In Stephen King’s novel, The Stand, a devastating super-flu wipes out 99.4% of the human population. Those survivors of the plague band together in one of two camps: the good guys all make their way to Boulder and attempt and set up a democratic society, the bad guys quickly establish a dictatorship in Las Vegas. The action builds to a final confrontation between the forces good and evil, but the ending, whether humankind can survive, is ambiguous.
I’ve been thinking about The Stand as I wade through the gush of coverage over the ouster of UVA President Teresa Sullivan. While I think the event is both fascinating as a spectacle and important in terms of its potential consequences for public higher ed, it’s difficult, to say the least, to keep up with the pace of the news and blog posts.
My take on it is that the outrage and fear of the faculty is two pronged. There’s concern over the political process by which the individuals on the BOV got their posts and how they went about giving Sullivan the ax. Then there’s anger over the plot to cut entire departments (German and Classics, by what I’ve read) combined with a proposed pivot towards online education.
I’m thinking of The Stand because, rhetorically a lot of academics are pitching this as a battle of good faculty versus evil neoliberals. What would this tale look like played out on a post-apocalyptic wasteland? And when are the lines ever drawn so clearly in real life?
Its the science-fictiony sounding year of 2021 and the neoliberals were right. The marketization and privatization of higher ed and anthropology is, for all intents and purposes, complete. The majority of anthro departments were wiped out by this plague — as public resources dried up and the middle class shrank, fewer customers could afford the traditional campuses.
When a high-quality, low-cost online anthropology product hit the educational marketplace departments closed left and right.
The online education of the future is an elaborate MMORPG, an insanely profitable multi-player video game that allows students to study at their own pace and save their game at any time. You can create a college avatar on your home game console for free. Most students pay for each lesson ala carte like downloading singles from iTunes, rather than paying a semester’s tuition in one lump sum. The object of the game is to complete various missions that correspond to class lessons until you unlock the ultimate prize, a bachelor’s degree.
Lectures are better in the game than in person because you can stop, start, and rewind them. The visual examples are tremendous and the student can opt to print 3D models if necessary. You can text a Ph.D. 24-7 with your questions. Group discussion and collaboration is the hallmark of the game. The assignments have changed from the old days: reading and writing comes in bite sizes but most students like tweeting their essays now.
Much as Amazon and B&N sucked up the market once served by independent bookstores, most brick and mortar colleges have long since closed up shop. College towns turned into ghost towns like Flint, Michigan, when GM left. A few were able to survive by shifting their market strategy to offer services in niches where online outlet stores and video game providers are less competitive. The trick was to anticipate where those gaps in online service would be.
At first it seemed that universities would be able to lay exclusive claim to the production of research and training grad students, but the online schools quickly grew to fill this market as well. Once the special collections were all digitized and holograms of museum quality objects produced, the online schools out produced the brick and mortar campuses in social science and humanities publications. For-profit laboratory franchises started popping up in major urban centers that proved to be much more cost effective than anything run by a traditional campus, and the online schools began to make a substantial dent in natural science publications as well.
Eventually the remaining traditional campuses realized they were in possession of an asset the online schools lacked — place. In terms of student life, the brick and mortars were in a position to offer a privileged lifestyle of football games and keg parties to those who could afford it and they redoubled their efforts to transform their campuses into mini-resorts for the children of the upper class.
A few low-cost traditional colleges, including the community colleges, survived too. They began to focus on personalized, high-touch services in the classroom. Faculty moved service learning objectives into the center of their course work as schools became more integrated into their local communities and stressed the enduring civic value of students educated on intentionally diverse campuses. One-on-one tutoring, ESL education, and counceling services also became hallmarks of the brick and mortars.
While I sympathize with the desire to fight for our principles as educators embodied in the call to arms surrounding the UVA fiasco, to a certain extent the marketization and privatization of higher ed, like global climate change, is coming whether we like it or not. Simply resisting neoliberalism will be insufficient. We will also need to adapt to it in order to survive. The Dutch aren’t waiting until the sea level starts to rise before they start to work on that problem. How can we prepare ourselves now so that we too will not sink with the tides? What is the value of a college education at a brick and mortar school if, in the future, online education is better and cheaper? And who wants to make that high-quality, low-cost educational MMORPG?