Killing Academia

The Death and Destruction of America's Colleges and Universities

Posted Aug 20, 2014

Killing Academia

by Neil Lavender, PH.D.

Whether or not you are aware of it, there has been a major revolution in education on college campuses nationwide. These changes are destroying the quality of college educations. As a college professor for 35 years, I am painfully aware of these changes. I have therefore decided to address these issues in my next several blogs.

These are not minor changes; they are game changers and will affect the education of millions of students right now and into the future.  And they will result in the United States falling even further behind in the international education rankings.

For various reasons, which I will detail in subsequent postings, our nation’s colleges have switched from an academic model of administration to a corporate one. For example, the traditional office of Dean is eliminated and replaced by Vice President. Students are not seen as young adults who are in need of being transformed by an education; previously known as disciples, i.e., “disciplined ones”; but as consumers who need to be kept happy at all costs least they quit and go to another school. Probably the most pernicious of these changes is the elimination of the college professor who is replaced by itinerant part-time teachers known as adjunct faculty or Instructors. An Instructor is a horse of a different color. I will get into these distinctions in subsequent blogs.

But, for now, I will start at the beginning. And I mean the very beginning. Colleges and universities are our nation’s highest institutions of learning. Indeed, they are the crown jewels of what should be the world’s most effective educational system. If anybody should know what learning is, people that run the colleges should. But, amazingly, most colleges are run by individuals who really don’t know what learning is.

Think about that for a moment. The people who are in charge of education don’t know what it is. Exactly what education is is not an easy question to answer. Some of the best educators in the world are still struggling to put their finger on exactly what types of things transpire during the teaching process. The education of students appears to be a hit or miss process that is unquantifiable. An art rather than a technique.

This leaves college administrators and other evaluators of teaching and learning in the dark as to whether or not professors are really teaching and students are really learning. Pressured to come up with learning and teaching outcomes, they often use department finals to assess the learning process. These tests are nothing more but memory tests (and short-term memory at that) for the most part and do not show the real impact of learning, which should rsult in changes which last a lifetime.

Worse yet, unable to ascertain what truly transpires during the teaching and learning process, evaluators of learning often resort to their own personal conceptions of what constitutes good teaching. “Student engagement” and instructor’s "charisma" seem to be the default when evaluating whether or not students are learning. Seasoned professors are fully aware of this so when they are being evaluated, they will walk around the room, ask lots of questions all while speaking and act in an animated fashion, knowing that this will garner them precious extra points in their evaluation.

Moreover, administrators desperately seeking to find a way to see if students are really learning, reflexively resort to implementing “The Next Big Thing” when evaluating college learning. Educational fads come and go like so many ill-conceived dieting schemes.I personally have seen faculty members rated and evaluated on the absurd such  as to whether or not they made eye contact with ALL the students for equal amounts of time, or whether students were given the chance to have a small group experience. Or the current fad; did students have access to supporting and ancillary online materials? Not surprisingly, none of these increased student learning one iota.

I’ve been around long enough now to see many of these fads come and go: weren’t filmstrips supposed to enhance students learning? What about movies? Transparencies?’ How about Power points? Innovations in textbooks which now all have supporting websites and ancillary materials which most often results in “busy work”? Honestly, I have seen all of these come and go and yet, I have not seen any real changes in learning. I mean real learning. Did it keep the students happy? Yes, but so would a free lunch. None of these things have succeeded in the least in elevated student learning levels.

Ah yes, the corporate model! Let’s make satisfied customers. Keep them happy, er ignorant, but happy

Administrative evaluators of college professors will also rely way too much on student evaluations to ascertain a professor’s effectiveness. Student evaluations are a helpful part-- albeit a small part --in the evaluation process but administrators rarely receive training on how to use these effectively. Also, studies show that student evaluations explained only a small portion of teaching effectiveness.

The logic of student evaluations escapes me. They only make sense if you are using a corporate model and are trying to keep your customers happy. Think about it this way: you are essentially asking people right out of high school to evaluate college teaching and learning; something that the experts have been trying to do for the last several centuries or so! Perhaps we should ask new recruits to evaluate the effectiveness of their drill sergeants.

Tenure and promotions are often granted or denied on the basis of these evaluations. Yet evaluators of college learning have been known to resort to snooping around on student ratings of their professors on websites such as before issuing their evaluations of professors for tenure or promotion.

The blind leading the blind? Maybe. But all this begs the question “OK Mr. College Professor, if you are so smart, tell us, just what does make college students learn?”

The good news is that we do know. check out my next blog to find out.

Subsequent postings will address these and other related issues.

  Dr. Lavender is co-author of:

Impossible to Please