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Fall 2021 Cometh

Brendan Cantwell
Brendan Cantwell
What’s going to happen next?
The truth is, I don’t know. You probably don’t either. But that’s no fun. We are people. Cherry picking the outcomes that turn out like we expected as proof that we can predict the future, while ignoring our many predictions that go awry, is what we do. People think they have control. And to have control we need some idea about what is going to happen next.

What I'm anticiapting for this academic year.
As we enter the new academic year in the Northern hemisphere, I’ve got a number of things on my mind. The disastrous predictions for US higher education that many of us made at the start of the pandemic, me included, haven’t really come to pass. We’ve seen some enrollment declines, but not where we’d expect, at least not in the US. Most declines are are regional campuses and community colleges. International student numbers fell sharply in the 2020 - 2021 academic year, but they seem to be recovering even if visa backlogs are still a bit of a problem. Most states are increasing higher education funding. They can do this in part because of direct federal transfers and in part because the COVID recession was not as deep as it could have been (in large part because of federal spending). After a year that was extremely online most campuses plan to offer mostly in-person education. So things are looking up?
Not so fast. The culture wars remain red-hot on campus. The Pew Survey of U.S. Adults shows that partisan identified Republicans say they don’t much like higher education, and their option of the sector is getting worse over time. It’s remarkable that a large majority of Republicans think higher education is bad for the country. But if you look at the data, you’ll also notice that Republican’s disposition is consistent. With the exception of organized religion, identified Republicans are souring on just about all social institutions.
An inside fight.
Academic Twitter has its own version of the culture war. Epistemic conflicts seem to erupt every day, at least in the social sciences. Who’s methods are best for understanding the progression of the pandemic? Who values what? Who is citing and who is not citing who? Who’s knowledge and experiences matter? Are economists imperious?
It seems like academics can’t really agree on anything. And maybe that’s bad for our brand. After all, higher education - TRUST SCIENCE - is supposed to be able to provide answers. We are supposed to understand and identify the correct course of action. We are supposed to make breakthroughs that solve the world’s most complex problems. That’s what all of our employer’s NPR sponsorship adds imply anyway. The Flat-Earthers hate higher education and academia is a circular firing squad. Sounds about right.
Mostly what I have on my mind, however, is the COVID-19 pandemic. Amidst all the epistemic politics and culture warring, we have this damn pandemic that will never go away.
Delta is here and it’s exposing higher education’s labor problem.
Evolution happens slowly. That’s why we have a appendix or something like that (I’m not a biologist, so please know that I am talking out of my back side). Except for viruses. For viruses, evolution can happen fast. The novel coronavirus (a.k.a Rona) mutated into what we now call the Delta variant that is super contagious and maybe better than it’s Rona 1.0 cousin at slipping past vaccine immunity. So we are are in a bad spot again. Some of our current troubles are because of the Delta variant but a lot of them are because of people who refuse to get vaccinated. Delta and anti-vaxxers: A bad combination.
Also that culture war? Yeah it’s about the vaccine and masks too. Freedom means we have to let people make other people sick. (Ok, now my sarcasm is revealing my liberal bias.) For that reason - and in some cases because of explicit state laws - lots of colleges and universities have not required the COVID vaccine for students, faculty, and staff, and will not mandate masking inside. It’s a recipe for infection. We’ve seen this play out at large public universities. Penn State appealed directly to the State Assembly to explain why they don’t have a vaccine mandate. Check out this remarkable open letter from Penn State President Eric J. Barron. Here is one passage that got a lot of attention:
Universities with vaccine mandates have been met with implementation, enforcement and legal challenges. Public universities, in particular, have challenges with the mode of response to the pandemic. Regulations across the country clearly reflect state-level political realities. State funding of our University requires a two-thirds vote of the Pennsylvania legislature, meaning that our funding relies on strong bipartisan support.
Remarkable. A little misleading. The courts are clear that mandates are legal. Even so, I’d almost say refreshingly its a transparent statement. But not in the kind of way that is going to make the faculty feel better. At the University of Iowa, the provost sent out an FAQ that was quickly taken down, implying that anti-vaxxers are a protected class and as such should be treated with kid-gloves in the classroom. So much for free speech and facts over feelings. As you can imagine, the statement didn’t go over well. The university issued new guidance to say you can tell the truth so long as you allow space for “all sides.”
The faculty - who are mostly liberals who TRUST SCIENCE and also don’t want to die - are at a low spot in terms of morale. I’d go so far as to say the faculty are hopping mad. The last 18 months have been hectic and challenging and exhausting. Teaching online, sometimes homeschooling at the same time, trying to figure out how to keep research going.
Too often, faculty trying to figure out how to make ends meet too. Academic salaries - despite the evidence of Professor in Alabama who make $150,000 a year, in Alabama and they don’t even play football - are flat. For the most part, full time tenure-system type appointments afford a middle class life or better and good security. But for most faculty members, it’s a different story. Adjunct wages are low, like $3,000 a course low, and adjust work is precarious, and probably most faculty are adjunct (although truth be told our data on this is not all that good). So faculty feel unappreciated; taken advantage of.
One tenured faculty member even quit, citing his university’s immoral response to the pandemic. At Spelman, faculty with uncommon coordination and soldiery organized a Zoom-out. They temporarily moved the entire curriculum online, to pressure the administration to take their safety concerns more seriously. You won’t see that kind of collective action many places.
I don’t think that many faculty will quit. And I am sure that at most colleges and universities, faculty are not coordinated enough to operate collectively. Many tenured faculty are taken for granted are are frustrated. But they (we) also have pretty good jobs, and are not often attuned to the challenges faced by our contingent colleagues. The discontent will continue to simmer, but vulnerability is experienced asymmetrically.
The public probably isn’t too sympathetic. People see big tuition bills and big loan balances and assume professors are pampered, over-paid, under performing ninnies. Ok, I don’t actually have data to support that assertion. But I don’t think it’s wild speculation either. Anyone who’s a faculty member and talks to a family member who is distant from higher education learns pretty quickly what they think of us by the questions they ask: “What do you do when you are working 3 hours a week?” Indeed.
The administration (I defining the term as the abstract oppositional authority, The Man, if you will) knows the faculty are at their rope’s end. The thing is … they can basically take the faculty for granted without much to worry about other than rant-y blog posts (the sort written by people who work 3 hours a week) and Colleen Flaherty articles getting clicks for 18 hours. With wages down in an inflationary economy and a faculty market that is sluggish for anyone who is not a super-star, basically the faculty are stuck. They can let us be mad. Sure, faculty activism might pick off a Provost or two here or there but basically we are harmless, if very annoying. Just ask the Associate Deans. The circular firing squad makes the idea of faculty coordination and solitary seem … remote.
The fact is, most faculty are not going to quit. Most faculty are not particularly mobile. And most of us, including myself, are replaceable.
Students are a different story. Most colleges and universities in the US are tuition dependent. State funding is now matched or exceed by tuition payments in the public sector as a source of operating revenue. Most private colleges and universities are not independently wealthy, big endowment-type places. Most of campuses are living hand to mouth on tuition fees.
Students and their families want in-person education. A switch to online would signal significant uncertainty about the future of higher education delivery. If not now, when can we “get back to normal?” Students will ask that question. Families will ask that question. Policy makers will ask that question. The social demand for higher education is strong and more inelastic than most people think. But it’s not unbreakable. Campus leaders don’t want to test the social bonds that keep the whole thing together (the bonds are expectations about “going to college”).
This doesn’t mean that faculty should just give up advocating for better working conditions and safer, more responsible colleges and universities. But I think mask and vaccine mandates are about as good much “safety” as faculty can expect. Easy for me to say. I’m teaching in an online program this semester. But the vaccines basically work (even if their efficacy wanes), boosters are coming, masking mitigates transmission (so for example, hospitals) and people want to “get back to normal.” I don’t think we will see much accommodation to faculty frustration. Here is how I put it on Twitter.
Brendan Cantwell
Let's face it, it's easer to take faculty for granted than it is to take students for granted, especially when you are a tuition dependent campus, which is basically a big chunk of higher ed in the US.
And here is my validation from the sharpest social and cultural analyst in academia (I am sorry, I couldn’t resist sharing this).
Tressie McMillan Cottom
@cant_b I silently agree for the most part. Maybe some very small schools can do it but…
I am not saying I like this state of affairs. I’m saying I think this where things stand. I bounce between idealism and realism.
Some things I'll be following.
In no particular order, here is a non-exhaustive list of topics I’ll be following in US higher education this semester. I’ll try to do a comparative list at some point, but that is trickier.
COVID, of course.
I’ve already said what I’ve got to say about this, mostly, but I am eager to see what happens on campus. Will we see widespread outbreaks? Will campuses with vaccine and mask mandates fare better than those without? How will make and vaccine mandates be enforced? Will many campuses have to switch to online? You know the questions … you don’t need any more of this list from me.
Enrollment and student sucess.
What is fall enrollment going to look like? Will we see a continued decline in students at community colleges? How about for-profits and online programs? Will we see a difference in new enrollments versus returning students? Are we going to start to see the pandemic eroding graduation rates? And of course, everything needs to be disaggregated by region, by sector, by program, and by student demographics.
Is the EdTech poised to take off?
I’ve seen some guesses that EdTech is about to become a massive economic sector. Maybe? I don’t know. So far, we can say that EdTech MOOCS and the like, have not lead the the fever dream disruption some have hoped. But it’s also not possible to say that business as usual will last forever. EdTech is increasingly integrated to the normal operations of higher education and new mega-platforms might mean that the ground is shifting a bit. I will be watching but don’t have a strong enough background to have meaningful predictions.
Where is the culture war going?
It’s going to keep on. That’s not a question. Especially as we approach the midterm elections. The question is what is it gong to look like. Covid will be part of it. See also, speech. A big chunk of conservative speech advocacy has seamlessly merged into speech and idea suppression (almost like they weren’t operating in good faith in the first place). But exactly how this is going to play out is unknown, at least to me.
How much new research funding will make it through congress?
The news cycle moves so fast it easy to forget that the US has giant spending packages working their way through Congress. How much new research funding, and for what purpose and to what agencies, ends up in final deals (legislation and budget reconciliation)will be something to watch. As well the extent to which the research spending is explicitly designed to counter China. A big part of the “New Cold War” runs through higher education and basic research.
When will climate become an explicit part of the higher education conversation?
Climate change is the most pressing problem facing humanity in the medium and long run, and it is one of the top challenges today. Higher education has a big role to play in how we respond through education, research, and public engagement. Higher education also has a giant carbon footprint from coal burning power plants on campus to conference travel, and study abroad, and massive inefficient buildings that need to be heated and cooled, all the automobile traffic to and from campus, and the hum of servers processing massive amounts of data. Big and growing campuses can be found in states and cities with dwindling water resources. Campuses in low lying areas will see more flooding events. But climate change does not seem anywhere near the center of our policy, organizational, research conversations. Will this start to change?
Four topics that I might not be able to resist taking about even though other’s are better suited to do the analysis.
First, student debt. See servicer issues, see schedule to set repayments, see the prospect of cancelling. We’ll hear a lot about all of them.
Second, ROI. Yes, everyone wants college to pay. And we will see more empirical work on which programs do and don’t pay, and lots of calls for more and better data and for regulations that apply to all types of programs.
Third, college athletics. What’s going to happen to the NCAA? Will the courts eternally make it obsolete? And then what happens to big-time and small-time college sports? I don’t know. But it’s something to watch.
Forth, accreditation! I should know more about quality assurance and accreditation than I do. It matters and it’s going to be a background conversation moving forward, with times when it takes, briefly, near-center-stage.
Ok, enough.
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Brendan Cantwell
Brendan Cantwell @@cant_b

Associate Professor @HALEatMSU and Joint Editor-in-Chief for Higher Education ( Speak only for my self.

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