23 April 2014

On Climbing Walls and "Class" Warfare

Enough already with the amenities!

No, no. Not like that. That's been beaten to death. I'm all right with student amenities. I'm just tired of hearing about them.

One of the popular villians for those critical of the increasing costs of higher education are student amenities. The climbing wall seems to be the primus inter pares here, the Skeletor ruling over the Castle Greyskull that the student union has become. But "gourmet" dining options (which, judging by what I've seen, are an improvement over the classic school cafeteria but are on par with your local Golden Trough Buffet) also come up a lot, and every once in a while I hear of that most egregious fault: maid service in dorms (gasp!).

No one is (openly) criticizing these in themselves. The criticism seems to be that these costly (we presume; I haven't seen anyone actually provide numbers) amenities are taking money away from academics, costing departments full-time faculty positions and exacerbating the casualization of teaching.

I call bullshit.

Let's start with the least persuasive, but nonetheless practically important, reason. As much as we like to think universities are immune from business pressures, admissions is selling a product. We (the decision-makers who have already graduated from college) can't sell college based on what we loved about it; the life of the mind is only a selling point once you've actually bought into it. We have to appeal to a customer for whom academics wasn't always already the whole point of college.

And that customer wants climbing walls. Very few 18-year-olds are impressed by how many articles in the American Political Science Review their Intro to American Government professor has. Those of us who graduated look back on the relationships we have with a few great professors. But again, those relationships are always already there for graduates. They don't exist for prospective students. They want a lot of things: proximity to (or distance from) home, low tuition and good financial aid, a thriving social scene. Climbing walls attract students (especially from places with poor student unions), without whom we have no one to bring to the life of the mind.

So think of amenities as the gateway drug to get them to follow us out of the cave.

Yeah, I know. That doesn't feel right to me either. A bit of that is nice, but maid service is a bit too far. Students at George Washington, Xavier, Holy Cross, CalTech, or Claremont McKenna; or those at Purdue, Boston University, and Arizona State can clean their own rooms.

Let's look at that list again. That's a pretty prestigous list, is it not? ASU and Purdue are the only public institutions, and among the pricier ones at $10,000 annually for in-state students and $23,000 and $28,000, respectively, for non-residents. There were some dorms at UW-Madison when I was in grad school that had maid service. But they were private dorms, not ones run by the university. I suspect that many luxury dorms at public institutions are likewise private-sector.

That doesn't look to me like it goes far toward explaining the cost issues that are hurting the core of higher education in the United States: the regional state universities that educate the majority of Americans. The amenity debate seems to draw a lot of examples from elite institutions to attack institutions serving the masses. That should scare you if you're really concerned with higher education.

The most compelling argument about this, though, requires a bit more detailed knowledge of how universities, and especially state universities, operate. I know that when I was a faculty member I knew nothing about budgets. I now have the (mis)fortune of knowing much about how budgets function.

Typically, a state institution will have one budget for state appropriations and tuition charges, often called the "hard" budget. That budget is fixed; funding for it is set by some level of state policy and expenditures constrained by an institutional budget that has the force of law. Institutions also, however, can generate revenue on their own, for example through student activity fees or room and board charges. That money is not governed by the state; it goes into the "soft" budget over which the institution has much more discretion.

Student activities, food services, and housing are almost all soft-budgeted activities. That has two important implications for the idea that amenities are being added at the expense of faculty. First, the money being spent on them is not being taken from academics. The expenditures for student amenities are paid out of funds collected for those purposes and separated from hard-budgeted expenses such as faculty. And second, it also means that an institution can't cut amenities and then move that money to faculty members. Soft money can't be moved to hard accounts; that's what "hard" means. Adding amenities can only lead to higher fees for them (and not higher tuition, which is hard budgeted); cutting them can only lower the associated fees.

So the amenities issue is a terrible explanation for rising costs. It assumes that intellectually elite students are the norm, isn't true of most institutions, and is totally clueless about the reality of the mechanism it proposes. We shouldn't be making that claim because it's a bad claim.

But that's not really why I'm tired of it. To me, much like the argument about administrative bloat, it smacks of the faux-class struggle of the academic world. Too many (very well off) tenured faculty see themselves as the vanguard of a proletariat of which they are part. The war against amenities is a war against wealthy students as much as one in support of access for the least well off. It is a form of Nietzschean ressentiment, convincing faculty who are very much part of the petty bourgeoisie of their radical bona fides.

And that is a deep problem, for it blinds academics to their privilege. We see that in the debate over adjunct labor conditions. Faculty members who are all about the radicalism suddenly rally to the defense of the system when the academic proletariat comes 'round and points out that tenure has more than just intellectual privileges. It's present in the paternalism of unreasonable demands that I experienced from faculty in grad school, and that drove out by far the best students in my cohort. If they're fighting the enemy above, faculty members don't have to worry about what they're doing to the people below.

That's why I'm tired of hearing about climbing walls.

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