A Modest Proposal for University Reform

07.25.2005 | Jonathan Leaf | The Academy | 7 Comments

According to Forbes, there were 313 billionaires in the United States last year. It’s no longer such an accomplishment. Thus, to distinguish yourself as a billionaire, it becomes increasingly necessary to either own a sports team or be a philanthropist.

The sports team-owning billionaire usually seeks funds from a city or state and tries to over-charge and generally rip-off average working stiffs. The more thoughtful billionaire takes the second course and gives to charity.

Most of that money goes for schools, hospitals and medical research. In the case of giving towards colleges and universities one must ask the question though of how much does the greater share of this giving accomplish. Does another billion added to the $20 billion Harvard already has make much difference? Will these funds be used to better the world – or will they just go to endowing another chair held by a lazy jackass serving up nonsense? Do we need another Noam Chomsky in an endowed chair at MIT? Or another Ward Churchill at the University of Colorado?

For all the billions given for higher education, the cost of tuition only seems to go up year by year as the tenured faculty at our leading universities continue to teach less and to provide fewer words of wisdom when they do make their occasional pit-stops in the lecture halls. The money given to the schools is mostly being hoarded in endowments or turned over to finance the lifestyles of false prophets.

Is there an answer? Maybe.

What if Paul Allen of Microsoft were to offer a billion dollars to a leading university to pay every undergraduate’s tuition — if the school’s faculty would in return agree to tenure reform? Compelling a vote by the school’s faculty on such a proposition would focus the attention of students on what their professors really are. It would undisguise to the undergrads that the professors’ claims to idealism and concern for the student body are mostly fraudulent. A vote against such a proposition would flatly demonstrate the professors’ selfishness and their obsessive need for TIAA/CREF-guided financial security, a preoccupation with avoiding poverty which far exceeds that of typical business executives – or many billionaires for that matter.

Better still would be a (highly, highly improbable) vote for such a proposition.

Why not eliminate blanket job guarantees but limit firings by the University President to not more than, say, 2% of the faculty in any given year? A school which implemented such a policy would have less turnover, attract better young professors, have less dead wood and fewer academic frauds like Ward Churchill.

Tenure was never meant to be an absolute assurance that teachers wouldn’t be let go. Nor should it be. The evolution of faculty recruitment is now such that academia doesn’t have a low rate of job dismissal. As many economists point out, in academia the pattern of firing is simply different than in the private sector with most ousters taking place when candidates have reached the point at which tenure is considered. The rate of professors being forced out of jobs is, in fact, quite high. Moreover, colleges and universities increasingly must rely on adjunct teaching fellow to do the actual teaching, and these professors are already without tenure. A more sane approach to faculty hiring and firing would be to do away with tenure and instead hire professors and give them the job security that they deserve after their struggles getting doctorates from the very first day that they arrive on campus – unless their performance in the classroom, as advisors and as scholars manifestly warrants their dismissal.

In as much as this change would put a little more power back in the hands of university presidents it would also let them begin a reform of the current problem of abusive treatment of doctoral candidates by senior faculty. Right now doctoral candidates can be prevented – often for years – from getting a proper hearing from a committee for their theses. Further, their research is not infrequently co-opted or stolen outright by their tenured faculty advisors. Reforming tenure is a step towards improving the treatment of graduate student assistants and bettering the quality of those entering grad school. Might American Math professors who actually speak English be a by-product of tenure reform?

All that’s needed to make this happen is a billionaire with a small sense of mischief.

Thank you for the comment. What I've said above is a modest proposal only. I would't say you're necessarily wrong.
07.26.2005 | Jonathan Leaf
[blank stare]

You must be coming to this particular problem from the "consumer" (by which I mean the "I paid for this grade!"--btw a direct quote from an unnamed student at an unnamed west coast university that, ahem, does not have a bear as a mascot--sorry, I digress) perspective, of which the "I paid to be taught by [fill-in-the-blank-famous-faculty-name]" is simply a subset. Three words: University of Phoenix. This is the logical conclusion of this line of reasoning.

OK, that's an exaggeration, but the problem isn't tenure. It is inability of universities to find a reasonable balance between requiring peer-reviewed research in promotion/advancement and accurately assessing amount of teaching release needed for the production of quality research.

My thumbnail sketch of higher education today:

Adjuncts/ABD graduate students are used not as a dreadful necessity but as a very successful business model, pioneered in the east coast sub-Ivies (NYU, etc, in direct competition with the Ivies) to bring down the total wage bill, thus allowing the university buy the services of one of the new, mobile famous/infamous "star" faculty and rake in more grant money and/or student fees. Adjuncts are not going away anytime soon.

Why? In part because adjunct teaching loads are heavy enough that these "faculty" rarely make a successful move to a tenured position because they lack the time to work on material for publication--if they were ever able to in the first place, given the glut of PhDs--creating a stable underclass of educator. ABDs on the other hand increasingly must rely on their department's largess for job search references, perpetuating the it's-not-what-you-know aspects of the profession.

Most faculty hired on a tenure track that fail to make tenure do so because they didn't meet publication requirements--quality or quantity. Many times they work with full teaching loads while senior faculty luxuriate in the semi-retirement of "administrative duties", their ill-gotton gains from years of departmental glad-handing.

Or, at places like Harvard, young PhDs are hired knowing they will never be offered a tenured job; in exchange for their youthful vigor, especially in teaching and non-threatening administrative tasks, these faculty get "Hahvahd" on their CV for their next job search in 2 to 5 years. Win-win, allegedly.

And don't even get me started on the academic publication world!

Bascially you have an entire generation of faculty at the tenure level who in some cases haven't published in their field for years, while new hires have had to accept a whole different ballgame. Some of these older faculty are dedicated teachers, some aren't. Some new hires have had years of classroom experience as graduate students, others haven't. If you try and use some form of teaching assessments to separate the wheat and chaff, you might identify the extreme ends of the bell-curve, but that's about it. Maybe that covers your 2% but I doubt it.

So you're right back to the question of intellectual merit, ie publication. How will lifting tenure help anyone--new or old? The standards you'd use to get rid of the intellectual "dead weight" applied universally would lop off new shoots of intellectually developing recent hires as well. Is it fair to judge a 30 year academic career on the same criteria as a 3 year post-doc?

And that's just the abstract analysis. Of course, my thumbnail sketch glossed over the poisonous personal politics that exist in every department at every university, which color all of the above situations.

Even 2% a year would mean a complete free-for-all in every department as the chair and his/her cronies purged their way to glory. And if more power is turned over to university presidents, it will just create more politicking at every level. There is no point looking towards administration anyway; these days the books that concern them most are all actuarial.

I would advise your business mavrick to use his richly deserved gains and do something really crazy like fund union drives in China instead.

08.9.2005 | Askerry
I don't understand what you're trying to say. You present a wealth of arguments for tenure reform, no arguments in suuport of the notion that there is much importance to most of the bogus "research" done by academics in the humanities today, acknolwedge that tenured faculty rarely do much of this anyway and then conclude by saying that my proposal is a bad one. You also say that I must be looking at this from a consumer's point of view. While I finished school long ago, I certainly am. Colleges should be responsive to the needs of students first and foremost. I can't imagine why anyone would think anything else. If you don't think that, you're no educator.
08.10.2005 | Jonathan Leaf
Is this really true, even making an allowance for hyperbole: "For all the billions given for higher education, the cost of tuition only seems to go up year by year as the tenured faculty at our leading universities continue to teach less and to provide fewer words of wisdom when they do make their occasional pit-stops in the lecture halls.The money given to the schools is mostly being hoarded in endowments or turned over to finance the lifestyles of false prophets."

Hoarding in endowments, perhaps, but are tenured faculty salaries really responsible for the yearly increases in tuition? That just doesn't sound right. Is there evidence that such salaries are going up so quickly? In order to be substantially responsible for tuition increases, they would have to be increasing not just faster than inflation, but much, much faster, as they're not the only cost the university bears. There are also all the new buildings, renovations and laboratoris. There are non-faculty employees, and health care costs for employees (and perhaps for students; I'm not sure if the university subsidizes student health care at all). And then there are the sports teams, and the amount of financial aid for the less affluent students, and on and on.

My point isn't that we shouldn't talk about tenure reform. We should, though I'm not sure where the enormous hostility to tenured professors come from (they have nice lives, but so what; so do a lot of other people, and we don't usually begrudge them that ). But the case would need to be made, it seems to me, on the basis of what's best for student education, not what costs the least.

08.16.2005 | Daniel Oppenheimer
Askerry's argument looks pretty cogent to me: He muses on the complexity of the subject and suggests why Mr. Leaf's proposals are unlikely to improve anyone's lot.

That he doesn't present an argument to back up his assertions about research seems to me irrelevant; is Mr. Leaf responding to Askerry, or editing his post?

I see no argument in Mr. Leaf's article to support the notion that Noam Chomsky, pioneer in the field of linguistics and partisan advocate, should not hold his endowed chair, to name one of several unsupported points.

But to suggest that the best use of a billion dollars would be to try to break the tenure system?

As Askerry wrote, "[blank stare]"

Bennington did it and has so far been rewarded with only several million dollars in corporate donations, assuming Merck Hall was named for the brand name. That's a much cheaper way to bust the academic freedom (as expressed by Ward Churchill, Noam Chomsky and others Mr. Leaf would like to purge) that tenure now shields, if imperfectly.
08.17.2005 | David L Steinhardt
I've read with pleasure. Maybe it's offtopic, but i just wanted to say, that it's really interesting to read everything this... You discuss here a lot of interesting things on different useful themes. Thanks for that =)
01.3.2006 | Kate

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