Tag Archives: tenure

The Withering Away of the College Professor

An excerpt from the book American Heresies and Higher Education

Some conservatives say that the main cost-control issue in American higher education today is tenured faculty who don’t teach enough. It would be better if their lazy self-indulgence could be better controlled by more accountable administrators. Tenure, from this view, is a kind of union, and “faculty governance” is collective bargaining.

It would be better if administrators could be empowered by the “right-to-fire” situation found in our more entrepreneurial states. What the union-taming governor wants, he doesn’t understand that the administrators have already been achieving. In the industrial world, the war against unions is suddenly becoming more aggressive and more effective because unions can’t deliver the goods anyway, given the dynamic realities of the twenty-first century’s globally competitive marketplace.

No Need to Fight Tenure

The same is true of the war against tenure. Tenure is withering away, and astute administrators know better than to launch a frontal assault that would result in really bad public relations and many unnecessary casualties.

The truth is that the number of tenured faculty is rapidly diminishing as a percentage—the tenured and those on a “tenure track” now are a still fairly unoppressed and, I admit, often fairly clueless minority—of the “instructional workforce.” There are doubtless good reasons why, at some places, tenured and tenure-track faculty should teach more. It would be better if more students had their “personal touch,” just as it would be better if they graded their students’ papers themselves at research institutions.

 Teach More, or Teach Less?

But, given how cheap adjuncts are, it’s a big mistake to believe that tenured professors taking on an additional class or two would be a significant saving. It’s often even the case that administrators would rather they not teach more.

At some places, at least, the situation seems to be that the administrations are buying off tenured faculty with low teaching loads and various research perks. That incentivizes them to be compliant with the transfer of instruction to adjuncts and other temporary faculty.

There Goes Content

It also allows them to accept the emptying out of the content of “general education” as requirements focused on the content and methods of the academic disciplines—such as history, literature and philosophy—are replaced by those based on abstract and empty (or content-free) competencies.

Tenured and tenure-track faculty often come from highly specialized research programs where, even in history and literature, the tendency is to know more and more about less and less. There are also allegedly cutting-edge approaches, such as neuroscience, “digital humanities,” rational-choice theory, and so forth, that take the researcher away from being attentive to the content that’s been the core of undergraduate instruction.

And then there’s the pretension of “undergraduate research” (which originated in the hard sciences and makes a lot more sense there) that it’s best for students to bypass the bookish acquisition of content about the perennial fundamental human issues and questions and get right down to making some cutting-edge marginal contribution.

All in all, it’s often not so hard to convince specialists to surrender concern for merely general education. Or at least to convince them that the imperatives of the marketplace and the increasingly intrusive accreditation process demand that the value of their disciplinary contributions is reconfigured in terms of competencies. That way, they’re led to believe, they’ll be able to hang on to their curricular “turf.”

The study of history (or philosophy or whatever) can be justified, after all, as deploying the skills of critical thinking, effective communication, and so forth. One problem, of course, is that those skills can be acquired more easily other ways, ways that aren’t saddled with all that historical or philosophical content.

And when the disciplines of liberal education are displaced by competencies, institutions tend to surrender the content-based distinctiveness that formed most of their educational mission.

Philosophy and Theology

The biggest outrage in higher education right now, for example, is not this or that report of students or administrators whining about microaggressions or being insufficiently trigger-warned. It’s that Notre Dame might be on the road to surrendering its requirement of courses in philosophy and theology for all students for competency-based goals. What distinguishes or ought to distinguish Notre Dame is the seriousness by which it treats philosophy and theology as disciplines indispensable for all highly literate Catholic men and women, or not primarily by its provision of a Catholic lifestyle.

As institutions surrender their liberal arts substance (while sometimes retaining their classy liberal arts brand), they become pretty much identical in terms of their educational goals. Lists of competencies always seem to me vague and rather random, but they still seem to turn out about the same everywhere. Their measurability usually depends on multiple-choice questions and the sham exactitude of points distributed on rubrics. And, in general, the data gets its veneer of objectivity through the intention to aim at sometimes stunningly low and only seemingly solid goals. It’s easy to mock the earnest redundancy of the competency phrases themselves. “Critical thinking”—well, if it wasn’t critical, it wouldn’t be thinking. “Effective communication”—well, if it wasn’t effective, it wouldn’t be communication.

What Is Being Communicated

In any case, the thought being surrendered is that the dignity of thinking and communicating must have something to do with what is being thought or communicated. It’s just not true that the same methods of thought and communication can be applied in all circumstances. Thinking about what or who is a man or woman is way different from figuring out how to rotate your tires or even maximize your productivity.

Communicating information is different from “winning friends and influencing people” (or persuasion and manipulation) and from communicating the truth through irony or humor or esoteric indirection— through the parables of the Bible or the dialogues of Plato. The forms of communication that distinguish the great or even good books that provide most of the content of liberal education elude measurable outcomes, and it’s not immediately obvious that they have much value in the marketplace.

Actually, the kind of insight they provide can be invaluable in marketing, as anyone knows who’s watched an episode of Mad Men or read one of those eerie, philosophical, uncannily effective pitches of Don Draper. But the administrators would reply, “Well, sure that Don’s a genius, but he’s so damn unreliable. We don’t want professors like that!”

As the low but seemingly solid goal of competency becomes about the same everywhere, the delivery of education can become less personal or quirky and standardized according to quantitatively validated best practices. Courses can become more scripted, and then delivery can be increasingly open to the use of the screen.

So the “intellectual labor” of college administrators—the number of which is “bloating” and the perks of which (at the highest level) are coming to resemble those of corporate CEOs—is directed in much the same way as it is in other sectors of the economy. What’s going on, for example, in the Amazon warehouse or in large chains such as Panera Bread, is occurring on our campuses.

A Class-Based Agenda

The idea of “competency” being enforced by the accrediting agencies—basically run by administrators and following a “class-based” administrative agenda—serves the goal of disciplining instruction through measurable outcomes and then displacing actual instructors, as much as possible, by education delivered on the screen.

At Duke, “Intolerance” Can Cost You Tenure

Befitting its vision as one of the nation’s great universities, Duke declares that it grants tenure only to the best. Tenure at Duke, according to the university’s official policy, “should be reserved for those who have clearly demonstrated through their performance as scholars and teachers that their work has been widely perceived among their peers as outstanding,” with “good teaching and university service” expected but not in and of themselves sufficient.

Duke lists no other criteria for tenure. Until now.

Last week, the anti-campus free speech movement migrated from Yale, Missouri, and Amherst to Duke. This is, of course, a university with a record of indifference to student civil liberties: in the lacrosse case, dozens of faculty members unequivocally declared that something “happened” to false accuser Crystal Mangum; and after the collapse of this case to which they had attached their public reputations, dozens signed a statement affirming they’d never apologize. (They didn’t; instead, Duke spent millions in settlements and legal fees to, in part, shield the faculty from liability.)

In response to Yale/Missouri/Amherst-like student protests, Duke President Richard Brodhead joined, at a campus forum, the new dean of Trinity College of Arts and Sciences at Duke University, Valerie Ashby. (Ashby started at Duke this past July.) Brodhead, to his credit, openly opposed censorship, and cautioned that suppressing speech could eventually justify the silencing of the student protesters. At the same time, he neutralized this commitment by suggesting that Duke could institute a policy addressing “hate speech” (whose parameters remained undefined) modeled on the school’s due process-unfriendly sexual assault policy.

In the event, Brodhead didn’t have the last word on this issue. After he made his statement against censorship, Dean Ashby jumped in. She revealed a previously non-public university policy, announcing that untenured faculty is subjected to continuous evaluation for a university-approved level of tolerance. A video of Ashby’s remarks is here. Her key line: “You can’t be a great scholar and be intolerant. You have to go.” Chillingly, the assembled audience then burst into applause.

Nothing in Duke’s written tenure policy suggests that a “great” scholar’s failing to fulfill a definition of “tolerance” offered by Brodhead and Ashby constitutes grounds for denying tenure. Indeed, Ashby’s emotional concluding line—“you have to go”—suggests that the dean considers it possible to immediately dismiss those untenured professors who fail her tolerance test.

The academy’s recent debates about “tolerance” revolve around questions of race and gender. While Duke has now made clear that the “intolerant” can be fired, in her public statement, Ashby provided no clarity as to what specific views constitute dismissible offenses. For instance, would a junior professor who publicly opposed racial preferences be deemed “intolerant,” especially given Brodhead’s earlier criticism of tenured Duke professors whose research raised questions about the effects of racial preferences? Would a junior professor who urged the university to change course and provide due process to students accused of sexual assault be deemed “intolerant,” and thus worthy of dismissal under the new standards? If the Ashby principles had existed during the lacrosse case, could they have been used to terminate untenured Duke professors who criticized the Group of 88?

I asked two Duke spokespersons whether this new tenure evaluation policy had been provided in written form to untenured faculty; neither spokesperson replied. (Duke’s website contains no indication of a written policy, and Ashby defined the new standard only as “this is what’s tolerable here, this is what’s not,” without providing any degree of specificity.) At the very least, then since Duke’s new “tolerance” criterion remains appears to be wholly arbitrary, any junior professor who wants to stay employed needs to self-censor.

To date, Duke seems to be the only elite university that has abandoned all pretense that excellent scholarship, teaching, and service is sufficient for tenure, and held instead that these accomplishments can be trumped by a “tolerance” test imposed by the senior administration. Will other universities follow course?

Emptying Content from College Courses

These comments were delivered at the 2015 Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation Symposium on “The Future of Higher Education” June 3 in Washington D.C. The event was co-sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center and National Affairs. The full transcript of the symposium is here.

Some conservative critics say that the main problem in American higher education today is that tenured faculty don’t teach enough. It would be better if their lazy self-indulgence could be controlled by more accountable cost-cutting administrators.

Tenure from this view is a kind of union and faculty governance akin to collective bargaining. But the union-taming critics don’t understand that our administrators have already been achieving what the critics want. The truth is that the number of tenured and tenure-track faculties is rapidly diminishing as a percentage of our instructional work force. People with tenure and on tenure track now are still fairly unoppressed and, I admit, an often fairly clueless minority.

Buying Off Tenured Faculty

There are doubtless good reasons why in some places tenured and tenure-track faculty should teach more. It would be better if more students had their personal touch. But given how cheap adjunct faculty are — they work for less than subsistence — it is a big mistake to believe that tenured faculty taking on an additional class or two would produce a significant savings.

It’s often even the case that our administrators would rather they not teach more. At some places, at least, the situation seems to be that administrators are buying off tenured faculty with low teaching loads and various research perks. That incentivizes them to become compliant with the transfer of instruction to adjuncts and other temporary faculty. It also helps them accept the emptying out of the content of general education, those courses required of all students.  Requirements focused on the content and methods of the academic disciplines such as history, literature, and philosophy are being replaced by those based on abstract and empty or content-free competencies such as critical thinking and effective communication.

Make Way for Competencies

Unfortunately, it is often not so hard to convince career specialists to surrender their concern for merely general education or at least to convince them that the imperatives of the marketplace and the increasingly intrusive accreditation process demand that the value of their disciplinary contributions be reconfigured in terms of competencies.

That way they are led to believe they will be able to hang on to their curricular turf. The study of history or philosophy or whatever can be justified after all as deploying the skills and competencies of critical thinking, effective communication or whatever.

One problem, though: the faculty members end up seeing or experiencing is that those skills or competencies can be acquired more easily other ways, ways that are aren’t saddled with all that irksome historical or philosophical content. And when the disciplines of liberal education are displaced by competencies, institutions tend to surrender the content-based distinctiveness that formed most of their educational mission.

So the biggest outrage in higher education right now is not this or that report of students or administrators whining about micro-aggressions or being insufficiently trigger-warned. Notre Dame might be about to surrender the requirement of courses in philosophy and theology for all students in favor of competency-based goals.  If you want to worry about an outrage, worry about that.

Keeping the Classy Brand

As institutions surrender their liberal arts substance while sometimes retaining their classy liberal arts brand, they become identical in terms of their educational goals. Lists of competencies always seem to me kind of vague and random but somehow they turn out to be the same everywhere.

So what the idea of a competency denies is that the dignity of thinking and communication must have something to do with what is being thought and what is being communicated. The how of thinking about who or what a man or woman is way different from figuring out how to rotate your tires or even maximize your productivity. Communicating information is very different from winning friends and influencing people or persuasion or manipulation and is way, way different from communicating the truth through irony or humor or verse such as through the poetry or parables of Revelation or the dialogues of Plato.

Like Panera Bread or Amazon

So as the low but seemingly solid goal of competency becomes about the same everywhere the delivery of education can become less personal or quirky or unreliable or brilliant and standardized according to the quantitatively validated best practices. Courses can become more scripted and then delivery can be increasingly open to the use of the computer screen. So the intellectual labor of college administrators— the number of whom is bloated and the perks of whom are coming to resemble those of corporate CEOs — is directed in much the same way as it is in other sectors of the economy.

So what is going on in colleges and universities is not so different from what is going on at Panera Bread or the Amazon warehouse.

The Amenities Arms Race

As colleges become identical in their competency-based curricula, the question that continues to obsess a college president is how to make his or her institution distinctively attractive in the intensely competitive marketplace for the increasingly scarce resource of the student. So there is increased sensitivity to the student as consumer.

One result is the amenities arms race. Few institutions dare opt out. So there is a proliferation of hotel-style dorms, health club gyms, gourmet food in the cafeteria, more and more non-revenue generating Division III athletic teams and student affairs staff that function like concierges saving students from that dread disease of boredom.

It goes without saying faculty have nothing to do with these innovations at all. The excellent scholar Glenn Reynolds is so disgusted by such developments that his modest proposal is for campuses to be honest and market themselves as luxury cruises.

That means spend and spend more on amenities. And cut and cut more the cost of actual education by reducing the ranks of the career faculty and replacing them with various forms of online instruction and MOOC. No college or university is going quite that far but some are pretty far down the road. And even the small colleges that talk up the presence of real faculty because they can’t get rid of them have begun to describe them as agents and advocates for students. In a way, just another amenity offered to the discerning consumer.

And add to the amenities arms race all the increasingly intrusive and usually stupidly counterproductive compliance requirements of the federal government and accreditation agencies and all those administrative politically correct initiatives that have little to nothing to do with real education and it is easy to see where most of the so-called bubble in college cost is coming from.

It is not faculty compensation or the cost of instruction that is going up much more rapidly than the rate of inflation when my salary is not going up even at the rate of inflation; the cost of instruction is often going down and in ways that is making it worse. Now there are ways to cut the cost of instruction in higher education in general that would cause the quality actually to get better but that would require a renewed focus on the real point of higher education.

Institutionalizing PC

Well, you might say putting the focus on competencies at least has the advantage of banishing at least some politically correct blathering from the classroom. Exactly the opposite is true. It institutionalizes political correctness. Some competencies are always attitudinal about appreciation of diversity and all that so students learn that sensitivity is displayed not only by having correct opinions but having the right kind of enthusiasm, or as they say, “engagement” about them.

In the discipline of philosophy, the question of what justice is allows a genuine diversity of thoughtful and plausible answers. In the era of the competency, the question of justice has been answered and all that is left to do is to be engaged in the right way in promulgating the final solution. So the world of the competency mixes techno vocationalism with dogmatic social liberalism.

Don’t forget that political correctness has morphed from being a radical challenge by socialists as such to American capitalism promulgated by tenured radicals to a kind of cloying sensitivity to the consumer demand that every nook and cranny of a student’s life on campus in thought and deed be a safe and comfortable space. The effect, it often seems, is to make the campus a virtual reality above all, as some say. It is too much like the bubble. The virtual reality is that young people spend too much time losing themselves in in front of a screen.

A Noble Goal

So those conservative reformers who really mean it when they say that they want the classrooms of our career liberal arts professors to be filled with as many students as possible have a noble goal. I’ve explained why that goal doesn’t really have much to do with saving money necessarily. But if their reform intention is seriously personal, or as we say these days, “reform conservatism,” then they should oppose every effort of our administrators to displace respected professors with proletarianized adjuncts as well as to reduce as far as possible the place of the competency and the screen in figuring out what kind of general education, what kind of content-driven literacy is at the core of generally higher education.

Respected professors, it turns out, are a part of the indispensable content of higher education.  For now, we dissident professors are all about resisting standardization and surveillance of all kinds if it comes from the government. We resist it when it comes from the Obama administration and from the Republican Senate. And we, of course, resist all the intrusiveness and stupidity of accreditation associations. We want to protect the genuine moral and intellectual diversity that is the saving grace of American education.

The Accreditation Problem

One great thing about our country is that there are islands of liberal education, sometimes in unexpected places. Not only that, anyone in our country who wants a genuinely higher education can find one, and here is something we don’t emphasize at all, often at a surprisingly affordable price. So we dissident professors applaud those institutions aiming to wean themselves from government funding. And I hope that weaning is a prelude to dispensing with what is the worse and useless process of accreditation.

Because it is impossible to dispense with branding altogether in our world here is my idea. Let’s replace the idea with competency with the idea of literacy, and we want to do so with the real job market in mind. It turns out that the main complaint of employers today is not that college graduates lack this or that fairly minimalist techno competency that could after all be readily learned on the job. Their real complaint is that our students, our graduates don’t have the level of literacy, the good habits, the sense of personal responsibility and the fine manners that we used to count on most college graduates and, to tell the truth, most high-school graduates having.

The main problem with focusing on competency in higher education is that it allows our colleges and universities to be content with producing graduates who are functionally illiterate.

Sure, they can read for information and entertainment and they are quite adept at texting with their friends and playing games on screen. But their reading is too literal or non-ironic, and they can’t enjoy the way authors deploy words to play with ideas and take the light and the wonderfully imperfect and endlessly revealing ways words correspond to the way men and women really are. So our graduates can’t read attentively and they can’t think well as beings born to know, love, and die.

How Our Universities Are Failing Us

The Closing of the American Mind dealt with the way academic relativism has failed our democracy, but it did not spark the kind of fruitful conversation that Allan Bloom hoped for; much less did it inspire a systematic effort to rectify the errors of modern academia. Today’s college students say they believe in democracy but cannot explain why, and neither can they explain what they are actually getting with their college education. In the past half century, higher education has gone through a democratizing revolution, with the result that more and more students are being sold an increasingly expensive product that neither their professors nor the deans and presidents of their colleges can even begin to define.

College for All

A college education is now deemed one of those prizes that, if good for a few, must therefore be good for all, even if no one in a position of academic authority can specify what such an education is or should be. College enrollments have grown steadily year by year, more than doubling since 1970 and rising by nearly one-third since the year 2000. This year, more than twenty million students will enroll in the four thousand or so degree-granting colleges and universities now operating in the United States. More than 70 percent of high school graduates enroll in a community college, a four-year residential college, or one of the new online universities, though only about half of these students earn their degrees within five years. The steady growth in enrollments is fed by the widespread belief that a college degree is a requirement for entry into the world of middle-class employment.

Higher education is a growth industry in America—one of the few that foreigners (now mostly Asians) are willing to support in large numbers. College tuition and expenses have grown by five times the rate of inflation over the past three decades, forcing parents and students far into debt to meet the escalating costs. Fed by a long bull market in stocks, college and university endowments have exploded since the mid-1980s, providing even more resources for salaries, new personnel, financial aid, and new buildings and programs.

A handful of prestigious colleges and universities, mainly private, are overwhelmed each year by applications from high school seniors seeking to have their tickets punched for entry into the upper strata of American society. But these institutions are far from representative of higher education as a whole. The vast majority of colleges and universities—90 percent of them at least—admit any applicant with a high school diploma and the means to pay. Given the availability of financial aid, any high school graduate who wishes to attend college can do so.

Many universities, and not a few colleges, have come to resemble Fortune 500 companies with their layers of highly paid executives presiding over complex empires that encompass semi-professional athletic programs, medical and business schools, and expensive research programs along with the traditional academic departments charged with providing instruction to undergraduate students. Like other industries, higher education has its own trade magazines and newspapers, influential lobbying groups in Washington, and paid advertising agents reminding the public of how important their enterprise is to the national welfare.

What Is All This For?

In contrast to business corporations, whose members generally agree on their overall purpose, colleges and universities have great difficulty defining what their enterprise is for. What is a college education? What are students supposed to learn during their four years on campus? On just about any campus at any given time, one can find faculty members in intense debate over what a college education entails and what the mission of their institution should be, and one will find little consensus on the answers. Few businesses would dare to offer an expensive product that they are incapable of defining for the inquiring consumer. Yet this is what colleges and universities have done at least since the 1960s, with surprising success.

The most trenchant criticisms of these developments in higher education have come primarily from the conservative end of the political spectrum. From the time William F. Buckley Jr. published God and Man at Yale in 1951, conservatives have been the main critics of the evolution of colleges and universities away from their traditional role as guardians of civilization and into the political-corporate institutions that they have gradually come to resemble. Over the decades, conservatives like Russell Kirk, Allan Bloom, and Roger Kimball have criticized academic institutions for dismembering core curricula, offering trendy but intellectually worthless courses, surrendering to political correctness, and providing comfortable sinecures for faculty paid for by hardworking students and their parents. Conservatives were always skeptical of the campaign to democratize higher education, arguing that it was bound to lead to lowered standards and loss of purpose. Events have confirmed their predictions, even if their diagnosis has done little to alter the path of the American university.

Some Liberals Become Critics

Liberals have been more reserved in their criticisms of higher education, no doubt because they (in contrast to the conservatives) have been in charge of the enterprise over these many decades. To the extent that they have called for reform in higher education, it has usually been to urge colleges and universities to move more rapidly down the path on which they were already traveling—that is, in the direction of more diversity, easier access, more student choice in courses and curricula, more programs for special groups, and so on. Because they have operated inside the walls of academe, liberals (and leftists) have never had much difficulty in translating their proposals into academic policy.

Yet a curious thing is now happening in the ever-expanding commentary on higher education: many of the criticisms formerly made by conservatives are now being reprised by liberals, or at least by authors who are in no way associated with conservative ideas or organizations. At least two distinguished academic leaders, Anthony Kronman, former dean of the Yale Law School (Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life, Yale University Press), and Harry Lewis, former dean of students at Harvard (Excellence without a Soul: Does Liberal Education Have a Future?, Public Affairs), have published stern critiques of colleges and universities for failing to challenge students with the great moral and political questions that were once at the center of the liberal arts curriculum. More recently, several books written from a liberal point of view have taken colleges and universities to task on various counts: they are too expensive; the education they offer is subpar, especially in relation to costs; they are administratively top-heavy; their faculties are too specialized; they do not emphasize teaching; their catalogs are filled with bizarre courses; and, importantly, they are not providing the liberal arts education that students need and deserve.

Here Come the Weird Courses

These are serious charges, especially when one considers who is making them. What lies behind them? And what do the authors propose to do about them?

The most comprehensive of these indictments is set out by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus in a book titled Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Money and Failing Our Kids—and What We Can Do about It, Henry Holt & Company. The authors cannot be accused of being outsiders to the industry or lacking in understanding of their subject. Hacker is a distinguished political scientist, author of many academic books, formerly a professor at Cornell, and now an emeritus professor at Queens College in New York City. Dreifus writes for the Science section of the New York Times and is a faculty member at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. It is surprising, even refreshing, to encounter a wide-ranging critique of higher education by authors with such impeccable credentials. Yet one would never call this a dispassionate analysis. It is meant to arouse indignation and to bring forth remedies for the ills it diagnoses.

Hacker and Dreifus begin from the premise that higher education has lost its way and no longer fulfills its basic obligations to the rising generation of Americans. As they write, “A huge—and vital—sector of our society has become a colossus, taking on many roles, and doing none of them well.” The central purpose of higher education, and of the liberal arts in particular, is to turn students into “thoughtful and interesting human beings”; but colleges and universities have weighed themselves down with so many ancillary activities, from technical research to varsity athletics, that they have lost sight of their basic mission.

No Return to the Sixties

The authors write from the standpoint of a pre-1960s liber alism, which assumed that democratic education and the liberal arts should operate in harmony. Thus they assert that every student can learn, that a college education should be available to all, and that such an education should revolve around the liberal arts, loosely defined. They are unable to come to terms with how the campus upheavals of the 1960s succeeded in overthrowing the traditional liberal arts curriculum in the name of democracy, diversity, and inclusion. The authors think that the older synthesis can be resurrected on campus if only some institutional encrustations like disciplinary research, administrative bloat, and varsity athletics can be peeled away. Though they are undoubtedly wrong about this (since the problems go much deeper), their book contains much valuable evidence that something has gone wrong in the world of higher education.

Hacker and Dreifus point to a basic contradiction in the higher education industry: students enroll to receive an education, and many pay dearly for this service, but faculty members are paid and promoted on the basis of disciplinary research that is unrelated to teaching. In the authors’ view, in fact, “there is an inverse correlation between good teaching and academic research.” A heavy emphasis on research causes professors to short-change teaching responsibilities and to view colleagues at other institutions as a more important audience for their work than their own students. It also encourages faculties to load up college catalogs with narrow and arcane courses as young professors “teach their dissertations” and veteran professors teach their latest research projects. In this way, the research agenda in the various disciplines invades the undergraduate curriculum. The tenure system, originally created to protect the freedom of faculty to conduct research, now insulates professors from incentives to perform in the classroom. Given the evolution of First Amendment protections on campus, tenure is no longer needed to guarantee academic freedom for dissident professors.

PhDs But No Jobs 

Moreover, since research professors must have graduate students, major departments at large research universities must have their own Ph.D. programs whether or not their graduates have any hope of finding positions in the academy. The authors cite a telling statistic: from 2005 to 2007, American universities awarded 101,009 doctoral degrees but created just 15,820 assistant professorships. Given such a ratio, few young men and women who have spent between four and eight years earning their doctoral degrees can entertain hopes of pursuing careers in academic teaching and research. Many of these redundant Ph.D.’s wind up in fields unrelated to their studies and for which an advanced degree is probably more of a handicap than a qualification. Some are recruited back to campus as adjunct professors to teach courses for nominal sums that are a fraction of what tenured professors are paid. The authors estimate that 70 percent of all college teaching is performed by adjuncts, graduate assistants, and other non-faculty personnel.

The expansion of administration—or administrative “bloat”—is a major factor in the escalating costs of higher education. The ratio of administrators per student has doubled over the past three decades, from about 30 to more than 60 administrators per 1,000 students. At many of the prestigious colleges and universities, the ratios are far higher. At Williams College, roughly 70 percent of the employees are occupied in pursuits other than teaching. Administrative expansion at Williams has not taken place through the hiring of groundskeepers, janitors, health and safety personnel, or cafeteria workers, but by the creation of positions like Babysitting Coordinator, Spouse-Partner Employment Counselor, and Queer-Life Coordinator (really).

Superfluous Funds, Superfluous Jobs

This is a common pattern at top-ranked institutions that probably have more money than they need to operate high-quality educational programs. Their superfluous funds therefore underwrite superfluous activities. The Chronicle of Higher Education routinely runs advertisements for positions like Sustainability Director, Credential Specialist, and Vice-President for Student Success. Wouldn’t students be better served if, instead of filling positions like these, colleges and universities hired more philosophers, classicists, and physicists? From the authors’ point of view, the question answers itself.

All of these administrators not only cost money (with their generous salaries) but invent work that requires still more of their kind, thus diverting institutional attention from learning and instruction to second- and third-order activities. A portion of administrative bloat is a function of the growing complexity of academic institutions, some of it self-imposed and some of it flowing from governmental requirements related to financial aid, research contracts, and civil rights laws. In many cases the new administrators serve as advocates for special causes, demanding the hiring of more faculty and administrators in fields like feminism, environmentalism, and “queer studies.” Thus, administrative expansion also grows from the politicization of the modern campus.

Overpaid Hired Guns

The most obvious expression of the administrative takeover of higher education is the emergence of “hired gun” presidents who move from institution to institution gaining bigger salaries for themselves and their peers as they do. The president of Ohio State University—who previously held top positions at Brown University, the University of Colorado, and West Virginia University—had a pay package exceeding $2 million before he resigned in 2013 and returned to West Virginia University s president. The president of the University of Chicago has a compensation package that exceeds $3 million. It is not uncommon today for college presidents to receive salary packages exceeding $1 million, courtesy of student tuition payments and taxpayer subsidies, while the average faculty member receives a salary one-tenth of that sum. Do these presidents fill the role of academic and intellectual leader on their campuses, as college and university presidents (like Robert Maynard Hutchins and Charles William Eliot) did at one time? The answer in almost all cases is no. They are hired mainly to raise money, manage complex bureaucracies, and keep their faculties happy. The emergence of this new kind of academic administrator is one of the more obvious signs of the overall loss of intellectual purpose in higher education.

The  Golden  Dozen

Hacker and Dreifus reserve their strongest criticisms for a handful of elite institutions—the “Golden Dozen,” as they call them—that set the tone for higher education as a whole. The list is familiar: the eight Ivy League institutions, plus Duke, Stanford, Williams, and Amherst. These are the prestigious schools that attract applications from ambitious students across the country and around the world. The existence of this elite stratum of institutions seems to violate the authors’ sense of democratic fairness; in their view, these schools are overrated and do not merit their hallowed reputations. They name several institutions of lesser rank (including the University of Mississippi and Arizona State University) that they believe do a better job of educating their students.

While all this may be true, the authors offer scant evidence for their conclusions. They do not try to assess the quality of education offered at these institutions, but try instead to assess how successful their alumni have been compared with the graduates of other institutions—an exercise that cuts against the overall purpose of their book. They conclude on the basis of an examination of entries in Who’s Who that the alumni of the “Golden Dozen” do not fare any better in life than any other group of college graduates. Unfortunately, in using worldly success as a measure, the authors endorse the dubious proposition that what matters most in an academic institution is the financial and vocational status its students attain, rather than the substantive education they gain in the liberal arts.

An  Intellectual Vacuum

In view of the intellectual vacuum that has developed on cam pus, it is entirely understandable that students should more and more express vocational aspirations in their selection of courses and majors. Hacker and Dreifus are disappointed that so many students choose majors like business, engineering, and communications over fields in the liberal arts like history, philosophy, and literature. Business is by far the leading major among undergraduates today, far surpassing in student popularity any of the traditional fields in the humanities or social sciences. Traditional liberal arts departments in classics, foreign languages, literature, and philosophy are contracting and some of them disappearing altogether for want of student interest. This is a lamentable outcome, as the authors say, but at the same time one that is easy to understand. If students are required to pay vast sums for their degrees, then they want value for the money spent—and this is found in vocational preparation of some kind. It is also hard to blame students for these choices when they never hear anyone on campus making a good case for the liberal arts as “an education for life.” The long-running agitation for diversity, democracy, and inclusion on campus has at length displaced the traditional case for the liberal arts.

An End to Tenure?

The authors propose several controversial but nevertheless justifiable remedies to lower the costs of higher education and return it to its central purposes. They would end tenure and sabbaticals for professors, emphasize teaching over research in all aspects of undergraduate education, curb the exploitation of adjunct professors, spin off university medical schools and research programs, eliminate varsity athletics, spread resources around to more institutions beyond the “Golden Dozen,” reduce the costs of administration (especially presidential salaries), and take advantage of new technologies to improve classroom instruction.

These are generally good ideas, though perhaps also utopian in current circumstances. Getting rid of varsity athletics, especially football, has long been a goal of academic reformers, and they are no nearer their goal today than they were fifty or one hundred years ago. Even so, some of these reforms, such as the elimination of tenure and the scaling back of varsity athletics, may come about in the coming years due to mounting financial pressures on colleges and universities. The fact that universities exploit adjunct teachers is a clear sign that they cannot afford to spread the costs associated with the tenure system across all instructional programs. As costs escalate and available resources dwindle, all institutions will be forced to confront basic questions as to which programs they can afford to maintain. What advocacy and criticism cannot accomplish, the laws of economics may eventually bring about.

The central weakness of this otherwise useful critique is that the authors never tell us what kind of education is most likely to form “thoughtful and interesting human beings.” What is an education in the liberal arts? What should students learn during their undergraduate years? Should every college have a core curriculum in the liberal arts, as most did a generation or two ago? The authors make a case for the liberal arts but fail to tell us what they entail or how they might be revived from their near-comatose condition on campus.

Collapse of Liberal Arts

The liberal arts are dying on college campuses today from the combined effects of specialization, the diversity agenda, and an emphasis on vocational goals. (Actually, they have essentially expired already, except at a handful of holdout institutions where undergraduate education is taken seriously.) The century-long campaign to apply the scientific model to the humanities has at length yielded the consequences that Hacker and Dreifus document so well. The various academic travesties that they cite are symptoms of this deeper problem. Many of these—such as the proliferation of pointless courses—take place in humanities departments and not in the sciences, where there still exists a ladder of learning and where research is linked to an ongoing search for knowledge.

The fundamental problems of higher education, especially as they relate to its overall loss of purpose, can be traced back to the collapse of the liberal arts. As a consequence, a large gulf has opened up between the sciences, where undergraduate teaching programs are generally very good (as long as resources are available), and the humanities, where teaching and research have lost their purpose and with it their value. Conservatives have known this for a long time. Now, some liberal critics are beginning to feel their way toward the same conclusion.

In elementary and secondary education, costs have risen exponentially over recent decades while student learning as measured by achievement tests has steadily declined. Likewise, college costs have risen several-fold since the 1970s (as Hacker and Dreifus amply document), even as academic rigor has declined, according to recent research by Richard Arum of New York University and Josipa Roksa from the University of Virginia.

What Do They Learn? Not Much

Arum and Roksa, both sociologists, made their case in Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, University of Chicago Press. Though burdened by some of the turgid language and ponderous methodology that are endemic to the social sciences, this book is a serious effort to find out if colleges and universities are delivering on their promise to educate all students. The authors have assembled empirical data showing that college students today are studying and writing less and learning far less than their peers of a generation ago, while our competitors abroad are passing us in measures of academic achievement and rates of college graduation. America’s competitiveness in the global economy is thus at risk.

Academically Adrift is one product of a movement to measure student learning that was set in motion in 2006 by a report from the Spellings Commission (named for Margaret Spellings, then the U.S. Secretary of Education). The report called for greater “transparency and accountability” in colleges and universities that receive federal aid, and for “better data about real performance” to allow students, parents, and policymakers to compare institutions on the basis of measurable outcomes. According to the commission, such measures are needed in order to determine if “the national investment in higher education is paying off.” The report was a signal that “outcomes testing,” long used in elementary and secondary education, was about to be introduced into higher education as well.

Critical Thinking 

Arum and Roksa took up the challenge. To measure student learning, they drew upon results from the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), a standardized test given to more than three thousand students at different institutions upon entry into college and then again at the end of their second and fourth years of undergraduate work. The CLA asks students to examine a complex problem, such as an argument in a political campaign about how best to reduce crime, and then to write up their assessments of different approaches along with their own recommendations. The test purports to measure critical thinking and complex reasoning as well as writing ability.

On the basis of the CLA, the authors report that large numbers of students show little improvement in these skills during their college years. According to this study, 45 percent of the students showed little evidence of improvement after two years of college, and 36 percent showed little improvement after four years. The performance gap between blacks and whites, already significant upon entry into college, widened further during the undergraduate years.

A Lack of Rigor

“An astounding proportion of students are progressing through higher education today without measurable gains in general skills,” Arum and Roksa conclude. Even so, nine in ten students say upon graduation that they are satisfied with their college experience.

The authors locate the sources of these disappointing outcomes both in the culture of student life and in the lack of rigor in college curricula. Students spend the bulk of their time socializing with peers rather than studying, reading, or discussing academic subjects. According to the study, students spend on average only about thirteen hours per week studying, far less time than in the 1960s. The reason that students can get away with it today is that they encounter few courses that require much writing or significant amounts of reading. It is little wonder, then, that the culture of student life does not assign great value to learning and achievement.

Administrators with No Mandate

Arum and Roksa agree with other authors about the basic problems of higher education. Colleges are bloated with administrators who have impressive-sounding titles, but none carries a mandate to improve student learning. Adjunct and part-time faculty teach too many courses. Professors do not spend enough time in the classroom or meeting individually with students. College trustees and presidents are preoccupied with fund-raising, budgets, national rankings, and reputations. Students are viewed as “consumers,” and thus are given too much choice in the selection of courses. Colleges devote too many resources to luxurious dormitories, student centers, and expensive athletic facilities, in a misguided effort to entertain students and keep them happy.

One conclusion they do not reach is that too many students are attending college who are not motivated or who lack the skills to do college-level work. The Council for Aid to Higher Education reports that “forty percent of students entering college do not read, write or perform math at a college-ready level,” a figure that closely approximates the proportion of students reported by Arum and Roksa that do not learn very much during their undergraduate years. Is it possible that 40 percent of the students we send to college are not prepared for the experience and are unable to benefit from it? Are faculty and administrators “dumbing down” their curricula to make it possible for these students to pass the requirements? Reasonable observers have answered both questions in the affirmative, even if such answers seem to violate a national commitment to guarantee a college education to every student who wants one.

Academically Adrift has been widely criticized in academic circles because (it is said) the Collegiate Learning Assessment does not really measure learning, but rather aptitude or something else unrelated to classroom instruction. While this is possibly so (although the makers of the test dispute it), results from the CLA are undoubtedly closely correlated with those of the SAT and ACT examinations that administrators use for admissions and which they claim are measures of learning rather than innate aptitude. If the CLA does not do the job, then critics have an obligation to come up with a better test.

Turn Humanities into Science?

t is probably the case, however, that no conceivable test can accurately measure what students should really learn during their college years. After all, the purpose of higher education is not to train students in the basic skills of reasoning and writing, but to take students who already have these skills and supplement them with something more important—namely, knowledge and understanding. The campaign to turn colleges into glorified high schools has been as misguided as the effort to turn the humanities into a science. It is not possible to educate students in something called “critical thinking” in the absence of a foundation of knowledge; and students who have taken the trouble to fortify themselves with knowledge will naturally develop the capacities both to criticize and to affirm, and to understand the difference between the two.

An education in the liberal arts, rightly understood, is one means by which educators in the past sought to engage students in the search for knowledge and understanding. Whatever the weaknesses of that approach, academic leaders have yet to find an effective substitute for it. Appropriately, Arum and Roksa call upon academic leaders to strengthen the general education requirements (that is, the core curricula) at their institutions in order to ensure that all students receive an education in the fundamentals of the liberal arts and the sciences.

While curricular debates have been going on for some time, the recent financial collapse has exposed and exacerbated structural weaknesses in our system of higher education. Mark C. Taylor argues that a situation of dwindling resources has led to a crisis on campus that will force academic leaders to reorganize their institutions if they are to survive. In a controversial op-ed article he published in the New York Times in 2009, Taylor called for the abolition of the tenure system and the elimination of permanent academic departments that he regards as the obsolete equivalents of assembly lines and small family farms. The title of that article, “End the University as We Know It,” provides a sense of the ambitious— and inflated—aims of his proposals.

Professor Taylor, now chair of the Department of Religion at Columbia University and previously a longtime professor in the humanities at Williams College, decided to enlarge the essay into a book because of the popular response it provoked. “My analysis of the current state of higher education and proposals for change set off a firestorm of discussion and controversy,” he explains. Well, perhaps—but he would have served the debate better by letting matters stand with the short statement of his position.

Bold but Unworkable Ideas

His book, Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities, Alfred A. Knopf,unfortunately reads like an extended opinion piece, long on assertions and proposals but short on analysis and supporting information. Few of Taylor’s proposals are new or bold. Like Hacker and Dreifus and many before them, he wants to end tenure, but in his case mainly to open up opportunities for young scholars who have worked for years to earn Ph.D.’s only to find no jobs when they are finished (which was not exactly a secret when they began). Like other critics, he thinks that colleges and universities encourage disciplinary research at the expense of teaching. He urges a national collaboration between elite and non-elite institutions to train and reward good teachers, certainly a worthwhile proposal. He thinks that computers and video games should be used widely to improve the quality of teaching and break down barriers between disciplines, and goes so far as to suggest that colleges and universities should be restructured to reflect the open and adaptable characteristics of computer networks.

He is especially keen to promote more cross-disciplinary activities that bring scholars from different fields—like art and physics or religion and international affairs—together to address new problems. There are many professors who resist such collaborations, preferring to focus on the subject matter in their disciplines. At the same time, and as Taylor notes, this kind of cross-disciplinary work has been going on for a long time on major campuses where new combinations of fields are continually evolving into new disciplines like regional science, biochemistry, the history of science, social psychology, and neuroscience. But these fields evolve out of existing disciplines and do not emerge de novo, as Taylor imagines that they can.

Eliminating Departments 

Crisis on Campus does have some ideas that are new and bold, but they are not necessarily constructive or practical. Taylor advances a bizarre proposal to eliminate permanent departments and reconstitute fields on the run to study particular subjects, such as water, time, money, law, and networks. After a few years, these fields would be dissolved, and professors and students would be dispersed to study new ones as they are formed. Graduate students could earn advanced degrees in any of these temporary fields, perhaps by producing films, video games, or websites in place of the traditional written dissertation.

In making such proposals, Taylor has let his imagination run far afield from the institutional realities of academic life. A college or university could never organize its affairs according to such a plan without turning its professors into dilettantes and its students into experts on the passing fashions of the hour. He expresses little appreciation for the way that scientists conduct their enterprise or how they establish new knowledge by painstaking, time-consuming research. It is good that some professors are given to flights of imagination, but also good that some have their feet planted firmly on the ground.

Nor is Taylor particularly sympathetic to the liberal arts as a discipline through which the lessons and achievements of the past are transmitted from generation to generation. He is an enthusiast for the new: new technologies, new ways of learning, new and untested patterns of academic organization. It is unusual to encounter a humanist and philosopher so completely enchanted with the possibilities of computers and online networks—undoubtedly a sign that he knows little about them. Taylor’s proposals would indeed “end the university as we know it.” Would that be a good thing? The university is in real need of reform and perhaps even an upheaval, but not of the kind that Taylor envisions.

Taylor is undoubtedly correct on one point: the financial crash and the long recession have put new pressures on colleges and universities to cut costs and eliminate superfluous programs and personnel. The “higher education bubble,” as he calls it, is bound to burst sooner or later, like the other “bubbles” we have seen. The contemporary university is to a great extent the product of a postwar American affluence that is gradually waning. Rising tuition, escalating salaries, administrative overload, and doubling and redoubling endowments are all reflections in one way or another of a steadily growing economy and a historic bull market in stocks (and the nation’s ability to borrow unlimited sums). As resources become harder to find, as families can no longer afford tuition prices, and as federal resources are withdrawn, college and university leaders will be hard pressed to maintain the gains of the past few decades. Many of the current excesses of higher education that grew out of affluence will be scaled back in an age of austerity.

* * *

A few preferred reforms in higher education based on the information contained in these three books would include these high on the list: (1) Shelve the utopian idea that every young person attend college, and along with it the dubious claim that the nation’s prosperity depends on universal college attendance. (2) Terminate nearly all Ph.D. programs in the humanities and most of them in the social sciences. (3) Replace them with postgraduate programs in the liberal arts that allow students to earn graduate degrees based upon teaching rather than research and permit them to master broad fields that cross existing disciplinary boundaries. (4) Reverse the expansion of administrative layers, especially offices and programs created to satisfy campus pressure groups. (5) Bring back general education requirements and core curricula to ensure that every undergraduate student is exposed to the important ideas in the humanities and sciences that have shaped our civilization.

No one should expect that any of these changes is likely to occur easily or soon. Despite the liberal outlook of most professors, higher education is one of the most conservative of enterprises and one of the most resistant to reform. In recent decades it has been marked more by dissolution and disintegration than by constructive reform. Most of the traditional organizational patterns inherited from the last century—specialized departments organized into colleges, tenure, graduate programs, and externally funded research—remain intact today. Colleges and universities of the future are likely to look much as they do today, except that they will operate with fewer resources and much narrower margins for excess.


This is an excerpt from James Piereson’s new book, Shattered Consensus, published by Encounter Books.

Why Tenure Makes Teaching Better

It’s impossible not to notice a contradiction on the pages of Minding the Campus. My friend Bill Voegeli seems to be saying that tenure makes teaching in our colleges and universities worse (“Tenure, Kipnis and the PC University,” June 22). The shameful goings on at Northwestern over Kipnis show that tenure doesn’t really protect the intellectual freedom of professors from the tyrannical political correctness emanating from administrators. And so tenure has been exposed as nothing but a job protection racket.

Bill has been writing in support of Governor Scott Walker’s scheme to end tenure in the Wisconsin state system. That would give administrators better control over the self-indulgent behavior of the tenured, allowing them, for example, to force lazy teachers to teach more and surrender the “release time” they received for their trivial articles and books that no one reads and no one in the free market actually would pay for. Let’s make professors work 40-hour weeks! And let’s fire them if they’re not serious and effective in their primary responsibility of teaching. The closer our campuses come to the “right-to-fire” situation we find in our more entrepreneurial states, the better.

Offend No Student

The invariably astute George Leef shows us (“Student Ratings Bait Profs into Lowering Standards,” June 24), although that surely wasn’t his main intention, that tenure makes teaching better. He makes the point that untenured faculty–that includes those on a tenure tack, temporaries, and adjuncts–have little choice but to be pretty obsessive when it comes to getting good student evaluations. Given our administrators’ misguided (but deeply rooted) tendency to identify “the good” with “the measurable,” a good set of evaluations has become one on which virtually every student gives the instructor the highest possible scores. So “being good” means to have produced no evidence that any student was offended or disturbed or unduly burdened by the instructor.

This situation seduces faculty into being more entertaining, more affirming, and less challenging than concerned about student learning or even student habituation (say, for the 21st century global competitive marketplace). It seems cruel (and contrary to everything we learn from the science of economics) to blame faculty for the way they’re being incentivized. Faculty would rather not suck up to the students, but what real choice do they have if they want to remain on the faculty?

Student evaluations can’t be made much better by experts trying to refine them with subtle questions that allegedly actually measure student effort and student learning. The more questions there are–and the more complicated they are–the less likely it is that students will actually read them. And as Leef rather wittily reminds us, the real goal of the faculty member is that students not read them at all, but automatically assign the highest score all the way down the line. That’s why (and I’ve noticed this first-hand) there’s an emerging science of getting students in a euphoric mood on evaluation day, to get them to surrender their critical faculties on a doughnut high or through a feel-good exercise in collective self-affirmation. After all, even if a student realizes that he or she has learned much, had a transformative emotional/intellectual experience, and feels the love and respect from a particular instructor, it’s very unlikely, if he or she deploys his or her critical faculties, that the result would be top marks all the way down the line.  The untenured faculty member wants the student to be feeling (feeling good, of course), not thinking, when evaluating.

Students Free to Choose

The incentive here, as Leef says, is to get the student to fill out the evaluation quickly and happily and without taking time to write comments. The numbers do the talking, the thought is, and the comments are bound to be ambiguous and subjective. Now, at my college, there’s a kind of doubling down on this incentivizing by an administrative concern. Our students are free to fill out the evaluations online whenever they please in a two-week period.  Left to their own devices, even with numerous emails of encouragement, a clear majority of them choose not to bother. For myself, I think they should be free to choose, and there might be some honor in refusing to evaluate someone anonymously.

It seems the administration is too consumer sensitive to develop some mechanism to compel compliance. So the burden falls on faculty (with, in principle, our accreditation on the line!) to get students to fill them out. And the one and only time I was judged by some administrator to be deficient on my evaluations is when my turnout was pretty low, and it was suggested to me that there was the rumor out there that I tell students the evaluation process is stupid. (I actually do say, when teaching the Republic, that Socrates says that a weakness of democracy is that it’s so relativistic that students even get to evaluate teachers. But I now add that we live in a democracy so you can’t blame Berry College, do your duty as a democratic citizen and fill the bleepin’ thing out.)

The trouble with low turnout for untenured faculty, of course, is that either it can become a reason to discount their high scores or leave their scores too much to chance by allowing the negative feedback of one disgruntled customer to count too much.  It also can curtail their academic freedom, at least a little, by keeping them from turning student evaluations into a teachable moment about a great text. One method faculty use to increase turnout is to have all the students pull out their smart phones (or tablets and laptops, but at Berry most students don’t bring computers to classrooms–yet another reason why your kids should come here) and fill out the evaluations in class. Well, talk about a comment-suppressing method! Nobody likes to type on those touchy keyboards.

A More Reliable Guide

I never do that. But when I did remind those in my con law class to man up (in the nonsexist sense) and do their evaluative duty, one woman five minutes later thanked me for the reminder and told me she had just filled out the evaluations for all five of her classes.  I’m guessing there were a bunch of fives (the highest score) and no comments, as she is a classy and charitable person.

The truth is that the comments, although far from foolproof, are a much more reliable guide to the quality of instruction. From my view, a really impressive set of evaluations has comments about what was actually learned, complaints (mostly ironic or appreciative) about the amount of work required, some feeling of love, in many cases, for the books read, and a good deal of affirmation of how smart, hard-working, informed, and fair the instructor is.

Comments that are somewhat hostile about the irksome requirements or strange perspectives of the class should also be regarded as positive.  And much better than a vaguely positive vibe from everyone is lots of evidence that some students really loved the class for the right reasons, but not all of them and maybe far from all of them. So there is, in truth, only a loose correlation between genuinely excellent evaluations and really high numbers. One reason is that there’s no denying that some faculty become adept at generating the numbers by prioritizing them over the learning.

The untenured faculty member, especially at a fairly large institution, can’t count on anyone reading the comments with the appropriate discernment and rightly fears being unpopular or even controversial for any reason. So he or she operates with the cynicism that accompanies the observation that virtue is not rewarded.

Virtuous Un-cynical Teachers

That means tenured faculty members typically have more incentive to be good–that is, authentically virtuous and un-cynical–teachers. They have less reason to be concerned about blips in evaluation numbers and often become confident that their reputation as teachers, developed over the years, trumps the quantitative data. It’s true that tenure protects some cynical teachers too, but it does less than the absence of tenure to facilitate excessively consumer-sensitive behavior.

Now there are some who say that if we got rid of tenure, we could break what many experts perceive as the corrupt bargain between students and faculty that leads to both grade inflation and very high scores on the evaluation. I’ll give you high marks for no good reason if you do the same for me. The main priority could be firing instructors who don’t grade with the measurable intention of whipping inflation now. But, to instructively over-generalize, we can see that the main priority of most of our institutions is enrollment and retention, and the main fact, especially among residential colleges, is the almost cutthroat competition for the increasingly scarce resource of the student.

When Princeton, for example, decided to get a little tougher (to improve its reputation) in its grading (getting the average GPA below 3.5!), it quickly decided that that point of distinction was an unacceptable competitive hindrance in the marketplace for the best and the brightest. So at most places most of the time, there’s not nearly enough reason for untenured faculty to risk low or even mediocre evaluations by getting tougher. That’s the type of experiment that might more reasonably be performed after tenure.

Let me conclude by mentioning the most inconvenient truth for those who oppose tenure.  At most of our colleges and universities (most private residential colleges and regional state universities), the teaching load is pretty demanding and salaries aren’t so great. Anyone who dedicates his or her life to teaching in such a place is a sucker–a sucker we should believe in.

It’s said that a downside of tenure is that it keeps faculty from being entrepreneurial by making them feel too secure.  The value of a good teacher in the marketplace goes down over time, and that’s one reason for the (probably somewhat avoidable) salary compression. Everyone really in the know knows that excellent teaching is nearly impossible to measure–or at least that the people doing the measuring don’t know what they’re doing. Not only that, teaching excellence is, in part, contextual–a teacher can flourish one place but not another for a variety of reasons. So when an experienced teacher looks for another job, he or she finds out that all the devoted and effective teaching he or she has done doesn’t count for much.

What does count in the marketplace (far more than it should at the undergraduate level) is publication.  The kind of excellence displayed in publication is easy to see and for many even easy to quantify. So the entrepreneurial professor at a small college has the incentive to get the teaching on the kind of auto-pilot that reliably generates the scores on the evaluation and spend most quality time on publishing. Tenure provides the kind of security (if often not the kind of money) that discourages that kind of behavior.

Contrary to Voegeli’s suggestion, a really good way to have a topflight undergraduate teaching institution is to make sure that most faculty have tenure, so that most faculty are devoted to spending most of their time helping students get what they most need. Tenure certainly discourages a career deformed by the behavior of mechanically generating marginal articles just to produce a more marketable resume, a behavior Voegeli rightly outed as often a trivial pursuit not worthy of support by either the taxpayers or the student’s tuition dollars.

 

I think it’s easy to see that the best teaching is going on at small colleges where most faculty are tenured and almost all are tenure track. Send your kids to one of them! The faculty members at my college are remarkably un-cynical about the secure career the institution offers good teachers, whatever they might think about other administrative initiatives. But nationwide, the number of credit hours generated by tenured and tenure-track faculty shrinks as the number generated by adjuncts and temporary faculty explodes. I hope nobody really believes that it’s good for genuinely higher education that our “instructional workforce” takes on many of the qualities of a proletariat. It’s not even good for cost control, but that’s an issue for another day.

Iowa and the Groupthink Academy

That certain quarters of the academy–humanities
departments, most social sciences departments, and many graduate programs
(social work, education, and to a lesser extent law)–are ideologically
imbalanced is not news. A decision in an Iowa court, however, exposed the
difficulty in addressing the problem.

The case, which received extensive coverage in the Des Moines Register and attracted some
notice in the national press, involved Teresa Wagner, who in 2006 applied for a
vacancy at the University of Iowa Law School. (She then applied for adjunct jobs
between 2007 and 2009.) Wagner had served as a part-time instructor before that
time, was invited for an interview for the tenure-track job but didn’t receive
it, and then didn’t get any of the adjunct positions, either. (It’s odd indeed
for a candidate considered qualified enough to be a finalist for a tenure-track
job to, in turn, be deemed unqualified for an adjunct’s position.) Wagner
believed that her outspoken activism on social issues and her affiliation with
some very conservative groups, notably the Family Research Council, motivated
the opposition to her candidacy. Wagner then sued the dean of the law school.

Winning a lawsuit for an adverse hiring decision is all
but impossible. (The contrast here is to an adverse tenure decision, where the
odds are long but not insurmountable.) The university can always claim that,
whatever the apparent strengths of the plaintiff, there simply was another,
more qualified, candidate for the position, and that privacy/personnel rules
prevent a thorough airing of the matter. Given the inherently subjective nature
of the hiring process, that line of argument almost always carries the day, to
such an extent that few lawsuits alleging bias in the hiring process even make
it to trial.

The Wagner case, however, was unusual, in that she was
able to present an e-mail from the law school’s associate dean–dubbed a
“smoking gun” document by her attorney–in which the associate dean wrote, “Frankly,
one thing that worries me is that some people may be opposed to Teresa serving in
any role in part at least because they so despise her politics (and especially
her activism about it). I hate to think that is the case, and I don’t actually
think that, but I’m worried that I may be missing something.”

The law school dean unsurprisingly denied Wagner’s claim
of ideological bias, and instead rested on an assertion that Wagner had flubbed
an interview question by saying she’d refuse to teach a course required for the
position. But the law school’s position was weakened by its inability to
produce any contemporaneous references to this alleged flubbing (the notes from
other faculty seemed to praise, not disparage, Wagner’s performance). And a
videotape of Wagner’s interview that Wagner’s critics promised would prove their
case was conveniently erased.

Continue reading Iowa and the Groupthink Academy

Tenured Incognizance

A small controversy surfaced
last week at University of Central Florida when a psychology professor sent an email
to all his students to berate some of them for “religious bigotry.” 

According to the professor’s letter, some Christian students in class
that evening claimed that their faith is “the most valid religion,” thereby
“demonstrating to the rest of the class what religious arrogance and bigotry
looks like.” When the professor asked students to imagine how Muslims,
Hindus, Buddhists, and “non-believers” experience that
affirmation, a student stood and urged others “not to participate”–to the
professor a grossly arrogant and disrespectful act.

A university should abhor such “censorship” and
“anti-intellectualism,” the professor concluded. Students go there to be
challenged, to encounter ideas contrary to “cherished beliefs,” to become
“critical, independent thinkers.”

Very well. We don’t know exactly what happened in that class,
but the lengthy email contains nothing to surprise anyone who has spent
time on campus and doesn’t share the orthodox secular
left-liberalism. On the professor’s part, we have:

  • The customary
    condescension–“We’re adults.  We’re at a university.”
  • The inability to
    respect class boundaries–“There is no topic that is ‘off-limits’ for us to
    address in class, even if only remotely related to the course topic.
  • The elevation of
    mainstream beliefs into an oppressive hegemony–“the tyranny of the masses” (the
    dominant group, that is, which in this case, are Christians).
  • And finally, the
    interpretation of conviction as intolerance–“Bigots–radical bigots or religious
    bigots–never question their prejudices and bigotry.  They are convinced
    their beliefs are correct.”

Of course, every believer believes his or her religion is the most
valid one, and to say that doing so victimizes others is to raise sensitivities
to paranoid levels. Indeed, no belief can be held if it isn’t regarded as
correct.

But it is a waste of time to make such points. For professors
such as this one, the inconsistencies and contradictions run so deep that there
is little hope of dispelling them. His cultural relativism is
absolute. He calls for mutual respect, yet inserts sarcasms about
students. Etcetera. 

His incognizance is more significant than his ideology. It
poses a stiffer challenge to conservatives and libertarians than his liberalism
does, and so does his attitude. Instead of taking the Christian students’
assertion as a position to explore, he denounces it. Instead of ponder
the “not-participate” ejaculation as a comment upon him, he turns it onto the
student alone.

This is a hardened condition, and it won’t soften. It has
tenure and (spurious) academic freedom behind it, so why change, especially
when the majority of colleagues reinforce it? No wonder the many
and valid criticisms of the ideology of the professors have produced so little
real reform. They don’t touch attitudes and self-images, things academics
guard more closely than their ideas.

How to Save Tenure–Cut It Way Back

lipsman tenure.jpg

Professors with tenure have lifetime appointments that can only be revoked after some egregious transgression, summarized by such formal labels as moral turpitude, gross negligence or dereliction of duty. In effect, the only tenured professors who get the sack are those who have robbed a bank, raped a co-ed or pistol-whipped a colleague.

Why would a university agree to make an appointment that so severely restricts its ability to terminate an underperforming or incompetent employee?  We all know the historic reason: faculty need to be free to pursue controversial theories, novel ideas and unexplored terrain. Then why is the tenure system under attack? Here are some reasons:

Continue reading How to Save Tenure–Cut It Way Back

Yes, Professors Work Hard, But…

Do college professors work harder than other upper-middle-class Americans, or less hard? Former college president David C. Levy’s March 23 op-ed in the Washington Post, arguing that faculty members ought to increase their classroom time by up to 67 percent, ignited a fierce debate in academe. Levy’s op-ed alone generated 1,352 comments online, mostly from professors insisting that they work very hard, what with preparing for classes, grading papers, meeting with students, sitting on committees, and doing the scholarly research that enabled them to win tenure and thus keep their jobs.

Continue reading Yes, Professors Work Hard, But…

Yes, College Professors Can Work Harder

David C. Levy’s Washington Post article, “Do college professors work hard enough?” set off quite the firestorm. His basic point was that we currently “pay for teaching time of nine to fifteen hours per week for 30 weeks,” but that

If the higher education community were to adjust its schedules and semester structure so that teaching faculty clocked a 40-hour week (roughly 20 hours of class time and equal time spent on grading, preparation and related duties) for 11 months, the enhanced efficiency could be the equivalent of a dramatic budget increase…

Continue reading Yes, College Professors Can Work Harder

Unionize All Those Adjuncts?–Let’s Not

adjunct union protests.jpgSome two-thirds of America’s college students are taught by adjuncts, and now the battle is on over whether these low-paid, low-status workers should be unionized. Adjuncts, also called contingent faculty, are teachers hired without tenure, paid a small fraction of those on tenure-track positions, (typically $2700 per course, with minimal benefits). All three college faculty unions–the AAUP, American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association–have recently ramped up unionization campaigns while non-academic unions like the United Auto Workers have likewise entered the battle. The stakes are high both for institutions and for individuals.

One does not have to be a Marxist to yell, “Exploitation!” Endless tales of “Gypsy Scholars” abound–young men and women struggling with no job security to teach as many as six courses per semester, occasionally at multiple schools, lacking any health or pension plan at a salary comparable to working at McDonalds. Meanwhile tenure-track colleagues, some of whom may be brain dead, enjoy a princely wage (with generous benefits) for teaching identical courses. So, what better way to eliminate this blatant unfairness than unionization?

Continue reading Unionize All Those Adjuncts?–Let’s Not

An Academy Made Up of Adjuncts?

The Chronicle recently featured an article
about the Adjunct Project, a program put together by a University of Georgia
adjunct named Joshua Boldt “asking fellow adjuncts to enter information about
their pay and working conditions.” Adjuncts are often underpaid. They also
generally do not have research or service expectations, and they are almost
never hired through competitive searches. The position is a useful one for
graduate students needing experience.

Continue reading An Academy Made Up of Adjuncts?

Why Not Hire Your Own Adjunct? They Are Very Inexpensive

The cheeky blog Edububble offers a modest proposal: Since
college tuition is so high, why not skip the campus middleman and “hire
your own professor” as a private tutor?

You think you can’t afford that? You’re wrong. While it’s
true that hiring a $300,000-a-year academic superstar from Harvard would break
the bank for most students and their parents, the vast majority of college
instructors, many of whom boast doctoral degrees from prominent universities
just like the guy from Harvard, are willing to teach for as little as
$1,600-$3,000 per three-credit-hour semester-long course. They already do.

Continue reading Why Not Hire Your Own Adjunct? They Are Very Inexpensive

The Outrage of the Adjuncts

higher-ed-hand.jpgEver heard of the New Faculty Majority? That’s a euphemism of sorts, but an accurate one, for adjuncts and other non-tenure-track teachers who now account for 70 percent of all college instructors. The group is three years old and met for a premiere “summit” in Washington, DC. on January 28th in conjunction with the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

From the tenor of most of the summit’s presentations, the group seems to have decided that the villain behind their failure to obtain respectable academic jobs is capitalism. Neo-Marxist phrases filled the air: “wage theft,” “neoliberal agenda,” “corporate America,” “under assault from the right,” “privatization of the production of knowledge,” and “marketization of the university.” I thought: if I had a dollar for each such phrase, I could endow a tenured chair for myself in the Ivy League, plus another chair with a dollar for every Dickensian plaint about minimum-wage-paid non-tenured instructors going on welfare, living out of their vans, limping to their classes with holes in their shoes, and committing suicide.

Still, this self-described academic proletariat had a point–although it was a point that took me a while to ford my way through the “Grapes of Wrath” logorrhea to see. (It helped that the NFM’s sole Republican board member, Matthew Williams, was able to advocate for the non-tenured without invoking Karl Marx, the Occupy movement, or anti-globalization guru Naomi Klein.)

Dreaming of a Professor, but Getting an Adjunct

The point–and it is a powerful one–was this: Undergraduate students, their parents, and the taxpayers who subsidize public education spend large sums of money on what they imagine to be a high-quality academic experience for young people. They imagine the distinguished tenured professors whose achievements grace the university’s website forming intimate and memorable mentoring relationships with their undergraduate students via small classes and one-on-one discussions. Instead, what those students often get, at least for the first two years and sometimes for all four, are behemoth classes taught, sometimes indifferently, by poorly paid, minimally supervised, time-harassed, and even burned-out “contingent” faculty whose connections with university life are so tenuous that students complain they never see their teachers outside of the classroom.

At community colleges, for example, only 19 percent of faculty are on the tenure track; the rest are drop-ins. One of the most crucial college courses, freshman composition, designed to prepare students to hone research skills and present cogent scholarly arguments, is on nearly every campus the sole domain of non-tenured part-timers making a couple thousand dollars a class–if they’re lucky. Tenured professors typically eschew freshman comp, stay away from large lecture courses unless they can buffer themselves with armies of graduate assistants, and in general try to teach as little as they can get away with, preferably in small graduate seminars. Universities prefer to spend their money on campus amenities and armies of administrators rather than on faculty salaries, particularly at the lower level. So students can essentially be cheated out of critical years of education that they, their parents, or state taxpayers are paying large sums for.

“No one is monitoring what’s happening in the classrooms,” said Williams, who holds a Master’s in Public Administration and who taught communications part time for three years at the University of Akron. “I was never evaluated. My syllabus was never read by anyone except my students.”

As the NFM presenters were eager to point out, the vast majority of non-tenured instructors, despite the doctoral degrees that most of them hold, are part-time “adjuncts” working for as little as $1,400 per three-credit-hour course taught (do the math and you’ll see that even if they manage to cram five classes per semester into their schedules–an unusually high teaching load for an adjunct–$14,000 a year doesn’t buy a lot of groceries). On top of their wretched pay, adjuncts lack the most rudimentary job security, because most are hired on an as-needed basis a few days before the semester begins. And on top of that, because college administrators want to keep adjunct faculty at arm’s length as part-timers–and thus get out of paying for their health insurance and other full-time employee benefits–few institutions permit adjuncts to teach more than two classes per semester. In order to earn something resembling a living wage, many adjuncts cobble together two or three teaching gigs on multiple campuses and spend much of their working day driving from part-time job to part-time job in the kind of car that you can afford when your income is $14,000 a year. Few campuses provide offices for adjunct faculty–or even parking spaces, computer access, or cubbies for storing their books. Adjuncts almost never get invited to departmental social events. Indeed, it’s common for the tenure-track professors in a given department not even to know the adjuncts’ names. As Betsy Smith, who teaches English as a second language part time at Cape Cod Community College, put it: “It’s matter of respect. They never refer to me as ‘my colleague.'”

Still, as I sat through the NFM summit in an audience of about a hundred of the angry untenured, I couldn’t help thinking: Isn’t all this misery self-inflicted? No one is holding a gun to the heads of these underemployed folks with their hyper-developed brains, strings of advanced degrees, and 20-year-old automobiles. Colleges pay adjuncts $1,400 a class (on the wealthier campuses the rate is more like $3,500 or $4,000 a class, still way under the average $55,000 annual starting salary for a brand-new assistant professor on the tenure track teaching three classes a semester)…because they can. In today’s academic market, at least in the humanities, there are at least two, and sometimes four holders of brand-new doctorates for every tenure-track opening. So there seems to be no end to the line of the over-educated who are willing to endure any indignity in order to keep a toehold in college teaching, even of the most marginal kind. “I put 10 years of my life into getting my Ph.D., and I don’t want to give it up” was a response I heard more than once when I asked several adjuncts at the summit why they didn’t just stop adjuncting and do something that would afford them a decent lifestyle.

Many of the summit panels consisted essentially of consciousness-raising, 1960s style. Clare Goldstene, a lecturer in the history department at American University, complained that lack of tenure made leftist faculty timid about expressing their views. “It dims the potent voice of progressive exchange,” she said. Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center for Community Change, a Washington-based advocacy group for “communities of color,” declared that there was a right-wing “effort afoot to roll back the 20th century: the New Deal, civil rights, voting rights, welcoming to immigrants.” He urged non-tenured instructors to form coalitions with day laborers, domestic workers, “demonized” public-school teachers’ unions, and a bunch of foreign students who entered the U.S. last summer on work-study visas and found themselves shuttled off by a labor contractor into night-shift work packing chocolate for a Hershey business partner. “Those were slave-like conditions, not unlike the conditions you work under,” Bhargava told the adjuncts.

Perhaps the most incendiary of all was Joe Berry, author of “Reclaiming the Ivory Tower: Organizing Adjuncts to Change Higher Education” and also the American Association of University Professors representative at Rutgers (the AAUP, the American Federation of Teachers, and the National Education Association are all competing among the non-tenured for union members). “This is a rich country, there’s plenty of money,” Berry declared. “It’s just in the wrong pockets.” In order to pay adjuncts better, Berry suggested a variety of redistributive measures at the federal level: a more progressive tax structure, cutbacks on military spending, and curtailing America’s “barbarous rate of incarceration.” Debra Leigh Scott, an adjunct professor in English at Temple University and the Community College of Philadelphia, narrated lugubrious tales of adjuncts she knew who signed up for food stamps, sold their eggs, reused their teabags because they had to buy cat food that week, and attended faculty dinners at restaurants where they couldn’t afford the wine. One adjunct shot his wife, set fire to their house, and then shot himself because the two had lost their jobs, their house was in foreclosure, and his wife had cancer. (Scott’s blog, The Homeless Adjunct, contains many more such woeful stories.) “My daughter is a corporate attorney because she doesn’t want to live on the edge of poverty the way I do,” Scott said.

‘They Don’t Care about Their Students’

Scott’s daughter struck me as having the right idea. So did Stanley Katz, director of Princeton’s Center for Arts and Cultural policy Studies. Katz, who received his doctorate from Princeton in 1961 and has spent his entire career teaching at elite universities, including Princeton, warned the assembled non-tenured that it was “naïve” for them to think, for example, that they could ever be accepted as equals by the research-focused–and status-obsessed–tenured professors who teach at their institutions. (One of the AAUP’s goals is for adjuncts to have access to the tenure track based upon their teaching records.) “Most of my colleagues care only about research. Why should they care about you? They don’t care about their own students.”

Another reality check came from Valerie Hardcastle, dean of arts and sciences at the University of Cincinnati, a drop-in from the university administrators’ meeting. “There’s an 850-pound gorilla in this room that’s never been discussed and never mentioned: the overproduction of Ph.D.’s. I say: You’re a smart person with a Ph.D.–why are you doing this to yourself? I don’t hire adjunct faculty in math because they won’t work under those conditions. And I don’t hire adjunct faculty in Spanish because they won’t work under those conditions. But we have a plethora of English Ph.D.’s–and every year the English department comes to me and wants to expand the Ph.D. program.

Yes, it might have been provocative for the NFM summit to have focused, not on the immiseration of adjunct faculty, but on other factors: the faculty vanity, the desire to teach small classes of eager graduate students rather than large classes of disengaged undergrads, and the greed for cheap labor that has led English and departments to persist in operating doctoral programs whose chief yield is the impoverished and radicalized lifelong adjuncts. And while my advice to would-be adjunct professors is still “Just say no,” I emerged with a better understanding of why their perhaps futile quest for better working conditions has some merit: By systematically underpaying and mistreating the non-tenured faculty who bear the burden of basic education, colleges are systematically cheating their own students. As Maria Maisto, president of the NFM, told me in an interview after the conference, “It’s not just a market issue. The same entities control the supply and the demand.”

After 5,500 Publications on Melville, What’s Left for Number 5,501 to Say?

What does a young academic need to do to qualify for tenure? For the answer, take a look at this recent survey of provosts. In a set of questions regarding tenure, the key question was, do you agree with this statement?: “Junior faculty today confront rising standards for tenure–standards that many of their senior colleagues could not have met when they were up for tenure.”

An overwhelming majority of provosts agreed–71 percent from public doctorate universities, 72 percent from public masters universities, and 65 percent from private doctorate universities. This finding is important, not because it marks a major trend of recent times, but because of the opposite–at least that is the case in my area, the humanities. The rising standards have been in place since the mid-1970s, when the job market started to tighten up after massive hirings in the late-60s and early-70s. When I came out of grad school and hit the job market in the late-80s–a bad time to look for a tenure-track post–I and my peers grumbled about how little sympathy we got from 50-year-old professors who were able to snag a job before they even finished their dissertation, and were able to earn tenure by completing their dissertation and publishing an article or two.

Continue reading After 5,500 Publications on Melville, What’s Left for Number 5,501 to Say?

More Ideological Discrimination at the University of Iowa?

In the groupthink academy, perhaps the most opaque, but significant, personnel process comes in the hiring of new faculty. In a flawed tenure case (as I came to discover), some precedent exists for the courts (or, in my case, fair-minded senior administrators) intervening to undo an ethically improper outcome. In the typical hiring process, however, there’s almost no chance of any type of outside intervention, since it’s almost impossible to prove ideological, or political, or pedagogical discrimination. The result, of course, has been a tyranny of the majority in most humanities and many social science departments around the country.

Continue reading More Ideological Discrimination at the University of Iowa?

Who Wants to Be Evaluated by Students?

Student Evaluations.jpgMany in the academy, whether on the left or right, will agree that in the late 1960s, a fundamental change took place in the balance between student demands and faculty authority.  At about the same moment when many schools began eliminating comprehensive examinations to assess the competence of students in their major subjects, these same schools introduced what has become known as teaching evaluations. These evaluations have become the staple of administrations everywhere.  They are used to decide tenure and promotion decisions, and in some cases they are mandatory (e.g., a student cannot know her final grade for a course until she fills out an evaluation, provided conveniently online).  Such enforced democratic participation is pursued with the kind of determination once attributed to the enforcement practices of grade-school teachers.

It seems nearly impossible to imagine that once-upon-a-time, such institutions as Columbia University struggled over whether to promote to tenure someone whose politics were considered “radical”. The origins of the American Association of University Professors, founded in 1915, devoted itself for forty years to the protection of dissent and academic freedom. Students played no more than a whispering role in such disputes.

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Do We Really Want Professors to Be Productive?

charlie-chaplin.jpgAccountability is all the rage in today’s education reform industry and at the university level, “productivity” typically means upping scholarly publishing.  The allure is simple–who can resist prodding lolling-about professors to generate more knowledge?  Unfortunately, putting the thumbscrews on idle faculty will only push universities farther to the left.  Better to pay professors for silence.

When I began my academic career at Cornell University in 1969 publications were important but production was not yet industrialized.  Quality–not volume–was overriding and it was tolerable that some senior faculty had published almost nothing for decades.  By the time I retired in 2002 from the University of Illinois-Urbana, however, scholarly publication there and elsewhere often mimicked Soviet-style manufacturing.  Every year we received detailed annual report forms with multiple categories to list every last publication, all categorized according to supposed prestige rankings, as the basis for salary increases and promotion.  Volume (“productivity”) was now deep in the academic DNA, even at schools hardly famous for original research.

Continue reading Do We Really Want Professors to Be Productive?

The Incredible Shrinking Tenure

For a variety of reasons, but mainly because of cost, tenure has become a focus of debate in recent months. Given the trends in hiring and working conditions, though, one wonders why, for the fact is that tenure has been squeezed into an ever-smaller portion of the instructional employee population for years.

Two charts in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s almanac this month display stark numbers against it.  In 2009, the rate of teachers in four-year colleges who were “full-time tenure” stood at 25 percent.  The rate of those on the tenure-track stood at 11 percent.  That means that nearly two-thirds of instructional personnel didn’t have tenure and didn’t expect to win it, either.  The breakdown was:

  • Non-tenure-track, full time                        15 percent
  • Part-time                                                 25 percent
  • Graduate assistants                                 25 percent

The other chart details what happened in the previous decade.  It shows the growth in numbers of teachers by tenure status.  Every category went up, including the number of tenured professors, as one would expect at a time when the full-time undergraduate population swelled by an extraordinary 45 percent.

Continue reading The Incredible Shrinking Tenure

When Texas College Reforms Come to Florida

It’s hard to tell whether it’s a news story or a media meme: Florida’s Republican Gov. Rick Scott, a fan of Texas Republican Gov. (and current GOP presidential candidate) Rick Perry, is reportedly considering foisting on Florida’s public universities the same much-criticized reform proposals that Perry has been trying to foist on public universities in Texas. Behind the scenes in all of this–or so the news reports imply–is the looming presence of Jeff Sandefer, Voldemort to the Texas higher-education establishment. Sandefer, a Texas oil entrepreneur, disgruntled former business professor at the University of Texas-Austin, and major contributor to Perry’s gubernatorial campaigns, authored the “Seven Breakthrough Solutions,” a 2008 document mostly calling for public universities to abandon their research missions and focus on undergraduate teaching. The “Solutions,” which formed the centerpiece of  a 2008 conference involving Perry and the regents of the University of Texas (UT) system, reputedly underlay recent efforts by Perry to assess and reward teaching productivity at UT-Austin and Texas A&M–and now they’re said to underlie similar efforts under consideration by Scott in Florida.

Trouble is–it’s hard to find the story in this story of Sandefer’s tentacles stretching across the Gulf of Mexico to entangle Tallahassee. On July 26 an article by Lilly Rockwell of the News Service of Florida appeared on the WCTV website. It was titled “Scott Promotes Controversial Education Reforms: Controversial changes that have rocked Texas higher education system may be coming to Florida.” Rockwell had interviewed Scott.

Continue reading When Texas College Reforms Come to Florida

Campus Freedom, AAUP-Style

The American Association of University Professors has now issued its final report on “Ensuring Academic Freedom in Politically Controversial Academic Personnel groups.”) The basic principle is as unobjectionable as it is admirable: professors should not be hired, fired, or disciplined on the basis of their political beliefs. Yet the AAUP’s report is basically unchanged from the organization’s draft document, which I described at the time as “worse than nothing: it would have been far better for the organization simply to have issued a statement affirming that its job is upholding the views of a majority of its members, and that those professors whose views conflict with the academic majority can enjoy academic freedom rights only at the pleasure of the majority of their colleagues.”

The document’s final version retains nearly all of the weaknesses of the earlier draft. In the AAUP’s academy, virtually no check exists on the tyranny of the faculty majority. Outside criticism is inherently suspect. Students, trustees, and even “bloggers”–including, it would seem, academic bloggers who criticize the will of the majority–are portrayed alongside “talk-show hosts” as threats to the principle of academic freedom. (The report’s attack on students, who possess some academic freedom rights at nearly all non-religious universities, is particularly outrageous; anti-academic freedom students are described as those who “report and publicize offending classroom statements” made by faculty members, allegedly at the behest of “self-appointed watchdog groups.”)

Continue reading Campus Freedom, AAUP-Style

‘Yes, Some Teachers Do Very Little’

A huge brouhaha has erupted over the release and interpretation of data about the faculty of the University of Texas, centering on whether a relatively few individuals are doing most of the teaching at the system’s flagship institution, UT-Austin. Two reports drew most of the fire, one by my organization, the Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP), the other by Rick O’Donnell, a recently fired aide to the system.

The CCAP bottom line: it seems like a relatively small portion of the over 4,000 persons teaching on the Austin campus shoulder a huge percent of teaching burden (especially in relation to the costs they incur to the University) and an even smaller group garners the bulk of the outside research funds viewed as critical to the maintenance of the research mission. This means a large group of faculty members do moderate amounts of teaching and not much funded-research.

Our report said preliminary data “strongly suggest that the state of Texas could move towards making college more affordable by moderately increasing faculty emphasis on teaching. Looking only at the UT Austin campus, if the 80 percent of the faculty with the lowest teaching loads were to teach just half as much as the 20 percent with the highest loads, and if the savings were dedicated to tuition reduction, tuition could be cut by more than half ….”

Continue reading ‘Yes, Some Teachers Do Very Little’

How Administrations Undermine Their Faculties

the fall of the faculty.jpgIt’s no secret that America’s colleges and universities have become bastions of political rectitude. This is often attributed to the left-liberal political orientation of the faculty. Typically, however, the administration, not the faculty, is the driving force behind efforts to promote campus diversity, to build multicultural programming and to regulate campus speech.  The president of the University of Rochester, for example, recently announced a 31-point “diversity plan” saying that diversity was a “fundamental value” of his university.

What accounts for the solicitude shown by university administrators for this progressive political agenda?  The chief reason is that a pitched battle for control of the university is under way, and by championing left-liberal causes administrators hope to bolster their own power

How Productive Do Professors Have to Be?

800px-Professors.JPGThe firing of a controversial aide to the University of Texas system has triggered a full-blown debate over the productivity of teachers and whether “star” professors who teach few classes are really worth the cost to the public. Rick O’Donnell, dismissed on April 19 after only 49 days on the job as special adviser to the public university system’s regents, had argued forcefully that public universities should devote their resources to teaching undergraduates rather than academic research. On May 5, in response to a request by the UT board of regents, the University of Texas-Austin, the flagship of the 15-campus UT system, released an 821-page spreadsheet listing the names, tenure status, total compensation, and course enrollment of each of the 4,200 people with teaching responsibilities on the UT-Austin payroll.

The university cautioned that the data were preliminary and likely contained some errors. Nonetheless, acting on the presumption that the spreadsheet was generally accurate, Richard Vedder, an economics professor at Ohio University, who heads the Washington-based Center for College Affordability and Productivity, quickly issued an analysis of the spreadsheet from which he drew some startling conclusions: measured by student credit hours taught (the credit value of courses multiplied by the number of students enrolled in them), the top 20 percent of faculty shoulder 50 percent of the teaching load, while the bottom 20 percent teach only 2 percent of student credit hours.

Continue reading How Productive Do Professors Have to Be?

Honor Codes and Affirmative Action

I recently posted an essay here about a racial hoax at the University of Virginia Law School that quickly became an issue implicating the University’s honor code. Briefly, Johnathan Perkins was an attractive third year UVa law student from what could be described as a civil rights family inasmuch as both his father and grandfather wrote civil rights books. A few weeks before graduation Perkins sent a letter to the Virginia Law Weekly describing in vivid detail an offensive and frightening case of racial profiling and abuse he had suffered at the hands the UVa police. Or it would have been offensive and frightening abuse if it had actually happened, but it didn’t. Perkins made the whole thing up, he confessed after an investigation had been launched, to “bring attention to … police misconduct.” The police and the commonwealth’s attorney declined to bring charges, arguing in effect that charging someone for inciting a riot by shouting Fire! in a crowded theater would discourage others from reporting real fires.

At most places the refusal to bring charges would have been the end of the matter, but the University of Virginia is decidedly not most places. It has one of the most ancient and honorable Honor Codes in the nation, a code that most members of what “Mr. Jefferson,” in local parlance, referred to as the “academical village” take very, very seriously, and the honor code has a “single sanction” for those who lie, cheat, or steal: expulsion. Whatever happens with Perkins — his degree has been withheld pending an honor council investigation — his fraud has focused attention not on imagined police misconduct but on a long simmering dispute over what can be described as the “disparate impact” of the honor code on minorities at UVa.

Various explanations have been offered for the “overrepresentation” of those accused and convicted of honor violations, among them the SPOTLIGHTING of black students — they stand out in a mass of white students (they all look different?) — and the “DIMMING” of whites in a white crowd (they all look alike?). Really. No one at UVa  seems to take very seriously the idea that the “overrepresentation” represents  disproportionate actual honor violations. Whatever the explanation, however, the disparate impact of honor codes on minorities is not a phenomenon limited to Mr. Jefferson’s University. 

Continue reading Honor Codes and Affirmative Action