Can academia be saved from the corporate death cult?
This is the third post here on this subject, but there is one set of villains or enablers we have not talked much about regarding the University of Virginia coup d’ecole: the middlebrow media who just can’t stop trumpeting the glories of “online learning” and especially the entry of Stanford, Penn, and other elite players into the field. For those just catching up to this story, University of Virginia president Teresa Sullivan was forced out by the Board of Visitors partly because she “lacked the mettle” to chop programs that didn’t make money, like classics and German, and refused to have the university jump with both feet into online courses like all the other kids. 1
Actually, UVA was already quite a leader in online teaching, research, publishing, going back to the 1990s. Who put the idea into the Board of Visitors’ big CEO heads that the “rapidly accelerating pace of change” required them to shock and awe the campus into “strategic dynamism”? The Board of Visitors emails obtained by the Cavalier Daily, UVA’s really impressive student newspaper, reveal that Rector Helen Dragas and her cohorts were directly inspired by gushy articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal, all venues where they love to celebrate the smashing of any institution by the Internet as long as it is being done to someone else’s institution. One message that jumped out at me appears at right. Jeffrey Walker, a hedge fund billionaire who sits on the board of Berklee College of Music, forwards Dragas and Vice Rector Mark Kington a Chronicle article (possibly this one) and suggests they go so deep into their research as to watch a YouTube video about the Stanford online course project. 2
At some point the media, and especially the NYT and Chronicle, needs to own up to the role its hyping of online courses and other shiny technological objects has played in poisoning the minds of the business people who sit on governing boards all over academia. So let me address the media for a moment. Reporters and editors covering higher education, it matters what you constantly tout. The busy executives who control our lives in their spare time are much more likely to read your little trend pieces and op-ed columns than they are to sit through a college class or talk to a working professor or read one of our books. Please think through the desirability and plausibility of the higher education apocalypse you are getting the suits so wound up about. Online and hybrid courses will have their place in certain subjects for certain audiences, especially at the introductory level, but until the day that major corporations and elite universities start very publicly recruiting and hiring holders of online degrees for their top positions, brick-and-mortar universities are here to stay. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation may find it groovy to put money into the University of the People (sort of a Wikipedia U., apparently, with courses taught by volunteers), but I am guessing it will be quite a while longer before U of the P alums fill the executive suites at Microsoft, or edit the Chronicle and NYT (Ivy League bastions in my journalism days). Like most types of “education reform,” online learning is something that traditionally-educated elites do to others.
At the same time, it is never clear exactly what the process would be by which the “Online Course Tsunami” will destroy conventional academia, unless it is by various Boards of Visitors, Curators, and Regents proactively sacrificing real academics to the the gods of change and “strategic dynamism.” 3 Students enjoy not coming to class, sure, but right now public universities are seeing record enrollments, and the competition for students is based on academic reputation, facilities, and cost, not buzz on the op-ed pages and Chronicle tech columns. (The competition for research money really only turns on the first of those.) Online education might reduce the need for classroom buildings, but I predict that a reputation for herding tuition-paying freshmen into online courses will not turn out to be a very healthy one for a major university to have. (Look for “no online courses” to become a SLAC selling point just like “no classes taught by TAs.) The damage to a sterling academic brand like UVA would be inconceivable, not to mention completely counter-productive. If these board members actually spent much time on campuses outside of meetings they might more easily grasp that students and their parents want the college experience (with the beer, parties, and extracurricular activities) and a prestigious credential, not the pleasure of accessing a shiny new web site. Board members and administrations clearly think that somehow throwing money at online learning will save them money, against all evidence, but online learning is not the inevitable, annihilating future of all higher education. It is a current craze that they are rushing to join because they are more familiar with computers and smartphones than scholarship and teaching.
What’s striking to me about the UVA situation, and reminds me of what has happened on my campus with the closing of University of Missouri Press, is that in neither case was there an immediate crisis or catalyst for the sudden, precipitous strike against the core academic values of a great public university. There were ongoing funding issues and new technological challenges to be sure, but nothing that demanded such immediate, self-damaging action. Instead, what we are dealing with is a kind of corporate death cult that worships Change for its sake and does not feel right until some blood is spilled. 4
P.S. “Death cult” is trifle exaggerated, I admit, but here is the excellent song that inspired it, T-Bone Burnett’s “Madison Avenue.” Listen all the way until the end.
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P.P.S. Check it out: footnotes!
- The Chronicle of Higher Education had devoted so much space to ballyhooing online courses that Sullivan’s go-slow policy became itself a story, for them, back in April. ↩
- I notice as I post this that an excellent article by George Washington University’s David Karpf called attention to the same email. ↩
- I started writing this “death cult” post independently, but by the end of the day I was borrowing the cult and sacrifice metaphor from Barbara Fister’s wonderful essay, “UVa, the Cult of Change, and the Uses of Fear“, at Inside Higher Education. So goes the Internet. ↩
- Alternate edgy title for this post: “Bring Me the Head of the German Department!” ↩