Reprinted from the Summer 2011 MLA Newsletter
Honestly, there are times when I think someone actually wrote a playbook called How the United States Can Destroy Its Great Higher Education System in One Hundred Days
. Worse, it seems to be on everyone’s reading list. It opens with a chapter called “Always Blame Teachers,” proceeds to the section “How to Disempower Faculty Members,” and concludes with a list of ways in which state and federal governments can subvert academic matters. The news from Wisconsin about the limits the state plans to impose on the collective bargaining rights of its workers echoes around the country as similar moves are considered in Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and elsewhere. Using the claim of financial exigencies, state legislators have been going after teachers (including those in the higher education system). Among recent efforts: a bill in South Carolina to require professors to spend more time in the classroom and a move in Utah to end tenure (Stripling).
The recent origins of hostility toward teachers, says Diane Ravitch, stem from No Child Left Behind and its undergirding philosophical approach to education: if students do poorly on tests, it must be because teachers and administrators are incompetent. Ravitch says what’s really going on is this: “A historic strain of anti-intellectualism in American thought has merged with fiscal conservatism, producing the present campaign to dismantle the teaching profession.” It has become harder and harder to convince the public and its elected representatives at the state and federal level of the importance of studying the humanities, of the value of the academic profession, and of the need for working conditions that treat all
teachers in institutions of higher education as professionals. The push for measurable, vocationally oriented learning outcomes has never been stronger, and the attack against those trained, hired, and rewarded for combining original research with classroom teaching and campus service has also never been as vicious.
It’s not a coincidence that these trends come at a time when the percentage of the contingent academic workforce keeps increasing in relation to tenured faculty members. It’s easier to pick on teachers—claim they have too much negotiating power, say they aren’t monitoring learning outcomes adequately, or bash them for deconstructing (read: destroying) literature—when their power to resist diminishes as their tenured ranks proportionally decline. The ultimate irony is that contingent faculty members are likely to be on the front line of the courses where students make the all-important transition from high school to college. They are also likely to know a great deal about outcomes assessment and vocational preparation for students. Because institutions have delegated so much of the teaching to contingent faculty members, colleges and universities have become more vulnerable to critiques against the tenured ranks. Those critiques often ring false, adhere to stereotypes, and further divide an already splintered faculty. Yet until institutions are willing to create “one faculty serving all students,” we remain collectively weak in the face of the mounting attacks (see “MLA Issue Brief”).
In this climate, the pressures will only intensify. The Department of Education has taken questionable measures aimed at protecting the integrity of federal financial aid programs. Among these: a federal definition of “credit hour,” which, according to many, reverts to outdated notions that will stifle curricular innovation. Another requirement calls for every online program, whether offered by an Ivy League university or a for-profit company like the University of Phoenix, to meet the approval standards of every state in which it has students or faculty members. Pell Grants are on the chopping block: significant reduction to this program will have an effect on those least able to pay for higher education. At the state level, we are witnessing dramatic cuts to institutions of higher learning that will close campuses, cause tuition hikes, and further limit the chances of reducing the percentage of courses taught by contingent faculty members. In March, the governor of Pennsylvania called for a fifty percent funding reduction to state schools, and California and New Jersey (among others) have already experienced major cuts to higher education. Performance-based funding, measured largely by completion rates, has been introduced in states such as Louisiana and Ohio.
I have just returned from the annual meetings of the American Council on Education and the National Humanities Alliance, where many of these issues were on the table, so the MLA is very much a part of these discussions in Washington. The Executive Council has made the MLA’s voice heard on issues such as the State of Wisconsin’s actions (“Statement”). The MLA will continue to research and do analysis on the most pressing problems that our disciplines face. Advocacy is also at the core of our mission, and for this work we count on each MLA member to take action. If all thirty thousand of us contact our state and federal legislators to make the case for the humanities and for our institutions of higher education, we can have an immense impact. And if those of us in tenured positions use the power of our job security to demand change in the academic workforce, we can also exert significant pressure. For the first action item, please consult the excellent work that the National Humanities Alliance does (www.nhalliance.org
). For the second, I refer you to the MLA’s Academic Workforce Advocacy Kit.
We have a lot of rebuilding to do. Grab a tool from the Advocacy Kit, take action on a federal funding priority (visit www.nhalliance.org/advocacy/funding-priorities/index.shtml
), and find ways to make a difference on your campus and in your local community. Please let me know what you are doing and how the MLA can help.
“MLA Issue Brief: The Academic Workforce.” Modern Language Association
. MLA, Oct. 2009. Web. 16 Mar. 2011.
Ravitch, Diane. “It Started with ‘No Child Left Behind.’” New York Times
. New York Times, 6 Mar. 2011. Web. 16 Mar. 2011.
“Statement of Support for Teachers in Wisconsin and Other States.” Modern Language Association
. MLA, 11 Mar. 2011. Web. 16 Mar. 2011.
Stripling, Jack. “Fight over Faculty Collective Bargaining Gathers Steam in Wisconsin.” Chronicle of Higher Education
. Chronicle of Higher Educ., 17 Feb. 2011. Web. 16 Mar. 2011.