Monday, June 13, 2005

The changing mix of information labor in higher education

Over the past decade or so, those of us employed in what used to be called "state-funded" higher education have taken to calling our field "state-assisted" higher education instead, since in many states less than half of the funding for university systems now comes from state legislature appropriations (the rest usually comes from tuition, outside research grants, endowments, and things like patent royalties). Here in Wisconsin, where "state-assisted" means only about a 20% slice of the funding pie, we in higher education are trying to get a handle on the recent government budget plans announced by the Republican-controlled legislative committee overseeing such matters which continue their pattern of cutting college and university staffing funds for state information workers, and all but assuring continued tuition increases for state students hoping to one day become information workers themselves. (If you've followed my recent postings on funding debates over Madison schoolteachers and prohibitions on local communities raising the minimum wage you might be getting the picture that Wisconsin, long reputed to be a "progressive" state, is becoming more hostile to labor. Remember, this is also that state that pioneered national "welfare reform" posing as a jobs program.)

Now a recent report available from the National Center for Education Statistics (cite: illustrates that all across higher education, a profound shift in the source of funding for educational and research knowledge work at the university is taking place -- a shift which also impacts the norms and goals of such work. The relatively new online journal "Inside Higher Ed" reports that while state-assisted, non-profit faculty jobs only increased 3% from 2001-2003, faculty jobs at private, for-profit colleges increased some 46%. Further, the report reveals some disturbing divides along geographic, gender, and ethnic lines with respect to job security aka "tenure":

Men held 61 percent of full-time faculty positions.

Three states — California, New York and Texas — have more than 40,000 full-time faculty members, while full-time faculty jobs fall below 2,000 in three states: Alaska, Delaware and Wyoming.

Of full-time faculty members, about 45 percent are tenured and another 20 percent are on the tenure track.

Full-time faculty members are most likely to be tenured at public institutions (48 percent), followed by private nonprofit institutions (40 percent) and for-profit colleges (3 percent).

Within public higher education, full-time faculty members are more likely to be tenured at four-year institutions (50 percent) than at two-year institutions (43 percent).

A greater proportion of male full-time faculty members (50 percent) than women (36 percent) is tenured.

A greater proportion of white full-time faculty members (47 percent) is tenured than are members of other ethnic groups: Asian (42 percent), Hispanic (41 percent), black (38 percent).


Why does tenure matter? Why does diversity matter? Why does geography matter? All are related to the ability of academic faculty as a community to practice research honestly, openly, and for the long-term public good -- no matter what the profitability or social acceptability of that research might be at a particular point in the business cycle -- rather than for short-term private gain. A diverse faculty, spread among a variety of places, with enough tenured members to provide saftey and stability both generates new ideas and protects those ideas in the face of "common sense" and reactionary criticism (while at the same time subjecting those ideas to careful empirical and theoretical criticism, the value which academic study brings to knowledge production as a whole). But even apart from this, a secure, diverse, and dispersed community of scholars helps ensure that interested students from all backgrounds and all areas of the country may continue to find an educational niche to help them train and learn for the careers and lives they wish to lead.

Private, for-profit universities cannot create such a secure, diverse, and dispersed community. After all, they are not intended to. They are designed to appear when and where profit opportunities are greatest, "cherry picking" from the least-risky consumer trends, remaining "agile" enough in committment to any one norm or goal to shift on a dime if economic realities change unexpectedly (as they always do). They are designed to create short-term profit for their owner-investors, by selling short-term educational and training solutions to their student-consumers -- thus they offer at best short-term security to knowledge workers. They are designed to create a demand through marketing and then meet that demand through sales, not to work thanklessly but steadily for the public interest over a time scale of decades. Private, for-profit institutions of any sort are simply not designed to preserve and enhance collective culture, science, and wisdom. But as states defund primary, secondary, and yes, higher education to an alarming degree, they are in fact slowly but surely creating a private, for-profit educational system, leaving no institution standing to "compete" for the hopes and dreams of students or the wants and needs of communities in producing socially useful knowledge and socially productive learners.

Yes, I'm on a soapbox today. Education is a lifelong investment in individuals that yields lifelong dividends for communities. Therefore, the individuals who choose to labor in that field, training and learning for years themselves over a long-term life committment while often eschewing opportunities for short-term profits in their own work lives, deserve their community's investment in their efforts as well. Information -- knowledge -- must be produced, must be labored over, must be constantly questioned and refined ("sifted and winnowed" they like to say here in Wisconsin, even as they defund the university), and ulitmately passed on to generations of students, learners, and citizens, by someone. By educators, teachers, professors, staffers, and administrators. By information and knowledge laborers who shepherd this enormous resource of enlightment from mind to mind, community to community, order to bring value to us all.

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