Genesis 25: 29-34 tells the story of Esau, who in a fit of hunger sells his birthright as first-born son of Isaac to his younger twin Jacob in exchange for some bread and a “pottage” of lentils. “Esau said: ‘Behold, I am at the point to die; and what profit shall the birthright do to me?’” (Genesis 25:32). I was reminded of this story by the recent announcement by Kevin Reilly, the president of the University of Wisconsin system, that the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM), my home institution, intends to provide mostly online “flexible degrees” for working adults: “UWM Chancellor Michael Lovell announced during a news conference Wednesday that UWM will repackage existing courses into mostly online formats for the following Flexible Option degrees: a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in nursing; a bachelor’s degree-completion program in diagnostic imaging; a bachelor of science in Information Science & Technology; and a certificate in Professional and Technical Communication.”
The aim of these flexible degrees, which include partnerships with two-year colleges in the UW system for fulfilling online general education and liberal arts requirements, is to allow working adults (or pretty much anybody) to get a college degree on their own timetable and at a reduced rate: “The new college degrees will be more affordable and accessible for working adults because, in addition to moving at their own pace, students will take only the courses they need. They won’t have to spend time and money on coursework if they can prove through competency testing that they’ve already mastered it.” The motivation for providing these degrees is to provide UWM and other system schools with additional “revenue streams” in an era of severe cutbacks in state support for public education. Like Esau, the UW System is hungry for financial support and may even feel it is “at the point to die.” And sadly, like Esau, the System appears to be willing to sell off its pedagogical birthright, the hard-earned University of Wisconsin heritage of over 150 years, for the pottage of increased tuition from flexible degrees.
While in the short run this increased revenue may look to revenue-hungry UW System administrators like an attractive way to support the core teaching and research missions on their campuses, in the long run the development of flexible degrees, “which will not be differentiated from degrees earned at UW campuses,” will devalue both the importance of embodied classroom education and campus life and the meaning of a University of Wisconsin degree for those who earn it through taking classes in the context of a full-fledged campus experience. At a moment in which college education is increasingly seen (even by university chancellors and system presidents) as providing little more than preparation for the workplace, there will be no real incentive for students to pay more money to follow a coherent curriculum or to live on campus when they can get the same degree more quickly, at their own pace, and for less money. The establishment of “flexible degrees” will only legitimate and accelerate the deskilling of the professoriate, the reduction of tenured faculty members that has been under way since the last decades of the 20th century. By offering college credit for “on-the-job training, military experience or previous coursework,” “including the growing number of MOOCs [taught] through universities such as Harvard and MIT,” these flexible degree programs threaten to supplant the tenured faculty that make up the core of a university’s identity, replacing them with part-time, precarious laborers, which will work in the short run to provide cost-saving in salary and benefits but in the long run to devastate the public research university as we know it.
Perhaps more tragically the move to flexible degrees threatens to preempt or foreclose the possibilities for truly innovative uses of digital technologies in strengthening and transforming the role of higher education in the 21st century. Indeed I want to stress that my opposition to these misguided developments comes not from a nostalgia for a past era but from my own more than 25-year involvement with remaking humanities education in the context of what has been called the digital revolution. At Georgia Tech in the 1990s I helped lead the transformation of the English Department into the School of Literature, Communication, and Culture, through the creation of a Bachelors of Science in Science, Technology, and Culture and a Masters of Science in Information Design and Technology. As Chair of the English Department at Wayne State from 2001-2008, I created a “Digital Literacy Initiative” to ensure that all first-year composition classes at Wayne State also provided their students with education in critical information literacy. In both of these prior positions, I was a strong advocate for the incorporation of new digital media technologies into humanities pedagogy and curriculum.
Since the summer of 2010 I have been Director of UWM’s Center for 21st Century Studies (C21), which leads the way in imagining, defining, and creating the burgeoning field of 21st century studies. In my first semester as C21 Director I delivered an inaugural address on “The Future of 21st Century Studies,” in which I argued for the centrality of new digital modes of research and education in the 21st century university. Indeed it is in my position as director of C21 that the current initiative is most troubling, especially in its unquestioned assumption that flexible degrees represent the way that education must and will develop in the 21st century: “The new flexible degree is ‘the 21st century face of the Wisconsin Idea,’ a guiding principle that education should improve the lives of state residents, [UW System President] Reilly said.” Sadly the decision to design and implement these flexible degrees has been made in the absence of a robust campus (or system-wide) discussion about the wisdom of doing so, a discussion in which faculty, students, staff, and administrators might address questions of the efficacy of such flexible degrees and of their consequences and implications for all facets of the University of Wisconsin System.
In short, while it may be the case that flexible degrees will, like some bread and a pottage of lentils, satisfy for a while the UW System’s economic hunger, they run the risk of doing so at the expense of something much more valuable,its birthright as a great public university system for the State of Wisconsin and its role as a leader in the imagination and transformation of higher education in the 21st century and beyond.