Work in the Precarious Economy   /   Spring 2016   /    Book Reviews

The Wrong Fix

Johann N. Neem

One vision of the future of higher education, from 1910.

Arizona State University is now one of the largest public research institutions in the country. To its new president, Michael Crow, in a book cowritten with historian William Dabars, ASU offers “a new model for the American research university.” The current model has been undermined, they write, by “obsolete institutional design, lack of scalability, and residual elitism.” Crow and Dabars would save the research university by redesigning it for a new era. What they’ve produced is indeed one model for the future, but it’s one in which almost every problem in higher education has become worse.

Crow and Dabars are committed to the basic purposes of research universities—teaching and research. Both require money, and the question is how to get it. Although the authors acknowledge that the greatest challenge universities face is public disinvestment, they quickly turn to blame university culture for the widening gap between state appropriations and college costs. Universities chase prestige rather than try new things to make education accessible to the greatest number of people, Crow and Dabars charge. As a solution to this problem, they offer growth. All that needs to happen to increase access to degrees, they suggest, is to open the doors to all comers, by untraditional means if necessary. ASU hopes to enroll 100,000 online and distance education students by 2020.

Crow and Dabars frame their expansionary ambition in egalitarian language, but one cannot help but wonder if this is also a way to pay the bills by tapping into students’ wallets (or federal financial aid). What ASU students get for their money is the opportunity to attend college on a massive, anonymous campus, if they’re lucky. For those who must attend online, the university has outsourced much of its teaching, or, in Crow’s words, formed “partnerships to expand and improve the online learning experience, utilizing over one hundred third-party tools and services.” Instructional designers work with faculty to design online courses that faculty once taught. The students who once had access to professors are now taught by “coaches,” teaching assistants, and adjuncts. (According to ASU’s website, just a smidge more than 50 percent of its faculty are on the tenure track.)

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