Bad News in Threes

Green Mountain College, Poultney VT announced its closure on January 23rd

Southern Vermont College, Bennington VT announced its closure on March 4th

The College of St. Joseph, Rutland VT announced its closure today, March 22nd

In total, this doesn’t account for a lot of displaced students: 1,066 undergrads and 353 master’s students across all three schools. But those fourteen hundred students are only a part of the trauma. Those colleges also shed 75 permanent faculty, who are highly unlikely to land jobs at another school now that they’ve lost all those years on low-ranked campuses. They’ve shed over a hundred part-time faculty, who have almost no local opportunities to sell their course-by-course services elsewhere. They’ve shed another 250 or so other staff, ranging from financial aid to housekeeping to grounds maintenance to three college presidents, all of whom are looking for work in a pretty dubious regional economy.

We’ll have three defunct campuses, 117 acres and 371 acres and 155 acres. Three gyms and health centers. Ten dormitories. Fifteen or so academic buildings, five or six office buildings. Downtown Rutland and downtown Poultney and downtown Bennington are already pretty hollow, empty storefronts scattered throughout town, so the local demand for real estate is soft, and this is pretty specialized real estate.

Vermont as a whole is soft. The population has declined a tiny bit over the past decade, and the region is suffering all of the travails that rural America knows too well. Agricultural uncertainty, manufacturing loss, drug addiction, the smart kids leaving and the other kids not bothering with college at all. The loss of these three schools in such short order feels a little bit like the state just giving up on its future.

The state colleges are suffering, too. Castleton University is down about 10% in students from its peak a few years back, Northern Vermont University down 23%, Community College of Vermont down 20%. The flagship, The University of Vermont, is stable in undergraduate enrollment at about 10,000, but only a quarter of its students are Vermonters. The number of Vermont high school graduates at UVM reached its peak in 1972, at 4,204; now it’s down to 2,862.

A friend who grew up in the rural Midwest said that his experience of different small towns in his region was that the presence of a college made all the difference in the world—the difference between lively and depressing, the difference between hanging on and giving in. And we’re letting ours go. We’ll pay for that, in large ways and small.

Managing Your Volunteerism

If you step up and take something on once, people will be grateful.

If you step up and do it again, people will notice your dedication.

If you do it a third time, it’s just your job now, and people will resent it if you stop.

We’re in the heart of mud season here in Vermont, with the frost melting under the road beds and causing roads to fail without warning over the space of three or four hours. Our road crew is putting in 15-hour days seven days at a time, as conditions change from 50° this afternoon to a predicted eight inches of snow tomorrow and Saturday.

I’ve been posting reports to our community’s online resource to let people know where the road crew will be working, to encourage ridesharing and let people know that they should have their prescriptions filled before the storm. And now that I’ve done it three times in this last week, it’s now just taken for granted that it’s something that I do, and I’m getting phone calls asking me to put up some information or another on Front Porch Forum.

Now, I could whine about all this (maybe I already am…), but instead I want to use it as a cautionary tale about what is euphemistically called the “service” component of faculty evaluation. Every college, and every department within every college, has more interests and more possibilities than could ever be adequately addressed. That’s just what happens when you put a bunch of smart, creative people together. And every permanent faculty member at every college is periodically reviewed on the great three-ingredient recipe of the intellectual cocktail: teaching, scholarship, and service. Different schools will expect different proportions of these ingredients, but they’ll all always be there at some level.

You should seek out your service opportunities with just as much dedication and planning as you seek out your course mix and your research projects, because service will take time just as teaching and research take time, and time is your most scarce resource.

Think carefully about which committees or task forces have a job to get done, rather than just being perpetual and often decorative. Among those committees with real work to do, which kind of work matters to you? If you want to keep your colleagues and students intellectually abreast of the current state of your discipline, maybe you’d want to serve on the guest speakers’ committee, recruiting and organizing the invited talks. If you feel yourself getting stale in the classroom, maybe you’d want to serve on the faculty development committee, advocating for the kinds of professional development that you yourself would most value.

If you DON’T actively choose your committee assignments, they will be chosen for you, and you’re not going to like it.

I think that service work may be a major contributor to faculty burnout, because committees often work without recognition, at things that never get finished, on projects that really don’t matter much to any of the people involved. If you’re in a position to ask for a committee to be formed, make sure you have a product in mind and a deadline for its accomplishment. Give the committee the parameters for success, and the freedom to achieve those parameters however it sees fit.

My last bit of advice is to find the person on campus who’s the acknowledged expert on Robert’s Rules of Order… and to never be in the same room as that person. Anyone who’s dedicated their lives to the minutia of parliamentary procedure is someone for whom the structure of meetings far exceeds their interest in its contents or outcomes, a person who has far more tools than you ever will for not ever getting anything done.

The Hidden Curriculum

One of the most important pieces of American education research was a paper from 1980 published by Jean Anyon, called “Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work.” (if this link fails, just Google it; it’s out there in quite a few places.) In an ingenious research design, Anyon and her colleagues were able to name the core dilemma of education—we don’t know why we do it. Or, more accurately, we know exactly why we do it, but we don’t talk about it, and we wouldn’t agree if we did.

The executive summary is that in schools aimed at working class kids, the goal (no matter what the “subject area”) was to have them follow procedure. For middle class kids, the goal was to have the independently calculate the right answer. For kids of professionals, the goal was to have them be expressive and interdependent. And for kids of the 1%, the goal was to have them be strategic. Read the article, it’s totally worth your while. The belief, unnamed but thoroughly evident, was that school should train kids to replicate their parents’ work lives; that some kids were capable of analytical and creative work, and other kids just needed to follow the footsteps on the floor.

The importance of this work came to mind again today when I read that the University of Akron has offered buyouts to 47% of its faculty, in an effort to control long-term spending patterns. Why 47%? Because they want to keep faculty in all of their “career fields,” and shed only those in the traditional liberal arts disciplines. All the social sciences faculty are eligible to leave; all of the humanities faculty. Math and physics can go home, but chemistry has to stay. U of A makes its money in teaching kids business, law, IT, healthcare and polymer engineering. They’re betting the ranch on being a trade school.

The supposedly commonsense notion that you go to college in order to learn a profession is actually only true for colleges aimed at working class and middle class kids. They’re bootstrap schools, the kinds of places where you go to be the first in your family to work an indoor job without injury risk, a job that doesn’t require nametags and uniforms.

College for the more well-to-do kids, for kids from college-experienced families… they’re under no such constraint. You can major in dance instead of athletic training, in physics instead of engineering, in history instead of public administration. You can change majors in light of discovering a new love, and not have your carefully curated path fall apart around you. The fundamental meaning of college is different for different schools and different students.

Not surprisingly, the nature of the faculty is different as well. Students at the bootstrap schools will be met by a majority-temp faculty, paid by the course to know a little bit more than their students, to check students’ progress as they work through the problem sets. Schools at the liberal arts temples will be met by broadly educated, curious, permanent faculty who are willing to guide a student through whatever interests she develops. And schools of the elite, the research universities both public and private, will be taught extensively by grad student TAs, who demonstrate the daily experience of the next steps their undergrads will be taking themselves in a few years.

American higher education is perplexing to the public and to policymakers because it isn’t one single thing that can be discussed coherently. It is a complex network of social relations that funnels different students down different roads to different lives.

The Bodhisattva’s Sorrow

I’d been intending to write a version of this post for several days, but it has a different tone because of a conversation I had over the weekend…

She was one of six students in her doctoral cohort, selected for one of the best programs in America from a pool of more than a hundred applicants. She’d been a star undergrad at an elite school, now a star grad student at an even more rarified research university.

Every single day of grad school was like training for the Olympics, new challenges set out by a team of the best minds of a generation, never a moment to rest or be complacent. Core courses, visiting seminars, comprehensive exams, she rose to every level she’d been presented. Her dissertation was not merely passed, but praised, and soon published.

When she was hired as a faculty member at a third-tier school, she was grateful for the job nonetheless, having seen her colleagues discarded over and over in the grinding wheel of the academic job market. She accepted her 4/4 teaching load, averaging 30 students per section, and set to work at a new skill.

She rose to that as well, receiving stellar reviews by students across her courses. Since the school was so teaching focused, and with her heavy course load, there was no expectation that she’d continue being a productive researcher, so her successful tenure review was based only on course performance and committee service.

And now… now she’s tenured. She’s 36 years old, no longer connected to her discipline in any meaningful way, a spectator of intellectual life rather than its leader as she once had been. Just as she had risen because of the company she’d once kept, she had now declined to meet the level of her current environment, a college that accepted eighty percent of its already diminished applicant pool (the GOOD high school students wouldn’t have bothered applying there in the first place, so they were taking eighty percent of the bottom half anyway). She would never again be as smart as she was when she was 29 and surrounded by constant challenge.

In the Buddhist tradition, there is a role known as the bodhisattva, those who defer their own enlightenment in order to bring support and compassion to others. This is the role of the faculty at the majority of colleges in America, scholars who had once been at the pinnacle of their fields, once the best students in the best grad programs now living among mortals, urging them to set aside their cell phones and do their homework. It’s noble work, but it’s different work than they’d originally undertaken. And every so often, they raise their eyes from the workbench and consider what could have been.

We should be grateful to them not merely for what they do, but for what they have forsaken in order to do it.

So, THIS Happened…

An image from the University of Chicago Press’ booth at the London Book Fair, from Wednesday…


A giant thank you to all of my friends at UCP, who’ve done so much to bring this book into existence.

The Costs of Crime

So, be honest. How many of you would have ever thought of this scheme? You want to be able to sell access to elite colleges, and so you spend months looking for weaknesses in the admissions processes. You find three: you hire crooked proctors for standardized tests; you find a few supergeniuses who can knock out a 1500 SAT before their first coffee; and you recognize the importance of college sports and the lack of integration between athletic and academic departments. So you offer to let a kid sit for the SAT, have the proctor slide that test out of the batch and replace it with one conducted by someone else. Then you bribe a coach of a minor sport to tell her or his admissions department that this kid is a total game-changer, that your team will thrive with his presence. That sporting lure, combined with the artificially inflated test score, suddenly makes a relatively normal kid look like a perfect prospect. The kid shows up on campus, and really, who’ll ever look to see if he comes to water polo practice?

Rich people have always been able to cheat. Tax loopholes that you and I would never benefit from are worth millions if you have hundreds of millions—it’s totally worth spending a couple hundred thousand dollars on legal and tax work to take advantage of them. Shell corporations, falsified paperwork, offshore banking, teams of mercenaries professionals to cover your scent… the amount of creativity is remarkable, and the line between creativity and crime is a distinction drawn only by suckers.

So the colleges caught up in this week’s admissions scandal have done what you’d expect. In Texas, Governor Abbott has ordered a review not just of UT admissions but of every university in Texas (which is silly—no one is using this scam to get into West Texas A&M). University of California system president Janet Napolitano has ordered a similar review of the UC admissions processes. Those reviews will cost money. The resulting policy changes that strengthen the coordination between admissions and athletics will cost money. The increased security of test site administration and test booklet handling will cost money.

People wonder why the tax code is thousands of pages long, and blame it on “bureaucracy.” But the real reason is that every clause in the tax code is a response to a crime scheme that’s already been perpetrated a few times. Every crime breeds a policy in response. Every policy requires oversight. And oversight equals work, and work equals salaries, and salaries equal added cost to the product.

Rachel Toor, a writer who once worked as an admissions officer at Duke, drew a distinction between students who come in through standard admissions processes and those for whom there is an “institutional interest.” That interest takes three traditional forms: an interest in pleasing legacy families; an interest in cultivating potential donors; and an interest in athletic performance that brings a school fame, glory, and logo-licensing revenue. She’d estimated that about 20% of Duke’s students came in through one of those three open windows. If those windows were all closed, if a school just declared that all of its students had to compete equally through academic preparation, everyone’s lives would be easier. The job of oversight would be drastically reduced, and the cost of an elite education would be very slightly more within reach of the talented but unconnected. But that would be a unilateral disarmament that no school would dare take. Safer to go on the way we always have, add a few very expensive patches to the security protocols, and wait for the next burst of criminal creativity to embarrass us again for a few days next year.

How to Read the News

It seems like everyone in the country is thinking about college admissions this week. And really, because the media is so utterly self-referential, this story would already be behind us if those caught up in it were only CEOs and venture capital managers. That would just be normal, expected behavior. It’s the presence of three minor-league celebrities— two former TV stars and the daughter of one of those actors, herself now an YouTube and Instagram Influencer, whatever the hell that means—that has given the story the salaciousness to last through two days.

(Being an influencer means a lot, apparently—this 19-year-old had deals with more than ten companies to do product placement and brand mentions. There’s a whole category of people who are famous for being famous. And when mom was arrested, daughter was hanging out with the daughter of USC’s board chair on his yacht Invictus, the name of the boat itself becoming perhaps the most perfect detail in this woeful cycle of self-congratulation.)

Anyway, lots of smart people have weighed in on this already, including and especially the New Yorker’s Masha Gessen, writing as though to a foreign audience who wouldn’t understand the context within which all of this happened. I’m not an investigative reporter, and I don’t have anything new about the indictments or the perps. What I do have is a simple list of the schools implicated in all this, along with the median family income of those attending:

  • Chapman ($150,000)
  • Georgetown ($229,000)
  • Northeastern ($151,000)
  • Stanford ($168,000)
  • University of Texas ($124,000)
  • UC Berkeley ($120,000)
  • UCLA ($105,000)
  • USC ($161,000)
  • Wake Forest ($222,000)
  • Yale ($193,000)

These are the kinds of schools for which wealthy parents think that a quarter-million-dollar bribe is a worthwhile investment on top of tuition. You’ll note the absence on this list of schools like UNC-Pembroke, or Northern Michigan University, or Fitchburg State, or Colby-Sawyer College, the schools for the 99%. Those schools are desperately trying to attract students, accepting nearly every applicant. It’s only the fanciest clubs and restaurants that have doormen, and three-month waiting lists for a reservation. Bribing someone to get into Grand Valley State would be like knowing the secret password to get into Burger King—the door’s just open.

So when these elite families are buying their children access to a college education, it’s clear that “a college education” is only a small component of what’s for sale. What they’re really buying is a country-club membership, where their kids can have access to a whole variety of “influencers,” and thus expand their own influence. (The faculty, to be blunt, are the caddies, the ones who carry your burden and help you strategize your way around the course.) I had a friend, once a lawyer at a small firm, who was recruited by one of the giant law corporations. As part of her orientation, they provided her with a $5,000 clothing allowance, a set of golf clubs, and six months of lessons. None of those things made her a better attorney, but they made her a more profitable member of the firm, because she could fit in where the deals were done—the firm itself had corporate memberships at the same country clubs as their corporate clients. Going to USC doesn’t ensure a better education than going to Cal State–Northridge, but it does ensure a better chance of continuing and amplifying your privilege.

[S]purious ca[T]egories that hide vast diff[E]rences in pheno[M]ena

One of the best branding efforts of the past thirty years, aside from Apple calling all of its products the iThing, is the National Science Foundation inventing STEM, for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. (STEM was originally SMET… good call on that change.) Policymakers might not be able to slow down enough to listen to a careful explanation, but “we need more STEM funding or we’ll fall behind the [Soviets/Japanese/Chinese/etc.]” is an elevator pitch that you can deliver even before the doors slide closed.

One of the signs that an idea has stuck is when others try to borrow it. So the arts want some attention, and they invent STEAM (or STREAM, if you like robotics). Add invention and entrepreneurship to your stem, and you get STEMIE, which sounds like a character on Family Guy.

But let’s take the simple version, the STEM we’re all familiar with. The problem is that those four terms aren’t strongly related. Mathematics is the logic and symbolic system that science works with. Science is the underlying principles and phenomena that engineers and technologists exploit. In academic terms, science and mathematics have always been part of the liberal arts [the exercise of judgment and investigation worthy of free citizens], whereas engineering and technology are vocational, ways for the rest of us to get jobs. They all offer problem sets with right answers at the end, but that’s nearly as far as the similarities go. In a way, they’re like the grandparent, parent, and child of the quantitative world: the careful and often ignored work of earlier generations enabling the pace and success of the later. Science and mathematics are speculative and risky fields of exploration. Engineering and technology offer knowable, nameable skills to sell on the job market.

We can see this in looking at the rise and fall of college majors. The National Center for Education Statistics shows the T&E components of STEM (computer/information sciences, engineering, engineering technology, and health professions) rising from 9.8% of all bachelor’s degrees in 1970 to over 20% in 2016, while the S&M (biological sciences, physical sciences, and math/statistics) has dropped slightly from about 10% to below 9%. Take the slight rise in biology out of that group, and we see that math alone has dropped from 3.0% to 1.2% of college degrees; physical sciences from 2.5% to 1.6%.

The public relations triumph of STEM without a paired understanding that we’re orphaning its science and math components represents the full victory of the vocational model of higher education. It’s the answer to “What are you gonna do with a degree in THAT?”

How Far I Have Left To Go

A couple of days ago, while not wanting to work on my current novel, and also while getting myself ready to do a few book talks once The Adjunct Underclass goes live next month, I re-read that manuscript for the first time since late January’s final copy edit. it’s a good book! Yay me!

But, now that it’s too late to make any changes, I (of course) found a few things I’d like to have changed. Trivial stuff, mostly, an inelegant punctuation or a word unnecessarily repeated within a couple of paragraphs. I’ll live.

But one of them made me sad, because it’s stupid. (It’s in Appendix A, if you want to look for it, the text within Table 11.)

One of the many arguments of the book is that we’re spending money on a ton of things in higher ed that we never did before: good things, real benefits that make colleges better than they ever were when I went for the first time in 1976. And one subset of those relatively new things are services—social, academic, and cultural—in support of a far more diverse student body. Diverse by gender, by age, by race and ethnicity, by national citizenship, by sexuality, by family status, by social class: you name the constituency, and most colleges serve a different student body than they historically have. And while we want that diversity, we also don’t seem to want to change the fundamental nature of the institution, so all the supports we offer are bolt-ons. They’re additions, not modifications. And so the money we spend on them, on their staffing and space and programming, is in competition with the money we might otherwise spend on faculty.

It’s a delicate argument, and one that I took pains to handle carefully, lest I ever seem to imply that our broader welcome is somehow a bad thing. It’s a terrific thing, but like all terrific things it has unintended consequences.

Anyway, one of the pre-publication reviewers asked for a chapter on the history of the shift toward adjunctification, with the labor struggles and the professional statements and the manifestoes and on and on. And I absolutely didn’t want to do that (nor did my editor), because a) it’s a different project b) being taken up right now by a trained historian, L. Maren Wood, that c) would have been a distraction from the more ecological argument I’d laid out. But as a sort of compromise, I decided to build an appendix that showed the vast number of ways that higher education has changed in recent decades. Since I’d already done most of the statistical research for that, I was able to bang it together—book tables 9 through 22—in less than two weeks.

Table 11 lays out a history of the changes in undergraduate demographics. From 47% female students in 1976 to 56% in 2015; from 16% students of color in 1976 to 42% in 2015; more undergraduate students over age 25; more high school students with learning disabilities going on to college. It’s all accurate, and important. The problem is in the row headings. Regarding gender, it says “More female students.” But under ethnicity, it says “Fewer white students.” First off, that’s just incorrect; there are more white students than ever, but they’re a smaller proportion of the total student body. But second, and far worse, the framing of “fewer white students” suggests an unfortunate change, something for us to lament, when in fact I’d intended exactly the opposite.

In trying to re-create my thinking at that hurried moment, I’m imagining that the longer version of that would have been “Given that the student body isn’t almost completely homogeneous in its whiteness any more, colleges have a lot more work to do to become more welcoming and more supportive of cultural difference.” But it doesn’t read that way.

So why DID I frame that heading the way I did? The one right above it—”more female students”—isn’t framed that way. Why did my hurried typing reflex go the direction that it did? Because I think I still have a long way to go to unlearn the racial patterns and attitudes that I grew up with. Because the problem with bias and privilege is that it’s invisible to the people who have the advantages. Because I’m a white person living in a state that’s 95% white, in a town that’s 98.5% white. Because “white students” is the category heading in my brain, and “students of color” is still them.

The problem I face as an individual is the same problem that we face all across higher education, and more broadly than that. I’m just not smart enough, not sensitive enough, not sophisticated enough, to make sure that I don’t automatically revert to old, ingrained habit. I’m way better than I once was, but every so often, I show myself how far I have left to go.

Being a decent person is not a status. It’s a daily project. It’s an aspiration, a gift perpetually just beyond reach.

Degree of Difficulty

We’ve been talking lately about how hard numbers are. Not to use them, but just to decide what they even mean.

Let’s shift for a moment to grades and the GPA. Grades have enormous communicative power, even though they mean almost nothing. They are symbols without significance.

Let’s take a single course, say Calculus 1. What does a B+ mean? Does it mean that a student got more than 83% but less than 87% of the homework and test questions correct over the course of the semester? (And does that calculation include partial credit for operations correctly done but with a trivial error somewhere? And do some questions have more points than others?) Or does it mean that the student was at the vaguely-better-than-average-but-not-at-the-top-of-this-semester’s-group level? Or does it mean we don’t hold out a lot of hope for you as a potential math major, but we aren’t quite ready to turn you away, so go ahead and try Calc 2? It’s quite likely that different faculty in the same department would calculate that grade a little differently, based on their interests and values—it could be a bookkeeping score, or a competitiveness score, or a communicative score.

Now let’s take two courses, Calculus 1 and Introduction to Racquetball. Does the same grade of B+ mean the same thing in both courses? They both weigh the same, 3.33 units…

Now let’s look at two different schools. I taught one online master’s course with ten students, three of whom at the end got what I considered to be reasonably justified grades of A or A–. But the work of those very best students—second-year master’s students, remember—at one school would have gotten them a B or B– in my first-year undergraduate writing courses at Duke.

The remarkable precision of the GPA, with all of its attendant stress, with its precise cutoffs for adequate or exemplary performance, is a ruse. It’s a nicely decorated cover for a complete conceptual shambles.

We can mess around with it, calculating “weighted GPAs” that offer more points for honors or AP courses, but that just shifts the artifice to a new location. How much harder is an honors class than a regular class? 18.4% harder? Should Organic Chemistry get an extra 24.91% grade boost over the far simpler Intro Chemistry in the same major sequence? If I transfer, should my A in my community college writing course be converted to a B on my University of California transcript?

Here’s the fact. When someone reads your college GPA, their thought process will look like this:

Hmm… degree from Smith College. Good school. Majored in economics, tough major. 3.34, pretty good student. We’ll call her in.

Or like this:

Degree from Wilton and Madison College? Never heard of it. Majored in business, GPA 2.81… naahh…

Or like this:

Degree from Michigan in philosophy? Wow, great program! But only a 3.15 GPA… Maybe he’s okay…

What we mean by a grade is this: within a specific context, this student was judged by a specific person to have been:

  • outstanding
  • strong
  • okay
  • disappointing
  • awful

It hardly seems warranted to average those across experiences, much less to imagine two places beyond the decimal. It’s a false precision that feels reassuring, like a stuffed bunny that can’t actually speak. Do I know my GPAs from college and from grad school? You bet I do. They have talismanic force to protect me in the face of a hostile world, an external validation that suffices, once in a while, in the absence of internal validation. Yes, you really were that good, they murmur, if only to me…