Saturday, August 29, 2015

Public Universities, Markets, and Public Accountability

Universities as sites of learning play vital roles in the national imagination, as grounds for training thinkers and as spaces for contributing to knowledge.

Across the globe, many nation states fund Universities as sites of learning, heavily subsidizing an University education.

Universities in most of these instances are public sites, funded by taxpayers, meaning that taxpayer monies pay for the infrastructures, salaries, and functions carried out by them.

As publicly funded sites, Universities are thus accountable to the public. At least, they should be in principle.

Unfortunately, rather than turning toward these public commitments, many Universities have increasingly turned toward markets. The logic of the market has taken over University sites, treating students as commodities and evaluating knowledge generation in strictly utilitarian terms. The hegemony of the market logic at Universities has stifled imagination, turning education into metrics defined by market needs and trends.

Paying more attention to building football stadiums, hiring the next expensive coach or investing a great deal of money to the next branding initiative, Universities have failed to pay systematic attention to students and to their needs. As tuition rates have gone up, so have student debts taken out to pay for education. Students are increasingly less adept at writing and in their numeracy.

In addition, in the last five years, a growing proportion of students have had difficulty finding jobs, an implicit expectation that students rightly have from an University education. Students across nation states have been graduating without employment, contributing to high unemployment rates.

In this climate, public pressures on Universities have been increasing, wanting to hold Universities accountable to taxpayers. In my own work with disenfranchised communities, I have heard a great deal of disappointment and disillusionment with Universities. Universities are seen as elite sites in the ivory tower, disconnected from the everyday lives of people. Moreover, for members of the public, the elitism of Universities and academics is unjustified, given that the public fund the Universities.

Academics within Universities have certainly started feeling this pressure. Academics who spout off elite theories in elite languages, caring little about translating what they do or making their work accessible to the margins, are being questioned about the "value" of their work.

Part of this questioning certainly is tied to the overarching market value that has taken over education in the absence of sustainable state funding in many parts of the globe. This market trend certainly needs to be interrogated and universities need to interrogate the market logic of organizing universities. Steady streams of adjuncts and part time workers paid low wages and working long hours are part of the market response, optimizing the efficiency. Increasingly, PhDs with degrees from many traditional departments are finding it difficult to find placement, ending up thus as adjunct workers. The exploitation of low wage academic workers amid the hegemonic trends certainly needs to  be questioned.

Yet, there is more to this questioning. For taxpayers, academic work carried out in Universities needs to be responsive to the public regarding the value of the knowledge produced. How does this body of knowledge make a difference? How does it make an impact? How does it help us live better lives? When communities are struggling with making a living, how is academic work contributing to ameliorating these struggles? How is academic work responding to the voices of the poor and the marginalized, who have increasingly limited access to mobility and opportunity?

Parents and students alike are asking, "How will your degree help me get a job? What are your placement rates? What is the value of the degree in helping me make a living?"

In the academic ranks, I see a great deal of frustration at and resistance to this global public response regarding Universities and the role of education/knowledge. Typically hanging the frustration on the broader market forces, academics have turned away from the question of their accountability to the public. They have turned away from being accountable to their students and to their roles as public educators.

In turning away from the public conversation, academics are not asking questions such as: What imaginations for instance can academia offer to other rationalities of education and knowledge beyond the market? What lessons can academia offer students that can help them find meaningful work that would sustain them and their families and yet push them toward imagining the world in bold ways?

Unfortunately, I see very little of these conversations beyond the use of the catch-all phrase "neoliberalism" to foreclose possibilities of being held accountable to the public. This reaction reminds me of the bourgeoisie character of academia, unwilling to be held accountable for its ways, unwilling to let go of the privileges that we as academics at public Universities enjoy (and here I am talking about mostly the tenured Associate Professors and Professors, who should be held more accountable because of their ranks).

More so, I am sadly struck by the callousness among faculty members about the employability of their students. If we care for our students, we must care for their futures, which includes thinking through how we equip them to function in the transforming global economies and make a living for themselves. To not think of this question is irresponsible and morally vacuous.

Among other academics who have operated in a cushy system by getting away with doing very little, making references to the market is also an easy way of getting out of having to do any work and being held accountable for the lack of work. To the extent that we can point to market forces that are forcing us to work, we can justify our six figure salaries teaching one to three courses a year, publishing almost nothing, and not serving communities around us. For these bourgeoisie academics, the increasing calls to public accountability are to be actively fought by discounting such calls as un-academic.

As Universities find themselves in a world where inequalities are dramatic, unemployment rates are high, and opportunities for mobility for the middle and lower middle classes are being constrained, pubic universities need to seriously reconsider their roles in engaging communities, in generating knowledge, and in preparing students. The air of arrogance that closes the academe in its ensconced privilege has to be done away with, instead opening up to listening to communities and to public conversations and simultaneously rendering academic work transparent and accessible.

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