Lee Skallerup Bessette, writing from Kentucky in the USA
For all of my pie-in-the-sky musings about why you should blog, I have become increasingly troubled by a nagging feeling of hopelessness when it comes to the future of higher education. Somehow, we need to change, or it will be forced upon us because what we are doing right now isn’t working for many people. But I really don’t think higher education is able to change. I think much of higher education as we know it will disappear.
But what will be left in its place?
Before I became an academic, I fully intended to join the “real world” and become a…technical writer. Montreal, where I grew up, was fully benefiting from the mid-90s tech bubble: from large companies like Nortel to small tech start-ups; it was an exciting place to be a technical writer who could speak both English and French. And by exciting, I mean, job opportunities that paid a lot of money right away. And this was for an English major; if you had any technical expertise, then you were golden.
I worked for both Nortel and a small start-up while I was doing my BA. What impressed me about thestart-up (I was an employee in 1998) was how they were looking to do things differently – not only the type of product they provided (they treated the printer like the mini-computer it is), but they also tried to treat their employees differently, giving us more freedom (but also expecting more independence from us in terms of our work). The founders of the company had been discouraged by their lack of intellectual and creative freedom at their older “corporate” jobs and thus set out to do it themselves. We all worked together quite closely and I did everything from writing manuals to advertising copy to correcting the English in the programming interface.
But I, at heart, was an academic. I was not used to the kind of freedom that the job offered me. I was much more comfortable at Nortel, where I had a clear and defined job description, which was narrow and limiting. But I hated living in a cubicle, writing one kind of document, 9-5, every day. So, yeah, I’ve always been an academic.
I fully realize the danger of comparing the university to corporations, and I know that much of what is wrong with universities is due to the increased corporatization of the institution. My current job as an academic more closely resembles my job at Nortel than at the small start-up. But where are the small start-ups in education? So many of us want to go out and do things differently, but we can’t, because of regulation, money, and, let’s face it, fear. Academics are not known for being risk takers. I liked academia because of the clear parameters that were set in front of me, however fictitious they turned out to be. And most of us would admit that that seeming balance between academic freedom and clear directional guidelines is what attracted us to the field.
How do we initiate change, then? How do we create something new and truly disruptive to the status quo? How do we ensure that when the university as we know it is gone that something more meaningful and, dare I say it, valuable remains? How do we do it in a system that discourages unorthodoxy, has no money, and no visible desire to change, outside of a few cosmetic ones around the edges? The reason why adjuncts stay? There really are few alternatives. In any other field, you would start your own business; in higher education, especially in the humanities, profit is a dirty word. We look at innovation in higher education and we immediately recoil at what the for-profit sector has become. But is that the only way?
Adjuncts need to live. Students need an education that they can afford. Our economy and democracy need critical thinkers who are capable and knowledgeable. Some of us want to provide that, know we can provide that. But we are unable to do so.
So I ask again: when the idea of the university as we know it is gone, what will be left in its place? And, what will become of us?
I know there are disruptive alternatives out there; please share the ones you know in the comments.