Several observations on last night's show on higher education. I am a retired college professor,
First, given the sad state of higher education in Oregon, it was regrettable that there were so many empty seats for this live event at PSU. Where were the students, or the faculty, or the union reps to put some tough questions to these Presidents? PSU prides itself on the E-word, "engagement," but it was hardly in evidence at this event. Except for a few attempts at tough questions from emailers, most from either the audience or Emily Harris were softball pitches, and the Presidents dutifully replied with obviously rehearsed monologues never interrupted by impolite follow-ups. (Harris generally is so cordial she never wants to appear argumentative. This was especially evident when President Wievel's specious free enterprise metaphor justified UO moving into Portland went unchallenged. How legitimate is it, anyway, to view Universities as competing corporations? That deeper question never came up.)
Second, it is astonishing that only 13% of the budget for higher education is supplied by the state. This diminishing support raises two questions: should college Presidents be held accountable for a failure to increase popular support for higher education and, should we, if this shrinkage continues, give over the idea that public higher education really exists, since so much financial support for it depends on private giving (as is the case for private schools). The answer to your first question "What's the solution to funding higher education in Oregon?" would seem to be that the solution is certainly not to be found in the public will expressed through the legislature.
Third, why was there no outrage, laughter or groaning when President Ray of OSU praised the value of his athletic program because it meant that those underrepresented student groups (hm? Blacks and Hispanics etc.) would otherwise fail to attend college and complete their degrees? I wouldn't go so far as to call this racism, but it's pretty close: you know, the best way to get diversity and increase opportunity for these folks is to get 'em to play ball for our entertainment. President Ray, incidentally, also thought it was pretty neat that schools like OSU, because of their sports programs, got really good publicity among Oregonians. Sadly, he did not address the deeper question of why, given such nice publicity and endorsement of his sports teams, this enthusiasm did not translate into greater fiscal support among legislators and the general citizenry for higher education.
Fourth, the question of the steady increase of contingent or part-time underpaid teaching staff was raised but not dealt with sufficiently. Shockingly, President Ray said they needed to do more research on this matter, but the fact is, lots of research has been done for years, and there is considerable evidence to suggest that there is a correlation between the percentage of part-time faculty, heavily concentrated in the introductory first and second year courses, and student attrition. President Wievel has a nicely rehearsed speech on this topic, defending the adjunct teaching staff as coming from the "real world" and promising to try to involve this staff more in the "community" at PSU. Any adjunct in the audience would understand this to be saying that that such "involvement" would hardly be compensated and that the real question parity and just wages remains ignored. Besides, how can you afford to be more "involved" if you're cobbling together several part-time positions just to survive (or to pay off your college loans?)
Incidentally, at the end of the show, President Frohmeyer had some glowing words to say about his "liberal arts education." But what he didn't say is that it is precisely in these general education or liberal arts courses that the abusive working conditions and inadequate class sizes predominate. (Anyone interested in pursuing this question further should visit Marc Bousquet's website: how the university works.com, and also read the book with this title. The PBS video, and accompanying book DECLINING BY DEGREES, is also instructive on this and other matters.)
Fifth, a steady mantra of the evening was that a quality higher education system is a good "investment" in Oregon overall. However, that truism does not seem to have much credibility among the tax paying public which, apparently, has not gotten the message and has grown increasingly stingy in its willingness to support higher education. The result: growing student debt, which, of course, is a joy to the lenders.
Now, as the film mentioned above argues, it is important to acknowledge history and to understand the shift in values that has occured with respect to support for higher education. Once there was a contract, especially evident after WWWII, that educational advancement was a PUBLIC GOOD, not merely a means to private enrichment. This public dimension meant that there was a kind of contract in play insofar as there was generous public support (investment) in such a good. However, steadily, over the years, and especially since the '70's, that contract has been shredded and education has become, like any other "good" or "service", something to be purchased only by those who could afford it, or by those willing to burden themselves with massive debt. As a result, the idea of broadening opportunity with public investment lost credibility so that now students bear an increasing percentage of the burden, and institutions must depend more on philanthropy and corporate giving (which always raises the question of autonomy and the extent to which colleges best serve "the public good" when they create employees for corporations the way the NCAA creates players for the NFL and NBA.)
Again, some students last night spoke eloquently about their debt burden and yet there was always the sense that such a burden was the needed price to "pay" for future success. The idea that matters could be otherwise, that there was a time when a relatively debt-free graduation day could be made possible by a generous public treasury, was unthinkable. How ironic, then, to hear President Wievel recall fondly his days in Holland when students demonstrated against a modest increase in tuition! Where have those students gone and why must all too many of them be locked out or allowed in only if they are willing to assume a debt burden that at one time would have seemed unduly harsh for people with higher educational aspirations?
Finally, I found it interesting that little time was really given to the quality of students' experience at any of these institutions. There was, of course, some dutiful praise from that PSU student for his political science teachers, but the paucity of students in attendance meant that there was little sampling of the range of satisfaction beyond the familiar complaints of deteriorating infrastructures. Generally education was seen as exclusively preparation for work, and there was no talk of the arts, of cultural enrichment, of opportunities for international study. True, one can only work with what one has on hand, but it seemed to me regrettable that while there was considerable monological speechmaking, there was little if any real dialogue or thinking going on. Perhaps these blogs can compensate for that
As for the question regarding the proper role of higher education vis a vis
"workplace training," doubtless those who trained in the past for jobs in the future which are now thriving offshore, will always be wondering whether universities can, as you put it, ever be "ahead of the curve" when it comes to anticipating the "needs' of the workplace.
posted 4 years, 4 months ago
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