What if all college professors were forced to be higher-education entrepreneurs, with salaries pegged to the number of students they attract to their classes? That’s the model recently proposed by a Texas professor who styled himself “Publius Audax” on a Pajamas Media blog. Publius launched his proposal, he wrote, as the solution to a projected $25 billion budget shortfall over the next two years that is likely to hit the Texas higher education hard. Publius’ argument is that his “entrepreneurial professor model,” when coupled with other reforms would “harness the power and efficiency of the market” to make public higher education cheaper and better. The other reforms include abolishing tenure, eliminating state subsidies to public campuses, getting rid of “core curricula” (which nowadays are nothing more than pointless distribution requirements, and allowing private “charter colleges” (both nonprofit and for-profit) onto public campuses in order to provide more competition.
Hmm, my own undergraduate alma mater was founded by a highly successful entrepreneur, the railroad baron Leland Stanford. What if college professors were more like Leland Stanford and less like the brilliant but economically illiterate head-in-the-clouds types who taught at Stanford when I went there?
Here is how Publius’ entrepreneurial professor model would work: All professors and lecturers would receive a base “living wage” of $30,000 plus benefits. Beyond that it would be up to the professors themselves to generate a “tuition-based bonus” for themselves consisting of 50 percent of the tuition income generated by students enrolled in their classes, “up to a maximum of 320 students (960 student hours).” All instructors would be allowed to teach up to eight classes a year. In order to gin up the price competition further, professors, department heads, and even entire colleges could offer tuition rebates to students, the money to come out of the professors’ salary bonuses. Professors with ultra-large classes could hire teaching assistants—but the money would again have to come out of their salary bonuses. And to ensure that professors wouldn’t game the system by handing out easy A’s to all comers, there would be a strict grading curve. No more than 15 percent of students in any given class could receive an A-grade, and another 15 percent would have to either flunk or receive a D. Professors whose grades deviated from the curve would lose their bonus for every student whose grade exceeded the curve. This would not only keep the professors in line, Publius argues, but would “transform the campus culture, replacing partying with studying” as students scrambled to stay out of the bottom of the class.
Although the entrepreneurial professor model sounds brutal, some college instructors would make out very well. A commenter on Publius’ blog entry calculated that an engineering professor at the University of Michigan (also part of a public system) could earn about $100,000 in a single semester for teaching just two classes: quantum physics to 40 students and Introduction to Engineering to another 60. Double that for a second semester, and it would be nice work if you could get it. (Publius would also allow professors to keep whatever externally funded research grants they could garner.)
Not so fortunate would be most humanities instructors—but hey, isn’t that what most of us want? Time for professors to pay the financial price for teaching useless courses stuffed with postmodernist gobbledygook, warmed-over Marxism, and feminist rage to ever-dwindling numbers of bored undergraduates—who would flee those classes even faster if they didn’t satisfy distribution requirements that would be eliminated under the Publius model. And since tenure would also be gone if Publius had his way, along with the publish-or-perish ethos of the tenure track, and since outside research money is scarce in the humanities, the flood of unread and unreadable humanities “scholarship” that may serve to demonstrate the professor’s flair at channeling Foucault and winning Bad Writing contests but contributes nothing substantive to the realm of knowledge would disappear. Good riddance, right? As Publius writes: “The professors we may lose will be those who are overpaid, underworked, and either uninterested or unskilled in undergraduate teaching.”
Yes, revenge is sweet, but there are a few problems with Publius’ analysis. The first is that overpaid and underworked faculty are not the sole reason—or even a significant reason–for the ever-escalating college costs that have generated a tuition inflation rate that over the past three decades has outstripped general inflation rate by a ratio of up to 2-1. As the Center for College Affordability and Productivity reported in a 2009 analysis of government data, the real culprit is bloated campus administration. The Center noted that over the last two decades colleges and universities “doubled their full-time support staff while enrollment increased only 40 percent,” according to a New York Times report on the Center’s study. The numbers of full-time instructors (or their equivalent in part-time adjuncts) rose about 50 percent. The Times article stated:
“The growth in support staff included some jobs that did not exist 20 years ago, like environmental sustainability officers and a broad array of information technology workers. The support staff category includes many different jobs, like residential-life staff, admissions and recruitment officers, fund-raisers, loan counselors and all the back-office staff positions responsible for complying with the new regulations and reporting requirements colleges face.”
Even the 50 percent increase in the net number of full-time faculty over the past 20 years is somewhat misleading. Most of that growth has been due to colleges’ ever-increasing use of part-time adjunct professors working on short-term contracts to fill teaching vacancies once filled by teachers who were either already tenured or on the tenure track.
Three decades ago, according to an analysis of Education Department data by the American Association of University Professors, adjunct professors both part-time and full-time accounted for 43 percent of college and university teaching staffs 20 years ago; today they account for nearly 70 percent (the AAUP’s numbers could be exaggerated, but not by much). Adjunct pay, which almost never includes benefits, is typically so low—as little as $1,400 per semester-length course at some community colleges—that the $30,000-a-year base salary proposed by Publius would probably look good to many of them. In short, it is hard to see how switching to an entrepreneurial model would save colleges—or the state legislatures that fund public colleges—any money, because the colleges themselves have already figured out on their own how to lower instruction costs drastically, and have done so quite ruthlessly without trimming their ever-escalating overall costs one whit. And while I don’t agree with Publius that tenure should be abolished—I see tenure as a two-edged shield that often protects conservative faculty members from attempts to destroy their careers on the part of their militantly progressive fellows—tenure is, for all practical purposes, quietly but inexorably disappearing on its own, as tenure-track slots are left unfilled and part-timers shoulder an increasing percentage of the teaching burden on most campuses.
Second, the entrepreneurial professor model, with its rewards for attracting large numbers of students to successful entrepreneurs’ classes, could very well backfire as an effort to encourage an infusion of conservative thought into campuses along with the free-market ethos. For example, one of the most popular college professors in America is Michael Sandel, who attracts about 700 undergraduates per semester to his “justice” class at Harvard. Sandel is an entertaining and fair-minded teacher, but does he deserve to earn close to $1 million per semester (if the University of Michigan professor’s numbers are correct) for filling students’ heads with his self-described “communitarian” ethos that focuses on government redistribution of wealth?
At Princeton Paul Krugman, whose New York Times columns similarly urge massive redistribution of wealth (via higher taxes) together with massive government spending, draws an average of 400 students to his Economics 102 class. At the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Bart Ehrman, author of the Christianity-debunking “Misquoting Jesus,” regularly enrolls 350 students in his Religion 22 class. And Michael Mann, global-warming promoter and inventor of the controversial “hockey stick” graph (it conveniently skipped the medieval warm period to sketch out frightening levels of alleged human-induced temperature increases during our time), teaches an undergraduate class titled “Gaia” at Pennsylvania State University that is all about “global climate change, destruction of stratospheric ozone, and tropical deforestation, species extinction, and the loss of biodiversity.” That class, last taught in the fall of 2009, was large enough for Mann to have hired a teaching assistant. Are these really the people on whom we want to shower outsize monetary rewards under the entrepreneurial professor model?
The strongest objection to Publius’ model, however, is its cynical (perhaps understandably so) implicit assumption that the humanities are irredeemable and that all humanities scholarship is worthless, certainly unworthy of college and university support. I’ll draw on my own experience at Stanford, where I had a double major that included classics. This was back in the good old days, before Stanford ditched its Western civilization-centered core curriculum during the late 1980s. But even then few undergraduates wanted to devote much time to studying Greek and Latin. My elementary Greek class didn’t contain more than a dozen students, and the advanced classes in which we read Plato’s Republic and the plays of Aeschylus were even smaller. Had the excellent (if, yeah, stereotypically liberal) professors who taught them been on the entrepreneurial model, they wouldn’t have been able to afford to stay classics professors for long, since some of them had families to support. In short, there wouldn’t have been a classics department.
And agreed, much of what passes for humanities scholarship these days is jargon-saturated junk—but some of it isn’t. I’m thinking classics again: of the ongoing project to unroll, decipher, and publish the contents of a vast library of almost hopelessly charred papyrus scrolls in Herculaneum, destroyed along with Pompeii by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D. The point is that universities aren’t meant to be entrepreneurial entities, even if some free-market thinking can help them operate more efficiently. They’re more like opera companies or museums: entities that cater to niche interests in learning. They sponsor scholarly research that is valuable but could not exist if they had to pitch themselves on a purely commercial basis to a wide swathe of people. This was something that Leland Stanford understood, for he declined to run his university in the way that he ran his railroad. Much has gone wrong with institutions of higher learning, and much that has gone wrong is the fault of those who teach there. But the aim should be to create a new campus world of “entrepreneurial responsiveness to demand” but, rather, to reinforce the core functions that underlay the creation of universities in the first place. One place to start would be getting rid of the administrative frills that have turned college into a lifestyle, not a place of learning. Now that would save some money.