Professors Who Respond with Contempt

One of the less inspiring features of academia over the years has been the tendency of the professorate (or at least a vocal portion of them) to respond to certain ideas with contempt.  Twenty years ago it was “political correctness” that earned their scorn–that is, denying there was any such thing–and ten years ago it was “liberal bias.”

Today’s target, it seems, is “faculty productivity.”  In the last few years, especially in the state of Texas, a several politicians, conservative think tanks, journalists, and some academics, too, have reviewed the working conditions and performances of faculty members and called for changes.  They have questioned the number of undergraduates they teach, the research dollars they have generated, and the value of the research they have produced.

These are reasonable questions.  Perhaps the methods of answering them have been partial and blunt, but one would assume that any profession would accept such evaluations as a matter of professionalism.  In discussions and conversations I’ve seen and heard, though, the response has been frequently indignation and, precisely, contempt.  The Chronicle of Higher Education just published a forum on “faculty productivity, assessment, accountability, and bottom-line budgeting,” with several voices weighing in.  They make several substantive points, but the disdain for “productivity measurers” is palpable.  Here is a list of quotations from them:

If faculty don’t advise students, are we prepared to hire professional staff in their place? If the only research that counts is externally financed, are we prepared to give up the contributions of faculty to studio art, music, theater, and literature? I suspect not, even in Texas. (Michael F. Middaugh)

Texas received a lot of publicity last year when Texas A&M University, whose main campus is one of the state’s two flagships, proposed an accountability measure for individual faculty members based solely on grant dollars received and student credit-hours generated. Interestingly, although the proposal’s originators, including the university’s trustees, were on the political right, this approach to measurement is qualitatively similar to that imposed by Soviet commissars on glass factories, which were required to measure output in square meters, with shattering results. (Daniel S. Hamermesh)

Enter such benighted endeavors as the Texas regents’ attempt to develop a numerical assessment of faculty members’ “productivity,” based on a compilation of student evaluations, salaries, research grants, and the number of classes and students taught. Or last year’s effort at Texas A&M University to determine whether the number of students each professor taught brought in enough tuition to offset that person’s salary. Other systems and accrediting agencies are not quite so crass or simplistic, but the message is clear: In an era of rising tuition and declining tax revenue, academe must reassure the public it is getting its money’s worth. (Ellen Schrecker)

At the flagship A&M campus, it turned out, the College of Liberal Arts took in $21-million more than it spent. And the biggest losers? The College of Engineering and the Bush School of Government and Public Service, $1.8-million and $1-million in the red, respectively. If there were any Texas legislators hoping to play culture-war games with funds for the arts and humanities (and in Texas, it’s a safe bet there were), they must have been sorely disappointed. (Michael Berube)

For what I teach and what I seek to do–and for the fierce humanities in general–the assessment, accountability, and quantifiable-outcomes movement is nothing less than a benighted Enlightenment fantasy of mastering the unmasterable, of quantifying what cannot be measured. If you as a teacher want to adopt its protocols, that’s fine. That’s academic freedom. Just don’t try to impose them on me. That is academic freedom as well. (Cary Nelson)

Once again, there are serious points among the entries in the forum, but when they are framed in statements of contempt for the other side, it is hard to assume that these academics are willing to listen to the other side’s serious points.  In fact, when people regard the opposition with contempt, they don’t believe the opposition has any serious points.  When people entitled their contributions with labels such as “The Know-Nothing Assault on Higher Education,” as Hamermesh does his, one can’t expect any genuine debate to take place.

Mark Bauerlein

Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

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