Hard Times at the Research University (Part 1)

branding the microscopic at Tufts

As Sam puts it over at Selil, Research Universities hurting for money at the moment are in a sore predicament of their own design. In the hunt for capital via the generation of intellectual property, they’ve de-emphasized education among the more patent-ready sectors of campus. As an investment in a possible patent-heavy future, Universities freed professors from teaching, hired more staff, appointed more deans and administrators, established more infrastructure.

But even if in a few cases these funding strategies succeeded, there’s not much venture capital left to continue supporting such efforts. Now they’re left holding a pricey enterprise, heavy on personnel and technical maintenance, and light on support in education, their most dependable source of income.

If the Research University is now more poorly equipped to support education than it was ten years ago, now consider that few to no researchers have been acquainted with teaching methodologies. Most of us simply try to teach in ways that correct the mistakes of our teachers. Those who have been trained in teaching struggle with how to assess learning outcomes in a meaningful way. And since that’s a tall order, assessment tends to take over the conversation, at the expense of attention to meaning and value.

For one last strand of the knot, consider how the integration of networked computing into the classroom tends to be driven more by the product than the need. Most instructors find themselves with more of the technologies they don’t need, and less of the ones that they require. Many just cave and try out the new tools without a context for understanding their impact. And then stuff breaks. Often.

That’s the big picture, and not a bright one. Now let’s zoom in on Art in the struggling Research University.

I suspect that the Visual Arts first made their way onto most research campuses via the undergraduate curricula – especially in the case of state or land-grant institutions. At worst an area of study seen fit for women, and at best a means of class-education, plenty of early art curricula likely emphasized the transference of classical skills and knowledge, toward the end of producing cultured citizens. If Universities were mobilized as research enterprises during World War II and the Cold War, the arts hardly caught up in this regard before the 1970’s. By that decade, aesthetic modernism had established itself in America as a conflicted source of national pride, and a resource for innovation in the design of objects and spaces. More artists began to identify college teaching as a viable career. Those in the Research centers likely had to fight to be included in the tenure process. To do so, artists pointed to the newly formed MFA as the field’s terminal degree. Artists could be researchers too, it seemed, and there was a degree to prove it.

Since then, art has seen a generally rising arc of legitimacy on the research campus. Through the 80’s and 90’s, Contemporary Art institutions grew to be a valuable part of metropolitan tourist economies; more art professors in search of tenure could point to recognition by legitimate (famous) institutions. As campus public relations officers grew more savvy to the power of branding in support of funding and recruitment, public recognition for art professors found a niche in the “human interest” press release for local media. Meanwhile, the languages of product and print design found more followers among savvy shoppers; campus administrators saw both a tuition cash cow and a new economic relevance for Visual Art in the Design BFA .

All of this added up to a nice little gravy train, a rare instance in American capitalism of artists living the subsidized life. Some artists drew from the University’s resources to support their production of gallery sale-able objects. For other artists, the promise of job security facilitated deeper investigation of art forms with otherwise little capital value. Meanwhile, artists from deeper within the commercial art complex looked to these research centers as retreats, destinations for the replenishment of prestige and other carnal needs.

This arc of increased legitimation and opportunity for artists on research campuses has paralleled the dispersal of contemporary art markets and critical conversations across a mind-numbing range of disconnected sub-disciplines. The result is a plurality of disconnected criteria for evaluating success. 30 years after the MFA found legitimation as a terminal degree, peer-review for tenure-track art professors looks ever more like the older sibling of undergraduate grade-inflation. What does it mean to demonstrate commendation within an international range of institutions that are less than ten years old? How does publication or favorable critical review rate when such reviews are chiefly responsible for the promotion of sale-able objects and real estate? Even with the rapidly increasing number of MFA degrees granted each year nationally, plenty of conference panels are clamoring for presenters, supported by the convention tourist industry. For that matter, plenty of non-profit spaces and publications are all-too-happy to host an exhibition by an artist whose home institution can help defray costs.

Meanwhile, the postmodern pablum that serves as conventional wisdom for undergraduate art education has found its way to the mainstream. As freshmen and sophomores, art students are coaxed into the subjective life, rewarded for their analysis of all things as “constructed” – their part is only to critique, not to invent, imagine, or judge. If this value-neutral and universally critical stance once pushed artists to the social margins, now it’s enough to get you hired at Viacom. So today’s art researchers can congratulate themselves for teaching ahead of the curve – they are the bearers of great creative capital.

Of course these researchers are far from typical on campus – their particular brand of identification with subjectivity tends to keep them clear from accountability. Where tenure was designed to serve as a catalyst to disciplinary debate, growth, and destruction, artists can easily evade scrutiny by identifying with ever-smaller vanguards. It’s the nature of the art market that styles and languages seek to outmode those which come before. So it’s not uncommon to find untenured faculty speaking in an institutionally-approved language that is unintelligible to peers only five years their senior.

So let’s review the already fraught situation of the artist-professor in the American research university, before we move to identify her more recent plight in the money-starved version of the American research-university.

  1. Art departments, though growing in reputability on research campuses, still fight for minimal budgets compared to that of their PhD-holding, corporately sponsored peers. This promotes an embattled atmosphere, and resignation to accept substandard conditions.
  2. Criteria for tenure count commercial gallery success as equivalent to peer review.
  3. Even the more traditional forms of peer review take place within ever-smaller and more ephemeral disciplinary subsets.
  4. As faculty within the same department share few to no common references or critical criteria, there is little basis for common decisions about tenure/promotion or curricula. Interpersonal politics prevail, internal suspicion flourishes.
  5. The appeal of “interdisciplinary” curricula seems obvious in light of the pluralistic, fractured nature of artistic practice. The inability of peers to relevantly review one another’s work suggests the need for some new ways of talking across discplines. Yet hardly any artist has been trained in how to construct or lead such an effort, and the disciplines themselves aren’t clear enough to interconnect. Additionally, these administratively-heavy initiatives take time away from studio practice, time not rewarded in the tenure process on a campus where research is king. This leaves departments to be led by the few tenured faculty who, for whatever reason, have little to lose by sinking countless hours into disorganized and uninformed efforts at imitating lateral thinking and efficient institutional process.
  6. Changing expectations of education among students require that art instructors wrestle more than ever with the balance of quantitative skill transmission and qualitative critical dialogue in the classroom. Students of the No-Child-Left-Behind era are expecting the former more than the latter, and administrators are listening, especially when it comes to recruitment and evaluation.

So what are we to do?

Admittedly, a tenure-track or tenured gig at a Research University is still a sweet deal by any measure. Plenty of artists I know and respect are well aware of the fraught nature of their charge in these positions, and see their jobs as the latest in a long tradition of art mooching – today’s Research Universities are a sort of patron to artists. We know the de Medicis as well as the Michaelangelos, the MIT’s as well as the John Maedas.

We all pick our battles, and steward our resources. Plenty of responsible artists simply fall in step with the clumsy rhythms of this machine, and turn their attention elsewhere when it comes to pushing for equity, justice, fairness, sustainability. But I still have some questions:

1 – Will the current picture last?
2 – What sort of stance does it take to live with this for the long term?
3 – If this picture lacks integrity, how could it be different?

More on these questions later.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *