Publick Occurrences 2.0

March 15, 2010

Modern Explanation of a Few Terms Commonly Misunderstood: “Public Education”

Filed under: Economy,Education — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 8:00 am

The New York Times informs us that the leading “private,” for-profit educational companies get the vast majority of their reported revenues from public sources:

The Career Education Corporation, a publicly traded global giant, last year reported revenue of $1.84 billion. Roughly 80 percent came from federal loans and grants, according to BMO Capital Markets, a research and trading firm. That was up from 63 percent in 2007.

The Apollo Group — which owns the for-profit University of Phoenix — derived 86 percent of its revenue from federal student aid last fiscal year, according to BMO. Two years earlier, it was 69 percent.

These numbers are far higher than most of the ones I have seen for the percentage of public funding in public university budgets, and it is notorious that the levels of government support for higher education have been dropping. What we seem to have here is a massive transfer of public funds from major educational institutions where there is some public control and scrutiny of its use, into corporate pockets where its use and outcomes become proprietary information shared only in advertising and financial reports. It turns out that the risks these brave educational entrepreneurs have run — such as loaning tens of thousands to culinary students whose  future careers as dishwashers or line cooks or sawers of novelty ice sculptures can never possibly allow them to pay back their massive student loan debts — are considerably surer things when the federal government backs the loans. Students pay, Feds pay, Career Edu Corp profits either way.

So the next time some politician or pundit tells us we should run the universities more like businesses, the answer should be, give us more taxpayer money, and maybe we will give you a few email addresses of former students to tell you how much they loved us. (As the companies did in this story.)

[Hat tip on the post title to Citizen Freneau.]

Now playing: The Soundtrack of Our Lives – The Passover


January 14, 2010


Filed under: Historians,Music — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 9:40 am

Hey look, I am back. I could bemoan the insidious forces that have kept me from blogging, but I seem to know so many people who have been sick, injured, or lost loved ones in recent months, it really does not seem to become me to complain. And that was even without reading the paper this morning. Anyway, it’s a new year, a new semester, a new decade, so let’s get started.

Having been to more than my share of very sparsely-attended indie rock shows and history conference panels, the thought has occurred more than once that “mid-career” academic historians have much in common with a lot of the veteran indie musicians I go to see: well-known within a certain dispersed circle of cognoscenti, perhaps even established in certain way, but doing something too particular in its appeal to ever achieve more than the most modest sort of popularity.  Most historians like most bands still have to set up and load their own equipment, and while  it saddens me that we historians don’t usually get to perform in dive bars, the bathrooms in conference hotels are usually cleaner.

Then there is the economics of our respective types of publication. My reminder of the similarities here , admittedly not too recent at this writing, was this very informative post byTim Quirk of Too Much Joy, critiquing his band’s royalty statement.

From Tim Quirk, I learned a new term (new to me) major record labels used to denote those never-hit-it-big back catalog bands that they authorize themselves to ignore and abuse: “unrecouped.” This means bands whose sales, according to major label accounting, never paid back their advance and promotional costs. (According to the statement, Too Much Joy’s account with with Warner Brothers stood at $62.47 in royalties with an unrecouped balance of $395,277.18.)  Historians lucky enough to find teaching jobs and get tenure do enjoy some job security that bands who had a couple of songs on alt-rock radio in the early 90s might not, but we also live in danger of remaining “unrecouped” and thus powerless when it comes to dealing with the publishers  and their self-serving accounting practices.
Now playing: The Low Anthem – To the Ghosts Who Write History Books


October 25, 2009

Academia vindicated!

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 8:14 am

Academics cleared of wrongdoing in the balloon boy saga by country sheriff:  “He may be nutty, but he’s not a professor.” Richard Heene, the mad-scientist father in the case, turns out to be a high-school educated handy-man.

(Message: I am still here, just trying to catch up with other stuff.)

Now playing: The Broken Family Band – Devil in the Details
via FoxyTunes


April 11, 2009

The Endless Return of Depressing Economists

Filed under: Economy,Media — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 8:47 am

I am normally a great defender of most things academic, but here is a case where I am not finding typical academic behavior all that helpful in a public figure. Is it just me, or is Paul Krugman sounding more and more like a senior faculty member pursuing an academic grudge?  There have been so many columns and posts over the past few months where Krugman’s overriding question seems to be: whose faction had the correct economic analysis (and underlying theory), his or Larry Summers’s, and when did they have it? For instance, from the most recent column, we have the following:

Only a few people warned that this supercharged financial system might come to a bad end. Perhaps the most notable Cassandra was Raghuram Rajan of the University of Chicago, a former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, who argued at a 2005 conference that the rapid growth of finance had increased the risk of a “catastrophic meltdown.” But other participants in the conference, including Lawrence Summers, now the head of the National Economic Council, ridiculed Mr. Rajan’s concerns.

And the meltdown came.

While I tend to agree with Krugman that the Krugmanian economists had a more clear-eyed view of the recent finance-driven economy than the Summersians, the most important task now would be seem to be restablizing the economy rather than hashing out who was right in the past. Krugman has been holding a kind of endless academic roundtable session, only it’s happening in what is probably the nation’s leading liberal newspaper column rather than in the hotel ballroom where it belongs.


April 9, 2009

Tenured Replicants

Filed under: Education,Historians — Benjamin Carp @ 3:33 pm

After my hard-hitting foray into “historians liking libraries,” I think I’m ready for even more tendentious blogposts on subjects such as the cuteness of kittens, the madness of hatters, and the wealth of Croesus.

In all seriousness, though, I do want to mix it up with Chris Beneke a little (but I should preface it by saying that he’s a smart and thoughtful scholar, he’s written a really interesting book, and he’s a fine fellow all around).

I certainly don’t want to diminish the extent of the problems Beneke is addressing here–the bleak humanities job market and the terrible conditions in which adjunct faculty work.  I also agree with most of his prescriptions: we should be as forthright as possible in our defense of the value of the humanities, we should pay more attention to some of the underlying problems, we should engage with broader audiences (at least some of the time), and we should think about whether the training of graduate students best fits the world they will face upon receiving an advanced degree.

I do, however, want to push back on a couple of points:

First, his statement that “much of a history professor’s traditional teaching responsibilities can now be easily replicated and widely distributed.”  It’s not clear where Beneke is going with this–after all, our scholarship can also be “easily replicated and widely distributed,” and that hasn’t stopped us from writing books and articles (yet).  I also don’t think Beneke is seriously suggesting that watching a lecture on iTunes University is equivalent to being in a classroom with a professor and taking his/her course–but if he is, I think he’s selling what we do quite short.  In the comments, Beneke recommends (though he doesn’t necessarily endorse) Kevin Carey’s “What Colleges Should Learn from Newspapers’ Decline,” which Jeff has already spiritedly attacked.

Second, I think Beneke needs to slow down a bit before arguing (in point five) that we should both “substitute more rigorous teacher training for grad school research committments” and scale down degree and tenure requirements such that full-length works of history aren’t necessarily demanded.  (Does he mean everywhere?  And if not, who gets to decide who disarms and who doesn’t?)

There are several things going on here besides “our standards are too high”: the overproduction of Ph.D.s, the disconnect (often unproblematic) between market saleability and scholarly value, and, finally, the good old-fashioned notion that our teaching and research can be vitally connected, and what’s good for one side of that equation is good for the other.  I’d also add that some ideas really do need a full-length book to fully explore–and the best way to ensure that a scholar has the discipline and endurance to write a big, book-length idea one day is to make sure that they first do it under the wing of a senior mentor in a university setting.  But whatever–this is an obvious argument.  I don’t mind debating the pros and cons of specific solutions (and I agree that some tinkering, or even overhaul, needs to take place), I’m just wary of arguments that appear to devalue what a Ph.D. in history ought to mean, and what it can offer.


February 26, 2009

Oh the Humanities!!

Filed under: Economy,Education,Historians,Media — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 1:17 am

So the NYT says the Humanities are in trouble in these troubled times.  “In Tough Times, the Humanities Must Justify Their Worth,” the headline reads. Possibly, but not as much trouble as the media.

I am never sure whether history is included in media/political discussions of the Humanities, but I will bite here on one bit of justification: If most of the people running our financial and government institutions had even the slightest factual knowledge of history, especially historical trends, they would never have wrecked the economy by placing so much faith in the idea that property values would only go in one direction, up, forever. They would also have known that far from needing to get out of the way, law and government created modern private property markets in the first place and strong periodic restructuring and regulation has always been necessary to maintain them. That did not sound very humanistic, I know, but it is the kind of thing you and learn from humanities education. I will be discoursing on the Panic of 1819 later today myself, a case in point if ever there was one.

But I should perhaps let the Times speak for itself.

But in this new era of lengthening unemployment lines and shrinking university endowments, questions about the importance of the humanities in a complex and technologically demanding world have taken on new urgency. Previous economic downturns have often led to decreased enrollment in the disciplines loosely grouped under the term “humanities” — which generally include languages, literature, the arts, history, cultural studies, philosophy and religion. Many in the field worry that in this current crisis those areas will be hit hardest.

Already scholars point to troubling signs. A December survey of 200 higher education institutions by The Chronicle of Higher Education and Moody’s Investors Services found that 5 percent have imposed a total hiring freeze, and an additional 43 percent have imposed a partial freeze.

In the last three months at least two dozen colleges have canceled or postponed faculty searches in religion and philosophy, according to a job postings page on The Modern Language Association’s end-of-the-year job listings in English, literature and foreign languages dropped 21 percent for 2008-09 from the previous year, the biggest decline in 34 years.

“Although people in humanities have always lamented the state of the field, they have never felt quite as much of a panic that their field is becoming irrelevant,” said Andrew Delbanco, the director of American studies at Columbia University.

I’m sorry Andrew Delbanco feels irrelevant, but me not so much. We are not hiring right now to be sure and cutbacks are on the way, but as the Times figures indicate, the humanities seem to be falling apart at about the same rate as everything else in the world economy. At the same time, in my Midwestern public university, at any rate, our history enrollments and graduate applications are up and undergraduates seem to be looking for historical perspective more than ever, wondering how the hell we got here from there, and where else we might be going.

In short, this Times article seems to be premature, chasing after a trend that might develop but has not quite happened yet. Frankly, I put it down to the schadenfreude toward humanities academia that has long fairly pulsated through the cultural coverage of our tottering elite media institutions.


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