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What’s Wrong—And Right—With American Higher Education?


ISSUE:  Spring 2003

It’s been said recently, by a close student of the subject, that higher education in the United States is “the envy of the planet.” But to the chorus of critics who have voiced their complaints over the past 10 or 15 years, such a claim would appear as ludicrous as it would presumptuous. Beginning in the late 80’s, America’s colleges but largely her elite universities began to take a hammering from politicians, cultural critics, editorial writers, and even academics for a host of sins, some venial, most—according to the critics—mortal. The chorus of complaints was somewhat muted by the economic good times of the mid-to-late 90’s, when higher education seemed able to solve or at least ameliorate some of its problems with fattened endowments. But the recent sharp downturn in economic fortune and the resulting institutional scramble for tighter public and private funding will undoubtedly renew the criticisms and probably add a few new ones. Before that happens, we should explore both the upside and perhaps some different downsides of our huge, decentralized system of higher education.

Let’s start with the good news, which is considerable. What is it that makes American higher education “the envy of the planet?” The first thing educators from the rest of the world notice is the sheer number and variety of our institutions of higher education. We have nearly 4200 colleges and universities, far more than any other nation; 58 percent of them are four-year, 41 percent of them public. As befits a good capitalist country, 789 (or 19 percent) of them, mostly two-year or junior colleges, actually hope to make a profit for their stockholders or proprietors. These 4000-plus institutions range from the likes of Harvard, Chicago, and Stanford—some of the world’s very best research universities at the top, to mailbox diploma mills—some of the world’s worst frauds at the bottom. Yet all trade on the insatiable American hunger for self-improvement, enlightenment, and credentials. Nearly 15 million students are currently enrolled, either full- or part-time. They are taught by more than one million faculty members and administered and cared for by another million and a half—more workers than the auto, steel, and textile industries combined.

Nor are those 15 million students confined to the lucky young. America is famously the land of the second and third chance, unlike many countries where rigorous state exams determine the educational and vocational fate of their citizens at an early age. Even the so-called “Big Test,” the SAT, is a small obstacle to those who want a college degree. While nearly half of America’s high school graduates aged 18 to 24 attend college—an astounding and perhaps excessive number in itself—more than a third of today’s collegians are 25 years or older. Increasingly, going to college is an option for those who never went in the past, who want to retool for new or changing careers, and who want to enrich their retirement or old age.

It is also a growing option for people of all backgrounds and means. Of today’s students, 56 percent are women, 28 percent are minorities, and nearly 40 percent receive some form of federal assistance to attend. To judge from the headlines, cost would seem to be a serious obstacle to attending college. It still is for many in the lowest income groups. Only 9 percent of today’s students come from families that make less than $20,000 a year; 65 percent have behind them parental incomes of at least $50,000, and the graduation rates are even more skewed. Yet, on the whole, American higher education is amazingly affordable, especially considering the million-dollar difference in lifetime earnings between graduates with only a high school diploma and those with a college degree.

To be sure, the total costs of attending many of the nation’s most prestigious, private colleges and universities are enough to induce severe sticker shock, nearing $150,000 for four years, but they are in a very small minority. The average cost of all four-year public institutions is only a bit over $11,000 ($2,000 less for commuters). Even for private residential colleges it’s only $25,000 a year, and many of the best schools are so well endowed that they are able to offer heavy discounts with scholarships, work opportunities, and long-term, low-interest loans. While the average private college would consume about half of the median American family income (which was nearly $47,000 in 1998), a four-year public college would take less than 20 percent of it. And more than three-fourths of all students attend public institutions.

One final index of our education enviability is the number of students from around the world who flock to our colleges and universities—more than half a million before September 11. They constitute one of our few favorable figures in the global balance of trade, contributing some $10 billion a year to the U.S. economy. In science and technology in particular, a degree from Stanford, Columbia, or MIT, even at full freight, is considered a veritable bargain in Shanghai, Kyoto, and Bombay. And many foreign students never return home, which only compounds our interest.

That’s most of the good news. Virtually anyone in America with the requisite aptitude and desire to go to college can do so. Seventy-one percent get into their first choice, another 21 percent into their second, because 95 percent of our institutions are in fact, if not by design, non-selective, contrary to the impression given by the U.S. News & World Report rankings. There’s an institution for everyone, most close to home and at a price most students can afford. And at the top, the U.S. has at least three-quarters of the best universities on the globe.

II

Needless to say, imperfections are visible even in academic paradise. Many flaws are the flipsides of some of our system’s virtues, particularly the accommodation of large numbers of diverse and unevenly prepared students. Others are the products of distinctly American traits and foibles. From the perspective of an admiring though persnickety insider, all seem to vitiate the potential and promise of our astounding system of higher education.

My personal list of things wrong with higher education begins with the downside of trying to educate such a large number of students, in particular nearly half of those fresh from America’s high schools. Mass education is an oxymoron, and too-large institutions and classes can only process, not educate, their students. I don’t know what the maximum size of a university ought to be, but we all sense when we belong to a community of learning and when we temporarily inhabit an anonymous city, however rich in resources and opportunities it may be. Some of that urban anomie can be reduced by low student-faculty ratios and small classes, but our large public universities, for economic reasons, seldom enjoy those pedagogical advantages.

If the students enrolled in large classes were well prepared, focused, and more mature, they might be able to compensate for some—never all—of the serious drawbacks of size. But American high schools so far are notoriously unable to produce such paragonic freshmen. Thus 30 percent of today’s freshmen require remedial courses, usually in math, writing, or both. In these and too many other instances, the education being offered is not higher but only wasteful, and expensively so. Waste is also prevalent in our continuation and graduation rates. One in four freshmen fails to become a sophomore, and nearly half fail to graduate. Perhaps these drop- or stop-outs reap some intellectual or personal benefit from their brief encounters with academe, but the national and personal costs of failure must be much higher.

Another casualty of bigness and the competition that numbers invariably generate is inflation. There are two kinds that concern us, both quintessentially American. The older and worse kind is what we might call titular inflation, which in turn is the product of “mission drift.” Mission drift occurs when an institution with relatively clear and distinct goals and functions assumes others that it believes will attract more students, funds, or prestige in a competitive environment. When a traditional liberal arts college adds courses, majors, faculty, and internships of a directly vocational character, or a local community college decides to trump the liberal arts college by becoming not only a four-year institution but a “university” by adding a master’s program or two, higher education suffers mission drift. Public colleges and universities are the most prone to this land of slippage because they tend to equate growth with improvement, they are responsive to the practical needs of their state’s citizens, and they have such mixed and ambitious missions to begin with that a few more mandates appear not to cause dilution or overcrowding. The end result is what Clark Kerr aptly dubbed “multiversities,” which become easy targets for internal griping and outside scorn.

The other regrettable inflation is grade inflation or, perhaps more accurately, compression. This is one of the few academic sins that critics can with justice attribute directly to the professoriate. Although it is venial, it is nonetheless consequential. Grade inflation originated largely in the most selective colleges—Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Duke have addressed it recently—but the professorial rationalizations for it spread quickly in all directions. The trend toward giving all A’s and B’s and skimping on “Gentlemen’s C’s” reportedly began during the Vietnam War when college grades to some extent kept students from being drafted and perhaps killed in the jungles of Southeast Asia. Then some schools, particularly selective ones, continued their inflationary ways, allegedly because the secondary preparation of their students had steadily improved. This prompted other schools, even those blessed with less-than-brilliant freshmen, to up their antes to prevent their students from being outranked and underrated in graduate and professional schools and job competitions.

We are still faced with a situation in some, perhaps many, colleges where grade-point averages are almost meaningless, distinctions between students are almost impossible for outsiders to make, and a majority of seniors graduate with honors. Some of the inflation may be due to the professorial pressure to score well on student course evaluations for salary’s sake, on the (statistically mistaken) assumption that easy graders are more popular with (allegedly undiscerning) students. Whatever the rationale, if professors are not willing to apply more realistic and harder-nosed standards, the administration or parents should force the issue to ensure institutional and intellectual integrity and the inherent value of a college degree.

My third general area of concern is excessive student (and parental) vocationalism. This severely compromises, if not eliminates, the essential offerings and values of liberal education. Only one quarter of today’s undergraduates major in any of the traditional arts and sciences. As many again concentrate in business, and the rest prepare for specific jobs in education, health services, and the like. When students, often at the urging of their bill-paying parents, concentrate their energies and course selections on the acquisition of what they hope will be instantly saleable skills in computer programming, small-business management, or cardboard technology, they prepare themselves for stunted intellectual lives and limited career choices. Unlike liberally educated students, who have been led and encouraged to develop a broad range of intellectual interests, values, and skills, vocational students have been largely trained— however well—for narrow specializations, which change with disturbing rapidity. Since American workers change jobs and sometimes careers an average of six times before they retire, flexibility is an invaluable asset. Narrow vocationalism cannot provide it nearly as well as a liberal education that frees us from our various provincialisms and helps us realize the full range of our potentialities.

Perhaps more important, vocational training alone cannot give us the resources of mind and heart to face aloneness, sleepless nights, or the dark nights of the soul that follow upon tragedy and loss and presage our own death. Art, philosophy, literature, history, even science—when taught liberally, not technically or professionally— can. Contrary to the unimaginative thinking of the practical-minded, the liberal arts and sciences are not luxuries; they are necessities if we would realize our full humanity. Too many colleges and particularly universities graduate men and women with too few tools and too little incentive to complete the lifelong task of self-education. Eager to escape with their crisp new credentials and first job offers, these unfinished products of the unfettered academic market fail to heed the bumper sticker that warns: “The truly educated never graduate.”

A closely related problem stems not from students but from the administration and trustees. We might call it corporatism, the treatment of the university (and to some extent the college) as if it were a business like any other. Since many board members and presidents are businessmen or trained managers, it is understandable—though regrettable—that they often misconstrue the essential purposes and values of the university. Nor is this a recent phenomenon, although it has accelerated along with enrollments and the managerial revolution in academe since World War II. Faculty critics and muckrakers such as Thorstein Veblen and Upton Sinclair have been protesting the perversion of the academy by business men, methods, and mentalities since the 1910’s and 20’s. The latest critics of the “corporate” or “entrepreneurial” university lament the same sorts of intrusions in its academic affairs: aggressive marketing for student enrollments, brand-name competition, K-Mart curricula, obsessive efficiency, hierarchical governance, and “shameless huckstering” (as one critic called it) after funding, no matter how numerous or short the attached strings.

No one except “ivory tower” purists would suggest that we can or should do without efficient business methods, the ingenious and persistent search for resources, and bureaucracies to manage our increasingly large and complex institutions. But the critics are surely right who regret that purblind “service to the market, training for the professions, [and] research in the name of its products” are the hallmarks of the majority of our current, particularly large public, universities. Their “captains of erudition” (as Veblen called them) need to recognize more clearly that the university is a non-profit institution, that its sustaining ethos is not standardization but individualism, that growth per se is not a value, that academic excellence costs more than mediocrity, and that it is exceedingly difficult to increase productivity with human “products” whose processing is slow, optimally hand-crafted, and non-transferable.

III

The commercialization and competitive marketing of higher education takes its most blatant and unfortunate form in big-time athletics. The annual list of headline scandals in the NCAA’s Division I schools gets longer every year, despite periodic calls for reform from faculty critics (including the Drake Group) and the blue-ribbon Knight Foundation Commission. Most of these universities have—or should have—given up any pretense of fostering amateur athletics as a credible part of the whole education of young men and women. The larger the university, the smaller the percentage of students who enjoy oxymoronic “athletic scholarships,” training tables, special dorms, academic tutors and advisors, study halls, free clothing, and travel—under 5 percent in the public Division IA schools, for example. Yet the costs of mounting 20 or 30 intercollegiate teams is enormous, and only a small handful of marquee schools come close to covering them with gate receipts, television shares, and booster donations. Most of the balance comes from student athletic fees, which are often substantial but artfully hidden in a general collection of “student fees.”

We should worry that many athletic programs are in the entertainment rather than the education business, that they monopolize funds some of which could go for academics, intramural sports, and recreation for all students, and that they maintain alumni-funded empires outside the control or even oversight of the faculty and administration. As a faculty member, I do worry about these things, as well as about the recruiting violations, gambling, and game-fixing that infect college sports on a recurring basis.

But as a former intercollegiate and international athlete who believes strongly in the educational and personal value of sports in balance and moderation, I resent even more athletic programs that exploit academically marginal or unqualified participants, fail to treat both genders equitably, and undermine academic purposes and standards. The slow but steady enforcement of Title IX is achieving overdue gender balance, despite grousing from some of the men’s locker rooms, and the efflorescence of women’s sports is the delightful result. What is not being fixed is the often suspect admission, preferential treatment, and disgraceful graduate rates of Division I and even Division II male (less so female) athletes. Even in the Ivy League, as William Bowen and James Schulman have recently shown, athletes as a group tend to matriculate with lower qualifications than most of their classmates, to underperform academically, to restrict their social life to teammates and other athletes, to take advantage of fewer cultural resources and activities, and to graduate in the bottom third of their class.

Far worse than missed opportunities, however, are the mistreatment and broken dreams of recruited athletes in the major male sports at Division I schools who are used to win games and then never graduate. Whether they were unprepared, unmotivated, or neglected by the university once they had served its athletic purposes, only 40 percent of the Division I basketball players and 51 percent of its football players graduated in six years among the last four cohorts studied. Blacks on those teams succeeded at rates 5-to-6 percent lower. Admittedly, some big-time programs do very well by their student-athletes: Stanford, Notre Dame, and Virginia with graduation rates in the 70’s and above hold up the pale average dragged down by the likes of Tennessee, Arkansas, and Oklahoma, with scores from 0 to 8 percent in basketball and 30 to 42 percent in football. Even if all the courses these sportsmen took were bona fide and serious (which is unlikely), such performances off the field are a national disgrace and make a mockery of higher education. In the best-of-all-possible-worlds, athletic scholarships would not exist, all students would be admitted under the same institutional standards, and all scholarships would be awarded solely according to economic need. Half the teams would still lose, but the games might be returned to the students, athletes to the classroom, and respect to the universities.

On many, perhaps most, campuses, athletics and Greek societies go together, and the resulting union is seldom a happy one for higher education. Neither the case for or against fraternities and sororities is open and shut. Certainly on large, anonymous campuses, Greek societies can assist the adjustment to college and create a feeling of belonging. And, when they put their collective minds to it, they can do good work in public service and philanthropy, though that’s seldom the main reason students join. But it’s hard for faculty members, especially this one, not to criticize several features of Greek life. Higher education suffers from fraternities and sororities that allow illegal and potentially dangerous hazing, the perpetuation of false values in superficial and hurried “rushes,” undemocratic “blackballing” of candidates, the cliquish narrowing of social experience and friendships, and particularly the undermining of academic and moral values.

Only Greek houses maintain files of previous exams and papers, which have a way of being recycled, though not to save trees. Greeks, including athletes supposedly in training, binge drink nearly twice as much as other students. The alcoholic culture of fraternities in particular—the real-life “animal houses”—leads to elevated crime rates and academic underperformance and failure. Alcohol is involved in 95 percent of violent crime on campus, primarily assault, and 90 percent of all sexual assaults and rapes. Testosterone mixed with alcohol is obviously the most dangerous cocktail of all.

These are what I see as the major problems with American higher education, the main things that compromise the integrity of our colleges and universities and prevent them from realizing their full potential and that of their students. There are more, of course. With the exception of grade inflation (which few students protest), none of the problems on my list were created by the action or inaction of the faculty. But this, according to the most vocal, largely non-academic and conservative critics of higher education in the past several years, is a gross oversight, because they have drawn up a list of academic travesties and foibles that are almost exclusively attributable to the professoriate. On the critics’ scale, America’s faculties have been weighed and found woefully wanting on four scores: politics, curriculum, tenure, and research. I would like to examine each of these charges briefly and assess their seriousness.

IV

Politics: According to the 1998—99 survey of 34,000 representative faculty members conducted by Alexander Astin and colleagues at UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute, 5 percent describe their political orientation as “far left”; another 40 percent are “liberal,” while only 4/10s of one percent occupy the “far right” and 18 percent the “conservative” slot. More than a third (37 percent) stand in “the middle of the road.” These ratios haven’t changed in the last decade. If professors are intellectuals, and intellectuals are “people who think otherwise,” representing a critical, countervailing force to social orthodoxy and conventional wisdom, it is understandable that the professoriate would lean a little to the left of center, given the generally conservative leaning of the graying national population in the past two decades.

Despite their healthy numbers in both academe and the electorate, conservatives have long felt suspicious of and threatened by those to their left, especially since the student unrest of the 60’s and the intellectual and curricular changes of the 70’s and 80’s. In general and by definition, conservatives do not like change, and higher education has experienced a great deal of it in the past 30 years: feminism and women’s studies, affirmative action and the diversification of student populations and faculties, multiculturalism and adjustments of the Western “canon,” deconstruction and postmodernism, gay rights, and speech codes to prevent censorship and intimidation.

In reaction to many of these changes, conservative intellectuals concocted a mythology of “political correctness” in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Through endless recycling of a small number of hamhanded behaviors and stupid statements by reform-minded students, faculty, and administrators, most at elite institutions, and through “exaggeration, deceptive omissions of key facts, and occasional outright invention,” they persuaded large numbers of Americans that “leftist totalitarians had taken control of universities and were intimidating professors, censoring conservatives, politicizing curricula, and imposing a new “McCarthyism of the Left” on higher education.” In this inventive rewriting of recent history, conservatives, particularly white male ones, were the true victims, of the “feminazis,” “thought police,” “tenured radicals,” and “PC totalitarians” prowling the nation’s campuses.

The promulgation of the PC myth was a brilliant stroke of public relations and political maneuvering. It was a carefully orchestrated, well-financed campaign of exaggerated misinformation for ideological and political purposes. Four well-heeled conservative foundations subsidized the writing of the five major books that laid the foundation for and consolidated the PC myth in the public imagination. Those and similar foundations also funded several notorious conservative student newspapers and underwrote a number of conservative policy centers, or “think tanks,” which gave generous fellowships or sinecures to several leading PC antagonists.

Fortunately, the myth of political correctness has been exposed and unraveled by several scholars and rendered moot by the passage of time, as its newsworthiness declined from stale repetition and campus behavior failed to produce enough fuel to feed the flames. But it certainly had its day. Today, in academe itself, PC is virtually a dead issue, although, as a “rhetorical virus,” it seems to have resilience in the public vocabulary of cartoons, clichés, and slogans. Unfortunately, the PC mythologizing coincided with growing public uneasiness over higher education, particularly its costs, which helped conservative legislators on both state and federal levels slash funding for higher education.

V

Curriculum: Many of the most publicized changes in higher education in the past three decades have been curricular. Critics inside and outside academe have wrung their hands over a variety of course appearances, adjustments, and alleged “disappearings” (the dirty work of “leftist” faculty hit squads). A major thrust of most of these curricular reforms was to acknowledge the historical importance and cultural contributions of groups, doers, and thinkers beyond the limited cast or “canon” of Western white males featured in prevailing texts and syllabi. This, in turn, led to the inclusion of women and other “minorities,” an emphasis on conflict and pluralism, a globalization of the curriculum in general, a questioning of the canonical criteria of “greatness,” and a rise in cross- and interdisciplinary studies. Simultaneously, an influx of “postmodernist” theory from France and Germany threatened the humanities and social sciences by overturning or seriously challenging virtually all of their traditional (“modernist”) assumptions and intellectual procedures. All of these changes posed a major threat to the status quo and induced no little angst in the halls of ivy.

Conservative critics upset over these changes have conveniently forgotten that curricula are in constant motion. If they are not, they ossify and lose their vital connection with the changing world around them. Since the 1960’s the curricula of our colleges and universities have rightly responded to the often dramatic changes in our world, society, and student population, the last of which is now more than half female, more than a quarter minority, and considerably older than it used to be. Not only is curricular change normal, it is normally conflicted, because we—faculties, students, and “society”—harbor different versions of our collective past, visions of our future, and expectations of the new generation of college graduates. And because curricular imbroglios are normal, they should not receive apocalyptic billing, such as “battles” and “wars”—Armageddon—between “Ancients and Moderns,” “The Two Cultures,” or (more lightly) “Loose Canons,” the waging of which is spurred on by the perceived “sacrality of reading lists.”

Moreover, curricula change not cataclysmically, by faculty putsch or outside imposition, but gradually, by accretion and small attrition. Older offerings—Shakespeare, Western Civ, The Bible—tend to remain and new ones are simply added, resulting in our current super-store curricula. And changes in some departments worry critics more than others. The latest round of curricular debates has been focused largely on the humanities, mostly English and history. During the 19th century, most of the action involved the sciences, and in the first half of the 20th the social sciences were at issue.

We can take comfort from two other home truths about curricula. One is that innovations in scholarship, controversial or not, do not necessarily or speedily make their way into the curriculum. In the humanities, introductory courses, lower-level surveys, and general education courses all tend to resist scholarly fashion and especially “theory.” The second truth is that a curriculum is in many ways whatever students make of it. Despite the best-laid plans of parents and faculty, students manipulate the formal curriculum to suit themselves, or they skirt it by creating an extracurriculum that speaks more directly to their needs, values, and goals.

Recent alarms over the curriculum, then, are largely unwarranted. As historian Lawrence Levine assures us, colleges and universities today “are performing precisely the functions institutions of higher education should perform: to stretch the boundaries of our understanding; to teach the young to value our intellectual heritage not by rote but through comprehension and examination; to continually and perpetually subject the “wisdom” of our society to thorough and thoughtful scrutiny while making the “wisdom” of other societies and cultures accessible and subject to comparable scrutiny; to refuse to simplify our culture beyond recognition by limiting our focus to only one segment of American society and instead to open up the entire society to thoughtful examination.”

VI

Tenure: Virtually no critics believe that college faculties can do their proper jobs without academic freedom from threats and pressures both inside and outside academe. But many do resist drawing a necessary connection between academic freedom and tenure. Instead, they denounce tenure as a major source of academic ills—everything from harboring intellectual “deadwood” and shameless shirkers to wreaking unspeakable psychic damage upon junior faculty during probation. Tenure’s putative guarantee of lifetime employment is seen by many critics not only as “the ultimate protection from accountability” but as providing “security unheard of in any other profession.” When administrators and legislators are also seeking ways to trim costs by reducing faculties or abolishing whole programs and departments, the hue and cry against tenure requires academics to explain and defend the practice with special clarity and care.

To begin, the critics’ characterizations of tenure require serious qualification. The economic security offered by academic tenure, for example, is not unique: the armed forces, the federal bench, medical practices, legal partnerships, churches, orchestras, and unions all offer similar long-term employment to their members. And academic employment is hardly protected for a “lifetime.” Most faculty don’t achieve tenure until they are in their mid-to-late 30’s and they retire along with the rest of the American population in their mid-to-late 60’s. Not only is the term of tenured employment shorter than one might imagine, it is not guaranteed in the sense of being irrevocable. The American Association of University Professors (founded in 1915) has always emphasized that academic freedom carries with it “duties correlative with rights” and that a teacher’s full freedom in research and publication is conditional upon “the adequate performance of his other academic duties,” primarily teaching.

Tenured faculty can be terminated for such things as incompetence or dishonesty in teaching or research, egregious neglect of duty, and gross moral or legal turpitude, but being “deadwood” is not on the list. No critic has ever marshaled any data—much less a precise definition—to support his allegation of insupportable amounts of faculty “deadwood” protected from pruning by tenure, because no such data exist. College faculties have no more lazy and incompetent members than do the equally self-policing legal, medical, or clerical professions.

But even without a draconian threat of dismissal, tenure does not offer professors anything like “the ultimate protection from accountability” bemoaned by critics. Faculty members are constantly and heavily accountable, less to outside authorities than to the high standards of their own profession. As soon as academics begin their scholarly careers, they experience “perpetual exposure to criticism” in the form of dissertation directors, degree committees, book and journal editors, manuscript and book reviewers, conference organizers, commentators, and audiences, and opinionated readers of all sorts. In their college homes, annual merit evaluations by chairpersons, departmental personnel committees, and deans determine salaries and promotions; students evaluate teaching at the end of each course; and increasingly, faculty are evaluated every five or six years in post-tenure reviews. In some universities, mine included, even endowed chairholders are thoroughly reviewed every five years to ensure against titular torpor.

The accountability afforded by these external appraisals actually pales in comparison with the fierce self-criticism generated in the vast majority of professors as they measure themselves against the achievements of their fellow members of the ancient, worldwide community of scholars and the unreachable perfectionism of their guild standards. Far from being “unaccountable,” most professors feel excessively scrutinized by the professional colleagues who count most, as well as by noisy critics and bandwagon media outside.

Inside the academy, business-minded administrators cast a critical eye on tenure because of its long-term cost in terms of senior salaries. Yet only slightly more than half of America’s full-time faculty members are tenured, and 43 percent of all faculty work only part-time, often for disgraceful wages and no benefits, not even a campus office. The arguments against tenure focused on personnel management simply cannot compete with the economic arguments in favor of its retention and larger social benefits.

First, the future promise of tenure increases the supply of faculty recruits, thereby lowering the institutional (and social) cost of hiring them. Second, the relative economic security of tenure also lowers academic salaries from the competitively higher salaries of comparably educated professionals in government and industry. The private/academic differential is a whopping 38 percent and growing, as academic salaries struggle to keep up with even modest inflation. If colleges and universities dropped the tenure system for short-term contracts and necessarily competitive salaries, the American price tag for higher education would skyrocket. As it is now, professors pay for tenure out of their own pockets, and not with loose change.

A third benefit of tenure is that it allows professors to undertake risky, long-term projects in both teaching and research. A measure of economic security not only encourages teachers to focus more of their time and attention on the classroom, but it allows scholars to forgo quickly produced, “safe” publications, designed to enhance their marketability, in favor of longer, more adventurous books that reflect more brightly on their home sponsors.

And finally, as Princeton economist Fritz Machlup argued nearly 40 years ago, “all the disadvantages of a strict tenure system . . . are outweighed by one important advantage, accruing chiefly to society at large,” namely the “social benefits of academic freedom.” These come not only in the form of scientific and technological advances, which contribute visibly to the gross national product, but as intellectual, moral, and aesthetic discoveries and refinements, which do not appear on balance sheets yet greatly improve the quality of our national life and spirit.

VII

Research: Almost as often as tenure, and for far longer, academic “research” has been caught in the critics’ crosshairs and subject to cheap shots or overcharged salvos of opprobrium. An insider opines (that’s the only word for it) that “the vast majority of the so-called research turned out in the modern university”—which we can safely assume the author has not read or even sampled—”is essentially worthless.” Because it is largely the product of “scholarship at gunpoint,” by which he means the “publish-or-perish” imperative, “it is busywork on a vast, almost incomprehensible scale.” A muckraking journalist, reaching for (spurious) specificity, asserts that “at best, only one academic in ten” makes any contribution to the “enlargement of human knowledge.” Depending on which critic you read, either “much” or “most” of the professoriate’s published research is unreadable, esoteric, jargon-ridden, trifling, unoriginal, pompous, pedestrian, pretentious, irrelevant, inconsequential, or some deadly combination thereof.

And how did the critics learn this “dirty secret of the academic intellectuals?” Not, we might assume, through superhuman acquaintance with, if not competence in, the myriad specialized disciplines, subdisciplines, and interdisciplines of the modern university, but through sheer audacity and reading the titles, not the contents, of a few academic conference papers and journal articles. One critic, a professor’s son, coolly suggests that “three-fourths,” the “vast majority” anyway, of learned journals “could disappear tomorrow without the slightest diminution in the world’s collective knowledge.” One can only hope that this paragon of chutzpah would chair the committee called to draw up the periodical hit list.

Perhaps the best way to respond to the critics’ scattershot indictment is to return concentrated fire from high ground. To begin, the “publish-or-publish” imperative should not, and does not, apply to “everyone” in American higher education. Only colleges and universities that encourage research by providing reasonable teaching loads, research leaves, adequate facilities (particularly libraries and labs), summer, travel, and publication subvention grants, and merit pay systems have any business expecting their faculties to pursue research as part of their official job descriptions. And, in fact, many professors neither publish nor perish. A pronounced productivity fault line runs between one group consisting of all the research-oriented doctoral universities and about three dozen of the most selective liberal arts colleges (such as Amherst, Williams, and Oberlin) and another group consisting of the rest of our two- and four-year institutions with more exclusively teaching emphases.

The Astin survey of 1998—99 points to a similar division of labor in the nation’s faculty ranks. Two-thirds of all faculty at four-year institutions say their primary interest leans toward or is heavily in teaching; only a third give research primacy. During the academic year, nearly half of all faculty devote only four hours or less a week to research and scholarly writing; only 20 percent spend more than 13 hours. Accordingly, more than a third of the professors had published four or fewer articles (the preferred mode of academic publication) to date. More than half had never published a book, and only 8 percent had written five or more.

Many critics would like faculty scholars to publish only foreseeably superior work to ensure that routine or “bad” scholarship does not conceal the best by its sheer volume. This Utopian wish ignores two considerations. The first is that it is largely impossible to separate the “best” from the rest before publication. A great deal of pre-selection already occurs when manuscripts are peer-reviewed for potential publishers and periodicals. But once manuscripts are accepted, edited, and published, there is no reasonable or fair way to distinguish excellence from mediocrity or worse, except through the current standard process of slow, patient, exacting assessment by “communities of the competent,” largely but not exclusively academic.

Another reason not to prejudge and dismiss published research, no matter how convoluted its argument or ungainly its prose, is that it may prove valuable in the future, either to a single researcher or to posterity at large. Even if, by definition, all scholars cannot produce the best work on an absolute scale, they can and should be encouraged, even prodded, to produce the best of which they are capable. The most important thing about scholarship is less the number or even the quality of results than the habitual process of critical engagement with the advanced ideas and materials of one’s discipline.

Nor do we need to fret about the motivations of those who research and publish. It would be ideal if every scholar pursued his or her research from the purest of motives (sheer curiosity being the best) and with semi-divine inspiration and deep passion. But it would be unrealistic to expect it, professors being as varied as the next professionals, and work, no matter how rewarding, being what it is. If the undemonized “publish-or-perish” policy of our most ambitious and capable colleges and universities “encourages a recalcitrant scholar to share his [or her] discoveries with others, or to engage in research when he [or she] would not otherwise have done so, then that policy indeed serves a useful function.”

The final shibboleths we need to exorcise are that academic work is a zero-sum proposition and that the faculty compulsion for research has caused a scandalous “flight from teaching.” Academics rarely confine themselves to a 40-hour workweek (except perhaps in the summer). On average, they work about 53 hours a week, but those in research universities commit an extra four hours a week. Overall, those who do the most research, publish the most, and teach graduate students as well as undergraduates work the longest hours during the academic year and especially in the summer.

Not only are productive faculty rate-busters in research, they are more active in governance and administration, they do as much teaching as their more single-minded teaching colleagues, and, in several key respects, they do it better. First of all, student/teacher ratios in doctoral universities, where one might expect a decline, have not changed from what they were in the 1950’s. Nor has the median time spent on teaching and preparation changed. And although the course load of the average teacher has dropped during the century, largely to accommodate revised institutional missions, the load at nearly three-fourths of our colleges and universities, including more than half of our four-year institutions, is four or more courses per semester; only at major research universities is the typical assignment four or five courses a year.

Once today’s students enter the classroom, they find, across the nation, that research-active professors usually have as many contact hours with students, teach as many introductory courses, teach only undergraduates as frequently, give the same attention and time to students out of class, and use the same labor-intensive teaching methods and evaluations as their pedagogical counterparts who publish less. Characteristically, they also assign more scholarly books and articles and ask more rigorous exam questions than their colleagues. In short, there is virtually no proof— only repetitious hearsay and wishful ideology—that America’s professors are in full or even partial flight from teaching and that research is the cause.

This brief tour through some of the things that are right, wrong, and not wrong with American higher education should renew our faith in the power of colleges and universities to transform lives and society for the better. It should give us sound reasons for taking pride in our large, diverse, and accessible system of higher education. Equally, it should convince the tax- and tuition-paying public, parents and students alike, to regard higher education not only as the best investment they can make in our national future but one of the safest. But we also have some cause to regret that, in many areas and ways, we have not done as well as we might, that we have set the bar too low and settled for mediocrity. Until Americans look up to educated people as much as we do to education itself, we will not have the educational system or the democratic society to which we sometimes, in our best moments, aspire.

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Diane Dudley's picture
Diane Dudley · 3 years ago

11 years after this article first came out I am still sharing it with parents and students alike.

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