Speeding Up the Students

UT as a Factory

By Nick Schwellenbach & Callison Alcott
April 2004; pages 8; Number 5.

Undergraduate work being task work, it is possible, without fatal effect, to reduce it to standard units of time and volume, and so control and enforce it by a system of accountancy and surveillance; the methods of control, accountancy and coercion that so come to be worked out have all that convincing appearance of tangible efficiency that belongs to any mechanically defined and statistically accountable routine, such as will always commend itself to the spirit of the schoolmaster; the temptation to apply such methods of standardized routine wherever it is at all feasible is always present, and it is cogently spoken for by all those to whom drill is a more intelligible conception than scholarship.
             -Thorstein Veblen, 1918

Eric Drooker painting

Every freshman sees it, as do seniors at their graduation. In 1935 a man named Wood Hall was contracted to inscribe the words "Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free" onto the façade of the Tower. However the current residents there, a group of lifetime university bureaucrats and/or corporate veterans who see us, students, as "consumers of university services", have pushed the mantra, the Truth in their eyes, as speed up, which will not set you free, but will make you work much harder.

One could call it an obsession of the university, this drive to push students through faster. Flat-rate tuition, first implemented here in Fall 2002 is a tactic to get you to take more classes through creating financial incentives for taking more hours. And the Board of Regents have noted that one reason for tuition deregulation is to fine-tune their "enrollment management", in other words "get you out faster." In the words of Chancellor Yudof, "the only limits are our [the Regents and administration's] creativity" (The Daily Texan 6/4/03). One idea is to raise tuition when you become a senior so you won't want to hang around and take extra classes.

The latest and a truly blatant attempt to control a students pace and educational life is the recently released Report of the Task Force on Enrollment Strategy. The blood and guts of this Report is Recommendation A. which would limit how long students can be enrolled at UT to 10 long semesters, thus compelling them to not only take more classes per semester (the Task Force suggests 15 hrs), but lock you into a major. Since your time at UT is running out you'll think twice about changing it.

Many of the other recommendations will work in concert with this. For example Recommendation F., makes changing your major even within your own college more difficult. Currently if you're in the liberal arts college you can typically switch majors within your college online. If this recommendation goes through you'll have to get your Dean's permission and peel through a layer or more of university burnt orange tape possibly to be denied.

Another proposal is an attack on honors students or those who aspire to be. Upping the hours you must take to be designated as "honors" from 12 to 15 hours is not only classist, since it benefits students from wealthy background who can take more hours and not work or work less than it is for a lower to middle income student, but makes thesis writing for honors students more difficult.

In sum this Report is window into at least one aspect of UT's administrative strategy of control of students. Even though Faulkner has allowed for 45 days of public input before making a decision on the Report's proposals he has said already "it [the Report] will guide the development of the University for decades to come" (On Campus 2/27/04). What is this strategy and why the obsession to speed students up?

According to the morality reigning here, the demands are quite different; what is required above all is 'rapid education,' so that a money-earning creature may be produced with all speed; there is even a desire to make this education so thorough that a creature may be reared that will be able to earn a great deal of money. Men are allowed only the precise amount of culture which is compatible with the interests of gain; but that amount, at least, is expected from them.
             -Friedrich Nietzsche, 1872

To understand the rationality behind speed up we need to explore the ideas behind mass higher education in the United States. For the sake of brevity I'll mention the work of Nobel Laureate and Economics Professor Gary Becker as a salient moment in this history.

Becker's human capital theory is basically the idea that investment in education would lead to higher worker productivity leading to greater profits and thus economic growth. Policy makers latched onto this theory and mass higher education was the result of heavy state investment in higher ed. The work of being a student is the unwaged (you may even say negatively waged since you're paying) work of becoming a worker through the training, disciplining and socializing processes of school. Nowadays this is being espoused on a global level, for example the World Bank's report called Constructing Knowledge Societies: New Challenges for Tertiary Education (2002).

A document produced in 2000 by the RAND corporation, a private think tank, highlights this relationship in Texas. The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board contracted RAND to provide an analysis of Texas higher education and provide a blueprint for Texas universities. In a report entitled, Achieving the Texas Higher Education Vision, RAND articulates a strategy that illuminates the thinking of the Task Force on Enrollment Strategy.

With section titles like "Linking Higher Education to Labor Markets" the RAND Report is very straightforward and demystifies what the Task Force means when they say they seek faster graduation rates for the sake of "quality education" and competing with peer institutions. It is to churn out workers faster and more disciplined for business interests.

Although tuition deregulation will allow administrators to better tweak graduation rates its not enough for them. Tuition increases can only go so far (unfortunately we're not at the limit yet because we keep accepting it) because UT must remain somewhat accessible, at least to the upper middle class. However as the poor and middle class get flushed out of UT and replaced by the rich, there are diminishing returns to using tuition as a mechanism for making students take more classes and work harder.

Instead of pursuing a progressive strategy the administration wants to make the university more coercive to deal with students who take their time. Any pretense that students are consumers and the university is not a factory is stripped away now. We're working, albeit unwaged, and they're planning on speed up.

Cognitive dissonance marks the rationalizations of the Task Force on Enrollment Strategy's chair, Isabella Cunningham advertising professor and wife of former UT Chancellor 'Dollar' Bill Cunningham. While explaining how she wants to straitjacket you into a major and make UT into a diploma mill, she refers to you as a consumer, "shopping around". Calling you "output" and citing statistics from our competing social factories (other universities) she wants us to work harder to produce ourselves as well-disciplined intellectual workers, well-prepared for 50 years of cubicle hell. But of course in her vernacular we've consumed university services, as if we're simply empty vessels being "filled" up with knowledge that we are buying.

Students are paying not only to work, but with their mental health as well. According to an APA study using the University of Kansas as a case study, clinical depression has doubled among college students to 40%, use of psychiatric medication has risen from 10% to 25%, and the student suicide rates have tripled. The predominant reasons for the increases in student depression cited in this study were issues like stress and debt. By denying people control of their lives and overworking them, this is what you get.

Though hidden behind a veneer of improving the quality of education, the overall effect of these policies will significantly diminish the quality of education offered at UT - unless you define a quality education as linking education to labor markets, as some administrators do. The key attributes of a quality education are access to educational resources and student control over what they choose to study. While some students may thrive under intensive course and workloads, others learn best when they have the time and energy to explore UT and ruminate on the material. The point is that students should control their own education, its pace and content.

We as students, as human beings are under attack by the university, the state and by capital. We're not doing what they want us to do and they're on the offensive. While we pay skyrocketing tuition and fees, justified by the ideology of the student as a consumer/investor, they limit our control over our lives and work us harder.

On March 4th 300 Yale grad students rallied against similar proposals to speed them up through limiting the time they can spend at school. UT students can reject these proposals as well. Students "ARE the university," as Professor Mallet said at UT's inauguration in 1883, and we can shut it down or refuse their disciplining if we're not getting what we want. The university needs us, but we don't need it.

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Schwellenbach, Nick and Alcott, Callison. "Speeding Up the Students: UT as a Factory". April 2004. Issue. Vol. 1. No. 5. Page 7.