Professors in the pandemic: Universities’ quiet betrayal of working-class students

Many of today’s U.S. professors exist only because, decades ago, a new emphasis on acquiring “research intensive” status transformed lots of humble land grant normal schools into “real” universities. At far flung institutions, in cornfields, river valleys, and deserts across the nation, first-generation college students like me drifted into the classrooms of inspiring poets, passionate sociologists, and dedicated chemists. Some of us followed them into their labs and creative processes, eventually becoming professors too. We, in turn, landed back at these former regional comprehensives now eager to market themselves as “serious” research institutions. The drive to populate U.S. universities with world-class researchers, productive intellectuals, and cutting-edge creatives was never wholehearted, and many professors like me have spent much energy over the years battling perceptions that we are a drain on the institution. It should come as no surprise then, that in these panicked Covid times, some of these same universities are quietly morphing back into undergraduate, teaching-focused institutions, while still touting their research and grad student missions, and still charging research-intensive university tuition.

I sprang from a struggling, white working-class family that had skepticism about elitist intellectual types bred into its bones, so none of this suspicion about scholars is new or strange to me. But as with lots of blue collar families, my parents valued education and the landscape of my earliest childhood included books. Through my own reading and writing skills, I earned approving pats on the head at school year after year. And at the humble midwestern university I was privileged to attend, I stumbled into the classrooms of professors whose teaching prowess was organically rooted in their own experiments, creations, and investigations. Their passion for original, creative scholarship was contagious, and it showed some of us for the first time that we too could be creators, and not just consumers, of knowledge and art. Ultimately, through some combination of race privilege, inertia, good fortune, and hard work, I ended up with a PhD in my 20s and got my first professor job just a few months later. Now in my 50s, I clearly see that my relatively successful career is the result of a historical accident, a consequence of once vocationally oriented colleges having embraced research-intensive identities in a period of optimism for higher education.

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As a liberal arts professor, I have had opportunities to simultaneously teach and engage in explorations, solving problems and indulging curiosities together with my students. I feel honored by the scholars who’ve been in dialogue with my writing and by the zillions of students I’ve worked with over the decades, especially those for whom education has been a lifeline. But the toxic fog that has been creeping across humble public university campuses like mine has intensified and thickened in this current crisis. Amid the pandemic, our institutions’ betrayal of an affordable, accessible public higher education rooted in original research, scholarship, and creativity is well underway. The body counts are impressive: new PhDs unable to find decent positions, mercilessly exploited adjuncts, furloughed and terminated staff colleagues, and students pushed so far into debt that even a bachelor’s degree from a no-label four-year college feels like a frivolous luxury. Starved of public monies, hobbled by diffuse and leaky missions that vaguely prioritize the university “brand” (e.g. football) over academics, and refusing to address administrative bloat, once accessible research-intensive regional public universities now languish like beached whales.

I am no superstar scholar, but I was hired, in part, because my consistent, active intellectual engagement has fueled my capacity and enthusiasm for teaching. It is jarring, then, to have heard from administrators in recent months that the scholarly engagement of liberal arts professors like me is suddenly irrelevant. In past years, we professors of English, Political Science, Sociology, Economics, and History had been threatened with the “punishment” of additional teaching if our scholarly production failed to rise to some unclear, arbitrarily enforced administrative standard. But this at least made some kind of sense. After all, my university explicitly leverages its research-intensive status to attract students, explaining to families that they must expect to pay more for an education facilitated by research-active faculty. Under the murky cover of the current emergency, however, the internal message has suddenly shifted: Faculty must teach as many students as possible as cheaply as possible and original scholarly exploration has suddenly become a luxury. But are universities’ marketing departments being asked to rebrand these schools to honestly acknowledge the vanishing commitment to supporting faculty research?

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As an utterly unlikely professor, someone whose life was transformed by the democratizing trend in higher ed, I find the bait and switch being offered to working-class families especially noxious. Elite institutions will emerge from the pandemic with their research missions and brain trusts intact, but for other sectors of public higher education, the democratization of the professoriate seems to be over. Some universities, especially, for example, those with directional modifiers in their names— “eastern,” “western,” “central,” “northern” — are quietly retreating from commitments to students about working with active researchers or personal attention from “engaged scholars.” Some of these institutions are now violating policy and practices in a race to close academic programs and fire professors and staff. It isn’t, of course, that administrators suddenly doubt the power of students working with knowledge-creators, but that such human investments have been deemed too expensive, even as athletics and administrative budgets may remain comparatively intact.

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Again, despite this shift in priorities, no university is likely to come clean about its abandonment of research pretensions, at least not until forced to do so. For example, despite recent deprecating language from administrators about the value of research in communications with faculty, my university still boasts publicly about its research prowess, desperate to distinguish itself from the nearby community colleges and four-year schools nipping at its heels. Instead, the shift away from research-intensive missions is happening quietly, incrementally, behind the scenes, driven by the gradual, often unilateral, decisions of individual administrators rather than by transparent, collaborative decision-making about the collective identity of the institution. Universities cutting corners this way are relying on the fact that working-class families like the one I came from, those struggling to send a child to a “real” college for the first time, won’t notice or care about the false advertising.

None of this is to minimize the power or impact of four-year schools focused solely on undergraduate education. In fact, maybe it is time to pull the plug on some of the research-intensive universities in the out-of-the-way corners of our nation’s higher ed map. Maybe my own university should be first among those to abandon its research ambitions. Without an open conversation about this, including the voices of students and their families in the region we serve, I couldn’t say. But I am appalled by the sleight of hand underway as university administrators quietly turn their backs on what they shamelessly continue to tout as their “world-class research missions” even as they stand firm in their commitment to unprofitable Division I athletics. If a university has decided that it will no longer invest its Carnegie classification, then it needs to come clean about that and figure out an honest way to attract new students. As it is now, schools like mine seem to be betting that prospective working-class students and their families will be too ignorant to notice that they’re still being expected to pay research university tuition even as the scholars necessary to fulfill such promises are being picked off one by one.

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