Thursday, October 7, 2010

Eva von Dassow's comments at the October 7 rally

This university has a mission: it is to advance learning and the search for truth, and to share knowledge, understanding, and creativity with the community and the world. You came here to participate in this mission.

Students, when you applied for admission, you used test scores and GPAs to earn your place here – and most likely to earn a scholarship, too, since tuition and fees keep rising out of reach. You borrow money to help pay for courses that are worth certain numbers of credits, you earn more test scores and grades, you put your credit hours into the degree bank of one program or another, and once you’ve dropped enough of this currency into the education-vending machine, it gives you a degree. You hope that degree will purchase you gainful employment: a job that pays you enough to pay the debt the degree cost you. The value of your education is thus measured in numbers, dollars, and time.

The faculty who teach you are measured in the same terms: by the number of credit hours we teach, the numbers of students our courses enroll, the number of majors in our programs. We are also measured by the number of publications we produce, the number and amount of grants we win, even by formulas to calculate our monetary merit relative to each other. Our salaries are determined through market mechanisms whereby greater or lesser value is ascribed to different disciplines based on how much profit they may generate. The more we “produce” the more valuable we are, in dollars. Elsewhere in the educational system there are plans to evaluate and pay teachers on the basis of their students’ grades and test scores. This is accountability in the form of accounting: put the M&Ms in here, insert tuition, and you get the same M&Ms out here, and that is supposed to be good value for your educational dollar.

Where in this model lies the search for truth? Where are the principles of scientific inquiry, the ideals of scholarship, the foundations of a free society? Does this vending machine have a button for ideas? For understanding? For creativity?

’Fraid not, folks: money is the sole criterion of value here. Education’s not the thing, it’s capital that’s king – and that’s you, students! You’re the human capital the university must develop for the global economy! It’s not your learning potential but your earning potential that matters! Credits, courses, research, degrees, all are fungible quanta, expressed in the form of money. And time equals money, as we know – so get on the assembly line, human capital, and develop without delay! Four years to graduation, no more, ’cos if you stay here longer you’re occupying the place of another future debtor!

This vision of education and research is the soul of the administration’s “Strategic Positioning Initiative,” which strives to manipulate enrollment figures, graduation rates, faculty productivity, and ratios of majors to programs in the service of positioning the institution higher in numerical rankings. You’d think aiming to be one of the top three public research universities in the world would mean you get the best classes tuition can buy; no, it means the U pushes you through faster to raise its 4-year graduation rate. It hasn’t worked: we’re eleventh out of the Big 10 – and losing.

We the Faculty for the Renewal of Public Education have a different vision. Today’s mania for metrics converts all scholarly, creative, and scientific work into money while reducing students to indebted units of human capital. But education, knowledge, and inquiry are immeasurable goods: not commodities for purchase, but the inherent property of all who teach and learn. We strive to restore intellectual and ethical values to the academic enterprise, and to reclaim the university for the public.

Eva von Dassow, on behalf of Faculty for the Renewal of Public Education


  1. Eva's words are a hell of a lot more compelling than most of the stuff the New York Times has been publishing lately. I plan to share this widely.

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