Saxifrage is my flower that splits the rocks.
June 26, 2015 10:13 AM   Subscribe

“Tim Cook is fighting the sky-high cost of a college education by constructing his own school here without expensive buildings or well-paid deans. Classes are taught in local coffee shops. The administrative staff of two works in a church basement. The Saxifrage School, Mr. Cook's two-year old experiment, is seeking to upend the traditional notion that college students need a sequestered, ivy-covered campus—and will endure the price tag that comes with it. He is gambling that for a nominal tuition—$395 a class—they will use the public library, the neighborhood YMCA and existing apartment buildings to study, play and live in.”

Part I: The "How?" Must Come From the "Why?"
Part II: No Ideas / but in Things: the name of Saxifrage
Part III: Four economic principles on behalf of $1,155,399,183,445

The Next Page: What College should be, for real -- by Timothy F. Cook

The university of world-building: Timothy Cook at TEDxGrandviewAve (SLYT)
posted by switcheroo (45 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
 
How are they going to do labs?
posted by Mitrovarr at 10:16 AM on June 26, 2015 [3 favorites]


They're not: it's a humanities-based program with some craft/trade classes in various commercial locations: "A graphic-design course is taught in a coffee shop. A course on organic agriculture uses the boiler room in an abandoned city pool house for its seed-starting workshop. Other offerings are Computer Programming and Carpentry & Design."
posted by bonehead at 10:20 AM on June 26, 2015


This is a really interesting approach, but my local community college already does this for less per class cost to the students...
posted by joycehealy at 10:28 AM on June 26, 2015 [19 favorites]


Saxifrage is a really great word, and very satisfying to say. Here's the WCW poem after which the school was named:

A SORT OF A SONG

Let the snake wait under
his weed
and the writing
be of words, slow and quick, sharp
to strike, quiet to wait,
sleepless.
—through metaphor to reconcile
the people and the stones.
Compose. (No ideas
but in things) Invent!
Saxifrage is my flower that splits
the rocks.
posted by leotrotsky at 10:28 AM on June 26, 2015 [7 favorites]


The main reason that tuition has been soaring is because the key mechanism for keeping it grounded - state subsidization of colleges to maintain low tuition - has been gutted. These programs do nothing to fix that.
posted by NoxAeternum at 10:30 AM on June 26, 2015 [32 favorites]


The main reason that tuition has been soaring is because the key mechanism for keeping it grounded - state subsidization of colleges to maintain low tuition - has been gutted. These programs do nothing to fix that.

A-yup. My "state" SUNY college is now 75% tuition-funded.
posted by thomas j wise at 10:36 AM on June 26, 2015 [8 favorites]




Other semi-unorthodox colleges:

Minerva is another liberal-arts-school-without-a-campus. Unlike Saxifrage it's fully accredited and taught by real professors. But the tuition is entirely traditional.

University of the People is a free, online, fully accredited computer science degree program taught by researchers working in their spare time.

University of Minnesota, Rochester is a 4-year public university that only offers degrees in health sciences, and doesn't have a traditional campus (just leased space in an office building). Students get to intern in U of MN Medical School and Mayo Clinic research labs. Many go on to bio grad school or medical school.
posted by miyabo at 10:41 AM on June 26, 2015 [10 favorites]


Note: Not Apple CEO Tim Cook
posted by Sangermaine at 10:41 AM on June 26, 2015 [29 favorites]


I'm not quite sure what these people are getting for this program, as there is no accreditation or degree. For $365 per class you could presumably get more technical knowledge from community ed? Or, for about that much per class, you could get credit at a community college. It seems a bit like a more-expensive learner's cooperative to me, I guess.
posted by Think_Long at 10:44 AM on June 26, 2015 [8 favorites]


Yeah, you can't teach science without labs and you can't propose to teach college without science. Not with a straight face.

I appreciate the desire to remove unneeded facilities, but you need to still keep some. And using libraries/coffee shops/etc. can never be more than a small scale thing; those facilities would not tolerate or would charge for larger groups (like would occur in even a small community college.)
posted by Mitrovarr at 10:45 AM on June 26, 2015 [2 favorites]


"Americans are about as likely to rate the quality of education that community colleges offer as "excellent" or "good" (66%) as they are to rate four-year colleges this positively (70%). Americans are about half as likely to rate the quality of Internet-based college programs -- those offering online-only courses -- as excellent or good (36%)" Gallup poll, June 2015
posted by elmono at 10:53 AM on June 26, 2015 [4 favorites]


Hey, you know how some people seem to understand the political, historical, and psychological underpinnings of current events, and some don't? But they all vote? I don't care if their degrees are accredited; I just care that more my fellow citizens have clarity, understanding, and informed empathy, and that as they work, communicate, and try to run things, they apply this wisdom to their creations and their interactions with other people.

These things can't be learned by memorization; they need to be learned with live teachers who are able to examine what students say and write, and see exactly where the gaps in reasoning or understanding lie (there are _so_ _many_ possible gaps), and convey not only facts, but emotional contexts.

If this gets people working with good teachers, really awesome teachers, then I'm for it.

However, it looks like the Saxifrage School's four classes are squarely in the "professional development" arena -- that's helpful, too, since it's really hard to find rigorous professional courses outside a regular university.
posted by amtho at 10:57 AM on June 26, 2015


Classes are taught in local coffee shops.

Until the coffee shop kicks them out.
posted by MikeKD at 11:15 AM on June 26, 2015 [6 favorites]


The courses are taught by working professionals and craftsmen, and the plan is to hire adjuncts and Ph.D students from traditional colleges to teach humanities classes

LOL fuck this
posted by RogerB at 11:26 AM on June 26, 2015 [15 favorites]


I am very sympathetic to this idea, and I think it is defensible to try this with a limited set of disciplines first, in that the financial bottom has fallen out of the non-lab-based disciplines much more than the others, so the need for alternative solutions is more urgent. Aside from the humanities, you also don't need labs for law, mathematics, economics.

This is how universities got started in the Middle Ages – students staying in private boarding-houses, lectures from a local church pulpit, public disputations in a town square, and teachers paid by the lecture. Of course the university institutionalised very quickly as there is a minimum level of infrastructure required, but that minimum can be kept at a much lower cost than what current universities seem to need. Definitely much of the administrative burden can be automated enough for a single registrar & assistant to handle a large student body.

What would really get a project like this (and many others) off the ground is a minimum level of public services, such as a city central library (in Europe many of these are merged with the local university library) and a few spaces that can be reserved for teaching large groups so you don't rely on the goodwill of café owners except for small seminars.

Accreditation is much less of an issue if the student is not sacrificing years of wages and taking on debt, and if the education is a real one (open discussion with experienced teachers, real engagement with ideas). It would be nice for those without a first degree to get one out of it, which is why we also need a few established universities to offer affordable, exam-only-based distance degrees for those who have mastered the material outside the walls.

But I am being utopistic I suppose.
posted by ormon nekas at 11:29 AM on June 26, 2015 [2 favorites]


Also, this paragraph lays out just a few of the thousands of hurdles they'll need to clear for accreditation/ title IV eligibility, but doesn't actually say what Saxifrage is doing:

One big problem for Saxifrage is the need for accreditation, which most prospective students want, said Kevin Carey, director of the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank. Higher education has been largely insulated from innovation, he said, because the accreditation process is controlled by organizations whose members generally require startups to mimic them, by building campuses and libraries, for example. Saxifrage hopes to achieve accreditation and offer degrees in five years, which together could make its students eligible for federal tuition aid.

Five years??? I don't want to be the knee-jerk pro-establishment guy, especially when Higher Education so obviously needs fundamental reform, but in this day of "disruptive" initiatives from people outside the system, I think we need to be really skeptical of these types of innovation salespeople - they tend to take the oxygen out of the room for the real, practical, and knowledgeable reformers who are out there.
posted by Think_Long at 11:30 AM on June 26, 2015 [6 favorites]


the plan is to hire adjuncts and Ph.D students from traditional colleges to teach humanities classes

Is this such a bad thing? With the near-zero overhead they seem to be trying for, a low fee per student per course should make it possible to compensate the teachers fairly, plus they would have full pedagogical freedom.

Public lectures with an entrance fee are also possible (like the privat-dozent deal of the past)
posted by ormon nekas at 11:34 AM on June 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


I just checked, and at my community college, one 3-hour class is $480, tuition, fees, and everything. A standard 15-hour full-time load is $2040, so just barely over $400/class. We are accredited, have labs, provide tutoring and other student services, plus--and this is kind of a big deal--you get me as your speech instructor. Or you can go to Saxifrage, meet in a coffee shop, get no transferable credits, but save $8 per class.

If Saxifrage is teaching material most colleges don't and filling a professional development need, then cool. But if you want a less-expensive alternative to traditional universities, community colleges are still here, educating most of the college freshman and sophomores in America. We're actually pretty huge and have been around a long time and I seriously don't get why we keep being overlooked in articles about college expense. You can do your first two years here for $8k, and that's assuming no grants or scholarships. It's a pretty good deal.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 11:34 AM on June 26, 2015 [30 favorites]


Our local community college rates run similarly from ~$250 (class room only) through to $750 (including the use of a full heavy truck shop). I have brother who works as a senior admin there---their current push with the province is to get full BA/BSc certification as well, specifically to lower costs.

In Canada at least, there's been a push in certain universities to save costs by isolating the tenured professors as "Research only" positions, meaning they take graduate students, but increasingly don't get their hands dirty teaching undergrad. The undergrads are taught by sessionals, contract lecturers who have very similar qualifications to the tenured staff, but are still on that temporary treadmill. I think the departments doing this are playing more than a dangerous game. If the community colleges get even partial certification, it could be tough times for universities in terms of enrollment.

There's nothing particularly sacred about first or second-year chemistry say, that a community college couldn't do, for rates like $500 for a lab course. They already do this for "chemical technologist" courses. If a student has to chose between a non-researcher sessional at university or a very similarly-qualified instructor at a cheaper community college, I can guess what many cash-strapped students will do.
posted by bonehead at 11:52 AM on June 26, 2015 [3 favorites]


Yes yes yes, community colleges already do all this cheaper, but nobody's going to read your three-part series on Medium.com and listen to your TED talk about teaching at community colleges. Ugh community colleges, that's where like, the poors and middle-aged ladies with two kids go. And they're not even the artsy poors, they're the uncool kind that live in housing projects and trailers. So un-hip.

But running your class out of a boiler room or your local coffee shop? Now you're cooking with gas!
posted by schroedinger at 12:09 PM on June 26, 2015 [34 favorites]


Another issue is that there is a ceiling to the level of course you can get a low paid adjunct or grad student to teach. First year courses, sure. Second year? Probably. Third and fourth year? It'll be much harder to find someone, they'll have better options, and quality will suffer. And good luck with graduate level.
posted by Mitrovarr at 12:29 PM on June 26, 2015


Out of curiosity, I clicked over to the "Dispelling Exercise Myths With Mechanics" course description and can't suppress a guhhhhh:

"What should I wear?
Who knows? Our instructors usually forget to wear shoes, let alone proper workout apparel. Even though we have a lesson plan, we may go off on a tangent and make everybody do some movements relevant to the subject matter. Once it becomes irrelevant, please feel free to use the safe word #BUSTED. Oh wait, wear comfortable clothing and an ascot.
"

The Saxifrage School: Where Ideas Can Hang Out...And Do Whatever!
posted by witchen at 12:54 PM on June 26, 2015 [3 favorites]


If a student has to chose between a non-researcher sessional at university or a very similarly-qualified instructor at a cheaper community college, I can guess what many cash-strapped students will do.

Several of the best-educated science grads I know did 2 years at a community college, then 2 years of advanced classes at a research university. That way you don't get demoralized by the grueling 500-student lectures taught by a 25-year-old sleep-deprived TA, and get to go straight to the awesome advanced classes with 15 students and an excited full professor. And it's CHEAPER. Of course the research universities hate this and are doing everything they can to stop it.
posted by miyabo at 1:00 PM on June 26, 2015 [6 favorites]


Our instructors usually forget to wear shoes

Oh FFS, it's Special Snowflake University.
posted by Halloween Jack at 1:06 PM on June 26, 2015 [7 favorites]


My real question is why the argument is so comprehensively lost on TED-talking dilettante "reformers" that research is important to teaching — i.e. that a Ph.D. is something else besides a teacher-training qualification and a guild membership. People like this seem to get such a high huffing the moral fumes of liberal-arts-as-citizenship arguments, imagining the True Meaning of College as some kind of extended and integrated high school for poetry-mispurposing Citizen Keeners like themselves, that they entirely overlook what the intellectual foundation of the existing institutions is even purported to be (never even beginning to consider how often they do or don't live up to that justification in practice).
posted by RogerB at 1:15 PM on June 26, 2015 [5 favorites]



My real question is why the argument is so comprehensively lost on TED-talking dilettante "reformers" that research is important to teaching — i.e. that a Ph.D. is something else besides a teacher-training qualification and a guild membership.


Is it really?

I mean, so many universities shift the teaching burden to adjuncts that I have to wonder whether they agree with you.

And if it isn't, then I'm glad somebody is going to force them to answer just how they differ from this Saxifrage thing.
posted by ocschwar at 2:00 PM on June 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


they'll have better options

This strikes me as optimistic. Surely there are lots of young scholars qualified to teach their specialty at a graduate level who for whatever reason are not on the tenure track. The question is does the experimental university offer a fair deal for them, which means a decent living with ample time to advance their research and participate in intellectual exchange with their peers (what I think RogerB is talking about).

Ultimately it is true that the project to recreate or reform the university on a low-cost-of-access basis is only worth it if it salvages the university's role as a place of investigation and discussion at the frontier of knowledge. The institution needs to be low-overhead so that it can be self-sustaining*, and it needs to be self-sustaining in order to escape the external pressures that are resulting in things like high fees and the disappearance of secure posts for junior academics.

Now that I develop this reasoning, I am increasingly doubtful that this Saxifrage thing is trying for this goal.

*(in practice this will only succeed with some kind of external support, but the goal is to keep this within the means of a medium-sized city or a large cooperative, capable of providing some physical space, free access to a library, maybe an operating budget for a skeleton administrative staff, maybe even some labs suitable for undergraduate teaching)
posted by ormon nekas at 2:07 PM on June 26, 2015 [2 favorites]


So, to summarize, community colleges:

1. Are just as cheap or cheaper than Saxifrage
2. Offer a more stable approach to instruction
3. Offer a broader, more diverse curriculum (including science labs)
4. Are accredited
5. Are eligible for state and federal student aid programs
6. Have classes that are taught by Master's level or higher faculty
9. Have a more convenient, centralized campus
10. Have many more extra-curricular support programs (tutoring, advisement, work study, etc.)
11. Have a much broader selection of extracurricular clubs and sports
and
12. Usually expect their faculty to cover up their grotty feet in class.

But thank god we have Tim Cook to deliver us from all this!

Seriously, if he wants to develop a vanity project university-as-sandbox*, that's fine. But he shouldn't try to sell it as solving a problem that community colleges have been really successful at dealing with for at least 50 years.


*Maybe he could have students meet up in a hip chemistry lab they all collaboratively create in Minecraft?
posted by darkstar at 2:08 PM on June 26, 2015 [11 favorites]


What I find attractive about Saxifrage compared to the usual TED-world solution to high college costs, i.e. MOOCs, is that if nothing else, it recognises the natural symbiotic relationship between universities and cities.
posted by ormon nekas at 2:09 PM on June 26, 2015


The institution needs to be low-overhead so that it can be self-sustaining

No, that's still just the neoliberal austerity mindset talking. Academic institutions need to be sustained by public funding, just like every other public good. We only have this commodified, cost-cutting model in the first place because of decades of massive, strategic defunding.
posted by RogerB at 2:11 PM on June 26, 2015 [9 favorites]


RogerB, I don't disagree with you that academic institutions are a public good and should be publicly funded. But I think universities today (in the English-speaking countries that everyone wants to emulate) have hugely inflated cost structures that ultimately make them more vulnerable to neoliberal attacks (state defunding and haphazard profit-seeking, commodification of the student experience, enforced servility to donors).

To the point that I start suspecting the high-spending administrators (provosts/presidents/vice-chancellors) of collusion. Unconscious collusion, of course, but that is the entire reason you need universities to be headed by committees of reluctant, sceptical professors rather than by businessmen-at-heart who happen to have a doctorate.

I think there is a real need to build a university that can survive in the nooks and crannies of the politico-economic system when the latter turns against it. Right now, we have universities that date back centuries that are being co-opted by neoliberalism to such an extent that I worry for their survival. I feel the need for a plan B.
posted by ormon nekas at 2:39 PM on June 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


(Maybe I also feel that universities should by nature be austere places, for a whole constellation of reasons which others may not share, but I'm quite sure none of those reasons would be remotely comprehensible to [an ideal-typical] neoliberal)
posted by ormon nekas at 2:42 PM on June 26, 2015


Last post: when I say for their survival, I mean for their survival as functioning universities i.e. as places of free debate and open-ended investigation.
posted by ormon nekas at 2:45 PM on June 26, 2015


Will I be able to learn Muskrat's Much-In-Little from this programme?
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 3:12 PM on June 26, 2015


I also feel that universities should by nature be austere places

On the extreme end of that, there's Deep Springs, the 2-year college/dude ranch on the Nevada-California border, miles away from the nearest town. Tuition, room, and board are free, but you have to put in 20 hours a week herding cattle, baling alfalfa, and otherwise helping the college support and maintain itself. Apparently about half the graduates go on to earn doctorates.

(One big drawback: for the time being, it's literally a dude ranch.)
posted by Iridic at 3:25 PM on June 26, 2015 [2 favorites]


Community colleges are not cheaper, or even cheap, they just have the taxpayers foot most of the bill. Also a bogus argument against for-profit colleges, who in most cases deliver courses all-in more cheaply than community colleges.
posted by MattD at 3:39 PM on June 26, 2015


The main reason that tuition has been soaring is because the key mechanism for keeping it grounded - state subsidization of colleges to maintain low tuition - has been gutted. These programs do nothing to fix that.

Not just that. Administration bloat is also an issue.


Community colleges are not cheaper, or even cheap, they just have the taxpayers foot most of the bill. Also a bogus argument against for-profit colleges, who in most cases deliver courses all-in more cheaply than community colleges.

And are also infinitely shittier and produce worthless degrees, so. yeah.
posted by schroedinger at 4:25 PM on June 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


Also a bogus argument against for-profit colleges, who in most cases deliver courses all-in more cheaply than community colleges.

WHAT
posted by Little Dawn at 5:26 PM on June 26, 2015 [6 favorites]


I assumed he meant "to the taxpayers".
posted by schroedinger at 6:59 PM on June 26, 2015


The main reason that tuition has been soaring is because the key mechanism for keeping it grounded - state subsidization of colleges to maintain low tuition - has been gutted. These programs do nothing to fix that.

posted by NoxAeternum


Add one more data point: this past year here in Arizona, the conservative-controlled state lege stripped ALL state funding for the Maricopa Community College District (the nation's largest community college district, with over a quarter-million students).

They also orchestrated a board-stacking expansion of the district's Governing Board from five to seven members, so they could stack it with fiscal conservatives who generally will not allow the district to make up the resulting budget shortfall by increasing property taxes or tuition (the other two possible sources of funding).

The district is one of the biggest economic drivers in the state, a major workforce development driver and educates the majority of college students, saving Arizonans literally billions of dollars in tuition costs, yet it is being strangled by conservatives who don't really value public education as a public good.
posted by darkstar at 7:12 PM on June 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


Definitely much of the administrative burden can be automated enough for a single registrar & assistant to handle a large student body.

Not if you want to have a hope in hell of staying legally compliant. Two people to do all the usual registrar stuff plus FERPA plus ADA plus Title IX, to name just a few? Good luck.

I think innovation and experimentation are great, though this particular approach seems more half-baked than innovative. I am a big community college supporter (and attended one myself as an adult), but there is definitely room for more options.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:44 PM on June 26, 2015


I took a permaculture course through The Saxifrage School. Overall, I liked it; it seemed small enough to be flexible with time and location, which helps with things like agriculture. I think it would be a lot of work to gain the critical mass needed to maintain a program that grants degrees, especially if your labor force has another job.

However, I think it's a neat way to teach specific subjects or skills to a small group of people with less of the bureaucracy of an institution, which allows the instructor to control the subject material and (hopefully) receive fair pay for his or her time.
posted by Turkey Glue at 8:03 PM on June 26, 2015 [2 favorites]


a Ph.D. is something else besides a teacher-training qualification

It's a teaching certification? Guess how many hours of training in teaching I got while doing my Ph.D. Zero. Everything I know about teaching I either learned on the job or in my spare time. My department was not atypical in this respect; few universities prioritize training grad students how to teach undergrads.

less of the bureaucracy of an institution, which allows the instructor to control the subject material...

I was also completely unsupervised when I started teaching. I could have been giving ballet lessons for all the administration knew.

Training and supervision of new instructors are functions of a bureaucracy. Undergraduate education needs more bureaucracy, not less.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 1:27 AM on June 27, 2015 [4 favorites]


Also a bogus argument against for-profit colleges, who in most cases deliver courses all-in more cheaply than community colleges.

I'm just gonna wait here while you go look up the graduation rate at US proprietaries.
posted by PMdixon at 9:49 AM on June 27, 2015 [5 favorites]


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