State of the Profession: Tapas, Anyone?

By Martin D. Snyder

For the past thirty years or more, the language of management and business has increasingly dominated the discussion of higher education. Colleges and universities have certainly not been the only institutions affected by the growth of biz-speak and biz-think. “Contributing to economic growth” has become the assumed goal of most of our social, cultural, and intellectual activities.

We have also witnessed the concurrent emergence of a kind of consumerist relativism. As Stefan Collini noted recently in the London Review of Books, “The claim that one activity is inherently of greater value or importance than another comes to be pilloried as ‘elitism.’ Arguments are downgraded to ‘opinions’: all opinions are equally valuable (or valueless), so the only agreed criterion is what people say they think they want, and the only value with any indefeasible standing is ‘value for money.’”

Thus, as the argument goes, in a marketplace where demand for higher education continues to expand, consumer desire and student choice should drive the enterprise. The student as consumer gains power and enforces economic discipline on inefficient, unresponsive colleges and universities. In Collini’s words, the student consumer applies “the whip of competition” to the flanks of academic slackers.

What will this rosy world of consumerist education be like? In an August 25, 2011, New York Times article by Tamar Lewin on the future of online education, Chester E. Finn Jr., a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, “predicted that all but the top tier of existing universities would ‘change dramatically’ as students regained power in an expanding marketplace.”

“Instead of a full entrée of four years in college, it’ll be more like grazing or going to tapas bars,” Finn told the Times, “with people piecing together a postsecondary education from different sources.”

It’s difficult to know which of Finn’s metaphors is more troubling. The image of bovine students placidly but mindlessly munching in an educational meadow without guidance, structure, or direction hardly seems to presage educational or economic success. Nibbling at a tapas bar where presentation, impulse, and appetite trump nutritional value suggests an educational experience that is temporarily satisfying but may prove ultimately less than healthful. Anyone with an eye on the scale each morning knows the danger of constructing a diet based on desire.

The problem, of course, is not that Finn has chosen inappropriate metaphors. The problem is the consumerist model of higher education. It is not the role of colleges and universities to produce happy, satisfied customers. We don’t have consumers; we have students. Students are not consumers of education; they are partners in the educational process along with faculty whose calling it is to introduce students to the world of intellectual discovery and intellectual responsibility. According to the classic formulation of faculty members’ professional responsibilities, we work to preserve, transmit, and discover knowledge. The fundamental motivation for meeting these responsibilities, however, has traditionally been service to the common good. Herein lies the problem. How can faculty and the institutions in which they labor serve the common good (the educational model) when they are under more and more pressure to be guided by selfish, self-centered consumerism (the business model)? The conflict between the two models is unsustainable, and, unfortunately, consumerism is winning the day.

The deleterious effects of consumerist education are everywhere to behold, but none is more viciously destructive than the conversion of the professoriate into a labor pool of contingent, disposable workers. Highly competent and dedicated teachers, deprived of economic security, a genuine role in decision making, and the academic freedom to teach what they think best, are robbed of the opportunity to shoulder a meaningful share of the teaching-learning partnership. They inevitably feel disconnected from the institution and less empowered to voice their opinions about the institution’s administration and priorities. In the name of flexibility and budgetary constraints, the institution’s most valuable resource, its faculty, is shamefully squandered.

If this is what an educational tapas bar looks like, it’s time to call the health inspector. If there is fat in our institutional diet, let’s cut it. (And I would suggest looking at the upper levels of the administrative food chain to find some prime examples!) If, however, we persist in pursuing a faulty, “feed me what I want” consumerist model of higher education, there is but one piece of advice to dish out to students: caveat emptor!

Martin D. Snyder senior associate general secretary of the AAUP.

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