America’s Colleges at a Crossroads – Part 1

crossroad-signsThis is the first of a three-part series. (Also see parts 2 and 3.)In this post I’ll simply point to the problem and refer to a couple of recently published pieces that lay it out in bleak detail. In the next two, to be published over the course of this week, I’ll lay out some of my reactions.

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America is in the midst of a real economic crisis. That’s not news. What may be news to some (although it probably isn’t) is that America’s colleges and universities are staggering right through the center of it.

According to education consultant and former university professor and administrator Peter A. Facione, America’s higher education institutions are going to have to buckle down and make hard decisions if they want to survive.

Note the stark emphasis: Colleges are in a fight not just to thrive but to survive. That’s how serious the crisis really and presently is, as argued by Facione in “A Straight-Talk Survival Guide for Colleges” (The Chronicle of Higher Education online, March 20, 2009).

He begins by diagnosing the situation in unflinching terms:

It is time for some straight talk, starting with the realization that organizations that can’t or won’t adapt will fail. This recession has caused many of the nation’s largest retailers, banks, airlines, manufacturers, and brokerage houses to do so. Millions of Americans have lost jobs and homes. Why would we think colleges, and those employed by them, would be exempt from the same fate? The market sorts itself out at times like these. Industries realign.

….[H]igher education is part of the larger economic system. There will be casualties, just as commercial businesses will fail and other worthy nonprofit organizations will go broke. If a state’s tax revenues fall by large percentages, given that the priorities of the states are usually public safety, unemployment support, transportation, basic services, and a balanced budget, then something will have to go. Often that something will be support for higher education.

….If you as a college administrator think you are in a sailboat during a gale, you are right.

Then he offers his prescription, which consists of a long list of recommended action steps, attitude shifts, institutional reorganizations, and policy changes for college and university administrators, faculty, and staff to make if they want to survive. These are fairly dramatic and include suspending programs, reducing salaries, imposing freezes on hiring and searches, closing campuses, and more.

Not incidentally, Bloomberg agrees about the severity of the problem, as explained in detail in a May 1 article:

[T]he American system of higher education is in turmoil….Independent colleges that lack a national name or must-have majors are hardest hit. Many gorged on debt for construction, technology and creature comforts. Now, as endowments tumble and bills mount, they’re struggling to attract cash-strapped families who are navigating their own financial woes. Such mid-tier institutions may be forced to change what they do to survive. In the best case, they’ll merge with bigger schools, sell themselves to for-profit organizations or offer vocational training that elite colleges eschew, says Sandy Baum, a senior policy analyst at the College Board. In the worst case, they’ll shutter their doors for good (“Colleges Flunk Economics Test as Harvard Model Destroys Budgets“).

Briefly, and in anticipation of what I’ll talk about in the next post in this series, I’ll say that when I read this kind of thing I can’t help thinking of what the likes of, e.g., Kunstler and Greer and Berman have been saying off and on for years about the non-future of the American higher education scene in its current form. I also can’t help noticing that Facione and the Bloomberg reporter naturally think and talk in terms of market conditions, competition, the market “sorting itself out,” and all of that. I know, of course, that it really is necessary to devote attention to this “nuts and bolts” end of things — but I also keep hoping to read something in a mainstream publication like The Chronicle or Bloomberg that doesn’t just talk the same old tired economic language of business as usual but recognizes the need for an explosive paradigm shift away from the higher education world’s pervasive current model of college as a purely market-driven enterprise.

But I’ll say more about these matters in the next installment. Check back in a couple of days.

See the next installments in this series:

About Matt Cardin

Teeming Brain founder and editor Matt Cardin is the author of DARK AWAKENINGS, DIVINATIONS OF THE DEEP, A COURSE IN DEMONIC CREATIVITY: A WRITER'S GUIDE TO THE INNER GENIUS, and the forthcoming TO ROUSE LEVIATHAN. He is also the editor of BORN TO FEAR: INTERVIEWS WITH THOMAS LIGOTTI and the academic encyclopedias MUMMIES AROUND THE WORLD, GHOSTS, SPIRITS, AND PSYCHICS: THE PARANORMAL FROM ALCHEMY TO ZOMBIES, and HORROR LITERATURE THROUGH HISTORY.

Posted on May 4, 2009, in Economy, Education and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I, too, read an article about that laying in one of the common areas of the English hall here on campus. Most of the problems the article pointed to wasteful spending: things like expanding non-essential sports programs, expensive new buildings (to build and to maintain), and things like that.

    One of the greater ironies to me (and many other students at this university) was that we had just finished in August a billion-dollar fund-raising program for the university. Then, late in the semester, the college president sent out an email informing the students that the university might be functioning on a 100-million dollar reduced budget this year (due to reductions in state funding). Obviously, the students at large responded by asking about the billion dollars that had just been raised, and those dollars were apparently promised to certain programs and couldn’t be used for just anything. Even so, it was a great irony to me.

    As a final note, I definitely see that this institution where I take classes is very focused on prestige and not on education, which has lead to what I see as some frivolous expenditures of money on things that have nothing to do with education. You, Mr. Cardin, are probably more aware of this sort of thing at this institution than I am.

  2. I believe I know that institution too. I agree.

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