A Response to “Let the Professors Run the University”

In “Let the Professors Run the University” Dr. Samuel J. Abrams lays out his concerns with how the University has fallen, and he places the blame squarely on the separation of faculty from student services roles.

His argument broken down:

Student facing administrators (by which he seems to be trying to conflate the front line student affairs professionals with management level employees but I’ll use his term shortened to SFA) have begun shaping academic discourse at universities. And this decreases deliberative dialogue.

SFA are more liberal.
SFA set the agenda of what happens on campus because they control everything that is “extracurricular”.
From the link to his other articles (strange that he’s mainly citing his own opinion articles) he, again without citation, says that SFA shape the experience of university.
Again from his self citation: SFA feel that “personal values” are important when educating (and again remember that these are people who only have control over extracurricular) and he implies that this means they are going to push their personal values onto students.

The backdrop of his argument then is that SFA, through their control of things extracurricular, encourage students to be more liberal and progressive and to become activists.

With that in mind he goes on to complain about the number of protests (as he is well versed in the literature and history here I’m sure I don’t need to point out that the small local protests of today are much smaller than the university student led protests of the 1960s). He says that the protests have led to his own university capitulating to student demands.

He follows this up with a complaint that SFA feel that students should be able to direct their own educational path.

The solution to this is to have faculty members run extracurricular programming. This should include everything from student orientation to residence life to academic advising to career services.

Now lets look at the biggest problem here. The average professor makes between $70,000 and $110,000 a year while the average student affairs professional makes between $35,000 and $65,000. To have a professor take over the job of a staff member making 1/2 their salary would be absurdly costly. Every professor who did so would need to do a job that they have no training for at double the efficiency in order for the university to break even.

Unfortunately for his argument the main reason why universities today have so many staff members doing things that in the 1950s were either done by faculty, or weren’t done at all, has a lot to do with capitalism. In the shift from elite to mass education many things needed to be offered at scale. This includes things like residence life, student orientation, academic advising, and career services. To offer these things at scale a professional workforce that specialized in those things took over them, allowing faculty to focus on teaching and research.

If instead a university decides faculty lead student services is an important thing and so will reduce services to ensure that faculty can provide them instead of professional staff then that university will have a harder time competing as they will be providing fewer services for the same price. This problem arises whether you feel that the university is offering “mass” education or “elite” education. Universities are not immune to market forces, and those forces don’t want universities to decrease services, those services are what get students who may not have been able to access post secondary 60 years ago to thrive and graduate on time.

Unfortunately it is not uncommon to see people write articles about post secondary as if you don’t need to think about 1) how much things cost or 2) where that money comes from. Both errors that Dr. Abrams seems to have made.

A second issue in the article is a mistake that Dr. Abrams has made before in his article “One of the Most Liberal Groups in America“. And that issue is the conflation of jobs that results in his phrase “student-facing administrators”, referred to in other articles by him as “professional class of administrators”. In the articles he cites, such as “Remarks on Benjamin Ginsberg’s Fall of the Faculty” the definition of “administrator” is very narrow and is used to refer to “vice-presidents and vice-provosts” “deans and chairs” “associate and assistant deans and assistant chairs” and their support staff. Dr. Abrams takes that group and combines them with the Student Affairs professionals to create his term “student-facing administrators”. This allows two things, first it widens the pay scale and second it makes the mean seem like the median or mode.

Vice, assistant, and associate, provosts, deans, and chairs nearly always arise from the faculty side. They usually have a history as a tenured or tenure track professor, and they almost always have a doctoral degree. They nearly always have a higher salary than faculty. Their direct staff tend to be administrative assistants and the like who make 1/4 to 1/3 of what they make and rarely have influence beyond the office in which they are situated.

Student Affairs professionals as a whole have either bachelors degrees or, commonly in the US and uncommonly in Canada, masters degrees and are in student facing roles. Dr. Abrams is correct that their role is often one of overseeing the extracurricular activities on campus. But unlike vice, assistant, and associate provosts, deans, and chairs they always have a lower salary than faculty and their say on policy is always smaller than that of the actual administrators.

By conflating the two groups Dr. Abrams gets to imply that the large influence on university policy held by the actual administrators is also held by the student affairs professionals, thus making the group exercising a large influence becomes bigger than the number of non administrator faculty. This is untrue, as Dr. Abrams no doubt knows.

I’m sure the last problem here is obvious by now. If you share the salary of an associate dean and imply that student affairs professionals make that salary then you can imply that the ballooning of budgets is because of them. In a recent twitter thread new student affairs professionals shared whether they made in the 30-40k range or the 40-50k range. Virtually no one was above 40k and the majority of them had a masters degree. To conflate that person with the assistant provost making $100,000 more is absurd. And the most frustrating part is that since Dr. Abrams has done the research and knows all of this he must be doing it deliberately.

Rhetorical Misuse

There are some people whose rhetorical goal is to bring the reader/listener to a point of numbness where they feel that the topic is too complex to understand and they defer to the expert. This is especially used when talking with those who agree with the premises and conclusion that the speaker/writer has. Thus the reader/listener feels good because their view has been supported by an expert, and the writer/speaker feels good because they have received support.

But in reality all that has happened is the linking of premise and conclusion with a bunch of wibbly wobbly rhetorical wimey stuff that isn’t a functional argument.

This leads to polarization of belief as camps grow around the speaker/writer and they are combative with other groups around a different speaker/writer who disagree with the premises or conclusions, but because the speakers/writers never actually educated their groups but simply provided them with unlinked premises and conclusions the two groups turn their backs on each other because to admit that they don’t understand it is to admit that they might be wrong. It is to admit that they hold the premises and conclusions not because it’s true but because they received confirmation of their biases from an “expert”. It is to admit that their proof is based not on truth but on a misunderstanding or misrepresentation of the evidence or of the opponents perspective.

Education and Weight Lifting

There is a huge difference between training and education.

There is nothing wrong with job or skills training. But, both have the same limitations: they are, by necessity, narrow and tightly defined. We must not allow “education” to be taken by either of these cul de sacs. 

Training is necessary but limited. It focuses on a narrow concept and teaches that. In the next generation job training will be only partly useful. A person who needs to change jobs five times can’t do a two year training course every time. Which brings us to education.

What is the purpose of education?

Education teaches to expand the mind and allow it to become flexible. It must be a way of broadening horizons, introducing new ideas, and helping people learn to be adaptable. It supports training in that if that person has been taught how to learn quickly, and how to be flexible then they could learn each new skill set in a fraction of the time, and perhaps with only a minimal amount of skill training as opposed to one to two years. Some people are innately good at this, but not everyone is, and that’s why formalized education exists.

Now there are many factors that affect this. I don’t plan on hashing out what education is here because others have done it much better, and in much greater depth than I ever could (I was going to give links, but honestly there’s been so much written about the history and purpose of education that I can’t even summarize it here, and that’s ignoring everything before 1960 (aka most of history)).

Dr. Steven Conn, a professor of History at Ohio State University, has a very thought provoking article in The Chronicle of Higher Education called “The Rise of the Helicopter Teacher“. It discusses the increase in teachers in American post secondary institutions making their classes easier for students. I’m not going to debate whether or not he’s correct, though I feel that this is exactly what Côté & Allahar feared was coming to Canada).

Dr. Conn compares his take on grade inflation and decreasing academic standards as being similar to helicopter parents.

Either way, like those parents who swaddle their kids in bubble wrap before letting them use the slides, too many faculty members now are scared to watch their students struggle and fail. Bad for their self-esteem, worse for my annual evaluation from my department chair.

Having worked as a teacher in both a suburban and rural high school and having worked for eight years in post secondary student affairs I feel that I have a unique perspective on helicopter parents. In the high schools I worked in I had fairly frequent encounters with helicopter parents and I have to say that although I can understand that at the extreme end of the spectrum that would make it difficult to do my job properly, I think that for the majority of parents out there it’s just trying to help.

But Dr. Conn does have a bit of a point here. Although the helicopter parent is trying to help, what they’re actually doing is making it harder for their students in the long run. It is like the student who has someone else complete an assignment for them, yes it technically checked off the box for completing that assignment, but they didn’t learn anything from it. And the point of education is not to get through and get a credential, the point is to learn, grow, and expand your horizons.

Education, and a liberal arts education in particular, is just as useful as going to the gym. Lifting weights doesn’t prepare me for my job. Running doesn’t help with my career. Neither helps me with what I do for fun (mostly cooking, reading, and computers). But it improves my way of life by increasing my strength, helping keep me healthy, etc. Education strengthens your brain, it keeps it healthy, it makes your ability to learn more flexible.

This brings up the problem of standardized tests. The problem with standardized testing is that it doesn’t allow you to judge learning, only content retention. It doesn’t look at complex thinking. It assesses the method of education but not the purpose of education. It’s like assessing health by how much you can bench press.

We are now in a world where almost everyone is carrying a dictionary, encyclopedia, and calculator in their pockets. Why then is content memorization the key. Basic concepts are important, but beyond that the ability to understand, dispute, and analyze information is more important than memorization. Frameworks become more important as you need a general idea of what content fits where but, for example, knowing the exact year of a battle is less helpful than knowing the order of key battles and decade.

Content should be used as a way of building skills and a way of gaining a general gist of an area but there is no reason to keep that content after it’s done its job.

The point isn’t weightlifting, weightlifting is a means to an end. The point is overall health.

Education By Algorithm

John Warner over at Inside Higher Ed had yet another great colum. More States Adopt Robo-Grading. That’s Bananas. It’s regarding more places wanting to use algorithms to assess work. Seriously, go read it.

Grading by algorithm is stupid. Here’s the example of a computer generated paragraph that got perfect marks on the GRE essay algorithm given in the article:

“History by mimic has not, and presumably never will be precipitously but blithely ensconced. Society will always encompass imaginativeness; many of scrutinizations but a few for an amanuensis. The perjured imaginativeness lies in the area of theory of knowledge but also the field of literature. Instead of enthralling the analysis, grounds constitutes both a disparaging quip and a diligent explanation.”

Did that make sense? Nope.

What’s the point of essay writing? No seriously, what’s the point? It’s to train students to explain their point or argument in long form and back it up. From that they learn to tailor their writing to their reader, to structure an argument in a way that makes sense to others, and it helps them understand the purposes of supporting arguments. When you replace the reader with an algorithm that can’t assess the strength of an argument you change that. The reader is no longer a person, so they’re not learning how to write so a human can understand. The purpose of supportiong arguments never comes into it because the algorithm can’t tell the difference between a strong and weak argument, so the only thing they’re learning is how to structure their argument, except the reader is an algorithm, so they’re learning a single structure that “passes” the test.

If this is how they’re going to grade essays then there’s no reason to write essays.

Lets expand this. What’s the point of essay writing? To learn how write so a person will understand. If a person isn’t reading it, what’s the point?

What it does is make it easier to require teaching to a test, or in this case an algorithm. And once you’ve done that you can start removing anything that doesn’t help when being tested by that algorithim. Once that’s happened then there’s no real reason to teach the course at all, since no one learns anything important from it.

Something similar is happening in mathematics. Tests can’t determine if you followed the right procedure, only if you got the final answer right. So why bother teaching multiple methods of getting there? Besides that it helps give you a fuller understanding of mathematics and makes future math lessons easier. And for history why teach anything that won’t be a multiple choice question on the final test? Besides that by doing so you reduce history to a caricature that an unscrupulous rhetorician or politician can hang whatever they want on regardless of what the truth is.

I’m not saying this would lead to the downfall of mass education, but it would definitely contribute to it.

Testing out Gutenberg Editor

So I’m giving the new Gutenberg editor a shot. I do a lot of text heavy research posts on my other blog, even though this one is basically shut down for now. I just haven’t had much to say on it.

So I figured I’d use this blog to test the editor before trying to use it on my main blog.

Citation needed?
Continue reading “Testing out Gutenberg Editor”