Professor warns of universities' decline

Staff WriterApril 7, 2011 

  • Cary Nelson's speech is free and open to the public. It will begin at 7 p.m. Friday in the Richard White lecture hall on Campus Drive at Duke University.

A professor of English for four decades, Cary Nelson takes the long view of American higher education.

These days, Nelson, who heads a group representing faculty members at universities across the country, is not encouraged.

Since the 1970s, universities have slowly moved away from the traditional use of tenure and tenure-track faculty members as the professorial lifeblood. In their place: adjunct and "fixed-term" faculty members who are far cheaper and often less invested in the university. The result, over time, has been an erosion of quality on college campuses, Nelson argues.

Nelson, who teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is the president of the American Association of University Professors. He'll speak Friday at Duke University on "How to Save the University."

He spoke with The News & Observer this week. Here are excerpts:

Q: So why do universities need saving?

The longest term problem begins in the mid-1970s and that's a very slow shift away from full-time tenure-track faculty to part-time contingent faculty. In 1975, two-thirds of faculty were eligible for tenure. In 2005, one-third were tenure eligible. The rest were hired on contracts, a semester, a year. And most of those were only teaching part time. So colleges and universities have lost a major part of those working full time, committed to the institution, available for letters of recommendation, available to do advising. They'd lost half the reliable workforce.

Q: You believe there's been a change in how universities are funded as well?

It's the shift from a reliance on state support to a reliance on tuition. State support has declined in most states, and tuition has gradually gone up. That threatens the access of the poor and also the access of a significant part of the middle class to the upward mobility that, unless you win the lottery, is the only way to better yourself and your family. It lets you move up the social ladder. And I think in the last year or two we're seeing a major change finally coalescing.

Q: When you say "major change finally coalescing ..."

Much of higher education is a service ... and is focused less on broad, cultural education than focused on job training. It is less intellectually challenging and more conformist.

Q: More utilitarian?

Yes, that's a good word.

Q: And that's a bad thing?

Yeah. I mean, I believe higher education should change people's lives. It should turn them into people of broader interests, with greater capacity to function as citizens, to be able to reflect on where the country is going. It shouldn't just narrowly slot people into jobs.

I do think people should learn the nature of work and be able to do work, but learning that requires a much broader education than just being trained in how to be an account executive or work in a lab or be a corporate lawyer.

eric.ferreri@newsobserver.com or 919-932-2008

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