Thursday, October 22, 2009

When University Presidents Can't Think: Hamid Shirvani

The gentleman writing the editorial below, Hamid Shirvani (pictured above), is a president of a university in the California State University system where I teach.

I'm amazed, if sadly not surprised, by any number of things in the editorial: the writer’s disdain for graduate schools and academic scholarship generally. The idea that students and professors are not "working" for what we have, and the incredible paternalism of his metaphor: yes, it’s true, faculty and students are children who need mature administrators to tell them when they can and can't have "ice cream." His notion that "privilege enters the conversation" instead of acknowledging that he's the one calling it that. The idea that smaller classes are not necessarily better for students and that they exist just because faculty and students "prefer" them. The idea that faculty are not "productive"--does he or does he not have standards for promotion at his university, and don't faculty have to "produce" in order to meet them? I'm especially amazed by the idea that the "teacher-scholar model" may not lead to "thinkers and makers"--is his implication that people who do not have time to think, and who don't make anything, will be better able to teach others to think and make?

In short, it's an article so full of blatant logical errors, weak metaphors, and unexamined thinking that I doubt very much that it would qualify as "B" level work in most classes I teach that require argumentative writing.

I do think those of us in California need to face a series of hard facts though, and one is, that top level administrators in the CSU system have disdain for critical thinking and the necessity of supporting evidence. They simply believe what they wish to believe and invent supporting evidence. Of course, one excellent model for this behavior is the previous president of the U.S. And with leadership this poor, we wonder why our state, and our country, is having a financial crisis?

And by the way? Your tuition dollars and California taxes are paying him a nice fat salary.

Will a Culture of Entitlement Bankrupt Higher Education?
Chronicle of Higher Education of 10/18/09
By Hamid Shirvani

In the wake of our nation’s economic crisis, previous levels of government support for colleges and universities can no longer be maintained—regardless of how much we in higher education may wish otherwise. States are appropriating less money to higher education not because legislators and the people whom they represent value us less, but because they can afford less. Practical realities will drive what is possible for colleges and universities in the coming years.

The economy has suffered changes so deep and fundamental that institutions cannot just hunker down to weather the storm. The time has come for creative reconstruction. We must summon the courage and will to re-engineer education in ways founded on shared responsibility, demanding hard work and a willingness on the part of everyone involved to let go of “the way it’s always been.”

Much has been written in recent months comparing the problems of higher education with those of the auto industry, and many of the comparisons are apt. Resistance to change in academe has helped create inflexible, unsustainable organizations, just as automobile manufacturers wedded to gas-guzzling models have been unprepared for the demand for smaller, more eco-friendly cars.

Yet American auto manufacturers are no more alone in creating their disastrous present than colleges are in attempting to stare down the budget cuts and dwindling revenues they now face. In both instances, inflated consumer demand has created an expectation of elements once considered “extras”: MP3 players and GPS navigation systems in new cars, country-club-quality recreational facilities and multitudes of majors and minors, however narrow, at colleges. People feel entitled to things that were once considered luxuries. And that sense of entitlement—among students, parents, faculty members, and administrators—has driven expansion in higher education beyond what is reasonable or necessary.

Coupled with such growing demands has come an expectation that, as the costs of education rise, government should absorb them. That is no longer possible or desirable. We are moving into an era in which all participants must help bear the costs, direct and indirect, of the privilege of higher education.

As soon as the word “privilege” enters the conversation, people bring up the subject of access, with the implication that if something is a privilege, only privileged people will enjoy it. But in America, access to higher education is unparalleled. No other country has so many fully accredited colleges or has provided such widespread access to student financial aid.

Instead, we should view the privilege of a higher education much as we did the privileges that we enjoyed as children. We knew we couldn’t get ice cream if we didn’t help wash the dishes—we worked for the privileges that we enjoyed, and we shared in the responsibility of earning them. Those special activities were available to us, but we did not enjoy them as a “right.” We were expected to contribute.

We can only hope that today’s harsh economic realities have finally broken the stranglehold of the sense of entitlement about higher education and brought people back down to earth. The reality is that higher education is expensive, and students and their families will be asked to pay an ever-larger share of the costs. Although annual increases in tuition have diminished recently, tuition is still rising faster than inflation.

But the issues are complex and, again, the notion of shared responsibility comes sharply into focus. While students and their families will have to pay more, administrators and faculty members must also work together to offer affordable, effectively delivered educational products and services. With budgets being cut and staff members being laid off or facing a reduced number of workdays, employees in higher education must become more productive.

Cutting costs is not enough. We need to break down expectations based on entitlement and focus on educational productivity and outcomes. Institutions should review redundancies, rethink staffing models, and streamline business practices. Productivity measures should be applied in all areas. In the same way that secondary schools are being challenged to consider longer school days and an extended academic year, we in higher education need to revisit basic assumptions about how we deliver higher education to students. We should not be tied to any one model or structure.

For example, we should re-evaluate the notion that large classes are inherently pedagogically unsound. What both students and faculty members tend to prefer—small classes—is not the only educationally effective approach. Although no one would advocate for large classes in every discipline or instance, we should review what we do in light of new financial contingencies, while keeping an eye on what students learn.

Similarly, at many institutions, it may make more sense for professors to teach more and do less governance and committee work. Faculty members must make education more productive, even if it means sacrificing work in other areas, which, while important, are not central to our primary educational mission.

Colleges and universities should focus more on degree completion, not just on how many students enroll. That does not mean “teaching to the test,” but rather paying more attention to student success and seeking more and better ways that faculty members can support and guide students inside and outside the classroom.

Indeed, in light of the growing demand for a better-prepared work force, we need to revisit undergraduate education as a whole. We should re-examine the teacher/scholar model, for instance. Is it appropriate for every institution? Does that model really produce what it is supposed to: thinkers and makers, learned and professionally skilled graduates?

In addition, we should re-evaluate the relationship and the balance between graduate and undergraduate education. It is too easy to overlook the ever-increasing specialization of graduate programs, in which professors happily replicate students in their own, often narrow, interests, focusing on limited knowledge. Particularly in the graduate arena, not every program is sacred.

We in higher education must determine what we do best and what is reasonable and possible. We should separate legitimate aspirations and a drive toward excellence from the costly and often fruitless pursuit of higher status—which may feed egos but is beyond the reasonable prospects of many institutions. Not every college can be on a top-20 list. Not every college or university can be a Research I institution. Not every regional institution should aspire to national status.

In an era when pragmatism must prevail, those of us in higher education must come to grips with the idea that we can opt out of college rankings and national recognition without doing damage to the fundamental value of the education that we offer to the students whom we serve.

Government, of course, needs to be a part of this process, and taxpayers must be reminded of their shared responsibility for public education. But the only way that we can persuade them to invest in higher education is to demonstrate our commitment to efficiency, openness, and accountability.

Every constituency involved in our educational enterprise bears responsibility for earning the privileges that access to higher education in this country offers. For students, that means the hard work of studying to be prepared for college. For faculty members, that means the hard work of teaching more to enjoy the benefits of the academic life. For administrators, that means the hard work of reconsidering our educational models and structures in order to enjoy the privileges of being engaged in our noble profession.

In an era of less government support and fewer family resources, colleges will emerge stronger and more nimble—ready to provide an accessible and excellent education to those who are prepared to take advantage of that privilege—only if we all embrace the notion of true transformation. Shared responsibility means that we must take a harder look at what education needs to accomplish for society as a whole and then rise above our own special interests for the greater good.

Hamid Shirvani is president of California State University-Stanislaus.


mark wallace said...

The following comment is from a librarian who worked for many years at CSU Satanislaus:

"This is truly ironic. When I lived in Modesto (just up the road from Stanislaus State in Turlock), the desperate pleas from the college were for getting more money to admit a more diverse student population, both income level and ethnic heritage, from the central valley into the state system and to build classrooms and laboratories. The campus was threadbare and operated on a minimum of services with a primarily anglo student body. It had a tiny library, few tenure track faculty, and no facilities that could give it any kind of academic reputation. Now, according to its president, this 30-year old model should be the norm for right-thinking administrators. It was called "Turkey Tech" back then and I guess it's going back to its roots."

Ross Brighton said...

This kind of thing makes me want to kill myself, but also feel sadly encouraged that the horrific stuff that has happened at my (for the time being) univeristy, U of Canterbury (in New Zealand) isn't as bad as it can get - though hopefully things wont get worse here (though I am one of the many rats, albeit late, leaving tyhe sinking ship). The various things happening all over California, and at UHM as reported by Susan M Shultz, are absolutely horrific - real travesties. And managers refusing to listen to criticisms by faculty, whose job is often to analyze rhetoric of the type they are using, is unbelievably infuriating.

Keep fighting - as we say down here, Kia Kaha (stand strong).

mark wallace said...

Thanks, Ross. Things aren't as bad at my university than they are at some of the other CSU system schools. But they're still pretty bad.

I hadn't heard that something similar was happening at universities in New Zealand, or is the situation you're talking about one that has happened only at U of Canterbury?

Ross Brighton said...

funding is tight across the board, but UC has had continual restructuring over the last 5 or so years - a couple of years ago (while I was doing undergrad) the college of arts was totally gutted - English lost 5 or 6 faculty, the Theatre and Film, Religious Studies and American Studies depts where essentially disestablished. There have been a couple of things at other Universities, but nothing at this scale that I'm aware of.

susan said...

Wow, that's an amazing display. But YES, universities are exactly like car companies, and buyers of cars are exactly like students at universities!!!!!!

Sarah Sarai said...

What's good for UC is good for America? Very sad indeed. Remember Lawrence Summers at Harvard who had *thoughts* about women and science? It's not just California. Idiocy is nationwide.

Sarah Sarai

Doc Nagel said...

We know that this is also a systemwide strategy, not merely endorsed but orchestrated out of the Chancellor's Office. Dominguez Hills is just the beginning. Stanislaus is next - and we suffered the greatest proportionate cuts in faculty and classes this year of any CSU.

It's not just incoherent, though, it's pointedly destructive of the mission of the university, as a public institution, as a regional institution, as a Hispanic serving institution.

Unknown said...

Well I worked directly under Shirvani a couple years ago, when he first came on board at CSUS. This man has the most insane expectations; his ambitions are grounded in maniacal concern for image over substance. I am truly disgusted by this man, and he has snowed the entire ENTIRE faculty senate at CSUS- well he did, to get the job...but many faculty now know better. I lasted all of three or four months - could NOT believe this man. From Chapman to CSUS, I'm sure he's salivating after a UC position - screw the local kids who come from hardworking families - this man is all about privilege. It's all about him and his image and his friggin' ascot and pinstripes. Substance over image, substance over image. This article is bullshit. Palingate much? Image, image, image. No thanks. Glad I got out when I did.

mark wallace said...

Thanks so much for these comments, Heather. Although it has showed up some months after my post, what you're saying is exactly the sort of on the scene information that those of us who aren't there need. Everything you're saying makes sense to me. Wow.

West Coast Grrlie Blather said...

Thanks for this post. I'm from a family of educators, though I have been in the field of public health here in SoCal for the last few years (maniacal laughter ensues).

My sons attended schools in the Pasadena Unified School District, which to most people who have any money is tantamount to: You Sent Your Kids To Cavort With Savages.

Thank you, Prop 13!