Tag Archives: professors

The Withering Away of the College Professor

An excerpt from the book American Heresies and Higher Education

Some conservatives say that the main cost-control issue in American higher education today is tenured faculty who don’t teach enough. It would be better if their lazy self-indulgence could be better controlled by more accountable administrators. Tenure, from this view, is a kind of union, and “faculty governance” is collective bargaining.

It would be better if administrators could be empowered by the “right-to-fire” situation found in our more entrepreneurial states. What the union-taming governor wants, he doesn’t understand that the administrators have already been achieving. In the industrial world, the war against unions is suddenly becoming more aggressive and more effective because unions can’t deliver the goods anyway, given the dynamic realities of the twenty-first century’s globally competitive marketplace.

No Need to Fight Tenure

The same is true of the war against tenure. Tenure is withering away, and astute administrators know better than to launch a frontal assault that would result in really bad public relations and many unnecessary casualties.

The truth is that the number of tenured faculty is rapidly diminishing as a percentage—the tenured and those on a “tenure track” now are a still fairly unoppressed and, I admit, often fairly clueless minority—of the “instructional workforce.” There are doubtless good reasons why, at some places, tenured and tenure-track faculty should teach more. It would be better if more students had their “personal touch,” just as it would be better if they graded their students’ papers themselves at research institutions.

 Teach More, or Teach Less?

But, given how cheap adjuncts are, it’s a big mistake to believe that tenured professors taking on an additional class or two would be a significant saving. It’s often even the case that administrators would rather they not teach more.

At some places, at least, the situation seems to be that the administrations are buying off tenured faculty with low teaching loads and various research perks. That incentivizes them to be compliant with the transfer of instruction to adjuncts and other temporary faculty.

There Goes Content

It also allows them to accept the emptying out of the content of “general education” as requirements focused on the content and methods of the academic disciplines—such as history, literature and philosophy—are replaced by those based on abstract and empty (or content-free) competencies.

Tenured and tenure-track faculty often come from highly specialized research programs where, even in history and literature, the tendency is to know more and more about less and less. There are also allegedly cutting-edge approaches, such as neuroscience, “digital humanities,” rational-choice theory, and so forth, that take the researcher away from being attentive to the content that’s been the core of undergraduate instruction.

And then there’s the pretension of “undergraduate research” (which originated in the hard sciences and makes a lot more sense there) that it’s best for students to bypass the bookish acquisition of content about the perennial fundamental human issues and questions and get right down to making some cutting-edge marginal contribution.

All in all, it’s often not so hard to convince specialists to surrender concern for merely general education. Or at least to convince them that the imperatives of the marketplace and the increasingly intrusive accreditation process demand that the value of their disciplinary contributions is reconfigured in terms of competencies. That way, they’re led to believe, they’ll be able to hang on to their curricular “turf.”

The study of history (or philosophy or whatever) can be justified, after all, as deploying the skills of critical thinking, effective communication, and so forth. One problem, of course, is that those skills can be acquired more easily other ways, ways that aren’t saddled with all that historical or philosophical content.

And when the disciplines of liberal education are displaced by competencies, institutions tend to surrender the content-based distinctiveness that formed most of their educational mission.

Philosophy and Theology

The biggest outrage in higher education right now, for example, is not this or that report of students or administrators whining about microaggressions or being insufficiently trigger-warned. It’s that Notre Dame might be on the road to surrendering its requirement of courses in philosophy and theology for all students for competency-based goals. What distinguishes or ought to distinguish Notre Dame is the seriousness by which it treats philosophy and theology as disciplines indispensable for all highly literate Catholic men and women, or not primarily by its provision of a Catholic lifestyle.

As institutions surrender their liberal arts substance (while sometimes retaining their classy liberal arts brand), they become pretty much identical in terms of their educational goals. Lists of competencies always seem to me vague and rather random, but they still seem to turn out about the same everywhere. Their measurability usually depends on multiple-choice questions and the sham exactitude of points distributed on rubrics. And, in general, the data gets its veneer of objectivity through the intention to aim at sometimes stunningly low and only seemingly solid goals. It’s easy to mock the earnest redundancy of the competency phrases themselves. “Critical thinking”—well, if it wasn’t critical, it wouldn’t be thinking. “Effective communication”—well, if it wasn’t effective, it wouldn’t be communication.

What Is Being Communicated

In any case, the thought being surrendered is that the dignity of thinking and communicating must have something to do with what is being thought or communicated. It’s just not true that the same methods of thought and communication can be applied in all circumstances. Thinking about what or who is a man or woman is way different from figuring out how to rotate your tires or even maximize your productivity.

Communicating information is different from “winning friends and influencing people” (or persuasion and manipulation) and from communicating the truth through irony or humor or esoteric indirection— through the parables of the Bible or the dialogues of Plato. The forms of communication that distinguish the great or even good books that provide most of the content of liberal education elude measurable outcomes, and it’s not immediately obvious that they have much value in the marketplace.

Actually, the kind of insight they provide can be invaluable in marketing, as anyone knows who’s watched an episode of Mad Men or read one of those eerie, philosophical, uncannily effective pitches of Don Draper. But the administrators would reply, “Well, sure that Don’s a genius, but he’s so damn unreliable. We don’t want professors like that!”

As the low but seemingly solid goal of competency becomes about the same everywhere, the delivery of education can become less personal or quirky and standardized according to quantitatively validated best practices. Courses can become more scripted, and then delivery can be increasingly open to the use of the screen.

So the “intellectual labor” of college administrators—the number of which is “bloating” and the perks of which (at the highest level) are coming to resemble those of corporate CEOs—is directed in much the same way as it is in other sectors of the economy. What’s going on, for example, in the Amazon warehouse or in large chains such as Panera Bread, is occurring on our campuses.

A Class-Based Agenda

The idea of “competency” being enforced by the accrediting agencies—basically run by administrators and following a “class-based” administrative agenda—serves the goal of disciplining instruction through measurable outcomes and then displacing actual instructors, as much as possible, by education delivered on the screen.


Should college professors teach more? Specifically, should professors at public research universities devote more time to teaching undergraduates, and less to research?

In two states this, um, academic question has become a political controversy, one likely to crop up elsewhere. Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, a Republican presidential candidate, has proposed a tuition freeze and budget cuts that would reduce the University of Wisconsin’s revenues by 13%. “Maybe it’s time for faculty and staff to start thinking about teaching more classes and doing more work,” he said when discussing how the university could function with less money.

In North Carolina, state senator Tom McInnis, also a Republican, has introduced legislation that would require all professors in the University of North Carolina system to teach eight courses per academic year. (Tenured professors currently teach an average of five, according to the Daily Tarheel.) In a statement criticizing the reliance on graduate student teaching assistants, McInnis said, “There is no substitute for a professor in the classroom to bring out the best in our students.”

Genuine Ignorance or Spite?

Predictably, educators are livid. Walker’s proposed cuts “will absolutely savage” UW’s “infrastructure and quality of teaching and research,” one Madison history professor said. A UNC Charlotte physicist, Greg Gbur, argued the “charitable” explanation was that McInnis is motivated by “genuine ignorance” about the amount and value of professors’ work. (Another possible explanation is that he’s motivated by spite and ideology.) Slate’s Rebecca Schuman adds that mandating an eight-course teaching load would “accomplish nothing less than the wholesale obliteration of the public research institution.”

These heated reactions suggest the weakness—political, financial, and logical—of the status quo. In an open letter to McInnis, for example, Gbur goes through a detailed explanation of the time needed to teach an undergraduate course: preparation, delivery, testing, grading, office hours. His conclusion? Teaching four courses a semester would be impossible without … working 40 hours a week.

The calculation omits some details, however. For one thing, the arduous 40-hour workweek unfolds, for professors, over a less arduous 36-week work year. Throw in the lifetime employment guarantee of tenure, and most civilians paying taxes and tuition to support public universities are going to find professors’ terms of employment enviable, not exploitive.

What about ‘Adjunctification?’

Furthermore, teaching four courses a semester is not unusual in institutions primarily devoted to undergraduate education rather than research. In particular, American colleges of all types have come to assign more and more of their teaching to untenured adjunct professors hired, on a course-by-course basis, from the vast reserve army of underemployed Ph.D.’s.

Many adjuncts teach four or more courses per semester, sometimes at more than one institution, and even then struggle to pay the rent. Jonathan Rees, a Colorado State University-Pueblo historian wrote, in response to the McInnis proposal, “As long as we [tenured and tenure-track professors] accept the idea that it’s OK for our adjunct colleagues to toil away with four or more courses and no living wage, we don’t have a leg to stand upon when they inevitably try to do this to the rest of us.”

Gbur’s threat—the eight-course teaching load will force many UNC professors to “pull up roots and look for employment elsewhere”—is not credible. The existing professoriate is complicit not only in what Schuman calls the “adjunctification” of college teaching, but in the perpetuation of redundant graduate programs, which turn out doctoral recipients who have little hope of ever landing tenure-track professorships.

As a result, there is not a single faculty opening, no matter how remote the location or obscure the institution, that does not draw dozens of highly qualified applicants. (Schuman has written that 150 Ph.D.’s apply for every opening in her field, German literature.) Professors and administrators can choose to either close down or maintain unnecessary graduate programs … but they can’t go on producing an excess supply of scholars and insist that the rest of the world treat this abundant resource as if it were a scarce one.

Tuition Supports Light Loads

What about the “flagship” public research universities, like UW Madison and UNC Chapel Hill? Won’t heavier teaching loads render untenable the model created by Daniel Coit Gilman, who turned Johns Hopkins into America’s first research university almost 140 years ago by insisting that teachers make the best researchers, and researchers the best teachers? Schuman points out that the McInnis bill applies to “all” UNC professors. As a result, she says, it will compromise the work of researchers finding cures for cancer, new treatments for burn victims, or doing cutting-edge work in molecular biology and engineering.

Her parade of horribles is selective, though. There’s not a single mention of the scholarly work undertaken by professors in social science and humanities departments. This omission reveals a vulnerability: if McInnis were to change his “all” to “some,” scholars in fields where the research does not yield clear or even comprehensible benefits would struggle to demonstrate why the flourishing of life in America requires the unabated flow of tax and tuition dollars to spare professors from teaching undergraduates 40 hours a week.

Most voters, in other words, have no trouble making a distinction between curing cancer and publishing an article in the Journal for the Study of Peruvian Folk-Dancing. Even if Gilman’s research university model is crucial for the former, we are not compelled to revere the way it sustains the latter. As Megan McArdle has argued, original scholarship in many hyper-specialized liberal arts fields is valuable only to a handful of other scholars in the same field. “Basically, these people are supporting an expensive hobby with a sideline business certifying the ability of certain twenty-year olds to write in complete sentences.”

If that sideline business were a roaring success, there would be an if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it argument against requiring liberal arts professors at public institutions to teach more and research less. But the business is far from successful. A survey of 400 employers conducted last year for the Association of American Colleges & Universities found that only 27% considered recent college graduates “well prepared” in the area of written communication. Similar proportions, between 24 and 29%, were impressed with graduates’ ability to analyze and solve complex problems; locate, organize, and evaluate information; think critically; and work with numbers and statistics.

On the bright side, the survey also found that solid majorities of college students about to graduate rated themselves very highly on every one of the qualities the employers found lacking. It appears that when young Americans spend several years in the presence of our professors, they end up with very little in the way of useful knowledge and skills, but a robust, unwarranted sense of entitlement. That’s a funny coincidence, one some professor should investigate during a sabbatical.


Out of Sync: America’s University Faculty


Every three years or so, the highly regarded Higher
Education Research Institute (HERI) at UCLA surveys large numbers of faculty at hundreds of colleges and universities across the nation.  This year’s survey of some 30,000 faculty
reminds us of how different university faculty are from ordinary Americans.

Take politics. In the latest survey, for the 2010-2011
academic year, 62.7 percent of faculty said that they were either “far left” or
“liberal,” while only 11.9 percent said they were “far right” or
“conservative.”  The notion that
universities are hot beds for left-wing politics has a solid basis in
fact.  Moreover, the left-right imbalance
is growing –a lot.  The proportion of
those on the left is rising, on the right declining. In a HERI survey three
years earlier, there were 3.51 professors on the left for each one on the
right; in the latest survey, that ratio rose sharply to 5.27, not likely
explainable solely by sample variations. Meanwhile, the middle-of-the-road
professor is becoming less common (the proportion fell from 28.4 to 25.4
percent in three years).

Contrast this with the general public. In an article
written earlier this year, Atlantic
senior editor Richard Florida concluded Americans were becoming more
conservative (opposite the trend amongst academics), with 40 percent labeling
themselves conservative, and only 21 percent liberal–one one-third the
proportion of the faculty. Also, the 36 percent of Americans who call themselves
“moderate” contrast with a much smaller proportion of faculty who are

Continue reading Out of Sync: America’s University Faculty

Entitled Professors Try a Coup in Maine

Maine’s higher education structure is a little unusual. The flagship university, in Orono, is too remote from the state’s economic and cultural core on the Kittery-to-Rockland coastline. The state’s second-largest public university, the University of Southern Maine, has campuses in Portland and nearby Gorham, but long had a reputation as a more second-tier institution.

Continue reading Entitled Professors Try a Coup in Maine

Yes, College Professors Can Work Harder

David C. Levy’s Washington Post article, “Do college professors work hard enough?” set off quite the firestorm. His basic point was that we currently “pay for teaching time of nine to fifteen hours per week for 30 weeks,” but that

If the higher education community were to adjust its schedules and semester structure so that teaching faculty clocked a 40-hour week (roughly 20 hours of class time and equal time spent on grading, preparation and related duties) for 11 months, the enhanced efficiency could be the equivalent of a dramatic budget increase…

Continue reading Yes, College Professors Can Work Harder

An Academy Made Up of Adjuncts?

The Chronicle recently featured an article
about the Adjunct Project, a program put together by a University of Georgia
adjunct named Joshua Boldt “asking fellow adjuncts to enter information about
their pay and working conditions.” Adjuncts are often underpaid. They also
generally do not have research or service expectations, and they are almost
never hired through competitive searches. The position is a useful one for
graduate students needing experience.

Continue reading An Academy Made Up of Adjuncts?

Another Blow to the Humanities

The Chronicle of Higher Education has published the results of education.” The numbers should make faculty members tremble, and some of the anonymous comments, too.  In sum, CFO regard the professors as the biggest roadblock to adjustments necessary to handle current financial problems.

When asked about “The one strategy that CFO’s would pick to cut costs or raise more revenue, if they did not have to worry about the consequences among constituents,” they offered the following answers.

—–Increase teaching loads: 38%
—–Increase tuition: 19%
—–Eliminate tenure: 17%
—–Hire more adjunct faculty members: 11%
—–Increase enrollment by changing admissions standards: 4%
—–Cut student services: 3%
—–No answer: 2%

 That more than one-third of CFOs place “increase teaching loads” at the top of the list, making it #1 by a long margin, means that something along those lines is bound to happen at institutions across the country in the coming years.  A 2-2 teaching load, with classes of 12 students, simply doesn’t make sense to CFOs unless that professor has ways of using his or her time outside the classroom to bring money into the university by other means.

The humanities in particular are vulnerable.  The nature of humanistic study requires small classes and, at its best, many tutorial sessions in office hours.  (You can’t work on students’ ideas and writings in a class of 100.)  To CFOs, the model looks grossly inefficient, and they have a steady trend to support them.  The trend is that the humanities are increasingly becoming a minor part of the campus.  Less than five percent of annual bachelor’s degrees are granted in English and all the foreign languages combined.  The old image of college as roughly an equal measure of humanities and of sciences is obsolete.

This makes it harder for campus humanists to resist pressures from the administration to become more efficient and more productive in the delivery of educational services.  One can imagine humanities professors reacting to the survey as an insidious expression of the bean-counting mentality, but expressions of disgust won’t help their case one bit.  Unless they learn to stimulate more demand for their “product” (even though they hate the language of consumerism), they will have no ammunition that works in the corridors of administrative power.

More on Professors and Unionization

As K C Johnson noted here yesterday, Stanley Fish and Walter Benn Michaels have a conversation at the New York Timesopinionator blog in which both advocate unionization (see here).  Their immediate target is an op-ed by Naomi Schaefer Riley in USA Today entitled “Why Unions Hurt Higher Education” (see here).

It should be noted that Michaels and Fish are both English professors, which puts them in a department where the adjunct hiring problem is, perhaps, the worst on the entire campus.  They see enormous differences in working conditions for those at the top and those at the bottom, and with the job market in literary studies in dreadful condition, unionization is certainly one of the options the faculty may take if things get any worse.

When humanities professors talk about unions, however, they run up against a wall of their own making.  it is that while unionization requires collective thinking and action, humanities working conditions, particularly the incentives for promotion and salary, are all individual.  Professors are valuated on their teaching and research, mostly, with service a distant third.  Service is, indeed, collective (committee work, administrative duties), but teaching and research are almost always based upon solitary work.  People write books and articles by themselves and they teach classes by themselves.  They have learned from the start that unless the sequester themselves for individual work, they won’t have the time to meet tenure demands.  In the 1950s, social theorists used to talk about the way television “atomized” people, separating them into houses at night, eyes focused on the electric hearth.  Today’s research university does the same for professors, their eyes focused on the books and web pages they need to write their way to advancement.

They’ve done it so long that it becomes a professional trait.  They think separately and work separately, often regarding collective moments such as department meetings as a bother.  Many of them just want to be left alone.

The union option works against years of acculturation.  So much so that it is hard to imagine 35 English professors convening, drafting an objective, formulating a method, and mobilizing for action.

Why Do Humanities Profs Complain?

Spend some time among humanities researchers and it won’t be long before you hear complaints about lack of support. They grumble that while the sciences have countless sources and billions of dollars pouring into their labs and clinics and field work, the humanities have NEH, a smattering of foundations giving fellowships, a handful of humanities centers on campuses around the country, some post-docs that give a year of salary . . . It’s a scramble to get a course reduction, pay for travel to archives, attend a conference to share recent findings, and just clear a few weeks to do nothing but read and write. The money just isn’t there, they say.

What they forget is that every tenured and tenure-track faculty member at a research university is paid every month out of regular salary and benefits to do the very research they claim is unsupported. At schools that emphasize teaching over research, or don’t count research at all, regular teachers have to manage three or four courses per semester. At schools that require research, the teaching duty drops to two courses per semester. Universities expect professors to fill the hours it takes to run those lost one or two courses precisely to research inquiries.

And they pay them accordingly. The customary formula for the humanities at research institutions is one-third, one-third, one-third. In an average week of 40 hours of labor, professors devote 13+ hours to teaching, 13+ hours to administrative service (committee work, writing letters of recommendation, reviewing job candidates, etc.), and 13+ hours to research. On that model, one-third of a professor’s salary and benefits support research. If a professor makes $60,000 a year in gross salary and another $15,000 in benefits, then the university pays $25,000 a year to subsidize research.

If we translate that into the research product, if that $60K-per-year professor spends four years researching and writing a book on the novel, the university paid $100,000 to see it through. This doesn’t include the cost of producing the book once it leaves the professor’s hands–a press editing, publishing, distributing, and marketing the book, plus academic libraries purchasing the book (library purchases make up around 70 percent of unit sales of books in literary studies).

That amounts to a pretty strong network of support for one branch of humanities scholarship.