Thursday, March 25, 2010

"On the banks of the old Raritan, my boys..."

Wordle image of the Rutgers alma mater

The Daily Targum had an article yesterday (see "Council urges revision to traditional U. song") regarding the explicit gender and class bias in the Rutgers alma mater, "On the Banks of the Old Raritan."  I recall that there have been periodic complaints about the traditional song, written in the late 19th century, when Rutgers (like most colleges of the time) was an all male institution.  One could probably map these complaints onto concurrent historical events to show some pattern of when this issue gets raised -- though that would not answer why it never gets resolved.  The first complaints were raised following the 1972 admission of women to all Rutgers colleges.  I remember complaints in the late 1980s (during the rise of "political correctness") and a subsequent revision of the official lyrics (mp3) to substitute "my friends" for "my boys" -- still leaving in multiple other gendered references, including "My father sent me to old Rutgers, / And resolv'd that I should be a man" (implying, perhaps, that women sent to Rutgers were supposed to get sex changes).  The Targum article suggests that the current complaint is probably fueled by the recent change in the female to male ratio at Rutgers (which, like most US colleges, seems headed for 55/45 women to men, and probably 60/40 within the coming decade if current trends continue). 

There is no question that the song does not fit the current climate.  But rather than just change the words to the old song, someone ought to just write a good contemporary song for Rutgers that might actually catch on.  After all, I do not think our alma mater is much of a living thing for people in the ways it might have been in the late 19th century.

These questions seem so trivial to me now.  I have a funny little book on my shelf called The Remick Favorite Collection of College Songs, which often are set to old fashioned sentimental and nostalgic tunes (such as Swanee River, or the Scottish song about the old Dundee that provides the music for our alma mater).  When I first sat down to think about this course, I remember picking up that book and thinking that the topic of "college songs" was something someone with a literary or musical bent might want to explore in this course.  But as we have gotten immersed in the vital issues of college funding, privatization, binge drinking on campus, the anti-academic student culture, cheating, the value of a college degree, the influence of college sports, and a host of other vital issues, I recognize that songs to alma mater seem very much beside the point, and any debate on this issue is a distraction from much more important issues that should be our focus.

Monday, March 22, 2010


An excellent resource for those trying to get a sense of how to write a research paper is Dialogues@RU: A Journal of Undergraduate Research.  Published as a peer and faculty edited scholarly journal from 2002-2007 by the Writing Program at Rutgers, Dialogues exhibits some of the better work produced by students taking the Research in the Disciplines (355:201) course at Rutgers.  Papers published here generally received a grade of B+ or A and offer some good models for how to do the scholarly research paper.  They also show you a wide variety of ways a successful paper might be written.  We may look at a paper or two from here in class, but I urge you to check it out on your own.

Adopting a Scholar's Perspective

The whole point of writing an academic research essay in 201 might be to discover a scholar's voice and learn to write as an academic.  That might also be the most difficult part of it.  One thing I did not anticipate in teaching a course on "College!" is how the subject matter of the course might make it especially difficult for students to step outside of their perspectives as "students" and adopt a more academic or scholarly perspective.  You are "students" after all.  You see like students.  So it is a big adjustment to start seeing like academics -- though, arguably, it is the most important step you have to make to succeed at college.

Students need to step outside their student-eye-views and overcoming that narrow vision in order to succeed with their final projects.  After all, one thing I am asking you to do for the course is to identify a scholarly debate (a debate among academics), regarding some question related to higher education, and to join that debate as a scholar yourself.  But when I look at the blog postings describing the "debates" you plan to write about, I generally get instead what I would call "conflicts" or "alternatives" or "opposing choices" affecting individual students. Let me give you an example from a student blog to illustrate:
"The debate I have identified is between the [students] who are attending college and paying for [it] in loans and putting themselves in debt. The other side is the [students] who decide to forgo college and work straight out of high school avoiding debt."
This statement makes it sound like the people "debating" whether or not college is "worth it" from a purely economic point of view are high school graduates going to college and high school graduates choosing to go straight into the workforce. I don't think that way of framing the problem is going to be so productive, however, since these people do not actually debate each other.  In fact, they don't even often talk to each other.  And the reasons individual students choose go to college and other individuals do not have more to do with socio-economic background and school performance than with rational economic decision making.  If students are not debating this issue (or even thinking about it rationally), who is debating it and thinking about it? 

This writer's problem has to do with the way he is imagining the idea of a "debate" on the issue.  When I say I want you to "enter a debate," I mean a scholarly debate among academics / scholars who study and theorize about these choices -- a debate, in this case, among people in economics, higher education, government or banking who have researched the economics of paying for college in this age of higher debt burdens and bleak economic outlooks for college grads and non-grads alike.  Academics or scholars are the people most likely to debate these issues and to publish their findings.  And they are the people most likely to offer you an unbiased answer to the question.  

Academics answer the question and people in power can use the answer not just to make an individual choice for themselves but to make policy decisions that could impact the lives of many people.  The answer to the question of whether or not college is a smart choice from a purely economic perspective could be quite useful for policymakers.  It is useful to college administrators debating whether or not it is possible to raise tuition in these tough economic times.  It is useful to governors cutting funding to colleges knowing they will have to raise tuition and wondering how much the market might bear.  It is useful to people in government who want to create more incentives for college attendance in the population.

Take another example, which I have illustrated in the image at the top of this page (see above): the question of using computers and other technology in the classroom.  Using computers in the classroom directly impacts both teachers and students -- and in different, sometimes quite opposed, ways.  Teachers may see computers as a distraction (fearing that students are surfing the web or checking e-mail rather than really listening to lecture), while some might see them as a great tool for collaborative learning.  Some students might not like the expense or the novelty of classroom computing.  But the potential conflicts among teachers and students are not so important to the larger question of whether or not promoting the use of laptops in lecture halls (for example) is a good or bad thing.  

Students and teachers might have different views on the matter of using laptops in lecture, but only scholars can offer an informed perspective that can actually help to decide whether or not those laptops are valuable, and perhaps valuable enough to make them a universal requirement.  

Scholarly research can impact policy.  Based on academic research, policymakers might require all students to buy a laptop -- or provide them as a built-in cost of tuition (lowering the cost by arranging a bulk deal with the manufacturer).  Administrators might institute training for lecturers in how to put that added computing power to use in the classroom to keep students engaged and reduce the potential distraction they might represent.  Large scale decisions might be made that impact many students, so that it is no longer a question of whether or not a single student should bring his or her laptop to class but whether or not all students should have one.

Students who remain at the level where they only see issues from a student perspective will ultimately not be able to write the most promising and engaged research papers, because they do not imagine how their research might impact policy.  I call this the problem of "student perspectivalism."

I first noticed the problem of "student perspectivalism" in the Analytic Essay, where a number of you tried to defend the partying, anti-academic culture of "student life" as somehow equally important to the academic requirements of college.  Several papers were premised on the idea that you actually learn more from socializing at school than you learn from your classes -- leaving aside or even trampling over Rebekah Nathan's critique of that commonly held student notion ("Don't students come to college to learn?" she asks at one point).  The ultimate example of student perspectivalism came from a paper I shared in class with you, where the student wrote:
When you think about what college really is it breaks down into two part: the learning and education of students and the college lifestyle.  The students are playing for their part, the 'college lifestyle,' which involves having fun in the dorms, learning through experience and becoming more mature young adults and readying them for the real world.  ...  College is more than just class and learning.  It is about learning how to be on your own and be your own individual person while you gain the knowledge necessary to be a working member of society. ... This is the part of college that students are paying for...
What that student argues, essentially, is that the State, alumni, corporate donors, and the federal government pay for the educational aspects of college (because they want students to learn something that will benefit society) while students are paying for the fun part (presumably because they don't give a damn about anything else).  Leaving aside the fact that most students actually are not themselves paying for their educations -- their parents are -- this is an incredibly audacious claim and one that runs roughshod over the views of Nathan and others.  

Interestingly, Nathan is quoted extensively by the writer, but only to reference other students to validate his argument.  Quite ironic: even though Nathan is out to critique the culture of mediocrity, by pointing to it, her work is used as an index of the very issue she is trying to argue against.

I showed this paper to another director in folder review and she said, "well, if he thinks he's just paying for the parties, he's going to get what he pays for." She also said he would be much better off moving to a fun city and finding a job -- maybe as a ski instructor or lifeguard.  From a purely economic point of view, she is absolutely right, since students who party their way through college tend not to get the economic benefits of it.  So they might as well just get a job.

Consider a second example of student perspectivalism from the blogs:
"The debate that i have found is that community colleges are good in the sense that they save you money by allowing you to take the classes that you would be taking at any other school for the first two years. Community colleges give you time to figure out what you want to do with your life and what you want to major in before waisting all your money at a place that doesn't offer what you want. The other side of this argument is that it is harder for students to succeed in four year instituions when coming from a community college because there preparation and background knowledge is not the same. Students seem to struggle in courses that are required such as expositroy writing 101 which demonstrates that although you saved money it may not be helping you in the future because you may have to stay extra time to finish credits and may not get the degree in the amount of time that you would like. Another problem is that not all credits from community colleges transfer to four year institutions which was a waste of your time and money for taking classes that will only hurt you in the long run."
Here is a student writing about the viability of the "stepping stone theory" of community college, where two-year schools are used to allow more students access to a four-year degree.  That "stepping stone theory" has informed the policy of many states, including New Jersey, and affects many people.  But the student is writing about it purely from the perspective of an individual student (the presumed "you" addressed throughout, as in "community colleges give you time to figure out what you want to do with your life").  Though individual students might be making the choice between going directly to a four-year school and going first to a two-year school, it is policy-makers and academics who are debating these issues, and this student needs to engage with that debate.  After all, if the State wants more students to go to college, policies have to be put in place to make college more affordable.  Using community colleges as a stepping stone is one way, since they help to lower the tuition over four years.  That was the idea that created the articulation agreements between two-year and four-year colleges in New Jersey.  The big question is not "is community college a good choice for me or you?" but "is the stepping stone theory of community college really working to create more access to higher education and more graduates?"  The answer to the first question might lead to a single decision.  The answer to the second question could affect thousands.

Here are some things you can do to make sure you are writing from a scholarly perspective:
  • Step back from the issue. Look at it from above. Examine it as an outsider -- as an academic.
  • Remain objective.  Represent both sides fairly even when picking a side.
  • Consider the paradigm (such as the "stepping stone theory" cited above) by which decisions are made and look for academics debating those issues.
  • Look for facts, data, or statistics to back up your view. 
  • Ask yourself "how many people will be affected by the answer to this question?"  If the answer is "one person," then you are not asking the right question.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

President McCormick on the 2010-2011 Budget

The following message was sent today by Rutgers President Richard McCormick to all members of the Rutgers community:

Members of the Rutgers Community:

Yesterday Governor Christie presented his budget proposal for fiscal year 2010-11. The governor’s plan addresses a multi-billion-dollar structural deficit in the state budget through funding cuts in many areas, including state executive departments and aid to public schools, towns, and colleges. For example, the governor’s proposed budget reduces school aid by $819 million, municipal aid by $445 million, and aid to higher education by $173 million.

Under this proposal, Rutgers’ direct state operating aid in 2010-11 would be cut 15.1 percent and therefore would be $46.6 million lower than the university’s original appropriation for the current fiscal year. In actual dollars, Rutgers’ operating aid would be the lowest the university has received since 1994. The governor’s proposed budget also does not provide funding for the salary increases that were negotiated between Rutgers and its bargaining units last year.

In addition, the proposed state budget reduces funding for Tuition Aid Grants and the Educational Opportunity Fund and does not provide funding for incoming freshmen in the NJ STARS scholarship program.

Given the depth of the state’s fiscal crisis, these budget cuts are not a surprise. Indeed, Governor Christie made clear when he visited the New Brunswick campus last fall that the state’s fiscal problems would make a cut in higher education funding unavoidable. It will, nonetheless, be very difficult for Rutgers to absorb these proposed reductions, following so many years of state budget cuts, including the $18.5 million midyear rescission the governor announced last month.

Managing the proposed reductions will require greater efficiencies, hard choices, and shared sacrifice. We are firmly committed to preserving the academic core of the institution and to the delivery of outstanding instruction to our students, recognizing that this is made possible by the hard work of all our faculty and staff. We also know that we cannot solve the problem by transferring the burden of these cuts primarily to our students and their families. In the weeks ahead, as the state budget is deliberated and finalized in Trenton, we will formulate our responses inclusively, and with a primary focus on protecting Rutgers’ core missions and values. Beginning tomorrow, I will convene the university’s senior leadership to lay out plans to meet this challenge.

As we make difficult decisions on our campuses, Rutgers will also continue to make its case assertively in Trenton. We will inform policy makers that while public universities across America face cuts in the midst of a global recession, New Jersey is among the three states that have seen the greatest losses in state higher education appropriations per full-time equivalent student over the past five years. We will point out that funding higher education is an investment that drives economic expansion and opportunity; indeed, we are an essential part of the process of stimulating needed job growth that the governor and legislature must develop.

The governor has also proposed to merge Rutgers with Thomas Edison State College, stating that “the combination will allow new classroom-based services for students in Trenton, while leveraging the two institutions’ distance learning programming.” Under this unsolicited proposal, Rutgers also would take over the operations of the State Library and State Museum. Rutgers appreciates the confidence expressed in us by the governor’s proposal, and we will explore how these excellent institutions could be aligned with Rutgers to strengthen and enhance the missions of all. However, the task of vetting this proposal and performing due diligence will require consultation within and beyond the university community and would ultimately require approval by our boards of governors and trustees.

Rutgers’ enormous budget challenges will call on all of us to work even harder to sustain the high-quality education and cutting-edge research that our faculty provides and the supportive environment for learning and scholarship that our staff ensures. As our record numbers of applications and enrollments attest, the public has recognized the university’s success in preparing students to contribute significantly to our state and the world. The extraordinary record we have achieved in winning grants to support our research attests to our competitiveness on a global scale. In the months ahead we will all be challenged to sustain what Rutgers has become—and that can only be achieved by our working together. I ask, and I know I can count on, your help.

Richard L. McCormick
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Budget Slashes $175 Million from NJ Higher Ed

Christie challenges teachers union on benefits

Governor Chris Christie presented his budget on Tuesday, outlining about $1 billion of cuts to education in the State, including $175 million to higher education.  The text of his address is available online and you can see more portions of the governor's speech online at or at Fox News.  Assembly Higher Education Chairwoman Pamela Lampitt (D-Camden) released a statement (widely quoted) following Gov. Christie’s budget speech, claiming that "he pulled the rug out from under higher education" in the State.  She writes: “Gov. Christie’s budget contains not just cuts to institutions of higher education, but global cuts to programs – like tuition aid grants and the Educational Opportunity Fund – that hit all sectors, putting the financial burden directly on middle class families and removing the prospect of a college education for thousands of New Jersey students.  These cuts also show that the governor does not see our institutions of higher education as the vital economic engines they are. These cuts will likely force staffing cuts across the board and will limit our colleges and universities’ ability to attract and produce the top-notch professionals businesses in the state and across the region have come to expect."

Friday, March 12, 2010

The New Jobless Era

I don't mean to depress you as you go away for Spring Break, but I have been thinking about the situation of higher education within the larger economy.  Right now, I just have a lot of dots, like the inflation issues I mentioned in the last post.  Another dot is represented by Don Peck's "How a New Jobless Era Will Transform America" (The Atlantic, March 2010), which is a scary but important reading for people of college age who, the author argues, are going to face a long period of declining access to jobs and declining salaries in most sectors.  The article does not specifically address how this impacts higher education.  But you have to wonder.  Will a period of declining jobs make people wonder about the value of a college degree?  Will the liberal arts go into an even steeper decline as more students rush to the few remaining areas (such as engineering and nursing) where graduates have a chance at getting a job out of college?  Will jobless college graduates be more likely to default on their loans?

Higher Education Bubble?

I finally read "Will Higher Education Be the Next Bubble to Burst?" (The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 22, 2009) which has relevance to anyone whose project touches on the economics of higher education -- including those writing on community colleges, online courses, privatization, and many other topics.  Published last year, as academics began to understand how the housing market's bursting bubble may have been the main contributor to the global economic downturn, it paints a scary picture of the ways in which inflation in higher education parallel the inflation in the housing market that preceded the crash.  Along the way, the authors offer useful insight into the larger economic forces driving students to community colleges, online courses, and public institutions -- and perhaps making possible greater privatization of public schools (which remain a bargain even if tuition goes up by 30% or more).

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Day of Protest

As predicted, March 4th featured widespread protests to cuts in education in about 30 states, led by California and especially the students at Berkeley.  I caught some coverage of the protests that day on CNN, which had live cameras set up to observe multiple protests around the country and "to catch the action" when police used tear gas near UC Davis where students had shut down a major highway.  Reaction in the media was predictably mixed.  Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Peter Robinson saw the protests as evidence of "The Golden State's Me Generation, arguing that "The demonstrations ... demonstrated the entitlement mentality and self-absorption that has come to dominate much of higher education."  In FDL's "The Student Uprising in Caifornia," David Dayen was more sympathetic, beginning his article with: "About the only encouraging moments during the years-long budget disaster here in California have been the increasing campus radicalization against the draconian cuts to public education." Also, as predicted, things were rather quiet here in New Jersey where citizens and students have not yet recognized the economic storm that's about to hit education here as well.