Sunday, November 16, 2014

UNLV and the Multiversity

The term “Multiversity” first gained widespread recognition when Berkeley Chancellor and University of California President Clark Kerr used it to describe the institution he saw evolving before his eyes up and down the Pacific Coast, across a growing number of campuses responsible for a growing number of students and home to a growing number of faculty researchers and teachers.
Kerr described the Multiversity as a “‘pluralistic’ institution—pluralistic in several senses: in having several purposes, not one; in having several centers of power, not one; in serving several clienteles, not one.  It worshiped no single God, it constituted no single, unified community; it had no discretely defined set of customers.  It was marked by many visions of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, and by many roads to achieve these visions; by power conflicts; by service to many markets and concern for many publics” (2001: 103).
Although Kerr always positioned himself as the Multiversity’s describer rather than its defender, it is hard to argue that the transformative higher education leader did not, ultimately, embrace the beast that emerged—organically in his argument—under his stewardship.
The University of Nevada, Las Vegas, is attempting to undergo a similar transition today.  To a certain extent, any existing public research university in the United States already has a great deal of the “Multiversity” in its DNA.  But through its Tier 1 initiative, and its search for a new campus President, UNLV is making a conscious effort to position itself as something new in relation to its students, faculty, and community.
A key component of this ambition comes from the University’s relationship to the wider regional and state community and from the aspiration to use UNLV as a means to “stimulate entrepreneurship, job creation, and economic vitality throughout the surrounding region” (UNLV: The Path to Tier 1, Sept. 2014).  This component focuses on increasing research productivity and creating a more utilitarian version of the University, and is connected to the widely-recognised need of the state and regional economy to diversify.
The second major component required for Tier 1 status is to retain students and improve graduation times and rates, while improving the general “student experience” on campus.
Elements of these ambitions are reminiscent of the transformation that the University of California was undergoing fifty years ago as the state and university were buoyed by new connections to the military-industrial complex, and by the efforts of a visionary state government comprehensively committed to expanding and enriching the public sphere, something that helped to keep UC focused—although not as much as some would have liked—on its public mission to students as well as the state’s economy.
UC’s transformation and UNLV’s efforts to remake itself are expensive processes, requiring sustained effort and investment.  Even in 1950s and ‘60s California, under public works promoter Pat Brown, there were losers in such a process.
Many students, even before the Free Speech Movement gripped the Berkeley campus, were restive in the face of the changes sweeping their institution.  Many felt that they were the victims of the transition from a “university” to a “Multiversity”, and criticized the ways in which the teaching mission became divorced from and subordinated to the imperatives to produce research.  Campus units were seen as under-resourced, and there were divisions about the priorities given certain disciplines relative to others.
In contrast to public universities of the 1960s, UNLV is not the recipient of generous public funding, being located in a state defined by highly-individualistic politics anathema to more than cursory consideration of the common good, a politics which might change as the state’s population stabilizes and there are increasing numbers of multi-generation “Nevadan” families.  Nor is tuition free in 2010s Nevada as it was in California until the 1970s when Ronald Reagan introduced it at UC to punish the students against whom he crusaded with such physical and structural violence as Governor.  It strikes me as being a perilous political-economic environment in which to pursue ambitions which are in other respects often commendable.
As they develop their plans and search for a President, UNLV’s leadership will be aware of these challenges associated of making a costly transition to Tier 1 in a lean environment informed by public austerity in spite of the region’s great private wealth.  And it does so as an institution which, because of reduced public funding, rising tuition, and the need to depend on philanthropy, is already in some ways moving down the road to privatization.
Here too, developments at the University of California offer some points of comparison.  Rising tuition has terribly over-burdened that system’s comparatively affluent student body.  The increases in tuition which seem likely to accompany Tier 1 (and I’ve heard voices say that current tuition levels at UNLV somehow “undervalue” the institution, and should be raised to enhance its profile) will place a greater burden on UNLV’s more diverse student body in a way that might very well compromise efforts at improving retention and completion.
The separation between teaching and research that is slowly occurring at UC—particularly in STEM fields—together with the increased burden placed on faculty in institutions which are expanding their capacities and ambitions in spite of inadequate resources means that students struggle to gain access to research faculty and the opportunities that come with such access, and are increasingly taught by adjunct faculty.  Those faculty are often superb teachers, but are victims of academic casualization and in many instances have to survive on woefully inadequate wages.
Many top departments at UC see retaining large numbers of graduate students as central to their prestige and to supporting faculty research (again, particularly in STEM fields).  Many have persisted in doing so in spite of dire job markets.  This practice, common across research universities, leads to a glut of graduate students on the academic market in particular, doing a disservice to students who are often lured into academia without anyone having an honest conversation with them about the state of the market and field.  One part of the Tier 1 push at UNLV involves increasing the number of graduate students.  The reasoning is that southern Nevada suffers from a shortage of highly-skilled labour.  I assume that Tier 1 proponents have taken into account the fact that local graduates will be competing with a national market that is not in every instance experiencing such a shortage (particularly in the absence of public investment in venues for skilled labour).  Nevada, Clark County, and Las Vegas should not be assumed to be captive markets for UNLV graduates.
In listening to presidential candidates last week I was struck by the range of tones and views of the process, and of the anxieties associated with the search and the transition to Tier 1.
Students asked about tuition increases and their role in what might effectively become a Multiversity.  Faculty wondered about the fate of their disciplines in the increasingly utilitarian, short-termist environment that increasingly defines academia, once an environment that encouraged people to think about the long term.  These concerns speak to the capacity—well developed at UC—for the institutional interests and goals of the Multiversity as an institution to diverge wildly from those of core members of its community.
Candidates sought to reassure faculty that when they discussed Tier 1, they meant it as a process for everyone.  One individual cited the need for a transparent process with metrics that allowed all campus units to shine.  But transparency has little to do with equity, and metrics for measuring performance are not neutral.  Their provenance matters and many of the metrics that increasingly define the higher education sphere in the U.S. and worldwide don’t allow all academic fields to be equally legible.  Their politics ensure that some fields and research endeavors will register at a different rate than others.
Candidates discussed “advancing” the state of Nevada.  But I wonder about the capacity for this if the University proposes to remain dependent on public support.  I’m a newcomer to the state with an admittedly superficial understanding of its demographics and society, but nothing that I’ve seen so far of its libertarian, individual-centred politics indicates much interest in the kind of “advancement” with which a public university could traditionally assist.
But some candidates made it clear that in their view public-affiliation is a liability.  “Self-sufficiency” was one oft-repeated euphemism for privatization.  And some candidates, evincing little understanding of the human element of a public university, or of the intellectual lessons of the humanities and social sciences, discussed the “inevitability” of the privatization and monetization processes, declaring that “there is no going back!”
But of course as historians can tell you, nothing is inevitable.  Changes and processes are driven by political decisions, some conscious, others less so, but all of them to some degree contingent on politics.  The ability of an institution like a university to affect that politics may be limited, but it is dishonest to suggest that history rolls inexorably towards a harsher less equitable world.
Clark Kerr invoked this same logic in describing the Multiversity, describing it as “an imperative rather than a reasoned choice among elegant alternatives.  Kerr was more honest when he described the Multiversity as “based more on conflict and on interaction” than its predecessor institutions (2001: 5, 106), because such is the logic of the market which then as now was seen as a juggernaut to be ridden rather than resisted.
But Kerr was not content to defang his critics with the Whiggish reading of history that obscured the agency of politics and political actors.  He simultaneously aimed to extirpate what he saw as the inappropriate “nostalgia” and “romantic dreams” of “a campus community of close-knit friends engaged in collegiate activities”.  No longer was it acceptable to be engaged in “surveying the world and its evils and wishing to set them aright” in his new Multiversity, an institution that now resembled a “city of great variety”.  “Nostalgia”, he wrote, “is for the very old and dreams are for the very young, not for those navigating the swiftly-flowing currents of life” (2003: 22).
The insistence that the age of dreams is dead and that we must choose between being victims of or proselytizers for events beyond our control is dispiriting, and designed to incapacitate critics of particular politics and particular trends.  It is an age-old tactic, but one which, whatever you think of Tier 1 (and there is much good in the aspirations behind the push), seems appalling to deploy in universities, which many of us think of institutions where people can and must remain free to dream…not because universities are removed from the world, but because they offer glimpses of its future, whether in the students they are charged with nurturing, or in the work they do to make that world a more bearable, just place.
In many ways, the discussions on campus of the past week are a reminder that in Nevada as in California, a fait accompli of sorts is occurring in higher education when it comes to privatization and the long-term trajectory of these institutions.  Lots of big decisions are occurring, quietly and in some cases by default.  In some instances this has to do with the character of administrators and the nature of decision-making.  In others it has to do with a political environment that administrators, faculty, staff, students, and parents are unwilling to challenge. 
And it nearly always has something to do with a discussion of institutional change that focuses on what their proponents describe as objective process rather than on the small-p “politics” that produces those processes and makes them weighted with significance for the future of our institutions and society. 
If changes are going to occur, particularly in some of our society’s most treasured public institutions, it seems as though those should be as a result of frank, honest, and very public conversations, not by default or as a result of public quiescence. 
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Clark Kerr, The Uses of the University (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001).

Clark Kerr, The Gold and the Blue (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).

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