Current Affairs Higher Education

higher education's two futures

I've been writing and unwriting this post for most of this week in response to this NY Times article. It's an ongoing story about the "end of tenure." Personally I think this particular article is not all that well written. It has a sensationalized opening paragraph and really scapegoats tenure as the cause for the problems with higher education, when that doesn't make much sense in my view. Tenure seems to rub people the wrong way because it is perceived as allowing professors to do little or no work and protecting them from losing their jobs. Technically, I don't think that's the case. I'm sure there are lazy professors as there are lazy people at any workplace. Maybe it is a little more difficult to fire a tenured professor for cause than it is to fire someone of a similar status for cause in a corporate setting. And maybe some institutions need to revisit the legal definitions of tenure. But having been doing this work for more than 10 years now, I'm fairly certain that overall tenured faculty do their jobs. Tenure isn't the problem.

One can find many different defenses of tenure (e.g. protecting academic freedom), but I will suggest that one might view tenure as a job perk. As an academic, if I offered you the choice between a $60K/yr job with a 3-yr renewable contract and a $50K/yr on the tenure-track, which would you take? How much sweeter would the salary of the non-tenure track job have to be for you to jump? That's what I mean by suggesting it's a perk.

If the SUNY system, for example, decided to do away with tenure, all the other R1 universities would swoop down to hire away our most desirable faculty. Graduate students would disappear, grants would dry up, programs would have accreditation problems, and the overall reputation of the institutions would drop like a stone. Obviously SUNY would do the same thing to others. In fact, institutions are always sniffing for blood in the water to see where star faculty can be lured away.

What about for the rank and file faculty? If you were to look at the AAUP salary survey, you'd see UB pays it's associate profs about $15K more on average than it does it's assistant profs. Obviously we pay our assistant profs some reflection of the market. Even though it's a buyer's market for English Phds, we still want to hire our #1 choice. We don't want to take #5 or #10 just because they will work for $10K less. That's not how one builds a good department; that's not how one builds a good staff at any business. By that same logic, why would you give up your associate professor, whom you've thoroughly vetted over several years, to hire a new assistant prof just to save $15k?

Or more to the point, why would you not hire an assistant professor and instead hire an instructor or adjuncts in order to save $40K?

Because you're headed into an entirely different business model. This is where Christopher Shea, author of the NY Times piece, gets interesting. Sadly it's at the very end:

[Mark] Taylor’s eyes also seem to have been opened to the world beyond Williams and Columbia. After his Op-Ed article appeared, a colleague from a cash-short California State University campus wrote to say that the “mind-pulping” teaching load left no room for research of any kind, even if it fell short of the five-courses-a-semester load at some community colleges. “This is an extremely unfortunate situation,” Taylor writes, “because the escalating cost of higher education is driving more students to these institutions.”

Here we have the frightening subtext of all the recent hand-wringing about higher education: the widening inequality among institutions of various types and the prospects of the students who attend them. While the financial crisis has demoted Ivy League institutions from super-rich to merely rich, public universities are being gutted. It is not news that America is a land of haves and have-nots. It is news that colleges are themselves dividing into haves and have-nots; they are becoming engines of inequality.

Here's the thing. It is NOT news that colleges are engines of inequality. They have ALWAYS been engines of inequality. That's why everyone today wants their kids to get college degrees: because getting a degree means having a better chance to be on the more pleasant side of the pointy stick that is the American economy. The problem is that not everyone can have above-average incomes. It doesn't matter how much education Americans as a population get, only a certain percentage of those people are going to end up in the kinds of careers those educations promised (if you don't believe me, check out the MLA convention this year).

So I think what we will end up with are two types of tertiary education. In practice we already have this and have had it for a long time. However, where in the past there was more gradation, the future may offer a stark contrast. Who knows, maybe this isn't a bad thing.

For example, one kid is a straight A student and wants to be an astrophysicist. Another kid might be a low B student and wants a local job in sales or customer service with the chance of maybe rising to management some day. These days both kids would need to get four-year degrees enroute to those goals, but do they really need anything at all like the same kind of education? Do we need to send these kids to the same kind of institution that is accredited in the same way?

Maybe we do. Maybe we want to view college as that kind of egalitarian experience. But if we do, then we have to recognize that we are viewing college as a social good not a private one. We have to recognize that the second student may not have any interest in getting the kind of education that the first student wants and needs.