The Faculty as punching bag



I’ve been working on a book about the effect of the Internet on the terms of employment and working conditions of faculty at all levels.  As a result, I’ve read an extraordinary amount of “disruption” literature lately.  You know, Christensen, Carey, et. al.  – all those people who are just chomping at the bit to see all us allegedly pipe-smoking tweed-jacketed elitists go the way of the dinosaur.

Working off a list given to me by my friend Steve Weiland of Michigan State, I’ve come upon what may be the most overlooked example of this genre, Ryan Craig’s College Disrupted: The Great Unbundling of Higher Education. You probably read the same hostile reviews of Kevin Carey’s The End of College that I did.  I think they were all richly-deserved.  This one is much less painful because it at least has the merit of being well-written, but many of the ideas contained therein will still give any faculty member in a job that’s less than absolutely rock solid a terrible case of dyspepsia.  Ironically, faculty hardly merit mention in the entire book.  In fact, the only individual faculty member who appears is some poor unnamed fool who drove one of his students to Los Angeles in order to jumpstart her career in Hollywood.

Instead, the college President is the hero of this movie.  Arizona State’s Michael Crow makes an appearance, of course, but at least Crow is interested in talking with faculty about how he wants to revolutionize the university for the 21st century.  Craig manages the difficult feat of disrespecting faculty while hardly mentioning them at all. Take this quote from p. 111 that only appears in super-small print:

Perhaps the biggest challenge for most higher education institutions is that current governance structures barely allow them to drive effectively.  And when the vehicle heads toward the cliff, the steering mechanism will prove quite inadequate.  Winning institutions will be those that streamline governance today for quicker, more effective decision making tomorrow.

How do you stop faculty from letting the car drive over the cliff?  Unbundle them.  That means, “Disaggregate the role of faculty to achieve development and delivery efficiencies.”  Sometimes I think the only reason some people hate college professors so much is that we have much more fun doing our jobs than they do theirs.  Reading Craig’s definition of unbundling was one of those times.

“What does Craig know about teaching?,” you may ask.  The bio on the inside back flap of the book describes him as “the Founding Managing Director of University Ventures, a private equity fund focused on establishing next generation higher education companies through partnerships with traditional colleges and universities.” Perhaps this explains his lack of empathy for faculty, or perhaps it’s just his lack of experience with actually teaching anybody. However, from that position he should understand better than anybody just how little power faculty have over university governance these days.

For example, the supposed enormous power of faculty over governance did nothing to save the University of Iowa from a President who knows next to nothing about higher education.  And how exactly are the three-out-of-four adjunct faculty in American higher education going to stand in the way of anything?  What’s happening here is a power grab. As more and more teaching moves online, people who know little or nothing about teaching suddenly become experts and start telling faculty what they ought to be doing in the classroom because the Internet makes it easier to track everything we do.  That doesn’t mean you should stop teaching online or using online tools in the classroom, but it does mean that now is the time for faculty to reassert their traditional prerogatives over teaching so that people like Craig don’t turn every last one of us into easily-disposable labor.

People like Craig aim to accomplish this goal by using the faculty as a punching bag the same way that Scott Walker used a fictitious image of “Big Labor” to destroy collective bargaining in Wisconsin.  What’s so silly about this kind of stereotyping is that the American university system would never have been as successful as it has been over the last hundred years if it weren’t for the faculty’s role in shared governance.  That role derives from the fact that they are the parties on campus who know the most about actually educating students because they actually educate students.  That’s why the more a particular decision affects education, the more important it is that faculty play an important role in making it.  Shutting the faculty out of decision-making runs the risk that the quality of education that any university provides will be irreparably harmed.