5th 2011
Tony Grafton on the higher education crisis, and your turn to talk back!

Posted under: American history, book reviews, jobs, students

Via my colleague Nathan Citino who reads the New York Review of Books, we learn that Tony Grafton has written a thoughtful review of the raft of books on the “crisis” of higher education in the United States published recently.  He dislikes the polemics that pick one enemy–the lazy-a$$ed faculty who allegedly never teach, or the inflated ranks of administrators who allegedly suck up six-figure salaries without contributing to the core mission of education.

However, Grafton appears to agree with Historiann’s analysis of the free farm clubs that unis run for the NFL and the NBA, reserving some choice disdain for the fact that “head football and basketball coaches earn millions and their assistants hundreds of thousands for running semiprofessional teams. Few of these teams earn much money for the universities that sponsor them, and some brutally exploit their players.”  But even I must acknowledge the fact that even if Baa Ram U. fired the coaches and told the men’s football and basketball teams to hold a bake sale if they want uniforms and travel money, it’s unlikely that the money saved would actually be invested in rebuilding the faculty or otherwise improving the quality of classroom education we offer.  (I still think it’s a fantasy worth preserving, however!)

The problem as Grafton sees it is not just that students buy into the Animal House vision of student life, with an emphasis on a social life built around sports and alcohol and drug-consumption rather than an intellectual life built around independent study.  He argues that American universities themselves foster the Animal House sensibility, rewarding faculty only for their research and never for their teaching, and providing a range of amenities for students that lure them anywhere but the classroom or the library:

In many ways, universities have reshaped themselves over recent decades to support the current version of student life. Particularly in the natural and social sciences, professors are encouraged to feel that it is legitimate to devote most of their energy to research. When they make a discovery, they receive a reward: exemption from time in the classroom. Even those who don’t discover America, as the Italians used to say, spend as much time as they can in the lab or the library. Teaching has been reassigned, more and more, from tenured and tenure-track faculty to graduate students and adjuncts.

In theory, budgetary constraints have forced these measures on reluctant deans. In fact, though, they also make it easier to recruit and retain star academics, whose salaries and research support are costly. It’s a lot easier to convince a Deep Thinker to move to Old Siwash and cogitate for a few graduate students than it is to convince the same Deep Thinker to come teach 120 kids a term.

Even in these supposedly tight times, finally, well-paid administrators and nonacademic professionals proliferate—as do the costly extracurricular activities that they provide, from bonding exercises for freshmen to intercollegiate sports. The message is clear: no one sees classroom learning as a primary pursuit.

Go read the whole thing–it’s the weekend, after all, and aren’t weekends made for reflecting on the failures and inherent corruption of our work environments?  (I choose to believe that’s part of the reason the labor movement fought for the weekend.)

Grafton concludes that given the tremendous diversity of the American “system” of higher education, we need more fine-grained and close-up studies of how higher education is working–or not working–for American students, administrators, and faculty, and the larger communities they serve:

Best of all would be for enterprising publishers to find curious writers and have them describe some universities and colleges, in detail, with all their defects. The polemical books, even those that have some substance, end up slinging mud—which, as Huckleberry Finn pointed out to Tom Sawyer, isn’t argument—more often than laying out the evidence. The empirical studies, with a very few exceptions, are deliberately cast in such general terms, and written in such a value- and metaphor-free style, that they won’t reach anyone without a professional interest. Neither sort would give an intelligent outsider—say, a parent or student, a regent or a trustee—a vivid picture of a year’s life and work at a college or university, as it is experienced by all parties; much less a lucid explanation of how finance and pedagogy, bad intentions and good execution shape one another in the academic world.

It’s been a few years since those of us in this corner of the blogosphere have passed around a meme, so let’s rent a barn and put on a show, kids!  People with blogs are “curious writers,” even if some of us (guilty, as charged!) have a flair for the polemic.  The other bloggers and regular commenters here study and/or teach at a variety of institutions around the world–so let’s offer our own detailed descriptions of our universities and what the problems look like from our vantage. will offer virtual stage time to those of you who don’t have your own blogs but who would like to contribute an essay–e-mail me whatever you like, and I’ll publish it under your nom de blog, anonymously, or under your own name, as you wish.  (However, in order to verify your identity, you will need to disclose to me your RL name and submit your essay via an institutional e-mail address.)

So, let’s tag some bloggers, and let the fun begin!  Notorious Ph.D., Girl Scholar.  SquadratomagicoRoxie’s World.  Tenured Radical.  Clio’s Disciple.  Dr. Crazy. The Clutter Museum.  Another Damned MedievalistKelly J. Baker.  Religion in American History.  Romantoes.  More or Less Bunk.  Ferule and Fescue.  Professor Zero.  Dude, Where’s My Tardis?  And let’s not restrict this meme to just people who teach and/or study in the United States, because university people around the world have troubles to share, too:  Janice Liedl.  J. Otto Pohl.  Feminist Avatar, and Spanish Prof., you’re tagged too!  Link back to me (and also e-mail me, since my bloggy software doesn’t always seem to identify all of the links I get), tag some more contributors too, and I’ll advertise your post and start a new blog page collecting them all.

(Don’t let this feel like yet another work obligation.  I know that the committee work is ramping up, and so is the grading and time spent dealing with student issues from now on through American Thanksgiving and final week, so just remember:  short can be sweet!)


57 Responses to “Tony Grafton on the higher education crisis, and your turn to talk back!”

  1. clio's disciple on 05 Nov 2011 at 8:22 am #

    Oooh. This is interesting. I was just thinking that the big-research-university-with-big-time-athletics model is not at all the kind of place that I work. And then you tagged me! I’ll try to get a post up within a few days.

  2. Roxie on 05 Nov 2011 at 9:00 am #

    Being a pack animal, I love nothing better than a group project! As it happens, we put up a post yesterday over at our place about a new adjunct policy the regents have forced upon QTU. It’s a gobsmacking example of Excellence Without Money (™RW Enterprises, LLC). Our piece is, oh, maybe a teensy bit polemical, but, hey, that’s what blogs are for, right? It still offers a fairly detailed description of what a particular problem looks like from our vantage point.

    Here’s the link:

    You might also want to connect this to TR’s call last week for bloggers to begin searching for ways to Occupy Education. That post is here:

    Ride ‘em, cowgirl!

  3. Indyanna on 05 Nov 2011 at 9:13 am #

    Grafton’s piece was discussed–well, cited, not everyone had heard about it yet–among a procession of mostly-historian scholars walking through a large East Coast American city last night, halfway between thinking and eating as it were. Not having read it yet I’ll just note that there are lots of universities that don’t really reWARD anything. They re*QUIRE* endless amounts of teaching and pay limited amounts of lip service to the tiniest little bits of “scholarly activity” (calling stuff that discourages long-term disappearances into archival institutions). Meanwhile, report a bulb out in an overhead projector or a screen that won’t stay down (in front of the *whiteboard* where they daemonically tend to locate these things) and the paperwork will cycle for weeks before a maintenance person shows up–in the middle of class time–to insist that now is only- best the time to take a look at the problem/work order. That makes it hard, for me anyway, to release too many administrative personnel from the Purgatorium of the 1%.

    Love the idea of crowd/cloud-sourcing reports of facts on the ground from across the academic world, though, and will read it all eagerly.

  4. Paul Harvey on 05 Nov 2011 at 9:16 am #

    I’m on it, Historiann. None of these proliferating “higher ed in America” pieces comes close to describing three of the five institutions where I have taught in my career, including my present (and by far longest) gig. Grafton comes closest simply by acknowledging that level of diversity and how a lot of places have no place in the polemics. (And, not that it matters, but my blog is “History,” not “Life,” in the title :) ).

  5. truffula on 05 Nov 2011 at 11:17 am #

    Many of us down in the trenches Provincial State U are going to counselors now. When you storm into HR saying “I quit” they ask you to please wait while they get a professional to talk you out of it. The psych professionals tell us that our anger and sadness are entirely rational responses to the corporatization of our university. No, you are not unwell, they say, an assertion that would be good news if we could then go on to do anything about our predicament. The psych professionals say “just try to not yell so much. Try to hang on until you can retire.”

    I asked for a meeting with my dean last week for the purpose of speaking on behalf of the woefully underpaid classified staff who are continually asked to do more for the same pay. The dean was joined by my college’s CFO-equivalent, who did most of the talking. I was told by the CFO that what I don’t understand is that this new work is like a gift. It’s an opportunity, they say, for the lowly office staff to stand out and maybe get a promotion in the future. Right. It’s the same “gift” they have been giving for the last decade. I didn’t expect to change anything during this meeting and indeed I did not. I did, however, confirm for myself that the finance folks are running the show, not the dean.

    Hmm. Maybe I do have an essay in there.

  6. Historiann on 05 Nov 2011 at 11:46 am #

    Paul: sorry about the mistake, but doesn’t History = Life? (I guess your subject is on my mind, as I’m contemplating teaching an early American religion class.) Glad to hear you’re up for a contribution!

    Truffula and Indyanna: I really hope you both contribute an essay. I know you’ve each got lots of them in you!

    Roxie: I *saw* that you had posted yesterday on Excellence without Money recently, and planned to catch up on all of the blog-reading that I’ve missed out on over the past few weeks.

    And I’ll look forward to Clio’s Disciple’s essay, too!

  7. Dr. Crazy on 05 Nov 2011 at 11:58 am #

    I’ll get on this in the next day or two – it’s a good conversation for us to have, and since I’ve been at a loss for “real” post topics it couldn’t come at a better time!

  8. Notorious Ph.D. on 05 Nov 2011 at 12:03 pm #

    Will do: I just need to read the whole thing first.

  9. For Historiann and Tony Grafton – an IOU | Mictlantecuhtli on 05 Nov 2011 at 12:27 pm #

    [...] enough at last I must move on for the day and do not have time, now, to do justice to this worthy project but I will [...]

  10. Spanish Prof on 05 Nov 2011 at 12:50 pm #

    It’s an honor, Historiann. Intererested in my South American memories (polished for the general public, of course). A comparison between my undergrad years and my current job at an institution in All-American midsize city in the Midwest?

  11. Spanish Prof on 05 Nov 2011 at 12:51 pm #

    Second sentence is a question, of course.

  12. Z on 05 Nov 2011 at 1:04 pm #

    OK I wrote something short but would really like to write the book he requests, have thought about it actually, and believe I am almost uniquely well informed for such a project, in various ways. Very interesting article, glad you wrote this post.

  13. Tony Grafton on 05 Nov 2011 at 1:21 pm #

    Thanks so much, Historiann and all who have posted. I look forward to learning a lot.

  14. Notorious Ph.D. on 05 Nov 2011 at 1:24 pm #

    I’m up, mama:

  15. Ellie on 05 Nov 2011 at 1:57 pm #

    Although not necessarily the largest point in the (wonderful) Grafton piece, this was the money quote, which I wish someone would make our legislators read aloud at beginning of every campaign speech, fundraising event, and committee meeting: “those majoring in liberal arts fields—humanities and social sciences, natural sciences and mathematics—outperformed those studying business, communications, and other new, practical majors on the CLA.”

    Thanks to all who have taken and will take up Historiann’s challenge. I look forward to the reading.

  16. Lance on 05 Nov 2011 at 2:54 pm #

    So I made a blog, followed a bunch of y’all, and took advantage of the two hour run time of Annie (in the rec room with kids, cause it is the weekend) to offer some random thoughts. The movie is over, and so I’m done.

    Thanks to H-Ann, Tony Grafton, and, of course, Annie, for the inspiration.

  17. Lance on 05 Nov 2011 at 2:55 pm #

    Oh, and Jeebus, I rambled on for a while!

  18. Historiann on 05 Nov 2011 at 4:41 pm #

    Lance–how funny! Annie is running on my DVD player at this very minute. We’re at the first musical number at Mr. Warbucks’s place, “I think I’m Gonna Like it Here.” Thanks for the contribution–I’ll check it out right now.

    Spanish Prof.: I didn’t realize (or had forgotten) that you’re a S. American who’s teaching in the U.S., so sorry that I lumped you with the non-U.S. based scholars above.

  19. The Epic Fail, or Failure as the Ultimate Four-Letter Word « Reassigned Time 2.0 on 05 Nov 2011 at 7:28 pm #

    [...] Historiann tapped me, along with many others, to respond to the question in the title of a piece by Tony Grafton over at the New York Review of Books.  Why are our universities “failing”?  Notorious, Ph.D. beat me to the punch on my initial reaction: “We, as a society, need to take some accountability, and realize that, whatever happens, we will get the system we pay for, and the results that we deserve.”  But since Notorious has laid out that particular answer so fully and articulately, let me take another tack. [...]

  20. Belle on 05 Nov 2011 at 7:42 pm #

    Oh, this is going to be good. Thanks y’all!

  21. Janice on 05 Nov 2011 at 8:05 pm #

    Thanks for the link to Tony Grafton’s review round-up. That’s a boatload of books that I’m glad he read, if only to identify the many wrong-headed attitudes out there about higher education.

    I’ve posted a bit about my own institution and how we’re facing up to times of crisis over at my blog:

    I’ll be sure to come back here tomorrow and start reading through others’ comments and linked blog posts.

  22. Notorious Ph.D. on 05 Nov 2011 at 8:33 pm #

    I’m looking forward to reading the post by Clio’s Disciple, since she’s taught at just about every type of institution one can imagine.

  23. Another Damned Medievalist on 05 Nov 2011 at 9:03 pm #

    I’m on it. Tomorrow’s post. After finishing the metric tonne of BS I’m dealing with.

  24. Feminist Avatar on 05 Nov 2011 at 10:12 pm #

    I am not sure how to get this to trackback, so here you go:

  25. CCPhysicist on 05 Nov 2011 at 10:30 pm #

    I got here via Dr. Crazy, and already posted a few thoughts on her blog about this subject.

    However, you mentioned athletics, so here is a revolting breaking story that shows the importance of athletic success to a university president:

    Be sure to read what President Spanier of Penn State University says in a press release quoted about 5 paragraphs from the end of the story.

  26. Clio Bluestocking on 06 Nov 2011 at 5:19 am #

    Jeez, this is depressing.

  27. J. Otto Pohl on 06 Nov 2011 at 7:31 am #

    I suppose I can write something. We have a three day weekend now. So I probably won’t get to it until Tuesday. I think a lot of my thoughts about working in Africa have already been blogged. But, I am really surprised that I got tagged. Judging from my site meter and comments nobody reads my blog other than my family and a few real life friends. Although this tag did get me four hits which is a lot by the standards of my site meter. I am pretty sure that I share no regular readers with popular blogs like this one.

  28. Kelly on 06 Nov 2011 at 7:49 am #

    Thanks for the tag, Historiann. I’ll add my reflections later in the week, as my experience includes a 4-4 load and many, many first year exams to grade before blogging.

  29. Historiann on 06 Nov 2011 at 8:07 am #

    CCPhysicist: I heard a news squib about the Penn State molester last night, and as usual am entirely unsurprised that the university apparently continued to employ him and that the uni Prez is backing the AD and the administrator responsible. I guess it’s a new twist that this sexual predator preyed on boys instead of girls or women.

    I’ll get a post up soon highlighting the contributions so far from Notorious, Dr. Crazy, Janice, Prof. Zero, Roxie, and Feminist Avatar. Keep ‘em coming!

  30. quixote on 06 Nov 2011 at 10:51 am #

    After just a quick read of this post and comments here, one thing that might be missing from the mix is that Sci-Tech-Eng-Math have the potential to be “profit centers” in administrators’ eyes.

    The pressure to concentrate on research is not so much because the profs find it more interesting than teaching (although they generally do). What profs think or want is a negligible quantity. But the 60% or more “overhead” on a $600,000 grant that flows to the administration with no real strings attached is pure gravy.

    The administrators decide budgets for departments, so their priorities quickly become the chairs’ and profs’ priorities, too, and there you are. I couldn’t count the meetings I’ve sat through which were discussions of the best sales pitches for the likeliest marks. (Sorry, research directions of interest to [insert acronym here].)]

    Anyway, this is just a longwinded way to say it’s not about the research. It’s really about the money. (Just like the athletics which isn’t about fitness, come to think of it.)

  31. Historiann on 06 Nov 2011 at 11:29 am #

    quixote: feel free to write this up on your blog & send a link! I think you’re right about the tail that wags the dog. (Or perhaps I’m naively mistaken that education is the dog instead of the tail? That is, education seems to be like more of a side-effect of major universities rather than the organizing principle, which as you say is all about chasing the do-re-me in big grants & big athletics.)

  32. Some Arithmetic | Mictlantecuhtli on 06 Nov 2011 at 12:42 pm #

    [...] A vignette for Historiann, obliquely related to her post. [...]

  33. Z on 06 Nov 2011 at 12:48 pm #

    “…more of a side-effect of major universities rather than the organizing principle, which as you say is all about chasing the do-re-me in big grants & big athletics.”

    Yes, well that is the neoliberal university I guess: support industry, including although hardly limited to the athletic industry.

    It’s actually quite liberating to look at that situation head on and say OK, that’s how it is, as opposed to try and say it’s not true, shouldn’t be true, and so on.

  34. Three things make a post? « Blogenspiel on 06 Nov 2011 at 2:40 pm #

    [...] will be adding to my list of posts my musings per Historiann’s call for comments on Tony Grafton’s New York Review of Books piece. Which reminds me: I heart Tony [...]

  35. Flavia on 06 Nov 2011 at 3:08 pm #

    Okay! My first — and somewhat bizarrely cheerful — post is up. A follow-up post will come later this week when I have another spare moment.

    Thanks for starting a great discussion.

  36. Tenured Radical on 06 Nov 2011 at 3:13 pm #

    You’re on: finishing a piece on blogging for Reflexions Historiques, and then I’ll do it.

  37. Spanish Prof on 06 Nov 2011 at 7:57 pm #

    I’m giving it the finishing touches. You’ll have my piece tomorrow.

  38. Werner Herzog's Bear on 06 Nov 2011 at 8:19 pm #

    Having just left academia for secondary ed, I look back and am struck with the thought that so many people -administrators, faculty, students, and politicians- just didn’t seem to give a shit about learning. Administration poured money into buildings, beer and circus, and “assessment.” Many faculty had absolute contempt for students and put little energy into teaching. Many of the students just wanted to get a diploma doing as little work as possible, and the consumer-oriented universities bent over to accommodate them. The appalling levels of apathy that infect higher education had a great deal to do with me getting the hell out of it. I am glad to be working in a field where more people actually seem to care if students are learning something.

  39. Spanish Prof on 07 Nov 2011 at 1:12 am #

    Insomnia rules! Here is my piece.

  40. Clio Bluestocking on 07 Nov 2011 at 1:20 am #

    Sometimes I feel like we are living in a dystopian Vonnegut story. Alas, a rant.

  41. Z on 07 Nov 2011 at 5:01 am #

    Quixote, on the money, yes. Foreign languages, too! What they want from me are student credit hours and overhead from external funding.

  42. J. Otto Pohl on 07 Nov 2011 at 5:15 am #

    I have put up my post on working in Africa. But, for some reason I can not post a comment here.

  43. J. Otto Pohl on 07 Nov 2011 at 5:18 am #

    Okay, I guess I can not put my url in the text of the comment or it goes into the spam trap. Fine, just click on my name. It should take you to my post.

  44. It takes two to tango. « More or Less Bunk on 07 Nov 2011 at 8:48 am #

    [...] follows, neither are really the subject of this post. Nevertheless, when the illustrious Historiann namechecks your blog and others to get our “own detailed descriptions of our universities and what the problems [...]

  45. Anastasia on 07 Nov 2011 at 6:17 pm #

    As another person who recently left higher ed for secondary ed….what Werner Herzog’s Bear said.

  46. Leslie M-B on 07 Nov 2011 at 8:25 pm #

    Thanks for the shout-out, Historiann. I’m on it. . . just a bit tardily. The first half of the week always slams me in the office. More soon!

  47. Lance on 08 Nov 2011 at 3:40 am #

    You know, I read Grafton’s piece a third time just now. How is it possible that with all of the smart and savvy people in higher ed, no one in the belly of the beast is capable of writing a portrait of this infinitely crazy, interesting, bizarre world we inhabit to match the work of Caputo on Vietnam, or Didion on El Salvador, or Chandrasekaran on the Green Zone, or Sheehan on John Paul Vann? That isn’t exactly where he ends, I know, but he does suggest that the sausage-making aspects of higher ed need to become an object of serious journalistic/ethnographic scrutiny. Insofar as we have failed to that ourselves in a sustained and comprehensive way, we haven’t exactly helped matters.

  48. Shelley on 08 Nov 2011 at 8:46 am #

    Out here in California college professors are losing their jobs, students are drowning in debt, and yet the “presidents” and “chancellors” of public universities continue to award themselves huge bonuses of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

    In the education world, they are the 1%.

  49. Flavia on 08 Nov 2011 at 8:16 pm #

    My second series of reflections is up.

  50. Another memelicious monologue on 08 Nov 2011 at 8:30 pm #

    [...] Historiann has thrown down the gauntlet in response to Tony Grafton’s round-up of a spate of recent books about higher ed. [...]

  51. Our Universities: Why Are They Failing? Some (internet) dialogue | Brush off the dust! History now! on 09 Nov 2011 at 6:10 am #

    [...] call came out from history professor and blogger Historiann, who responded to Grafton with Tony Grafton on the Higher Education Crisis and Your Turn to Talk Back and tagged some of her colleagues to [...]

  52. Why I’ve fallen down on the (uncompensated) job this term : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 09 Nov 2011 at 11:52 am #

    [...] I’ll have a post up this weekend about all of your wonderful (and speedy) responses to Tony Grafton’s challenge for more specifically grounded descriptions of the “crisis” in American universities.  If you just can’t wait, please see this thread for lots of smart, detailed, and contrarian views! [...]

  53. CBS on 10 Nov 2011 at 12:05 pm #

    May I ask, in the experience of the people responding to this post: is this true?

    “Their results are sobering. The Collegiate Learning Assessment reveals that some 45 percent of students in the sample had made effectively no progress in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing in their first two years. And a look at their academic experience helps to explain why. Students reported spending twelve hours a week, on average, studying—down from twenty-five hours per week in 1961 and twenty in 1981. Half the students in the sample had not taken a course that required more than twenty pages of writing in the previous semester, while a third had not even taken a course that required as much as forty pages a week of reading.”

    I certainly didn’t have an experience like that as an undergraduate at an (admittedly famously prestigious) university in the UK. It’s almost enviable if it weren’t such an enormous waste of everyone’s time (and money).

  54. undine on 10 Nov 2011 at 9:18 pm #

    Thanks for starting this great conversation, Historiann; as Dr. Crazy says, it’s a good one to have.

  55. What’s the matter with higher ed? Too much talk about degrees, not enough talk about achievement. : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 12 Nov 2011 at 9:27 am #

    [...] have a comprehensive post up tomorrow with all of your wonderful links and contributions to this conversation, but I thought I’d lay out briefly something that I’ve been thinking about this week [...]

  56. Sunday round-up: the “crisis in higher ed,” your turn edition : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 13 Nov 2011 at 9:42 am #

    [...] did my post last weekend soliciting your views on the “crisis in higher ed” get an avalanche of replies, like, immediately!  As regular readers will recall, I commented on [...]

  57. The “crisis” in higher ed? truffula sniffs out “administrative bloat.” : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 15 Nov 2011 at 9:17 am #

    [...] the contributions I’ve had to the “crisis” of higher education meme inspired by Tony Grafton’s recent review in the New York Review of Books, no one has yet called out administrators and/or administrative bloat.  Most of us humanist [...]

Trackback URI | Comments RSS

Leave a Reply