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Newsletter AF: Volume 1 - Issue 5

August 21, 2019: summer isn’t over don’t panic yet edition

The newsletter of the Aydelotte Foundation at Swarthmore College.

Inside: the defunding of public higher education; randomizing admissions and sharing wealth; race and tenure; Amazon; AF summer reading; mapo tofu; and more.

Connect with us: Send us an email, take a look at our (soon to be replaced) website, or stop by the office to chat once the school year begins again later this month.

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New and Upcoming: our early September back-to-school newsletter will contain announcements and save-the-dates for our exciting 2019-2020 slate of projects and programs!

On Our Minds

It’s one thing when a tuition-dependent private college or university is jolted by the news that an incoming class is much smaller than expected. The temptation to panic - and to make bad or hasty decisions that may make things even worse - is at least understandable.

It’s another thing entirely when a governor spontaneously decides to try to destroy his state’s public university system simply because he doesn’t like it much. That is Alaska this summer, scorched not just by a changing climate but by the destructive will of its politicians. Even in an era of austerity tied to the scapegoating of public education, the story of an unplanned, unanticipated cut of nearly half of Alaska’s higher education budget shocked and animated academia across the country. It certainly got our attention and stayed with us during the rest of our reading about higher education throughout the summer. Even though the actual cuts - though still damaging - will not be as immediate or as drastic as the governor initially threatened, the larger problem is the way public education has become a casualty of a polarized political landscape. As Kevin Gannon said on Twitter, right now “We don't fund education in this country; we hold it hostage.”

Austerity is a managerial language spoken fluently across higher education (and beyond), in rich private colleges as well as poorly funded public universities, in thriving institutions and in campuses that are at the edge of closure. As Lindsay Ellis at the Chronicle of Higher Education points out, the most essential phrase to learn if you are speaking austerity-talk is the one that was just spoken in Alaska: that a university cannot “be all things to all people”.  Like most such mantras, it is incontestably true and yet also completely devoid of meaningful guidance. It is what comes next that matters: what are the things that the university should not try to be?

This summer’s stories show that not all the answers to that question are the paving of a cynical road to cutting costs or slashing budgets. Perhaps what the university will become is an Amazon job training center, which if not “all things”, is certainly some other kind of thing. Some people set out to say a university should be the opposite kind of thing by making “anti-colleges”, alternatives to higher education as it stands. (A creative urge, we note, that is a time-honored part of the history of higher education.) Richard Legon asserts that the problem is not that it has too many purposes, but instead that it has no sense of purpose at all.

At the least, it may be that the governors and legislatures that like to use universities as punching bags find that a politically rewarding exercise simply because many citizens continue to worry about the unsettled future, according to one survey. Politicians might want to watch out, however, since that same survey shows that the public also thinks generally well of universities and their role in American society.

Faculty and administrators are caught up in some of the same worries that trouble prospective students, their parents, alumni and politicians. Natasha Warikoo, author of The Diversity Bargain, suggests that the entire concept of selective admissions is catching much of higher education in a bind. At the same time that academia struggles to deliver equity and fairness in allowing access to privileged labor markets for graduates, it continues to invest in a troubled vision of meritocracy in the granting of access to higher education itself. Warikoo contends that some measure of deliberate randomness in the process of admission would go a long way to blunting the force of this contradiction. She also argues for a form of inter-institutional tax, in which rich colleges and universities would directly transfer some resources to poorer ones.

Achieving equity within academia remains an elusive challenge, too. One study shows the relative absence of African-American professors with tenure throughout higher education. Justine Pila writes about how male faculty co-opt the institutional work of female colleagues, while The Faculty Workload and Rewards Project continues to document the uneven distribution of “service work” on the basis of gender and race within academia. Not all things, but a better thing: it seems a modest enough aspiration.

Maybe all we need is just to know what the university actually has been to the people who have studied and worked at it. That’s a job for data. Here at Swarthmore, we’ve now got a much better way to look at much more information about ourselves (including the majors our students select) via our Institutional Research office’s webpage. (On the topic of college majors, we notice that you can also look up the majors of the U.S. women’s soccer team.) But data can complicate what we think we know about what the university has been to its students, and thus what kinds of things it should present to them in the future.

The university is at least for that thing called teaching--though that might make you wonder why politicians sometimes get paid to just hang around universities when they’re not in office. Maybe the governor of Alaska would like to know that one of the things the university can be is a sinecure. The university is also for that thing called scholarship, though who the scholarship is for and how it ought to be done is sometimes a complicated problem of another kind. The university, you’d think, is at least about that thing called truth. Though these days not all people seem to want anything to do with that.

A summer of reading about higher education might not have covered all the things for all the people, but it’s kept us busy enough. We had time for a few other things, too. We in the Aydelotte office have read David Treur’s The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval, Jessica Riskin’s The Restless Clock: A History of the Centuries-Long Argument Over What Makes Living Things Tick, M.G. Vassanji’s And Home Was Kariakoo, and Mr. Rochester (a new telling of the Jane Eyre story from Edward Rochester’s POV). One of us reread Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It with her nine year old, and was reminded that she would like to know more about how about how other people talk to their children about books that are misogynist and racist and also beautiful and funny. Another of us reread some of Montaigne’s essays and wished it was easier to be as curious and open to all experiences as he tried to be.

One of us made Samin Nosrat’s roasted chicken. It was an extremely good roasted chicken, but whole chickens are a challenging mess to work with.

Another of us made char siu pork again and resolved not to use maltose ever again, despite how good it makes the end product look and taste.

But we are not entirely carnivorous; one of us is about to tackle J. Kenji López-Alt’s The Best Vegan Mapo Tofu Recipe