"The End of Tenure?"
September 3rd, 2010
The New York Times
September 3rd, 2010
The New York Times
In tough economic times, it’s easy to gin up anger against elites. The bashing of bankers is already so robust that the economist William Easterly has compared it, with perhaps a touch of hyperbole, to genocidal racism. But in recent months, a more unlikely privileged group has found itself in the cross hairs: tenured professors.
At a time when nearly one in 10 American workers is unemployed, here’s a crew (the complaint goes) who are guaranteed jobs for life, teach only a few hours a week, routinely get entire years off, dump grading duties onto graduate students and produce “research” on subjects like “Rednecks, Queers and Country Music” or “The Whatness of Books.” Or maybe they stop doing research altogether (who’s going to stop them?), dropping their workweek to a manageable dozen hours or so, all while making $100,000 or more a year. Ready to grab that pitchfork yet?
That sketch — relayed on numerous blogs and op-ed pages — is exaggerated, but no one who has observed the academic world could call it entirely false. And it’s a vision that has caught on with an American public worried about how to foot the bill for it all. The cost of a college education has risen, in real dollars, by 250 to 300 percent over the past three decades, far above the rate of inflation. Elite private colleges can cost more than $200,000 over four years. Total student-loan debt, at nearly $830 billion, recently surpassed total national credit card debt. Meanwhile, university presidents, who can make upward of $1 million annually, gravely intone that the $50,000 price tag doesn’t even cover the full cost of a year’s education. (Consider the balance a gift!) Then your daughter reports that her history prof is a part-time adjunct, who might be making $1,500 for a semester’s work. There’s something wrong with this picture.
The debate over American higher education has been reignited recently, thanks to two feisty new books. Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids — And What We Can Do About It (Times Books, $26), by Andrew Hacker, a professor emeritus of political science at Queens College, and Claudia C. Dreifus, a journalist (and contributor to the science section of The New York Times), is if anything even harsher and broader than the cartoonish sketch above. It is full of sarcastic asides like “Say goodbye to Mr. Chips with his tattered tweed jacket; today’s senior professors can afford Marc Jacobs.” But its arguments have been praised in The Wall Street Journal and given a respectful airing on The Atlantic’s Web site. They are also echoed in Mark C. Taylor’s Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities (Knopf, $24), which is more measured in tone but no less devastating in its assessment of our unsustainable “education bubble.”
The higher-ed jeremiads of the last generation came mainly from the right. But this time, it’s the tenured radicals — or at least the tenured liberals — who are leading the charge. Hacker is a longtime contributor to The New York Review of Books and the author of the acclaimed study “Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal,” while Taylor, a religion scholar who recently moved to Columbia from Williams College, has taught courses that Allan Bloom would have gagged on (“Imagologies: Media Philosophy”). And these two books arrive at a time, unlike the early 1990s, when universities are, like many students, backed into a fiscal corner. Taylor writes of walking into a meeting one day and learning that Columbia’s endowment had dropped by “at least” 30 percent. Simply brushing off calls for reform, however strident and scattershot, may no longer be an option.
The labor system, for one thing, is clearly unjust. Tenured and tenure-track professors earn most of the money and benefits, but they’re a minority at the top of a pyramid. Nearly two-thirds of all college teachers are non-tenure-track adjuncts like Matt Williams, who told Hacker and Dreifus he had taught a dozen courses at two colleges in the Akron area the previous year, earning the equivalent of about $8.50 an hour by his reckoning. It is foolish that graduate programs are pumping new Ph.D.’s into a world without decent jobs for them. If some programs were phased out, teaching loads might be raised for some on the tenure track, to the benefit of undergraduate education.
And if colleges are ever going to bend the cost curve, to borrow jargon from the health care debate, it might well be time to think about vetoing Olympic-quality athletic facilities and trimming the ranks of administrators. At Williams, a small liberal arts college renowned for teaching, 70 percent of employees do something other than teach.
But Hacker and Dreifus go much further, all but calling for an end to the role of universities in the production of knowledge. Spin off the med schools and research institutes, they say. University presidents “should be musing about education, not angling for another center on antiterrorist technologies.” As for the humanities, let professors do research after-hours, on top of much heavier teaching schedules. “In other occupations, when people feel there is something they want to write, they do it on their own time and at their own expense,” the authors declare. But it seems doubtful that, say, “Battle Cry of Freedom,” the acclaimed Civil War history by Princeton’s James McPherson, could have been written on the weekends, or without the advance spadework of countless obscure monographs. If it is false that research invariably leads to better teaching, it is equally false to say that it never does.
Hacker and Dreifus’s ideal bears more than a faint resemblance to Hacker’s home institution, the public Queens College, which has a spartan budget, commuter students and a three-or-four-course teaching load per semester. Taylor, by contrast, has spent his career on the elite end of higher education, but he is no less disillusioned. He shares Hacker and Dreifus’s concerns about overspecialized research and the unintended effects of tenure, which he believes blocks the way to fresh ideas. Taylor has backed away from some of the most incendiary proposals he made last year in a New York Times Op-Ed article, cheekily headlined “End the University as We Know It” — an article, he reports, that drew near-universal condemnation from academics and near-universal praise from everyone else. Back then, he called for the flat-out abolition of traditional departments, to be replaced by temporary, “problem-centered” programs focusing on issues like Mind, Space, Time, Life and Water. Now, he more realistically suggests the creation of cross-disciplinary “Emerging Zones.” He thinks professors need to get over their fear of corporate partnerships and embrace efficiency-enhancing technologies.
Taylor’s eyes also seem to have been opened to the world beyond Williams and Columbia. After his Op-Ed article appeared, a colleague from a cash-short California State University campus wrote to say that the “mind-pulping” teaching load left no room for research of any kind, even if it fell short of the five-courses-a-semester load at some community colleges. “This is an extremely unfortunate situation,” Taylor writes, “because the escalating cost of higher education is driving more students to these institutions.”
Here we have the frightening subtext of all the recent hand-wringing about higher education: the widening inequality among institutions of various types and the prospects of the students who attend them. While the financial crisis has demoted Ivy League institutions from super-rich to merely rich, public universities are being gutted. It is not news that America is a land of haves and have-nots. It is news that colleges are themselves dividing into haves and have-nots; they are becoming engines of inequality. And that — not whether some professors can afford to wear Marc Jacobs — is the real scandal.
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