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University-as-Factory: Taylorism and Fordism Redux

[The Atlantic] — The June issue of The Atlantic, now on the newsstands, contains an essay by an anonymous Professor X who takes us down “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower.” For students at “colleges of last resort,” the author says, higher education “was not a goal they spent years preparing for, but a place they landed in. Those I teach don’t come up in the debates about adolescent overachievers and cutthroat college admissions. Mine are the students whose applications show indifferent grades and have blank spaces where the extracurricular activities would go.” Professor X concludes that the universities admitting these students, often into evening and weekend classes taught by adjunct instructors, are running a scam. Many of the students don’t have any prospect of succeeding, and the university knows this, but since they are a valuable source of revenue no one wants to rock the boat. On the model of “predatory lending,” call it predatory admissions.

There are points in the essay I would argue with, and the author’s discouragement isn’t tempered by any recommendation of a way forward. But one passage in the piece deserves special notice, because it echoes the ideas expressed here just a few days ago about the need for a Global War on Taylorism:

Adult education, nontraditional education, education for returning students—whatever you want to call it—is a substantial profit center for many colleges. Like factory owners, school administrators are delighted with this idea of mounting a second shift of learning in their classrooms, in the evenings, when the full-time students are busy with such regular extracurricular pursuits of higher education as reading Facebook and playing beer pong. If colleges could find a way to mount a third, graveyard shift, as Henry Ford’s Willow Run did at the height of the Second World War, I believe that they would.

Taylorism—the industrial philosophy of maximum factory efficiency—is also known as Fordism, from the newly-invented assembly lines of Henry Ford’s auto plants, where humans became interchangeable parts in the great factory-machine.

Second shifts in many universities, and perhaps even third shifts, are indeed driven more by a grasping desire for revenue than they are by any noble prospect of education. The solution to this is to put more people who adhere to academic values, rather than to Tayloristic managerialism, into positions of university leadership. Everyone who desires education should be provided for, but everyone who desires a credential need not be. Being unable to pay down the debt on the football stadium isn’t grounds for hooking unprepared students into second-shift classes that they can pay for but can’t pass; it is grounds for firing the administration.

And if traditional day-students are spending too much time reading Facebook and playing beer pong in the evenings (as some certainly are), could it be because the university-factory has abandoned them? Let’s have faculty—people with teaching experience and a strong academic background—present during the second and third shift, but let’s have them in residence and involved in student life. And in community colleges and similar non-residential institutions, let’s develop strong house systems that knit genuinely determined students—whatever their preparation—together into cohesive and supportive societies that will help them to succeed.

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2021