My Grumpy-Pants Response to a Grumpy-Pants Article on the Business of Higher Ed

So, the article “Welcome to Ohio State, Where Everything Is for Sale” by OSU History Professor Steven Conn has crossed my path a few times in the last couple days and it annoyed me to the point that I felt the need to analyze my reaction in writing. As a devout English major, I hold dear the idea that I don’t really know what I think until I write it down, so here we go. If you wanna play along at home, you can check out Conn’s article here.

The basic premise of the article is that the old OSU motto of “Education for Citizenship” no longer applies to the increasingly commercialized institution and, instead, the motto “Everything Is for Sale” would be much more appropriate. Conn writes, “Yes, sir, we are open for business! And by ‘open for business’ I mean: Make us an offer for something, and we’ll sell it to you like a pair of pants at a department-store closeout.”

Yes, indeed. How mortifying… the idea that OSU is selling something.

He also seems to be lumping together the trustees, all administrators, and the state legislature as a big ol’ “them” to stand against the “us” of the faculty.

Ahem.

Look, as I begin to articulate my annoyance here, I have a sudden fear that I’m about to erode my liberal arts street-cred. I worry that my former English grad school buddies are going to think that somebody clubbed me over the head with a copy of Atlas Shrugged and I’ve gone all neo-con. That’s really not the case. I’m an English degree evangelizing, NPR pledge-drive supporting, intellectual-loving, liberal poet/fiction writer. Honest. This article just strikes me as sloppy thinking on a subject I’ve been contemplating for years.

Quick caveat: my comments here are about the humanities. I understand that a lot of my comments below don’t apply to the sciences, trades, career/tech, medical disciplines, etc.

Let’s go back to 2011. I had recently earned my MA in Early Modern British literature and had been accepted to a couple PhD programs when I decided to leave academia. I stuck around as an adjunct for a bit and then moved on to nonprofit/development work.

Why did I do that? Well, in short, I began to feel like academia was insulting my intelligence. The workload to unemployment risk to likely compensation ratios for the career path I was on just didn’t add up for me. So I began honestly asking myself, “why am I doing this?”

I really do think that there are good/solid motivations for dedicating your life to being an English professor, but I didn’t have those motivations. I didn’t have a calling to teach. I had a pretentious fantasy. I found my motivation was rooted in old ideas that I now consider to be misconceptions and misinformation. When I was younger, I believed that the academy was the great, noble seat of the humanities (and really had a monopoly on quality thinking on, and the production of, great art and writing). I’ve since come to realize those ideas are false. They’re inventions. The thinkers/artists/writers I respect most are not fixtures in English or Art departments. The academy does not own intellectual discourse or creation. It is not standing at the helm of culture or creativity. The academy is just the most famous path to a life of the mind. It’s the tidiest path. The one you see on TV the most. It’s well-branded and well-marketed. It has the most attractive packaging. It’s the commercial version. It’s commoditized. It’s a business. It’s positioned itself as a key benchmark achievement of class and status in America. It sells.

When I was an adjunct, I used to be very upset about my pay and my lack of benefits. I was indignant, especially in light of what I suspected the administrators were making. But here’s the thing… you know how you can tell that adjuncts and professors are making the correct amount of money? Because there is no shortage of qualified people who will take those jobs. I knew the moment I left teaching, someone was ready to step in to my role. Heck, they never let me forget that fact.

A cold, calculating comment that also happens to be painfully true.

If, say, 90% of the available pool of people qualified to teach Freshman comp classes as adjunct instructors suddenly decided that the terms of their contracts were insulting and found other jobs, then I’d expect adjunct pay would rise dramatically. That whole supply and demand thing (which matters here because the academy is a business, not a golden city of truth and learning –that’s just marketing).

Meanwhile, let’s think about what that bloated administration that Conn bemoans does, shall we? Think of your favorite English or History or Art professors. Now imagine them plucked out of the context of the academy. Imagine them renting a space in a shopping mall and paying for some facebook ads. We’ve cut out the greedy middlemen. How much, outside of the huge and complex political/marketing/business machine of the academy, do you think people would be willing to pay for lectures on literary criticism? I’m going to suggest a lot less than they are paying within the context of the academy –a context that is NOT simply born of the merit and innate value of the intellectual vigor pulsing through the halls of academia. That context is an expertly designed construct. A carefully crafted business pitch (to individuals and local/federal government bodies and private corporations). Apparently, the administrators who engineer and sustain that branded context do a pretty good job because lots and lots of people are still paying tuition. Pretty remarkable. right? They create demand. They create value and keep the machine working. Sounds like a real skill to me, but Conn seems to be suggesting that the admins are lamprey-like financial parasites on the underbelly of the faculty. That kind of position seems to come from the idea that the academy really runs on its own self-sustaining excellence and the quality of its educators. Wow. Those marketing departments really are talented.

English departments. History departments. Art departments. They can exist in their current states, within their august edifices, BECAUSE of administrative machinery, not in spite of it. It’s business. It’s math. I’m not saying I’m happy about this, I’m just saying refusing to think about it in real terms is intellectual laziness.

Does this mean that I think this makes the administration beyond critique? Of course not. What bothers me about Conn’s article is that I’d like to see a little awareness of the administration’s role. A word about context. A little less black and white.

Believe me, this is not my attempt to insult the humanities. Check out my essay here on why I think a degree in English is immensely valuable. Literary analysis taught me to see the big picture and to make connections within complex systems. The skills I learned being an English major are the exact same skills that allowed me to reassess my understanding of the business of higher education in America (and realize that I needed to rethink my involvement within that business).

I love and respect professors in the humanities. I deeply value the education I received at OSU and OU. I just find Conn’s article to be painfully simplistic. If I was a History Prof at OSU, I would be very happy that it was somebody’s job to make deals with Coke and wake up every morning trying to find new ways to monetize the work of the university. The humanities (especially) need those people and I think it’s much more intellectually honest to admit it.

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