Ivory Tower Blues: A University System in Crisis (review)
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Reviewed by
Amy Scott Metcalfe, Assistant Professor
James E. Côté and Anton L. Allahar. Ivory Tower Blues: A University System in Crisis. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 2007. 256 pp. Paper: $27.95. ISBN: 978-0-8020-9182-6.

While I am still waiting for the definitive book on the state of contemporary higher education in Canada, Ivory Tower Blues by James E. Côté and Anton L. Allahar provides ample material for course discussions and invites further scholarly engagement. I use the term "engagement" purposefully, as the authors consider this quality lacking in higher education today, causing a case of the academic blues up North. Côté and Allahar, both professors of sociology at the University of Western Ontario, have written this clarion call to help academics and the broader public recognize the full social and academic implications of the rampant grade inflation that is occurring in our institutions.

Côté and Allahar write from their research expertise as sociologists and experience as professors in the Canadian higher education system in an examination of millennial students in the Canadian academy. Throughout Ivory Tower Blues, Côté and Allahar provide readers with examples of how structures of the North American academic "meritocracy" and our current consumerist, "feel-good" society have created conditions in which faculty's expectations of teaching and learning are incompatible with those of their students. The millennial students they describe, raised in a climate of entitlement, expect to slide through university as they had done in high school and are incensed by what they perceive as unreasonable expectations of their professors. Faculty who insist on applying high academic standards in courses with these students are, in turn, punished by poor teaching evaluations and low enrollments.

The disjuncture between academic standards and student ability, the authors contend, results in a "disengagement compact" between students and their instructors where grades are awarded, not on the basis of the amount of effort expended in studying, thinking about, or in preparing assignments, but rather in consideration of the least amount of effort students demand of faculty. In other words, faculty who place little effort in their teaching (an activity that is not amply rewarded) often place very low expectations on students. The disengaged are thus leading the disengaged. However, high grades cloak the "disengagement compact" in secrecy.

Côté and Allahar begin their book with a chapter titled "Troubles in Paradise." Here, the authors link academic disengagement (they rarely speak in the positive sense of engagement) primarily to the phenomena of credentialism and massification. They state: "Credentialism encompasses both (a) the belief that preparation for the workplace is best undertaken through formal education and (b) the practice that results, whereby it is virtually impossible to secure a job without some sort of credential" (p. 25). To secure a prestigious and good-paying job, students flood the postsecondary education sector, seeking their parchment but not necessarily an intellectual experience.

The authors add: "The sheer number of students now coming to Canadian universities puts pressure on the system, threatening to reduce its legitimacy as a site of true higher education" (p. 28). The "pressure" to meet enrollment demands and not turn away too many unprepared students (students being the key to fiscal solvency) has led to an increasingly meaningless grading scale, according to the authors. They ponder the demise of the "gentleman's C" (yet without adequately critiquing the intersection of gender and class) and question why a B now means "average."

In Chapter 2 they address how this mix of credentialism and massification has made faculty into "reluctant gatekeepers" of a white-collar, middle-class lifestyle in an age of high under-employment (which is not the same as low unemployment). Contending that many jobs today do not really require a bachelor's degree, the authors note that the new functions of higher education are sorting, weeding, and cooling out students who aspire to the professions. Côté and Allahar state that students have been given "false promises" about the importance of degrees in the workplace, leading to a "soft-sorting" approach that puts professors in the position of gatekeepers to the "credential mart" of higher education. In this marketplace...