Pass, Fail

An inside look at the retail scam known as the modern university

Illustration by Leif Parsons

• 4,636 words

Illustration by Leif Parsons

For the past seven years, I’ve polled my students at the University of Prince Edward Island on two questions. First: If you were told today that a university education was no longer a requirement for high-quality employment, would you quit? Second: If you decided to stay, would you then switch programs?

Positive responses to both questions run consistently in the 50 percent range. That means at least half of my humanities students—or about 750 since 2007—don’t want to be there.

Why not? A university degree, after all, is a credential crucial for economic success. At least, that’s what we’re told. But as with all such credentials—those sought for the ends they promise rather than the knowledge they represent—the trick is to get them cheaply, quickly, and with as little effort as possible. My students’ disaffection is the real face of this ambition.

I teach mostly bored youth who find themselves doing something they neither value nor desire—and, in some cases, are simply not equipped for—in order to achieve an outcome they are repeatedly warned is essential to their survival. What a dreadful trap. Rather than learning freely and excelling, they’ve become shrewd managers of their own careers and are forced to compromise what is best in themselves—their honesty or character—in order to “make it” in the world we’ve created for them.

The credentialing game can be played for only so long before the market gets wise and values begin to decline. I have been an educator in Canadian universities for over fourteen years, having taught some eighty-five liberal arts courses. During that time, evidence has mounted showing that a bachelor’s degree from a Canadian university brings with it less and less economic earning power. Last year, the Council of Ontario Universities released the results of the Ontario Graduates’ Survey for the class of 2012. It’s one of the few documents in Canada that tracks the employment rates and earnings of university graduates. Six months after graduation, the class of 2012 had an average income 7 percent below that of the class of 2005. Two years after graduation, incomes dropped to 14 percent below those of the 2005 class.

Though there are likely several reasons for this decline (increases in the number of graduates, demographic shifts in markets, precarious labour), one in particular matches perfectly with the type of change I’ve observed on my watch: the eradication of content from the classroom.

What kind of students are produced by such contentless environments? A couple of years ago, I dimmed the lights in order to show a clip of an interview. I was trying to make a point about the limits of human aspiration, a theme discussed in one of our readings, and I’d found an interview with Woody Allen in which he urged that we recognize the ultimate futility of all endeavours (a tough sell in today’s happiness market). The moment the lights went down, dozens and dozens of bluish, iPhone-illumined faces emerged from the darkness. That’s when I understood that there were several entertainment options available to students in the modern university classroom, and that lectures rank well below Twitter, Tumblr, or Snapchat.

Yet you can’t get mad at students for being distracted and inattentive, not like in the old days. “Hey, you, pay attention! This is important.” Say that today, and you won’t be met with anger or shame. You’ll hear something like “Oh, sorry sir. My bad. I didn’t mean anything.” And they don’t. They don’t mean anything. They are not dissing you. They are not even thinking about you, so it’s not rebellion. It’s just that the ground has shifted and left the instructor hanging there in empty space, like Wile E. Coyote. Just a few more moments (or years), and down we’ll all fall. These people look like students. They have arms and legs and heads. They sit in a class like students; they have books and write papers and take exams. But they are not students, and you are not a professor. And there’s the rub.

All efforts to create the illusion of academic content are acceptable so long as they are entertaining, and successful participation requires no real effort and no real accountability. Serial use of YouTube clips, Prezi presentations, films, and “student-centred learning activities” continues to be peddled for pedagogical relevance. Last term, I was driven from my office on many occasions because the movie soundtracks emanating from the seminar room next door were so loud and unrelenting that I couldn’t concentrate.

If you’d like a sense of how content-free it can get, here’s a case in point: I have heard of an instructor, one sans PhD, who assigned his students videos of himself talking about this or that subject as their class text. A digital lecture is assigned as preparation for a live lecture that will be about a digital lecture. And this not from a Hannah Arendt or an Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, but from a partly educated sessional instructor with a curiously inflated sense of self.

If you find this troubling, consider the new “business model” proposed for universities in 2009 by Charles Manning, the chancellor of the board of regents in Tennessee. Manning thought he could save universities a good deal of money by offering students a tuition discount if they agreed to “work online with no direct support from a faculty member.” Digital lectures for live classes with real students? Sounds expensive. How about no lectures, no students, and, best of all, no professors—just student-directed online activity at cut-rate prices? If this sounds to you like a typical Wednesday night of surfing the web, that’s because it is. How universities could persuade anyone to pay for this kind of experience, discount or not, is a mystery to me.

Great works—of science, art, literature, philosophy, and history—are the giants on whose shoulders we stand in our efforts to become giants ourselves. The fact that such works may now plausibly be replaced by narcissistic and transparently self-promoting twaddle, or indeed by nothing at all, is a sign of the nihilism of the modern academy. This is the classroom in which our sons or daughters (or you) very likely sit each day, so let’s map the contours of its nihilism a little more systematically.

Students today read very little. In 2009, the Canadian Council on Learning reported that 20 percent of all university graduates in Canada fell below Level 3 (the minimum level of proficiency) on a prose literacy scale provided by the Programme for International Student Assessment. That proportion was expected to rise.

I see ample evidence of this at UPEI. In one course I co-taught with several other faculty members, the readings were posted online, which allowed us to map access patterns. In that course, readings were accessed—not necessarily read—by 5 to 15 percent of the enrolled students. The same pattern was confirmed by textbook sales in a course from the previous year. I was teaching George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and I had ordered 230 copies based on enrolment numbers. At the end of term, the bookstore had sold only eighteen copies, a hit rate of about 8 percent.

It may be that some students already had the book or had purchased it from another source. But the quality of the essays and mid-term exams suggested a different story, as did students’ own explanations of their actions. Remove your professor hat for a moment and students will speak frankly. They will tell you that they don’t read because they don’t have to. They can get an A without ever opening a book.

If you had a light-bulb manufacturing company and your staff members were permitted to remain ignorant of filament oxidization, you would produce bad light bulbs, and you’d soon be out of business. If you teach ancient Greek history and allow your students to remain ignorant of Thucydides, Herodotus, and Xenophon, not only will they write terrible papers, but they won’t know anything about how the ancient Greeks lived and fought and loved, and what that might teach them about their own lives.

But don’t worry—you won’t go bust because of this failure, not in the modern university. So long as your class is popular and fun, you’ll be favoured by the administration and probably receive a teaching award. This, even though your students will leave your class in worse condition than they entered it, because you will have pandered to their basest inclinations while leaving their real intellectual and moral needs unmet.

University administrators have discovered that only in exceptional circumstances is the “success” of a classroom positively correlated with the academic excellence of its instructor. In fact, it’s more likely that the two are inversely correlated. The greater the instructor’s academic excellence, the more work she requires of students, the less “fun” they have (of the type I’m describing, at least—for some of us, real effort is fun), the poorer her student evaluations, the lower her subscriptions, and, therefore, the less “successful” her classes. So why care about academic excellence at all? Why care whether your faculty members know their subjects thoroughly or have real degrees from real institutions, when the mere appearance of these things will do?

In place of full-time academic staff, the university is filling up with a new class of instructors who march to a different drum. I’m not speaking about occasional or term contract staff, many of whom are first-rate scholars and teachers.

The instructors I’m talking about are those with terminal master’s degrees, sometimes in bona fide academic disciplines but increasingly in professional programs that may have much more to do with technique, or scholarly writing about technique, than with scholarly work per se. A master’s of education degree, for instance, may be acceptable for teaching students in bachelors of education programs, though a PhD is certainly preferable. It is, however, a completely inadequate when teaching those pursuing regular bachelor’s degrees, because the minimum requirement for teaching undergraduates is a graduate degree in the relevant discipline being taught. Yet MEds are routinely allowed to teach undergrads at my university, even though there are countless unemployed PhDs looking for work. For a long time, such people received only the scraps from the academic table—the odd sessional contract required to fill a temporary and unanticipated hole in the timetable, or more often, an administrative post in student services or the office of a high-ranking administrator. But administrators have begun to understand the real value of such people.

First, they are not scholars but employees. They think of administrators as people they work for rather than people who work for them by supporting their teaching and research. Second, they are professionally vulnerable and therefore remain mostly silent about critical matters. If a sessional instructor complains publicly about her institution or its declining standards, she will do so only once. Like a worker at a Mexican resort, if she refuses to cooperate and insists on talking to the guests about the truth of the place, she will be summarily dismissed and replaced by one of the hundreds just like her, ready to assume her position.

Finally, the very act of employing such people denigrates real scholars and scholarship by definition. If a person who knows next to nothing of what you know can do what you do just as well as you, then what is the value of what you know?

There is no clearer example of administrators’ contempt for faculty. But there is also no clearer example of their contempt for students. Undereducated instructors are compromising the value of your sons’ and daughters’ educations. But these instructors also allow administrators, many without PhDs, to weaken and destroy real academic departments, thereby giving themselves a free hand in setting a curriculum that has far less to do with knowledge than with pandering to market forces and student whims.

That curriculum? Life skills, university transitions, critical thinking, leadership, and communications—all modern mouthwashes of the “applied” course industry, designed to give a pleasant taste of practicality to humanities programs otherwise deemed useless. This curriculum may “pay” in the short term—more bums in chairs, the appearance of “relevance,” the mandatory homage paid to the god of “innovation.” But in the real world, its effects are disastrous. In their 2010 book on higher education, Academically Adrift, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa look at 2,300 students enrolled at a range of four-year colleges and universities in the United States. They found that 5 percent of students failed to show any statistically significant improvement in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and written communication after the first two years of college, and 36 percent showed no progress after four years. This, in my opinion, is what happens when a curriculum is designed to be a mirror. When students look into it, they encounter no enigma, no “other” luring them from their solitude. All they see is a reflection of themselves.

Illustration by Leif Parsons

Universities seek ways of obscuring the truth of their decline while also creating the impression of ever-increasing achievement. How is this grand trompe l’oeil sustained? Behold the growth of university public relations offices, or communications departments, as they are more often called these days. These offices and departments work directly for the upper administration, and so do its bidding without resistance. They advertise the university, inflating its accomplishments and spinning its failures so as to maximize exposure and limit damage. And they are often quite well resourced. At my university, which is a small, primarily undergraduate institution with a student population of roughly 4,400, this department has a full-time staff of twelve.

Another remedy is the “building program,” for which capital funds are solicited from various governmental and non-governmental sources to help “build the future” of the institution and its community, a future that usually assumes the face of one or another professional program—nursing, engineering, education. In some cases, of course, these building programs are warranted. However, they are often undertaken not to serve real needs but to generate revenue and pad the c.v.’s of senior administrators in preparation for their next career appointment. Frequently, they draw operational monies from existing programs in order to sustain themselves. But what photo opportunities they make possible.

Yet another trick is simply to juke the stats. Over the past fourteen years of teaching, my students’ grade-point averages have steadily gone up while real student achievement has dropped. Papers I would have failed ten years ago on the grounds that they were unintelligible and failed to meet the standard of university-level work, I now routinely assign grades of C or higher. Each time I do so, I rub another little corner of my conscience off and cheat your son or daughter of an honest low grade or of a failure that might have given rise to a real success.

I am speaking, of course, of grade inflation. For faculty, the reasons for it vary. It can help them avoid time-consuming student appeals, create a level playing field for their own students in comparison to others, or boost subscription rates. Since most degrees involve no real content, it doesn’t matter how the achievement is assessed. Beyond questions of mere style, there are no grounds for assigning one ostensibly well-considered paper an A and another a B when both marks are effectively illusory. Let the bottom rise to whatever height is necessary in your particular market, so long as there remains some type of performance arc that will maintain the appearance of merit.

But as practices change, so do habits of mind and expectations. If students are awarded ever-higher grades, they will eventually believe they deserve such grades. If this practice begins early enough, say in middle or secondary school, it will become so entrenched that, by the time they reach university, any violation of it will be taken as a grievous and unwarranted denigration of their abilities.

Perhaps somewhere deep down, they know their degrees are worthless. But anyone who challenges them will likely be hauled before an appeal board and asked to explain how she has the temerity to tell students their papers are hastily compiled and undigested piles of drivel unacceptable as university-level work. The customer is always right. One university vice-president I know promises on her website that she will provide “one-stop shops” and “exceptional customer service” to all. Do not let the stupidity of this statement fool you into believing it is in any way benign. We no longer have “students”—only “customers.”

Online courses are perhaps one of the most complete expressions of the denigration of university education. At least half of all Canadian universities offer students some kind of online programming. The rise of technological pedagogies has, for example, brought us the “inverted classroom,” in which the typical lecture and homework expectations of a course are flipped. Video lectures (understood as the dispensing of “information”) are viewed by students at home before the class sessions. Class time is devoted to “just-in-time” lessons where students participate in “learning activities” and are remediated depending on how successfully they have acquired the proffered “information.” This type of curriculum was recently endorsed as a potentially effective strategy to meet contemporary students’ needs by the current University of Toronto vice-president and provost during an interview on CBC’s Sunday Edition.

In contemporary classrooms, students and professors are like a married couple that have been separated for months but still live together for reasons of convenience. They don’t like one another and they’re not talking anymore, but they find it financially and socially expedient to continue cohabiting. Online courses mark the end of this arrangement, the moment at which even the pretence of conviviality is abandoned: the divorce papers are signed, and both parties pack their bags and head their separate ways. From then on, they email only, and only for the sake of the kids.

Increasingly, these courses are preferred even by students who attend the university full time and live on campus. Why go to class when you can watch a video online and then do a quiz? If your learning style is visual (i.e. you can’t read) and your range of concentration is fifteen minutes (i.e. you have no attention span), then you can watch the video in fifteen-minute chunks. And if you don’t like what you’re hearing, you can just turn it off and ask your friend about it later. And if you don’t understand what is being said, don’t worry. Who will know?

No one will ever ask you a difficult question that makes it apparent you haven’t done your readings; it is much easier to fudge online assignments or to plagiarize them outright; the assignments themselves will tend to be simplistic, multiple choice–style tests and quizzes that fit the technical structure of the medium much better than more complex forms of writing. All of this comes with the added perk for professors of not having to read long and often poorly written essays and reviews.

The older university administrative class, with its sobriety and appreciation of the real ends of the university, no longer exists. Instead, presidents and vice-presidents act like CEOs as they jet around the world and post pictures of themselves on their institutions’ websites cutting ribbons, shaking hands, and receiving clown cheques. They are also busy building around themselves large cadres of expensive staffers dedicated exclusively to serving, well, them. As money is siphoned from academic programs through attrition, it is channelled into a host of middle-management positions. For instance, in my university there are some fifty-six employees in just three administrative departments—communications, student services, and the registrar’s office. And that is only the tip of the iceberg. To get a real sense of the staffing proportions, consider that in 2014 there were 516 permanent and contract staff members working for the university and 259 permanent and term faculty members. In other words, the number of those employed to support the work of the institution was more than double that of those employed to do the work of the institution.

Follow the money, and the proportions get even worse. Despite the rhetoric of large faculty salaries gobbling up precious university resources, the numbers tell a different story. According to 2013–2014 data from the Canadian Association of University Business Officers, the proportion of university budgets dedicated to faculty salaries dropped from a 32.1 percent share—already comparatively low—to just 29.4 percent. By comparison, the growth of the administrative set has been staggering. From 1979 to 2014, central administration and staff ballooned by three and a half times, while the size of the faculty merely doubled.

A business working on such a model might not necessarily go bankrupt, at least not right away. It might even prove, for a time, extremely lucrative for certain high-ranking executives and shareholders, as it was in 2008 and afterward for American banks. But if assessed on its ability to generate and distribute real wealth, its emptiness and unsustainability become clear. In this way, universities are able to continue functioning because parents, students, and governments keep supplying them with capital, assuming there will be a genuine return on investment. But since the institution no longer produces anything, no such return is forthcoming. Its “product”—cultivating intelligence and learning—has been abandoned in favour of far less demanding activities delivered by staff members who are amenable to the new ethos.

These are the “student services” personnel who are populating our universities in ever-greater numbers and draining our budgets. Student counsellors, academic program counsellors, recruiters, assistants to the recruiters, managers of the recruiters, program directors, program coordinators, program advisers, facilitators of academic success, project officers, curriculum support personnel, technologists—the list is endless. Spending on the student services sector in Canadian universities increased an incredible six-fold between 1979 and 2014. Because such employees have achieved a certain critical mass, and because they work directly for, and find favour with, upper-level administrators, they are now a sector unto themselves, with their own agenda and power within the institution.

That agenda? As one of my friends put it to me recently, the student services cabal is no longer there to support faculty in their work of educating students “but to compete with them to define the student experience.” And what is the experience they wish to define? Fundamentally, one in which students are made to feel happy, empowered, valued, and the centre of their own learning experience. The student services department itself will guide students to this beatific end and shield them from cantankerous faculty (like me) who insist on raining on the parade by actually attempting to teach them something.

If you think I overstate the matter, consider this: I know of faculty members who have been summoned by student services staff members to “discuss” a grade with an unhappy student. Never mind that grades are not designed to make students happy, but rather to encourage them to grow intellectually by setting goals just beyond their reach; and never mind that, as a matter of university policy, students are considered adults and, as such, are required to take their complaints directly to their professors. But because the institution allows this to happen, student services staff members are able to intervene in academic matters for which they have no qualifications. As a result of their actions, your sons and daughters may well feel happy and empowered and valued in their programs. What they won’t be, however, is educated.

There is a chorus of people these days telling my colleagues and me that our institutions of higher learning have never been healthier, that we are graduating more students in more disciplines in more technically advanced ways than ever before, that things simply couldn’t be better. How is one to respond to such claims?

Carefully, as it turns out, or else it’s the unemployment line for you. But not having to be polite when others are speaking shamelessly is what academic freedom was meant to protect. The UPEI collective agreement states that the academic freedom of faculty members guarantees their right to criticize both the university and their faculty association without fear of reprisal. When institutions go off the rails and forget their mandate, we are called upon to say so, clearly and unambiguously, and university administrators should listen. What happens instead? Gag orders, personnel disappearing without explanation, buyouts with hush money changing hands. In other words, if you exercise that right in order to protect the well-being of your students and your institution, you’ll likely not be around for very long.

At my university alone, we’ve seen the departure of some five vice-presidents, the university comptroller, seven deans, and a host of directors over the past four years. Why? No one knows because no one talks. But the effective truth of the situation prevails nonetheless—a sense of menace and fear rather than collegiality and open debate. Contract and sessional staff who speak up are, of course, completely vulnerable. But even tenured faculty members are not immune to various forms of pressure and harassment. Roadblocks to promotion, the shrivelling of departments through non-replacement of faculty positions, refusals of sabbatical applications—all these tools are available for the enforcement of conformity and the silencing of debate.

If you are mocked and denigrated for years on end, whether passive-aggressively through the slow clawing back of your budgets or through the Disneyfication of your course offerings (Religious Studies 211—“The Whore of North Africa: Augustine Gone Wild in Carthage”) by more “progressive” colleagues, sooner or later your rational self might tell you that the game is up, and you might stop doing what it is you do (serious study of texts and historical events, honest lectures with real content) and start doing what you are expected to do (keep an increasingly disengaged and intellectually limited group of young people entertained or otherwise distracted for three hours a week).

Though entirely understandable, this is a self-defeating strategy. You dumb down your lectures to keep your subscriptions up and to justify your courses in the eyes of the administration. The dumber they become, the less justification there is for continuing them and the more the administration sneers when it hears your defence of the ennobling powers of the humanities and the arts. So why wouldn’t you just go along? Why not inflate Susan’s and Bill’s grades to ensure that they have a nice experience and don’t feel disrespected? Why not indeed, if doing so comes with the added perk of avoiding catching hell from students and administrators for refusing to say that two plus two equals five?

Because the worst fate for our children, yours and mine, is yet to come. Because when the easy pleasures of youth run out and self-affirmation is all students have left, what will remain? Not just bad work and the dreary distractions of the modern entertainment industry—all of which can be tolerated, as bad as they may be—but the absence of something to live for, the highest and most beautiful activity of their intelligence. To cheat them of that is the real crime, and the most profound way in which modern universities have betrayed the trust of an entire generation of young people.

This appeared in the April 2016 issue.

This article has been adapted from an ­essay published in the Los Angeles Review of Books on December 9, 2015.

Ron Srigley is a professor of religious studies at the University of Prince Edward Island.

Leif Parsons has contributed to the New York Times, Bloomberg Businessweek, and The Atlantic.

  • Kenneth Armstrong

    So what could be a fix? I work at an American university (on the administrative side) but I have a burning desire to teach history and am currently working on my degree to do so. However, I am concerned that universities are pandering to parents who are throwing money at them so that they can get their kids “on the right track.” What could be done to get out of this rut and have the focus return to actual academia?

    • Joe Talbot

      If you think the Unis are hurting consider what it’s doing to the students. But I’ll play along. First, take the obscene profits out of it. Second, stop requiring multi-year educations for mundane, prescriptive jobs. Third, stop treating a university education as some vicious combination of religion and status measure, the kids have to know they have a choice. Not going doesn’t mean eternal damnation. As a leper. They are going out of fear. Isn’t that wonderful?

    • Sara Snow

      Having given much thought to this question over the last week and, indeed, on and off over the last twenty years, I’d say that folks currently bamboozled by the bullshit-peddling universities and colleges (e.g. by their trumpeting of “the million-dollar advantage,” the statistic which deliberately misrepresents a university grad’s earning power) need to wake up and consider more realistic options for themselves and their kids. How many grads need to remain underemployed and unemployed before people see the truth? However, we’re still stuck with an outsourcing service economy with an ever-increasing gap between rich and poor, and we’re still stuck with a citizenry duped and doped by advertising and glitz-worshipping media into wanting more than they can afford and more than they need. If ever there was a time for ingenious social alternatives, it’s now. I just heard a radio documentary about millennials in Vancouver forming intentional communities and renting big, beautiful spaces instead of individual “shoeboxes in the sky” for $1700/mo. That’s a start.

      Of course there’s a place for genuine academia. Time was, 10% of the population went to university, where they typically received a rigorous education. Unfortunately, that 10% was usually male, white, and wealthy. Universities should reclaim their role of educating the truly academically able and motivated, whose education should be free or cheap. However, that would mean that the massive, bloated infrastructures of modern universities would have to be demolished by the very people who created it and fatten off it, and I can’t see that happening any time soon.

  • Michael Schutz

    I agree with almost everything written (I am a teacher and graduate school student that is very frustrated with the current system), but strongly disagree with your assertions that only PhD holders are qualified to teach. “If a person who knows next to nothing (those lowly men and women with only Masters degrees) of what you know can do what you do just as well as you, then what is the value of what you know?” I think you answer your own question here – the value of many PhDs is minimal. After all, they are products of the same system you denigrate and were just so much more stubborn than everyone else that they stuck with it for 8 years instead of getting out after 4. In addition, in my experience those that “know” the most teach the worst.

    • Sara Snow

      Agreed. I taught for two decades with a “mere” M.A. (achieved with an 8.2 GPA–out of 9–in a pre-inflationary era) and was a knowledgeable, hard-working, and (I’m told) inspiring teacher–at least for those who wanted to learn, a demographic that dwindled dismally over the years. I was able to devote myself to teaching because no research activity was expected of me. Many of the ostensibly better-qualified and tenured faculty in my department were arrogant and careless teachers–one famously slouched into the first class of term and said “I’d rather not teach, but I can’t make enough money writing books, so let’s just get on with it.” It’s not as if they’re all producing cutting-edge and world-changing work. Too many of them are self-reflexive theory-mongers bickering with their colleagues in obscure publications and generally disappearing up their own intellectual backsides–while their students become steadily less literate and competent.

    • PW

      I agree! That was the worst-argued point of the article. It’s ironic as well – he’s arguing that a system rife with fake credentialism needs…more credentialism!! A self-defeating argument if ever one existed.

      As a student in college, I could not care less about the fancy-pants credentials on the door of a teacher. What I cared about was how well they taught.

      The best Mathematics teacher I had in undergrad was a tough old bone who lacked a PhD. He’d been at that school for a couple generations – I had peers whose parents’ had him. He was grumpy, a brutal grader, and mean. But he could break complex concepts down and explain them in a way that even the thickest member of the class (like me!) could get.

      Despite his borderline hazing rituals for freshmen, he was thoroughly respected by the students – because he could TEACH!

      On the other hand, there were Mathematics profs at the same school who would probably struggle to explain the process of integer addition, and whose relationship to a textbook was pure redundancy.

      The problem the author describes has nothing to do with a lack of PhD’s. The problem is with the erosion of protections for faculty against administrators, and the back-door destruction of the tenure system.

      This particular hack (hiring masters holders who will never qualify for tenure) is a side-effect of the past collective actions of the author’s peers! Tenured faculty have in the past effectively colluded with administrators to create a host of road bumps and arbitrary hoops to make tenure difficult to achieve. And tenure is the only real job protection afforded to a professor.

      One of those arbitrary hoops is a “terminal degree”. Other hoops involve research. Research is an entire area glossed over in this essay; but it’s the exact mirror of this article – except the nonsense is on the part of faculty instead of students. There are so many little games with what qualifies as “research” or “getting published”, and a whole industry that has sprung up to offer research grade-inflation for professors.

      The net effect of all this is that administrators are only too happy to hack the system by only hiring employees who will never meet these credentialism bars, and therefore remain supplicants.

      If Prof. Srigley is serious about changing this dynamic, then what he should do is the *opposite* of what he’s proposing. He should be arguing for greater protections for all faculty against termination and interference on the part of the administration, regardless of their credentials.

      If administrators were forced to treat all faculty on a more challenging footing, the advantages of hiring less-education faculty would go away. And those who were better qualified for the job would be the natural hire. Which would mean PhD’s, if indeed they are of the value imagined by this essay.

  • Scott Draper

    This article is far too long and covers too many topics to be persuasive; a good English teacher could demonstrate how to cut away the fat and leave a powerful, short, convincing argument. What good is a liberal arts education if even its proponents can’t demonstrate how it’s done?

    In order to not replicate this mistake, and yes, splitting an infinitive is just fine, I will merely point out that students don’t listen to instructors in class mainly because few instructors add anything to what’s in the textbook. It’s not because you can’t compete with YouTube, it’s that you can’t connect the material in any meaningful way to real life and this has been true long before students became addicted to their cell phones. Before there were cell phones, there was doodling on the pages of one’s notes.

    And the ability to connect knowledge to real life isn’t an ability that necessarily comes with increasing education; in fact, the opposite might well be true. Is a PhD a better teacher than an MA? Perhaps she is more knowledgeable, but even that isn’t a given. Probably what’s in play here is the old aphorism: When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If you have a PhD, then you are the solution to every problem.

  • Clayton Mitchell

    This is a well reasoned and compassionate argument about what is not right with academia. I mostly agree with the points the author is making but do have objections with the finger details. An example of which is the idea that online coursework is not and can not be academically rigorous because the delivery is not taught face to face in a lecture format.

    “No one will ever ask you a difficult question that makes it apparent you haven’t done your readings; it is much easier to fudge online assignments or to plagiarize them outright; the assignments themselves will tend to be simplistic, multiple choice–style tests and quizzes that fit the technical structure of the medium much better than more complex forms of writing.”

    This sentence assumes that online course work by definition can not ask difficult questions because of the format. Often times faculty prefer not to ask these questions because they do not like to grade difficult answers electronically. While it is possible to enhance the feedback given at distance, few take the time to learn new techniques to improve the outcomes of such feedback. While it is easier to “plagiarize” online work, it is also easier to spot. There are tools that atomically check for plagiarized work if a faculty member were so inclined to use them. My argument would be to use the tools that best fit a particular objective. Chemistry faculty should not be limited in what they do by requiring their students write a five paragraph essay to explain chemical models in the same way that language faculty should not be forced into making simplistic multiple choice assignments to assess critical thinking.

    I, like Mr. Schultz, was anticipating a suggestion for a possible solution to the near intractable problem posed by the article.

    All in al,l a well reasoned thought provoking article that addresses real issues with academia today. B+

  • James Bishop

    A well thought out paper by a learned person would explore many angles to an issue. As an earlier comment notes, to a hammer, everything looks like a nail. A broader perspective may be helpful from one of those lowly professionally based masters may help.

    Follow the money indeed. Where is money coming from? Who is paying the salaries? How are institutions supported? Government funding of universities and colleges has been steadily dropping since the 1980s (specifics are readily available from stats can and the federation of students among other sources). With increased enrollment, and less funding from the government per student, a gap must be filled to serve. Where is that gap filled? Business. Administration and horrid PR people who help compete with other organizations seeking funding donations, and bequests. Recruitment to help attract the enrollment needed to fill your (and my) classroom.

    Heaven forbid that the world change and you be asked to change along with it. Heaven forbid that you look out a window at the young students considering your school and consider what they want and need rather than what you want and need as a professor. It is – I might add – your job for which you are paid and not a right or a privilege to stand and be a cantankerous lecturer as you put it.

  • Horatio Kitchener

    lol. I stopped reading after the second or third drop cap, but as a student and self-identifying snake-person, I’ll say this smells like a classic educated-baby-boomer rant and fails to see that the nature of literacy is changing. I will agree with his (I assume the author is white/male/non-snake-person from the writing, but sorry if I’m wrong) one point though– most ppl r dum, and simply scaling up class sizes in the way we’re seeing (well at least at the school I attend), may increase enrolment, but does not mean more people will leave with the ability to think critically. We do get reeaally good at playing the student game though. Too bad that’s not a thing we can put on our resumes…

    • GRAHAM

      I read the first 2/3 of this piece and then couldn’t stomach the tediousness of it any more and had to stop. What the author presents is a cynical parody of what I experience at my own Canadian university, where I’ve taught for a dozen years after teaching in the US for seven years. Some of the aspects of the contemporary university he describes definitely have a grounding in reality, but these ‘facts’ are woven into a whining, self-indulgent and adolescent rant. I think the piece (the first 2/3 of it anyway) tells us more about the author’s (probably peevish) personality than anything else. Where is the Walrus’s editorial judgment?

      • Alix

        Agreed. As an academic advisor for the last 6 years at a Canadian university my reaction to his story of advisors calling faculty members to their desks to discuss a student’s grade is that it has a woeful lack of context. All the advisors I have worked with would first direct a student wanting to discuss or appeal a grade to an instructor, and we would advise them that they needed to have a solid reasoning for why they thought they deserved a better grade (and I’ve never received anything lower than an A- before is not a solid reason). The only time I’ve needed to contact instructors directly is when they fail to respond to students’ requests for meeting – multiple times – and this is not uncommon for certain instructors.

        Long story short – either those colleagues need to improve their responsiveness, or someone needs to have a discussion with the advisors about the proper process for appeals. Both are eminently correctable problems, but suggesting a solution seems beyond the author’s capabilities.

        • Sara Snow

          That may be your experience. Others have other experiences. I know several cases of a grade being substantially raised behind the instructor’s back, completing ignoring all official protocols. The bozos in Admin are blind terrified of litigation or just don’t give a rat’s bottom.

  • Sara Snow

    This dismal situation results, predictably, from a perfect storm: the edu-babble self-esteem culture (You can be whatever you want to be! Wo-o-ow! Good jo-o-ob!) that allows high-school students to graduate with such poor literacy and numeracy that employers now demand tertiary credentials; the erosion of the resource sector and the outsourcing of the jobs that used to absorb high school grads, who are then sucked into the metastasizing institutions promising employability; the micro-managing helicopter parents running obnoxious interference for their special little snowflakes, lining up to buy their texts at the university bookstore and screaming abuse at profs who don’t pony up the high grades; the consumer-satisfaction surveys (a.k.a. course evaluations) in which students can take anonymous revenge on precariously-employed instructors for assigning grades lower than the A’s and B’s they’ve come to expect for slipshod work; and, overwhelmingly, the cynical, self-serving, mendacious administrators who whore around the world seeking recruits for pointless degree programs and who fulfill all the “needs” of modern students–until those students graduate in debt-ridden anxiety, and then it’s “Good luck at Starbucks!” It’s high time the emperor was laughed out of his parade. Unfortunately, despite his demonstrable nakedness, there seems to be an irreducible minimum of cognitive dissonance. Having said that, one must acknowledge the uber-problem, the genuine dearth of good jobs. Every corporation is legally required to maximize the investor’s profits, and that means outsourcing the job the investor’s kid could once have expected. Social reorganization, anyone?

  • Geoff

    If one is to believe that the university environment is an academically elite place in which to learn, the mere existence of UPEI is a powerful indictment of that theory. If we have watered down academia, the existence of many academically suspect universities is the proof.

  • Art Horn

    Wow. How about taking some responsibility for failing to inspire your students?

    • Sara Snow

      The only way to inspire the average modern “student” (I use the term loosely because most students don’t study as we understand the term) is to keep him or her royally entertained, forgive egregious inattentiveness and rudeness, accept ludicrous, mendacious excuses, and dole out A’s for sweet fanny-ann.

      The real losers in this grim scenario are the truly able, enthusiastic students who must share the classroom with these toddlers and share their well-earned A’s with mediocrities and worse.

  • aninterestedcanadian

    I’ve read this from Ron Srigley before (LA Review of Books). As he draws his paycheck month after month from his employer, the university, he’s developed a good sideline as a martyr on the altar of truth. Only Srigley stands up to the Man! See how he falls upon the thorns of life! he bleeds!

    More seriously, though, is the rather sad spectacle of a Coriolanus figure, or perhaps Ulysses from Tennyson, who has seen time pass him by and laments the loss. Oh for the bygone days when students were students and professors were lecturers. When professors doled out knowledge in meal-sized portions and hungry students wolfed it down. Now, sigh, it is so much harder. We have to keep their attention (sigh). We have to meet them halfway (sigh). We have to find out what gets them motivated (sigh) when they should all come fully assembled and ready to soak up whatever we say, in our wisdom. We have to actually take their feelings into account when speaking with them. What’s the world coming to?

    If your students aren’t paying attention, look in the mirror. If they aren’t motivated, look in the mirror. If you don’t get along with your colleagues, your faculty association, your administration, the student services, and everyone else, that should tell you something. Look in the mirror. And stop blaming everyone else.

  • sophiaw1

    This is the most accurate, honest description of higher ed I have ever read. Thank you so very much. I’ve had to teach those horrible, worthless online classes. I’ve watched the president turn entire departments into 100% online ventures staffed only by poorly paid adjuncts (people we will never meet or see) with no one overseeing the curriculum but an academic staff person who has no qualifications in the field of study, let alone anything beyond an M.Ed. degree. That person also creates the shell courses the adjuncts teach. I’ve had to deal with students who go to some staffer (usually a recent college graduate eager to climb the student services ladder) rather than to me to discuss a grade. I’ve wondered about the people we call “the disappeared.” I’ve been harassed by the Vice President for Global Affairs and Communications (nothing but a public relations job) for not supporting his lies. The Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences contracted with a development strategies firm that taught her to bully the department chairs into being in “alignment” with her, which is just another way of saying that the chairs do her bidding and throw shared governance out the window. In other words, she learned how to run the college like business and not like a college. Those who refused to align or who speak out in any way are the subject of her lies and smear campaigns. With her help a third of the classes in our department are taught by adjuncts who lack PhDs. One of them told students that the holocaust never happened. The cotton-headed president receives awards from the local business community, lives in a million dollar home on the water, and quotes to us from a business fable about penguins on a melting iceberg. The tale instructs readers to create a culture of fear and anxiety in order to convince your supposed underlings to do what you want them to do. It’s hell. I could write my own essay.

    • Sara Snow

      Egregious harassment and bullying are rife in universities and colleges, institutions that offer much-publicized, self-consciously virtuous anti-bullying workshops (trundle out the talking stick). For all their public yammering about inclusivity, diversity, critical thinking, and “creative listening,” they don’t tolerate those who even modestly object to the prevailing ethos of “recruit, accommodate, retain” and the abominable standards implied thereby. “Egad, Your Presidentship! Another head above the battlements!” “By Jove, Your Chancellorship, you’re right! Ready the nukes!” Unless the head belongs to a tenured instructor, but it so rarely does . . . .

  • http://dailynous.com/ Justin Weinberg

    For those interested, I’ve authored a brief response to this piece at Daily Nous. http://dailynous.com/2016/03/21/professors-you-were-not-normal/

  • Sherri N.

    The standard classroom environment is nearly useless. In my 4-year Computer Science degree I rarely had a professor do more than just regurgitate the textbook. The best prof I ever had was inspiring and relevant because…. HE HAD WORKED IN THE FIELD for over 10 years. He could connect the academia to the practical work environment and give context to the lessons.

    • kaboozleheimer

      The problem is that Srigley’s chosen field has no “practical work environment”.

  • Zhivka


    “Great works—of science, art, literature, philosophy, and history—are the giants on whose shoulders we stand in our efforts to become giants ourselves. The fact that such works may now plausibly be replaced by narcissistic and transparently self-promoting twaddle, or indeed by nothing at all, is a sign of the nihilism of the modern academy.”

    Ooh, nihilism! Catchy.

    But above all, a bit presumptuous, and a bit ironically so. Yes, quaint and nostalgic as it may seem, the premise of a mature gentleman in a tweed coat with a pipe in his top pocket scribbling gems of established knowledge on the green board intermittently to talking through his scripted lecture with minimal, if any, cognizance of the student body engagement [because, you know, he is the unequivocally brilliant messiah put on Earth for the students to worship as he delivers messages from the immortalized, alas un-tappable, giants] being a more favorable alternative to sitting at home and watching an equally self-important lecturer deliver an ‘abridged’ (euphemistically put, sure) version of the course content du jour is, at least in my mind, questionable.

    “I know of faculty members who have been summoned by student services staff members to “discuss” a grade with an unhappy student. Never mind that grades are not designed to make students happy, but rather to encourage them to grow intellectually by setting goals just beyond their reach…”

    Interesting. I thought the purpose of the grades is to assess a student’s competence level according to some set standard, and do it consistently across the entire body of one professor’s students.

    “…and never mind that, as a matter of university policy, students are considered adults and, as such, are required to take their complaints directly to their professors.”

    Unless of course the professors are nowhere to be found in their stated office, unresponsive to emails, and if tracked down, entirely inflexible to a student’s point of view.
    In other respects and points noted, I share the sentiment of regretfully declining university education standards as means to indentured servitude of vastly subprime borrowers of the diploma-mill funding.

  • kaboozleheimer

    “…when the easy pleasures of youth run out and self-affirmation is all students have left, what will remain? Not just bad work… but the absence of something to live for, the highest and most beautiful activity of their intelligence.”

    Bad work? Did you mean “no work”? Nobody’s graduating from the University of Prince Edward Island with a degree in philosophy and jumping into the job market, “serious study” or not. “Honest lectures with real content” don’t mean shit when you’re not teaching something that can actually affect other people. The central problem here is that Srigley is a professor of masturbation.

  • crotalus

    It’s too often a program of free-range daycare, and the liberal arts umbrella is embarrassingly defined in course catalogs. None of it should be allowed on other-people’s-money without a pointed class-schedule review … oh, forget it.

  • Franco

    A pathetic defense of traditional higher ed from a professor who apparently hasn’t been able to adapt to modern learning tools. I have learned more from online courses, work experience and reading than I ever learned in college where I graduated cum laude. Online education will only get better as improvements in machine learning will allow education to be tailored to each particular student’s needs at scale. So it’s not only better, it’s cheaper, more flexible, up to date and available from anywhere.

  • http://pushingrubberdownhill.com/ Adam

    “… How about no lectures, no students, and, best of all, no professors—just
    student-directed online activity at cut-rate prices? If this sounds to
    you like a typical Wednesday night of surfing the web, that’s because it
    is. How universities could persuade anyone to pay for this kind of
    experience, discount or not, is a mystery to me …”

    This right here is the essence of the problem. Ron Srigley appears to be struggling with the realities of attempting to teach university in a disjointed academic environment. What he needs to understand is that universities are no longer institutes of higher learning devoted to the concepts of teaching critical thinking. They are businesses which are more and more wrapped up in the cocoon of a cult. How universities can persuade anyone to pay for what they currently offer, let alone the future example given by the author, is beyond me.

    Mr Srigley’s peers who he softly takes to task in this essay are unfortunately smarter than he is. They do not believe that they are providing value for money education. They do not believe that they are molding and shaping young adult minds to better the future.

    They’re in it for the money.

  • lisa

    The author certainly hits the nail on the head with the idea that Canadian students are not there for the right reasons any more. The motivation of students is pretty non-existant and often just a product of parental/societal expectations. Personally I sat in the front row in almost every class, not really because I wanted to be the #1 Brown-noser, but because every person on their laptop (around 80%), would end up on Facebook, online shopping, or watching TV shows. Trying to pay attention is next to impossible, and you really wonder why these people bother to show up when they don’t even manage to look up from their computer screen the entire time.

    I think I ended up in the small percent of people who cared, ´cared` as in going to extra help sessions, volunteering, making study groups etc.. While the author is right about the masses of students who don’t want to be there, I will say the author fails to mention that there are still those students who care and take their studies seriously and earnestly. The whole article is a biased and overly jaded (i.e. from a professor who should consider a long vacation or change of career).

    But the feeling that a university is a business and the students are primo consumers is a great point. UBC is an excellent example where most students, at least the ones I came into cotact with, feel like the university is ripping them off in some way. He’s on point, but he doesn’t offer any solutions, a pet peeve whenever anyone has 9 pages of negativity about anything.

    All in all, I disagree with the author, I do feel like I gained the ability to think critically, write and have become a more rounded person after these 4 years in university. It’s in our own hands to make the experience worth it. Sure there are problems, but before the author can offer what to do instead I don’t think his article has more muster or stength than students who update their social media with complaints over fees or bad grades.