09/11/2014 01:12 pm ET Updated Nov 11, 2014

A Letter From the Underground of The Castle

Dear Friends and Colleagues:

As another academic year begins The Castle's shadow is bringing more and more Kafkaesque darkness to university campuses. That shadow continues to transform our places of higher learning into corporate enclaves in which mindless civility eclipses uncomfortable debate, in which bureaucratic process becomes more important than creative discovery, in which business professionals, who know little about the life of the mind, make decisions that adversely impact the quality of campus intellectual life.

The increasing length of The Castle's shadow makes me sad; it compels me to seek the solace and protection of The Underground.

Like most professors these days, I need some protection. As an increasingly inconsequential faculty member at a public university, a person who enjoys teaching, who feels obligated to challenge the minds of his students, I feel despondent as I try to extricate myself from a flurry of bureaucratic obligations that take precious time away from what should be the primary mission of higher education: quality teaching informed by cutting edge knowledge of disciplinary research. It takes time to conduct research, write scholarly papers, and prepare course materials all the while making sure that you're up to date in your discipline. And yet, those pursuits seem insignificant in the dim shadow of The Castle.

The men and women who spend their days in The Castle see the university from a different perspective. It is a perspective that doesn't connect with the realities of the classroom or with the twists and turns of intellectual life. If this disconnect continues our universities will be transformed into training schools in which graduates are not taught how to think, but how to be obedient workers who don't question authority. In an America that has become economically polarized, this educational strategy fits the plans and dreams of a new legion of oligarchs, who usually prefer blind loyalty to perceptive critique.

From my vantage in The Castle's Underground, it is clear that the people who reside in The Castle do not trust professors to do their jobs. In the corporate university, we (professors) have to show them (administrators, boards of trustees and legislators) numbers that prove that our "product"--teaching course x or y--effectively meets their projected goals.

This lack of trust translates into pervasive assessment. For most of us in the professoriate, the scourge of university assessment is a monumental vote of no confidence in our professional capacities. Assessment exercises keep the ever-expanding number of administrators quite busy. They spend a lot of their time processing ever-increasing amounts of data the production of which is soaking up more and more of our attention. That means that we have less of time to do our work. As for the students, they usually care about workloads and grades and don't give a hoot about learning outcomes and assessment data.

This destructive madness is widespread on our campuses. Here is an example from my university, which, when it comes to assessment, is not at all exceptional. Consider what the residents of Our Castle, who have never visited my classroom, expect of the professors in my department--an "Action Plan." Here's the short version.

1. revise assessment plans for consistency with clear rationales for determination of student success;
2. upload all assessment plans to TracDat, a mysterious data cloud somewhere in cyberspace;
3. use assessment to improve programs;
4. make sure our assessment is consistent with general education assessment requirements;
5. correct syllabi to be consistent with university requirements;
6. assess and improve distance education offerings and share distance education experience with the campus
7. encourage faculty proficiency in classroom technology; and
8. make sure syllabi contain required elements.

This "Action Plan" will produce a data set that will be uploaded to the mysterious TracDat, where faceless people in The Castle will evaluate and reevaluate our work. How useful will these data sets be? Can you measure student success any more than you can measure happiness or well-being? Can assessment improve programs or instruction if professors don't have adequate time to pursue their scholarship? Why is consistency so institutionally important? Is consistency more important that the quality of course content? Does technological proficiency, which is, of course, important, guarantee teaching excellence and student success? If you look at the boilerplate of assessment, you find little in it about taking time to refine scholarship, or engage in research-informed teaching. There is little or no mention of faculty keeping up with disciplinary developments. Between the bloodless lines of Castle boilerplate, however, there are bullet points about templates, consistency, outcomes, and strategic plans.

When I occasionally emerge form The Underground and look up at The Castle, I sometimes feel numb. After more than 30 years in the classroom, I wonder about The Castle's increasing insistence that we engage in pointless make-work that diverts our attention from our professional obligations. It makes no sense at all.

Do people in The Castle desire professional mediocrity?

It's hard to know. The people in The Castle don't talk to us. They don't seem to like us very much let alone trust us to do our jobs. They don't seem to pay very much attention to scholarly achievements that bring recognition and prestige to the university. They do seem to like technology and distance education--"innovation" that cuts costs and increases revenue. At my university there's a lot of easy money to develop distance education and hybrid courses. There seems to be less money for highly competitive faculty research grants.

The people in The Castle like numbers, outcomes, and action plans--things that tend to alienate those of us who seek intellectual refuge in The Underground. When will the isolated figures up in The Castle come out into the dim light they have created and realize that people are more important that processes, that support and respect for scholarship goes a long way toward restoring faculty morale, which, in turn, would improve teaching effectiveness and student success?

The residents of The Castle, however, seem to be true believers in the corporate university. Given their track record they are not likely to soon understand how destructive their actions have been to the mission of higher education. Higher education certainly needs to better incorporate technology into university teaching, but if that change diminishes scholarship or subverts faculty innovation, invention and creativity, what's left?

Some critics might suggest that if professors are not happy with their lives in the corporate university, they should leave--find another job or retire. That's the easy way out. Despite the hardships, world-class face-to-face teaching still occurs down here in The Underground of The Castle. Down here we invest in people more than in things. Down here we try and sometimes succeed in inspiring some of our students. When that happens our dark corridors are suddenly illuminated with light--real student success.