By Kyle Hayden, Design Editor
With the appointment of a new president last week, prospects for the future of the university look more complicated than ever. In an overall climate of precarity in higher education, we should be very careful how we treat and think about the university going forward.
Online courses are a boon to universities, but a critical-thinking failure for students. There is a long-held belief among public institutions that they should be professing (recognize that word?) values and teaching us to be ethical, critical citizens — not just consumers.
Increasingly, however, it seems universities — of which Miami is no exception — have been pushed in a different direction, divorced from what they have stood for in history. The ethical and critical university is either dismissed as impossible or is regarded as “unprofitable” in the face of mounting corporate influence and financial uncertainty.
If we are not careful, education will be reduced to a caricature of itself, producing people who are trained only for currently fashionable jobs, not skilled at problem-solving or thinking. Some scholars argue that this has already happened.
Underneath the marketing drivel that insists online classes are time and cost-effective, feelings of dread abound when we come to the realization that personal contact and engagement could disappear from education if market logics fully control higher education.
Online courses are certainly more efficient for universities’ budgets. To “hybridize” courses or offer courses completely online is to not have to pay faculty for their time or pay for construction and maintenance of physical facilities. Slide shows can even be bought from textbook producers like MacMillan or Pearson Education and administered online instead of in a classroom lecture.
Through the language of the online course, or the “hybridized” course (which could be treated as nothing more than a disguise for a completely online course), we can see evidence of corporatization and forces of digital stratification in education. Unfortunately at Miami, the language of this industrial-academic process is becoming commonplace.
Henry Giroux wrote “The University in Chains,” a book of immeasurable relevance to each and every one of us as students. It reveals and laments the corporatization of higher education.
In 2007, Giroux wrote about Rio Salado College in Tempe, Arizona, which had an enrollment of 13,314 students. It had only 33 faculty members, 27 of whom were full-time. Its classes were almost completely online. The university’s president, Linda Thor, proudly embraced efficiency measures and the idea of “students as customers.”
The majority of Rio Salado’s teaching was done by part-time faculty who were paid $2,200 dollars per course. Assuming that a teacher could manage to teach eight courses a year (that’s four courses a semester) it totaled almost $18,000.
Could you imagine a more striking cross section that parallels Miami?
This semester, Miami increased the wage for adjunct instructors from $900 per credit hour to $1,000 per credit hour. In February 2015 — just a year ago — The Miami Student reported that an adjunct professor teaching six three-credit hour courses a year will make $13,500 on average.
To translate this to reality, Americans spend around 30 percent of their income on housing. At $13,500, that’s $5,760 per year available for housing. I challenge anyone with the task of finding even an efficiency apartment with a rent of $350 a month. Then we must account for food, transportation and healthcare.
With an outlook like this, academia ends up becoming a career in which people who may even have immense interest cannot enter. It becomes an empty service to be bought and sold.
This period in academic wage history is already regarded with shame, especially at a time when athletics departments and administrative positions boast six and even seven-figure salaries while students are paying more than ever to just go to college.
How can we expect professors to be interested in professing if they can’t even feed themselves? How can we expect them to show us examples of creativity and critical engagement with this kind of treatment? There exists a crisis between cost effectiveness and critical engagement.
Currently, it seems as though market logics of education come to their conclusion when we can no longer discern between advertisement and course work. Corporate logos, brand names and product placements abound in problem sets and in online course materials. It’s unsettling today that it is considered normal that the only responsibility young people have as citizens is to be good consumers.
It is written in our syllabi: “[This course] will teach you to be a critical consumer,” reads a syllabus for a class in statistics. Note it is not written as “to be critical consumers of information,” or holiness forbid, “critical citizens.”
This is not just a trite close reading of an unconscious remark written in a syllabus, it is evidence of a formative culture which is now pervasive in education and seeks to propel students through an educational “path of least resistance.” Where students agree with statements like “my college education is a product which I am purchasing” become not only realized but also normalized.
This blurring between students and consumers and advertising as teaching should set off alarms more often. None of us seem to have a problem with advertising in the classroom. Consequently, we can recognize LeBron James’ face or the logo of a manufacturer of automobiles, but we cannot name our congresspeople. We can’t remember which day is election day. We forget what our rights are for.
Young people have enrolled in college during a second-wave Culture War regarding the direction universities should take. We will decide where we go — with either white knuckles or full wallets. Author Naomi Klein says, “All we have to do in order to lose is nothing. It’s that easy.”
Universities across the United States are at a critical juncture. Will they lapse into the profitable and cost-saving efficiency measures, take on corporate sponsorship, solicit funding from the defense industry, run students through the “diploma mill” or the “academic meat grinder”? Or do we demand from our policy makers and the public a renewed moral autonomy and social security for the university? A place where academic freedom, critical thought and engagement can survive? A place where public values and the university as a public sphere for engendering values and (imagine this) thinking, can take place?
If we follow the current timeline to a place where education reaches its privatized, efficient apogee, we find it could be a dark place. Most dangerously of all, as Theodor Adorno warns, “education’s highest aim after all is to teach empathy.” If we are not careful, we may forget how to feel this empathy altogether.