Sunday, August 20, 2023

The decline of the public university

I'm going to point you to an article by Lisa Corrigan who writes about the recent "restructuring" of West Virginia University, and what it means for the rest of us who work in public colleges and universities, whether flagship institutions, or regional colleges and universities (like me). WVU's administrators hired a consulting firm to determine programs to put on the chopping block, and it is doing away with quite a number of majors, including all of its majors in the languages. About 16% of its faculty will be laid off in the process. I write this as my university is doing a program viability study, and I worry about what the outcome of its recommendations will be. 

If you want a more tl:dr version, Dr. Corrigan posted a thread on the platform formerly known as Twitter:

The enrollment cliff has been used as a cudgel for much of my professional career - at least since the Great Recession came and went. What I suspect will happen is what Dr. Corrigan says quite bluntly: we will end up with a two-tiered higher education situation where the privileged will have more opportunities to enrich themselves intellectually, and the rest of our students, especially in rural public universities will just have to get used to fewer options. After all, workforce development is the big buzzword these days. We'll also see a future in which institutions operate with fewer full-time faculty, with the ensuing decline in quality that comes with understaffed programs. This was not the future I wanted for our next cohorts of students. Unless there is a huge fuss made regarding adequate funding for our institutions and a move back to ensuring academic freedom that is untouched by legislators, this is the future that awaits. It is bleak.

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Political intereference in the classroom is increasing, and that should disturb all of us

Reading this story about how a simple guest lecture almost led to this Texas professor's firing was unsettling, to say the least. Although I don't know Dr. Joy Alonzo's work, it appears that she's a respected expert on the opioid crisis in the US. The content of her lecture, at least from the PowerPoint slides available, suggest she had a matter-of-fact presentation of the opioid crisis, as well as policies that could mitigate or exacerbate the problem. She just happens to work in Texas, which has arguably managed to make that particular situation worse. Any expert who understands the impact of public policy is inevitably going to end up saying something when state or national policies are doing more harm than good. Politicians may not like that fact, nor may partisans of any stripe, but that is how professionals work. Her reward for offering her expertise to a class at another university was to end up on paid leave and investigated - and nearly fired. Why? Some of the content of the lecture might have offended the Lt. Governor of Texas. She managed to dodge a bullet, as no evidence of wrong-doing could be found, but I can only imagine that she regrets the day she joined the Texas A&M faculty. 

Let me step back for just a moment. I am in the behavioral and social sciences. When I started my first position at Oklahoma Panhandle State University, I quickly became friends with a then-junior faculty member in my department who was and probably is considerably more conservative than I am. We are still good friends although we each work in completely different locations now. One thing we shared in common was a belief that we both expressed often: social scientists are equal opportunity offenders. If we are doing our job right as educators and researchers, we're going to present evidence that will end up upsetting someone. That's not because we enjoy upsetting our intended audiences, but because facts can be inconvenient, depending on one's worldview. I also believe that since our research output can inform policymakers, we have an obligation to call them out when they are misunderstanding our work, misusing our work, or ignoring our findings at the expense of the greater social good. If these decision-makers are unhappy with our informed opinions, that's their problem. At least that's how it should be. I take the same view with students. Some course content will inevitably challenge beliefs and maybe that leads to some cognitive dissonance, or whatever. I can't just change the facts to please others. My job is to make the evidence available. What students choose to do with that information is up to them, and quite frankly, I have little interest in what they do with that information once the course is finished for the term. As a result, some semesters my course evaluations can look a bit bleak. Imagine a simple introductory course in Psychology that includes materials about research on gender that go against what a subset of students may have learned in Sunday School. I'll get flak for the simple fact that the information is in the textbook, and that I may have tested on that information. So it goes.

In mentioning all of this I do know that I am working during a difficult moment in higher education. The tendency for legislators, primarily in Republican-run states in my country, to micromanage our instruction and research is only intensifying. Texas and Florida are probably the most obvious examples, but any of us in the so-called "red states" are at risk of being cancelled. I expect things to get worse before they get better. I can hope that the tide turns back in favor of rational thought, defended with empirical evidence, and that this era of filtering all data and ideas through tribal grievances will end with minimal collateral damage to careers and to students' ability to function after college. Then again, I am well aware that hope and $1.50 might buy you a candy bar, and little else.

Saturday, July 15, 2023

America's Confidence in Higher Education is Dropping

You can read the article here. The article and the poll don't give much in the way of context for why Americans' confidence in higher education has dropped so precipitously. Apparently some measure of political party affiliation was used, so that helps a bit. Apparently, if you analyze the cross-tabs, you'll find that generally, those who identify as Democratic have had relatively higher amounts of confidence in higher education relative to those who identify as Republican or Independent, and that seems to be a consistent pattern across time. However, since 2015, confidence has dropped among all polled regardless of party affiliations. I suppose university and college administrators in blue states can take some consolation in the finding that as of 2022, more the half of Democrats were confident in higher education as an institution, but even that is a noticeable decline from 2015. 

I'll speak only anecdotally for the time being, as I don't have the time or energy to really do a deep dive into other data on the matter. I've noticed a tendency, usually political and deeply partisan, to attack colleges and universities. There was and still is a moral panic about not enough ideological conservatives being hired at institutions of higher education. I've seen that tired attack for as long as I've been an educator. I guess I don't see it at the sort of regional colleges and universities that would typically hire or at least interview me, and I've looked. There's definitely a moral panic over the content we teach in our courses, and I've seen so much fuss made about CRT and "wokeness"at colleges and universities that I'm pretty much numb to such attacks. There isn't much "woke" about means and standard deviations, folks. So it goes. I think I can understand how those who regularly rely on Fox News for their information my have changed their attitudes toward colleges and universities. I wonder if our colleges and universities are increasingly seen as not doing enough by at least some subsection of those who identify as Democratic. I'm pretty jaded about most DEI statements and offices at universities like mine. I wonder if that jadedness is shared. Then there is the ongoing problem about the increasing student loan burden that students and parents alike deal with in order to obtain degrees that, while leading to nominally middle-income careers, are not lucrative enough to pay back those loans. 

There's so much to unpack, and I think that particular article gives us only a minimal amount of information to go on. At least we know what the topline numbers are. We just don't entirely know what they mean. And we need to understand better what is going on behind those numbers in order to make sure we can as institutions defend ourselves in an increasingly difficult political and social environment.

Friday, March 10, 2023

Friendly reminder: Masks work

Since we are going to be dealing with COVID-19 for a while to come, it's useful to remind readers that the overwhelming evidence is that masks (especially N-95) work quite well. As we've known for a long while, COVID-19 is transmitted through airborne particles. Thankfully, we don't have to worry about fomites for that particular virus. The article I linked to offers plenty of evidence about how the virus spreads, including the current Omicron variant and subvariants, which are highly transmissible. There's some advice for reusing N-95 masks, which is helpful, given their expense. You will want to refresh your supply regularly. Even a poorly fitting N-95 mask is far better than being unmasked if there are people in the vicinity who have COVID-19. Chances are you're probably less likely to be exposed if you are outdoors than indoors, and while indoors, good ventilation matters. 

Masks, like other mitigation measures, became needlessly politicized in 2020, and we are paying the price globally as a consequence. Prevention measures generally are good common sense. If you can keep your face covered, you reduce your risk of contracting COVID-19 and transmitting COVID-19. That's a good thing. If you have the ability to physically distance when there is an outbreak (as there will continue to be for a while), you're better off doing so. Even though fomites are not an issue, I'd still advocate for good hand hygiene. Ultimately, though, you have to figure out your own situation and how much risk you can afford to take. Those with pre-existing health conditions or who are young at heart but not so much chronologically should probably mask up at minimum, at least indoors. If you can get vaccinated, it is in your best interest to do so. For the record, my spouse and I have both had our original two COVID vaccines, and any subsequent boosters made available to us. They're no guarantee, and I know my spouse did test positive for COVID-19 in early December 2022. However, thanks to detecting it early and getting her on Paxlovid, she had minimal symptoms and avoided hospitalization (and this is someone who can easily get bronchitis or pneumonia). 

Stick to solid science. Tune out the demagogues. You'll be better off, and so will anyone else in your life.

Sunday, January 1, 2023

Welcome to another new year

Image Source: Getty Images

Another calendar year has come and gone. In many ways, it was a busy year. I have spent much of my time in the classroom (physically and virtually), have scored AP Psychology free recall question responses in person for the first time since 2019, and have chaired or attended my share of committee meetings. I attended a virtual conference with small-time social science organization that has been part of my extended family for a long time, and presented a paper on the replication crisis in the behavioral and social sciences. I caught portions of the SIPS conference, since I could attend virtually. I'm thinking my days of bankrolling a lot of travel for conferences are numbered, if not simply over. I don't have the personal budget, and my university (like similar comprehensive public regional universities) is too cash-strapped, and likely will be for the foreseeable future. I continue to adjunct, and probably will over the next few years unless circumstances change for the better.

This past year was one where, in spite of the chaos, I came to terms with some stark realities about my career. It's safe to say that the days when I could at least delude myself into thinking I could make one more move into the R-2 institutions and have at least some access to resources needed to do the work I had once set out to do are over, finished, kaput. It's pretty obvious if one checks any of my research profiles that I am just not all that prolific an author these days. I've put off projects that once upon a time would have excited me. 2022 was the year when I simply faced up to the fact that I just wasn't that person anymore. It's been a long journey, but I find some peace with the acceptance of my current circumstances. I won't have the resources, such as lab space, to run experiments, or even participate in multi-lab experiments or studies. I won't have the resources to bring undergraduate students to academic conferences. Within the confines of my limited resources, I can do a few other things, such as prepare students to be savvy consumers of research. I can help prepare them to use the skills they learn along the way in whatever career or vocation they end up choosing as time passes. As my own department changes, I can do what I can to shape and implement its vision. That's about it, really. 

With a plan to retire sometime between 70 and 75, I have about 13-18 years left to do what I can as an educator to leave my little corner of the psychological sciences in a better place. After that? My first publications were poems and haiku. I'll most likely go back to that, and focus much more on landscape photography. In the meantime, I'll keep this blog going, for any who might be interested. I still have plenty to say about the state of the science of psychology, and of the academic world itself.