Commentary

Laurie Essig & Jamie McCallum: An opportunity to reimagine higher education

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Laurie Essig and Jamie McCallum, who are co-chairs of the Middlebury College chapter of the American Association of University Professors. Essig is a professor and director of Gender, Sexuality & Feminist Studies and McCallum is an associate professor of sociology.

The value of a liberal arts education lies in teaching students to think deeply and respond imaginatively. And yet most institutions of higher education are responding to the current economic and health crisis according to a familiar playbook: hoard the endowment, safeguard the institution’s brand, deepen austerity measures. But liberal arts colleges should take their own advice. How might the critical thinking skills and values we champion allow us to transform higher education in the other direction? We offer three general lessons that liberal arts colleges and universities teach that are especially helpful now as we navigate this historic crisis. 

Lesson 1: The crisis in higher education was not caused by the pandemic alone. One of the basic methods of critical inquiry is to ask: What if the cause is actually the effect? What if the crisis we are facing in higher education is not simply the result of the pandemic? Rather, the pandemic is laying bare the pre-existing problems in our educational institutions, in much the same way it has highlighted the problems of unequal access to health care that result from income inequality and structural racism. 

A recent meta-analysis of peer-reviewed studies revealed that quality education is what actually makes, well, quality education. But universities have made a habit of putting their resources toward administrative expansion, luxurious vanity projects that are useful to only a minority of the student body, wasteful development of the physical space of campuses, and buying up satellite schools elsewhere to expand the brand. They have also decimated the profession by pushing more and more professors into the permanent precarious labor of adjunct teaching. And yes, despite paying less to the people who educate, the cost of a four-year degree has increased eight times faster than wages. 

Elite private universities and colleges like ours have been in an arms race to see who can amass the largest endowment. Yet even the well-endowed appear powerless to use their size to their advantage when it matters most. Many colleges publicly insist that they can’t utilize more than a small percentage, but in fact that they have a fair amount of control over their endowments. That has been true at our own institution, but it is such a universal experience within higher education that a recent McSweeney’s spoof encouraged us to “think about this whole thing less as a school with an endowment and more as an endowment with educational benefits.” 

Lesson 2: Our values can drive our business model. Today, students, faculty and staff are being offered a false choice between our core values and financial stability. The only question asked is: How much do we cut? We are force fed a steady regimen of doom and gloom that makes it seem like our only option is to betray our principles — not to mention our labor standards and financial future — or go out of business. Though many schools are unfortunately closing permanently even before the current crisis, elite schools are using the threat of closure to institute long-standing austerity measures that will outlive the predicted nadir of the crisis. Research shows that when crises happen, universities take things away from employees, but they don’t give them back when times are good. 

How we use our resources now — we at Middlebury are at the low end among our peers, with about $1 billion stashed away in the endowment — is a reflection of our values. Do we use furloughs, layoffs, and salary cuts to balance our budget? Do we erode our employees’ health care during a public health crisis? Or do we honor our commitments to faculty, staff, and students, preventing a deeper crisis among those of us who are most vulnerable? 

Our colleagues have just voted overwhelmingly to endorse a series of budgetary principles that seek to avoid cuts whenever possible, promoting a larger draw on the endowment, so that the current generation does not bear the full burden of the crisis.

Lesson 3: We can transform higher education from below. A once-in-a-lifetime crisis requires that we break from the old orthodoxy of austerity and reimagine a university that works for the common good. That’s why we, along with over 100 faculty and staff colleagues, restarted our college’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors. From below, we saw nothing but the same-old thinking from our administrators and board of trustees. Cut salaries of the people who make education happen, but don’t sell assets. Cut health care and research funds, but continue developing an expensive dorm across the country in one of our “brand” sites. 

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Across the country, a movement is coalescing to reverse the trajectory of higher education, ensuring that this crisis is not used to make changes that will negatively impact the future of our educational missions. We are excited to join with other groups ,unions, even college presidents and trustees who are ready to work for a financial future that centers our classrooms and lecture halls. It won’t be easy, but we believe a liberal arts education offers the skills we need to make it happen.


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