24 February 2016

Winter is Here

The signs are unmistakeable.  Chicago State University is cancelling spring break, in an effort to race to the end of the semester before the money runs out.  The governor vetoed funding for MAP grants. Eastern Illinois University recently had to lay off 198 civil service employees.  Southern Illinois University is bracing for an additional $40 million in budget cuts.  Kishwaukee College will be laying off 17% of its workforce.   Parkland College is hiking its tuition 11.4%.

Even here at the Casterly Rock of Illinois higher public ed, we're feeling the chill winds. So frightening is the impending budgetary catastrophe that the our new president's draft strategic plan has attracted less snark than such documents usually do (although some of us will always rise to the occasion).  Credit where it's due: there's only a thin layer of bureaucratic cant and no tired metaphors (no loops, boxes, envelopes, peanut butter). The cringeworthy phrases are too oblique to make good targets ("lifewide learners," "innovation clusters"), and the tagline ("optimizing impact for public good") is too clunky to yield ironic variants but not inherently risible enough to amuse by itself.  

So we are left with the substance.  

As one of my faculty friends on Facebook wrote, 
is that document supposed to be meaningful? It seems like a crass collection of obvious platitudes put together to speak to the state legislature. I mean, fine, I guess, if we need something like that, but surely actual people who have actual jobs to do in the university aren't supposed to treat it seriously, are they?
After all, the presidents gets the six-figure salary, the house downstate, the condo in the big city, the country club memberships, and the various other perks of the office, so that he or she will use these accoutrements of power, and the dreadful corporate jargon that goes with them, to lobby the state legislature while we get on with our work.  In these dire times one would prefer to just leave him to get on with it and fire off the occasional "crass collection of obvious platitudes" as circumstances require.

The reason why I can't let it alone, though, is that public higher education is being redefined.  Crass platitudes are no longer simply repackaging "actual jobs...in the university" so that legislatures will continue to fund them; documents like these represent our upper administration's best effort to preserve our ability to keep doing what we do in the face of public pressure that is fundamentally reshaping the institutions in which we do it.

I prefer to believe, for now, that our new president is committed to a vision of public higher education that most of us would sign on to.  That's why this draft strategic plan is depressing as hell, and something we all need to think about.

In a recent blog post, I pointed out that we who teach and advise students
need to keep clearly in mind that our duty is to our students, many of whom will change careers several times in the course of their lives, and many of whom just haven't lived enough yet to know what kind of job will give them long-term satisfaction.  Our duty is NOT to corporate employers who would prefer to offload the training of an entry-level workforce on to institutions of higher learning.
The draft strategic plan lays out a diametrically opposite set of priorities.  Item 1, under the first "Strategic Goal" ("A Healthy Future for Illinois") on the first page of the document is
1. Prepare a “Next Generation” Workforce

U of I will identify the most critical current and future workforce needs of the State and build programs to prepare our students with the knowledge and competencies necessary to meet this demand while satisfying their professional and life goals. 
How are students to identify their "professional and life goals"? How are we going to help students respond to a changing world and not just the "changing demands of the workplace"?  What scope do we have to educate students for a world that exists beyond the workforce needs of the State of Illinois?  And who, exactly, gets to decide what those workforce needs are?

One looks in vain for evidence that a public university is the place to ask those questions.  Item 3 does, to its credit, set the goal of building "Strong Civic Engagement," but since it comes after enabling "Powerful Research and Development Partnerships," one can reasonably wonder who will get to decide what counts as "civic engagement." The state's "public, nonprofit sectors" do get named as potential partners, but these are the same sectors that are also getting starved by the current budget impasse.  It's seems unlikely that they will exert a pull equal to potential private partners.

"We are thus accountable to our students first and foremost" this document declares.  On page five of ten.  Strategic Goal II is "An Institution of and for Our Students."  We will do a lot of good things for the next generation workforce.  We will "create an inclusive community" and "build connections" to "nearby immigrant and minority communities."  We'll also make it easier for students to transfer between campuses.  Will we teach them things other than how to be part of a workforce?  They'll get "global competencies" and "pedagogical innovation" will be "brought to scale" so that everyone can get the benefit of it.  There will be online tools and university-wide databases.

But will they get better at being smart human beings who can think for themselves?

Hard to say.

In a sop to something or other we are told that "We will...Celebrate the human condition through innovation and creativity in the performing arts and humanities."

I'm not sure how much time my humanities and fine arts colleagues spend "celebrating" the human condition.  We contemplate it.  We study it.  We try to get students to understand themselves and their mounting student debt as part of a historically contingent reality that explains but also extends beyond immediate exigencies. We expose them to the variety of ways that people have sought to make sense of themselves and their worlds and we encourage them to value these four years as a time to explore realities other than the ones they know intimately and those determined by their life circumstances.  It's not just the work of the arts and humanities to encourage this kind of broad and open-ended thinking; science teaching does it, too.  It also gets harder all the time.

Documents like this draft strategic plan don't help.  It balances the purpose of the university on the training of an entry-level work force and justifies its public value as a monetizable one.  If it is meant to be a Trojan horse hiding an older alternative understanding of public higher education within a gift that will please our state legislators and their constituents, that hatch in the belly is well hidden indeed.

Not every public institution of higher ed is giving up quite this completely.  Compare the "Announcement of Comprehensive Planning and Analysis Process" issued by the Berkeley campus of the University of California system.  Granted, it's a campus and not the university as a whole, and granted, they offering transparency in an ongoing process, not demonstrating the leadership of the new executive in a shaken institution.


Berkeley frames the need for a strategic plan not with the putatively inexorable need for the public university to be "an engine of for economic growth" but by frank acknowledgement of "a substantial and growing structural deficit, one that...does not reflect a short-term dip in funding, but a 'new normal' era of reduced state support."  Berkeley, like the University of Illinois "must focus not only on the immediate challenge, but also on the deeper task of enhancing our institution’s long-term sustainability and self-reliance."  However, unlike Illinois, Berkeley recognizes an inevitable cost, and certain values that must be maintained:
This endeavor must not be interpreted as an abandonment of our commitment to a public mission nor to our efforts to advocate for increased public funding for higher education. We are fighting to maintain our excellence against those who might equate “public” with mediocrity, against those who have lost faith in the need for higher education to serve as an engine of social mobility, and against those who no longer believe that university-based inquiry and research have the power to shape our society and economy for the better. What we are engaged in here is a fundamental defense of the concept of the public university, a concept that we must reinvent in order to preserve.
Throughout the state of Illinois, the public university (and the community college system that feeds it) is getting reinvented out from us.  The concept of the university that gets preserved may have little to do with the values that we were trained to uphold.

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