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Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids---And What We Can Do about Itby Andrew Hacker
WHAT WENT WRONG?
* 1 *
THE WORLD OF THE PROFESSORIATE
A few years back, the political science department of Queens College, part of the City University of New York, put out a call for an assistant professor to teach basic classes in American government. In a tight job market, this was an unusually good opportunity. The position was "tenure track," which meant that in six years' time it could lead to a lifetime appointment. The pay was above average. Moreover, this was a rare opening in geographically desirable New York City. Most beginning professors are forced to start out in towns like Ames, Iowa, or San Marcos, Texas.
As it happened, a young political scientist just finishing his dissertation at a top research university made it to the short list. His research--An Algorithm for Statutory Reconciliation in Bicameral Legislatures--had a trendy feel to it. His mentors had sent glowing recommendations, casting him as a rising academic star.
Yet, on campus at Queens College, Golden Boy's presentation, meant to showcase his intellectual breadth and teaching style, failed to impress. At an interview with the departmental chair, hemade no inquiries about the school or its students. Nor did he ask the one question that every career coach claims is essential in a job interview: "What can I do for you?"
Instead, his first question was: "What's the teaching load here?" "Three and three," the chair answered politely, meaning that her staff taught three courses each semester.
"That won't work," he quickly returned. "I have my research to continue with and, as you heard, it's important. Where I did my doctorate, it was two and two. By the way, how do your sabbaticals work?" He was told one came every seventh year, after six of teaching.
The candidate winced. "I couldn't consider that. At other schools, it's a year off after three. If I were to come here, we'd have to make some special arrangement."
This young man never got a callback, which we suspect must have puzzled him. True, this episode occurred several years ago, when young stars felt they could write their own tickets. Today, hiring freezes are the rule, and there can be several hundred applicants for any open position. Current candidates accept the templates of the job, no questions asked. So here's our reason for recalling this interview. Despite the downturn in the economy, the academic culture that produced this young man hasn't changed. He was only emulating the ways of his mentors--in this case, to negotiate for as little teaching as possible, with ample time for research and the support it would need. In the entitled world where he'd been nurtured, a place so different from the rest of society, there was nothing odd about going to an interview and, in effect, asking, "How little do I have to do?" Moreover, if he happens to get one of the now-scarce openings, and in time achieves the protection of tenure, we doubt if we'll see him volunteering to teach first semester freshmen in Political Science 101.
Ah, the professoriate! It's an alternate universe. While the rest of working Americans endure foremen and supervisors, professors often get to select their colleagues, vote on raises and promotions,and even in some instances vote out their bosses. The schools almost function for them, for their aspirations and interests. Students come and go every four years, administrators will move on, but the tenured stay on in Bloomington, College Park, and Chapel Hill, accumulating power, controlling resources, reshaping the university according to their needs. Lost on the Professorial Campus is the presence of students and, for reasons that sometimes seem mystifying, an appreciation of an activity as joyful and useful as teaching.
Think of the American colleges and universities as bound by a caste system, with different status grades assigned to the approximately 900,000 men and women the Department of Labor counts as full-time faculty. (Part-timers come and go, often teaching a single course, sometimes on several campuses, so it's impossible to pinpoint their exact numbers.)
The top caste consists of some 320,000 associate and full professors, most of whom have tenure or will soon receive that award. The candidate we mentioned was already envisioning himself at that rank, which partly explains his entitled demeanor. Below them, there are about 170,000 assistant professors, most of them on the "tenure track" that we alluded to earlier. Usually, those already on that track ultimately receive that promotion since they were carefully vetted and the people who hired them don't want it felt that their department made a mistake.
Most of the other full-time faculty, the third tier in the caste system, are instructors and lecturers who aren't in line for promotion and who handle introductory sections at modest salaries and some benefits. (A number are faculty spouses unable to find other employment.) This tier also contains visiting instructors, who usually come for a year to replace professors on sabbaticals. The fourth and fifth castes are made up of part-time adjuncts and graduate assistants. They are the contingent people of the campus--exploitable, disposable, impoverished by low wages. They do the bulk of the undergraduate teaching at many universities.
So this chapter will focus on upward of half a million men and women holding the three professor ranks (assistant, associate, and full) and who make up about 57 percent of full-time faculty personnel. This professorial class controls what happens on many a campus and, too often, self-interested management is the result.
In theory, education is supposed to be a public service: like health care, firefighting, national parks. And by and large that describes the motivations of teachers from kindergarten through high school. But as we ascend to colleges and universities--the preserve of professors--self-interest, strengthened by a narrow sense of self-definition, begins to set in.
It starts with how professors identify with their disciplines. Imagine that we were to say that the employees in an enterprise all brought a central part of their personal history with them to work, and insisted that it govern how they did their jobs. Thus Methodists would contend that they had to adhere to their liturgy, with Baptists and Catholics and Jews making similar claims. All would argue that their creeds are crucial to their identities. Nor is it just how they've been raised; it is who they are.
As the social psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer, formerly of the University of Chicago and now the director of one of the branches of Berlin's Max Planck Institute, told us, "I believe it's one of the worst things that's happened, that people identify with a discipline or a sub-discipline in a way like members of a political movement identify with their party."
But this is exactly how college faculties operate. Under the venerable headings we see in college catalogs: physics, history, mathematics, drama, sociology, literature. The rigidity of these disciplines atomizes campuses, transforming departments into fiefdoms and actually hindering the transmission of knowledge. PhD programs, where fledgling professors are trained, are much like seminaries: elders impart the lore and litany of a liturgy.Were anything like this to occur at the Boeing company, few Dreamliners would ever get aloft.
During those postgraduate years, a candidate in anthropology becomes an anthropologist. So the discipline that a candidate chooses--its mores, its mentality, its methods--comes to express not only their profession but also an academic's identity. They begin to see and understand the world through the lens of anthropology. "Whenever I watch people interacting in a stadium, a subway, a supermarket checkout," a young scholar told us, "I find myself seeing tribal rites or kinship networks."
Despite much lip service to interdisciplinary studies, on most campuses anthropologists have only passing contact with their colleagues in sociology, although an outsider might think they have much to share. Even sociology and social psychology have different vocabularies, methods, and explanatory models. Once upon a time, Harvard established a Department of Social Relations, in hope of integrating teaching and research in supposedly kindred fields. The joint department had a short life span. The professors were ill at ease outside their home territories. Probably the only area where interdisciplinary work has had any palpable impact is in the hard sciences, where physics, chemistry, biology, and computation have combined to uncover new knowledge about our macro and micro universes. A job shortage in the world of physics has made interdisciplinary studies, particularly in biology, attractive to young physicists--science has a growing number of people who now dub themselves "biophysicists."
But in the social sciences and the humanities, doubtless because those disciplines are less secure about what they actually do, the borders remain rigidly guarded. Scott Page, who holds a joint position in economics and political science at the University of Michigan, told us that his colleagues "spend years keeping up with one discipline and want to continue on that path; it's like a zoo where each species is in a separate cage." Once, he took a biologistwhose paper he'd found "amazing" to lunch and she told him that this was the first time in all her years on campus that she'd heard from someone in a different field.
At a reinvented Arizona State University, Michael Crow, its president, has tried to break down some of the disciplinary walls. He has abolished whole departments, using senior appointments skillfully and creating new interdisciplinary institutes. His professoriate, or at least some parts of it, has been outraged. This suggests to us he is doing something right.
Professors are often isolated not only from those outside their disciplines but also from the outside world. In the nineteenth century, when most colleges and universities were founded, the idea took hold that they should be situated far away from the sordid cities. It's a tradition that holds till this day. Hence Colby College is in Waterville, Maine (15,968), Western Oregon in Monmouth (9,726), Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio (2,020). Even state universities are sequestered in towns like Eugene, Norman, and Tuscaloosa. We'll leave it to others to judge how far a verdant campus keeps corruption at bay.
What interests us now is the effect this isolation has on members of the faculties. The first fact is that given the reclusive setting, the college is the only game in town. For all intents and purposes, nothing else is going on. So whatever happens on the campus becomes the focus of attention, looming larger than it is or needs to be. A friend who taught for many years at Cornell told us about faculty parties, where one might expect cerebral conversations on the state of the universe.
"It didn't work that way," she confessed. "We had been thrown together so much that we all knew what everyone thought." So after a Julia Child dinner, talk would turn to a new associate provost, vandalism at a fraternity party, or plans for a multilevel garage. "You find yourself having strong opinions on even the smallest matters," our informant added. "In fact, every incident becomes anissue." Since moving to an urban university, where she and her colleagues also have other lives, it's easier for her to see just how insular her world in the more removed setting had become.
Factionalized politics and isolation also become a way for professors to maintain their privileged environments. But it is not the only way. Maybe most important, professors in many departments have been able to take workplace democracy to an unprecedented level. Through self-governance, the interests of one class of employees, the tenured professors, predominate.
Self-governance, perhaps unsurprisingly, uses a great deal of teachers' time and energy. As we traveled to college campuses, the plaints we heard from professors most frequently centered on the time spent serving on committees. Such meetings are usually put under the heading of service, a third requisite for promotion and recognition along with teaching and research. But it can come close to consuming as much time. And that's the problem.
Certainly, people in other occupations meet occasionally to share ideas and agree on decisions. When Claudia's colleagues at the New York Times meet on Tuesday afternoons, they keep each other abreast of projects and share sources and information about new developments on their beats. It's a wonderful seminar in contemporary science. Sometimes committees will be formed to solve specific tasks, but they terminate when the project is completed.
Not so in the academic world. Not only are most college committees permanent; new ones are formed every semester. Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota (population 19,656) has a fine liberal arts program, engaged students, and a dedicated faculty. Despite these and other virtues, it is severely afflicted with the committee virus. According to its website, it has sixty-eight of them, which we calculate comes to one such entity for every three members of its faculty. (And this doesn't count committees within departments or divisions.) Here are several that caught our attention:
Accessibility Awareness Committee
Faculty Compensation Committee
Language Requirement Exemption Committee
Animal Care and Use Committee
Recreation Center Advisory Committee
Junior Faculty Affairs Committee
Sexual Harassment & Sexual Assault Committee
Committee on Convocation & Common Conversation
We have no doubt that justifications can be adduced for each of these, as well as the sixty or so committees we haven't listed. Yet filling the seats on all these committees will keep many a professor occupied with tasks that have little to do with the actual teaching of their students.
When we inquired of our professional colleagues whether faculty, students--everyone--would benefit from a little less consultation, we were asked if we preferred that the adjudication of sexual assaults be left to appointed administrators. Or if we'd wanted the concerns of junior faculty to be handled solely by the provost rather than a panel of colleagues and peers. Or whether having a recreation committee isn't a better way to schedule swimming hours than by using a desk-bound director.
There is a general consensus within the professoriate that administrators are a kind of class enemy and a danger, rather than facilitators of a joint enterprise. In the end, we are being asked to accept that committees like Carleton's are patently needed, since the democratic ethos is predicated on participation and consultation. But we can't help but wonder: can there be too much public input? And we can't help but remember that there are huge sectors of every university's community--contingentfaculty we'll write about later--that have less than no voice in governance.
Committees are not only busywork, they are a surrogate for faculty members who have long since given up on scholarship. Rebecca Chopp noticed this when she first arrived at Colgate to assume the presidency. "The same core people would come to all faculty meetings," she told us. "But they weren't our researchers and/or our great teachers." A Cornell professor reported something similar: "Many of my colleagues haven't written a word in their field for the past twenty years. But they handily turn out forty-page committee reports."
Committees also proliferate because academics, to an unusual degree, want to feel they are being consulted, not just on major policies but about everything else that happens on their campus. Rebecca Chopp--who has gone on to head Swarthmore--told us that her faculty at Colgate wanted to establish a "strategic planning committee" to oversee all presidential decisions. "I told them, 'Try it if you like; you're going to be working twenty-four hours a day to keep up with me.' The proposal was dropped, but it testifies to an enormous anxiety that they've lost control of the institution."
When faculty members do have power, they often use it to resist. When Chopp tried to enlist faculty to invite students to informal gatherings in their homes so they could see professors in another setting, she found few takers. "They have tenure," she said, and sighed. "They do whatever they want."
Some brave spirits defy the participatory tide. When Debora Spar, who'd been a dean at Harvard Business School, started as president of Barnard College she sought to cut down on staff duplication. Instead of assembling yet another committee, she turned to the McKinsey firm, which sent two seasoned consultants, both women and one a Barnard graduate, to investigate and then present recommendations. Perhaps it wasn't participatory democracy. But in a recessionary time, stern measures were needed. We suspectSpar knew that a faculty committee simply wouldn't have the stomach to dismiss colleagues with whom they regularly had lunch.
Moves like Spar's to reduce governance by committee, however, are rare. At many colleges, professors like to feel they have co-equal status with their president; at some schools, Harvard notably, they have. Laurence Summers, the only Harvard president forced to leave office after a no-confidence vote, did so not because of his notorious statements about scientific women but because many regarded him as aggrandizing too much power. At most schools, the professoriate want to believe they are partners in "shared governance" with the president; Summers, they felt, didn't share.
There certainly are schools where faculty votes sometimes put the brakes on administrative abuses and where professors can be useful whistleblowers. But the committees are also roadblocks to genuine leadership. We remember a story told to us by the late Clinton Rossiter of Cornell. He and a group of professors had been invited to meet with the president, who proposed creating a college-wide "great issues" course. It would be taken by all seniors in their final term, aiming at summing up ideas basic to a liberal education. "The president's presentation had barely begun," Rossiter recalled, "when my colleagues pronounced it an abominable idea. They told the president he had no business thinking about the curriculum, and they would in no way assist with the project. It expired that morning."
Then there's the pay. Professors are fond of saying they didn't choose their profession for the money. And it's true that apart from coveted coaches and medical school stars, salaries top off at six figures. Still, it's not self-evident that many academics would be doing better in more demanding occupations. According to the American Association of University Professors, the average pay for full professors, a rank usually reached by one's early forties, came to $109,843 in 2009-10. By comparison, salaried lawyersaveraged $91,364; for chemical engineers the figure was $78,260, and financial analysts came in at $73,892.
All in all, the academy isn't poverty row, as averages for full professors show. Thus there are generous salaries at Northwestern ($166,300) and Emory ($154,800). But second-tier public institutions like the University of Delaware ($134,600) and Michigan State ($125,000) aren't very far behind. What we found interesting was that many independent colleges are also in this league. Full professors at Bates now average $115,300; at Occidental, they get $110,600; and at Grinnell, it's $109,000. Even lesser-known schools like Elon in North Carolina ($101,000) and Wheaton in Massachusetts ($103,000) cross the six-figure threshold.
What we feel obliged to add is that at smaller colleges, few professors ever leave. In large part, that's because these professors lack reputations that might make them sought by other schools. In sheer market terms, they're overpaid, since they have nowhere else to go. And stars seldom leave simply for the money. Recently, Claudia was at a dinner with an A-list scientist. He had just moved to Columbia from the California public system. "My former chancellor tells people I moved because of the budget cuts--it's his argument against them," he said. "But that wasn't it at all! I left because I wanted to be in New York."
While not up with Wall Street, academic salaries have been rising faster than the cost of living, and are well ahead of the earnings of average working men and women. Since 1985, measured in constant-value dollars, salaries of Harvard's full professors have risen by 53 percent. Stanford's real increase has been 57 percent, and at Princeton, it's been 64 percent. In the public sector, the pay is lower, but there too professors' checks are well ahead of inflation. Texas's full professors are now 46 percent better off compared with 1985, and at North Carolina, the gain has been 56 percent. Professors may talk as if they're alienated and unappreciated. However, their take-home pay doesn't substantiate those feelings.
So what's fair pay? It's an old conundrum. Why does a brain surgeon make ten times as much as a firefighter? After all, both are skilled and save lives. We won't rehearse the reasons people give to justify their incomes, because they are almost always self-serving, especially in the higher brackets. What we will do, though, is lay out the basic academic workload. That is, the number of hours when professors have to be at stated places at specified times. Those places are their classrooms, along with their offices where they post hours to see students.
We've chosen two colleges and have calculated the working schedules of their full professors. The first is Kenyon, an excellent liberal arts college in Ohio, where the teaching load is five courses each two-semester year; in academic parlance, three and two. We also assume these professors hold two office hours per week, during each fifteen-week semester. But there's another element in the equation. Every seventh year, Kenyon faculty members receive a fully paid semester off from teaching. So factoring in sabbaticals, Kenyon professors average 381 classroom and office hours per year. (The salaried lawyers we alluded to typically average 1,960 courtroom and office hours annually.)
Our second choice was Yale. There, professors in departments like economics and psychology teach two and one. So in one semester they have only one class, and thus don't need as many office hours. Yale also gives them what it calls a "triennial leave of absence." After five semesters of teaching, they have a fully paid semester off. So the workload of Yale's professors works out to 213 annual hours in a classroom or their office. To extend the exercise, we now include the facts that full professors at Kenyon average $92,600, while at Yale it's $174,100.
Given these salaries, Kenyon's professors are being paid $243 per hour, while Yale's hourly rate is $817.
We can already hear anguished cries from the faculty club. Professors will predictably insist that there's far more to theirjobs than the hours we've cited. Academics routinely say they put in at least sixty hours a week.
We grant that they should be doing something outside their classroom and office hours. But the great bulk of what they do is less needed than contrived: college committees, department meetings, faculty senates, and yes, what they call their research, the value of much of which we will examine in a later chapter.
Well, then, how about preparing classes, reading examinations and papers, and directing honors theses? We'll grant that we haven't counted these tasks in our basic hours. Here's why. The basic hours are simply when we can say with some certainty that this is where a professor will be. But we have no way of knowing how much time many of them really devote to revising lectures, restructuring courses, or organizing new ones. So we want to place the burden on those who claim they work at updating their courses, to make a convincing case that all that redrafting is essential. And of course there are professors who never change their notes. (Or, in techo-teaching, their PowerPoint slides.)
A tale is told of a classroom where all the students were busily scribbling as the professor droned on. All, that is, but one, a young woman in the back row, who wrote down nary a word. How so? She had with her the notes that her mother had taken with that professor during her own student days.
Of course, there are professors who read examinations carefully and fill the margins with helpful comments, which we're sure is much the case at Kenyon. When that's so, we'll be pleased to stipulate that they are putting in more than the basic hours. But at Yale, we're less sure, since a great deal of the reading and grading is done by graduate assistants.
The best-endowed campuses don't stop with munificent salaries. (We deem $817 an hour to be a generous wage.) It may make sense to allow Stanford faculty children to go there for free, but it should be added that this $38,700 annual benefit is entirely tax-free. And also tax-free is Stanford's picking up half the tab if its professors' progeny go away to Harvard or Haverford. At the same time that the scholars at Stanford's Hoover Institution rail against welfare programs, their university maintains some 700 rent-subsidized faculty apartments. It gets even better for those preferring to purchase. Newly tenured associate professors can, for nine years, draw an added $21,500 annually toward a mortgage. And it will lend full professors half the mortgage on properties costing up to $1.2 million, at below-market rates. This fringe benefit, Stanford says on its website, enables faculty "to purchase a more costly home than if he/she used only a conventional mortgage." Princeton has a similar program for its senior faculty, but with a caveat. Any home to be subsidized must be within eight miles of the university. We suspect there are some interesting stories behind the adoption of that restriction.
We've shown how little is asked from professors during the months when classes are taught. But the academic profession is the only one we know of that gives its employees prolonged respites from work while paychecks keep coming. We're talking, of course, about sabbaticals. Until recently, the term was construed literally: as with the Sabbath, so sabbaticals were to come every seventh year. More exactly, six years of work would be followed by either a full year off at half-pay or a half-year at full pay. But that's changed at many schools. Even at the City University of New York, not the most solvent institution, professors who take a full year off now receive 80 percent of their salary. At Amherst, it's every third year.
There were once alternating views on what professors were supposed to do when they were freed from teaching. The first was that sabbaticals would give them time to revise their courses, catch up on reading, perhaps spend the year abroad. The reasoning was that though teaching can be invigorating, its daily chores didn't allow for uninterrupted reflection. So unlike accountantsand engineers, it was said, professors must have additional time to recharge their intellects.
But even liberal arts schools and lower-tier state colleges now expect that research will appear in a published format. After all, faculty publications are what give a campus status. Whether the push for research has gone too far is a question we'll deal with in detail later on. Here we'll merely note that a friend of ours, the president of a liberal arts college in the Northeast, was nonplussed when she saw a tenured "yoga professor" on the sabbatical list. The experience made her think about pruning the physical education requirements and outsourcing yoga-minded students to a studio in the town.
At Yale, as we've seen, the faculty members no longer need to wait seven years, but can now spend every third year away. At Harvard, even untenured assistant professors get a fully paid year to complete a promotion-worthy book. Thus in a recent year, of its history department's six assistant professors, only two were on hand to teach classes. In Harvard's department of philosophy that same year, almost half of its full-time faculty--eight of its seventeen professors--were away on sabbaticals. Of course, it was the students who paid. Many of their undergraduate courses were canceled or given by one-year visitors unfamiliar with the byways of the university.
We grant that Harvard is especially well endowed--or at least it was until the meltdown of 2008. But it sets a standard other colleges hope to emulate, which then affects how they will parcel out whatever funds they have. Even at Williams, which once undertook to put teaching first, a third of the faculty can be absent in a typical year. Nor are parents told how much of what they remit for tuition goes toward paying professors not to teach.
We now want to raise a seemingly naïve question. Why should students pay for time when they won't be seeing their professors, especially when the chief motive for publishing is to enhancepersonal careers? 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. So it has occurred to us that if sabbaticals were curtailed or even ended, the quality of academic publications might actually improve because what was produced would have been done by professors burning to put words on paper, or at least on an Internet site.
Though often relatively well paid and able to exercise more control over their lives than the members of practically any other profession, college and university professors often express surprisingly low levels of job satisfaction. To paraphrase W. S. Gilbert, a professor's lot is not a happy one. In our travels, we've attended quite a few academic social functions. Whether we were in Berkeley or Boston, the talk was similar: the students are semiliterate; the school's president is anti-intellectual; the new parking rules are inequitable; and there's this boorish colleague who filibusters at meetings.
At the end of the day, this strange little world often alienates the genuinely smart and idealistic. Many of the best people find it intolerable, clearing the path for careerists. Claudia recently heard from Holly Stocking, a friend who'd taken early retirement from teaching journalism at Indiana University. "I remember my first year in the harness, thinking, 'Now I have to construct myself as an expert,'" she told us. "But it always felt a little Machiavellian. Creating new bits of knowledge was paramount, while applying old knowledge and cultivating wisdom were given short shrift. Eventually, the healthy part of myself said, 'Enough!'"
HIGHER EDUCATION? Copyright © 2010, 2011 by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
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