At ASHE

I could see a lot of things from my room on the fifteenth floor of the Houston Marriott if I stared long enough. A church steeple. The backside of Minute Maid Park. The sluggish pulse of traffic on I-69. A city block-sized parking lot whose tidal patterns – early birds, cockeyed pay station queues, indecipherable gesticulators (and their followers), the blank seafloor after dark – could have come straight off the cover of a sociology textbook. What I never could unsee, was a boxy blue Victorian, clearly abandoned on its acre or more of real grass, yet clearly not non-functional, except perhaps by the standards of the Corbusian sterility of the surrounding area. I could never come up with a plausible explanation for why it was there, for its progress-repelling power, or for that matter, for whatever it was that compelled me to look at it during the rare intervals I managed to ascend from the ASHE conference to gather my energies.

We may not yet have entered a post-metaphoric era, but we are certainly living in an unmetaphored moment, and not just in the sense of actually being on the Titanic rather than reading about it the next day. Writing on the university, Newman ironically invoked hospitals, almshouses, and prisons. Clark Kerr gave us the City of Intellect. Birnbaum wrote of the “perverse black box” of university administration. For the university-as-archeology-project image, we can thank Bill Readings. But when I reach for something, anything, to give me a conceptual handle on higher ed in the second decade of the twenty-first century, I find myself in a funhouse of SEM models and first-order autoregressive lags. Maybe that was the message the manse was there to send: you don’t have to blend in to fit in.

This was my first ASHE, so things could have gone any number of ways. Sasha’s beautiful poster broadcasting my study of English-medium graduate programs in Finland might have disappeared in a procession of bar graphs and process charts. By a happy accident, the event staff had overestimated the capacity of the salon to house both a welter of roundtables and a poster session, so my two fellow posters and I (the fourth was a no-show) found ourselves displayed in a busy hallway between conference rooms, where we did pretty good business. (The Council on International Higher Education preconference may have seemed a small stage, but it was a love fest compared to the fifty-plus exhibitors adrift in the agoraphobic “salon prefunction area” the following day.) I might have succumbed to imposter syndrome; instead, the general gregariousness and genuine curiosity—not to mention the presence of my former Athens compadres—proved a bracing tonic. I asked; I answered; I assisted as needed with push-pins. I was treated to lunch (bison chili, pinot), to mentoring (“fit is everything when deciding on a doctorate program”), to a Mariachi band on a rooftop pool deck with a view of the Pompidou-esque George R. Brown Convention Center. I remember waking one night from a dream in which I forgot what my name was.

The research was dependably dense, suggestive, and not always discussable. (Are trustees at elite research universities increasingly selected for their links to the finance industry? The data—represented by thousands of social network “exchanges” at one well-known institution—are so compelling that board composition can actually predict endowment growth. But good luck landing an interview with David Koch to get it straight from the horse.) The most reliably quantifiable variable being money, fiscal theorizing was much on hand; the eternal question of whether the growth of administrative spending is malignant or benign was again rendered moot: it may simply be a function of the eternal pursuit of prestige, since it appears to be correlated with a shift in Carnegie classification.

But I was happy to see that scholarship with a comparative focus or an interest in the psychological well-being of international students was not confined to the CIHE and its coverage of themes as far apart as study abroad preparation and perceived microaggressions among Asian graduate students in non-STEM fields (yes, assuming a Chinese student is “good at math” qualifies as a microaggression). One research paper session served as a reminder that the point of comparative higher education is to highlight asymmetries (academic capitalism exists in the Chinese academy as it does here, but the market meaning of market-like behaviors is less important than its social meaning in the context of the university as a “work unit”) as well as parallels (low SES students who managed—against the odds—to attend prestigious HEIs in Chile were more likely to improve their career outcomes than those who didn’t).

ASHE president Shaun Harper’s Kanye-themed J’accuse before Thursday evening’s assembled thousands was intended to reverberate beyond the Texan Ballroom. I don’t think a soul in the room would disagree with his thesis that U.S. higher education is an overwhelmingly white space, literally and figuratively, and that its taproot draws from centuries of white privilege, though it did not take much imagination to sense the collective cringe at having to sit through the complete video of “Power”—which was, of course, the whole point. He argued persuasively that all higher education research should have change as its goal, and that it should therefore ask hard questions whose answers will matter rather than merely academic ones whose answers are publishable. His message is clearer now, but as I was preoccupied with slipping out a few minutes ahead of the open bar stampede that everyone knew would follow, it took a while to sink in.

I’ve already mentioned the Mariachi band, but the evening was chilly, and I was getting the pre-departure jitters. Sure enough, the next day, my airport shuttle texted me that it was behind schedule, most likely stuck in one of the bottlenecks I’d occasionally observed from my suite. Thirty minutes later, it reported a still later ETA. By the third update, I grabbed a cab. I told the driver I could not miss my flight because we had house guests the next day (which was true). He hurled us into the swiftly darkening rush hour, only to find that the HOV ramp was closed, said something in Spanish, and finally concluded he would have to take the toll lane and eat the fine. His name was Moses.

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