September 18, 2003

A Tale of Two Administrators

John Sexton, the new president of New York University, has some big plans. He wants tenured professors to make undergraduate teaching a central part of their duties, and he wants to expand his faculty in new directions by having professors who are primarily dedicated to teaching, professors who specialize in information technology and the Internet, and "art" professors who do not have doctorates but who are highly accomplished in professional domains outside of academia.

Stanley Fish in today's New York Times continues his running debate with the Illinois Legislature about the costs of higher education, effectively defending the academic status quo and arguing that the substantial reduction of the costs of higher education is impossible without fatally compromising universities.

There was an interesting discussion of Sexton's ideas at Invisible Adjunct and several other websites, but I was taken aback a bit by the degree to which many respondents viewed those proposals as superficial window-dressing for the further adjunctification of the academy.

On the other hand, I was a bit surprised at my own feelings reading Fish's article: it was a perfectly reasonable, intelligent rejoinder to populist politicians acting in a typically anti-intellectual manner and yet I couldn't help but feel that something was systematically wrong about it as well. Part of it was simply that Fish, as is his wont, was not defending all the various expensive components of higher education as part of some sacred or important mission, but much more pragmatically as services provisioned to demanding consumers. That's a potentially clever bit of strategic appropriation of market-driven rhetoric (Fish asks whether Illinois Republicans really believe in price controls) but somehow it seems the wrong route to go at this point in time, a two-edged sword likely to rebound on him and academia as a whole.

Then it hit me: the reason I was really a bit skeptical about Fish's article is the same reason some others are skeptical of Sexton's proposals. Fish essentially says that if public universities were given a massive budget cut, they'd react by gutting a whole host of popular and essential services that their students rely upon, all of them: "offering fewer courses, closing departments, sending students elsewhere, skimping on advising, hiring the pedagogical equivalent of migrant workers, eliminating remedial programs, ejecting the students for whom remedial programs are necessary, reducing health and counseling services, admitting fewer students and inventing fees for everything from registration to breathing."

It reminded me a bit of the implicit threat that Jerry Brown made when Proposition 13 made it to the ballot in California, that if it passed, the legislature would have to respond by gutting every service that Californians valued. This both did and did not happen in some truly complicated ways, some of which bears on the current recall campaign. What I think I found vaguely irksome about Brown is what I found vaguely irksome about Fish: rather than prophecy, these statements have a vague feel instead of being a kidnapper's threat to kill a hostage. "Don't make me do it, man!"

You could present the reduction of academic budgets instead as a positive but difficult choice, and say, "If you choose to cut the budgets of public universities and cap their tuition, you must be aware that you will force university administrators and faculty to choose between many desirable programs and projects, and you will then admit that the era of growth in knowledge, growth in research, growth in the mission and extent of education, is over." And you could ask first whether that's what we want to admit, and if so, what kinds of Solomanic guidance politicans or others might provide to academics about how you decide whether to cut anthropology or cognitive science, history or physics, English literature or Arabic language, microbiology or astronomy, and so on. Because Fish is right: go that route and you're forcing hard choices that will hurt people and reduce the scope of education.

What he's wrong about is the implication of his rhetoric, that sweeping threat to all programs and services, that higher education must choose to cut everything indiscriminately, that there cannot be a systematic logic to the reduction of its mission. Or more, I think what he's ultimately aware of is that if public universities are simply cut off at the knees by legislators, the practical political fact of life in the academic world is that those with institutional power will indiscriminately throw overboard everything and everyone who is less powerful.

This is where Sexton comes back in. He's not talking about the reduction of higher education, but at least on the surface, about its expansive re-invention. If many are skeptical when they read his proposals, it may not be because they have any particular reason to doubt Sexton's sincerity or even the conceptual attractiveness of his ideas, but because they know that established and powerful interests within the NYU faculty will not permit those ideas to be implemented in their most desirable and idealistic form. Sexton might say that a new "teaching faculty" ought to be viewed as the peers of the traditional tenured research-oriented faculty, but even if he desperately wants that, the established faculty will rapidly subordinate and denigrate such faculty as being second-raters.

Such a faculty would have no external source of validation to draw upon: no publications, no peer networks, no reputation capital. Or worse yet, their only source of external validation would derive from academically oriented Departments of Education, which would simply draw a teaching faculty back into the usual hierarchies of academic value, as experimental animals for education researchers. A "great" teacher in John Sexton's new NYU would only be great in my estimation by what they did in the classroom, and there are and can be no external standards commonly agreed upon that would allow us to compare one such great teacher with the next, to create a platform for the accumulation of reputation capital that would put Sexton's teaching faculty on an equal plane with the established ranks of academic scholars. The same would go for his practicioner academics, the "art" faculty, and the Internet faculty would simply be one more department in a specialized world of departments.

So the skeptics are right, I think, to think that you cannot have a revolution in one country, that even if Sexton is 100 percent sincere in his visionary drive, the practicalities of academic politics are such that his vision will curdle and be nothing more than a "mommy track" or compensatory wasteland for faculty scorned by the dominant players within the academic world. Fish's projection of a university indiscriminately laid waste by budget cuts and tuition caps is conditioned by the same thing. It might be that you could imagine a rational, orderly way to shrink an academic institution down to some coherent core mission and shuck off services that do not fit that mission, but the practical fact is that the people with power in existing academic communities will in the vast majority of cases apply no such principle, and seek only to cull vulnerable individuals, programs and services, regardless of how worthy or coherent they might be. Fish knows it: the end result is not a more coherent, smaller core that leans in some philosophically sensible direction but an amputated caricature of bigger, richer private universities.

I find this all pretty sad. On the face of them, I think Sexton's proposals are terrific. They're immensely appealing to me. They're the kind of thing I tend to advocate myself, a diversification and enrichment of what academia is about and a strong repudiation of the hostility that conventional academics display towards undergraduate education. I'd love to see him succeed in every respect and make NYU a showcase for a reimagined academy. And I do think that at least some universities, public and otherwise, are going to have to make tough choices and reduce the range of what they do, and I think it's possible to make those choices coherently and well. It's depressing if politically understandable why Fish doesn't even open up that possibility in his response to the Illinois Legislature. Fish is right, though, that it's not going to happen that way, that the result of simple budget cuts and tuition caps will just produce a grotesque mess that no one is happy with.

What I think this amounts to is that if you're John Sexson, and you're serious about your proposals, you're going to have to be far more breathtakingly ambitious. You can't just bring the new faculties in business: you'll also have to constrain the authority of the old ones. You'll have to work to construct a nationwide infrastructure that connects your new faculties to social and intellectual networks that empower them and put them on an even playing field with the old faculty. You'll have to reorganize massive, subtle hierarchies of power and influence inside and outside your institution. If it's just about adding some optional extra playing pieces on a set chess board, if it isn't about changing the basic rules of the game, it's not worth doing and it really will just be more adjunctification of academia. If you're a Republican legislator in Illinois, and you want to cut the public university system down, you're going to have to go beyond crude anti-intellectual caricatures and lazy rhetoric about the pampered professiorate. You're going to have to be willing to roll up your sleeves and go into the hearts and guts of the academic enterprise. You're going to have to make a coherent, comprehensive statement about what you think higher education is, and what the purpose of public universities are. If you can't do that kind of difficult, subtle, visionary work, then just keep writing the checks, because you're not going to magically produce a leaner, better university just by choking off the money.