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A tough read for me--so much truth here. Thank you for writing--this needs to be said.

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Glad it landed. I do feel that there is value in finding words for these things even at the risk of seeming angsty. There is a lot of truth hidden beneath the stiff upper lip.

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The 'angst' that emerges from the piece is, I think, a personal piece for certain readers. It reads as informative, about a cultural shift--a shift analogous to other sectors really. But I've always expected more from the learning sphere. Altogether this is has so many implications for the future, for young students ( or those like myself who returned later, hungry to learn.) What is happening goes far beyond faculty. Thank you for your work here.

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Aug 5, 2022Liked by Joshua Doležal

This was tough for me to read as well. The balance of deep love for the profession, anger, regret, and the "foreign occupier" metaphor is brilliant and speaks for those of us for whom this "occupation" is both personal and political.

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Thanks for reading, Susan. I'm glad that the deep love comes through. That, more than the critique, is the point.

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We had a similar experience as the arts did in the science division except we had to meet with the governor who expressed her wish for us to train engineers with no souls.

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I recall a line from one of our colleagues during those meetings about engineering. Something about how some institutions support engineering by investing in excellence in science. It can be easy to blame STEM for a lot of this when I realize that science, as a discipline with discrete expertise that isn't always job-related, gets swept up into "the brand" too.

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Jul 19, 2022Liked by Joshua Doležal

I think the second verse of "where is my home" harmonizes with your point:

Where my home is, where my home is,

If, in the heavenly land, you have met

Slender souls in spry bodies,

Of clear mind, vigorous and prospering,

And with a strength that frustrates all defiance,

That is the glorious nation of Czechs

Among the Czechs (is) my home!

Among the Czechs, my home!

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Thanks, Michael. I appreciate your insights! That verse does, indeed, harmonize with the core ideas here. Incidentally, on the musical note, I thought it fitting that there were musical instruments in both of the ancestral homes that I visited in Moravia: a guitar and a mandolin. I stayed in Brno only two nights, but there were street musicians everywhere, and high quality performers, too. There was a cello trio that performed a haunting rendition of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" right outside a Burger King (these incongruities still throw me). And a young girl, maybe 10 or 12, who was playing a gypsy fiddle tune that I couldn't identify, but that was bewitching all the same. I've often felt like a dreamy fool for loving art and music as much as I do, but it's just part of the air one breathes here. In an old photograph of my grandfather and his family in Nebraska, a crowd is gathered around a man with a trombone. Somewhere along the line that notion of music as just a fact of life got disced under with the previous year's corn. It has been wonderful to discover these dispositions and habits of living that I recognize in my own instincts. Now I really need to find someone who will loan me a guitar in Prague, so I can go play folk tunes in a park somewhere...

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May 10, 2023Liked by Joshua Doležal

I love this! I’m looking for where are you write about broken reward systems but I can’t tell which piece that is.

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A couple thoughts I have after years spent in higher ed, is that overall, there's a disagreement regarding mission. For some faculty the mission is teaching, for others it's research (and they could care less about teaching), for some people in the admin side (especially admissions) it's all about perpetuity. The institution needs X amount of students to be in the black for the year or to not be too far into red. This gets to what you're talking about regarding the brand, but the brand becomes a measure of perpetuity. If students don't want to attend, and numbers aren't met, then budgets will be cut. The brand becomes weaker.

How does an institution thrive when people aren't on board with the mission?

When I worked in the private sector it felt totally refreshing to have clear measures of success like the number of clients we have and revenue versus opaque measures like trying to assess critical thinking skills, graduation rates, and peer-rankings.

Also, working in higher ed as a librarian and then as a technologist, one sees a different side of faculty. I often use the analogy of Downton Abbey, with faculty as "the upstairs people" and staff as the "the downstairs faculty." There is often this faculty vs administrators dichotomy and it ignores staff.

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This is a smart take, Tim. You're right about the confusion about mission. I'm not sure there are many humanities faculty, even at R1 universities, who either don't care about teaching or don't understand teaching to be a crucial part of the institutional mission. But either way, the faculty commitment is to an intellectual past or future. I also think faculty at smaller private colleges, especially those who are tuition-dependent, understand the need for their involvement in things like recruitment. But focusing on getting students jobs has virtually nothing to do with the intellectual past or future that faculty serve. And faculty know well that they are often being asked to simply make things up: they are the last people anyone should ask about the practical impact of the liberal arts, since they largely only understand how their discipline has helped them get a job in academe.

Promotions like this one at my former employer show how the perpetuity mission utterly ignores the intellectual side of college.

https://central.edu/profiles/about/perks-of-pella/

You have a unique view of both sides of the faculty/staff divide. I'm not certain that there was much difference in compensation between faculty and staff at my former institution. Faculty were paid for 10 months, and staff for 12 months, and so I think many staff actually earned more than faculty. But I suppose your point is more about roles. Maybe you would disagree with this, but I think there is also a difference between staff with explicit expertise in academics (like you) and staff with expertise in HR or landscaping or dining services. Everyone should feel valued both personally and for their particular skills. I think when faculty get snooty, they often feel that their unique expertise as an intellectual -- which lies at the heart of what a college or university is -- is either undervalued or not valued at all.

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Do you have hope that a new system can be built? Or are you in the revamp the current system camp?

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Some of what I describe could be stopped right now by treating faculty as experts rather than as teenagers who need to be cut down to size. Budgets could absolutely be managed differently, with more trust and delegation and transparency. Department chairs at my former employer didn't have actual numbers in the budget until halfway through the academic year (or later). That could be fixed. There is no reason to earmark donor money for awards to *just* more professional development. I bought a road bike the first time I won an award. The second time came the spring before I resigned, and the college would have kept a laptop if I'd used the funds to buy one, so I paid for my own students to take a research field trip. That's not a reward for good teaching. Those are unforced errors. Making people feel valued does not require more money, necessarily.

COVID brutalized budgets. And the 2025 demographic cliff sounds horrendous. But I, personally, do not believe we can "brand" our way out of that kind of problem. The brand is not our salvation. This is largely because higher education does not produce cars or lawnmowers. A brand can never capture the symphony of majors, experts, staff, students, and other PEOPLE who define what a college or university is. As you can tell, I like athletic metaphors. Not one single college football coach gives a damn what the "brand" is, and those coaches have to recruit. At Nebraska, my alma mater, the coaches tell players not to pay attention to all of the branding stuff: the stadiums, the training facilities, I guess now the NIL crap. "It's the people in the building," they say, that make the difference. For years I told students the same about graduate school: don't pay attention to a program's ranking, look at the faculty, email them with your interests, see if those relationships would sustain you. I believe that the colleges and universities who know the real value of the people they have, give those people what they need, and then get out of their way, are the places best positioned to weather ups and downs in budgets. But if you protect a budget above all else, and people are cast aside as expendable labor, then what do you have once you've balanced the budget?

I am an idealist. I do not have a comprehensive plan to save higher education. But I could be useful as a collaborator to others with a better sense of what is possible. I am well aware that the art of the possible falls somewhere below the ideal. Yet my purpose is to give voice to the real violence done to the heart of the enterprise when the ideal doesn't matter, is deemed silly or impractical, or is actively smacked down.

I can see the argument that the entire scaffolding must crash and be rebuilt anew. However, I do not have faith that something like free public education would do anything to solve the problem. See an op-ed that I coauthored with JJ Butts two years ago (when I was still a professor): https://eu.desmoinesregister.com/story/opinion/columnists/2019/12/09/proposals-free-higher-education-pose-threat-private-colleges-opinion/4347974002/. Free public college would decrease the options and -- because of cost sensitivity -- assuredly lower the quality of education, increase the burden on faculty, and freeze if not cut faculty compensation.

The traditional liberal arts will not survive if college is not affordable. The liberal arts offers the best chance at real self-realization, which represents lifelong value of many kinds. I understand schools that are gravitating back to trades. Those are clear Return on Investment pathways. But you'll never read Nathaniel Hawthorne or Toni Morrison there.

My fear is that the real conversations about ideas and history and art will become bourgeois once again, like they were in the nineteenth century, when so many aristocratic novels were written. In fact, the class divide was one reason I never imagined that I could major in English. Partly because I did not much care about fancy parlor talk among people trying to marry well. I still don't, honestly. My Antonia changed that for me. Willa Cather took a little railroad town and transformed it into an enduring work of art. She saw that the place was defined by more than financial transactions. I believe the arts and history can do that for anyone.

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It's funny you say that faculty are treated like teenagers... Because when I left academia I realized how childish academic life was. Faculty think that they are above life outside of the ivory Tower. When I left my mentor looked down on me and mocked me for making more money than she did. So to me, I feel like faculty are the ones acting like children a lot of the times and maybe that's why they're treated as such. The administrators think they're the adults in the room. I think the problem is with everyone getting education... It's turned college into a vocational program rather than some highbrow cultural experience.

I don't think free education is going to solve it either. Free education will just make it like a high school diploma. I also think that the dissemination aspect of academia is being done better by people outside of it. I also think that for most research that isn't hard science, there's no reason or need to have an academic affiliation. Again, the gatekeeping aspect is moot. I'm in the rebuild camp, but I don't think it's a matter of starting over. I think they're going to be many structures that coexist to make up a new "academia".

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I attended a small but well-considered research institution, consistently in the top engineering programs in the United States called "New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology" where I pursued a Bachelor's and a Master's in Mining Engineering. I also served as Student Association President for one term. My best memories in life are playing rugby or hanging out on the large grassy field between classes, and the incredible golf course we had right next to campus. I would walk around the pedestrian friendly campus and look at the historic WPA era buildings. I received a great education and I loved the experience.

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Yes, that is often the student's experience. It was mine, too, as an undergrad and it led me to idealize the life of my professors. But were your faculty well compensated? Did they have a reasonable work/life balance? Did administrators at that school make faculty feel valued and vital to the enterprise? Maybe so -- but these factors are often known only to those inside the institution.

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Jun 2, 2023Liked by Joshua Doležal

If I had read the quotes from Havel without a citation I would have assumed they were reflections on what it's like to work for a capitalist enterprise. I don't know enough about Havel and his ideas to know, but it seems from his words that he hoped capitalism would mean some kind of employee involvement in the running of an enterprise; certainly that's what the theorists of Solidarnosc in Poland were hoping for. Instead they got a brutal neoliberal takeover of the economy and the stripping of public assets, which seems to me to be related to the kinds of woes you describe in academia--the notion that the only motivation imaginable is the profit motive, and that every part of society must be yoked to that cart. Ironically, our public institutions are subject to this as well, with the importation of corporate management techniques.

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Thanks, David. I'm am little foggy on Havel's philosophy, too. It was supposed to be "socialism with a human face," but I'm not sure how well the economics of it have aged. And, yes, the corporation has infected far more than higher ed.

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...and this sounds deliciously Marxist. We've yoked everything to 'profit' and the ability to 'marketize'.

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Apr 20, 2023Liked by Joshua Doležal

Dobry den Joshua! Úžasné najít tady druhého českého spisovatele!

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Cheers, Birgitte! I’m not really a Czech writer, but thanks for reading 😊

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Apr 20, 2023Liked by Joshua Doležal

Ah! But it seems it's your heritage? I was born there, now based in the US ;)

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Indeed -- but a distant heritage, only recently explored with any depth. I'll email you separately -- hope to keep in conversation!

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RIP Vaclav Havel. Hopefully his thoughts won't go the way of dokonano jest as his corpse has gone. #HavelnaHrad

Couldn't agree more with what's been written here. My only reservation is that I don't know if a country is the same as a series of institutions. As well as Havel being Havel, he also became the President because the Czechs wanted a total end to Communism and he was the only one who wasn't an apparatchik. Implementing the same kind of change in academia would first have to result in every professor being fired. :P

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Ah, fair point. There are limits to every metaphor. Perhaps, then, the solution is less the wholesale abandonment of the institution, as the Czech people abandoned the Communist government than it is a wholesale revision of the power structure, such that the professor is not the pawn of the consultant. Good food for thought. This is more a blueprint for revolution than it is for the system that would take its place.

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Sep 20, 2022Liked by Joshua Doležal

...."because we believe the unknown is preferable to an iron lid on the horizon.

Yes.

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Spot on!

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Very unfortunate

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This is the most depressingly accurate description of the problems of turning Universities into (very poorly run) corporations that I have read in a long while. I sadly live this reality every day. Our department lost any control over budgets and our Head has no real power. We are at the mercies of bureaucrats and bean-counters who either ceased to be academics long ago (or who never were academics to begin with). Covid has exacerbated the issues, but it was headed into the pit well before that was an issue. Oh, I'm also a lifelong Pittsburgh Pirates fan, so that analogy was additional salt in the wound. :)

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Thanks for reading Matt. While I do hope to state the problems clearly, I hope the real goal of the piece -- to double down on idealism for what higher ed could still be -- also comes through. I think the mistake that admin often makes is in thinking that oversight over dwindling monies must be tightly controlled. A more communal response to scarcity could be unifying. But I realize too that it is easier to state the problems than it is to lay out a coherent vision for change. So perhaps I ought to give myself that task one of these days.

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Unfortunately, new faculty have been conditioned to accept top-down governance and limited agency, and so they aren’t likely to reform institutions; they literally don’t know what they’re missing.

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I saw some notable exceptions at my former institution: newly minted PhDs willing to challenge senior leadership. But you're right -- the corporate model has been normalized long enough that many don't remember anything else.

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