The Real Villains of Higher Education

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Students and professors can’t be real co-workers until they snatch power back from university administrators.

By Malcolm Harris


(Photo: Tobias Leeger/Flickr)

When I was in college I had one class with a professor who was clearly past his retire-by date. I think we were his final class (international law), and he spent much of his weekly lecture bragging about his son, a successful arms manufacturer. Students shot each other looks as he compared President Barack Obama to Francisco Franco or advised us to invest in derivatives (only months before the financial crisis). Mostly we used our laptops to do other work and tuned the guy out. It was tolerable, but not exactly what higher education is supposed to be.

College students and professors are co-workers. We don’t usually think about it that way, but it’s the truth. On a day-to-day basis they share the classroom space and cooperate to make it function. Ideally, students should be responsible to professors and to each other for their part: Doing the reading, showing up on time, participating in good faith, etc. Likewise, professors should be accountable to students and to each other. The mechanisms of accountability that exist in the contemporary university, however, set them up as adversaries.

It’s no secret that students live in fear of professors. With their red pens and recommendation letters, individual teachers wield a lot of power with regard to individual students. It’s common to hear about professors today who have come to fear students as well. Adjuncts, graduate students, and other teachers without job security know one stubborn complaint from a pissed off undergraduate could derail their entire career. Student evaluations put the red pen in the other hand. If there’s a significant problem in the classroom, you can’t blame students or teachers for doing the academic equivalent of lawyering up. It’s a big risk to just try and figure it out.

Without a good recourse, some students and teachers have taken to the Internet to air their grievances. In her blog post “Academia, Love Me Back,” grad student Tiffany Martínez wrote about how her professor accused her of plagiarism without any real basis, and the hurt it caused her. Circling the word “hence,” the teacher wrote, “this is not your word,” underlining not for emphasis. “My professor assumed someone like me would never use language like that,” Martínez writes, “As I stood in the front of the class while a professor challenged my intelligence I could just imagine them reading my paper in their home thinking could someone like her write something like this?” The post went viral; hopefully it has raised some awareness, but it probably didn’t solve Martínez’s very real problem.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Michael Rectenwald, a New York University liberal arts professor who went on Twitter as “@antipcNYUprof” to complain about “SJWs” and “safe-space culture” anonymously, since he didn’t feel safe to do so at school. “Identity politics on campus have made an infirmary of the whole, damn campus,” he told the NYU paper, “Let’s face it: every room is like a hospital ward. What are we supposed to do? I can’t deal with it — it’s insane.” Reading between the lines on Rectenwald’s rant you can start to see what his real complaint is: When students complain to the administration, the administration leverages those complaints to snatch away faculty power. If students ask for content warnings, administrators use it as an excuse to start dictating curriculum decisions.

Administrators don’t have a physical role in the classroom, but their presence lurks. Because they tend to think like businesspeople, they imagine students as customers, and when they interact with students it’s usually under the terms of customer service. In my experience, professors hate thinking of their students as consumers, and the students who get the most out of college (beyond a resume line) don’t like it either. But administrators have increased their power at everyone else’s expense. Professors have lost influence as administrators replaced tenure lines with adjuncts and grad students. Investment in automation shrank (often unionized) campus service and maintenance workforces. And 1960s student power energy was slowly channeled into customer satisfaction surveys. American student governments are a joke.

I don’t think students and professors can resolve all their classroom problems by dispelling the administration’s lurking shadow, but it might be an important precondition. If these two groups are going to work together effectively, they need the collective authority to solve their own problems. But students and teachers can’t be co-workers if they’re subject to administrators that view them as customer and service worker, respectively. The first real move in the war between students and teachers has to be both sides teaming up to steal power back from the administrators.

Professors like Rectenwald have to decide whether they’re really angry at students experimenting with politics or administrators hoarding power; if it’s the latter then they need to make their case to students. They can’t beat the administration by themselves. Students, grad students, campus service and maintenance workers, adjuncts, and professors do the essential work of higher education, and they can shut down any school if they want to. If one group can keep the support of the other two, their actions are much more likely to succeed.

The system as it exists is set up to the advantage of the litigious and the tattletales, the tyrannical and the petty. Most people involved will agree that it sucks, but trying to change the university from the inside means countless meetings with administrative snakes, not to mention all the career risks. Better to keep your head down and get along, just like those of us in that bad international law class. Only by struggling for and securing institutional power will students and professors — together, scholars — be able to address their conflicts in a way that’s conducive to learning rather than litigation.

One initial step might be strengthening student and professor organization at the department level. The people most capable of addressing a student who’s interfering with class, for example, or a professor giving long diatribes full of sketchy investment advice, are their colleagues. That’s whose judgment they respect in the first place, not some professional bureaucrat’s. Scholars on both sides of the lectern can build up the infrastructure to deal with conflicts internally. Such a scheme would only work if the participants were truly committed, not just using it to cover their asses. But if the alternative is yielding more and more power to administrators, then it might be worth it to be accountable to your co-workers.

Still, individual professors — as stupid and irresponsible as I think someone like Rectenwald is — and particularly entitled students are red herrings. They’re media archetypes (built on the occasional real-world example) that make for great copy, but aren’t good for much else. As Martínez ends her essay: “Academia needs work.” The primary task is prying the tools from the administrative grip. There would still be plenty of work to do afterwards, but I believe the path forward would be much clearer.