in your state.  We recently discovered one in California.  If so, consider educating your elected representatives now.

  • Ask your legislators how the “competency based” instruction of WGU will impact your state’s public university systems? What is the cost-benefit analysis? How many jobs will be lost to out-of-state WGU employees? The low cost of WGU tuition— its main selling point to “customers” —is politically attractive to state legislators since it undercuts for-profit providers who voraciously consume federal and state grant money and are difficult to regulate.  One can argue that our legislators should be investing in state community colleges, which offer even lower-cost vocational training programs, many with online components and a richer learning experience.
  •  Ask your legislators to explain WGU’s lack of transparency and accountability.  WGU refuses to release official accreditation reports.  It is impossible to assess their  “success” in terms of graduation and retention rates until they release longitudinal studies of yearly cohorts for each program. Currently they refuse to provide this data on the basis they are a “private non-profit.”

For fun,  watch Aimee Shreck’s cartoon  “We Don’t Have Teachers at WGU!”    Bill Lyne of United Faculty of Washington provided the “real conversation” for this media moment.

Notes:

(1) AFT, “Teaming Up With Technology,” p. 19.

(2) Both Farber and Johnstone discuss these.

(3) This is a quote from Bill Ivey, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, and Steven J. Tepper in Jenkin’s “Confronting the Challenges…” a MacArthur Foundation report,  p.  61.

(4) These concerns are found in both Farber and Johnstone.

(5) Paulson, 124.

(6) See Paulson for this explanation.  Note that there are other models of disruptive unbundling, for example University of Phoenix.

(7) Farber, 809-10.

References:

AFT.  “Teaming Up with Technology: How Unions Can Harness the Technology Revolution on Campus.” Report of the Task Force on Technology in Higher Education. January 1996.

Farber, Jerry. “The Third Circle: On Education and Distance Learning.Sociological Perspectives. 41.4 (1998): 797-814.

Jenkins, Henry et al. “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century.” Occasional Paper on Digital  Media and Learning.  MacArthur Foundation.

Johnstone, Douglas. “A Competency Alternative: Western Governors University.” Change. 37.4 (July-Aug 2005): 24-33.

Paulson, Karen.  “Reconfiguring Faculty Roles for Virtual Settings.” The Journal of Higher Education. 73.1 (Jan-Feb, 2002): 123-140.


Online Disruption, Privatization of Public Higher Ed

Guest blogger Steve Teixeira serves on the Executive Board of Academic Professionals of California, representing professional staff in academic support services of the California State University.   Email contact: steixeira@apc1002.org.

Online Disruption, Privatization of Public Higher Ed

A battle’s brewing over online courses in public universities.  In October, the University of California lecturer’s union (UC-AFT) won the right to bargain over the impact of online instruction.  But UC spokesperson Dianne Klein assured the press that to stop any online program, the union would have to endure “mediation, fact-finding, and, if necessary, a university mandate and potentially a union strike”.

“Online education has proliferated, from community colleges to… M.I.T.”, wrote Bill Keller in the New York Times October 3rd.  He asked if it could improve education, or just save money.  But a third possibility is that online instruction masks a campaign to increase the corporate privatization of public universities.

The California Faculty Association in the California State University system is also negotiating to protect teaching standards in online courses.  CSU’s managers first proposed online instruction to help entering students with so-called “remedial” skills in math or English.  Then, they required all 20,000 remedial students to take summer “Early Start”, much of it online.  But when the “CSU Online” goals were presented, they included much more than just remedial courses.

The quality of the university is at risk here.  When Cal State Bakersfield laid off some remedial math faculty and replaced them with an online system in 2009, student failures rose to almost 40%, from just 25% the year before.  Only when faculty were allowed to re-design the online course did student performance improve.  “We’re not getting what we’re promised and what we’re paying for,” student leader Vanessa Rojas told the local press.

In addition to issues of educational quality, there is concern that online instruction is a screen for injecting private companies into public universities.  At first, CSU Online’s goals stated that “A business partner for CSU Online might be needed” — but then the job announcement for its Executive Director position required applicants to have “Experience in higher education and experience working for/with for-profit agencies”.  Is it paranoid to worry about that?

Not if you study the Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis’ report Making it Happen: Increasing College, which urges that California government create a new higher education planning board to openly link public and private institutions (both non-profit and for-profit).  The Board would oversee enrollment shifts from public community colleges, CSU, and UC to private institutions, and allow students at private companies to receive Cal Grant financial aid.  Other goals would be to “outsource” remedial courses and online instruction to “private institutions”. Which is exactly the path already being pursued by CSU and UC leadership.

As America’s economy evolves from one based on millions of jobs in heavy industry to one based on global hi-tech, capital is sniffing around public services like education to see what it can shift into and privatize.  They are counting on government officials to help them, even though this has proven to be bad for students as well as employees.  That’s why Bob Samuels, UC-AFT president, says “We are not standing in the way of progress, but we are trying to block the downsizing of academic jobs and the degrading of instructional quality”.

The battle to defend public education can be won if these faculty and staff can come together with the thousands of students who are exposing corporate abuses in the “Occupy Wall Street” movement.  After all, they’re really fighting the same enemy.

Posted Oct 30, 2011

 

Editor’s Note:

Also, see today’s (Sun. Oct. 30) S F Chron article:

“CSU rolling out online undergraduate program”

And a YouTube clip on how online courses need “faculty” to be most meaningful (honest!).

“Human Factors in Online Learning with Doug Hersh”