Paul L. Caron

Monday, November 24, 2014

Stop Bullying Old Professors

BullyingFollowing up on Tuesday's post, The Forever Professors: Academics Who Don’t Retire Are Greedy, Selfish, and Bad For Students:  Slate, Quit Picking on Old Professors: Bullying Boomers Into Retirement Won’t Help the Sad State of Higher Education in This Country, by Rebecca Schuman:

This week, academia is in a frenzy—well, an erudite tizzy—over an op-ed in the Chronicle of Higher Education by recently retired art professor Laurie Fendrich. In the piece, Fendrich, who’s 66, lauds her own decision to leave her position at Hofstra—and characterizes her aging colleagues as doddering dinosaurs who are clogging up the academic pipeline.

As in other professions, baby boomers “hanging on” past retirement age is a hot-button issue in higher education—and it’s easy to see why. In the university, the over-65s are the final generation for whom teaching college has provided a stable, (somewhat) respected, remunerative middle-class existence. They’ve had benefits and job security for longer than most of their younger colleagues have been alive. And they didn’t have to work nearly as hard to get all that—back in the ’60s and ’70s, when most of them began their careers, requirements for hiring and tenure were a fraction of what they are now. ...

Here’s where [Fendrich's] (or, at 66, almost dead) wrong. Students may benefit more from a sagacious senior than they do from many a thirsty, young tenure-track careerist. After all, the Old, with his tenure firmly in hand and few concerns about his future, actually has time for his students; that 33-year-old is on the terminal brink of nervous collapse under the weight of too much research expectation. Perpetually on the market for a more prestigious job, she’s been counseled over and over again not to “waste” too much time on teaching. ...

[E]ven if everything Fendrich says is true, I cannot emphasize enough how much it doesn’t matter. Here is the state of American higher education today: Administrators earn $300,000 a year to fundraise for new football skyboxes (and don’t get me started on the football coaches). Any fleeting thought about students is whether the “customer experience” is optimal enough (does your institution have a water park yet?). Faculty, meanwhile, continue to be unfairly vilified as the source of high tuition prices, when that could not be further from the truth (high tuition prices are largely the direct result of state disinvestment; more faculty are, in fact, working at terrible wages than ever before). ...

It is, of course, highly problematic that the median age for a tenured faculty member in the U.S. is now 55. But that’s not because the old professors won’t leave their jobs. It’s because in the new culture of academia, all professors, young or old, are thought of as obsolete afterthoughts: interchangeable hired help at the resort. So let those relics be. Quite a few of them are actually great at their jobs. They’re the last holdouts in a dying institution, and when they do finally “get out of the way,” what they make room for won’t be pretty.

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Posted by: mike livingston | Nov 24, 2014 4:28:54 AM

Ha! First, most of the links in that article do not really support the proposition she tries to claim they do. Second, I also find it ironic she tries to vilify administrators on one-hand and then decries an opinion piece on the failings of college education as "unfairly" vilifying professors. She also links an article that attempts to claim only professors can run a university. While we should discuss the merits of bloated administrations, supporting sweeping generalizations like only professors can lead a university destroys any chance to have a realistic discussion. Additionally, the swipes at athletics just ring hollow. Sure coaches can receive large compensation, but what is the average coaching career in years for the top earners? Are coaches getting that sweet tenure deal? What revenue are they responsible for bringing in, as opposed to say a creative writing professor, no offense to creative writing professors. If you want to have a creative writing professor whose salary is more than they bring to the school, you should not complain when the school attempts to generate the revenue necessary to keep said professor employed. There is a line to walk in keeping a university a place for learning and not becoming just another business. These hyperbolic reaction articles that fail to address the nuance of running a school and walking that line do nothing in the furtherance of a university's mission, but provide sufficient fodder to the idea of ivory tower elitism.

Posted by: Daniel | Nov 24, 2014 6:40:10 AM

I'd love to see the Internet be used to create a more informal, mentor-like educational system, one not necessarily linked to universities and degrees. These experienced, older professors could guide self-study online, keep their skills in use, and not have to deal with the bother of faculty politics. They could, in fact, live anywhere they like.

The system would be open to anyone who wants to learn. It's also more closely resemble the sorts of education Oxford offered when C.S. Lewis was there, except instead of meeting weekly in a room to discuss, they'd meet online.

Posted by: Michael W. Perry | Nov 24, 2014 6:47:07 AM

Old profs are a strange target in this mess. The first target should be administration salary and unnecessary building expenses. The most valuable resource a school has is its faculty, and older professors may have the most knowledge of the actual law.

Posted by: JM | Nov 24, 2014 10:45:01 AM

They may or may not have the most knowledge of the law, but given their position they may have the least knowledge of the practice of law. Besides, what matters most to students is likely how well the professor can teach, not how much esoteric knowledge the professor may have.

Posted by: Dred | Nov 28, 2014 2:11:07 AM