by AndrewMc | 9/21/2009 07:00:00 AM
Last week I had the “opportunity” to attend the Kentucky “Governor’s Conference on Postsecondary Education Trusteeship.”

I love the word “opportunity.” It has so many divergent meanings, and as with many words, context is everything. A business opportunity can bring profit, and the phrase “opportunity knocks” is generally seen as positive. But when my department head says “I have an opportunity for you,” I usually turn and run in the other direction. When the dean or the provost says it, I’m not yet sure what to think.

So there I found myself at the Governor’s Conference—a yearly event that lays out the “state of the union” for education. The conference features sessions on a variety of topics. This year’s offerings included something on enrollment, a session on trustee/regent responsibilities, one on the “post-recession” challenges, a session on the upcoming legislative agenda in Kentucky, and a few others.

At the opening talk, the speaker flew through a series of PowerPoint slides, sometimes three or four of them in a matter of a second or two. But I did learn that nationwide, more money is being spent on wealthier students, and less on low-income students in the form of grants, federal aid, and institutional aid. So, the speaker concluded, more money is going to students who don’t need it. In the past year, there’s been about 17% more money for low-income and about 35% more for high-income students. 60% in aid dollars go to students with no financial need.

This should be probed a bit. I suspect that the speaker was casting a pretty wide net with her figures. For example, I suspect she’s counting the increased money that’s going into honors programs, which tend to serve students from middling and upper-class backgrounds.

At the talk on the legislative session we had a chance to ask questions of two of our legislators who are on Kentucky’s Senate Ed. Committee. Both are very nice guys, but I harangued them for calling for greater oversight of universities by Trustees/Boards while at the same time not exercising their own oversight over those boards. For example, I went into the issue of tenure at KCTCS and the astoundingly bad decision made by the Trustees. Where is the oversight when these boards fail?

By far the most startling thing I saw came at a session on higher education in the “post recession.” Friends, this is a sign of the times, and it wasn’t pretty. In fact, I’d call it a downright nightmare.

Essentially this speaker based his talk on three main premises:

  • The current recession requires decisive action: cutbacks, and long term innovations
  • A new generation of emerging analytic capabilities [web 2.0], means more accountability and performance improvement
  • To lift out of recession and more forward, and become more efficient and have better solutions, based on operational efficiency

OK, so far a bit of this makes sense. There’s fat in any university, and the recession certainly requires us to re-think how a university operates, what we need to prioritize, and how we can move forward. And certainly “operational efficiency” is something that any university should strive towards. The number of non-teaching administrators is growing by leaps and bounds.

And by and large he made some sense in the things he said when he discussed how we need to make sure students complete college without having to deal with too many institutional obstacles. But a lot of it made me uneasy, to be honest. The fact that he was hammering the “efficiency theme” got me a bit worried. It clearly was slanted toward the idea that students needed to get in, get out, and get a job. There was very little sense of a broader educational mission, or of any kind of understanding that a university exists for more things than to award degrees to get people jobs.

Whatever. I’d heard these things before.

But then he said that we need to “Improve academic productivity” and my head snapped up. I raised my hand. “Could you possibly explain what you mean by that?” I asked. His initial answer didn’t say anything, so I asked him to again explain how one would measure efficiency among faculty. At that point someone in the back, who I believe was with the speaker, shouted that it was “entirely possible to measure efficiency among faculty, it’s done in factories all the time!” I laughed, turned to the speaker, and asked him to readdress the question. He started to talk about how courses are taught, how many students one has, about hiring more adjuncts, and holding professors accountable for getting students through. I started to get chills.

I realized that I could meet all of his efficiency requirements by teaching a few 500-person sections, assigning crap work, and giving everyone an “A.” And that would be perfectly acceptable under his model.

Then I looked through the brochure for his biography. The speaker was a consultant for several factories (including Black and Decker) and for the University of Phoenix and Capella University. So, essentially his experience has been in trying to help a company produce a product for as little money as possible, all while charging as much as possible for that product. He has no teaching experience.

This is the future, folks. As state funding decreases and universities come to rely on tuition for more of their operating budgets, there will be increased pressure to make certain that students graduate, regardless of the education they receive. The idea of a “liberal arts” education will fall by the wayside as universities seek to maximize their bottom lines by hiring more adjuncts and having them teach larger sections of students.

Keep in mind that when KCTCS decided to abolish tenure for new hires, it started itself down the road towards greater efficiency. And this isn’t just a “Kentucky thing.” Other states are looking into changing the tenure rules as well.

In the meantime, the Board of Regents offered the president of the University of Kentucky a $168,000 “performance bonus.” Lee Todd, who earns $304,000 per year, wisely turned it down, saying that it would be inappropriate in this economic climate, when faculty and staff didn’t get raises this year.

The response? The Board voted to give it to him anyway, with one member saying “"He is CEO of a $2.4 billion entity. I think anything under $1 million is paltry, personally."

Welcome to the future of education.

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Blogger Ahistoricality on 9/21/2009 8:03 AM:

Well, there's nothing to stop him from giving the money back....

You're right about the efficiency thing, but until we either develop some kind of substantive measure of intellectual development or kill the impulse to do so, we're going to keep having this fight. Ridicule may be our best weapon: I applaud your efforts!