I had the opportunity this week of attending a lunch discussion with Ernie Benjamin, Interim General Secretary of the American Association of University Professors. The session was very informal, with faculty coming and going as needed while Dr. Benjamin discussed several issues. He did not have an opportunity to give a formal presentation.
All that said, I was somewhat disappointed. The session was billed as an opportunity to hear AAUP perspectives on academic freedom and the future of higher education. At the risk of over simplifying (always a problem for me), here is what Dr. Benjamin said. The proportion of full-time, tenure or tenure-track faculty is down significantly over what it has been in the past. More and more faculty are ‘contingent’ in nature. This poses a threat to academic freedom and thus weakens the quality of higher education. The accountability movement in higher education threatens to dumb down the curriculum to that which is easily measurable, as has occurred in K12 education as a result of No Child Left Behind. Serious quantitative measures to assess educational effectiveness have been generally co-opted by unsophisticated audiences and reduced to comparing raw scores un-controlled for differences in institutions. University authorities have deflected measures to increase transparency about their programs and staffing, which would make it easier to genuinely evaluate different schools’ programs.
While I agreed with nearly everything Dr. Benjamin said, it struck me that his comments were almost completely defensive in nature (and highly conservative in the original sense of the term). Benjamin stated that higher education in the US is the best in the world, and thus implicitly, there is nothing to be done to improve it except to restore the balance in tenure/tenure-track faculty. In particular, he said nothing about potential changes in way teaching and learning in higher education may occur in the 21st Century. Is University 2.0 too avant garde for the mainstream? Or is the AAUP’s focus too narrow to consider that possibility.