Perhaps the worst aspects of the total tanking of the daily newspaper business (other than the awkwardness of taking a laptop into the throne room with you, of course) is that while they’re struggling to hang on against all odds, what used to be major newspapers are not only looking for the cheapest content available, but they are choosing material within that sample that’s likely to ruffle the fewest feathers and/or to reaffirm the traditional wisdom du jour rather than challenge it. A case in point is a piece published recently by , among scores of other papers, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a once-justifiably proud enterprise now not simply reduced to mediocrity but embracing it in practically every aspect as it plummets toward oblivion.
In an AJC op-ed column, John Zmirak, who is the editor-in-chief, of a volume that promises to tell “the whole truth about America’s top schools,” proceeds to reveal “the ugly secret” of “why tuition costs a fortune.” According to Zmirak, the reason why sending a kid to Sarah Lawrence is roughly equivalent to “ buying a C-Class Mercedes every year - without the car “ is that American universities now neglect their “basic charge” of giving students “not just a degree that's valued in the marketplace, but a chance to broaden their interests and deepen their souls; to gain a solid grounding in the fundamentals that made our civilization.” Instead they have turned into the equivalent of “featherbedding, unionized factories that [exist] to protect their overpaid workers—who [are] impossible to fire, [botch] the items customers paid for, and [spend] their energy generating oddball inventions no one wants.”
Don’t just take the Z-man’s word for it, however, because he’s simply one of dozens these days reciting the by now all-too-familiar mantra of Emory University English professor Mark Bauerlein, formerly Director of Research and Analysis for the National Endowment for the Arts under “W.” Back in the academic world again, Bauerlein dares again and again and again . . . to subject its dark underside to the harsh glare of public scrutiny. This time, through the good offices of those objective observers at the American Enterprise Institute, Professor Bauerlein has exposed what Zmirak describes as the “secret” that “most professors are paid based not only on the quality (or even quantity) of their teaching, but rather on the volume of scholarly books and articles they can produce.”
Apparently, Zmirak has been on a thirty-year walkabout on East Pluto, because that’s about the only place imaginable where Bauerlein’s revelation would come as news to anybody. Of course, Bauerlein’s urgent bulletin also serves up the requisite lambasting of the professoriate for its ongoing disgorgement of a veritable torrent of esoteric and obscure scholarship that nobody wants to read period, much less pay to read if served up in book form. I’m not saying that Bauerlein doesn’t have a point here--or did before he and others pounded on it so frequently and furiously that they wore it to a nub. Still, it strikes me as pretty peculiar to hear criticism of those who explore the patently obscure from a guy who is currently making a career of affirming the blatantly obvious. Bauerlein’s most monumental such affirmation is a recent book indicting the internet and its concomitant cellular techno-trinkets for turning a lot of folks in the under-thirty set into a generation of inarticulate, semi-literate mushheads. OMG! I mean, like, who knew?
I don’t doubt the sincerity of Bauerlein and other in-house critics who complain of a surfeit of irrelevant scholarship (or what passes for it) and contend that tenure is outdated, inefficient, and deserves to be put on the DNR list. I do object, however, when they demand that universities undertake “ a resolute shift from research to teaching” based on a self-serving teacher vs. researcher dichotomy that pre-supposes that all active researchers are, at best, indifferent toward their classroom responsibilities. Since I have been in my current post I have had three chaired colleagues in U.S. History who have also received awards for their teaching and all save one of us teaches a large section of the introductory survey course every year. Over what is damn near a four-decade career, I have certainly encountered more productive scholars who were also effective teachers than vice-versa. Research is the lifeblood of fresh, dynamic teaching, after all, and clever and dedicated as they might be in classroom, professors who ain’t doing it are at some level simply standing on the shoulders of those who do.
What also concerns me about our righteously indignant critics is the extent to which they, unwittingly or not, aid and abet those who insist that universities should adopt the “business model” where everything is about the bottom line. (Here’s a tip: If higher education in your state is overseen by someone who styles himself/herself as a “CEO” and talks about “demand for our ‘product,’” your public colleges and universities belong at the top of your prayer list.)
At the very least, academics who rub shoulders with those who want to treat universities as nothing more than another competing nodule in the omni-beneficient free-market (Which has really worked out great for us recently, hasn’t it?) should guard against naiveté. While the well-intentioned professors may have sound pedagogical objections to tenure, their buddies in the boardrooms are motivated purely by dollar signs accompanied by numbers requiring lots of commas. What they envision and are installing with gusto even as you read this is a system where distinctions among faculty as to competence or scholarly distinction count for little or nothing compared to how much it costs to retain their services. Basically, all Ph.D.s look alike to these folks and therefore are infinitely interchangeable, especially in fields like the humanities where a thirty-plus year surfeit of desperate doctorate-holders makes a plug-and-play professoriate all the more feasible. A system where every faculty member’s employment is effectively up for review at any point is destined to lead to the same strategy of downsizing embodied in the “business model”: dump the highest-paid first, regardless of their competence or contributions. From that point, it’s only an eraser toss or two to where the prof who writes or teaches things that the ol’ boys in the legislature don’t particularly care to hear or read becomes roughly as expendable as the guy in accounting who consistently breaks wind in meetings with top clients. Among the many other problems this post-tenure system would also pose would be the lack of continuity within disciplines or subfields at any institution. This would mean that, over time, one school’s program in economic history or English Lit would be just as likely to be as good (or as mediocre) as another’s.
What’s really interesting and even more depressing here is that the basic argument that tuition costs are being driven up by overemphasis on research over teaching simply isn’t borne out by the facts.
Take a gander, if you will, at the most recent ranking I could find of colleges and universities according to tuition rates:
1. Bates College $43,950
2. Middlebury College $42,910
3. Colby College $42,730
4. Union College (NY) $40,953
5. Connecticut College $40,900
6. George Washington University $40,392
7. Vassar College $39,635
8. Sarah Lawrence College $39,450
9. Bucknell University $39,434
10. Colgate University $39,275
11. Carnegie Mellon $39,150
12. Kenyon College $39,080
13. Skidmore College $38,888
14. St. Johns College $38,854
15. University of Richmond $38,850
What are you to make, you ask of this list of the fifteen priciest places to graze in the great green pasture that is higher education in America? How about the fact that, along with twelve others on this high-dollar list, Zmirak’s case in point, Sarah Lawrence, is classified by the Carnegie Foundation as “Baccalaureate/A&S” denoting institutions where the emphasis is on undergraduate teaching over faculty research. In fact only one of these outfits, Carnegie-Mellon, is identified as “RU/VH,” meaning a research university with a high level of research activity on campus. “Ah,” you say, “but all these institutions are private. “ “Ah, indeed,” I respond, "but so are research-oriented schools like Duke, Dartmouth, and Emory, which, while not cheap, fall well short of the extortionate tuition levels required to join this elite group. "
We career academics can certainly stand to be more self-critical of the way we operate, and in fact, we refuse to do so at our peril. Still, to mangle a metaphor from LBJ, those who are currently pissing inside their own tent to great acclaim from the champions of corporatism may well find themselves treading, uh..water, just like the rest of us when their new best friends pull back the flap and really let fly from the outside themselves.