Tag Archives: Corporatization

May 22, 1609

Ruins of Fort Nassau on Banda Naira, built by the Dutch East India Company in 1609.

Ruins of Fort Nassau on Banda Naira, built by the Dutch East India Company in 1609.

On this date, fed up with their treatment at the hands of the Dutch, the people of Banda in the “East Indies” ambushed some Dutch soldiers, killing their leader, Admiral Pieter Verhoeven (Peter Verhoef). This was witnessed by a certain Jan Pieterzoon Coen, then a young lieutenant, who escaped.

By 1621, Coen had been appointed the Governor General of the United Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, or VOC), and he set out to destroy resistance in the islands of Banda. On 8 May 1621, he ordered the brutal murder of 44 local leaders, called Orang Kaya.

VOC lieutenant Nicolas van Waert — whose own men could not fight the order and some of whom were killed when refusing to comply — expressed the general revulsion towards Coen’s methods:

Six Japanese soldiers were also ordered inside, and with their sharp swords they beheaded and quartered the eight chief orang kaya and then beheaded and quartered the thirty-six others. This execution was awful to see. The orang kaya died silently without uttering any sound except that one of them, speaking in the Dutch tongue, said, ‘Sirs, have you no mercy?’ But indeed nothing availed.


All that happened was so dreadful as to leave us stunned. The heads and quarters of those who had been executed were impaled upon bamboos and so displayed. Thus did it happen: God knows who is right. All of us, as professing Christians, were filled with dismay at the way this affair was brought to a conclusion, and we took no pleasure in such dealings.

Another VOC officer wrote that “things are carried on in such a criminal and murderous way that the blood of the poor people cries to heaven for revenge.”

The Palace inhabited by Governor J.P.Coen was built in 1611 by the Dutch East India Company.

The Palace inhabited by Governor J.P.Coen was built in 1611 by the Dutch East India Company.

Then, Coen orchestrated the massacre of virtually every single member of Banda’s male population over 18 years of age, reducing the total population of 15,000 to less than 1,000, the remainder consisting of mostly young girls and older women. The year 1621 is therefore etched into the minds of the Bandanese people to this day.

The Banda Archipelago is a small cluster of six idyllic emerald islets and scattered rocky outcrops, covering about 40 square miles and located in the middle of the Banda Sea of Indonesia. The Banda group consists of the islands of Banda Naira, Pulau Lonthor, Pulau Ai, Pulau Run, Gunung Api, Pulau Rozengrain, as well as tiny Pulau Hatta. The islands are the native home of the stately Myristica fragrans tree from which two spices, nutmeg and mace, are gathered. It was because of this that Banda became known as the original Spice Islands.

Banda’s nutmegs have been traded to Europe as far back as the second century B.C.E. by land and sea routes to China and were among the precious cargoes carried by camels along the Silk Road to the West. Nutmeg and other East Indian spices were brought to Europe by the crusaders. In medieval times, it was believed nutmeg could ward off the plague, so nutmeg became very popular and its price skyrocketed.

In 1453, Constantinople fell to the Turks, thus blocking the overland trade route for Christian Europe, and necessitating a sea route to the source of these spices. This launched the European Age of Exploration and Discovery. Vasco da Gama, Magellan, and other famous early explorers rounded the Cape of Good Hope in search of a sea route to the spiceries and greatly expanded European knowledge of the known world.

The Dutch massacre of forty-four Orang Kaya at Fort Nassau on 8 May 1621.

The Dutch massacre of forty-four Orang Kaya at Fort Nassau on 8 May 1621.

The Portuguese were among the earliest European arrivals in Southeast Asia. Alfonso de Albuquerque conquered Mallaca and immediately dispatched a squadron of three small ships to the fabled spiceries with the help and guidance of a local Malay pilot. Their search for the original source of the spices led them to the Banda Islands by early 1512. After friendly trading, the ships returned to Lisbon having realized more than one thousand percent profit. The Dutch arrived in 1599, almost 100 years after the Portuguese, who would then be displaced.

The nutmeg trade was a highly profitable one with spices selling for 300 times the purchase price in Banda. This amply justified the expense and risk in shipping them to Europe. The allure of such profits saw an increasing number of Dutch expeditions; investors soon saw that in trade with the East Indies, competition would eat into all their profits. Thus they united to form the VOC, which received a charter from the Netherlands on 31 December 1602 granting it a 21-year monopoly over the Asian trade.

The United Dutch East India Company is often considered to have been the first multinational corporation in the world and it was the first company to issue stock. It was also arguably the first megacorporation, possessing quasi-governmental powers, including the ability to build forts, maintain armies, wage war, imprison and execute convicts, negotiate treaties with indigenous rulers, coin money, and establish colonies.

On May 23, 1602, Dutch captain Wolfert Harmenszoon persuaded some of Banda Naira’s chiefs to sign a treaty (known as “The Eternal Compact“), in Dutch — a language they couldn’t read — granting the Dutch East India Company a monopoly in the nutmeg trade. Some, but not all, of the Orang Kaya signed the agreement, fearing to offend the merchants and invite violent reprisals if they refused. But since there was no real benefit in reserving all their spice for the Dutch, they did not abide by the agreement — if, indeed, they had ever considered doing so. The Dutch would later use this document to justify Dutch troops being brought in to defend their monopoly and to apply it to all of the nutmeg trade on all the Banda Islands, not just to the region controlled by the signatories.


  • Stephen R. Brown. Merchant Kings: When Companies Ruled the World, 1600-1900 (Canada: Douglas & McIntyre, 2009).
  • Giles Milton. Nathaniel’s Nutmeg (Sceptre, 1999).

December 3, 1861 (a Tuesday)

Today’s Republicans, the so-called party of Lincoln, in their anti-government zealotry — conscious of their patrician backers — have strayed far from the ideals of Lincoln, whom they would like to claim as one of their own.

Over 150 years ago, in his first State of the Union address on 3 December 1861, Republican President Abraham Lincoln warned of “the approach of returning despotism” which he described as “the effort to place capital on an equal footing with, if not above, labor in the structure of government.” He then stated his clear belief in the supremacy of the people:

Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.

He next described the state of relations between labor and capital in the entire U.S. (not just the rebellious South) ending with this summary of what was then the American reality:

The prudent, penniless beginner in the world labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land for himself, then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him. This is the just and generous and prosperous system which opens the way to all, gives hope to all, and consequent energy and progress and improvement of condition to all.

Then Lincoln wrapped it all up with this warning to hard-working Americans:

No men living are more worthy to be trusted than those who toil up from poverty; none less inclined to take or touch aught which they have not honestly earned. Let them beware of surrendering a political power which they already possess, and which if surrendered will surely be used to close the door of advancement against such as they and to fix new disabilities and burdens upon them till all of liberty shall be lost.

Clearly this surrender of political power is already largely in place.

The AAUP’s Cary Nelson Goes to War

The president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has written a new book, No University Is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom, due to be published in January, 2010 by New York University Press. In it, he argues that academic freedom verges on being a lost cause, shared governance is in retreat, and the professoriate is in danger of losing any semblance of job security (that is, tenure) in a work force dominated by underpaid adjunct faculty members.  [Faculty who ignore these concerns do so at their own peril. -ed.]  His response is to call for an all-out effort to win not just battles but the hearts and minds of other college employees — even students.  The book  should be required reading for all college and university professors, including contingent faculty, lecturers, and instructors. An interview with Cary Nelson about his book can be read here.

The New Academic Labor System is Getting Old


An ongoing theme at this site has been the corporatization of higher education. Commercial influence is nothing new in American higher education and has been with us at least since the Morill Land Grant Act of the 1860s brought agriculture and engineering to the university. As David Noble has demonstrated, the industrial revolution of the early twentieth century was an outcome of partnerships between campus and industry. However, one could argue that corporatization began to take off in the late 1950s and early 1960s with the onset of increased research spending — in an emerging climate President Eisenhower should have called “the military-industrial-educational complex.” Since then corporatization in higher education has increasingly gained the attention of scholars.

So, exactly what are we talking about? What is corporatization?

AAUP banner

Richard Moser, a professional historian and a member of the national staff of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), wrote in an article entitled “Corporatization, Its Discontents and the Renewal of Academic Citizenship“:

[Corporatization] is the term now being used to describe a number of historical developments. For higher education it refers to the retreat of service to the common good as the purpose of our colleges and universities. In general it describes the decline of a social contract that prevailed in America during the mid-[twentieth] century and the reorganization of our great national resources, including higher education, for the purpose of maximizing profits

Corporatization is far from a perfect term, as there are many different approaches possible even in a corporate economy. Corporatization may well be viewed as the misapplication of a regressive corporate ideology to a non-market activity (education). As such, corporatization is as much an ideological project as it is a political or economic one. The Canadians call this process “commercialization” and the British “privatization,” and those concepts capture important aspects of the changes we are experiencing…

[T]he years between W.W.II and 1975 were characterized primarily by powerful government interventions in higher education that were a central component in what may be called the mid-century social contract [emphasis added].

This notion of a social contract, or compact, has also been described by Neil W. Hamilton, in his 2002 book, Academic Ethics: Problems and Materials on Professional Conduct and Shared Governance. It refers to the unwritten agreement between faculty members at colleges and universities and the society these institutions serve. Mr. Moser characterizes the social contract in the post-war period as a bargain between government, higher education, and business:

Government promoted and sustained economic growth through investment in higher education. The GI bill, the shift toward service industries, and demographic trends dramatically increased student enrollment. Higher education underwrote the scientific, technical, and theoretical knowledge necessary for post-war economic activity. Business and administrative leaders upheld their end of the bargain by permitting a rising standard of living for most working people…This period was also characterized by a high degree of respect for the AAUP’s 1940 Statement. Tenure, due process, and shared governance became the almost universally accepted ethical foundation for higher education…

In this so-called “golden era” the university was part of and dedicated to the public good [emphasis added].

So what ended the “golden era” of higher education? The demise of the social contract had begun by the late 1960s, according to Mr. Moser:

Slower economic growth and heightened competition were evoked to change popular expectations concerning living standards and public expenditures. In higher education the changing times were characterized by decreased public funding. That occurred simultaneously with the ascendancy of a corporate style of management and the subsequent shifting of costs and risks to those who teach, research and study…

The cutting edge of the corporatization of higher education was the restructuring of the workforce around a multi-tiered structure into what I call the “New Academic Labor System.” In the typical multi-tiered system new or younger employees are not offered the same level of compensation and job security as existing staff. A report on faculty appointments by the AAUP’s Ernst Benjamin revealed:

  • The change since 1975 is striking. Part-time faculty have grown four-times (103%) more than full-time (27%).
  • The number of non-tenure-track faculty has increased by 92%, while the number of probationary (tenure-track) faculty has actually declined by 12%.
  • Adjunct appointments went from 22% in 1970 to 32% in 1982, to 42% in 1993, to a current level of about 46 percent of all faculty [emphasis added].

In fact, the situation in higher education has become even worse than when Mr. Benjamin compiled his statistics in 2002. Today, about two-thirds of the faculty nationwide is contingent, and at community colleges, which enroll about 50 percent of all college students, the professoriate is about 70 to 80 percent contingent. How did this happen? Mr. Moser continues:

This multi-tiered approach succeeded, because it blunted opposition by implicitly promising not to affect existing constituencies. Tenured faculty were enticed with short-term benefits. The faculty did cooperate in their own demise, but not by formal decree. No faculty senate, AAUP chapter, or union ever explicitly agreed to abolish tenure for the majority of future faculty in exchange for cheap replacements for introductory courses or sabbaticals, but such complicity is rarely formalized…

The over-use and exploitation of contingent faculty is the linchpin of this process of corporatization, because it has fragmented the faculty and weakened our ability to act as a constituency.

The fact is that, even without this fragmentation, most academics tend to be “loners” — highly independent and concerned mostly with their own professional cliques. They shy away from political activism, and in general are oblivious to the plight of other academics outside their inner circle. The individualistic nature of intellectuals makes organized resistance against corporatization difficult. This was clearly explained in an article published on 29 November 2006 in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “An Adjunct Bill of Rights“:

Tenured professors may well be in the best position to champion academic freedom for both full-timers and part-timers. After all, they are far less likely to lose their jobs for speaking out.

However, Judith Wagner DeCew, a professor of philosophy at Clark University, has pointed out that most full-time faculty members have not seen fit to concern themselves with the increased hiring and exploitation of part-time faculty members. In Unionization in the Academy: Visions and Realities (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003), she writes: “While some full-time faculty members speak out for and support part-timers, there is a sense that most full-time appointees are concerned about their own salaries and working conditions, whether unionized or not. . . . Numerous studies have shown that the difficulties that part-time faculty confront can often be attributed to the fact that full-time faculty in academia are primarily concerned with protecting their own professional positions and privileges, not employment equity.”

Ken Jacobsen, a Democratic state senator from Seattle and a frequent advocate for part-time faculty members, has said that the reason the Teamsters struck United Parcel Service back in 1997 was because the full-timers felt the increasing use of part-timers would mean less work for them, since UPS could always choose to call in the lower-paid temporary workers. But since tenured professors are guaranteed a full-time workload year after year, Jacobsen says, they have not felt threatened by academe’s increased hiring of part-timers, and thus have looked the other way, feeling that the adjuncts’ plight does not affect them. Full-timers, Jacobsen said, have their piece of the pie, and their primary goal is to hang on to it, and to make sure that no one else takes it away.

How does corporatization affect the average faculty member? As Mr. Moser points out:

For faculty, corporatization means more authoritarian governance practices, not simply as reflected in handbooks but changes in the culture, as administrators get used to bossing around the majority of the faculty who have no hope of tenure or job security.

So, how can we, the faculty, oppose corporatization? A work action like that conducted by the Teamsters against UPS in 1997 would be unpopular and ineffective since there are so many unemployed adjuncts now who no doubt would ignore it. James G. Andrews, an emeritus professor at the University of Iowa who held an adjunct appointment in medicine, a secondary appointment in liberal arts and sciences, a primary appointment in engineering, and is active in the AAUP at the local, state, and national levels, cites a suggestion by Neil Hamilton in his book mentioned above, namely, that the academic profession “renew the social compact through continuing education”.  Andrews writes:

Under the social compact Hamilton describes, society ensures the environment and resources needed for professors to fulfill their responsibilities in exchange for the high-quality educational opportunities that faculty provide. That is, society agrees to subsidize an educational environment in which faculty can pursue teaching, scholarship or creative work, and service free from pressure to raise funds. Traditionally, this environment has been characterized by academic freedom, tenured appointments, shared governance, and due process protections. This explicit identification of society’s fundamental responsibility to support higher education may eventually lead to a resolution of the corporatization problem…

We need a better understanding, on the part of the public and the professoriate, of the mutual responsibilities of each.

As Hamilton notes, “If, in a market economy, a profession does not renew the social compact through continuing education, [then] money and economic efficiency will eventually sweep the field to define all professional relationships as simply economic transactions between consumers and service providers for profit.”  Practitioners must remind society, generation after generation, of the agreement’s purpose and demonstrate how the profession serves the common good.

Should Everyone go to College? (No. 1)

MortarboardThis is the first of a series of occasional posts that will deal with this question.

Open admissions, the policy of permitting students to enroll in a college or university without regard to academic qualifications, grew largely out of the turmoil of the period 1965-75 that coincided with America’s intense involvement in the Vietnam War. A college degree, it had long been known, was the major pathway to upward economic and social mobility, and anyone who wanted one, said the activists, should have access to the institution of his or her choice.

Only a handful of the nation’s 4,064 degree-granting institutions of higher education, perhaps no more than 150, have admission standards that are highly competitive. Most colleges and universities, state and private, have open admissions or nearly open admissions.

“Professor X” works part-time in the evenings as an adjunct instructor of English. He teaches two courses, Introduction to College Writing (English 101) and Introduction to College Literature (English 102), at a small private college and at a community college in the northeastern United States. He believes that the idea that a university education is for everyone is a destructive myth. In an article entitled, “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower” that appeared in the June 2008 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, Professor X explains:

Mine are the students whose applications show indifferent grades and have blank spaces where the extracurricular activities would go. They chose their college based not on the U.S. News & World Report rankings but on MapQuest; in their ideal academic geometry, college is located at a convenient spot between work and home…

My students take English 101 and English 102 not because they want to but because they must. Both colleges I teach at require that all students, no matter what their majors or career objectives, pass these two courses…

I wonder, sometimes, at the conclusion of a course, when I fail nine out of 15 students, whether the college will send me a note either (1) informing me of a serious bottleneck in the march toward commencement and demanding that I pass more students, or (2) commending me on my fiscal ingenuity—my high failure rate forces students to pay for classes two or three times over. What actually happens is that nothing happens…

There seems, as is often the case in colleges, to be a huge gulf between academia and reality. No one is thinking about the larger implications, let alone the morality, of admitting so many students to classes they cannot possibly pass…No one has drawn up the flowchart and seen that, although more-widespread college admission is a bonanza for the colleges and nice for the students and makes the entire United States of America feel rather pleased with itself, there is one point of irreconcilable conflict in the system, and that is the moment when the adjunct instructor, who by the nature of his job teaches the worst students, must ink the F on that first writing assignment…

Sending everyone under the sun to college is a noble initiative. Academia is all for it, naturally. Industry is all for it; some companies even help with tuition costs. Government is all for it; the truly needy have lots of opportunities for financial aid. The media applauds it—try to imagine someone speaking out against the idea. To oppose such a scheme of inclusion would be positively churlish…[But] I, who teach these low-level, must-pass, no-multiple-choice-test classes, am the one who ultimately delivers the news to those unfit for college: that they lack the most-basic skills and have no sense of the volume of work required; that they are in some cases barely literate; that they are so bereft of schemata, so dispossessed of contexts in which to place newly acquired knowledge, that every bit of information simply raises more questions. They are not ready for high school, some of them, much less for college.

You can read Professor X’s entire essay here.

Student Learning Outcomes: Another Silver Bullet?


Everything that can be
counted does not necessarily
count; everything that counts
cannot necessarily be counted.

-Albert Einstein

When I was in the tenth grade in high school, during the Cold War era, my civics class was having a teacher-moderated discussion about the nuclear arms race between the Soviet Union and the United States. The question, from what I can remember, was whether the U.S. should increase its number of nuclear warheads. I was silent during the discussion, as is customary for an introvert like me, so when the teacher called on me to express my opinion, I said what was on my mind at that moment – I said the issue was moot since once either side began a nuclear war, so many nuclear explosions would occur that life as we know it on this planet would be over. Well, that comment sank faster than a proverbial lead balloon. No one wanted to contemplate the real consequences of what they were talking about, and I had just burst their bubble. So, the teacher ruled my comment irrelevant and continued the discussion as if I had never said a word.

You would think I would have learned the real lesson from that class period – that one should never point out to others that the emperor is not wearing any clothes. But I am also stubborn by nature, and so I will say in the remainder of this essay what many people in the education industry probably don’t want to hear, much less agree with.


It is not so very important for a person to learn facts. For that he does not really need a college. He can learn them from books. The value of an education in a liberal arts college is not learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks.

-Albert Einstein


The latest buzzword in academia, at both the secondary and post-secondary levels, is “Student Learning Outcomes”, or SLOs for short. Proponents claim that they improve student performance, but like most “reforms” that come and go in the education industry, there is no evidence to support this assertion. As Thomas C. Hunt has written in an essay entitled “Education Reforms: Lessons from History” and published in Phi Delta Kappan (September, 2005):

The history of American education is replete with examples of supposed panaceas. Taking the shape of “reforms,” these well-meaning efforts — often worthy in themselves — have dotted the educational landscape since the time of Horace Mann in the 1830s and 1840s. For example, the common school itself would remove all crime and poverty from American society. Mann described it as the “greatest invention ever made by man.” The devotional reading of the Bible in schools would result in a virtuous America. Texts such as the McGuffey readers would unfailingly instill the “right character” in the students. The public school of the early 20th century would make good, loyal Americans out of the children of the immigrants who were then arriving in large numbers. In the mid-20th century, the “Life Adjustment” curriculum would prepare all American youths for satisfying lives as individuals, family members, and citizens. The infusion of funds into the science and math curricula by the National Defense Education Act would help the U.S. “catch up” with the Soviets in the post-Sputnik era, instill needed academic rigor in the secondary school curriculum, and fittingly challenge our “gifted” students.

Potential panaceas grew in number as the 20th century progressed. We were greeted with open education, which would educate the young “naturally.” Schools would play a central role in the War on Poverty. Accountability, especially in the guise of performance contracting, would make the schools accountable to their constituents. Behavioral objectives would serve as an infallible means of achieving the goals of effective teaching and learning. Such pedagogical movements as modular scheduling would provide the proper organizational pattern for the curriculum. Site-based management would remove the educational problems created by large size.

Mr. Hunt cautions that “only when we see history as a ceaseless, uninterrupted flow that influences the present and are willing to learn from it will we avoid being victimized by the latest ‘silver bullet.'” For example, in terms of secondary schools in the United States, the public education profession has been guided for nearly a century by the belief that the difficult task of teaching a wide range of students to use their minds well isn’t really necessary; this implies that most students are better served by being taught to use their hands rather than their heads. This long-standing and deeply seated anti-intellectualism in public education, from its turn-of-the-century origins to the “life-adjustment” movement of the 1940s and 1950s and the neo-progressivism of the 1960s and early 1970s, has been well documented by David Cohen in The Shopping Mall High School (1985), by Pulitzer Prize-winning authors Lawrence Cremin in The Transformation of the School (1964) and Richard Hofstadter in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963), and by Diane Ravitch in The Troubled Crusade (1983) and Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms (2000). Such history brings today’s “standards movement” into much sharper focus. It’s one thing for state and federal policymakers to impose demanding new academic standards on public schools; it’s another to realize that public school systems were never organized to deliver a serious academic education to more than a fraction of their students. Most school leaders didn’t think they should teach serious academics universally, nor did they have enough highly-trained teachers to do the job. I will come back to anti-intellectualism in a few moments.

Another impetus for SLOs could be the additional revenue for the publishing industry that sells stuff about it (the training handbooks alone run 50-70 pages) and for the testing agencies that sell the standardized exit exams. And even if the assessments are flawed and meaningless, at least they produce what the government likes best: numbers.

Politicians and administrators often make another claim about SLOs, namely, that they are driven by issues of cost and affordability – “the public will be asking more critically than in the past, ‘What are we getting for our money?'” However, in my years of teaching at the college level, I cannot remember one time that any student or parent asked, “Can you demonstrate learning outcomes?” or “What am I getting for my money?” Exactly who is the “public” in all these discussions about the “public” wants to know?  Furthermore, proponents of SLOs don’t realize that higher education does not merely equate to acquiring new information. It involves growth, critical thinking, values definition, and applying what you learn, among other things. By saying that what we provide in higher education is equal to reading a stack of books is insulting. Higher education is just as much, if not more, about the experience as it is about earning a degree.

But there are important negative consequences of SLOs. Let me quote David Clemens, professor of English at Monterey Peninsula Community College here in California:

That SLOs are about “student learning” is the first, and biggest, lie. There is no objective evidence that SLOs have any positive effect on learning at all, although there is evidence that they negatively affect learning because they encourage dumbing down and teaching to the test….

A few years ago, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, (WASC), adopted SLOs as a totalizing basis for accreditation and in a single stroke made fundamental changes in the definition of what we do and the way we do it.

For years we had been assured that “Assessment rubrics and student learning outcomes are just data collection and will never be used for teacher evaluation.” In fact, expected outcomes and assessment schemes are perfectly suited for use on teacher evaluation forms and already have been. But anyone who actually teaches knows that the most important factor in education is the student. The greatest effects on student learning are the individual student’s knowledge of subject, self motivation, language proficiency, disposition, parental support, social skills, talent, physical and mental health, preparation, cultural background, religious beliefs, political persuasion, commitment, desire, determination, level of cognitive growth, age, and work ethic. Student learning outcomes are silent on all these factors.

Yet as of last year [2007], SLOs are already a component of teacher evaluation. WASC Accreditation Standard III: Resources [part 1c] reads:

“Faculty and others directly responsible for student progress toward achieving stated student learning outcomes have, as a component of their evaluation, effectiveness in producing those learning outcomes.”

…Because student attainment of stated SLOs will affect teacher evaluation, SLOs actually create downward pressure on curricular standards. If I am to be judged by my students’ achievement on outcomes tests and SLO guarantees, I will spend my class time on the most testable and achievable SLOs so as to insure “student success” on the exit test. The next step involves the current buzzword: “alignment.” Certainly, if the English 1A SLOs at one college are producing a higher metric of “student success” than other schools, the logic of SLOs is to identify such “best practices” and create statewide alignment of them. Voila! One hundred nine schools, one curriculum, one set of outcomes, one exit test, and one set of textbooks.

Another common but egregious lie is that learning outcomes do not compromise academic freedom. On the contrary, SLOs are the greatest danger to academic freedom in my professional lifetime. The fact that WASC’s definition of SLOs mentions “attitudes” I find chilling. The heart of academic freedom is the conviction that both education and community suffer when teachers are forced to embrace a single viewpoint. To the contrary, our highest courts have held that society benefits when students are exposed to various academically legitimate yet contradictory ideas.

One of the key strategies of coercion employed by SLO zealots is that it’s all one big conversation and in the end we all agree. This is another lie intended to produce the appearance of consensus. I believe that it is vital to dispel this illusion. The word from U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings to WASC is “SLOs or we will kill you and replace you with a federal bureaucracy.” [emphasis added]

The last paragraph is most provocative. Could the real reason politicians are pushing SLOs is because they want to just look like they’re doing something to improve student performance? From their point of view, it’s better to hold the teachers accountable (read: blame the teachers) than the students and their families, since there are more voters among the latter and the latter don’t want responsibility for student performance, anyway. Of course, there are also other forces at work here, including the ever-present financial motive for anyone who has something to gain from a new education fad. Obviously, the accreditors have families to support, so they have got to get with the program if they want to keep their jobs.


The things taught in schools and colleges are not an education, but the means of education.

-Ralph Waldo Emerson


So, if incompetent teachers are not to blame, why is student performance so poor in high schools and colleges?  Paul Trout, who taught English at Montana State University at Bozeman, suggested in 1997 – over ten years ago – that student anti-intellectualism and the consequent corporatization of education is to blame:

Increasingly, career-minded students see college – or at least required courses – as an imposition between high school and the good life, an obstacle to be gotten over as soon as possible, just like high school was….

To attract and reassure such students, colleges and universities are wont to talk about them as being consumers of higher education. This notion implies, of course, that the desires of the customer reign supreme (“consumer sovereignty”), that the customer should be easily and completely satisfied, and that the customer should try to get as much as possible while paying as little as possible. When this consumer model is applied to higher education, it has disastrous effects on academic standards and student motivation.

The consumer model implies, for instance, that university “services” – among them, courses – should be shaped to satisfy student tastes, and that students can use or waste these services as they see fit. When students think of themselves as consumers, they study only when it is convenient (like shopping), expect satisfaction with little effort, want knowledge served up in “easily digestible, bite-sized chunks,” and assume that academic success, including graduation, is guaranteed. After all, failure – or consumer dissatisfaction – is “ruled out upon payment of one’s tuition”.

When taken to its logical conclusion, as many students do, the consumer model implies that students buy grades by paying for them through learning. Students who subscribe to this notion try to be consumers by paying – that is learning – as little as possible. A few carry it even further, and believe that whenever they learn something they have actually lost in the exchange.

Needless to say, instructors who try to teach students more than the students have bargained for are going to run into trouble…

The situation has only gotten worse in the last twelve years. Much worse.

[If you happen to be one of my students, and you’re offended by what Trout wrote, then chances are you aren’t one of the students he’s complaining about. Besides, I doubt an anti-intellectual student would bother reading my blog – after all, it won’t be on the test.]

The Corporatization of Higher Education

MortarboardYou think the corporatization (a.k.a. business model or consumer model) of education is a myth cooked up by “elite” intellectuals in order to justify the resurrection of tenure in academia?  Well, something can’t end that hasn’t started.  Daniel J. Ennis, professor of English at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, South Carolina, opines that the end of the business model is at hand. In fact, he misses it! He writes, in part:

It has been months since somebody told me that “a university must run like a business.”

I’m alarmed to think that the era of the Business Simile is over.

I think I speak for many liberal arts types when I say how scary it is to lose that surety, that hard mooring in the results-oriented world, that comforting discipline of being told from across the conference-room table that the market imperatives must be paid heed, that we in the academy merely deliver a product to our clients, and that the efficiencies of the private sector can and must be brought to bear on the out-of-touch ivory tower. See, I liked that. There was a bracing firmness in such announcements. On the one hand, it fed my craving for intellectual loftiness — to be on the receiving end of such pronouncements allowed me to position myself as a defender of the faith, as true educator unsullied by a preoccupation with filthy lucre. On the other hand, I was secretly reassured when I heard that the important decisions — how to find the money, how to spend the money — were in the hands of realistic, highly-qualified, private-sector types who knew how the world worked. I wanted them on that wall. I needed them on that wall….

So I confess that I liked being told that the university must be run like a business. After all, it left me time to think abstractly about big ideas (and picturesquely, I might add, leather-bound books at hand, maybe wearing a scarf). It allowed me to scoff at the bean counters even as I consumed the revenue they wrung from the institution. I came to depend on the kindness of those strangers who understood accounting and statistics, core competencies and market niches. Who better to protect me from the real world than the agents of the real world?

Dennis muses that the current economic meltdown has undercut the business model (or business simile, as he refers to it) in education:

But now the “university like a business” simile has been undercut by, well, the real world. Some of the most prominent companies in the United States are starting to resemble universities. They receive massive government aid, suffer from significant new government oversight, cling to inefficient fiscal models, and are buffeted by a howling public who sees tax dollars being thrown down the hole without concomitant results…

As long as “business” represented competence and “university” represented inefficiency, then the Business Simile was able to win many an argument. But similes die, and they die when their referents stop making sense. Hardly anybody says “in like Flynn” anymore because very few people remember who Errol Flynn was, much less that he was associated with skillful swordplay and copulation. Who says “like clockwork” anymore? Only those who remember what clockwork was, or those who use the simile as a nostalgic gesture.

I hope Professor Ennis is right. His essay is well worth reading at Inside Higher Ed.

Contingent Faculty and Grade Inflation

mortarboard_Here’s an interesting article on this subject by Phil Ray Jack, originally posted on January 4, 2008. An excerpt follows:

……At most colleges, the work we [contingent faculty] do is judged primarily, if not exclusively, on our student evaluations. As public perceptions concerning higher education have changed, so have student reactions to what we do. Several years ago, we were seen as the experts who had valuable knowledge to impart to our students; now we are seen as clerks who dispense grades, certificates and diplomas to customers who are constantly encouraged to express their displeasure……[emphasis added]

The result of the corporatization of the academy has been that contingent faculty are increasingly evaluated on the basis of customer (student) satisfaction.  Given the fact that administrators and supervisors rely heavily on ratings by students of contingent faculty in personnel decisions, here’s an article that concludes that such data are not methodologically sound, and that such data ought not be treated as admissible evidence in any legal or quasi-legal hearing related to decisions on the reappointment, pay, merit pay, tenure, or promotion of an individual instructor.  This article quotes Mary Beth Ruskai (1996), an associate editor of Notices of The American Mathematical Society:

…Many experienced faculty question the reliability of student evaluations as a measure of teaching effectiveness and worry that they may have counter-productive effects, such as contributing to grade inflation, discouraging innovation, and deterring instructors from challenging students. [emphasis added]

The same article also quotes J.V. Adams (1997):

Teaching, as with art, remains largely a matter of individual judgment. Concerning teaching quality, whose judgment counts? In the case of student judgments, the critical question, of course, is whether students are equipped to judge teaching quality. Are students in their first or second semester of college competent to grade their instructors, especially when college teaching is so different from high school? Are students who are doing poorly in their courses able to objectively judge their instructors? And are students, who are almost universally considered as lacking in critical thinking skills, often by the administrators who rely on student evaluations of faculty, able to critically evaluate their instructors? There is substantial evidence that they are not.  [emphasis added]

And here’s another article that not only echos the above, but also cites research that has debunked the reliability and usefulness of student evaluations of teachers.  For example, in a major study by Ohio State University in 2007, student reviews were linked to actual learning by examining grades in subsequent classes that would have relied on the learning in the class in which the students’ evaluations were studied. It found absolutely no correlation between student evaluations and actual learning. What the Ohio State researchers did find, as many other studies have found, was clear correlation between the grades the students receive and those they give their professors, providing evidence for the more cynical/realistic interpretation – namely, that professors who are easy graders (and aren’t necessarily the best teachers) earn good ratings. In another finding of concern, the study found evidence that students, controlling for other factors, tend to give lesser evaluations to instructors who are women or who were born outside the United States. And they found this despite not finding any correlation between instructor identity and the level of learning that took place.