Consortium Contortionism

Originally published at Stillwater Historians, May 25, 2012.  Links likely outdated.

So yesterday I got a little bit riled.  And as I’ve thought more, I’ve come to discover that the source of my venom is not necessarily just the Huffington Post piece that set me off.  It’s been brewing for a while, fueled by several conversations going on here and there around the blogosphere and in the academic community more broadly.  They are distinct conversations but the themes intersect, often uncomfortably, at many points.  Thus, when I sit down to cast out my two cents, I’m often paralyzed by the question I have to put to myself:  is it my intent to weigh in on the plight of adjuncts, the job market, the overproduction of PhDs, the future of the humanities, online teaching and learning, issues of access and democratization of knowledge, tuition rates, diversity, or innovation and change in the modern university?  My consistent, and consistently aggravating, answer:  yes.

But for all that, it was Daniel Weiss who tipped me.  His piece, “New Era Ahead for Liberal Arts Education” (linked above) doesn’t seem particularly interested in a new era at all.  Weiss, the president of Lafayette College, reports having spent an intensive three days in discussion with other faculty and administrators from small liberal arts colleges and they’ve concluded, to the amazement of all, that they’re quite fond of small liberal arts colleges.  Then after a brief nod to controlling tuition costs without really articulating how, and a nod towards consortium building, with a similar lack of elaboration, Weiss goes on to tout the model of the small residential liberal arts college, using a series of statistics that do more to champion 1950s values and definitions of success than any Leave it to Beaver marathon or Republican convention could ever hope to!

Weiss cites a study by the Annapolis Group (a group of liberal arts colleges, by the way) that finds that liberal arts college graduates are more likely to be happy with their undergraduate experience, 77% versus scores in the fifties for other types of schools.  I would say that one’s likelihood of thinking fondly about their undergraduate years will have an awful lot to do with how much personal debt stems from them.  Because for as cost prohibitive as these schools appear to have become, a large percentage of those who attend them, come from families that can still afford them.  It’s a lot easier to appreciate an educational experience when you have the privilege of not having to think about it in economic terms—when you’re free to think about credits as graduation requirements and not how many paychecks it takes to pay for them.

A recent study by the Social Science Research Council found those who tested best at the liberal arts skills of critical thinking, thoughtful communication and broad-based problem solving were far more likely to be better off financially than those who scored lowest. They were also three times less likely to be jobless, live with their parents and far more likely to avoid credit card debt. In addition, a 2011-2012 College Salary Report by lists the median starting and mid-career salaries of graduates from national liberal arts colleges among the highest in the nation.

Wow.  First of all, what are these tests that claim to assess one’s critical thinking and thoughtfulness?  I went to one of these colleges and I never took such a test.  Unless of course this is a way of referring to that lovely product line put forth by ETS.  These tests by the way are only taken by the grad school bound, or those who think they might be—since it’s the test itself that largely decides.  The GRE as a measure of thoughtfulness?  That’s high comedy!  In fact this paragraph reminds me of the one in the writing section of the GRE where you’re asked to point out all the flaws in the argument!  Since I got a 6 out of 6 on that section (don’t ask me about the others) I shouldn’t have to bother pointing out that being “better off financially” does not necessarily mean that you personally earn more than you spend.  And not living in your parents’ house does not mean that your parents don’t contribute mightily to your support.  In fact the parents that can afford small liberal arts colleges can also afford to support their twenty-something small liberal arts graduates under a separate roof—and pay their credit cards bills while we’re at it.  We’re using metrics here that conflate student success to the success of the highly privileged households they’ve come from.  So, yes, those students are more likely to be successful.  At my liberal arts college multitudes of large corporations recruited graduates into their executive and management training programs.  It was a place rife with professional opportunities.  Probably not so much the case at the nearby community colleges.  But even those who aren’t as “successful” will easily appear successful if we judge them against baby boom, or even pre-baby boom, measures of what success looks like.

I tend to have a problem whenever I’m fed statistics, but these I find particularly objectionable.  Not least because they’re being used to advocate stasis, not change.  If there is any change at all being advocated here it’s that other models should adapt to look more like the small liberal arts college.  Not that I don’t agree that there is much value in that model, but if we’re going to talk about change then let’s actually talk about change.

Recently I also checked out Claire Potter’s TED talk, which is available on her blog at the Tenured Radical.  Potter also talks about consortium building, except that she actually talks about consortium building!  But not before making some excellent points about diversity, the likes of which I really hope were discussed amidst the three days of intensive conferencing to which Weiss alludes.  While I love Potter’s concept and her general willingness to engage in and share some big thinking about big problems, I’m left wondering about the practicality of her consortium model.  And I think Weiss’s outlook nicely captures my skepticism.  Perhaps I spend too much times thinking about fisheries management and resource allocation disputes.  At the micro level my research is about endless, often petty, squabbles that at the macro level turns into the mother of all collective action crises.  A consortium model is brilliant in theory.  But it only works if everyone has something to bring to the table, something to gain, and a willingness to adapt to a shared future.  At the end of the day there is dollars and cents, and creating a system that capitalizes on assets at various strata within our existing highly hierarchical system requires quantifying the value of those assets, some of which are tangible, and some of which are not.  Even if, as Potter advocates, a more modern definition of diversity could be disseminated, how do we then quantify the degree of diversity that one school provides versus the facilities, technologies, and faculty resources that other players provide?  And how long will it take before the well-endowed, traditionally powerful liberal arts colleges and R-1 research universities begin to feel that they are providing at a level out of step with what they’re getting in return?

Don’t get me wrong, liberal arts colleges are great.  I went to one and I’m glad that I did.  I’d probably even land in the 77% if I’d ever been surveyed—which I guess makes me wonder also who is being surveyed.  And Weiss is right:  the model is a good one for supporting teaching and learning (for those who have a quarter million to spend on it).  He does not presume to speak for all liberal arts colleges, nor do I take him to be representative of those who may.  But it troubles me that the picture he paints of a “new era” doesn’t look new at all.  It seems that rather than adapt our approaches to education to the needs of a modern society and a modern economy, as Potter is trying to do, Weiss is more interested in preserving the privileged status of the liberal arts college, and getting others to bolster that power through emulation.

In so many of the conversations I noted earlier about the future of higher education I see examples of people thinking broadly and boldly about the utility of new technologies and how we can harness them to create a better system that succeeds in expanding knowledge through research and disseminating it through teaching.  And I see other examples of people defending their turf, and talking vaguely about change while seeking at all cost to maintain the status quo against what they deem an assault from online teaching, MOOCs, poor funding, a dismal job market, and increasing reliance on adjunct labor.  Such discussions in the humanities are particularly tense since we exist in a seemingly permanent identity crisis borne of our shaky status within the pantheon of what is considered important.  I only hope that this creativity and well-intentioned defense can come together at some point to yield actual progress.