A good deal of outraged reaction greeted “Fat City: Thank You, Illinois Taxpayers, for My Cushy Life,” an article posted on the Weekly Standard’s website on Friday by David Rubinstein, a recently retired (after 34 years) sociology professor at the publicly funded University of Illinois-Chicago.
The article was a hoot and a half. Rubinstein chronicled in detail the charmed lifestyle of a tenured full professor at a prestigious research university: the “2-2” loads (translated into English, that means teaching just two classes per semester, at least one of those classes often a tiny graduate seminar); the no-dress code, so that profs could show up in class unshaven and wearing T-shirts and jeans if they liked; the easy hours (no classes before 11 a.m. if you liked), hugely long vacations, especially over the summer, and academic conferences aplenty, often in exotic European locales, all paid for by his university–that is, by the taxpayers of the state of Illinois. Best of all were the retirement benefits (including, at UI-Chicago, a generous health plan), constitutionally guaranteed because Rubinstein taught at a state school and contractually guaranteed because of the institution of tenure itself, which means lifetime employment. Rubinstein wrote: “Why do I put ‘worked’ in quotation marks? Because my main task as a university professor was self-cultivation: reading and writing about topics that interested me. Maybe that counts as work.”
Even funnier than Rubinstein’s piece, though, was the reaction of other college professors to his emperor’s-no-clothes take on professorial life at a top-tier university. National Public Radio’s website reposted the piece, and nearly all of the 38 academics who submitted comments completely misunderstood Rubinstein’s point, leading you to wonder how smart people with Ph.D.’s really are. Most of the commenters, reading Rubinstein’s piece as a personal confession rather than a description of prestige-university culture, excoriated him as a “slacker,” a “whiny contrarian,” and a “nobody” who had somehow weaseled the University of Illinois-Chicago out of vast sums of salary. One of Rubinstein’s own colleagues, Peter Hales, an art history professor at UI-Chicago, sniffed, “The UIC I taught at was a place of passion, energy, and hard work.”
But Rubinstein never said that he hadn't worked hard or with "passion." He simply said that he was paid by UIC mostly for doing something that he enjoyed doing anyway: reading and writing about topics of interest to him. Indeed, had any of the NPR commenters bothered to check instead of fulminate, they would have discovered that he can boast an impressive record of scholarship. Besides a major book titled "Marx and Wittgenstein: Social Science and Social Praxis," he has published numerous other books and essays about social theory, that is, the way sociologists think. Rubinstein's point was that worthy as those topics might be, they represented "exquisitely esoteric interests" that did "not match the educational needs of students" and perhaps should not be "supported by taxpayers." (Hales might ask himself similar questions, as his own major book, "Silver Cities," is a study of vintage photographs of urban spaces.)
Other commenters took Rubinstein to task for his mediocre ratings on the student-evaluation website RateMyProfessors. Indeed, Rubinstein did garner a raft of negative evaluations, mostly, apparently, because he expected his students to show up for class. Here is an excerpt from one of the student ratings:
This guy is so weird! I thought I was getting a B FOR SURE. He's tricky. His tests are from lecture so I bombed the midterm cuz I didnt go a lot. Passing the final didn't matter then; I got a C regardless.
Finally, there were the complaints from adjunct professors, those victims of the current oversupply of doctoral degrees who, too proud to look for better-paying work outside academia, trudge from campus to campus teaching elementary-level courses for a pittance because the tenure-track positions that afforded Rubinstein his pleasant way of life are in short supply these days. One of the immiserated adjuncts, Melissa Bruninga-Matteau of the University of Montana, scolded Rubinstein: "You sir, are an embarrassment to the profession." Bruninga-Matteau seemed not to have read the paragraph in which Rubinstein took his own university to task for letting him and his well-paid colleagues get away with low or even no (if they snagged research grants) teaching loads and filling in the gaps with "adjuncts, hired with little scrutiny and subject to little supervision, and paid little."
The point of Rubinstein's Weekly Standard piece was to ask whether states and their taxpayers ought to be in the business of funding expensive research universities and equally expensive research-university culture. The lifestyle that Rubinstein described—and which, as I can attest from the people I know who teach at top-tier universities—is indeed an easy one in terms of teaching responsibilities, because it is a lifestyle centered around scholarship. While some of that scholarship, especially in the ideology-polluted humanities, is worthless, much of it is not; it's simply too "esoteric" (to borrow Rubinstein's adjective) to be considered of interest, much less of value, by most ordinary people. Marx? Wittgenstein? Important thinkers both, but who should be paying for scholars to spend more of their time analyzing them—and attending conferences abroad listening to other scholars analyze them—than they spend teaching the offspring of the taxpayers who fund their salaries. At elite and well-endowed private research universities—Harvard, Notre Dame, Emory—the answer is easy. Those institutions are willing to pay to subsidize scholarship and its attendant generous perks alongside teaching, and they have the donor funds to do so. So, yes, the professors complain incessantly if they must grade exams themselves (the horror!), and they gallivant hither and yon to deliver conference papers. At state-subsidized universities—Illinois, the University of California system, the University of Wisconsin-Madison—that have ambitions to retain top-tier reputations for research, but whose endowments are typically far less generous, the answer is not so easy.
Rubinstein was writing about life at the privileged top of the academic ziggurat Professors at many second- and third-tier, open-admissions "comprehensive" public universities (say, Chicago State in contrast to the University of Illinois-Chicago) consider it normative to teach a "4-4" load (four courses per semester), often to hundreds of students in each class, and to garner a few hundred dollars from their departments to attend a single academic conference per year (usually right here in the United States, not on Lake Como). Graduate seminars? Many count themselves lucky to teach an occasional specialized upper-division course that has something to do with the research they did for their doctoral dissertations ever so long ago. Professors at small liberal-arts colleges often don't have it much better, and they sometimes have it worse. The question that Rubinstein raised in his piece was: To what extent should public universities—funded by the hard-earned dollars of the residents of the states where they are located—try to compete with top-tier private universities with vast private resources in either research ambitions or in subsidizing the research-centered lifestyles of their faculty?