Burn It Down: The Lonely Death of American Higher Education, Part 2 (guest post)

Adjunctski Baum

Today concludes the conversation between Robert Baum and his anonymous friend & colleague, Nikolai Adjunctski. If you missed Part 1, read it here. They know higher ed is broken, possibly beyond repair. And, as old friends, they can tease and challenge each other in the process.

Without further editorial ado, here’s the conclusion of this discussion.


 

BURN IT DOWN

RCB: There’s something terribly wrong, Nikolai. This isn’t our first time talking about this but this time, in 2014, it feels like something needs to change or you and I will die a very lonely academic death–much like Lebanon College.

ADJUNCTSKI: What does your instinct tell you?
RCB: Higher Education is running on autopilot. Like a ghost ship. Or a comatose body. It’s alive by machinations not innovations. Like it’s just, I don’t know, there–right over there–dying.

ADJUNCTSKI: What if higher education, the kind we practice–with the liberal arts and the humanities and arts and sciences all running 100% at places that respect and need our services–what if that higher education is already dead?
RCB: That means we’re the last generation of more than a millennium of scholars who dedicated themselves to truth, beauty, art, politics, rhetoric, thinking, and learning to become what Richard Rorty described as a different sort of person. And I don’t think I can be that person, be that last generation.

ADJUNCTSKI: What makes you so special?
RCB: I don’t know, Nikolai . . .MAYBE I JUST WANT TO BE LEFT ALONE AND DO MY F**KING JOB.
ADJUNCTSKI: Which is?
RCB: To teach my students
ADJUNCTSKI: What if they don’t give a sh*t?
RCB: But, they do. And you know this too, Nikolai.
ADJUNCTSKI: Some of them do.
RCB: Many do. It takes them time. But, once we get out of port (September) and onto the open seas (October/November) we’re ready to bring them back to port (December) as changed people. We wouldn’t do what we do if it didn’t matter to someone.
ADJUNCTSKI: I don’t think they give a sh*t and I don’t want to waste what little time I have left here on them.
RCB: Oh my God. This is so typical, Nikolai. You want to just walk away and leave the mess for me. I’m Mr. Enthusiasm. Professor Let’s Try Again. How dare you?
ADJUNCTSKI: No one cares, Robert.
RCB: Please shut up.
ADJUNCTSKI: Administrators? Program Directors? Presidents? Boards? They’ve been fed their own salty sh*t for so long they have no idea they are eating the fecal matter of their modules–their, I don’t know, andragogy? Do you trust ANYONE who uses such a word? What is that? I don’t get it. I am expert on X and I teach X and students take X and I get paid to do X and suddenly I’m told that X isn’t good enough. Where is Y and Z? I do not know Y and Z. I know X and I think you, Mr. Administrator, made up Y and Z because you don’t know sh*t.

RCB: So perfect.
ADJUNCTSKI: And it’s only so complicated because bureaucrats need it to be complicated so they can justify their f**king existence to some other bureaucrat who must show progress–these measurable results, these benchmarks, these agendas and strategic plans. To hell with all of them and to hell with all of this data gathering and studies funded by dirty fascists like Bill Gates and committees initiated or resurrected or implemented or education products and graduate school programs and digital blah blah brought to us with smiley WalMart faces. I have an idea. Let’s analyze the data and see what the results show. No? Not ever? Right. Not ever. Because sometimes the results show you that you are NOT doing the thing you claim to do and you are NOT able to justify the costs of new programs or hiring new administrators or building new buildings to celebrate the Y and Z all the while my work as an expert in X is neglected and gradually dies out like you and me. That’s what they want; and they are dirty fascists for wanting it.

RCB: Explain.
ADJUNCTSKI: No. You explain. Aren’t you closing a school? Didn’t these people kill your college? How does a college just end, comrade? Only people in power can kill a college. So?

RCB: Does never having become the school Lebanon College professed to have become count as killing? Does having countless resources both human and economic thrown at the accreditation process that was supposed to all but guarantee cash cow market driven education count as intentional death? What about Deans like me spending most of their time attempting to do the work of a Registrar or Systems Analyst or Librarian while also steering programs and hiring new faculty and making sure the curriculum is doing what it claims to be doing? Does that count as killing a college?
ADJUNCTSKI: Yes.
RCB: No. Look. Comrade. It just died.
ADJUNCTSKI: Nothing just dies.
RCB: My father died. My best friend’s father to my dead father just died. Sometimes people just die. Isn’t that the lesson of Russell Banks’ novel and Atom Egoyan’s film The Sweet Hereafter? Sure there are many reasons why my father was released from the hospital and then suffered a heart attack after extensive heart surgery–I could obsess (and have) about that moment. Why send him home? What were you thinking? I’m suing you for malpractice. Complications surrounding the life and hunting accident will forever haunt me about my best friend’s father’s death. Many questions about the years of unemployment, the desperation, the chaos, the rage and all of that. But, he died. My dad died. People die. Colleges die.
ADJUNCTSKI: You’re dodging the question.
RCB: No. I’m not. Lebanon College died. People much smarter than me and with more resources than me couldn’t make it work. Allied Health didn’t work. Business innovation didn’t work. The only thing that seemed to work was General Education with some kind of active almost Chamber of Commerce approach to community needs.
ADJUNCTSKI: Then why continue operations for so long?
RCB: Because like the adjunct, the college believes next Fall everything will be different. And it wasn’t. The college died.
ADJUNCTSKI: You’re so full of shit. I will do the job the reporters should’ve done in August. Ready?
RCB: Fine.
ADJUNCTSKI: Did you have enough money to run operations?
RCB: No.
ADJUNCTSKI: At what point did you know you didn’t have enough money?
RCB: Before I arrived in April.
ADJUNCTSKI: How long?
RCB: Since about 2007.
ADJUNCTSKI: What?
RCB: Well, the state, the federal accreditor, and the regional accreditor all asked the same questions about finances across the 2000s. In fact, one of the main criteria for accreditation is economic viability: will you be here in three years to provide students with the education you promised? It’s a miracle the place remained open this long.
ADJUNCTSKI: How did it stay open this long?
RCB: The generosity of our immediate community, anchor businesses. And hope. A seeming abundance of hope.

Adjunctski: That damn word again . . .
RCB: Okay. There’s definitely bureaucratic stupidity at the College, across the decades of documents I’ve reviewed. Sure. And it’s true: the situation in Lebanon does have a lot of corporate problems, especially the idea that market trends are how you best direct operations. Small colleges are fantastic in boom times; but when the economy busts, the small not-for-profits, the private colleges, are the first to feel the shock waves.

WALKING AWAY

RCB: So, you’re done.
ADJUNCTSKI: I’m done.
RCB: As in?
ADJUNCTSKI: I’m going to burn the whole thing down and then take a long vacation.
RCB: Why now?
ADJUNCTSKI: Why not now? It’s not getting better.
RCB: True.
ADJUNCTSKI: So, we burn it down.
RCB: What is this a scene from Batman Begins? (laughing)
ADJUNCTSKI: (cold eyes, dead stare) In many ways yes. I am your teacher trying to tell you to mind your corners for years. Burn the city. The academic social experiment failed. The fascists once again took over.

RCB: The sad thing is: we invited them in. We were mesmerized by all the talk of “measurable outcomes” and “strategic planning” and “essential course outcomes” and “transparency” and “shared governance” and “best practices.” It all sounded so legit. It sounded so corporate. And stable. And decided. It sounded like a breather from the endless unpaid work and daily (no, hourly) need to get back on our feet and start a new set of tasks but THIS TIME with a plan, with a strategy, with something akin to something to hold on to. Governance. Executive leadership. Hybridization. It was all so welcoming, like the way Heidegger said yes to the Reich so he could have a moment’s rest inside the warm bosom of an entire system dedicated to educating “the Volk” or giving him a rectorship that would establish “the old ways” in the new world order of Hitler’s vision for a people’s utopia. Like Heidegger and his disciples, myself included, he, and we, will be forever haunted by our embrace of an odious someone who wrote the most thought provoking philosophy about everything.

ADJUNCTSKI: Heidegger was a dirty fascist who deserved to die in shame.
RCB: We’re not doing this again.
ADJUNCTSKI: Maybe next time.

TALKING STICKS NO MORE

ADJUNCTSKI: You know we can never leave, like the Eagles song, yes?
RCB: I only know how to do this well: to share and get others to share their lives; to just be together for a few hours focused on stories and people and events that matter.
ADJUNCTSKI: I just do it for the crap paycheck now.
RCB: Truth? Beauty? Goodness?
ADJUNCTSKI: No. Not any more. It’s impossible to tell the truth when you fear for your livelihood each and every day. So, I choose to not fear and just teach when I can and earn money other ways. You cannot tell embody the truth if you are broken down by endless false starts and untenable promises and bottomless assurances from administrators who are conditioned to serve the administrative lapdogs of the institution’s owners, not you, the scholar or teacher or even “Hobby Prof” that decided to bring your experience, wisdom, and leadership into a world that actually embraces a kind of sing-song nonsensical equity that considers with all seriousness a “talking stick” (you talk/I talk/whoever holds the stick gets to talk) conflict (avoidance) resolution philosophy found in too many human resource manuals.

RCB: I once walked away from a week long symposium after someone used a stapler as a walking stick.
ADJUNCTSKI: You should’ve slapped them in the forehead with it.
RCB: You assume, old friend, that the staple would penetrate.
ADJUNCTSKI: Or that the #badmin would even feel it if it did.
RCB: Are you actually going to finish that book?
ADJUNCTSKI: Yes. I’m not teaching this Fall. You?
RCB: Yes. I no longer have a job. So, it’s back to square one version of life version seven point zero. Write. Produce. Maybe start a new college. I don’t know.
ADJUNCTSKI: I hate them.
RCB: I know.
ADJUNCTSKI: I hate them all.
RCB: I do too. But, as you say, what makes us so special? We’re not the first or last to hate people who care nothing about learning and wisdom and beauty and sharing the most profound experiences of our lives with each other, our students, our communities. How many of our predecessors drew swords against the oligarchs of their time? I’m hazarding a guess that most of the people we admire and how to become have had to burn it all down.
ADJUNCTSKI: On this we agree.
RCB: It was nice visiting with you, old friend.
ADJUNCTSKI: Please shut up.


As always, I’m happy to run guest posts. Inquire within. Your anonymity will always be protected if you want to be the blogger academia deserves (or needs) right now.

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