Sunday, December 21, 2008

Proposal for a New Model University of the Humanities


a. In the past 30 yrs., a caste of administrators has usurped control of higher education. Using the ideology of free-market fundamentalism, a cadre of management professionals has garnered to itself the lion's share of revenues (from skyrocketing tuition costs, which these same admins initiated), and political influence (from contributions, corporate partnerships, and cronyism).

b. As a result, the profession is over 50% "part-time" faculty who teach twice as much as do their "full time" colleagues, for a fifth of the pay, with no benefits. That percentage is growing all the time.

c. A certain kind of distance learning program (but by no means all distance learning programs) has contributed to the outsourcing, downsizing, de-skilling, and degradation of the professoriate. These are based on the use of mandatory pre-recorded courseware content; over-regulated syllabi; and wages that are even further below the poverty-line than those you're paid for adjuncting live.

a. In "good" schools, as few as 10% of those who teach undergraduates are tenured faculty; since tenure is a vetting process, this seems disadvantageous to the clientele since they pay to be taught by persons who are unvetted in this regard, many of whom still lack the PhD and are quite new (sometimes, utterly new) to teaching. Tuition costs are astronomical at such institutions.

b. Wherever you go to college, online or live (but especially live), the cost is huge. Little of it goes to the people who do the actual teaching; it goes to pay enormous salaries to presidents and provosts and deans. Their job is to raise money and spend it on everything except paying faculty or lowering tuition. Construction projects, stock schemes, personal enrichment, sports arenas, endowment building, whatever. That's why tuition is so high.


Neither conferring degrees nor seeking accreditation, the New Model University of the Humanities requires minimal administrative staff. It is structured not like a corporation, but like a religious institution whose membership pay dues on a sliding scale; or like a nonprofit psychotherapy clinic that doesn't require health insurance. Administrators keep today's universities going in several ways, chiefly by keeping them accredited, so as to add value to the degrees they confer, maintaining the demand for what the university is selling. Employers do seem to sort resumes, and only consider those with such college degrees. But the jobs---in these days of expensive energy, automation, labor arbitrage, NAFTA, financial collapse, and disruptions from climate change---have become too few compared the the annual graduating class, so that the average of the value of the degree has gone down. That value may even be negative, given the enormous debt load that comes with the degree. 

Since the quality of the teaching is the whole point of the New Model University of the Humanities, it strives to employ dynamic teachers with: broad knowledge that is also deep in one or more areas; a special brilliance in the classroom; a passion for some set of texts that he or she loves to teach. Web video clips convey this to the public at large (should the internet fail, reputation reverts to word-of-mouth and personal experience). For the first generation of faculty hiring, PhD holders will be preferred at NMUH for the following reasons. First, within the current state of affairs the PhD is (still) an effective vetting mechanism in that it represents a quantity of work, stamina, commitment, interest, and knowledge, within a domain. Second, many of those who hold a PhD were, in various ways, misled into believing that an eventual tenure track job would redeem the huge cost of the degree. Such jobs no longer arise, and the existing ones are grandfathering out. So the doctoral degree is part of a currently unjust system with diminishing returns, an old system breaking down. Later in the process, NMUH's faculty recruitment policy will drop the PhD requirement when other criteria emerge.

Chief expenses are Faculty salaries, Staff, rent, heat, telecom, supplies, and insurance. As a non-profit New Model U. can apply for grants, cultivate individual donors, and fundraise using events and so on. On the other end, calculate price points effectively and invest in social network advertising instead of agency ads and broadcasting. We offer a deep humanities education, at a fraction of the price you'd pay for a comparable experience at a degree-granting institution. If-and-when the economy so crashes as to become de-monetized, pay the professor with a plucked chicken and a basket of yams.

The word "academic" comes not from RAND corporation or Harvard; it comes from Plato and his companions and students gathering in the sacred grove of Academus, a legendary hero of myth, to talk and think together. At the New Model University of the Humanities, the faculty will have the opportunity to teach whatever texts they find rewarding and appropriate, with a central 100 books forming a common pool from which faculty are encouraged---but not required---to draw.

Unlike even the best distance learning program, this university provides the embodied experience of fellowship in study. By gathering to honor a text with interpretive attention, we fulfill the unconscious social needs of the primates we are, to be in the presence of other human beings as we grow and learn. It also permits the professor to model for the students the figure of the lifelong learner, who is motivated by sheer fascination. Though the scheme for NMUH might prove lucrative, especially after some time to learn from mistakes and develop the institution, the likelihood is that its paying clientele would be limited, at least in the beginning, with revenue likewise limited, but offset by grants, individual donors (and, should the place find itself securely in the black, shareholders---investors without votes, participation in university governance, budgets, curriculum, or policy).

Assignments are made available; students are free to do them and faculty are happy to grade them, but they aren't required. For students, this means the end of anxiety. For faculty, this means we'll be grading papers fewer in number and higher in quality, with no more vacant papers that stink of duress.

All access. No registering for courses. The courses are chosen by faculty, generally within a group of 100 texts; the current courses and texts are posted, online and on the premises. Visitors pay a small per diem admission fee; members pay monthly dues on a sliding scale. Students simply show up (on time, if at all possible) at any course the university has going, for whichever class sessions they choose. Once a student has studied the Core Hundred, his or her membership is free. Naturally, only a fraction of the people who come through the door will be trying to read the whole Core Hundred.

Faculty will teach at least one text from the Core Hundred per course. Beyond this, faculty are at liberty to add whatever other texts or other instruction they choose.

Students who have completed the study of the Core Hundred, and written a thesis, are offered the opportunity to apply for a teaching position.

Can the person bring in students? Anybody who, according to our committee, has got the first criterion down is free to join us and give the second one a shot. If he or she can pay the bills by bringing in new members and/or guests, so much the better! If not, no harm no foul. This is not competition, though it does work like a marketplace in that tuition money is to be secured by word of mouth, advertising, networking, the faculty's ability to promote their own brand -- and the brand NMUH -- and the faculty's ability to earn contributions from the attendees and members by delivering compelling lectures; asking interesting questions; treating everyone with the utmost courtesy at all times; and answering student questions with knowledge.

The "Core Hundred" could be selected by the following process. A group of people who want to try launching and maintaining a New Model University for the Humanities assembles in a room. Each professor brings a list of the hundred texts he or she most wishes to teach. The hundred texts with the most nominations become the current Core Hundred. Faculty are by no means limited to teaching the resulting hundred texts. As personnel changes, every four years a new text election will be held, resulting in a new list that reflects the will of the current faculty.

IF THIS PROJECT INTERESTS YOU and you want to explore the possibilities of a collaboration, please contact me at See also


  1. those must have been some cookies!

  2. Jamey Hecht said, "Each Professor is a dynamic teacher with a PhD and a special brilliance in the classroom."

    Dynamic, yes. Brilliant, yes. PhD, well, um, maybe.

    I'm trying to think of a PhD at my community college who's a brilliant, dynamic teacher. I'm coming up with two names, and I'm not sure one of them actually holds a PhD. I think she's ABD.

    On the other hand, I can click off a list of people with MAs who are stellar humanities teachers.

    I have an MA myself. I also have a Phi Beta Kappa key and other academic baubles on my resume. Decades ago, I walked away from a PhD program after watching my peers fall into smaller and smaller, often dubious niches. I have never regretted my decision.

    For many upper level classes, a PhD can be crucial. But for most humanities classes, an MA or even a BA and passion, both for teaching and the subject, will be plenty.

  3. I pretty much agree that the PhD requirement is a little flaky. Don't think that the rot collecting in the University only affects post doctorates. A lot of people bail the rotting system before they get their PhD.

  4. I have an Associates degree in Art, a BFA in Interior Design, and my MA in Arts Journalism was an absolute perfect fit for my interests and experience as well as an incredibly beneficial experience for myself and my skills. I'm an incredible presence in the classroom. Virtually perfect scores from student evaluation. However, I have a "professional" Master's rather than an academic degree, so I was shut out of any PHD programs because I didn't earn a totally dry and mostly irrelevant degree in Media Studies. still, I can see your need to at least tip your hat toward conventional standards.

    The thing you don't address, though, is what value this degree will have for the students. I suppose it might be so cheap that they can pursue it simply for the love of learning, which is, of course the best reason. Realistically, though, few people have the leisure for that, and most see the project of college education as at least partly being a means for financial gain. Especially in a world of shady for profit diploma mills, a mere pretty engraved parchment is looked on sceptically, at best, by HR directors. with no accreditation, how do you prove the worth of your education?

  5. The very first sentence about this thing says there WON'T be a degree awarded: "Neither conferring degrees nor seeking accreditation, the New Model University of the Humanities requires minimal administrative staff."

    In response to the previous comments, I thought NMUH would begin with a PHD requirement for faculty which would then be phased out. Why even begin with it? Because the poor bastards who put in all the time and effort and money to earn a largely useless PhD would get first crack, as a tiny bit of prosocial remediation of their predicament. I explained in the post that it is also a decent vetting mechanism, though not a very good one. The point is not this little issue of faculty screening; it's the big issue of low-cost humanities education with decent faculty pay.


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