Scott Jaschik, speaking to members of NYSUT's Higher Education Council at the annual RA, said investigation into the student loan system, cries for performance testing of college students, and questions of academic freedom have resulted in "less and less trust in colleges."
Jaschik said "the erosion of trust in higher education" was broken down into components by a man who has been tracking those trends for years as editor of "Inside Higher Ed."
New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo has been investigating college financial aid programs that steered students to take out loans with particular funding groups.
U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings has been pushing for standardized testing of college students, similar to K-12 testing to "rate" schools and teachers. She also wants tougher accreditation procedures.
Jaschik said Spellings "may not get the higher ed tests, but it's changed the focus. "Fairly or unfairly, she's had a huge impact…All of it ultimately says that colleges and faculty cannot be trusted to run themselves."
Challenges to academic freedom continue, such as that which David Horowitz presents with the group Students for Academic Freedom claiming political abuse within the university, have had "a real impact on trust issues," Jaschik said. Horowitz is a conservative writer and activist.
The use of private agencies to help the rich and famous get into prestigious schools has skewed views of the college admissions process, which has become more and more competitive.
"There's a lot of cynicism, with people believing it's how you work the system," Jaschik said.
Portraits of college "successes" have changed as well. Now, colleges are looked at to see if faculty have won Nobel prizes, and how many grants they have brought in from the National Institute of Health, the editor said.
"Once upon a time higher ed was to train teachers and boost the local economy," Jaschik said. He said public colleges and universities should boast about what they do well, rather than try to compete with big money. Public higher education, he noted, is about serving the underserved.
"Define your value by saying 'Here's the people we're reaching that others aren't reaching,'" Jaschik said.
"Does the issue of trust ever come up with the number of courses being taught by adjuncts?" asked Juliette Romano, president of the United College Employees of the Fashion Institute of Technology.
"There's a willingness to accept that an army of adjuncts isn't very good," said Jaschik.
A student may not be aware their teacher is an adjunct, and that teacher may be deeply committed. However, concern will arise when that student cannot find that same teacher next year, or realizes the teacher has no office for them to go to.
Members of the council worried over a new category called "continuing lecturer" or "permanent instructor" for college teachers who are not tenure track, but do offer teachers health insurance and limited job assurance.
"Permanent instructors are a way to eliminate tenure," said Judy Wishnia, retired faculty at SUNY Stony Brook, where some of these three-year positions have been created.
Matthew Kenny, NYSUT board member from Columbia Greene Community College, said he is concerned about faculty salaries.
"People can't afford to live in our community," he said, "plus, new faculty have huge debt."