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The Worst Four-Letter Word in Higher Education Today? Uber.

By Dan Sarofian-Butin / October 2016

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Want to really scare a professor? Forget those four-letter words you were thinking about. The worst thing you can say today in higher education is: Uber. As in, "I'm really worried about the Uberfication of the university." That may sound like a bunch of gobbledygook to you, but trust me, this phrase will send a shiver down the spine of even the bravest soul in the academy.

The Uberfication of the University is actually the title of a new book by Gary Hall, a professor of media and performing arts at Coventry University. In it, he argues, "ubercapitalism" will force university workers to experience "all the problems of deprofessionalisation, intensification, precarity and surveillance such a post-welfare capitalist economy brings." Forget the warm and fuzzy feeling you get when you hear about "the sharing economy." This is about faculty "being transformed into atomized, precarious individuals operating in an environment in which we're being gradually divested of employment rights, public services and a social safety net. They include the outsourcing of work to independent contractors, freelancers and temps."

It gets worse.

The underlying aspects of a "Uber U," writes David Theo Goldberg, the executive director of the Digital Media and Learning Research Hub and a professor at the University of California, Irvine, is fundamentally a pressure "to downsize the human interface of learning, to limit faculty determination of what and how things are valuable to be learned, and to discount critical knowledge and thinking capacity in every sense of the term." With its entry into self-driving cars, Goldberg proclaims Uber "is now joining the roboticizing of the workforce. In higher education, we are increasingly facing the distinct possibility of a faceless future, teacherless courses, online everything."

This is the supposed new reality: Penny-pinching administrators casually and caustically throwing the ideals of the liberal arts out the window like scraps to the wolves of Wall Street waiting outside the university's cloistered gates. We are all, it appears, just lines of code for an Uber-like app that will make learning just another plug-and-play accessory.

There is just one problem to this storyline: It's not true.

The reality is our grandiose notions of higher education have been imploding for decades. This is the case irrespective of whether we are talking about the splintering of the monopoly of credentialing; the increase of nontraditional students, such that they are by now the "new student majority"; the fiscal disinvestment in public universities; or the adjunctification and unbundling of faculty work.

And here is the rub. We can't simply blame Uber or technology or neoliberalism or whatever other bogeyman we can find. We must, at least in part, blame ourselves. A preponderance of evidence points to the sad realization that in far too many colleges and universities, our traditional models of education are inadequate: abysmal retention and graduation rates at non-elite institutions and across racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups; our inability to support the real needs of nontraditional students; minimal learning gains of a large proportion of our students; and the inability of our faculty to move beyond low-level, lecture-style teaching. Even more problematic is the fact that such changes may actually enhance certain aspects of teaching and learning. There is by now enough evidence that digital learning technologies support student learning that we should be able to imagine embracing "Uber University".

Don't get me wrong. I fundamentally believe higher education is crucial to fostering the habits of mind and repertoires of action that support students' development as thoughtful and engaged citizens in a complex and contested pluralistic democracy. Yes, the fiscal imperatives of a profit-seeking marketplace have ravaged our quaint notions of college as simply and solely the life of the mind. But the key is to realize it is exactly in this moment of fundamental flux that we must stand up and be part of the process of rethinking and recreating the role and function of faculty, of teaching and learning, and of the university.

This is not, to be clear, going to be easy. Just ask the music and newspaper industries. But I believe the only way forward is to come to accept that the disruptions we are all now experiencing—whether through digital learning technologies or the "uberfication of the university"—are here to stay. This is the new normal. Whether we like it or not, disruptions will supplement, complement, and replace many features of our taken-for-granted university life.

In the end, Uber is just another four letter: a tool. Just like PowerPoint or a pencil. It serves a particular function and it is thus our job as academics to figure out how specific tools may or may not help us to re-envision and recreate the form and function of higher education. Sure, we can blame it if we want. But we should remember we still need a path forward, a way to get to our hoped-for destination. I don't know about you, but I'm willing to share the road.

About the Author

Dan Sarofian-Butin, Ph.D., was founding dean of the School of Education & Social Policy at Merrimack College, where is he is currently a full professor. Dr. Sarofian-Butin is the author and editor of more than 80 academic publications, including eight books, several of which have been translated into three languages. He has been named by Education Week as one of the top 200 "Public Presence" Education Scholars four years in a row. He regularly blogs at the Huffington Post and InsideHigherEd; more about his scholarship can be found at

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