08 June, 2012

A Modest Proposal: Lutheran Higher Ed of the Faculty, by the Faculty...and for the Students

A series of recent articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed has pointed out that the burgeoning costs of higher education are frequently related to the explosion in the size of administrations. If you’re in higher ed, I’d love to hear from you. Look back a decade, look back two: what’s the size of your administration today compared to what it was then—and how does that compare to the size of the student body? I estimate, based upon anecdotal evidence, that there’s been a nearly three-fold increase in the size of administrations in the last 20 years. I think that’s a conservative number. And it’s no secret that the Lutheran schools are not immune to it.
What’s behind all this? A number of things. First, the push for “productivity” as measured by research and publication. Let’s face it: most undergrads—even Ivy League undergrads—benefit very little or not at all from their professors’ publication and research. In fact, one could say there’s an inverse relationship between faculty productivity (so conceived) and student benefit. Nevertheless, this kind of productivity is a driving force in the rising cost of higher ed in the States and among the Lutherans.
Why? you might ask. Because faculty loads are computed by courses, and to get more research time means reducing course loads. Suppose that in 1992 your history department ran 12 sections a year of American History. Staffing needs would have run 1.5 FTE (4 courses per term per prof). Today, with course load reductions, the same 12 sections now require 2 FTE (3 courses per term per prof). That’s an increase of 25%. But that’s not the only place the increase in research time has been felt.
Research has also placed demands on what is called “service.” Service is made up of those student-facing, committee, and administrative tasks that all faculty do, today less than before. If teaching faculty no longer have time to advise students, advisers must be hired and advising offices created and administered. If teaching faculty can no longer serve as registrar or assistant dean, then a full-time registrar and full-time assistant dean must be found. You get the picture. The basic needs of a college are, well, very basic. But when those who are there don’t attend to those needs, others have to step in to do it. So that’s the impact of the research thrust.
Another, equally devastating force that has been brought to bear on higher ed, from which Lutheran colleges are by no means immune, is that of legislation and accreditation. This has led to a dramatic increase in administrative overhead, simply because of the complexity of the entire thing. There’s FAFSA and FERPA; and there’s SACS and NCA and state boards and the Department of Education, and the list goes on. To address problems created by bureaucracy, they bureaucratize. And bureaucratization means nothing if it doesn’t also mean more bureaucrats, meaning: administrators.
Now, this isn’t to say that all administrators are bad. They aren’t. Most of them are good people, but most of their jobs are just, well, unnecessary. Which isn’t to say that all administrative positions are unnecessary. We still need presidents and deans and registrars—just not so many of them, and just not so many who don’t also teach.
In short, higher ed, whose only goal it has to be to educate students, as well and as cost-effectively as possible, has relinquished its control to others who have other concerns. Let’s face it: if the English prof who’s working on the next article she hopes to get into PMLA doesn’t—can’t—care about the rigor of her writing class, the dean of admissions sure doesn’t, either, because rigor frequently doesn’t mean happy students (that’s just an example; multiply your own). When the faculty have relinquished control and relinquished their responsibility, the responsibility for the enterprise falls into the hands of bureaucracies. But as high-minded as bureaucracies can sometimes sound, bureaucratic high-mindedness must (it’s a law of bureaucracies) give way to what is “sensible,” and “sensible” doesn’t always, and frequently fails to, equate with what is best—even, and especially, for the student. If you don’t believe me, consider how we got to a place where students today do 50% less homework than they did 20 years ago, are faced with a tuition that, in inflation-adjusted dollars, is 100% greater than 20 years ago, and leave college saddled, on average, with nearly 200% more debt than 20 years ago.
This is why we need a Lutheran higher education of the faculty (that’s a subjective genitive) and by the faculty—so that, at the end of the day, it might also be for the student. What that means is that faculty will control the curriculum—not just the part of the curriculum in which they teach, but the entire curriculum.
Of course, this requires a faculty dedicated to higher education the Wittenberg way, not a faculty patched together to meet the fleeting needs of social and economic ephemera.
And in the end, what would it look like? It’s hard to say. I imagine a simplified, concentrated curriculum. I imagine an almost embarrassingly low tuition. I imagine students who seek an education for the education, and not the chimaera on the other side of the valedictory speech. I imagine a dedication to the Lutheran way that is unabashed and unapologetic. I imagine an education that is challenging and rigorous and instructive in timeless things and not ephemera.
And I imagine the time is coming. The mavens of higher education understand that the status quo of the last 40-50 years (see above) just cannot continue without falling in on itself. If I may be permitted, I’d like to put in writing what I’ve said many a time: the next “bubble” that will burst is higher ed. The question is whether the Lutherans are going to follow the Pied Piper or have the foresight to do something dramatically different (see above).
I hope we’ll choose the latter, because what I really hope for is a Lutheran higher education of and by the faculty and for the students, with all that really entails.