04/17/2014 04:09 pm ET Updated Jun 17, 2014

The Brave New World of Campus Life

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) recently released a report that compares faculty and administrator compensation. It comes as no surprise that the salaries of administrators and coaches, according to the AAUP report, have skyrocketed. Meanwhile, faculty salaries, which inched forward for the first time in five years, continue to lag. The authors of the report also discussed trends in academic spending and found that colleges and universities are spending less and less on instruction and more and more on athletics. In her Washington Post article on the AAUP Report, Jena McGregor quoted Saranna Thornton, an economics professor and chair of AAUP's Committee on the Economic Status of the Profession.

"The biggest takeaway is that the education mission of institutions is becoming less and less important," Thompson says. Athletics and administrative functions are getting increasing shares of the budget, she says. In some cases, that's understandable, due to necessary costs that have grown inherently over time, such as technology spending. But in other cases it's driven by universities' efforts to make their campuses more attractive as competition for students grows.

"One of the myths that we want to explode," Thornton says, "is that it's faculty salaries that are driving the increase in higher education."

The AAUP report is yet another indication of a cultural shift in the American university. If the numbers in the AAUP report are indicative, we now live in an era in which the educational mission of our colleges and universities has become marginal. Given the marginalization of the educational mission can we still refer to our colleges and universities as "institutions of higher learning?"

If you follow the money, you get a pretty good picture of the cultural logic that is streaming through contemporary American universities. This logic has created a universe in which the deep scholarship of the academy takes a back seat to the superficial window dressing of marketing slogans. In such a universe capital improvement projects and athletics receive more funding that does instruction. In this emerging atmosphere administrators run "operations," students are "consumers," and faculty become "employees." As an employee a professor's contribution to scholarship, which is sometimes difficult to measure, becomes less important than his or her "productivity"--the number of students processed each semester, the number of students he or she guides through the graduation portal. If performance objectives are met, you might get a slight raise in salary or your academic department's annual budget might even get a slight increase, though this happy outcome is far from guaranteed in the cold world of cost-benefit analysis.

In the corporate university, of course, employees must look after their customers, making sure that they are satisfied with the "product," making sure that they have enough "credit" to graduate. Indeed, campaigns of customer satisfaction have reduced academic standards and promoted widespread grade inflation. Commenting on this phenomenon in the April 4-6th edition of Counter Punch, Anthony Dimaggio wrote:

Consider some of the recent evidence for the decline in academic standards. In the early 1960s, full-time college students spent 40 hours per week on their academic activities - including class attendance, homework, studying, and writing. By the 2000s, the number had declined to 27 hours for full-time students - a reduction of 33 percent. Similarly, the time spent studying decreased from 25 hours in 1961 to 13 hours in 2003, a reduction of nearly 50 percent. Today, many students expect classes with little reading, as a third of social science students who are surveyed avoid classes with more than 40 pages of reading per week.

The decline of standards is accompanied by incredible grade inflation. Recent research on American grades found that a massive easing of standards took place across hundreds of colleges and universities in the last 50 years. About 15 percent of all grades were "A"s in the 1940s and 1950s, while about a third of grades were "B"s, a third were "C"s, and about 20 percent were "D"s of "F"s. By the late 2000s, the percentage of "A"s was nearly 45 percent, "B"s were 30 percent, and "Cs" were 15 percent. Just 10 percent of grades were "D"s or "F"s.

Even if university "employees" are dedicated to consumer satisfaction, their bosses need to be certain that they are putting forth their best efforts. The consumers are regularly surveyed about their classroom experience. Consumer "outcomes" are measured and assessed. Employees must also be monitored. Is the content of their courses beyond the boundary of "consumer" acceptability? As "representatives of the university" does that content need to be "censored?" What if professors say or write something that is not consumer-friendly? What's more, if professorial behavior is not institution-friendly, what can be done--reprimand, early retirement (as was the ploy with the University of Colorado's Professor Patti Adler), suspension, or outright dismissal? At the University of Oregon, administrators sought the power to monitor professors' correspondence both on and off campus. The Kansas Board of Regents wanted to be able to fire any public university professor who said or wrote something that was not in the "interest" of the university.

What are the social ramifications this Brave New World of Campus Life? Consider once again the commentary of Anthony Dimaggio.

In his new book, Neoliberalism's War on Higher Education, Henry Giroux insightfully warns Americans about an educational system that promotes a "culture of idiocy and illiteracy" that's fueled in large part by the "corporatization of the university." Colleges and universities, Giroux explains, foster "a mode of public pedagogy that privileges the entrepreneurial subject while encouraging a value system that promotes self-interest, if not an unchecked selfishness." Giroux's attacks on higher education will be met by nods among those fighting on the frontlines against efforts to lobotomize college classrooms and transform campuses into vocational facilities that pump out new units (a.k.a. "graduates").

There are an increasing number of scholars who, like Giroux, stand strongly against the corporate university. Like Giroux we decry the demise of academic standards and are troubled by the emerging culture of ignorance. We realize that in the age of social media and the "inviolability" of the market much about the university has changed. Even so, it is important to defend scholarship and our mission as educators. As we struggle against the stiff headwinds of corporatization, the lack of progress can make us weary. No matter the depth of our weariness we need to remain steadfast and remember that in time prevailing winds do change direction.