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.

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.

How is this a threat?

Last week NASPA’s blog had a post called “Five Megatrends Threatening Student Affairs (and How to Turn Them Into Opportunities)” written by Laurence N. Smith and Albert B. Blixt. It was an interesting read, but I have to take issue with one of their points.

Trend #3: Changing student demographics

Overall competition for students will increase over the next decade as the number of high school graduates declines while the racial/ethnic/socio-economic makeup of entering students will shift. By 2020, 45 percent of the nation’s public high school graduates will be non-white compared with 38 percent in 2009. Students will be more likely to be the first in family to attend college and will have fewer economic means. In addition, more of those entering college will be foreign-born including immigrants and international students recruited actively by colleges and universities. Adult learners, often with jobs and families, are becoming a greater percentage of the student body. Finally, we are seeing the end of the millennial generation and a new “touchscreen” generation coming to campus. All of these emerging segments have different needs and expectations that have direct implications for what services student affairs needs to provide.

Here’s my issue: how is this a threat to Student Affairs? Now, I understand that they’re trying to make a rhetorical point to springboard into their ways to take advantage of opportunities but hear me out with my issue.

Continue reading “How is this a threat?”