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Ambitious Aspirations Meet Reality?

Views of a U of M grad student - from the comments on an article [State Colleges Also Face Cuts in Ambitions] that appeared recently in the New York Times:

To be clear, I've got a stake in this.

I'm a grad student in a top-ranked national program at a large mediocre public university.

Much like Arizona State my university has aspirations to be a top institution - they actually had the gall to claim that within a couple of decades they would be one of the top three public research universities in the country. These ridiculous pretensions have several insidious effects.

First, the research and publishing loads for faculty to get tenure keep on going up. I suppose the logic is that raising standards will raise productivity. What people need to realize is that so much research and publishing is required that newly hired professors would have to be insane to focus on their teaching of undergraduates. When it comes time to evaluate someone's tenure file teaching means very, very little. At best, if a prof is an awful teacher, so bad that many students have complained, and they had an otherwise acceptable research portfolio, it is possible that they might not receive tenure. However, aside from this unlikely stick, there is practically no inducement to teach well.

Faculty are actively discouraged from putting significant time into teaching by the massive publication requirements at most public universities. This leads to a 'star system' where universities try to outbid each other for scholars of renown while outsourcing most teaching to adjuncts with no job security, no benefits, and really crappy pay. More than 70% of courses at the university I work at are taught by adjuncts and graduate students.

This is not to say that adjuncts and grads are bad teachers, to the contrary, they are very often much better teachers than tenured faculty because they are actually evaluated on their effectiveness. The problem however is that they are so impoverished, over-worked, and embittered that they don't have the time to develop really good courses, they don't have the job security to plan ahead and continually improve what they teach.

Adjuncts are paid around four thousand dollars a course, no benefits, no contract past the present semester. These are folks with Ph.D.s, highly qualified teachers who have run up against the lack of tenure-track jobs. Universities need to stop spending all of their money on academic stars and start investing in the folks who do the majority of the heavy lifting.

The next ridiculous result of the scramble for prestige is that insane amounts of money get spent on flagship buildings.

The logic here is quite stupid. Making the university look cutting edge will surely trick students into attending the school. While they are making massive investments in unnecessary physical improvements university administrators are crushing staff and clerical unions, hiring adjuncts instead of tenure track faculty, and trying to pump out as many grad students in as short a time as possible. The numbers game that administrators have invented for themselves has no place for the actual mission of the university - to educate the public.

In sum, contrary to some of the comments here, it is not the faculty that are the problem, they are not lazy. The problem is in how universities are run like businesses, how they are led by business people, and how the government has allowed this to happen through perpetual underfunding.

Let's not forget that a college education isn't merely about getting a job, it is also about educating the populace so that they can thoughtfully participate in our democracy. It is about developing critical thinking skills and knowledge of the world. Informed citizenship, however, has rarely been the goal of those in charge of our country.

Well said.

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