Presentation, discussion explore higher education

On Thursday Nov. 17, Activities Commission Contemporary Forum hosted a discussion on higher education, led by political scientist and Queens College professor Andrew Hacker and New York Times contributor and Columbia University adjunct associate professor Claudia Dreifus.

The presentation reflected the book co-written by Hacker and Dreifus, titled Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids – and What We Can Do About It, and focused on what Dreifus and Hacker perceive to be the lost meanings and missions of higher education.

Dreifus and Hacker opened the lecture by commending Geneseo and the students' choice of a public liberal arts education.

"Just spending the day here keeps the ideal of what schools ought to be – a community of people working together to provide our young people with information," Dreifus said.

The lecture focused on the rising costs of private university tuition and the increasing amount of loans that students take out.

"The idea has been jaded in people's [minds] that private has somehow become better, but the private colleges have long decided to charge whatever they want," Dreifus said. "So over and over again, people were told, ‘Take out all the loans you want, it will pay for itself in the long run.'"

"One of the things about higher education is that it's something that we love," Hacker said. "And yet, it's gone very wrong and people have not examined it very much."

"We're seeing that the cost of private education has gone so high that it probably isn't economic that you can pay it off quickly or, in some cases, at all," Dreifus said.

She continued as she compared private education to a handbag. "What does a Louis Vuitton purse say to the world?" she asked rhetorically. "It says that I can afford to blow a thousand dollars on a plastic bag."

As the lecture pinpointed the alleged problems of higher education, Dreifus and Hacker emphasized the increasing, and what they saw as unnecessary, pressure on professors to complete research.

"Colleges are frequently judging faculty for their research," Dreifus said. He added that teaching and research "are not complimentary things; they're very separate activities and they don't necessarily bleed into each other."

When Dreifus and Hacker opened the discussion to the audience, students, professors and administrative members contributed their thoughts and opinions, particularly on the pair's dismay for both tenured instructors and the stressed importance of research in higher education.

"The best teaching is always informed by a solid understanding of the subject matter being taught," English department chair Paul Schacht said. "Professors who are engaged in research are likely to understand that subject matter better than those who aren't."

"Take [English professor] Ron Herzman … publishing away and doing above and beyond for his students all the time," English professor Rob Doggett added. "I know people at Geneseo who are coasting, and I can understand the point you're making, but we're employed by a school that is held by a state legislature that constantly looks at our faculty."

Dreifus and Hacker shared their disheartenment in the high number of adjuncts, saying that tenured professors "eat up the academic budget," and described adjuncts as the "migrant farm workers of academia."

"The sole concern … should be the pursuit of truth and the free exploration of ideas," Schacht said, adding that without tenure, fewer risks would be taken.

"[Instructors] need to be insulated from the vagaries of politics and the marketplace so that they can concern themselves solely with understanding and interpreting the law," he said.

"We need, perhaps, long-term contracts and maybe a few less perks and rewards for the tenures and a little more for the casual labor to equalize them," Dreifus said.