Notes on the Academy During the Time of Covid

by Akim Reinhardt

Miss Crabtree (June Marlowe), "Our Gang" | TV and Movie Teachers ...I’ve taught shittily these last two months. That’s nothing a teacher ever wants to admit and normally has no excuse for, but these are not normal times.

I work at a public university in Maryland. There are multiple layers of bureaucracy, not all of it always terribly efficient. Maryland is a border state, and a senior colleague once described these university administrative processes as Northern bureaucracy meets Southern efficiency.

So you just knew that figuring out what to do about coronavirus was going to take a while. In all, there were two false starts before the final reckoning.

First they told us school was closed for the three days leading into Spring Break, but we would be back after that. Then, shortly before we were to return from the break, they told us the first two weeks back would not actually be “back”; instead, we would be teaching online. Some time thereafter, the third and final edict came down: we would be online for the rest of the semester.

I had spent my Spring Break planning to adapt my three different courses for two weeks of online teaching. I dove into it, coming up with the best plan I could for a limited disruption. Then, with not much time to adapt, I had to extend that two weeks into seven and a half. What to do?

I was frustrated. Certain elements of my initial two-week plan would not be viable over nearly two months. Plus, we were now getting troublesome information. About 15% of our students do not, even in the best of times, have reliable or even any access to high speed internet. My school does not attract a lot of wealthy students. And of course this is the United States, where high speed internet is not considered a public utility as it should be, but rather just another luxury item for everyone to purchase at market value, which is corrupted and inflated by corporate profiteering. In most places, private monopolies leave people in with only one, shockingly overpriced choice. And in many rural areas, there’s no choice at all. No options. No high speed internet. Period.

Furthermore, they told us, that 15% figure was very likely to increase during the lock down as many of our students who did have high speed internet at home would now be competing for band width with siblings who were also distance learning, and of course with parents who were now telecommuting. How many simultaneous Zoom meetings and live streaming downloads could one family’s modem and router handle before it all became dysfunctional?

With all of these factors in mind, I made the conscious decision to degrade my pedagogy. I decided that for the remainder of the semester I would effectively run my classes as correspondence courses.

Think of a 20th century classified ad in the back of a Rolling Stone or a comic book. There, nestled between promotions for Charles Atlas body building, bongs, and ordination by mail, was an ad asking if you ever dreamed about being an artist. Fill in this illustration of a cat and mail it back so we can see if you have any talent. Of course you do. Anyone who bothers to reply is deemed sufficiently gifted. And so begins, provided you pay the fee, a postal correspondence between student and teacher. Receive this assignment. Complete and return. An assessment and new assignment will follow.

This is essentially how I ran my courses. I replaced lectures with other materials: mostly extra readings, but also some videos they could watch whenever circumstances allowed. In lieu of discussions they sent me extra writeups. And no stamps to lick, of course; all of it via email, which seems incredibly modern to me, and nearly as dated as snail mail to them.

This is no way to teach. I hope I shall never have to do it again.

But something good did come out of it . Normally a bit of a task master and rigid about deadlines, I eased up on them because of the mayhem. And oddly enough given the distance between us, I grew closer to some of them.

Not all of them. Most grew more distant, as you might suspect, handing in their work and letting it be. But in each of my classes several students developed stronger relationships with me than they would have otherwise, particularly those who struggled under the circumstances.

There were family illnesses, various disruptions at home, and even one student who was a front line worker and eventually tested positive herself. They opened up to me, I was generous and supportive, and they expressed enough gratitude to make me sniffle.

Many modern American college students are immature for their age, infantilized by their parents, by popular culture, and even by universities that in many ways treat them as adolescents at an extended summer camp instead of as adults at work. Frankly, it disgusts me.

In contrast, I strive to treat them as adults. This is a job, I tell them. I’m your boss. Do your job and you’ll get paid in credits. I don’t actually care whether or not you do well, I tell them. I’m not your parent. Yes, I’m happy to help you if you ask. Don’t hesitate to ask. I am here for you. But it’s on you to come to me. I’m not chasing you down if you struggle. And deadlines. They mean something. If you’re late, you’d better have a real reason and documentation to prove it.

The older (or in academic parlance, “non-traditional”) students in my classes often respond well to that approach. Most of them have had real bosses, and so they appreciate having one who shoots straight and isn’t an asshole. But the younger ones can be a little intimidated. It often keeps them at arm’s length, which was never my goal, but I considered it an unfortunate yet tolerable byproduct of my professional, adult approach.

Now I’m reconsidering that. I will always insist on treating them like responsible adults instead of reinforcing immaturity by making extra slack and unearned exceptions par for the course. That will never change. However, my increased sympathy for them this past spring has led me to think about how I can be more accessible to them. How I can open up lines of communication a little bit more. How I can make them more willing to share the important, relevant issues in their lives, as needed, without encouraging them to whine about the unimportant or to beg for the undeserved. I haven’t developed a new approach yet, but I am now in process of reconsideration.
Dean Wormer (@DeanWormer2) | TwitterIt would seem wise that many in university leadership also take the Covid-19 disruptions as an opportunity to reconsider their approach. Take for example another university just a few miles down the road from my own and less than a mile from my Baltimore row home: Johns Hopkins University.

JHU Historian François Furstenberg, a highly accomplished scholar widely respected in the field, has recently published a scathing indictment of administrative leadership there. The article (here, behind a paywall) details the failures of the university’s top layer of leadership. Furstenberg documents how this cohort: enriches itself; indulges in cronyism; consistently pulls the university from its mission; and despite the massive resources at its disposal, has left the school and medical center highly vulnerable amid the current pandemic crisis.

Furstenberg defines JHU’s failures as myriad manifestations of its leadership’s commitment to corporate values instead of university values. His argument is convincing, and it speaks to a larger problem afflicting colleges and universities across the nation. But of course not everyone sees this as a problem at all. Many champion jettisoning core academic values as inefficient and insufficient for running a modern university. They point out that modern universities such as Hopkins are massive institutions that need to be run appropriately. And they contend that critics such as Furstenberg are simply bitter because they do not run the show, while also not appreciating the complexities and difficulties of doing so.

I think this is a misguided attack on critiques like Furstenberg’s. First of all, it fails to address the core of his argument. Beyond that, it is factually half-wrong.

The half-correct part is that many universities are large institutions that require a complex layer of specialized administrators to run effectively.  The incorrect part is assuming professors want to be in charge

I am a professor and I know a lot of professors. Trust me when I say that, generally speaking, most of them do not want to be in charge of their universities.

Of course all workers occasionally daydream about what they’d do differently if they were in charge, just like most Americans daydream about what they’d do differently if they were president.  It doesn’t mean we’re all putting together campaigns.

The truth is, far from actually wanting to run their schools, most professors don’t even want to have to think about university management. Like most well paid, highly skilled workers in a career of their own choosing, they prefer to focus on their own work, and usually only complain about administrative issues when problems affect them. They’re fundamentally no different from journalists, doctors, and most other high skill professionals who prefer to largely ignore leadership issues and happily ply their skills so long as the ship is sailing smoothly and in the right direction.

Take my journalist friends as an example. They work in another industry that has seen its stated mission undermined by corporate consolidations and mind sets. Do they have opinions about how a newspaper should be run? Sure. But do they actually want to run the paper? No. They’re journalists because they want to be journalists. What they really want is for their owners/managers to have two qualities:

1) Be competent, thus freeing journalists do their jobs.
2) Share and advance journalistic values so that newspaper employees can see their labor produce a good newspaper instead of producing something that at least partially reflects the inappropriate (to a newspaper) values of misguided leaders/owners.

Yes, of course, there are always assorted minor kerfuffles between management and labor. That is inevitable. And in academia there was until fairly recently a vocal cohort of senior professors unhappy that major administrative positions were no longer filled exclusively by in-house professors moving their way up the ranks.

But by and large, the vast majority of professors recognize that some degree of specialization is required for university administration. Furthermore, they often don’t want to have to pay attention to administrators or to micro and macro administrative decisions. Because the truth of it is, not being in charge is great. It frees you up to do what you’re there to actually do. But only if you’ve got competent leaders with sound values/priorities.

Of course nearly all professors rightly demand substantial input on academic issues such as curriculum and relevant hiring. But beyond that, what most of them really want are competent, smart, dedicated administrators who share their values, to take care of all the other stuff that is necessary and that, generally speaking, they are neither interested in nor particularly qualified to do.

However, when upper level administrators are overly self-interested, incompetent, or have divergent values about how the larger operation should be run, you get perpetual resentment. Then, in times of crisis, substantial criticism and overdue calls for fundamental change will emerge.

That is what Furstenberg’s article represents to me. It is a searing indictment of philosophical changes that have overrun most American universities and colleges during the last half-century.

Specifically, university boards and the leaders they hire  have adopted a market-oriented approach to running schools. Unfortunately, one of the greatest achievements of neoliberalism is the blithe, widespread acceptance of the canard that everything should be run like a business. And yes, many modern universities are now as big and as complex as a medium-sized corporation, which obviously calls for hiring certain specialists.  But a school maintains fundamentally different goals than a corporation. And this fundamental disconnect between schools’ education and research-oriented missions and the neoliberal corporate philosophies adhered to and pursued by their upper management has led many American colleges and universities to drift badly. This is the heart of Furstenberg’s argument, with Johns Hopkins as a case study. But this issue now afflicts most American colleges and universities.

A crass example is the dozens of schools who pay coaches millions of dollars while slashing salaries to educators.  Nationally, about two-thirds of courses are now taught not by professors who continue to develop and intersect their research and teaching, but by: embittered, exploited contingent faculty with inflated workloads, deflated salaries, and no job security; highly exploited part time workers trundling from school to school in attempt to cobble together a living wage; and inexperienced and under-qualified graduate students.

Most universities no longer prioritize providing students the best possible teachers.  Instead they envision students as “customers” and promote a range of “products,” education being just one diluted sales point among many. They justify this by measuring educational “outcomes” through quantifiable, formulaic, and jargon-filled but ultimately meaningless metrics that allow the school to promote itself instead of prioritizing a high quality, well executed education.

Schools use this approach to justify diverting resources away from teaching and research, and towards non-academic concerns such as sports programs, administrative bloat, and various building projects. Overly ambitious student unions is a common example of the latter; the University of Michigan just spent over $85 million on theirs; and this public school, which charges nearly $50,000/year in out-of-state tuition, openly brag about the project’s cost.

The maxim claiming a school-should-be-run-like-a-business is a logical fallacy. It is also an academic and social disaster, contributing to the degradation of teaching and the exploitation of labor.

We all know that churches should not be run like businesses, and readily recognize the mission-drift and even charlatanism that emerges when they are.  Likewise, it should go without saying that schools and governments should not be run like businesses either. The reason is simple: they serve fundamentally different purposes than businesses do.

This becomes obvious once you flip the script and start talking about running a business like a church or like a government.  A business is there to make money, not to help people sort out the meaning of life and death, or to design and pursue the common good. We all intuitively understand why priests should not be running Google or Microsoft.

It’s simple. Run a business like a business, a church like a church, a government like a government, and a school like a school.  Yes, running a school the size of Hopkins certainly means hiring specialists to handle a plethora of complex, non-academic issues.  But those people should be employees relegated to handling their assigned portfolios, not top administrators determining long term institutional goals.  People trained in and dedicated to the university’s mission should be making the top level decisions.

Universities need to reconsider their administrative strategies and goals.  They should begin finding and developing top managers and administrators who embrace the long term goals of a school instead of prioritizing real estate development, endowment-building, and public relations. Those things are important, but they should be serving the university’s mission, not be the mission.

I think that’s what most of the professorial class wants: a competent administration that shares our values and will thus function to encourage quality research and education as the most important things at the university instead of treating them like mere sideshows in a larger corporate venture that defines a school primarily as a business.

Akim Reinhardt’s website is