The Tenured Oligarchy

The joke goes like this:

When Brezhnev first became President he invited his elderly mother to come up and see his suite of offices in the Kremlin and then put her in his limousine and drove her to his fabulous apartment there in Moscow. She spoke not a word. Then he put her in his helicopter and took her out to the country home outside Moscow in a forest. And, again, not a word. Finally, he put her in his private jet and down to the shores of the Black Sea to see that marble palace which is known as his beach home. She looked quite distressed. He asked “Mother don’t you like how well I have done for myself?” Finally she spoke. “Yes Leonid it is all lovely, but what if the Communists come back?”

So it is with virtually all nominally left-wing projects, and so it is with higher education in America. All the rhetoric is about the egalitarian mission and the creation of opportunity for the underprivileged. But if the project endures, the coin of the realm ends up in the hands of a tenured elite.

In a recent and scathing interview in Salon, Camille Paglia savaged leftist academics. She wrote:

[I]n the 1990s, I was saying that the academic leftists were such fraud–sitting around applying Foucault to texts and thinking that was leftism! …. Real ’60s radicals rarely went to grad school and never became big-wheel humanities professors, with their fat salaries and perks.  The proof of the vacuity of academic leftism for the past forty years is the complete silence of leftist professors about the rise of the corporate structure of the contemporary university–their total failure to denounce the gross expansion of the administrator class and the obscene rise in tuition costs. The leading academic leftists are such frauds–they’ve played the system and are retiring as millionaires!

I knew Camille way back when. We were both undergraduates at Harpur College from 1964 to 1968, and shared a group of friends. She is one of the most intriguing and engaging social commentators of our era. Camille has a uniquely authentic and vibrant voice, refreshing in an era flooded with the trite and false.

Her background is in the classics and the visual arts and her take on contemporary political, economic, intellectual and social culture is both informed and limited by that background.

Where I think she is spot on is her accusation that much of the left-wing professoriate, which is to say most of the folks in the social sciences and humanities, are a privileged class being rewarded out of all proportion to their contribution.

While only some tenured professors are handsomely paid, virtually all are grossly underworked. Teaching loads for tenured professors have been falling steadily for the last half century. The standard teaching load at the “better” universities is now two classes a semester, with many senior faculty teaching only one course.

At the same time that the tenured elite relaxes in the faculty lounge, a rapidly growing army of non-tenure-track adjuncts and lecturers pick up the slack.

In effect, those on the tenure track have slammed the door behind themselves so that they need not share the “economic rents” too widely. The gangs of adjuncts working for a pittance are the modern university’s Helots.

In addition to the light teaching loads, the tenured faculty extracts its “economic rents” by choosing to teach what they find of interest rather than what the students value. As a result while the professoriate prospers, the core liberal arts curriculum has become progressively less serious, meaningful and engaging to students. The proportion of English and history majors has as a result been declining steadily. All this at the same time tuitions have increased ten-fold in nominal terms over the last forty years while the consumer price index has risen three-fold.

Camille is exercised by the implicit hypocrisy of the nominally egalitarian left-wing professoriate happily profiting from this transformation of the university. She sees this as indictment of their character. Well, maybe so, but the root cause of this looting of the university by the faculty is less a failure of people and more a failure of institutions.

The phenomenon has a straightforward banal explanation—nobody is minding the store. Universities in America are overwhelmingly either government enterprises or non-profit institutions—and there is little difference between the two with respect to the pathologies they display. “Non-profit institutions”! That benign, anodyne, sounding term, conceals a deceit. To the naïve, the term suggests that no one absconds with the profit because there is none to be had. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Because a non-profit firm has no owners, no residual claimants, its ultimate authority is exercised by a board of trustees. The board is expected to govern the institution for a grand purpose independent of their own personal interest or that a shareholder, and in doing so they are to endeavor to get maximum value on the dollar.

Collectively and individually the trustees should be deeply attached to the mission and scrupulous with regard to their fiduciary duties. I suspect that that is how it was at Harvard and William and Mary three centuries ago. But that model is now a quaint anomaly and anachronism at virtually all universities.

At almost all universities the Board of Trustees now functions as a rubber stamp and cheerleader. Indeed when on rare occasions boards try to play their nominal role and govern the institution as in the attempt to remove Teresa Sullivan at the University of Virginia as President two years ago, substantial portions of the faculty revolt in protest. So if the board of trustees does not run the university then who does? And on whose behalf?

The modern university is run by and in the interest of an amalgam of the senior employees, both teaching faculty and senior administrators. It has become a dysfunctional combination of an equalitarian partnership, worker-owned firms in the former Yugoslavia, and non-profit corporations.

Most faculty of all political stripes, but most embarrassingly on the left, are studiously unaware of, and would deny, the moral failings outlined here. They would deny or justify their privileged status. As Milton Friedman once said, ‘it is extraordinary how often we find that that which is in my private interest is also for the public good.’

Camille tries to cast opprobrium on the university by referring to its “corporate structure.” Alas, the word corporate has become little more than a vacuous epithet in the modern patois. I will forgive her this inapt use of the term; she is out of her field of expertise. The pity is that universities are not for-profit corporations. Were they so, there would be far more efficiency and honesty in their operation and structure.


Lloyd Cohen is a professor of law at the George Mason School of Law.

3 thoughts on “The Tenured Oligarchy

  1. But higher education is following the corporate model in some respects, especially when it comes to executive compensation and perks. Many college presidents are now paid like CEO’s with perks and severance packages. The adjuncts, like underpaid frontline workers in many industries, work for peanuts so that the upper management can be grossly overpaid.

    Also, I have to take exception to this line:
    “Were they so, there would be far more efficiency and honesty in their operation and structure.” Is the author really saying that corporations are run honestly? How about in the auto industry? The VW scandal alone is staggering, but not the only one. How about honesty in the financial industry during the housing bubble? Loan originators and homebuyers were lying on the loan applications like crazy. Liar loans anyone?

  2. Paglia’s notion about “the complete silence of leftist professors about the rise of the corporate structure of the contemporary university” is patently false: the leftist professors are literally the only ones talking about this problem, and they have been for decades. By contrast, I’ve never heard Paglia utter a word about this issue until now. But what else would you expect from a pompous fool who actually claims in this interview that “I started the fad for” atheism?

  3. The irony of yet another law professor railing about the underworked oligarchy of tenured social science and humanities professors, the privileged elite and their lack of worth of their “contribution”!

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