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Is Higher Ed "Insatiable" or Sucked Dry? A Response to @Chronicle of Higher Education

Is Higher Ed "Insatiable" or Sucked Dry? A Response to @Chronicle of Higher Education

There are some serious problems with the recent Chronicle of Higher Education op ed by UVA administrators and professors Adam Daniel and Chad Wellmon, "Why the University's Insatiable Appetite Will Be Its Undoing" (July 29, 2018)--the biggest flaw being its "click bait" title (a title that, as I learned later, was written by CHE, not by the authors).  Let me state for anyone reading who doesn't know this: I happen to be a tireless advocate for higher ed reform that addresses the real needs of students today.  Critiquing higher ed, changing higher ed: both are good. However,  I despise articles that begin with "victim blaming" titles.  For one thing, they lead to very bad solutions--and we've had plenty of those over the last five decades of misplaced, misguided higher ed reform.

As is often the case, the essentially "click bait" headline of this essay is more extreme than the moral and social point that these authors are making: that the university should be more focused on what it does best--teaching and research--and less responsive to social pressure: "The university’s democratic commitments have become too centrifugal, pulling apart its interests, energies, and purposes. To save itself and to better serve its democratic purpose, the university needs to be not more but less reactive to public demands."

However, it is the title that is a short cut for an argument that is in the "air" right now:  that we need to blame universities for overbuilding, for trying to teach too many subjects and topics, for too big a reach, for too much debt, too many costs, and too high a tuition.  For just all around too much.

Maybe that's true for UVA, but I suspect not and I doubt that everyone there thinks their university has had an "insatiable" appetite.  And it is certainly not the case for many, if not most, of the universities in the US that face serious economic problems, many of which are either not of their own making or that were encouraged as part of previous "education reforms."

I should also add that there are several aspects of this critique that I agree with--although I suspect that some of my solutions differ from that of the authors of this essay; I imagine in other areas we will agree.  Let's address that another time.

For now, though, I want to quickly "sketch" (and it is only a sketch) the moves at misguided "education reform" that drove higher education to the place it is in now.  To fail to historicize the process leaves us with few means for finding a constructive solution and all too readily echoes the drumbeat, most common in conservative circles (but not only there): that higher education costs too much and doesn't do its job . . . and the problem is higher education and fuddy-duddy or liberal professors.*


Well, here's a schematic of how we got to this place, offered here, very quickly, as a way to think about many wrong turns we made in an effort to start making some better decisions and better choices.  "Always historicize!" isn't a bad idea if you are actually looking to find a solution to a problem, not a scapegoat.


The Post-Kerr Assault on Higher Education, 1980 to the Present


Move #1:  "Higher ed should be run like businesses."  Colleges and universities need to be entrepreneurial.  They need to hire CEOs as Presidents and their Boards should be business people who know how to run a business.  Some consequences of this thinking: Universities pursue big grants and big donors. We know this favors science and also, from Christopher Newfield’s work, this incurs longterm costs—buildings, labs, staff—that persist after the university invests massively with private or public funds.  It also leads to escalation of administrative salaries and the need for an increased administrative staff (not bloat) to manage the complexities of budget, Intellectual Property and copyright agreements, income and profit sharing, and many other complexities. 
Move #2:  "The public should not need to fund higher education. Higher education should fund itself." Massive state cutbacks to higher ed, roughly 20-50% per capita reduction in public subsidy.  Tuitions rise.  Some states, such as Colorado, now subsidize only about 3% of university costs.  The rest comes from private or public funding sources (see Move #1) or tuition. 
Move #3: "Higher ed should concentrate on job training, not educating the whole student, not educating future citizens, not educating for a more valuable and value-filled life, but simply for job training.  The fact that there is high unemployment of college graduates is because college doesn't train students for the workforce."  Again, this put a shift on what universities should be doing, including massive investment in STEM, even as automation increasingly means that the numbers of those highly educated and highly skilled workers employed in the STEM sector are proportionately smaller than in the era of industrialization, Kodak v Google, Xerox v Apple.   Also, except for the upper echelon, there is increasing wage stagnation including contract labor.  Also, we now have 3.6% unemployment; college educated students do have jobs. Those jobs (especially gendered jobs such as teaching, social work, health care, and librarianships where a majority of college-educated women still go--and 60% of college students are now female) just don't pay well. This is a social problem not an educational problem.
Move #4:  "Higher ed doesn’t really train students for the future.  It’s out of date."  Increasing number of Americans think higher education is no longer worth it (although the same surveys show they are ever more fiendishly working to ensure that their own kids go to college).  I agree with this.  But I also agree that many of the attempts to bring it "up to date" are badly misinformed about what workplace success looks like and how it should be achieved. (i.e. MOOCs did not make higher ed up to date.)  Lots of bad policy justified by this one.
Move #5: "Higher ed costs too much."  It absolutely does.  See #1, #2, #3, with a dose of #5.  Like adequate healthcare, you now need to be rich to afford most colleges and universities.  But there is huge variation. Community college tuition, for example, may seem inexpensive if compared to tuition at Ivy League universities yet, given the income of students attending community college, it is prohibitive. It should be free. But lowering the cost of tuition simply cannot come out of operating budgets of impoverished, beleagured, resource-starved community colleges that already lack all the "frills" supposedly "insatiable" universities "waste" money on. On the contrary, community colleges rarely have the necessary resources to expend on those students facing the biggest challenges.  Belt tightening is hardly the answer in some of our university and community college systems where resources area already very scarce, faculty with have full-time jobs teach heavy loads and where well over half of the courses are taught by adjunct, contingent faculty.  Belt-tightening?  That is a luxurious point of view. Insatiable appetite? At many public universities (and privates too), students are facing food insecurity. And so are adjunct faculty. Institutions are impoverished.  They are not insatiable. They have been robbed. Please define who, exactly, you mean?
Move #6: "Make student visas more difficult, practice xenophobia, curb the number of students from all around the world coming to the U.S. " Higher ed is one area where the US is valued everywhere else. After a decade of inviting international students (for cultural, social, intellectual, and, one must acknowledge, financial reasons), now international students are going to . . . Canada.  Universities are feeling this effect everywhere, and so will our labor force/
Move #7:  "Blame higher ed for its 'insatiability' to justify even more cutbacks." Where will those be made?  Who will make them? Motivated by what purpose?  And will students and faculty, knowledge and teaching and research, be the winners?  Or, as in the previous moves, is this another blame-the-victim assault on higher ed.

I end, again, by reiterating that probably no one spends more time studying and working on a grassroots level, day in and day out, on educational transformation and change than I do.  Indeed, I'm writing this blog on HASTAC which, since its inception in 2002, has been dedicated to "Changing the Way We Teach and Learn."  However--and it is a big disclaimer--if we do not go into change aware of the pressures that have brought higher education to this juncture, we undercut all of our opportunities for sane, reasoned, innovative, important change. 

Higher education is not insatiable.  It does not need to go on a diet.  It needs a new health regime, and one that is thought through not from some punitive stance but as part of a rational society that needs all of the public goods that this article says our society deserves, and, at this historical moment, desperately needs. 

Let's stop victim-blaming and shaming and work together towards a sound, sane, expansive but not expensive higher education that serves this generation of students.  We've been tearing down their best prospects for a future--higher education--since the 1980s. It is time to build something better not for their future but for the very fraught and  complicated world they have inherited now.





*An example of a progressive who buys into the "insatiable" argument is California Governor Jerry Brown who recently argued that higher education needs to be more like Chipotle Grill [presumably without the recent E coli].

Image credit: By Sachi Yoshitsugu -, CC BY 3.0,






Another bad move from the mid-1990s: Treat non-profit colleges as if they are competitors that need to be regulated (for anti-trust price fixing) instead of collaborators that are trying to maximize financial aid for need-worthy students (for purposes of social good and the betterment of society). See colleges compete with each other on merit-aid awards that then cause discount rates to skyrocket and colleges to financially fail. And at the same time, recognize that as a system the amount of financial aid dollars awarded over need exceeds the amount of financial aid dollars in unmet need by almost a billion dollars. 


Dear Leslie, Thank you for this smart addition. Such a disaster.  It was such a major part of the disastrous "colleges should be businesses move" of the 1990s.  The ancillary on the student level: "treat students like customers."


One terrible consequence of this competition model is that young people today are in a rat race of competition, where getting into the "right" college is more important than learning, self-knowledge, or even being a young person with choices in the world.   The constraints of the modern college and university and the constraints on our students' choices and lives are parallel--and devastating. 


Thank you so much for writing and adding this thoughtful piece.