By Jon Cogburn
TAC's Rod Dreher recently hosted a letter from one of his academic readers about college overspending on new infrastructure and raising tuition. The reader tries to get us to think of student loans analogously to the real estate bubble that inaugurated the Great Recession. It's a very good read. Joe Bob says check it out.
While reading the article I was forcefully struck not only by the fact that this is happening, but also why it is happening. As far as the fact that it is happening, note that at my own institution over the last nine or so years we've engaged in an orgy of building (concurrent with only one (very meager) cost of living pay raise that in no way matches inflation or the rising health insurance costs and decreased contributions to retirement):
- 60 million dollar new business complex,
- 110 million dollar new engineering complex,
- 8.7 million dollar new band hall,
- Six projects involving athletics totaling God knows how much,
- 12 million dollar "nutrition center" for student athletes,
- New residential hall construction (e.g.),
- A new recreation complex including an 85 million dollar lazy river (which, to be fair, is a wonderful metaphor for exactly what happens to undergraduate education in an era where dim bulb politicians force universities to compete for who can have the highest retention rates).
Again, this is happening when students are paying more and more and faculty pay and retirement benefits are so bad that most of us will not be able to retire (since LSU faculty are employees of Louisiana, we do not receive Social Security and our ORP is currently around a five percent match). It is happening during a crisis of deferred maintenance for the campus buildings not used as often by athletes, business majors, or engineers that make water damage, mold, and cracked tiles the new normal. Bob Mann has started taking photographic diaries of the rot. Thus far he's chronicled five buildings:
- Middleton Library compared with the palatial Cox Center for Student Athletes,
- The Huey P. Long Fieldhouse,
- Foster Hall,and
- The Dalrymple Building.
I don't mean to pick on my beloved LSU here. LSU is representative of trends in higher education this past decade. Expand administration and staff. As the number expands, apay them much more. Build. Build. Build. Raise tuition. Pay full time faculty less and rely on as much contingent labor as accreditation agencies allow.
Many of my friends entertain this null hypothesis. Baby boomer academics were lazy and didn't want to manage their institutions, and were basically bought off. They got to do more research and teaching, while other people took over the running of the place. But the corrupt way that the baby boomer managers ran the universities ended up killing the prospects of gen x and millennial academics, for whom the social contract was revised. This has some plausibility. Note that it's the same thing that contemporary Republicans want to do to New Deal entitlements (and have already done with the move from defined benefit pension plans to 401ks). Baby boomers get the old system and everyone else will get corruptly privatized crap versions.
I don't think this is right though. The crapification of the life prospects of post boomer Americans actually seriously got underway when Southern states began abrogating the rights of unions to engage in contracts with labor (unconstitutional "right to work" laws). Manufacturers raced to the bottom, stopping off in non-union Southern states briefly on their way to Mexico and China. In the 90s, gen exers were told this was going to be great because all Americans would be members of "the creative class," making web pages for the people in the countries that actually built things. NAFTA and the like would send our non-creative class jobs overseas, but allow us to sell intellectual labor to those same countries. Obviously, it didn't happen at least for the vast majority of us. Insofar as this is relevant to higher ed, I'm just noting that it shouldn't be a surprise that the social contract between higher ed labor and management fundamentally changed during this period. It did everywhere else in the United States too. Killing unions was the first step, and I don't think that laziness of professors explains it any more than supposed laziness of ALF-CIO members explains their defeats during the same period.
Unfortunately, looking at it this way really does make me think that Dreher's reader might be on to something with the analogy between the real estate bubble at the end of the outsourcing/creative-class scam and what we're facing now in higher ed. Feh.