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Teacher Torment

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Imagine an almost unimaginable meeting between presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney and someone like me, a professor with more than 30 years of experience in the classroom. Like most good politicians, Governor Romney would ask his interlocutor about her or his professional concerns. Like many university educators this professor would not be shy. He or she would tell the self-described "business guy" about a growing lack of appreciation for faculty, stagnant pay, eroding benefits and the increasing difficulty of teaching American college students in over-crowded and ill-equipped classrooms.

It's really sad to see what's happening to my profession, the professor would say.

Considering what he's said in the past about education, Mr. Romney might respond by saying: I understand the difficulty of your situation, but you knew what to expect when you decided to become a professor. You took the risk and now you must bear the consequences. It's like a business deal: sometimes you win; sometimes you lose. Whatever the outcome, though, you have to be personally responsible for your decisions. If you don't want to teach anymore, retire or try something else.

But I don't want to retire and I don't want to do anything else, the professor would say. What's wrong with improving the educational climate on our college and university campuses?

Nothing wrong with that, Romney might say. There are private sector solutions to education. Look at the successes of for-profit universities.

Governor Romney, in fact, has routinely criticized "big government" and public sector workers, including, among others, those of us who teach in public universities. Referring to President Obama, Romney recently said:

He wants another stimulus. He wants to hire more government workers. He says we need more fireman, more policeman, more teachers. Did he not get the message of Wisconsin? The American people did. It's time for us to cut back on government and help the American people.

It's hard to make the argument that Americans would be helped if we had fewer fire fighters, police officers and teachers. And yet if you employ the logic of a "one-size-fits-all" private sector business model, it makes sense to reduce the workforce, which saves money and improves the profitability of any (public) institution.

One way to make higher education more cost-effective is to prune the universities of their senior faculty. Senior faculty members, of course, are more expensive to keep on -- especially in times of budgetary duress. So what do you do? You offer them incentives to retire. If that doesn't work, you create the perception that that public educators don't "work" has hard as folks in the private sector. Accordingly, they don't deserve decent pay or benefits. These skillfully crafted narratives, which have created widespread suspicion of our public institutions and the people who work in them, have fostered climates of ill-will and disharmony on many of our campuses. In such a climate many senior professors, tired of the faceless corporatization of higher education, choose to retire, which, of course, saves money.

The private sector model for higher education also suggests that colleges and universities can achieve more cost effectiveness through class size increases. If you pump up class size, you generate increased revenue -- fewer professors teaching an increased number of students. Those numbers look good to any budget conscious "business guy" who happens to a business-savvy administrator or a budget conscious politician like Mr. Romney. In this narrowly defined world you don't really need to hire more teachers -- or for that matter fire fighters or police officers.

This scenario, which is in full play at many of our public universities, looks quite efficient -- a leaner and meaner university that is run like a successful business. In my experience, when you operate a college or university as if it were a business, you ruin it. Fiscal convenience trumps intellectual depth. The number of graduates becomes more important than the quality of their education. Thinking takes a back seat to skill acquisition.

Do we need to hire more teachers?

We do, especially if you believe that class size has an impact on learning, if you believe that teachers make important contributions to society, if you believe that universities are not businesses, if you believe that corporations are not people, if you believe that the complex problems of our society can not be solved with ethnocentric private sector models.