Baby Steps: Recent Higher-Ed News That Isn’t Entirely Depressing

Among the many trends in higher education that TGR bemoans, perhaps none is more personally galling than the persistent, Joe Biden-endorsed myth that faculty salaries are the reason college costs so much. Those tenured professors in their new Priuses and ivy-coddled homes, with their twenty-hour work weeks. But slowly, slowly, the glacier of ignorance seems to be melting a little around the edges. People besides readers of Inside Higher Ed, alt-academic blogs, and the Chronicle of Higher Education are beginning to embrace the material reality of things at actual schools on the planet Earth in this foul year of our Lord, 2014.

Over at Changing Universities, Robert Samuels reports that Congress (well, the Democratic Party’s House Committee on Education and the Workforce) has awoken to the fact that most American college professors work under conditions that range from Consistently Inadequate to Slough of Despond. And just after that document dropped, along came another study that adds to the Mount Whitney of evidence that administrative bloat, overspending on amenities, and the cheapskatery of state legislatures are why Americans are choking on student-loan debt. The report in question is from the renowned Delta Cost Project, which has been tracking university finances since the 1980s. Allow me to summarize: Blaming teachers for enormous tuition bills is like blaming the price of a new flatscreen TV on the wages of delivery drivers, or faulting the tellers at Wells Fargo for the 2008 financial catastrophe.

Now, given that one of the post-Goldwater conservative movement’s greatest achievements was getting Americans to distrust labor unions; given that anti-intellectualism is a national tradition (“My son had to read about GAY IMMIGRANT BLACK HOMO *SOCIALISTS* in history class!”); given that it is easier for the already powerful (provosts, not profs) to maintain the status quo than it is for the underclasses to change it; and given that Americans have many other distressing things on their plates, like the near-jobless post-Bush recovery; I’m not wildly optimistic that unionization and other forms of activist organizing among faculty are going to achieve much. Still, if anyone has a decent chance at reviving the labor tradition that helped create the twentieth-century middle class, it might be college teachers. Besides having the sort of intellectual capital (superb communication and research skills) that could sustain a broad movement, people with PhDs also tend to have more social capital than their dilapidated cars would suggest. That is, many of us know lots of other smart people who weren’t silly enough to become teachers, and instead ended up in law, government, medicine, and other places of relevant affluence and influence. Our brothers and sisters in unions like SEIU are starting much farther back.

For now, here is what I tell my students: If you have younger siblings who are shopping for schools (and thus parents who are likely worried about family finances), then on every visit to every campus, brother/sister should keep asking “What percentage of your undergraduate courses are taught by full-time faculty?” until they get an answer, then follow up with “And what percentage of your total budget goes directly to undergraduate instruction?” Rebecca Schuman is right: The managers of American schools will begin caring about undergraduate education (as opposed to undergraduate gyms and stadiums) real goddamn fast if their customers start refusing to pay for cynical, rickety, adjunct-dependent bullshit.

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