This post was originally written in response to a PBS NewsHour interview with NYU marketing professor Scott Galloway. I don’t usually post comments online – I don’t like reading the thoughtless vitriol that’s usually in those comment threads, and I definitely don’t want to be the target of it. But I thought the story was damaging, and needed some sort of a counterbalance. I was initially writing only to urge the NewsHour to interview someone with a less insulting and devastating perspective on educational administration and budgeting, but when I saw how few comments there were on the story at the time (12 before mine, so I got to be the symbolic 13th – the witch at Sleeping Beauty’s baby naming yet again) I decided to make my remarks public. I know I’m not the only one who’s deeply offended by having my teaching treated as a “product,” and by students’ arguments that they should pay less tuition right now because they’re receiving an inferior “product,” so I wanted that perspective to be represented publicly. Here’s what I wrote:
This was one of the most upsetting stories I’ve heard on the NewsHour – and given the events of the past several months, that’s saying something. The perspective that higher education is a “product” has become increasingly widespread among those who run colleges and universities, and it has done both students and employees of those schools a great disservice.
Listening to Galloway blithely and bluntly offer the advice that universities simply need to do a better job of cost cutting, I thought of my staff colleagues, many of whom already do the job of at least two people. I thought of my faculty colleagues, who since the Great Recession have had to take on increasing amounts of the work that staff used to do, while still turning out research and teaching at an ever-increasing rate. I thought of all of us who are living in a permanent state of anxiety because we know that our schools will be facing the largest budget cuts in generations, and we know that the vast majority of the budget in most schools comes from salary and benefits. Cost cutting means people cutting, which is devastating to those left without salaries and benefits and is demoralizing to those who have to pick up the slack. Cost cutting in higher education means further exploiting the passions for teaching, research, advising, and many other aspects of the educational mission that draw staff and faculty to higher education. It means burning out our teachers and our staff faster than we already do. For schools still recovering from the Great Recession, these are devastating times. To be told patronizingly on national news that the answer to the problem is simple, as though there are huge pockets of money to be cut from higher education, is both insulting and demoralizing.
Also insulting and demoralizing are the claims that students should pay less tuition because they are receiving an inferior product during the quarantine. Doesn’t that judgment depend on how one defines a product? All of our teachers – ladder-rank faculty, contingent lecturers, teaching assistants, tutors, and readers – have spent countless hours (of what amounts to unpaid overtime) over the past several months, learning new software and new teaching techniques, redesigning courses to be as educationally effective as possible in an online setting, recording videos, consulting with and supporting students through the crises, and working out the best ways to support students who were reeling from George Floyd’s death and joining in the protests for Black lives. What, precisely, is inferior about the blood, sweat, and tears my colleagues have put into keeping their classes running so that our students can stay in school and graduate on time, many while simultaneously providing full-time education and care for their children?
Students are rightfully worried about tuition costs. I personally know students who may have to drop out of school because they can no longer afford tuition and the available financial aid is simply not enough. The solution to this is not to cut tuition even further, and force schools to fire more faculty and staff while overworking the rest even more severely. The solution is one that has been in place for many, many years in other countries. Education is a right, not a product or a privilege, and it should be free at all levels.
Why do some people think higher education is a product? Because we buy it. K-12 teachers have been publicly lauded since March for the ways they have heroically risen to the occasion and managed to educate, support, and connect with their students. Teachers in higher education have been just as heroic, yet we are accused of providing an inferior product. What’s the difference? K-12 education, at least in the public schools that serve the vast majority of students in the U.S., is free. Higher education, even in public schools, is not.
I and my colleagues are not products; we are teachers. A degree is not something you buy; it is something you earn. Right now we have a nearly unprecedented opportunity to make changes in the system. Let’s stop barking up the wrong tree, and fully fund higher education at all levels so that it’s freely available to all. I hope the NewsHour will consider inviting a guest to the next “Rethinking College” segment who will offer a less cravenly capitalist perspective on the crises that students and their schools are facing right now.