Don’t Beat Up on the Faculty

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By Ron Lipsman

The essays that appear on this site are often critical of academic faculty. The criticism is frequently legitimate, as faculty are oftentimes complicit in the formulation and execution of academic policies that should garner disapproval. Alas, faculty are too often found at the forefront of efforts to: install speech constraints on the campus community; impose admission quotas based on race, gender, ethnic origin and other illegitimate grounds; and enforce a deadening group think in academic discussion that brooks no support of free market capitalism, American Exceptionalism, faith-based life or – heaven forbid – doubts about global warming. Essays in this journal bemoan the decay of American universities from bastions of individual thought devoted to the pursuit of knowledge, truth and beauty into heavily regulated job mills that are rife with propaganda and largely in the business of brainwashing its students in favor of the progressive movement’s agenda.

All true! But even so, it is still the case that the academic profession – much like the medical profession – has been subject to powerful forces that have rendered life much less rewarding for those who pursue the profession. The forces that have smacked doctors – who, until a generation or so ago, were amongst the most admired and rewarded communities in the country – are well-known. It is my purpose here to outline the lesser known assault – namely, the developments that have rendered the academic profession less pleasant and rougher to navigate than it was when I entered it more than four decades ago.

Here are a dozen manifestations.

  1. Overregulation. The faculty is subject to scrutiny, evaluation and regulation far beyond what was common fifty years ago. From the requirement to complete faculty assessment reports to the need to adhere to behavioral codes (e.g., regarding tobacco, sexual conduct, “bullying,” and the like); from the need to comply with stringent lab and research protocols to the command that we offer remedial opportunities to “disadvantaged” students; from the demands to structure our course presentations in the most student-accessible formats to the obligation to conform to standards set by campus advisory boards (for research, teaching, even administration); from semester to semester, faculty are increasingly constrained by an ever-growing epidemic of central campus regulations that make the professorial profession more onerous, less independent and more administrative than academic.
  2. Shared governance. At the same time, university administrators promote the fiction of shared responsibility in running the campus. This leads to committee assignments, studies and reports, and an enormous waste of faculty time, which does not mask the fact that the campus agenda is still largely set by central administrators, not the faculty.
  3.   Publish or perish. For faculty at private or public research institutions, and even for those employed at primarily teaching colleges, the pressure to publish – in the best journals, of course – grows in intensity every year. Faculty want to do so, naturally, but having to do so with a gun to one’s head doesn’t foster the creative juices.
  4. Student evaluations. This practice is now ubiquitous. At best, the results are useless; at worst, false and destructive; and most often – just misleading. Another joy of the modern professoriate.
  5. Student quality. Now that the nation has seemingly decided in favor of universal higher education, it is not surprising that the quality of the student body is suspect. When the student body was thinner, the quality was better.
  6. Salary. Academic salaries have evolved somewhat as in the entertainment industry. The top profs do fantastically well. Those who bring up the middle or rear – not so much. By the way, academics – like doctors – have a long pre-professional apprenticeship (4-5 years of graduate school followed by multiple postdocs) before they can earn a serious salary. The pre-professional period has been lengthening in recent years.
  7. Infrastructure. We teach on enormous campuses with ancient buildings that manifest decaying infrastructure. It’s not sexy to replace a dying heating system. The campus would rather spend money on a fancy new rec center or a luxurious dorm complex. Writing on a broken chalk board in a freezing, huge lecture hall with student sight lines impeded by crumbling support pillars is not what I would call excellent work conditions.
  8. Staff. In the old days, faculty could rely on staff to help prepare academic research papers and exams, schedule meetings and take care of academic record keeping. Not anymore. Everything is computerized, so faculty are expected to discharge all these responsibilities by themselves. OK, we do it – but it takes time away from our more important duties, and it’s not exactly great fun.
  9. Grants. It’s hard to have a successful academic career unless it is supported by one or more granting agencies. Obtaining grants is time-consuming, unpredictable, highly competitive and rather tedious. Without grants, the graduate program collapses, leaving us without teaching assistants, rendering our jobs infinitely more difficult. The pressure increases annually.
  10. Jobs. The academic job market has been in a funk since a decade after Sputnik. It shows no sign of improving. Faculty are often desperate to get a job and they can wind up in less desirable positions at places in the nation (or even the world) that were not in the game plan.
  11.   Public support. Gone are the days when being a professor was a mark of distinction that garnered great support from the public. Today we are often held in contempt. Of course, considering the way we have been messing up their children, the public’s disapproval is not so surprising.
  12. Tolerance. Last, but far from least, those faculty who – like me – have a conservative bent find themselves working in a poisonous atmosphere in which we are viewed as at best slightly strange folk who can safely be ignored, and at worst, dangerous counterrevolutionaries who must be silenced or expelled. It is awful. (I have written about this at some length in Swimming Upstream: The Life of a Conservative Professor in Academia.)

Don’t mistake me: these changes for the worse don’t compare with the degrading of coal mine jobs in Kentucky; low tech jobs that have been obliterated by the Internet; or other professions that have been swept away by “creative destruction.” But the changes I outlined do represent steps in the wrong direction. And they may portend much greater change as many believe that higher education is America’s next bubble.

When I received my PhD, I had a non-academic job offer from an outfit at which I worked in the summers during graduate school. It was potentially quite lucrative. But I yearned for the academic life. I wanted the freedom to choose my own lines of professional inquiry; to be independent; to have the opportunity to interact with the best minds (around the globe) in my field; to do something worthwhile – whether it led to a marketable product or not. Were I faced with the same choice today, I’m not sure that I would make the same decision.

Ron Lipsman is professor emeritus of mathematics and former senior associate dean of the College of Computer, Math & Physical Sciences, University of Maryland.

(Source: NYT/20th Century Fox/Kobal Collection)

5 thoughts on “Don’t Beat Up on the Faculty”

  1. Physicians are biological technicians who engage in a craft (to the best of their ability it should be said) that is at least partly based on science. Academics engage in disinterested thought in every domain, and in some cases succeed in dramatically changing our understanding of the world, and inventing the future. The contrast couldn’t be starker. However, the picture for academia has grown bleaker due to the application of a management model imposed by machine-tooled professional administrators who sell higher education as a way to transfer federal dollars to the local economy and to increase economic growth. As Ginsberg and others have pointed out the administrative bureaucracy flourishes as the real core of the enterprise withers.

  2. Ehh. Couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch of guys. Ron, you will be OK, you actually know something.
    As for the feather merchants, $#@&% ’em. They are a deadweight loss and I don’t mourn their demise.

  3. I agree with the limits to the comparison with the physician. When I screw up, none of my students actually dies. Having said that, I wouldn’t mind having anything near my physician’s money.
    But overall, a great article. What’s missing is an explanation for why things in general are getting worse for professors, and why they might get much worse soon.

  4. All of what Ron says is certainly true at my university. But I would add a couple more things. The outrageous growth of tuition that has gone up 800% in the last 27 years while salaries have at most tripled. This has meant that students have to work close to full time just to be able to enroll in classes. This has made it very difficult to teach since students simply don’t have enough time to devote to their studies to memorize enough to learn efficiently.
    The second thing is the elimination of tenure track lines in favor of low paid full time teaching professionals teaching three courses per quarter for at most $50,000 a year and the even more common adjuncts who make at most $4000 per course and have no benefits and no job security. My department utilizes non-tenure track faculty to teach 65% of its courses.
    The result is that a lot of young highly productive researchers and teachers are simply unable to obtain permanent jobs and must support themselves and their families by patching together part time positions at numerous local universities and community colleges. Academia is a profession that is currently eating its young.

  5. Nice comparison of doctors and professors, but the analogy ends pretty quickly. Tenured professors ride an enormous gravy train, have no real responsibilities like a doctor does, and control their own time to an astonishing degree. As a doctor, I would love to have summer vacation, spring break, winter break and otherwise work a few hours per week—with endless government subsidies (read student loans) for my consumers (Medicaid and Medicare don’t even meet most of our costs).
    Sorry-but it’s all about to crash down in a most spectacular fashion.

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