Right about now, a lot of North American colleges and universities, rich and poor, public and private, are realizing that the economic foundations of their enterprise have shifted rather dramatically.
Historians love to argue and argue about whether there are ever revolutions, sudden transformations, disjunctures. Name me a revolution or supposedly sudden transformation and I can find you a body of scholarship that argues that what appeared revolutionary was only the very last act of a very long-standing process of gradual change. (Or that it wasn’t a change at all, only a lot of hue and cry which gave way to a reversion to previous norms.)
I’d certainly argue the many chickens now clucking on the roosts of higher education in this winter of discontent have been lurking about the barnyard for a long time. The 1990s pace of tuition increases became politically and economically unsustainable a few years back. Relying on endowment income has always involved exposure to risk, but the size of endowments at rich institutions had become a political concern in its own right, while institutions with minimal endowments have long since struggled with the problems that lack created in a competitive environment. Perhaps partly because of the size of large endowments, donations were also already under pressure before this year.
I’ll reiterate what I said a few months back about planning for contraction. I’m already seeing signs that as higher education comes under pressure, many institutions are going to handle budgetary shortfalls in the same bad way that flawed or bloated companies do, by getting out a fiscal shotgun and prowling around the herd looking for wounded or vulnerable victims.
When times were flush, a lot of wealthier institutions put money into deferring internal conflicts by supporting all possible pedagogies, all possible missions, all possible institutional identities. Clarity about purpose and approach was largely found in institutions that had to be clear about what they were doing because of limited resources. The need to economize can be an opportunity to clarify, intensify, focus. It can be undertaken as a positive project–but only if some conflicts and disagreements are brought out into the open and worked out as honestly as possible. Leon Botstein can rub a lot people the wrong way with his style, but I think he’s talking a lot of sense in this interview when he notes that institutions flush with endowment money became risk-averse and unable to make tough choices. (via Margaret Soltan). (Though I don’t see why Botstein scorns using endowment income as a part of annual operating expenses. Like tenure, used correctly, that should precisely allow those institutions to take risky choices, even if it hasn’t traditionally led to that.)
Across the Atlantic and around the Cape of Good Hope, where the Indian Ocean begins, another kind of academic crisis is unfolding. If you read this blog largely to scold me for what you see as my wildly liberal views of Africa, but you would honestly like to help people on the African continent who are fighting for freedom and justice, please hold your powder dry, or I won’t be doing anyone any favors by calling attention to this story.
I’m often asked if I’m optimistic about South Africa. My answer has often been “cautiously yes”, and it still is. But over the past three or four years, there have been more and more critical junctures where the balance between optimism and pessimism is being intensely tested. There will be more to come in the next few years.
One of the things I’ve always liked about South Africa is maybe also one source of vulnerability. I’ve always appreciated the combination of intensity and intellectualism in a lot of South African political discourse. South Africans of varying educational backgrounds care about public debate and political decisions in a very passionate way. Even before things went spectacularly bad in Zimbabwe, I was always struck by the much more muted, private and digressive character of public conversation there in comparison to South Africa both before and after the end of apartheid.
That intensity can very quickly turn sour and vicious, however. As a student observer of the Board of Trustees at my undergraduate institution, I was an advocate of divestment. On one occasion, we had a chance to bring together some board members with an ANC representative at a friendly dinner. The representative who came up from New York proceeded to spend the entire meal screaming at the trustees at the top of his lungs. This did not exactly help us persuade them to change policy, but quite aside from the tactical failure, it had that weird harshness that South African public figures can unexpectedly drop into.
This is part of the unfolding crisis at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) over the past few months. The confrontation between the university administration and the faculty has been building for much longer, but it has come to a point of final, critical explosiveness. Vice-Chancellor Malegapuru Makgoba came into office charged with managing a difficult merger of campuses and divisions, and this might caused bad feelings under any circumstances. Makgoba was also an enthusiast for mangerialism of a type that has bedeviled global higher education in general. His administration has tried to exert very fine-grained control over virtually every aspect of the culture and business of academic life. I’ve argued that whether we’re in South Africa or the United States, this approach not only turns its back on the highest responsibilities of academic communities, it is also bad management that wastes human capital to no good purpose.
What has happened recently, however, goes beyond this ongoing problem. You can read some of the details at the following archive. To summarize, the UKZN administration brought disciplinary charges against two professors who have been careful, civil critics of the UKZN administration in public. The main thrust of the charge against them was that they had criticized their own institution, which Vice-Chancellor Makgoba and his closest supporters maintain is not part of what is meant by “academic freedom”. (The director of personnel replied tersely to a request that these issues be discussed within the faculty senate by writing, ‘Employees are required to act in the interests of their employer at all times, and to show due respect’.)
Facing an expensive legal process (the UKZN adminstration retained its own lawyers using public funds, but the two accused professors would have had to pay for their own defense with little prospect of success under current South African labor law), one of the accused has found a job at another university and the other has signed a statement repudiating his earlier actions.
If you want a good sense of just how ugly and aggressive the behavior of the UKZN administration has become as international and national attention to their actions has escalated, read Vice-Chancellor Makgoba’s lengthy, rambling communique dated December 5th. Every once in a while, a U.S. university administration tries to keep a lid on public criticism by disciplining faculty critics, and it is always a sign that there is some kind of serious malfeasance that such an administration is trying to conceal. But I can’t think of any university president, no matter how desperately beseiged, who would say some of what Makgoba says in this communique: the pettiness and obsessiveness of the tone (such as disputing whether one of the two targeted professors is actually a scholar with a good intellectual reputation) reminds me of Captain Queeg on the stand in The Caine Mutiny. On grounds of pure professionalism alone, this should be enough reason for the national education bureaucracy to dismiss Makgoba and his closest advisors as soon as possible: this is the perfect opposite of leadership.
If you’re an academic professional and you’d like to help, consider signing the petition. (I also think this would make a good opportunity for the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Education to update or write a story.) At the very least, though, no matter how bleak things may look for you right now if you’re working in a North American university, this should clarify about how bad things could be.
This is one of those crossroads for South Africa. Once certain thresholds are crossed, certain institutions ransacked, certain fragile possibilities destroyed, it will be very difficult, perhaps impossible, to regain a hope for the future.