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Convocation Address 2019
David Jaffee headshot

David D Jaffee

Distinguished Professor

Professor Sociology, Anthropology, and Social Work

Arts and Sciences

Recapturing The Lost Promise of Higher Education

Let me begin, by thanking the Faculty Association for this recognition, and those faculty members who supported my nomination.

I would also like to thank my publicist who, just coincidentally, happens to my wife, Marianne Jaffee – for her unconditional support and sage advice on my various academic activities, both conventional and heterodox.   But I must add -- she was also totally convinced that my abrasive personality would make receiving this award absolutely impossible.  This is not what you would expect to hear from your publicist -- but it is probably “par for the course” coming from one’s spouse. 

And, I would also like to personally recognize the other nominee – Chip Klostermeyer – who has a long record of exceptional and exemplary scholarly achievements, and service to UNF – as past president of the FA and now as interim dean of the College of Computing, Engineering, and Construction -- that is more than worthy of this honor.

Finally, I would like to thank and recognize the students -- who make it all worthwhile --   when they exhibit their passionate weirdness, their commitment to social justice and the common good, their intellectual curiosity and, of course, most importantly, their autodidactism.

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Let me just begin by saying that I consider myself fortunate to have landed in sociology, as it fits perfectly with my “glass half empty” approach to life.

And I also regard sociology as the greatest possible academic discipline --  for at least three reasons:

First, there is nothing sociologists haven’t studied, from the mundane to the apocalyptic. This allows us sociologists to easily shift from one area of inquiry to another and, even if engaged in academic administration, to write about the sociology of the always crazy, unpredictable, and disorganized world of university life.

Second, sociology is the most interdisciplinary of the academic disciplines. We have political sociology, economic sociology, social psychology, bio-sociology, mathematical sociology, the sociology of science, the sociology of education, historical sociology, and, even something called planetary sociology. Apparently, sociology is preparing to go where no discipline has gone before.   In short, we proudly encroach upon the territory of every and any other discipline. No wall can prevent these disciplinary border crossings and territorial incursions.

And third, in our discipline we have what is called “public sociology”. Public sociology is a recognized and legitimate scholarly approach within the discipline, that encourages academics to take what they study and research, and make it public, outlining the political implications, through various media venues in order to shape public awareness and public policy. Thus, we sociologists do not have to assume the academic guise of objective indifference when it comes to matters of the human condition.

During my academic career I have tried my best to take full advantage of these three unique features of sociology.

But I am not here to engage in disciplinary chauvinism. The virtues of sociology speaks for themself.

Instead, I should first note that most of my career as a sociologist has been devoted to acritical analysis of institutions and socio-economic arrangements.  And I feel it is only appropriate to continue that practice here today.

So, in the spirit of that sociological tradition, I would like to direct my critical comments to the institutional setting in which we find ourselves today, and in which I have been fortunate to have a rewarding career – the institution of higher education.  While I am personally content with the comfort and privilege that accompanies the position of full professor, this cannot preclude a sober assessment of the current state of the academy.

So, in the words of Henry David Thoreau, "As the time is short, I will leave out all the flattery, and retain all the criticism.”

I offer these observations as an institutional auto-critique – of the institution I am a part of, of a university I belong to, and of the faculty I am a member of, and of my own role as a faculty member. Let me make one thing clear at the outset, I do not in any way hold myself immune, above, or apart from the many shortcomings that I will identify. These are complicated issues that concern me greatly, and with which I continually struggle.

The university, the academy, stands as a unique institution in its espoused value for intellectual enrichment, free exchange of ideas, and the promotion of public good. These are ideals; and I consider myself an idealist.

Therefore, I must admit that higher education in the United States, especially over the past thirty years, has to a large extent betrayed its noble mission. There are many forces responsible for this betrayal, and I cannot address them all here.  

But my hope, in bringing these issues forward, is that we can all reflect on how we, and the larger academic community, might work to achieve greater alignment between the heroic claims of an indispensable institution, and its operational reality.

So, what is it that we want higher education to be and to accomplish?

If we want education to serve as a “great equalizer”, rather than a reinforcer and reproducer of inequality , we must address the increasingly strong correlation between a child’s social class background and the quantity and quality of their educational attainment. This cannot be done if we are shifting from need-based to merit-based aid, obsessing over US News and World Report Rankings, recruiting wealthier students who are more likely to cover the full cost of their education, using standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT as measures of intellectual or retention potential, or as strategies to demonstrate prestige and selectivity. All of these practices, and many more, have produced what is now accurately labeled a “hereditary meritocracy” – the markers of merit, that is academic credentials, on which privileged positions are allocated,  are now determined largely by family income and wealth.  Under these conditions, equal opportunity will continue to remain an elusive aspiration.

If we want higher education to regain its status as a public good, we will need to reject the prevailing view of college as a private human capital investment. This has resulted in millions of students taking out student loans on the illusory promise that they will inevitably get a so-called “return on their investment”, in high paying employment, but instead they are often left with mounting debt and underemployment.  How is it that millennials, the most highly educated generation, are also the most economically insecure?  I fear we may have sold this generation a “bill of goods” regarding why they must have a university education.  We must reduce or eliminate the cost, put the public back in public education, while also providing alternative avenues, apart from a college degree, that can provide the opportunity for a socially respected and economically secure livelihood.

If we want our students to have a truly intellectually rewarding transformational educational experience , we should encourage students to follow their passions and interests (which are often in the humanities, social sciences, or education), wherever they may lead, rather than promoting majors on the basis of labor market employer demands, or even economic returns. What should matter, ideally, is the social use value, rather than themarket exchange value, of a degree or area of study. The two should never be confused. I don’t think any of us would want a university to be mistaken for a trade school. Rather, I assume we want, first and foremost,  to cultivate critical thinkers and informed citizens, not cheerful robots or obedient sheep.  The future of our democracy, now more than ever, will depend on it.

If we want to prevent the university from becoming just another corporatized bureaucracy , we should not allow ourselves to be driven exclusively by a single-minded focus on externally imposed metrics which generate, inevitably, a “wag the dog” approach to institutional priorities.  While the pursuit of some measurable outcomes associated with student success might make perfect sense, this cannot be the sum and substance of our efforts. Sociologists, it should now go without saying, have most insightfully identified the pathological bureaucratic tendency known as “goal displacement”.  It refers to the danger in all bureaucratic organizations, where instrumental means become ultimate ends, and we eventually lose sight of, or forget, the essential purpose of the academic enterprise. 

If we want the university to be socially responsible and, in UNFs case, to follow our publicly proclaimed and espoused value of “responsibility to the natural environment”, UNF should be on record opposing university endowment investment practices that support and reinforce the actions of fossil fuel corporations, that contribute directly and aggressively to the destruction of the planet.  Divestment should be supported unconditionally -- regardless of whether it exacts a financial cost on the value of the endowment.  Climate change action should be addressed as a human rights issue, not as a cost-benefit calculation.

If we the faculty truly respect the institution of tenure, we should not be reluctant to aggressively exercise the right that it presumably defends – the right to academic freedom and freedom of speech. We should not be engaging in self-censorship on controversial and political issues of the day, in or out of the classroom, even if this may raise inconvenient or uncomfortable truths.  Intellectual agitation has long been regarded as the sine qua non of the university.

If we the faculty do not want our students to take a purely instrumental approach to education and learning, we might want to stop telling them to “study because there is an exam”, “read this chapter because there will be a quiz”, “do X,Y and Z if you want to receive an ‘A’ in the class”. These common and seemingly innocuous phrases simply reinforce the very instrumental disposition we bemoan.  So much of our efforts at the social control of our students is based on these extrinsic rewards and penalties, therefore potentially crowding out intrinsic forms of motivation, based on the pure value of learning and intellectual edification.  I don’t for a moment underestimate the difficulty in breaking out of these hard-wired patterns that have been built into almost every stage of the educational process -- I am guilty of using them myself -- but the very language we often use, communicates and cultivates an approach to learning that most of us would ideally not subscribe to.

If we as a faculty care about inequality, we should actively support the struggle of, and improvement of conditions for, so-called adjunct or contingent faculty – now part of the growing precariat despite holding doctorate degrees -- who are paid poverty level compensation under conditions of economic insecurity and uncertainty.  I count myself among the many who have been silent on this issue for far too long. We should all join their struggle for a living salary.

If we the faculty care about faculty solidarity, we should all be willing to join and financially support the one organizational entity that negotiates on our behalf, for the conditions and terms of our employment through collective bargaining – the United Faculty of Florida.  Inevitably, freeriders will be used as ammunition in the hands of union-busting legislators, now looking to decertify public sector unions on the basis of low membership rates.

 If we the faculty are concerned with the economic stress and strain faced by our students , we can stop assigning and requiring, where feasible, grossly overpriced textbooks, that enrich the publishers while ripping off our students. This is one financial condition we actually have some control over. On this score, I am happy to report that an increasing number of UNF faculty are seeking out alternative and free sources for course material, and that UNF has launched the Open Educational Resource Initiative to assist and support faculty in these efforts. It is having a positive impact.

Since I just used the words “happy” and “positive” I should bring this to a close, legitimately claiming that I am finishing on an upbeat note!

In conclusion, if we the academic community are concerned with any of these issues, I hope we can individually and collectively reflect upon and take actions to bring the promise of the university, and its espoused values, in greater alignment with its actual operation. 

Higher education is not unique. There are many social institutions that suffer from this gap between aspiration and operation, but this is the one we inhabit, and thus where there might be some potential to translate our actions into the public good.

Thank you for your attention and indulgence.