Reading Doug Sikkema’s article on “Treating College Like Costco” was like reading the diary of my own relationship and disillusionment with higher education.
I have been teaching in higher education for the past 11 years, in both the college and university sectors. Much of that time, I was part of the precariat within the academy, moving from one contract to another, from semester to semester, from teaching to research, to administration, from the curricular to the co-curricular. One of the results of this movement was the ability to see more of the picture of higher education than many people have the opportunity to see.
Sikkema’s observations about institutions that are growing on “a large and growing class of precariously employed sessional instructors, graduate students, and adjuncts” and institutions that treat students as “customers” rather than individuals are disturbing trends.
This fall, I had the opportunity to spend a significant amount of time thinking about these trends as I walked the picket line with over 12,000 other colleagues from other colleges across Ontario. I also thought about the faculty strike at York University that I experienced as an undergraduate student in 1997 over similar issues within the academy. I reflected on the slow but insidious decline that has taken place within Canada’s social institutions over the past two decades.
There is, however, hope from the frontlines, I am happy to report. Sikkema mentions that “boards, senates, professors and students needs to be reminded just why a university is not a Costco”. Twenty years ago, my student colleagues and I were fairly uneducated about the issues of inequity within higher education and how those issues impacted us. This is a new era.
This fall, when it looked like we might go on strike, I talked with my students about the issues. I thought they should know. And to my surprise, they listened. During the strike, and in the weeks following, they wrote blog and Twitter posts, brought food to the picket line for faculty on strike, joined with students from other campuses to stage their own protests, signed petitions and even used Bhangra dance as a form of protest.
The fight is by no means over, but I certainly feel like I have many capable companions at my side. In my books, experiential learning is where it is at.
Bethany J. Osborne is a Professor of Community Studies at Sheridan College of Advanced Learning and Technology outside of Toronto, Canada.. She has a PhD in Adult Education and Community Development from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, where she focused on violence, learning and trauma with a focus on refugees and resettlement.
Doug Sikkema provides us with a powerful prophetic pronouncement with which I largely agree. When an institution of higher education worships the purposes of the State and the market, educational leaders start to reason within the narratives associated with these gods. Such reasoning often leads them to dehumanize the university and those who work within it.
I would merely offer a couple cautions about language. First, I think we need to be careful about using general “built on the backs of…adjuncts and grad students” lingo. My friend who worked for Dell and taught as an adjunct loved his gig. Moreover, the students sang his praises, and our business school benefitted from having someone teaching marketing who was actually doing marketing.
Second, I also think it helps to avoid overstating the moral critique of the university. To say wisdom and virtue are accidental by-products of the university is not quite true. When universities operate under different narratives, they still require students to acquire virtues, and they still offer loads of “wisdom.” Indeed the contemporary university is filled with virtue language regarding social justice, tolerance, service (to the state), respect for diversity and more.
Of course, I agree with Sikkema that Christians hope for a certain kind of moral language that we no longer find in the university. Unfortunately, conversations about what is “true, good, and beautiful” are hopelessly anachronistic for some in the postmodern university because these discussions require a certain kind of common metanarrative in which many no longer believe.
As always, if we hope for transformation, we need to pray for God’s help, do the difficult work of loving fellow academics by becoming fluent in their language and myths and then use our best persuasive skills to convince them that true wisdom requires a kind of Divine friendship.
Perry L. Glanzer is Professor of Educational Foundations at Baylor University. He is the co-author, most recently, of Restoring the Soul of the University: Unifying Christian Higher Education in a Fragmented Age.
Convivium means living together. We welcome your voice to the conversation. Do you know someone who would enjoy this article? Send it to them now. Do you have a response to something we've published? Let us know!