It’s likely that you missed the Report and Recommendations of The Governor’s Advisory Commission on Postsecondary Education when it was released last November. But we faculty ignore it at our peril since it does not look to be one of those reports that will gather dust. Its proposal for performance-based funding figured heavily into Governor Corbett’s February 1st announcement on higher education funding. Although the Chair of the Commission (Rob Wonderling) and Pennsylvania’s Deputy Secretary for Higher Education (L. Jill Hans) have not yet responded to my queries about the status of its other recommendations, they seems likely to inform discussion on the Commonwealth’s stance toward post-secondary education. So for my inaugural column as editor of The Faculty Herald, I want to bring this report to your attention and use it to think through what our role as faculty at Temple could and should be. What the Report will mean for Temple isn’t clear at this point, and there is reason to hope our new president will deal productively and wisely with its effects. But faculty must do more than hope that administrators act rightly; we must be on the watch for proposals that emerge from the Report and insist that we have a role in addressing how they affect our university.
I have to admit that I let the Report sit on my desk for a while, and it took some time to fight my way through it. Written in the sludgy prose you might expect from a document issued by a 31-member panel made up largely of managers, it is neither a quick nor a pleasant read. Yet although style is crucial to sense as I’ll demonstrate below, I don’t want to score cheap points by tweaking the report for its opaque phrasing—or at least, that’s not all I want to do. Nor do I want to seem ungrateful for the Commission’s considerable labors. It includes the presidents of Dickinson, Pitt, Penn State, and Penn, as well as Temple’s own Dick Englert, and the findings of such thoughtful and experienced leaders demand a serious hearing. Its announced goals are worthy, from “affirming opportunities for life-long learning” to “ensuring greater accessibility, affordability, and usability for post-secondary education” to helping the state compete economically. The report also identifies real and profound problems facing higher ed, including the unsustainable costs of higher education that threaten our mission by crushing our students and their families with debt. The Commission correctly notes the damaging decline in state support (6), a key driver of higher tuition in state systems throughout the U. S.; and it correctly identifies the arms race that diverts money from the academic core to provide ever more luxurious accommodations and other amenities to lure students and their tuition dollars (7). The report also pays significant attention to educating students from under-represented backgrounds, central to Temple’s mission. It avoids egregious recommendations like the one made by a parallel Florida commission that students majoring in fields like Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics be charged lower tuition than those in ‘useless’ majors like, well, everything else. Best of all, after two years of meat-cleaver cuts proposed by our governor, it happily suggests no cuts this year and then a $250 million increase to bring funding back to the average for the decade prior to Corbett, though not adjusted for inflation.
But that increase would be tied to a significant string—a yet-to-be-defined set of “performance metrics” —and it is only one of many discomfiting elements in the report. The most troubling of them isn’t any particular recommendation but rather the woeful lack of faculty participation. Among the 31 appointees, we find: 11 presidents of non-profit colleges and universities; 3 presidents of for-profit colleges; many corporate leaders, including the CEOs of QVC and a petroleum service company; and many officials from the state agencies overseeing higher ed. If we squint, we can spy a single student (from a private college, as it happens) and, yes, there, one non-administrative faculty member. Of course, it would be hard for any single person to represent the diverse faculty of Pennsylvania higher ed, but it is harder still for the representative the Governor selected—from Grove City College. In case you haven’t heard of this private Christian school, it has the dubious distinction of being the longest resident on AAUP’s censure list, placed there in 1963 for disregarding standards of academic freedom and tenure. In 1984, it began refusing federal money so that it would not be subject to that intolerable bit of the federal code known as Title IX, which bars gender discrimination at educational institutions. It is therefore no surprise that The Young America’s Foundation names it a Top Conservative College or that The Princeton Review lists it as the nation’s most LGBT-unfriendly school. Given all this, it is simply perverse that Grove City furnished the only faculty member on the Commission. In a similar vein, the Commission invited over 70 “Expert Speakers,” including many business leaders and administrators (and a few more students), but, again, almost no faculty—a grand total of two.
But how does this lack of faculty participation speak to the substance of the report? Let’s take up a few of the Commission’s specific recommendations to see what we can infer about their vision of higher education and the faculty’s role within it.
Distance Education. It is hard to be reassured by the Commission’s cryptic allusions to that part of the higher-ed enterprise known as teaching, which as I understand it still requires faculty. In a small masterpiece of edu-cratic jargon, the Commission recommends that the governor “support learning innovations that improve outcomes with the same or fewer human resources, leveraging the extensive research on the efficacy of various curricular reforms for different types of students and situations” (7). Online education would seem to be among these “learning innovations,” except it’s not clear how this could be accomplished with “the same or fewer human resources,” since maintaining pedagogical quality in online education requires significant investment of “human resources”—faculty and staff, not to mention technological infrastructure. But perhaps the Commission has another model in mind. It recommends launching a Distance Education Pilot to be “administer[ed]” by Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA) “who will partner with relevant state and local agencies to consider workforce needs of the Commonwealth” (8). This would allow greater synergy between higher education and… wait a minute. What does it mean that PHEAA, an agency devoted to giving financial aid to students, would “administer” this new “program expansion”? This is one of those places where the muddiness of the prose really matters. On one hand, the Commission may simply be saying that PHEAA would provide aid to the students enrolled in this pilot. But this would leave unclear who would actually design and run this new enterprise. If some already-existing school, like Penn State, then why not say so? If they really do mean that PHEAA would actually run this pilot university, where will it find the expertise? The absence of any explanation and the absence of faculty involvement in the Commission invite unhappy speculation. Perhaps the state will pilot something like Western Governors University, which currently boasts 30,000+ students but aside from a small handful who teach a month-long course called Education Without Boundaries, those WGU calls faculty either mentor students OR they design and assess curricula. WGU has “unbundled the faculty role.”¹ Its approach certainly requires fewer “human resources”; even if we count the advisors WGU calls faculty as faculty, their student: faculty ratio is twice Temple’s.
Transferability. A related frontier in the battle against pesky and expensive “human resources” is increasing transferability. The Commission recommends that the scope of the Transfer and Articulation Oversight Committee be expanded (5). I think most faculty would agree that unnecessary road blocks should not be placed in the way of students seeking to transfer credits. When I was Director of Undergraduate Studies in the English Department, I was frequently consulted when specific questions arose as to whether or not a student’s CLEP exam—an exam not tied to any course—or the like should be awarded credit. (I didn’t find any of them worth granting credit.) Still, I worry about Temple’s being pressured in the name of streamlining to enter into transfer agreements that take curricular decisions out of the hands of the faculty. See the ongoing struggle by faculty members in the CUNY system to stop a new core curriculum from forced upon them and the emerging debate over whether colleges should award credit to students who have taken Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs), where they are often one of thousands with little or no interaction with the instructor. I wonder if decisions might be made at the state level that would force Temple to grant credit for courses offered through, say, the Distance Education Pilot, or for the Composition course taught by Penn Foster, a for-profit school whose CEO is a member of the Commission. The website lists one “English/Social Science senior instructor,” who has an MA, and then eleven graders, more than half with only BAs. Perhaps there is more to their pedagogy, but what I could glean from their staffing, the promotional material, and the online discussion board does not inspire confidence. But at a cost of only $225 (less if bundled with other classes) the course does seem to be a win “human-resource”-wise.
Consolidation. One final recommendation for saving big on “human resources”—and the one that has the potential to affect Temple most directly—is “to sustain and enhance our rich postsecondary education system” by “convening a working group” that would in 12 months offer recommendations for “program delivery reform, to include, but not limited to consolidation and elimination of programs and/or institutions and their locations in the Commonwealth” (13). Lest we assume that Temple would be exempted from this, the Commission explicitly names the “state-related” institutions (Temple, Pitt, Penn State, Lincoln) and even private institutions as objects of assessment (14). Leaving aside the question of how cutting enhances the richness of our institutions, I would have more faith that such a working group really would include faculty points of view if the Commission’s report had said much of anything about other important factors contributing to soaring costs such as administrative bloat, or if the report had said anything about the deep and broad trend toward non-tenure-track and part-time hiring, which has produced a corrosively hierarchical system that disempowers faculty as a whole and threatens educational quality.
If we are to fight back against our perceived irrelevance, it will not do to say “no” in high academic dudgeon every time we are faced with significant challenges or alternative approaches to education. Looking forward to a later issue dedicated to undergraduate education, I suspect that most of us would profit from becoming more conversant with competency-based learning. It is a discourse at the heart of many new ideas about designing and assessing curricula, and it will not do to dismiss it as a sop to the Gods of Accreditation during their decennial visitation, or as a plot to replace real knowledge with mere instrumentality, as I have heard some colleagues suggest. We must raise the alarm about what could be lost in distance education experiments like MOOCs, as Dan O’Hara does wisely and pointedly in his column in this issue. But we should also guard against reflexively damning distance education in its many varieties as necessarily corrosive to good teaching, and I plan to share in a forthcoming issue an emerging initiative led by faculty and administrators that sets high standards for distance learning at Temple while not encroaching on faculty autonomy.
If faculty are to claim our rightful place at Temple, we, especially those of us on the tenure track, must also take more responsibility for the problems facing us. For instance, we who have earned and enjoy the protection of tenure should acknowledge that while we have been willing to have those on the teaching/instructional track free us to do more research and teach more advanced classes, we have been less willing to help them improve their working conditions and honor their many contributions in service and research as well as teaching. Another way we shirk responsibility is to neglect or denigrate service and then complain that we have no voice. Yes, many committees waste our time by ignoring the faculty or not following through. The proper response is to insist that they allow real faculty input and have real effects. Consider the Task Force on Institutional Integrity, which will feature in the next issue: When first announced it had only one faculty member; we insisted that it at least include one more, and that made a difference. Conversely, we should call attention to instances in which we are properly included, as in the Provost’s Search Committee. Acknowledging administrators when they truly work with us is not servile but rather a way to encourage more of the same.
Many of these challenges and opportunities converge in the new budgeting model President Theobald is introducing; see both my interview with him and the fruitful reflections from colleagues across the university in the previous issue. Though issued in a different context, I am reminded of these words by David Waldstreicher, the previous editor, a generous colleague, and a very tough act to follow: “As a student of political history, I can state that it is precisely in times of economic crisis that the rules of the political game are often reconsidered, with creative and positive consequences.” As President Theobald suggests, Responsibility Centered Management should be a chance for “creative and positive consequences.” It should be a more faculty-centered budgeting model, locating decisions closer to where the faculty live. Given that RCM also grants more power to deans, we must insist, as Mark Rahdert does in his column in this issue on 360 reviews of deans, that we have a voice in evaluating the leaders of our schools and colleges. We should not be timid in raising questions about administrative inefficiency and overreach or in demanding that research and teaching be the first priorities for resources. But if we wish to be taken seriously, we should resist easy and self-serving impulses like “Fire all the deanlets!” In addition to seeking our own sources of revenue whenever it’s feasible and ethical, we should ask administrators to find the resources to realize our aims; but if the money isn’t there we also need to be ready to talk about what we are willing to give up for what we want most.