Teaching Universities: A Crisis Of Identity In The Name of Advancement.

Self Portrait
Self Portrait

Lack of funding has been slowly destroying the public system of higher education of the united states. A system that once has received 75% of its allocated funds from the state is now battling to keep its 27% of state funding allocation it currently receives. State governments, especially in red political states, are allocating flat funding or state cuts in an attempt to privatize one of the jewels of American society and transform its populist mission into an elitist system of higher learning driven by market trends. Because of lack of funding, traditional public teaching universities are trying to be what they are not: To become research universities.

What a dangerous evolution of events and a sad reality in American society. The consequences of attempting to be what you are not are easily predictable — Slow academic death and more lack of funding in the long run. Let me explain. What would happen to Sugar Ray Leonard if he had to fight Mike Tyson heads on? He would die or would be severely incapacitated, right? I think so. Realistically, Sugar Ray Leonard has a very small chance of beating Mike Tyson because Tyson is stronger. Mike Tyson was developed to fight opponents like Mohamed Ali, George Foreman, and many other heavy weights of boxing. Sugar Ray Leonard isn’t the competition!

The same analogy can be applied to the industry of higher education. What would happen to a weak division I or a strong division II university if they shift its focus from being a primarily teaching institution competing against other teaching universities to becoming a true research university and competing against big research schools? How in the world can a public university in Chicago whose primary mission is to help first generation college students with limited funding compete financially and scholarly with the mighty University of Chicago? Are higher education administrators choosing to ignore the tenets of competitive advantage? Are they going mad?

Let me give you some fun facts — Stanford has a 22 billion dollar endowment fund. XYZ public teaching university often has something like 55 million dollars in its endowment account if the institution is lucky. Entry level student SAT scores at the University of Texas-Austin are much higher than the SAT scores of Praire View, a HBCU located in the state of Texas. At Penn State, faculty members teach two courses per semester sometimes one. At Indiana University of Pennsylvania, faculty is to teach four courses a term sometimes five due to lack of full-time faculty lines. Ohio State has a research and development office full of staff that literally assists professors with grant acquisition and support. This is the same for Harvard, Cornell, NYU, and many other tier one large research universities.

The office of grants and acquisitions of a teaching university in Mississippi  only has 5 employees in order to assist faculty to write, manage and receive grants. A true research university in Massachusetts employees 53 staff members to assist with its yearly operation. Teaching institutions are not set up to compete against research universities in what they do best — Research! Much like Sugar Ray isn’t set to beat Frank Bruno.

Unless teaching universities totally redesign their systems to be in alignment with research institutions, e.g., reduce faculty load per semester, hire dozens of staff in the grants and acquisitions office, refine internal procedures and efficiency, give millions of dollars for faculty coming [Assistant professor] in (lab support) in order to fully conduct meaningful research, teaching colleges attempting to become research universities will only hurt their bottom line in the long run. Is it possible to do? Maybe. Evander Holyfield did it. He did pay a high price to adjust. Is Public higher education system in the position to redesign itself? We all know that in the draconian times we are living today, such undertake would be too costly! By the way, did anybody asked the students if they like this colossal change, anyways?

Let’s not forget that students coming to a teaching university attend these types of schools to have a more hands on interactive relationship with their professors and to learn skills to get positions in the workforce. They rarely attend these kinds of institutions to “learn for the sake of learning.” They are often interested in attending them to “Get a job.” Having an open door policy where students feel welcomed to speak with professors is critical for the survival of such universities. The moment professors in these institutions are asked to close their doors and do more research — Inevitably students will ask, “why should I be here? “My professors are not around anymore! I thought they would be here to help me out. Maybe I should just go to another teaching school where my professors will teach me something practical. Or perhaps… I should transfer to those research universities where I can cheer for a bigger football team that is always on television on Saturday afternoons. If I have to do all the work myself anyways, I might as well benefit from getting a degree from the University of Wisconsin! It will look great on my resume.”

Being what you are not for the sake of money is like telling your kid that they should become a doctor because physicians make a lot of money. What if your kid isn’t good enough to be a doctor or have little resources to becoming one? I personally don’t buy into the idea that we can be everything we want to become because nobody can perform at the highest level in every thing they try. As one of my professors once said, “There are individual differences.”I would never have made it as a petroleum engineer. NEVER! The good God didn’t bless me with engineering skills. I am okay with that and more importantly, I am not ashamed of it.

Media departments in teaching institutions whose goals is to becoming a research powerhouse experience tremendous stress in the transition. If accreditation is added to the bill, it becomes literally unlikely that the institution will attain such credentials unless continuous support is given by administration and time to receive the honor isn’t a variable. Media departments by craft are hands on departments. Differently from departments of philosophy where production isn’t a part of their curriculum, media departments are to teach students to produce artifacts. Therefore, asking media professors to close their doors in order to conduct more academic research is much more problematic because students need to literally learn hands on skills in production. A research paper published by a faculty member in media studies academic journals mean next to nothing to a student of media wanting to become a TV anchor. The irony of all of this is that professors of fine arts and theatre deliver a performance and their performances count as scholarship in most universities I’ve worked at. Media artifacts are often counted as service not anything scholarly in media departments! The former hurts our operation tremendously.

Here is my dilemma. So, what would you do? Risk losing a great production faculty who help the students to get great jobs yet he/she has a deficiency in research productivity or keep published professors who ignore their students and teach them outdated skills they don’t need? The “somewhere in between” isn’t a good option, either. Students of media must gain advanced skills in the field as advances in technology have changed the composition of the workforce of our industry forever.

In reality, this teaching university crisis isn’t going to be seen in media departments only. The systemic implications of this national trend of turning teaching colleges into research universities due to lack of funding will have a much larger implication than what I have described so far.

Faculty and staff turnover will exponentially increase. No institution of higher learning can achieve anything great if leadership and faculty changes so frequently. Talent won’t stick around for long if they become overworked which in turn will cause a higher wave of student anxiety, a burden for Human Resources as now HR will need to allocate more funds and resources for internal training, as well as an impact on shared governance. Although everybody is replaceable, not everyone coming in to a university understands the culture of the institution and its standard operating procedures. There is also not a guarantee that the faculty member coming in will be of any quality. Therefore, there is a tremendous risk in asking star faculty and staff to do the impossible. Here is what I think will happen. Faculty are likely to use these type of upcoming institutions to build their CVs and move on to another university, eventually landing in a research institution. Teaching four sometimes five courses a term is a lot of work. If you have to now produce heavy scholarship and acquire a grant on the top of that… why stay?  Faculty might as well work for a well equipped research university under such draconian and toxic conditions.  Walt Disney might have done the impossible but he didn’t do it alone.

In trueness, this whole mess that we are in is a consequence of decisions made in the 1980’s. Alan Greenspan once stated, “If the workers are more insecure, that’s very healthy for the society, because if workers are insecure they won’t ask for wages, they won’t go on strike, they won’t call for benefits; they’ll serve the masters gladly and passively. And that’s optimal for corporations.” Which adjective would you use to describe Greenspan? His economic policies of never rising the interest rate to “stimulate the economy” as a means to compensate for his free market ideology (outsource) and Reagonomics in the 1980’s caused the mess that we are in today, in my opinion. His policies have transformed the United States into India. India is known for two things, poverty and inequality. Okay, India is also known for corruption. Does the former ring a bell to you?

Greenspan accomplished what he wanted — reduce democracy and profit from outsourcing our jobs overseas. Now, he has the audacity to state, “Income inequality “most dangerous” trend in America today. Really, Mr. Greenspan? The educational system is in turmoil because of your economic leadership and ideology.  Where is the tax base necessary to support higher education? Some of us know it. Transforming institutions into something they are not won’t solve this reality. In fact, I hypothesize that it will only cause more turmoil.

The United States is a republic in which its citizens are guaranteed by law to have liberties and justice for all. At least, this is what it is written in the pledge of allegiance of the flag for the United States,  “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States and to the republic for which it  stands — One nation under God indivisible with liberties and justice for all.” I have bad news for you, readers. Our republic is in serious trouble. Higher education is one of these troubles. The biggest one I see, however, is the overall crisis of identity we are facing today. God bless America… We are going to need him.

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