Democracy and Hierarchy in Higher Education
Lynn Hunt, April 2002
The evidence for an astounding democratizing trend in American higher education is well known. Around 1900 only 1 percent of high school graduates went on to college; today nearly 70 percent do so. The overall size of the faculty has increased more than fivefold since 1950 and now numbers more than one million. Among the 12 million students counted in 1997, 56 percent were women, and 25 percent came from minorities. So why aren't we all celebrating this undeniably remarkable achievement? It is, after all, one of the defining features of present-day American society that so many opportunities for higher education are available, not just to the rich, not just to the sophisticated, and not just to 18-year-olds.
I hope to dispose quickly of one of the most frequent but ultimately unconvincing complaints: that democratization has inevitably lowered standards. At the graduate level, most faculty apparently no longer even cherish this old chestnut, though the changing perception may be attributable to the contraction of history graduate programs since the 1970s. As the survey of the Committee on Graduate Education has shown (see Philip M. Katz's report in the February 2002 Perspectives), 37 percent of directors of graduate studies reported that their pool of applicants for graduate study had improved in the past five years, and only 21 percent thought the quality of applicants had declined. I think that improvement can also be found at the undergraduate level, though I feel certain that many will disagree. Yes, many undergraduates come to our classes with only a thin knowledge of history (except perhaps in U.S. history), and we all have our favorite versions of riotously funny mistakes made on examinations. And yes, it is irritating to confront the thoughtless cynicism that sometimes accompanies the watered-down relativism that often passes for undergraduate sophistication. But my impression is that undergraduates now write better than ever before, whether they come directly from high school or via the community colleges. They may not know much European or non-Western history (though they usually know more non-Western history than I did at their stage), but they often do know how to learn and how to organize what they have learned in order to make a persuasive case.
But rather than provoke an argument about the preparation of today's students, I want to draw attention to less immediately evident structural changes that have taken place as a result of the democratization of higher education. Although democratization has afforded higher education to millions previously excluded from its precincts, it has come at a cost, not so much in terms of student intellectual quality as in terms of life within the university. The number of faculty has increased but the number of administrators has skyrocketed. Just between 1976 and 1989, the number of students increased 25 percent, the number of faculty 30 percent, the number of administrators 43 percent, and the number of "nonfaculty professionals" 123 percent. Educating the population has required big money and combined with government-funded science, democratization has fostered an inexorable trend toward big administration. Even while more teaching positions are turned adjunct and part time to save money, associate deans, associate provosts, and vice presidents proliferate. At some universities the development office has a bigger staff than the combined faculties of many humanities departments.
All of this is understandable—especially when you add American litigiousness into the mix, requiring bigger and bigger offices for the university counsel—but it has had the unfortunate consequence of "corporatizing" higher education. In our decentralized system of higher education, it was virtually inevitable that the big corporation—and not big government—would become the model of choice for decision-making. Its effects are everywhere to be seen. Colleges and universities look for CEOs (presidents) who can attract investment capital (big donations) by raising ratings. Academic stars are recruited with big salaries to raise those ratings. Short-term gains (higher per course enrollments; the use of adjuncts and graduate students to teach more and more courses) and consumer satisfaction (high ratings from students for courses; lots of majors) now dominate too many of our considerations. A number of alarming trends thus are converging and are obscuring the true goals of higher education: developing the base of knowledge required for thinking independently, critically, and creatively. Faculty are largely bewildered by these changes, and since their influence as well as relative numbers have declined vis à vis administrators, they have also lost their voice.
Let me linger on one example that brings many of these developments together in a telling fashion: student evaluations. I readily confess that quantitative student evaluations have long been one of my pet peeves. They didn't enter my teaching life until sometime in the 1980s, for when I taught at the University of California at Berkeley in the 1970s and early 1980s, the history department still clung to narrative, not quantitative, evaluations. The introduction of quantitative evaluations has been trumpeted as a boon to students; their voices would count in promotion and merit increases, and students would be able to make their consumer choices with solid evidence in hand. These were laudable goals. The facts, however, prove otherwise.
As a variety of studies have shown, just about the only real consequence of quantitative evaluations has been pervasive grade inflation (for an overview of the studies, see the recent report of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences on the question at http://www.amacad.org/publications/occasional.htm). Adjuncts and part-timers must give generous grades in order to keep their body counts high enough to remain employed. As one adjunct recently wrote to me, "why would vulnerable adjuncts cut their own throats by upholding high academic standards, if they thereby encounter student wrath, earn poor course evaluations, and scare off potential students who might prevent classes from being unceremoniously canceled due to low enrollment?" Assistant professors who want to gain tenure give students high marks so that they can get the student evaluations that testify to their "successful" pedagogical talents. Even those of us who have already been through these hoops end up following the trend because our reputations and continuing pay increases also depend on being successful—that is, popular—instructors. How many times have I sat through promotion meetings in which otherwise sensible historians argued about the meaning of a 6.7 rating as if it actually meant something precise? Do we actually believe that short-term popularity signals good teaching?
It is time for us to take the lead in arguing for the abolition of quantitative evaluations. They do not serve the purpose for which they were intended; indeed, they end up undermining our goal of good teaching. Quantitative evaluations create the illusion that all kinds of teaching are somehow alike because they can all be graded on a 1–6 or 1–8 or 1–10 scale. They encourage the mistaken belief that good pedagogy comes out of a cookie cutter, that the good teacher is readily recognizable by her or his adherence to some unspecified general model of organization, enthusiasm, and knowledge. I'm not against organization, enthusiasm, and knowledge, but not all good teaching comes out of the Dale Carnegie school of educational marketing. I've seen brilliant teachers mumble, stammer, or stare at the floor six feet in front of them. And I've watched countless search committees prefer—in the name of teaching—slickness to thoughtfulness and glibness to originality. This is the world that aiming at short-term gains has wrought.
Because the democratization of access to higher education has come at the cost of big money and the corporate model of decision-making, it has also introduced new kinds of hierarchies. Most problematic has been the administrative eagerness to "save" money by converting full-time positions into part-time and adjunct ones, reducing an increasingly large segment of the work force to endless commuting for little pay and even fewer benefits. But this is only one—admittedly very important—aspect of a wider problem of increasing differentiation between types of institutions, among institutions of the same type, and even within the faculty of any one institution.
As the educational enterprise has grown in size, it has also become more specialized. Research universities seem to have less in common with liberal arts colleges, community colleges, and high schools than ever before. Historians in research universities forget that they share interests not only with historians in other types of educational institutions but also with those who curate exhibitions, organize archives, write scripts for television, and work in business while maintaining their scholarly ambitions. We are only beginning to restore those links that are so vital to the future of history (see the winter 2002 Magazine of History for a useful discussion of public history). The place of history in K–12 schools is already in jeopardy because most history courses are taught by those with little training in history; the same process is now taking place in community colleges as history is folded into a general humanities and social science curriculum and taught by teachers with training in sociology, literature, and the like. For those of us in the universities to think that this is not "our" concern is simply to be caught up in the workings of corporatization.
Rich private universities are getting richer, even with the recent stock market decline; poor institutions are struggling to stay afloat, especially in times of recession. Graduate programs in the better-off institutions now offer summer funding and money for travel and research to prospective students, while students in the poorer institutions scramble for the always insufficient and underfunded teaching positions in order to make ends meet. Within departments in the research universities, the gap between the highest-paid full professors and the lowest-paid associate professors (in some places paid even less than recently hired assistant professors) is widening almost as fast as the gap between regular and part-time faculty. Hierarchy is increasing, though few call it by that name.
Although you might not believe it right at this moment, I remain fundamentally optimistic about the prospects for American higher education and the place of history within it. If we devote more time to thinking about the general trends that are shaping life in higher education, we may be able to take those concrete steps that will actually enhance our sense of shared mission. In a future column I hope to describe some of those programs that are already underway and the reasons for the enduring strengths of history as a vocation.
—Lynn Hunt (UCLA) is president of the AHA. She can be reached by e-mail addressed to email@example.com.