I am not sure what Kevin Carey is imagining here….

I started this on Sunday night while a bunch of folks were at my house playing a very very involved board game called Civilization. I did not play along. It is a long story, but the short version is I instead cooked what turned out to be a pretty good and more elaborate than I was planning dinner, and when it comes to playing games generally, I really have to be in the right mood and with the right game. I like game theory a lot more than actual games.

Anyway, late in the night while they were playing (the game went on for about 10 hours and still hadn’t finished), I got around to reading Kevin Carey’s New York Times Op-Ed “The Fundamental Way That Universities Are an Illusion.” I came to it via a commentary from a response Cathy Davidson had on HASTAC, “Universities are No More Illusory Than Journalists: Rsp to Kevin Cary and NYT,”  and also on Facebook.

Carey opens with the story of an athletic scandal at UNC where student athletes were taking classes that were technically legitimate classes but where the lack of recognizable requirements (like not having to attend) helped the less scholarly of student athletes to stay eligible for sports. It seems to me that stories like this cheating scandal pop up every few years, but that’s a problem of college sports and not “college” generally, and probably a different post. Then Carey writes:

Most colleges, presumably, aren’t harboring in-house credit mills. Yet in its underlying design, organizational values and daily operations, North Carolina is no different from most other colleges and universities. These organizations are not coherent academic enterprises with consistent standards of classroom excellence. When it comes to exerting influence over teaching and learning, they’re Easter eggs. They barely exist.

Let’s try to walk through that logic for a moment:

  • Big-time college sports tempt coaches, students, and even sympathetic professors/fans to create “in-house credit mills.”
  • While most colleges (presumably) don’t have a lot of this kind of problem, the design, value, and operation of most other colleges are “no different” from the school where these fake courses happened.
  • Therefore (I guess?), colleges/universities are “not coherent” when it comes to consistency, standards, classroom excellence, and influencing teaching and learning practices.

So for me, part of this is “well, duh,” that there is cheating in big-time college athletics. Obviously. As Davidson points out in her post, what Carey’s example demonstrates is a problem with college sports rather than college. But why would Carey (or anyone else) think that from this example it logically follows that the colleges across the board have no consistency/standards/oversight when it comes to teaching and learning practices? I know op-ed commentators are fond of the hasty generalization fallacy, but this seems a bit of a reach even for Carey.

Having read Carey’s book The End of College (and one of these days, I’ll blog a more extensive review of that), I think I know where he’s trying to go here. In his book, one of the main problems Carey has with higher education are the damn professors because professors are too independent, too lazy, too focused on their research, too indifferent to teaching, too petty, etc. So in Carey’s view, there’s no coherence or standards in higher education– that’s why it’s an illusion– in large part because professors get away with doing whatever it is they want to do. More on that in a moment.

But at the same time, Carey argues here that the college experience doesn’t vary much between schools. Carey wants to make this argument because one of the other points he hammers on in The End of College is that college rankings are way out of control. He cites Ernest Pascarella and Patrick Terenzini, authors of How College Affects Students, which appears to be a giant and long-standing study on the question of (duh) how college affects students.  Carey writes:

“The great majority of postsecondary institutions appear to have surprisingly similar net impacts on student growth,” the authors write. “If there is one thing that characterizes the research on between-college effects on the acquisition of subject matter knowledge and academic skills, it is that in the most internally valid studies, even the statistically significant effects tend to be quite small and often trivial in magnitude.”

And a little later:

 People can learn a lot in college, and many do. But which college matters much less than everyone assumes. As Mr. Pascarella and Mr. Terenzini explain, the real differences exist at the departmental level, or within the classrooms of individual professors, who teach with a great deal of autonomy under the principles of academic freedom. The illusory university pretends that all professors are guided by a shared sense of educational excellence specific to their institution. In truth, as the former University of California president Clark Kerr observed long ago, professors are “a series of individual faculty entrepreneurs held together by a common grievance over parking.”

If it’s true that at the level of big data that there isn’t much difference between different four year colleges– that is, you put all the undergraduate students attending “traditional” universities that grant bachelors degrees and those students come out statistically close to the same– then that means that there actually is a lot of consistency and coherence in higher education. And broadly speaking, I think this is true: that is, I believe that the experiences that EMU graduates have in terms of personal growth, subject knowledge, and academic skills are similar to those of University of Michigan graduates (though of course, individual results vary quite a bit). In other words, because the best available research suggests that there is a lot consistency, coherence, and statistical similarity between between different universities, there is no need for the mandated standardization and regulation Carey implies is necessary to make the college a less “illusionary.” Indeed, it isn’t an illusion at all.

But I want to dwell on that second paragraph I quote here because it demonstrates the problems I see with Carey’s “logic” generally. He begins with a claim that I think most people in higher education would actually agree with, that most people learn a lot in college regardless of what college they attend. Then he slips into a claim that the differences that exist within higher ed are a result of the “autonomy” and “academic freedom” of individual professors, and those professors are not “guided by a shared sense of educational excellence” at all. Rather, these damn individual professors are all just a bunch selfish entrepreneurs who bitch and complain about parking. Jeesh.

As Davidson points out in her post, if we’ve learned anything from the “No Child Left Behind” nonsense forced on to K-12 in this country, the absolute last thing we need is more regulation to curtail individual approaches to teaching, autonomy, and academic freedom. As she writes, “We are already so regulated, credentialized, rule-bound, bureaucratized, accredited, credentialized, governing bodied, politicized, overseen, and structured that radical reformation–which is what we really need–is extremely difficult.”

But beyond that, who are these “professors?” Depending on how you define permanent work and the “tenure track” in higher education, at least 70% (maybe more) of the folks doing the teaching aren’t professors at all; rather, they are graduate students, part-timers, and full-time instructors who might enjoy job security through renewable contracts (or not– some full-timers are on contracts that are not renewable after 3-5 years). These folks are not professors in that they are not usually required to do the research and service/administrative work of professors (that’s certainly the case at EMU), and, for better or worse, they don’t enjoy the level of autonomy and academic freedom of professors. Take our first year writing program, for example, one that is similar to a lot of first year writing programs in that almost everyone teaching classes in it are not professors (full disclosure: I’m the interim associate director of that program right now). We have specific outcomes we expect everyone teaching the class to get their students to meet, and we have a curriculum that offers teachers options but only within the expectations of the course. We wouldn’t hire (or rehire) folks who weren’t willing or able to teach within those expectations. I can’t claim that this level of “programming” and “control” exists across the board in other disciplines, but I’m certain it isn’t “anything goes” for most of the non-professors doing most of the teaching in universities nowadays.

Further, Carey’s assumption about the level of autonomy professors (as in the 30% or so of us who are on the tenure-track) have in their teaching is wrong too. Davidson wrote a LONG comment on her own blog post outlining the steps that are pretty typical for getting a new course approved at a university, a process that more or less squares with my experiences here at EMU. The same kind of bureaucracy is in place for degree programs and any significant change to a course or a degree program. I wish I worked in the environment Carey imagines for me.

I guess what bothers me the most about Carey’s views here and in other places, notably in The End of College, is the amount of airtime it gets in places in the mainstream media like The New York Times. He purposefully sets up the most visible part of higher education– professors– as the sole problem, conveniently skipping past the bloated administrations and edu-entrepreneurs that are profiting the most from out of control tuition. He is a self-described education policy wonk who (surprise, surprise!) thinks that the problems in higher education can be solved with more strident and controlling policies and regulations.   He’s tapping into the lizard brain general public “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” sentiment that always exists since things are always getting worse, and he does this by making sweeping generalizations that have truthiness to them but that are demonstrably wrong. The problem is it’s very difficult to change people’s lizard brain minds with actual logic and evidence.

Though Carey is right about one thing: the complaint that unites all of academia has to do with parking.

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