Paul L. Caron

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Colleges Serve the People Who Work There, Not the Students

Higher Education Wall Street Journal, Ignorance by Degrees: Colleges Serve the People Who Work There More Than the Students Who Desperately Need to Learn Something, by Mark Bauerlein (Emory University, Department of English):

Higher education may be heading for a reckoning. [A] new public skepticism has surfaced, with galling facts to back it up. Over the past 30 years, the average cost of college tuition and fees has risen 250% for private schools and nearly 300% for public schools (in constant dollars). The salaries of professors have also risen much faster than those of other occupations. ...

Elite colleges justify the light teaching loads of their professors—Yale requires only three courses a year, with a semester off every third year—by claiming that the members of their faculty spend their time producing important research. A glance at scholarly journals or university-press catalogs might make one wonder how much of this "research" is advancing knowledge and how much is part of a guild's need to credentialize its members. ... At the same time, the administrator-to-student ratio is growing. In fact, it has doubled since 1976. ...

In Higher Education?, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus describe such conditions in vivid detail. They offer statistics, anecdotes and first-person accounts— concerning tuition, tenure and teaching loads, among much else—to draw up a powerful, if rambling, indictment of academic careerism. The authors are not shy about making biting judgments along the way. ...

As for one of the most prestigious universities in the world, "the mediocrity of Harvard undergraduate teaching is an open secret of the Ivy League." Much of the research for scholarly articles and lectures is "just compost to bulk up résumés." College presidents succeed not by showing strong, imaginative leadership but "by extending their school's terrain." Indeed, "hardly any of them have done anything memorable, apart perhaps from firing a popular athletic coach." For all the high-minded talk, Mr. Hacker and Ms. Dreifus conclude, colleges and universities serve the people who work there more than the parents and taxpayers who pay for "higher education" or the students who so desperately need it.

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The dismissiveness of the posters here to the social sciences is alarming. Economics is a social science. Organizational behavior (read: Management)is a social science. Even at smaller colleges, the reading load and intellectual heft of a Philosophy degree cannot be ignored (there is no room for liberal or conservative spin in areas like epistemology and ontology). These majors develop critical thinking skills that are all helpful in business, and in life. If you want technical expertise, minor in business or get an M.B.A. Ultimately it will be your competence, not your undergraduate major that lands you a job.

As to the point of lazy professors, posters here should look outside the cloistered world of elite and second-tier universities. Go look at the middling universities that educate most Americans - because those institutions are small and underfunded the faculty there are tasked to serve three masters: the ivory tower gods of publish or perish (like their top-ranked university colleagues); the student services role; and the teaching loads of their natural competitors - community colleges. (Which, as an aside, are a tremendous and often ignored value. Many university systems even have branch campuses specifically for the primary purpose of educating undergrads in the first two years then allowing them to transfer to the "flagship" institutions that are so prized.)

Increasing number of administrators? Yes, that's true - but so is parents' demand for student services. A kid goes crazy and shoots a bunch of people - students (and parents) expect couseling. My kid is having a hard time finding an internship - where is career services? My kid is trying to register for classes and the ones he/she needs to graduate on time are all full - where's the academic advisor? The kids across the hall in my kid's dorm are doing drugs and raising hell - where's the resident advisor? So don't paint with such a broad brush - it's the Senior Executive Assistant Vice President of University Relations (or such other nonsense) who makes $350,000 a year to whom you should direct your ire. (Or the coach who earns $X millions, but that's another subject entirely).

Finally, from one who desperately needed (and is still paying) for my student loans issued or underwritten by the federal government, I have been tremendously successful in my career thanks to that subsidy. A subsidy that was spent, I might add, at two state-run universities (one of which received less than 10% of its annual budget from state funds). Before one resorts to thoughtless knee-jerk diatribes, please exercise some independent thought.

Posted by: Biglaw Associate | Aug 4, 2010 6:04:31 AM

Thomas Sowell has recommended Charles Sykes' book "Profscam," which blows the lid off of our "country club" universities where professors work 12 hours a week for six figure salaries. Even worse, the clever ones who manage to attract "research" grants can avoid teaching altogether by having grad students teach their classes (and do the "research").

Meanwhile, costs continue to rise at three times the rate of inflation, for no good reason.

Posted by: Bruce Bishop | Aug 3, 2010 7:35:34 PM

And this is a new practice?

"The discipline of colleges and universities is in general contrived, not for the benefit of the students, but for the interest, or more properly speaking, for the ease of the masters. Its object is, in all cases, to maintain the authority of the master, and whether he neglects or performs his duty, to oblige the students in all cases to behave to him, as if he performed it with the greatest diligence and ability."

Adam Smith - Wealth of Nations V.1.143 - 1776

Posted by: SovietofWashington | Aug 3, 2010 6:29:38 PM

Where I work, the new faculty have these enormous "startup" funds from the college. It's part of the hiring package. These are the lab rats, guys who have experimental research.

So instead of hiring 4 people to teach undergraduates, they bring in one hotshot with a lab program and the trophy-sized startup funding.

Maybe this startup funds business is one of the components of the outsize inflation for the academic bubble?

Posted by: V for victory | Aug 3, 2010 2:10:35 PM

Posted by: mike livingston | Aug 3, 2010 11:16:52 AM

All undergraduate or graduate degrees in social "sciences" and "Group Studies" are WORTHLESS. They are no more than nonsensical propaganda with no academic validity and useless in the real world.

From K-12 and four years beyond is a wasteland except for those fortunate enough to learn how to read, write, calculate and understand something of History, and the Sciences... there is no longer a Classical Education built around Western Civilization.

Colleges are graduating intelligent, ignorant barbarians without an ability to THINK FOR THEMSELVES.
Substitute "educated" for intelligent. It is these very people (who voted the worst president ever into office) that the baby boomers have raised. They were handed over to colleges to be indoctrinated in the socialist/liberal thought-speak and then sent back to their parents, unable to secure employment in a business world that required skill, determination and creativity, versus the rewarding of mediocrity, helicoptering and overindulgence in the interest of "good parenting". We have bred an entire generation of cojones-challenged males and the self-entitled females who took control of them from their mothers.

Posted by: fxdwg69 | Aug 3, 2010 2:05:20 PM

Market competition may solve this mess eventually. There are many private colleges, and also cummunity colleges, with reasonable costs that sink most of their money into teaching, rather than research, and dont overpay their faculty, relying on non-tenured faculty that have retired from other professions, like military and private business. They dont have the research prestige of the big ivies, but their students learn what they need to learn, and they get their degree, for a reasonable price.

Right now though, most US colleges are still held in high regard by much of the world, who still send their best students here. I think this is mainly due to pockets of excellence that remain, like our engineering, medical, and hard science faculties, and even a few remaining good professors in things like classical literature, biology, and history. These good US professors still cling on amidst all the dreck of the leftie identity politics types in the humanities, social sciences and cultural anthropology, who now are also taking over the history and legal departments, and some sciences, like climate science and biology.

Evemtually, the dearth of teaching and real research in our colleges, as compared to the grossly overpaid and often incompetent tenured faculty, will catch up with them and they will lose their only real currency, their reputation. Then they will either have to reform or die. But it will take awhile. Leftists are expert liars and propogandists, who know well how to support their own and stiffle dissent and opposition (leftists only talk about the glory of dissent and protest BEFORE they have power, not after), and once they take over any institution, it takes a long time to expose and purge them.

Posted by: richard40 | Aug 3, 2010 1:34:22 PM

To JorgXMcKie:
Actually Ward Churchill was not honest about his fraud, until after he was caught. For years he falsly posed as a native american when he was not, to bolster his radical oppressed native american vs evil white people "scholarship".

Posted by: richard40 | Aug 3, 2010 12:54:38 PM

It's always amused me that grad students do most of the teaching and grading of papers, and often *write* those papers for students who are customers of term paper writing services. Net result: the senior faculty and the student body do very little work, while the grad students do all the heavy lifting (and go deeply into debt for the privilege). Pretty clever setup.

Posted by: jt | Aug 3, 2010 11:32:49 AM

Well, it is all about being in the Guild, isn't it?

Gatekeepers. Jealously guarding the drawbridge of the Ivory Tower.

What is the functional difference between a prof who does PC research, or who writes a paper that advances the desired narrative, from say, Ward Churchill? Both are frauds, and you have to give Churchill credit for making no attempt to disguise what he is.

Posted by: B Dubya | Aug 3, 2010 9:25:37 AM

Why would anyone expect colleges and universities to act differently from any other quasi-monopoly? [Especially when the monopoly is funded in large part by Other People's Money, especially taxpayers.]

Posted by: JorgXMcKie | Aug 3, 2010 9:18:00 AM

When the price of gas goes crazy, usually every spring, concerned politicians routinely subpeona "oil executives" and abuse them about their salaries and profits for the cameras in what has become an annual congressional kabuki dance. Then the "travel" season ends, prices go back down, the pols portray themselves as heros of the common man, and all is well, only to be repeated next year.

However, when the price of a college education goes out the roof, to the tune of 10% a year for 30 years as the Taxprof states, no such theater happens. No college administrator goes on the hotseat about his or her six figure income, his or her administrative assistant (and domestic partner) also at six figures, free mansions in the case of university presidents, or Enron style retirement packages. No billion dollar endowments are questioned. Wonder why?

Well, duh! Democrats don't target Democrats, silly! And since most Democrat constituents have their college costs subsidized owing to their being historically under-represented or some such, nobody has to inconveniently pose as ardent selfless defender of the "little guy" on anyone's behalf. The base is covered and the elite are safe in their dachas!

Posted by: Vanguard of the Commentariat | Aug 3, 2010 8:48:30 AM

College tuition appears to me to be in the last stages of a bubble. A bubble pops when the herd finally realizes that they have been grossly overpaying and getting horrible value per dollar.

Hard times and major changes are coming to higher education, in my opinion, except for the top-ranked schools. The top dogs can live off their historical reputation for another generation or two. Eventually they will need to re-earn their reputations, but not until new institutions arise and show everyone what true excellence is.

In the short term, the most obvious problem is that liberal arts education is a luxury good. It's a poor value financially with psychic benefits. As long as economic conditions remain poor, providers of luxury goods are unlikely to prosper. Career-oriented programs are likely to thrive under these conditions.

Posted by: AMTbuff | Aug 3, 2010 8:42:05 AM

"the mediocrity of Harvard undergraduate teaching is an open secret of the Ivy League". You know the director of this program is in the nomination process for Supreme Court Justice? Suppose she'll get a question on that?

Posted by: pashley | Aug 3, 2010 8:40:25 AM

All undergraduate or graduate degrees in social "sciences" and "Group Studies" are WORTHLESS. They are no more than nonsensical propaganda with no academic validity and useless in the real world.

From K-12 and four years beyond is a wasteland except for those fortunate enough to learn how to read, write, calculate and understand something of History, and the Sciences... there is no longer a Classical Education built around Western Civilization.

Colleges are graduating intelligent, ignorant barbarians without an ability to THINK FOR THEMSELVES.

Posted by: jgreene | Aug 3, 2010 8:39:47 AM


I think there are clearly a lot of people doing not particularly good research who would be better off doing more and better teaching. But I think the cure for this is more rigorous tenure standards and, perhaps, a more expansive definition of the things--including clinical work, service to the profession, and so forth as well as theoretical articles--that are credited toward promotion. I don't think the answer is to apply a Wall Street Journal sort of "moneyball" approach which, BTW, hasn't even worked that well in baseball (the Red Sox are in third place).

Posted by: mike livingston | Aug 3, 2010 8:16:52 AM

They also keep the hoi polloi out of university press products to leave plenty of room for the compost that most university presses produce. About seven years ago, I submitted a manuscript for a history of medicine for medical students and young physicians. I was teaching medical students at the time and could find no suitable book. I finally wrote it myself and then found that, because I did not have a history PhD, there was no interest on the part of university presses.

A sympathetic editor sent me copies of the reader reports. It was pretty interesting and would fit well with this theme although it was 2003. Anyway, I published it myself starting a little publishing house. It is still selling well. The university that turned it down for publication has adopted it as a text. I am a member of the history of medicine societies, dominated in this country by history people, not physicians. My friends in England, which has very strong HOM programs, tell me that the trend there is similar. I laugh out loud sometimes when I read the programs for the annual meeting.

Posted by: Michael Kennedy | Aug 3, 2010 7:46:24 AM

Kind of like a govt union...

Support themselves, not the customer.

Posted by: the Colonel | Aug 3, 2010 7:08:12 AM

@ Mike - LOL - good point.

Just to play devil's advocate though, the whole point of the book and the WSJ article was that a professor's job consists of teaching, not research and writing papers. Research was supposed to keep a teacher current and remind him or her that she was still a student, too. It was never supposed to be the main point of the job. Colleges everywhere have farmed out their main teaching function to "temps", who stay on for the slight whisper of a promise to give them the perks afford to now just 30% of faulty.

In my mind, even this blog lends evidence to the criticism of unneed and pointless publishing and papers. A couple of papers posted here that I tried to delve into were simply poorly researched op-eds. I've seen people claim correlation on what is clearly a scattered plot and write pages about that supposed correlation. It's not pretty out there... :(

Posted by: Amy | Aug 3, 2010 6:26:12 AM

Maybe the problem with higher education is all the professors who seem to have time writing books about how terrible higher education is instead of producing serious research.

Posted by: mike livingston | Aug 3, 2010 2:58:23 AM