When patching the boat becomes unethical (a dispatch from a university in crisis).

Apr 12 2012 Published by under Academia, Institutional ethics, Personal

"We've spent years figuring out how to do more with less. It's time for us to figure out how to do less."

-- my department chair, circa 2008

I have recently arrived at the suspicion that operating in crisis conditions undermines one's ability to make objective judgments. My hunch is that the effect is especially strong when it comes to evaluating whether an on-the-ground response to an extreme reduction in resources will help or hurt the broader goals one (or one's institution) is trying to achieve.

And indeed, this hunch is something I am just articulating to myself (rather than leaving it as a miasma that envelops my head and my workplace) as my assistance has been requested in devising a radical curricular response to "the new normal" of hundreds of millions of dollars cut from the budget (with more to come!) that we have been told are never coming back. The radical curricular response, as I understand it right now, would have the virtue of saving a significant amount of money. However, it would do so by taking particular pedagogical goals that it is difficult to achieve well in a 15 week semester and cramming them into about 5 weeks of another semester-long course -- and by delivering the whole thing completely online to all of our incoming freshmen. This latter detail concerns me in terms of the workload it will entail for the faculty teaching the course and evaluating student work (since, in my experience, the time required teaching online has never been less than teaching the equivalent course in a classroom, and indeed has always been substantially more). And, it concerns me in terms of the challenges it will create as far as getting new college students to engage meaningfully with the course material, with their professors, and with each other. (My experience teaching upper division students online is that even keeping them engaged is a challenge.)

There is a piece of me that loves problem-solving enough that I have been thinking through topics and readings and assignments that might efficiently achieve the pedagogical goals in question. There are people I respect, people I like, who believe this goal is attainable and consistent with our educational mission.

But, there is another part of me, one whose voice is getting louder, that says this is an exercise in patching a boat that cannot, cannot stay afloat under these conditions. This part of me argues that we need to recognize this radical curricular response for what it really is: a signal that we have passed the point where we can actually deliver a quality college education with the resources we will be given.

If that's what it is, can it be ethical to proceed as if we can somehow deliver something close enough to a quality college education? Should we not, instead, call it as we see it and identify the resources we need to do the job we're supposed to do?

Obviously, asking for appropriate resources does not guarantee that we will get them. It may result in our doing the job right but for fewer students. Conceivably, it might also result in the administrators finding ways to clear out faculty who say the job cannot be done with less (by eliminating our departments, for example, or by ramping up class sizes and cutting salaries to the point that the job becomes intolerable) until the ones who remain are the ones willing to play ball.

I have tended to view adaptability as a good thing, but I have long been suspicious of the assumption that we should regard the environment to which we might adapt as an immovable object -- especially when that environment is made up of people making policy decisions. I think I'm ready to find out whether university system administrations can adapt when faculty take a stand for quality education.

13 responses so far

  • Jonathan Kaplan says:

    Thanks for this, Janet. At some point, it becomes impossible to deliver a quality education at the cost-per-student demanded. The question then becomes what do we do about it?

    We can keep patching the boat -- working ever harder to provide an increasingly inadequate education to more people, with less support. Every time class sizes get bigger, we can juggle our assignments w/ the new grading load, taking on as much extra work as we can, but knowing that we simply can't provide the same level of feedback, etc.

    We can struggle to change minds and policies -- trying to convince voters and politicians that education is far less expensive than prison, that there are real economic benefits to high quality education, that democracy demands good education, that basic fairness and decency demand that we make high quality education available at low cost to everyone, etc etc. But we have to recognize that we have so far failed, and it may be that we can't win this battle, at this time.

    We can refuse to be a part of the system, which might involve having to find new careers.

    Or, of course, we can commit to not caring and doing a crappy job. At some point, when the faculty are the only people that seem to give a damn about the quality of the educational experience, it may becomes tempting to 'phone it in.' I've joked on occasion that I really don't know how *bad* a teacher I could be, but I can imagine circumstances in which I'd be willing to find out. When impossibly large classes combine with impossible research expectations, something will have to give. Powerpoint and multi-choice exams, anyone?

  • Eventually the patch gets stretched to thin and pops, sinking the boat in the process.

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    An olive oil salesman was talking with his business consultant friend; he was complaining how after feeding his donkey he had hardly any profit left at the end of the day. The business friend suggested he feed the donkey a little less.

    A few weeks passed and the consultant friend comes upon the olive oil salesman who looks warn out with tethered clothing. The business consultant asks what happened; to which the olive oil salesman tells:

    “I took your advice and started feeding the donkey a little less. I saw my profits jump up. After a little I cut the rations for the donkey once again & profits rose again. Then the donkey died.”

    • Janet D. Stemwedel says:

      I suspect that in our state it's easier to make the case for the value of olive oil than for the value of higher education. Or, for that matter, to make the case for treating a donkey humanely than for treating a faculty member humanely.

      This makes me sad.

    • Jen says:

      I don't understand. Really. I just read this twice. He's selling olive oil. What do donkeys matter?

      • Respisci says:

        Think old school--he is using his donkey to deliver the olive oil to his customers.

      • D. C. Sessions says:

        Jen, it's a very old story (IIRC, Talmudic) with a few modern touches.

        In the old version I remembered, the donkey driver was actually a for-hire delivery service. His profits came from the loads the donkey carried, his costs from feeding the donkey.

        In the original, he kept decreasing the feed and increasing the loads, and the donkey kept trying harder and harder to do what its master required -- right up until the donkey dropped dead under the load.

        That version, I'm afraid, is rather closer to what Our Gracious Hostess faces.

        • paul says:

          Personally I think it is a matter of perspective..... If you view the donkey as an EXPENSE you can TEMPORARILY MAKE PORFIT by cutting down on the expenses (food for the donkey). If you see the donkey as an INVESTMENT you INVEST FOR LIFE.... The way I put it... Is it better to buy a piece of fillet at say $10 and eat it once or a few kilos of....beans to keep you alive for a....life time?

  • From what I see from here in New Zealand, tertiary education all over the Western world is suffering from a drop in standards and rising costs to students. I studied in the UK at a time when student loans there were low and in NZ, a university education was still free. Now graduates from both countries leave with massive loans. This is bad enough in itself except that (in NZ anyway) there seems to be a mass of sub-standard courses designed purely to make money for the educational(?) facility with little regard for standards or utility of the qualification received. Very sad!

  • drugmonkey says:

    But...the market is adjusting!

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  • Liz Ditz says:

    We're seeing this in our local k-8 school district. We didn't have a luxury budget in 2007-2008. For every $1/student we had then, we have $0.70 this year.

    It's not just the impact on the classroom. Things are just not getting done, because there aren't the administrators to do them. One example is grants: just not able to write the grants or do the followup.