Treason to the Guild
A University of Phoenix ad moves me
Not the University of Phoenix
The University of Phoenix is a joke. Literally, on Arrested Development, it’s a punchline. In real life, Ask A Manager suggests taking a University of Phoenix MBA off your resume. Not a few Web sites describe it as a scam.
So when I say that a University of Phoenix ad made me feel a little bad about my profession (which is professoring), please know that I’m well aware of the school’s reputation.
The ad, which ran during the Chiefs-Raiders game, shows a young single mother getting by with a job on the factory floor…that is quickly being automated out of existence. Her job finally stolen by robots, she reassures her kids that everything will be all right—and it is, because of a University of Phoenix degree that lets her retool to become an IT specialist.
It’s cheesy. It’s shamelessly emotional. It’s even done in a style I can only describe of as “Pixar Rip-Off.” And yet. It’s selling something that—even if Phoenix can’t deliver—a lot of higher education is also selling but not delivering. And, worse, it’s selling something which a lot of the folks working in higher ed would say is antithetical to what people should want but which is plainly what a lot of people do want.
What the Phoenix ad is selling is vocational education as transformational. For a lot of us—for me, at least—it’s easy to forget that education really is empowering. (This is the “could you live on $50,000 a year” of the overeducated.)
There’s nothing new about Phoenix’s tack here. I’ve seen ads for voc-ed degrees promising the same degree of class mobility and respect for decades (hello, ITT Technical Institute ads!). I’m pretty sure that if I’d been alive in the 1880s I would have seen the same basic idea in newspapers advertising business schools (“BACHELORS! Attract the respect of your PEERS and the attentions of LADIES by mastering the new field of STENOGRAPHY”).
It’s the execution of the ad that sells it. And it really challenged me, because I don’t believe in that view of what my own particular corner of higher education should do, which is to engender a love of learning and to push forward the frontiers of knowledge.
There’s nothing in the ad about the joy of knowledge. For the ad, the value of learning is what it brings—a better job, sure, but really a more secure family life and future. Frontiers of knowledge? Nah. This ad works well within the settlements of knowledge—and not even the up-and-coming neighborhood, but the stable suburbs.
Where’s the cutting-edge critiques? Where’s the rigorous methodology? Where’s the debates and writing and—above all—the reading? Where, in short, is the college experience? (Net of all the alcoholic and unsafe parts of the college experience, to be sure.)
Where, in short, is all of the stuff that I worked for a decade to provide? And if you can run a university—okay, a “university”—on that model, uh, who’s going to be paying my salary?
The easy out is, in some ways, the correct answer: none of that applies because people who go to the University of Phoenix don’t want that stuff. If Phoenix students wanted that, they’d go somewhere else. But that raises a more difficult question: exactly how many of the students attending the University of [State Name Here] want something that looks more like that model than what almost all of their faculty think the students should want?
I selfishly worry that universities are at risk (over the coming decades) from the combination of soaring tuition and costs at legacy institutions and the fact that a great many students (and legislators) plainly want something that helps them get into the middle class without all the intellectual frou-frou.
That’s selfish because it’s not exactly student-centered. If students want something more transactional, well, it’s kind of rich for me to lecture them on how they should want something different if the admissions office and billboards are promising them a more socially acceptable version of what the University of Phoenix is offering.
(And that’s before we get into the rest of what Phoenix is offering: flexible, easy, and consumer-centric accessibility of education—something that fits into the life of someone who has a lot of other responsibilities. The standard academic calendar is designed for the sons of the wealthy and it’s really, really hard to make it work for students who are spending a lot of time laboring outside of class.)
This isn’t the kind of essay that ends with a neat resolution. I wish it did. Mostly, it’s a recognition that the people who identify most strongly with institutions don’t get the only vote over how to define them. And just because the debate over what universities should do and be has been enduring doesn’t mean that it will always be resolved in favor of what academics want. (For that matter, though, it might be that academics aren’t wrong about what students should want—just maybe not at $60,000 a year.) Entertaining those thoughts might be treason to the guild, but the guild isn’t what’s most important.