Day 314: Phill is beefin’ with corporate style education

A story for you.

Picture it, Indiana, early spring 2002. Still a student, Phill is sitting in an advisory meeting with the university Chancellor. This is the fourth meeting of this particular body, and over the course of the first two meetings, we worked as a group to make first-year writing easier for students. It didn’t need to be easier; the University was just worried about retention. We actually made the class too simple. It wasn’t challenging anyone.

The Chancellor asks us how we can make the process of graduating easier. A few people float ideas about less credits, easier classes, etc. I point out that we’ve already made our first-year writing and math classes dangerously thin. The conversation continues. Someone suggests that the first-year writing class consist of just one five page paper. I, again, point out the flaw in making classes too easy, reminding the people in the room that students (like myself at the time) would need to go do jobs after graduation and would be expected to know the things their classes should teach.

The math professor in the room pushed– HARD– on the idea of a single paper in first-year writing. I mumbled something under my breath (I should not have been so disrespectfully combative, but… I was having a moment). The Chancellor asks me, point blank, “so how do we make it easier for students to graduate?”

Bear in mind I’d already proposed streamlining the larger majors, upping adviser touch-points to make sure students are getting the classes they need, offering more in summer, etc.

I looked at the Chancellor, and I said… looking back, I am still surprised I had the nerve to say this, but I swear this is the exact truth… that we should print our degrees on cellophane paper, wrap them around a burger, and install a drive thru.

All that to say that 1) I wasn’t very careful then around authority figures and 2) I have never liked the idea of treating a college like a corporation.

I hear all these people saying “they’re our customers!” and “we need to think about overhead!” I once had a mentor tell me that grad students are a cost point.

What the actual fuck?

Colleges– at least land grant ones– are non-profits. I know that, because it says so on lots of paperwork I deal with regularly. And if we just look at that in the most simplistic of ways, that means that we should spend more than be bring in on educating. We should need help from donors and from the state and from tuition.

But we should spend all that money every year. There shouldn’t be a surplus. And we shouldn’t use the money to cause the people at the top to play games of “balloon the salary.”

I think somewhere along the way a number of people forgot what it is that we do. We make knowledge. We pass it on to people. We make people more intelligent and more capable.

If the goal is to make money, college is a fool’s errand. You’d make much more on an iPhone game with in-app purchases, or a trendy coffee or food franchise. There are ways to make money that don’t drift into the complex domain that is the educational system.

Likewise, people in education shouldn’t be looking to get rich. I teach in a games program. If I quit my job tomorrow and went to work for a game company, I’d start at just below the pay I make now, and within five years I’d be making much more than I currently do (perhaps exponentially if I landed in the right place). Likewise I chose to walk away from a top 10 law school to go to grad school and follow my passion. I’m not here for the money, though it is nice to get a real paycheck after years of being contingent faculty.

But the idea of a college– of the whole university system– is that we serve. We help prepare people for what comes next (their lives). We help make sure that people have the skills and the knowledge to be better citizens and human beings.

We’re not a corporation. If we are, we’re a bad corporation. Our product is stale, many of our practitioners need the “Coffee is for Closers’ speech from GGGR, and a number of us are awful at “customer service.”

But if we are what educators are meant to be– facilitators, mentors, teachers, people who create knowledge and who foster critical thinking– we shouldn’t be worried about turning a profit. We should be worried about doing our best with what we have.

One of the things that appalls me is what I’ve come to learn about grant money that professors draw in. I don’t know exact numbers, but apparently almost every university takes a cut of that grant money. That makes no sense to me in any way that isn’t corporate-based. If I go out and get a $100,000 grant to do something for students, those students should see the benefit of all 100,000 of those dollars.

Of course if I was trying to make money, I’d make sure that everyone who worked for me had to kick up. Just like… the mafia. Of course that’s not the company we want to keep, now is it?

We need to do what we do and do it well. People looking for a university to be their next Bain Capital need to find another line of work and stop before they completely destroy the system. It’s already teetering.

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