Fracking Academia

Yesterday one of my colleagues, Force Spring Constant, sent me an article [Link] about the degradation of Amerikan colleges due to the ascendancy of administrators over faculty. I was more perplexed at the attention and outrage than the article per se.

Simply put, this rot has been growing for quite a while, at least since sometime in the twentieth century although we might argue its origins are earlier. Amerika has always been a nation addicted to colleges with that number peaking in the first fifty years or so and decreasing steadily over time as the market consolidates. Pray note that critical term ‘market’. It is central to understanding why this situation is not surprising.

Originally, almost all colleges were small affairs of a few ‘professors’ and a very limited curriculum, usually what passed for liberal arts in those days and included literature, rhetoric, a classical language or two, and perhaps geography and history. Crafts were taught by apprenticeships that included both attorneys and physicians. The few exceptions were either classical colleges in the English sense or women’s polishing shuls.

The next phase tended to be a growth of some colleges, forcing competitors to disappear by economy of scale, and diversification to include medicine and law. The second part of this phase was the burgeoning of land grant universities, mostly after the Second American Revolution that further reduced the number of institutions.

Up until the end of the Great Patriotic War, the student bodies were limited in size by economics. Only the scions of successful families, the athletically (if not mentally) gifted, and the brilliant poor were students, the latter two by scholarship or some other accommodation, and generally excluded from the curricula of the liberal arts which enjoyed a shibbolethic existence. After the GPW, veterans were guaranteed support by the Yankee government and vastly increased the size of the student bodies of admitting colleges.

This situation is notable in that it shifted the economics of the college. More students brought in more tuition but not enough to defray the cost of college operation that was delicately balanced among tuition, endowment, and government pork. As a result, two forces came into play: decrease the cost of education; and increase cash flow. Both of these are primarily managerial than functional in form.

This set the stage for the current situation. Bring in more money and keep expenditures down. The former is typified by the constant lobbying of government and donors that so alienates organizations and alumni. The latter is typified by the dilution of curricula and the neutering of teaching. Emphasis on grants and research income is not a primary symptom but part and parcel of the dunning. A vicious cycle, possibly unstable or chaotic, of seeking ever more students and seeking to balance the discrepancy between tuition and expense has resulted.

And the rider of the tiger is the manager not the functionary. Or in academic terms, the administrator not the professor. The college has become a business rather akin to that of fast food restaurants. What is important is the experience, not the product. So long as the food is served rapidly, is tasteful (if not healthy or nourishing,) and the ‘feeling’ is good, then the business is successful.

There is a cogent argument that modern colleges are fast food restaurants. The education is made as enjoyable and palatable as possible with a minimum strain on the digestive system (mental instead of physical.) It is usually neither healthy nor nutritious, but that is not as relevant as that the experience be enjoyable. Hence the emphasis on athletics and partying, not lectures and research. And it has to be rapid. Degree programs should be never more than four years and preferably less, a growing trend hailed as cost saving. Of course, what goes with this is also a standardized menu of courses and disencouraged variation. Exceptions are granted only to minimize the period of residency.

This is strangely also the epitome of a diploma mill.

Or is it strange?