Changing Culture in Higher Education

Now that President Obama has been reelected I am wondering if his policies will bring forth positive change in American higher education. It goes without saying that a policy here and a program there may precipitate changes in course offerings or fund certain kinds of scientific research. But I'm afraid that no matter how well intentioned those policies and programs might be, they are weak medicine for what ails the contemporary culture of American higher education.

From my vantage in the trenches of public higher education, I fear that there is something terribly amiss in the culture of our colleges and universities. As class sizes have increased arithmetically, faculty workloads have increased exponentially. Those workloads have less to do with the number of classes taught or the number of office hours required. These days administrators, many of whom have adopted business models for running the university, expect faculty member to perform a wide variety of administrative tasks: endless and time-consuming program and curricular assessments, incessant professional evaluations of tenured, non-tenured and temporary faculty--both full and part time--and a never ending stream of departmental, and university meetings about pedagogy, the tenure and promotion process, and information technology and teaching.

What's more, if you actually want to do research, your project must be cleared by the local Institutional Review Board (IRB), which ensures that human research subjects will be protected. To get IRB clearance at my institution, which must be granted before the start of any research project, you need to complete on-line NIH protection of human subjects training, present a certificate of NIH training completion, fill out a long application and provide examples of informed consent documents that research subjects must sign before participating in the project.

In the same vein, if you jump through enough administrative hoops to get authorization to hire a new faculty member, the process is unnecessarily cumbersome. Administrators have to okay the language of the position announcement, accept an instrument for candidate screening, agree with justifications for dropping unqualified applicants from the candidate pool, give an accord for a telephone interview instrument, and give their consent to a standardized final candidate interview instrument.

Such an obstacle course is enough to trigger a serious case of fatigue, if not scholar's remorse.

I recently agreed to serve on a university committee that evaluates research proposals. In the past, you would read the proposals, write comments, meet and discuss the merits of the various research projects and then recommend which proposals should be funded. Now, we are given a five-page evaluation rubric with a set of weighted categories that need to be scored on a 1 to 5 scale. Once you score each category and multiply the score by that category's weight, you add up the total. Indeed, there are rubrics for just about every institutional task at colleges and universities.

The ever-expanding system of convoluted assessments, endless evaluations and sinuous program and planning requirements has given some university administrators--certainly not all--a degree of hubris about their university roles. Consider the recent experience of one of my colleagues. Because her distinguished record of social science research has an international scope, an administrator asked if she would like to present a research paper at an upcoming university conference about international education.

My colleague was happy to participate.

"Wonderful," the administrator said.

"What do I need to do?" she asked

"Send us a paragraph about your paper, provide audio-visual equipment and schedule a room and a time."

My colleague, a respected and distinguished scholar, declined the administrator's "generously" disrespectful offer.

In many, if not most institutions of contemporary higher learning a troubling irony has emerged. In those scholarly institutions, there is an increasingly limited pool of institutional respect for scholars and the results of their hard and time-consuming labor--scholarship.

This reservoir of morale depleting disrespect is the result of a gradual and increasingly powerful cultural shift--the use of business models to run universities. Having witnessed this gradual shift over the past 30 years, I fear that these cultural changes, which tend to have longstanding consequences,, threaten to undermine the heart and soul of the university--a respect for the construction and articulation of knowledge. It takes time and considerable effort to develop courses, craft a research proposal, conduct research, or to write essays and monographs that report research findings. In the corporate culture of the contemporary American universities--a virtual minefield of administrative obstacles--time and patience are in increasingly short supply.

Such a cultural climate discourages student creativity and makes a career in the academy less and less attractive to our best and brightest. Such a culture will not change until university administrators and their corporate and political benefactors truly return to the belief that the vitality of their institutions is inextricably linked to the creativity, productivity and morale of their faculties.

I'm afraid that our current cultural course is destined to lead us into an educational wasteland that no one wants to confront.