Jonathan Rees

Professor of History at Colorado State University - Pueblo

How to Survive Permanent Austerity

Full vitae austerity

Image: CafeCredit.com, Creative Commons

I finally got a chance to see the documentary “Starving the Beast” the other day. For those who don’t know, it’s about the campaign by various conservative political interests to cut budgets at major state universities across the United States Even though I was reading The Chronicle throughout the period covered in the film — and therefore had some familiarity with the situation at every campus examined — the stories it tells kept my interest because they all still seemed fresh.

For a brief while after I watching it, though, I had one criticism. The film examined a single problem in depth across multiple campuses but did not pursue any solutions. Then it hit me: What if there are no solutions? Political factions in many states have decided that state universities (and especially the professors who teach on those campuses) are the enemy. Those factions have decided to cut university budgets — regardless of the damage it causes.

So what can faculty and other advocates of public higher education do to support state universities?

Unfortunately, many administrators have absorbed the message of permanent austerity to such a degree that even moderately successful lobbying will never fully turn back the clock. In too many states, right-wing-inspired austerity thinking has already won the day. We can’t reason with our critics because they do not share our values. One recent poll showed that a majority of Republicans think colleges are bad for America. When it comes to higher-education funding there is simply no longer any common ground.

That’s why each of us — as individual faculty members — needs to plan how to survive in an environment of permanent austerity. If your university is going to be almost totally dependent on tuition dollars to keep its doors open in the future, how can you help recruit and retain students without sacrificing your own academic integrity, or your institution’s? How can you as an individual make a decent living in a profession that was never all that lucrative in the first place and is likely to get less-so in the future?

I’m not entirely sure, but I’m certain I know what not to do: Don’t keep doing the same old thing in your classroom.

Back when we were undergraduates, we were satisfied with professors who lectured and then passed out blue books twice a semester. But that approach to teaching doesn’t always work anymore. Many of today’s college students are struggling financially and need time outside of class to stay economically afloat. That’s why we need to find effective ways to help them learn and stay in school, which will, in turn, help us keep our shrinking employers from cutting us loose.

That’s why I’m pioneering the first fully online courses in my department, but you don’t have to go that far. You can take a smaller step: Find the best online tools available that can make your courses more student-friendly without sacrificing your academic integrity. No, you don’t have to become a slave to some impersonal commercial learning-management system that doesn’t respect your prerogatives as an educator. All you have to do is spend a little time looking around for good options. The Chronicle’s ProfHacker blog, for example, is a great place to learn about scores of them.

You might also consider taking advantage of whatever professional-development options are available on your campus. My work at CSU-Pueblo’s Center for Teaching and Learning has been aimed at bringing faculty together, introducing them to new online teaching tools, and helping them pick which tools will work best with the way they teach already.

By making your courses more relevant to our Internet age, you can ride the wave of austerity sweeping America and not get drowned in the process. I don’t know any faculty member who enjoys permanent austerity, but by participating in the changes that austerity brings to undergraduate education you can at least have some say in determining how future classrooms operate.

Suppose you do nothing. After all, it’s only a few decades until retirement, right? That might work for some of us, but others will find that the students they might have been lecturing to have moved on to other higher-education options — or, worse still, have foregone higher education entirely.

No, I’m not arguing that there will only be 10 universities in the future. What I am arguing is that permanent austerity is designed to make sure there will be a lot fewer public universities in the future and the ones that do survive will be a lot smaller. When higher education reaches that point, the unemployment of tenured professors will be a feature of that state, not a bug.

So, remembering my aborted criticism of Starving the Beast, how can I possibly end this essay on an up note?

While drastic change can obviously be extremely scary, I’ve really enjoyed trying to teach differently. Whether it’s teaching online or giving up lecturing entirely, trying to retain academic integrity under conditions of both austerity and technological change has been an intellectual challenge that has kept my interest for many months now. More important, by getting ahead of the curve, I’ve been able to influence how my university consumes educational technology.

Sure, I could have done nothing and continued to teach history the same way I’ve always taught history. But I prefer not to let my future rest in other people’s hands.

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