Change and Crisis in Universities: Research, Education, and Equity in Uncertain Times (Spring, 2018)

Ruth Milkman (The Graduate Center, Sociology)
Katherine Chen (City College and The Graduate Center, Sociology)

Tuesdays, 4:15pm
Course Number: IDS 81640 and SOC 74400; Cross-listed with UED 75200 [CRN #38090]

This course examines conditions that foster and hinder diversity at an institution where our faculty and students learn and work: the university. While teaching substantive content, we also model various teaching methods, including how to handle “hot” issues in the classroom and how to experiment with pedagogical techniques designed to maximize the potential of all students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. This course explores the transformation of people’s everyday experiences at universities, as well as within society. We discuss the burgeoning literature on recent trends affecting universities, with special attention to how those trends exacerbate inequality along class, race/ethnicity and gender lines.

For over eight centuries, universities have served to advance knowledge; recently, their ranks and mission have expanded to include far more diverse interests and populations. But contemporary universities face multiple challenges. Particularly at public universities, austerity budgets have fostered skyrocketing tuition and student debt. Tenure-track faculty lines have eroded as contingent academic employment balloons. On-line teaching and virtual communication have expanded access but also raised concerns about the quality of higher education, student retention rates, and instructors’ workload. Social media has extended scholarship’s reach while eliciting greater scrutiny and trolling.

All these developments reflect the growing hegemony of a market logic emphasizing competition, limited state action, and entrepreneurialism. Universities are pressured to produce employable graduates even as the quality of jobs available deteriorates. Organizational rationalization captures faculty “productivity” in numbers of articles and books published, publication rankings and citations made, funding received, and sizes of classes taught. Meanwhile, vital work that sustains academia – service to the institution and profession, teaching, advising, and mentoring – disproportionally done by women and underrepresented minorities – is undervalued. Inequality has widened between elite universities where students have generous support and faculty have vast resources to advance their research and public institutions where students and faculty must “do more with less.”

As faculty ranks diversify with women and minority scholars, work-family issues and double standards of faculty evaluation are increasingly salient. Despite universities’ commitment to diversity, disadvantaged racial and ethnic groups remain underrepresented, especially among faculty. Students too encounter challenges, with contention about diversity and its meanings, microaggressions and harassment, discrimination, assaults, and violence roiling some campuses. Budget cuts threaten institutional support for the disadvantaged, truncating their life chances.

With these challenges, various countermovements seek to transform universities. Some university scholars have advocated “slow” scholarship, resisting organizational rationalization and technological alienation with values emphasizing quality and connection. At other universities, faculty and students have protested tuition increases, student debt, and work conditions. Adjuncts and other contingent faculty, as well as graduate students, have sought unionization to advance their interests. Students have demanded protections and attention to diversity issues.

No one has a greater stake in understanding the crisis of universities than GC graduate students. Most work as adjuncts and already encounter the challenges outlined above. Graduates all over who are fortunate enough to secure academic jobs are entering a vastly different academic workplace than their predecessors did. This course helps re-imagine possibilities for all.


The Futures Initiative
The Graduate Center, CUNY
365 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10016-4309