some of us are brave

Emory University’s Program Cuts Get Ahead of The Curve

I had a plan for the next blog post which rarely happens. I’m a one-and-done kinda girl on this space. I write it when I write it and I move on. I rarely plan or edit, which is likely obvious but whatever. But this week a minor kerfuffle at law school blog Above the Law about the genetic inferiority of blacks got me to thinking about the nature of courage. So, I was going to write about how being a norm breaker for the sake of party favors isn’t real courage. Courage is something altogether different.

But a day after I started thinking about that post a rumor started spreading at my university. It seemed that some programs were on the chopping block. The news put my blog plans on hold. There were too many different sources for it to be without merit. Several of the programs named have long been vulnerable so, while I was sad, I was not entirely surprised by the rumors. The official announcement from Emory University, however,  contained quite a few surprises:

To create a financially sustainable path for traditional strengths in the arts and sciences, as well as for new emerging growth areas, the ECAS will reduce the number of academic programs it supports through the closing and reorganizing of three academic departments and several programs.

In a Sept. 14 letter to the Emory College community, Forman announced the closing of:  the Division of Educational Studies; the Department of Physical Education (which already is being phased out in favor of new approaches to health and physical fitness education); and the Department of Visual Arts, in addition to the Program in Journalism.

In partnership with the Laney Graduate School, we are also suspending admissions to the graduate programs in Spanish and Economics, so that we can be deliberate in reimagining the role that graduate education in these fields will play at Emory.”

“Finally, we will suspend graduate admissions to the ILA (Graduate Institute of Liberal Arts) and reorganize the ILA into an institute without permanent faculty.

I find myself in a complicated situation.

I know, like, love, and/or am affiliated with someone or many someones in every single one of those departments. In the interest of full disclosure, I was once a graduate student in one of the shuttered programs. I wavered on analyzing this move out of respect for the real people who have been thrown a loop by this decision. They are real people I care a great deal for.

But, the work is the work.

And this type of analysis and research is exactly what I do. So, until my program is snatched or my credentials are revoked I feel obligated to react to this news.

It’s a sign’o’the times.

The move to privatize education at all levels in the U.S. has been going on for at least 30 years now. And it’s made strange bedfellows. White evangelicals resent the cultural changes the Civil Rights Movement wrought on classrooms. Private industry, facing tightened credit markets and greater competition, is eyeing public funds like the new girl at Sweet Valley High. Baby boomers had fewer children aiming to pour the best of themselves — and their resources — across fewer bloodlines. They obsess about good returns on their investment.

All of these endogenous and exogenous pressures have made it difficult to sell public education and accessible education as the great American way.

For all our rhetoric, no one wants an education system that actually provides equal opportunity. We want more opportunity for our children and a little less for “other” children.

And that’s what privatization of education promises.

MOOCs are so large and amorphous as to essentially be an aggregate of individuals, not a class or a classroom or a school. You can pick and choose the education you want and leave behind any parts that make you uncomfortable. You can get a PhD online and never have to battle ideas in an open forum, defend your position against better armed peers, or risk having a discussion on affirmative action or abortion. You can go to Patrick Henry with a few hundred other white, evangelical homeschooled students who believe exactly what you believe and who won’t give your parents brown grandbabies.

We are now the America that wants the opt-out button and privatization is more than happy to give it to us.

Only, we still have to work and mate and procreate in groups.

It’s mad inconvenient, that.

So, the new capital becomes institutions that actual provide socialization and social capital at the exact time that increased individualization and asocial learning is being promoted as the solution to all that ails us.

As any economist can tell you, scarcity tends to breed value.

Who will have the resources, the institutions, the networks to produce the opportunities to earn and exchange that kind of capital in the new privatized version of higher education?

Prestigious colleges with deep endowments and a high selectivity rating on their U.S. News ranking.

Prestige has always been hot in social mobility but it’s about to get hotter.

Which brings me back to Emory. Notice that programs being cut are in low prestige fields: education, journalism. Economics is an oddball but only if you consider that business tends to have overtaken economics among the managerial classes.

Sure, there’ll always be a few Ivy programs in “soft” fields. The Harvard Graduate School of Education will certainly live on. But, note that it will take a lot of institutional prestige to spend a little on a low prestige field. Aspirational schools, those on the prestige bubble, are sensing a change in the higher education landscape. It’s become more selective, more elite or go home. At the other end, public universities are being pushed to offer more of the individualized learning via technology.

So, what will all the people who were born to the wrong family do for education?

They’ll take it online at State U., enroll at Strayer, get a certificate at Everest College or they’ll get the one lotto ticket out of the educational slow lane and get into a more prestigious university in the name of diversity.

That’s a prescription for a segmented institutional field: the unlucky but ambitious paying more for State U, the unlucky and overwhelmed at a for-profit college, and those smart enough to be born well going to elite colleges where they’ll get the kind of social capital that will further sort the winners and the losers in the labor market.

If you were Emory and you saw these structural changes coming, what would you do?

I suspect you’d be sending the same email on a Friday afternoon and thanking ye gods that your children decided to be born lucky.


6 comments on “Emory University’s Program Cuts Get Ahead of The Curve

  1. Lauren
    September 17, 2012

    One of the best summaries and analyses I’ve seen thus far of what’s taking place in the Emory GSAS (which I refuse to call the LGS, for reasons of resistance to all of the above “prestige” and “elitism” and being able to buy your name onto a university). I’ve just discovered your blog and can’t wait to read it. Glad to feel the solidarity, from a fellow Emory grad student.

  2. Eric
    September 15, 2012

    i’ve wandered here for more info about these cuts. i agree with your analysis about segmentation in the educational (and many other) sectors. MOOCs, and all that.

    but, as someone who is also in graduate school, although not at Emory, i’m not sure i understand how shuttering doctoral programs, even whole departments, amounts to the embrace of an economic model of leveraged prestige (or whatever you’d want to call what you’re describing). Econ is indeed surprising to see on the chopping block, as, in some ways, is a department of physical education (department?). you’ll have a much easier time convincing me that cutting spanish departments (reduce it to service teaching) is about attacking a certain model of critical thought, about accepting the credential model of education, and so on…

    but doesn’t it seem like there’s a disconnect between analysis and phenomenon?

    • tressiemc22
      September 15, 2012

      If there is a disconnect (not that I concede there is based on the details not evident in your critique) it would be most clear in cutting the Spanish department (which you say you makes sense in this framework) than in education (which by not listing I assume you mean does not make sense in this frame).

      So, I’m afraid I sense a disconnect in your understanding of the analysis as much as you sense one in the analysis. And without some more details about why you think shuttering doctoral programs and departments does not reflect a move towards shoring up prestige in higher prestige departments I can’t really respond to your question. But I will say again: Emory is a good school but not a peer institution with the most prestigious universities –> as such, it does not have the capital to invest in programs deemed low prestige –> sensing increased competition from above, and not below, these moves reflect an ideological shift in what is considered an educational priority–> those priorities reflect a greater move in the institutional field that is trending away from serving the middle tier, “average” student i.e. there is no longer the pretense of education as a vehicle for upward social mobility.

      • Eric
        September 16, 2012

        what you’ve said does help. understand that this is not a hostile question. and that i don’t have the emotional investment that you do in these programs. i don’t know the situation at Emory, and I don’t know what these departments were like. and I’m always suspicious of claims that that such-and-such an action will not, as we are invariably told it will not, negatively impact student experience.

        here is what i am talking about, which should probably be abstracted from Emory: i’m not willing to accept the knee-jerk response that closing any doctoral program, or even rather a lot of them, is a bad thing. my concern is the continued existence of doctoral programs that are unable to support their students at an acceptable level–that is, so it’s possible to pursue the degree only by accruing debt, or with independent, individually held resources of some kind, usually family or spouse–programs that are also unwilling/unable to be clear to the students at the outset the gap between what they’re going to put in and what it’s going to get them at the end. that is, doctoral programs that, based on the hope and idealism of their applicants, extract labor from students even as these student assume debt, and then also radically fail to produce “upward social mobility,” or even allow the students to get the kind of job they trained for.

        this applies above all to doctoral programs whose main mission is to produce academics, but haven’t placed a student in years. i don’t think they’re helping their students, i think they’re exploiting them.

        universities are indeed currently under attack. cruelly, under the pretense of upward social mobility, higher education in the US perpetuates and sharpens inequality. what i’m saying is that it’s hard for me to believe that the place to fight this is in defending crappy doctoral programs.

        ——All of which is not to say that the programs being closed at Emory are of the kind I describe. Nor, above all, is it to suggest that the 20 people–staff, right?–who it sounds like are getting flat fired deserve that. all i’m saying is that i want to find some way of defending what higher education ought to be–a mechanism of upward social mobility, a space for social experimentation, intellectual critique, even, god help me, the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake–against an extraordinarily grim political-economic situation, which you described in your original post, without becoming purely reactive, defensive, in a word, conservative. and i don’t think that can happen at the level of the doctoral program. i think it has to happen at the level of undergraduate admissions, in a renewed commitment to public funding, in a total remaking of the disgusting way that we currently fund higher education in the US.

        • tressiemc22
          September 16, 2012

          You are extracting the closure of doctoral programs from the announcement which states that undergraduate programs in journalism, education, Visual arts, and physical health education have also been terminated. Also, it probably does help to know about recent statistics inflation charges in undergraduate admissions at Emory. So, no, closing doctoral programs wouldn’t, of itself, evidence my argument but the shuttering of undergraduate programs, admissions behaviors together with reduction of research doctoral programs does.

  3. Pingback: » A gloomy day in higher ed news Katina Rogers

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This entry was posted on September 14, 2012 by in Uncategorized.
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