By Ron Lipsman
The essays that appear on this site are often critical of academic faculty. The criticism is frequently legitimate, as faculty are oftentimes complicit in the formulation and execution of academic policies that should garner disapproval. Alas, faculty are too often found at the forefront of efforts to: install speech constraints on the campus community; impose admission quotas based on race, gender, ethnic origin and other illegitimate grounds; and enforce a deadening group think in academic discussion that brooks no support of free market capitalism, American Exceptionalism, faith-based life or – heaven forbid – doubts about global warming. Essays in this journal bemoan the decay of American universities from bastions of individual thought devoted to the pursuit of knowledge, truth and beauty into heavily regulated job mills that are rife with propaganda and largely in the business of brainwashing its students in favor of the progressive movement’s agenda.
All true! But even so, it is still the case that the academic profession – much like the medical profession – has been subject to powerful forces that have rendered life much less rewarding for those who pursue the profession. The forces that have smacked doctors – who, until a generation or so ago, were amongst the most admired and rewarded communities in the country – are well-known. It is my purpose here to outline the lesser known assault – namely, the developments that have rendered the academic profession less pleasant and rougher to navigate than it was when I entered it more than four decades ago.
Here are a dozen manifestations.
- Overregulation. The faculty is subject to scrutiny, evaluation and regulation far beyond what was common fifty years ago. From the requirement to complete faculty assessment reports to the need to adhere to behavioral codes (e.g., regarding tobacco, sexual conduct, “bullying,” and the like); from the need to comply with stringent lab and research protocols to the command that we offer remedial opportunities to “disadvantaged” students; from the demands to structure our course presentations in the most student-accessible formats to the obligation to conform to standards set by campus advisory boards (for research, teaching, even administration); from semester to semester, faculty are increasingly constrained by an ever-growing epidemic of central campus regulations that make the professorial profession more onerous, less independent and more administrative than academic.
- Shared governance. At the same time, university administrators promote the fiction of shared responsibility in running the campus. This leads to committee assignments, studies and reports, and an enormous waste of faculty time, which does not mask the fact that the campus agenda is still largely set by central administrators, not the faculty.
- Publish or perish. For faculty at private or public research institutions, and even for those employed at primarily teaching colleges, the pressure to publish – in the best journals, of course – grows in intensity every year. Faculty want to do so, naturally, but having to do so with a gun to one’s head doesn’t foster the creative juices.
- Student evaluations. This practice is now ubiquitous. At best, the results are useless; at worst, false and destructive; and most often – just misleading. Another joy of the modern professoriate.
- Student quality. Now that the nation has seemingly decided in favor of universal higher education, it is not surprising that the quality of the student body is suspect. When the student body was thinner, the quality was better.
- Salary. Academic salaries have evolved somewhat as in the entertainment industry. The top profs do fantastically well. Those who bring up the middle or rear – not so much. By the way, academics – like doctors – have a long pre-professional apprenticeship (4-5 years of graduate school followed by multiple postdocs) before they can earn a serious salary. The pre-professional period has been lengthening in recent years.
- Infrastructure. We teach on enormous campuses with ancient buildings that manifest decaying infrastructure. It’s not sexy to replace a dying heating system. The campus would rather spend money on a fancy new rec center or a luxurious dorm complex. Writing on a broken chalk board in a freezing, huge lecture hall with student sight lines impeded by crumbling support pillars is not what I would call excellent work conditions.
- Staff. In the old days, faculty could rely on staff to help prepare academic research papers and exams, schedule meetings and take care of academic record keeping. Not anymore. Everything is computerized, so faculty are expected to discharge all these responsibilities by themselves. OK, we do it – but it takes time away from our more important duties, and it’s not exactly great fun.
- Grants. It’s hard to have a successful academic career unless it is supported by one or more granting agencies. Obtaining grants is time-consuming, unpredictable, highly competitive and rather tedious. Without grants, the graduate program collapses, leaving us without teaching assistants, rendering our jobs infinitely more difficult. The pressure increases annually.
- Jobs. The academic job market has been in a funk since a decade after Sputnik. It shows no sign of improving. Faculty are often desperate to get a job and they can wind up in less desirable positions at places in the nation (or even the world) that were not in the game plan.
- Public support. Gone are the days when being a professor was a mark of distinction that garnered great support from the public. Today we are often held in contempt. Of course, considering the way we have been messing up their children, the public’s disapproval is not so surprising.
- Tolerance. Last, but far from least, those faculty who – like me – have a conservative bent find themselves working in a poisonous atmosphere in which we are viewed as at best slightly strange folk who can safely be ignored, and at worst, dangerous counterrevolutionaries who must be silenced or expelled. It is awful. (I have written about this at some length in Swimming Upstream: The Life of a Conservative Professor in Academia.)
Don’t mistake me: these changes for the worse don’t compare with the degrading of coal mine jobs in Kentucky; low tech jobs that have been obliterated by the Internet; or other professions that have been swept away by “creative destruction.” But the changes I outlined do represent steps in the wrong direction. And they may portend much greater change as many believe that higher education is America’s next bubble.
Ron Lipsman is professor emeritus of mathematics and former senior associate dean of the College of Computer, Math & Physical Sciences, University of Maryland.
(Source: NYT/20th Century Fox/Kobal Collection)