Unchanging Change

After more than fifty years in collegiate academia, my wife the professor has observed a lot. One of the most predictable aspects is what happens all too often when a new president, provost, or, occasionally, a new dean takes office. Too many of those individuals immediately want to change things, or as she puts it, to “reinvent the wheel.”

There are reasons for change, the most common being an attempt to improve the way things run, but all too often change only makes matters worse.

That’s because systems in any institution, whether political, commercial, or academic, come to be because they work. At times, they don’t function well, but they function after a fashion. Yet, seldom does any new administrator ask the most basic questions, such as how a system came to be, or whether the alternatives would be any better.

Usually, the system can’t be measurably improved because of the requirements placed on it. Improving the quality of education and the abilities of graduates requires asking more of both professors and students.

Asking more of students invariably results in more students failing, transferring, or complaining, if not all three. All of these reduce graduation rates at a time when professors are being pressured to increase graduation rates.

As most good teachers know, not all students learn in the same way, and the greater the diversity in students, the more that multiple different approaches are required to reach all the students. Any single approach will not reach some students. Reaching all students requires more time and/or more teachers, if not both. In the past, students whose learning styles weren’t addressed were effectively marginalized or flunked. Under current political conditions, this isn’t acceptable, and administrators pressure professors to use multiple approaches. Practically speaking, having a professor use multiple approaches without increasing the classroom time and homework or by keeping classes small (which aren’t economically feasible because universities are under pressure to keep costs down) means less material is taught, effectively dumbing down the curriculum.

At the same time, almost all college administrations require student evaluations of faculty. The majority of students downgrade demanding and challenging professors, and lower student evaluations result in adverse consequences for professors. So, often, the professors who require better work and accomplishments are rewarded less than “cheerleading” professors who require less… and professors who require excellence are often “counseled” to be more “positive” – or simply pushed out in one way or another.

The results are that, today, “cheerleading” seems to be prevailing, particularly because it keeps students happier and increases graduation rates.

This isn’t likely to change. Since the U.S. produces twice as many college graduates every year as there are jobs requiring a college degree, employers and graduate schools are cherry-picking the best graduates, and the employers are hiring a smaller percentage of graduates and using an increasing range of AI-styled systems, leaving a higher percentage of formerly “happy” students saddled with student loans they’ll have trouble repaying.

The system does work… after a fashion… but the increasing pressures on the universities and faculty result in more students flooding most campuses and less being learned by each student, while paying more.

This isn’t sustainable, but few in politics or academia will admit it, and those who try are usually marginalized or removed.

1 thought on “Unchanging Change”

  1. Mayhem says:

    This is something implicit in education around the world. Probably because it’s something that everyone has some knowledge of, and it’s a popular political football to use against the predecessor, as well as being a relatively harmless place to test out ideological driven theories – the harm is to children, and they don’t vote.

    My mother taught high school science for 50 years, and regularly complained about the latest Board of education dogma reinventing the wheel. She had boxes of old course material stored in our basement, because about every 20-30 years the circle would come around again and whatever was trendy would be a re-hash of something she’d seen before. So she could rework an old course guide quickly, update the science as needed, and fit in without much effort.

    Mind you Universities have a very different problem – high schools generate standardised students, all learn the same programs, with minor variations between schools.
    Universities sell a customised education, but think of themselves as research driven institutions. Except that undergraduates don’t do research because they don’t know anything yet, so their actual main purpose is to fund the infrastructure (including staff) for post graduates to use. Which means the whole undergraduate program is done as cheaply as possible because after 3-5 years, 95% of students will vanish.

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