Category Archives: Education

The Search for Truth, Knowledge and Beauty – in Decaying Buildings

The purpose of the university is two-fold: first, the search for truth, knowledge and beauty; and second, the dissemination of the results of that search. In this essay, I will describe how the first purpose has come to dominate the second in the modern university and how this development has undercut a fifty-year quest for a suitable teaching facility at my university.

The classic role of American higher education was first to establish an environment in which man’s quest for knowledge, search for truth and identification of beauty could be pursued avidly and in an unhindered way. The complementary purpose was to transmit what had been learned – of course in the most recent quests, but especially what had been learned and verified over time – to students, colleagues and, indeed, to all in the public who were eager to learn of the fruits of the ongoing search.

Alas, the skill sets for performing these distinct, but related functions – that is, research and teaching – often didn’t line up. Any of us who has spent time within the halls of academia has encountered splendid researchers who could not teach their way out of a paper bag and, conversely, superb teachers who lacked the originality and/or persistence to do meaningful research. This disparity was evident to all who paid attention. Universities coped with this in several ways. Sometimes they refined their mission, becoming either a research-oriented institution or one that focused mainly on teaching. More commonly, universities retained their dual character, but faculty roles became specialized between teaching and research. It soon became clear that universities felt compelled to choose which of the two faculty modes to favor and promote. Today, it is evident that they chose research over teaching. Why did that happen? Here’s my assessment:

  • The primary reason was the competition for academic recognition. For decades, a small cadre of institutions (the Ivies, MIT, Cal Tech, and the University of Chicago) was universally recognized as elite. Following World War II, amid the explosion in university enrollments, almost all the State universities, plus many private universities “below” the stature of the Ivies, developed an almost compulsive desire to be ranked among the elite. They pursued that ephemeral dream in many ways: seeking increased funding, upgrading facilities, setting higher student admission standards, and massive PR campaigns; but primarily by enhancing the quality of the faculty. And the primary measure they used to evaluate faculty quality was research, not teaching.
  • A second reason was the techno revolution in university instruction. Through new software products, hardware platforms and innovative facilities and programs, high quality university teaching became inexorably intertwined with technological advance and instructional innovation. The latter were not cheap, nor easily implemented. The amount of time and effort required of a faculty member to modernize his teaching credentials was substantial – providing yet another advantage to research over teaching.
  • Another factor was the well-documented decline in the percentage of college courses taught by tenure/tenure-track faculty. As more and more resources were devoted to faculty research, the teaching load was increasingly assigned to adjunct faculty. This only enhanced the imbalanced evaluation of faculty excellence based on research instead of teaching.
  • Research brought in dollars to build facilities and pay high salaries. Federal, state and corporate grants poured money into the research enterprise. Not only did teaching endeavors not do likewise, they were often a drain on resources. Yet another factor moving the needle toward the emphasis of research over teaching.
  • Finally, in some sense, the university chose between its faculty and its students on whom to lavish more attention and resources. It wasn’t a hard choice. Faculty careers can last a lifetime; student careers no more than a few years.

In summary, over the last two generations, we have seen on campus a dramatic shift in attention to research faculty at the expense of teaching faculty. A corollary as well as a cause of that shift has been a de-emphasis on teaching credentials among the tenured faculty as well as weak qualification in the tech aspects that have grown fundamental to modern instruction.

Now let’s tie that assessment to a remarkable development at my university.

I recently retired as Professor of Mathematics at a large state university. At my institution virtually all of the freshman- and sophomore-level math courses are delivered in large lecture format: the instructor lectures three times per week in a lecture hall seating up to 350 students and students meet once or twice per week with a TA in a small classroom. We service literally thousands of students per semester in this format.

The lecture halls are located in a building called the “Armory.” It has that designation because the building was constructed during World War II to serve the needs of the relatively large ROTC contingent on campus. The building housed a rifle range and several large warehouse-type rooms in which guns, ammo and other military equipment was stored. After the war, it was retrofitted with multiple large lecture halls.

When I arrived on campus in 1969, I was told that there was a serious plan afoot to replace the Armory with a modern building containing up-to-date lecture halls. Not surprisingly, the project experienced some delays. Forty one years later, I retired – still waiting for the lecture hall building. I continue to teach part-time and this January, more than forty-five years after my first foray into the Armory, I will deliver lectures in a lecture hall therein – its configuration only modestly updated from what I encountered nearly half a century ago.

But not to despair. A benefactor dropped an eight figure donation on the campus not long ago and – hallelujah – it will provide seed money to finally build my new lecture hall building. In fact, ground was broken just this past fall. If I am still doddering around in 2017, I might be able to finally teach a class in a modern lecture hall. But maybe not!

The university has decided to open the facility to bidding by campus departments prepared to do innovative things. I don’t know what will happen but it seems likely that, although the whole point was to replace the antiquated classrooms in the Armory (used almost exclusively by Math), in the end Math will get only some of the classroom time in the new building, and maybe a small portion at that.

For as a consequence of the trends described above, the Math Department is not in as good a position to utilize the new facility as was originally envisioned. Actually, the Math Department does a good job in discharging its teaching obligations. It has an excellent curriculum for Math majors. But, although with recent emphasis on STEM subjects, the number of majors has gone up, the total is still relatively modest. In fact, Math is largely a service department, providing lower level Math courses for Engineering, Natural Sciences and Social Science majors. These courses are largely pedestrian, staffed by adjunct faculty and the method of delivery is severely dated. There is little technology or teaching innovation because too many resources were funneled into research instead.

I have been waiting 50 years for the new lecture hall building. I promised the Department that, when it was built, I would put in my teeth and come over and teach a class. Now I may not be able to fulfill my 50-year old dream. And if that happens, it will be a direct consequence of the increased emphasis on research at the expense of teaching that is the state of higher education in America today.

This essay appeared in a slightly abridged version in the online web site of ACTA, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni

Are Parents Asking the Right Questions About College for Their Kids?

If you are the parent of a high school student, you are likely to be – or soon will be – caught up in the game of “where is junior going to college?” Many of you went to college twenty five or more years ago and the experience you had is likely the frame of reference you use in trying to decide – with junior’s participation, of course – whether and where junior should enroll. Actually, few of you will ask the question “whether”; and it is my thesis here that many of you will pose the wrong questions when attempting to answer “where.”

As you ponder the college question, you recall your experience and likely subscribe to the following axiomatic beliefs:

  • I want my children to be well-educated; high school does not complete the job; a college education is required for today’s young adults to be well-educated.
  • There are enormous economic and social benefits to going to college – salaries will be higher; many more job opportunities will present themselves; terrific social and business connections will be made; and my child might even find a suitable spouse on campus.
  • The alternatives are distasteful to contemplate – the military, the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps VISTA, a low-level job, or leave hearth and home to do heaven-knows what.
  • All my friends’ and associates’ kids will be off to college; how disappointing and embarrassing if my kid didn’t do likewise.

Armed with these beliefs, which you subtly – and not so subtly – imparted to your high school kid, you initiate the long, torturous and perplexing search for a suitable campus at which your child can reap all the benefits that you envision for him or her. The choices are legion and the possibilities bewildering. And so, in order to make the decision more manageable, you pose for yourself, your spouse and your child a set of critical questions. They probably run something along these lines:

  1. What is the academic level of any particular school under consideration and does it match my child’s capabilities?
  2. What will the cost be? Can I afford it or will Johnny have to take out student loans? Can we mitigate the cost through scholarships, grants, paid internships or part-time jobs?
  3. How far away am I willing to agree to? Is it better for Susie to be in a rural or urban environment?
  4. Will a degree from this school enable my child to readily find a good job after graduation? Does the school have a robust placement office?
  5. Is the student body one in which my son will make friends easily? Are there good opportunities for wholesome extra-curricular activities?
  6. Are there lots of choices for academic majors since my daughter is unsure what she wants to study?

Well, I have news for you. Things have changed drastically since you walked the leafy campus of your alma mater and these “things” are almost unrecognizable from what they were like 50 years ago. Which things? Among others: the academic curriculum (it is diluted, unfocused, and rife with speciously inauthentic subjects of study); the nature of the advice that faculty and administrators offer to students (it probably does not match yours); extra-curricular activities – to wit, sex, drugs and rock-n-roll; a highly politicized environment on campus with political vectors pointing in only one direction; the composition of the faculty (a surfeit of adjuncts replacing the tenured faculty with whom students are supposed to interact); employment options open to graduates (much lower level than in past generations); ubiquitous social media; the cost of the beast (astronomical); the racial and ethnic composition of the place, and a mindless obsession with so-called diversity; the pernicious effect of the feds (on students via loans, on faculty via grants, and on the whole place via a plethora of regulations that are strangling academic freedom); a disrespect for the military (although this has improved recently) and the acceptance of a derogatory interpretation of American history and culture; unchecked grade inflation on “elite” campuses; and the demise of in loco parentis – meaning that the university makes no effort toward and bears no responsibility for the rearing of your immature teen into a mature young adult.

These changes, of which you might not be aware, can wreak havoc in families that have just sent a child off to college. This observation applies especially to traditional or conservative families whose ideas and values are typically not reflected in the monumental changes that have transformed many colleges into hot beds of progressivism, nihilism and – in some cases – moral squalor. How many times have you heard the story of the college freshman who returns home for Thanksgiving and by the end of the weekend, the parents are thinking: “Who is this alien and what has it done with our child?” Well, if you want to avoid that experience, here are a better set of questions for you to ponder as you and your child search for the perfect campus:

  1. First of all, what is the prime objective in sending Johnny to university? Is it to ensure that he is well-educated, that is, for him to acquire a level of knowledge on many subjects that one associates with a learned person – one whose intellectual stature will garner the respect of his contemporaries? Or is it purely for him to acquire the requisite tools in order to get the best possible job? Or is it really mainly to aid him in his transition from a callow teen into a mature, independent, responsible and productive adult? The answer to this question should determine the best responses to the questions that follow.
  2. Will the college experience reinforce the values, ideals, goals and belief system that I have been trying to instill in him over the last 15-18 years; or will college subvert them?
  3. Will the exorbitant amount of money this adventure is going to cost me actually be money well spent?
  4. Do I have a good handle on Susie’s qualifications – how motivated and serious she is, how devoted to her studies, how intellectually fertile, and is she willing to work hard and stay focused?

If you can answer these questions honestly and definitively – and in a consistent way, then the selection of a few suitable institutions should not be difficult and you should be able to find a desirable institution that will accept her. But if you are uncertain of the answers, then here are some more questions you should ask.

  1. Do we have enough time to work with Johnny as well as with friends, relatives and school counselors in order to clarify our thinking and arrive at some definitive answers to questions 1-4?
  2. If that doesn’t work, am I willing to roll the dice, choose a college by throwing darts at a board and live with the uncertain consequences?
  3. Or should we consider alternate courses of action – e.g., military service; volunteer service (as in the Peace Corps); some sort of vocational school; employment; or relocation?

It has been suggested to me by a person, whose opinion I respect, that it is not enough to steer parents toward the more useful questions that I have suggested. Readers will also want some advice based on the possible answers that they might arrive at. So here are my “words of wisdom” along those lines:

  • If your child is mature, well-grounded and self-assured, and you are confident that she can retain the morals and values that you have instilled in her, then – aware that her core of belief will be severely tested at most universities – by all means, send her to the academically finest institution that accepts her.
  • But don’t go deeply in debt. The rule of thumb is you and your child (together) should never borrow more than your child’s expected first-year, post-graduation salary.
  • On the other hand, if your child is unsure of himself, easily influenced and shaky in his convictions, then you must be extraordinarily careful about where you send him. There are campuses – for example, Hillsdale College or Grove City College – where traditional values and unbiased scholarship are prevalent. You need to search very hard to find the right place for him.
  • Finally, if, together, you and your child have great skepticism about any campus being the right fit, then you should seriously consider alternatives. Perhaps a year or two of employment before setting off to college might result in enhanced maturity and self-confidence, and therefore a greater ability to succeed in college – without the surrender of personal and familial morals and values.

The university is a place of great opportunity for your child. But it is also a place of great danger. The latter is true in a literal sense as the occurrences of rape, muggings, severe hazing and theft are all too common on college campuses these days. But the more common dangers are: several semesters of floundering leading to a dropout and a demoralized youngster; or worse, a radicalization of your child as a consequence of the charged political atmosphere on campus; or worst of all – whether Susie graduates or not – enormous debt that cripples your child economically for decades, interfering with her ability to marry, have children or buy a home.

If you question your child’s ability to successfully navigate these dangers, then perhaps you need to go back and reconsider your answer to question #1. Also, revisit the advice offered above.

Sending Johnny off to college is not the same as dropping him daily at the local high school. At age 17 or 18, he is not an adult – although he will feel free to think of himself as one. More likely, he is immature, impressionable and uncertain of his own values. There are many campuses at which his head will be filled with ideas and “facts” that don’t square with the belief system and morals that you have been sewing into his DNA. There are other campuses at which his psyche will be reinforced with the kind of knowledge and behavior that you have been encouraging. You and he have a serious decision to make. In order to find the right college, you need to ask the right questions.

This essay also appeared, in abridged form, in ACTA (The American Council of Trustees and Alumni)

Is the Professoriate Committing Suicide?

Much has been written about the declining number of tenure/tenure-track faculty (TTF) when considered as a percentage of the total instructional faculty on the nation’s campuses. This phenomenon began a few decades ago, but it is only in the last five years that it has become pronounced and widely commented upon. For example, it is now generally accepted that while said percentage was likely more than 75% several decades ago, it is now in the neighborhood of 30%. (It depends upon whether one computes the percentage based on bodies or instructional hours.) The reasons for this development are well-known. In this essay, I will do three things:

  1. Quickly review the reasons;
  2. Describe why, unlike some, I view this development as a serious problem for the cause of higher education; and
  3. Explain how – against their better interests – TTF are actually complicit in the creation and perpetuation of this problem.

It is, of course, item 3 that is the novel contribution to the national conversation on this topic.

The first reason that is usually cited when the declining TTF issue is explained is cost. If we use the term adjunct faculty (which is widely employed, albeit not universally accepted) to describe the non-TTF on the nation’s campuses, then it is an indisputable fact that TTF salaries far outstrip those of adjunct faculty. At a time when the average TTF salary is approaching six figures – and when “star” faculty often earn more than a quarter million dollars annually, the average adjunct faculty salary is a mere fraction of that, often below $25,000. University administrators are under enormous pressure to keep costs down. Faculty salaries are a huge part of the university budget. Replacing TTF by adjuncts is a tactic that is almost impossible to resist.

A close second among the reasons for the disappearing TTF instructor is the intense competition among the nation’s universities to be seen as “one of the best.” Universities are judged on the quality of their students and on the quality of their faculty. Regarding the latter, for better or worse, the evaluation is routinely made on the basis of faculty research. Campuses compete to hire and retain the best research faculty and a prime weapon in that competition is the offer of reduced teaching loads. Guess who picks up the slack.

There are a few lesser reasons that reinforce the teaching imbalance between TTF and adjuncts:

  • Sad to say, but many adjuncts are better teachers than TTF, who, too often, shirk their teaching duties in favor of their research activities. Furthermore, most research faculty experienced little in the way of teacher training in graduate school, whereas many adjuncts do have such preparation in their backgrounds.
  • University administrators find adjuncts much easier to manage than TTF; adjuncts are more docile, less demanding and far less likely to question campus initiatives that muck with academic programs.
  • Many parents have lost faith in American higher education – because of outrageously high costs, worthless degrees awarded to their children and drivel driven into those children’s heads by radical (and not so radical) professors. Parents hold the TTF responsible and are not disturbed by their disappearance from the classroom.
  • The pool of candidates for TTF careers has plateaued as many American youngsters see the requisite credentials as too difficult to obtain and, furthermore, foresee life in a corporate enterprise, small or individually-owned business, or government environment as more accessible and rewarding.

Because of these reasons, some view the declining presence of TTF in university classrooms as not necessarily a bad thing. I disagree. If the trend continues, and the indications are that it will, then the percentage of instructional faculty that are TTF might go as low as 10%. Even at its current low level, it has weakened the faculty as the main branch of the American university. Classically, it was the faculty that ran the university. That is no longer true. The campus agenda – academic and fiscal – is set by university administrators. I discussed this at length in a prior essayin this journal, to which the reader is referred. Therein I outlined all the negative consequences: polarization of the campus, loosening of academic standards, prohibitive costs, and a major contributor to the next, horrible, fiscal bubble (student debt). Another deleterious consequence (inadvertently omitted in loc. cit.) is that one of the prime objectives of higher education – namely, fostering interaction between creative faculty and inquisitive students – is drastically undercut.

So the surrender of control of the campus by the faculty to university administrators is both a cause and an effect of the declining TTF percentage. It is a shocking and dangerous development. But what is doubly shocking – and this is alluded to by the use of the word ‘surrender’ above – is that the faculty is complicit in the diminution of the TTF as the instructional arm of the university.

How so? Well, it’s not like faculty all over the country woke up one morning and decided to engineer a major change in their job description. No, the process was more nebulous. In mid twentieth century, the campuses of America exploded with huge numbers of new students, new programs, new facilities and of course new personnel. The youth of America saw the good life and good works of university faculty and decided they wanted a piece of that action. The ranks of the TTF grew enormously and for the most part the paradigms of university faculty life remained intact – for a while. But the societal forces that rocked the country in the 60s and 70s had a profound effect on the academy. No tradition was safe. Especially not the traditional mode for the conduct of university life (cf. Columbia, 1968 or Cornell, 1970). And here is where the dereliction of duty by the faculty enters the picture. Most faculty were preoccupied with one of two complementary behaviors. Either they were in the vanguard of the cultural and educational revolution that overthrew the ancien regime. More commonly, they were consumed with keeping their heads down and trying to run their academic lives in a traditional way in an attempt to be impervious to the sweeping changes swirling about them. In so doing they missed the revolution and never appreciated that control of the university had been swept away from them. More specifically:

  • Most faculty were content with rising academic salaries – especially those who really cashed in; faculty paid no heed to the increasing use of low-paid adjuncts to staff courses.
  • In addition, they welcomed reduced teaching loads and so – to reemphasize – they ignored the campus’ compensating action of staffing courses with adjuncts.
  • Faculty were also happy to emphasize their research at the expense of their teaching. Naturally, they did little to increase their teaching prowess.
  • Finally, faculty seemed blissfully ignorant of the increasing dissatisfaction among parents, students and politicians regarding the quality of the “product” their “company” was putting out.

In short, far too many faculty were either totally unaware of the changes that were sweeping the campus; or if they were aware, they made no attempt to resist the changes – either because of ignorance or a misguided sense that the changes were redounding to their benefit. They offered little or no resistance to the coup being perpetrated by university administrators. A big part of the coup program was to turn over much of university instruction to adjunct faculty. The TTF was complicit in the coup in that either it completely misunderstood the plans of the revolutionaries or if it understood them, it raised no objection. In the end, the university has been injured, and in the long run the TTF will suffer.

Can that fate be avoided? I think the only chance is if American institutions of higher education accept a national challenge to restore the percentage of TTF in the classroom to at least 50%. This would ameliorate, and hopefully reverse, some of the negative consequences that I outlined above. But what about the two primary drivers of this phenomenon? Well, if the restorative process was universally adopted, then there would be no effect on universities’ ability to recruit and retain exceptional faculty since all institutions would be living with the same constraints. On the other hand, the renewal process would definitely entail increased costs. Where will the money come from? The traditional sources of campus revenue – tuition, endowments, state support, federal and corporate grants – are largely tapped out. The answer: all those scores of administrators (deans, deanlets, program directors, diversity officers and the multitudes of support staff) would have to go. Wouldn’t that be wonderful! A university that values the people who do the teaching and learning rather than those who push papers, issue meaningless reports and set rules that injure the academic enterprise.

This essay also appeared in a slightly abridged form in Minding the Campus.

Follow Ron Lipsman on Twitter @rlipsman

The Age of Entitlement Comes to Campus

The spring semester recently concluded at the large state university campus where I still teach part-time (even though I am formally retired). The students in my post-calculus, differential equations course – a sophomore math offering taken mostly by engineering students – performed at a level commensurate with what is normally seen in this course. Thus the grades I issued conformed to the usual bell shaped curve and so one saw roughly 10% A’s, 20% B’s, 40% C’s, 20% D’s and 10% F’s. (Alright, I am not immune from the ubiquitous phenomenon of grade inflation – the actual grade distribution was definitely skewed somewhat higher.)

The students who failed the course largely knew that this was the likely outcome before even sitting for the final exam and – since their performance on the final confirmed their hopeless status – I had virtually no blowback from these students. But from the D students, an avalanche of email cascaded down upon me as soon as the grades were (electronically) available. The avalanche is explained in part by the following: despite the fact that D is considered a passing grade, the Engineering School will not give credit for the course unless the student obtains a C or higher grade. Thus, students who earn a D feel that, in spite of the fact that they did “good enough,” their effort was unrewarded and they are resentful that they have to repeat the course to get credit toward their degree.

Here is a typical example from the slew of emails I received – almost all of which matched this one in tone and content:

I am a second year chemical engineer and I need at least a C to pass the course. I honestly put a lot of time and effort into your class and I felt like I learned more than my course grade is reflecting. While studying for the final exam I spilled milk on my laptop, rendering it unusable. My father had to take me to the Apple store for repair. This whole ordeal took up most of my study time. I don’t mean to make excuses, but due to these circumstances I had a very short amount of time to study for the exam, and my performance was impacted. I honestly put a lot of time and effort into your class and I felt like I learned more than my course grade is reflecting. Considering all the good I’ve done throughout the semester, I think I should at least get a C. I will get kicked out of my major if I do not get a C in the class. Please reconsider my grade or even allow me to do any work to boost my grade. Once again Mr. Lipsman, I am asking out of the kindness of your heart please bump my grade up a little more, please! Please, if there is anything that you can do, I would very much appreciate it.

My typical response is a polite email, which points to the course web site (available to the students from the first day of class) that contains the grading scheme for the course; and then I highlight the specific poor points of performance on the student’s part that account for the unfortunate grade. (Conversations with colleagues reveal similar strategies.) That usually settles matters; but in a small number of cases, a student persists in pleading/demanding/scheming for a higher grade ex post facto. In that case, I turn the matter over to department or college administrators. On (fortunately, rare) occasion, matters can become rather unpleasant.

Even when I avoid such unpleasantness, I find these emails quite disturbing. Such an approach to a professor by a student would have been unthinkable two generations ago. But this kind of plea bargaining/begging for succor phenomenon has become increasingly common over the last decade or so. In fact, I believe this university student phenomenon reflects patterns of behavior that are prevalent throughout modern society. In this regard, universities reflect, as well as inaugurate and instigate various unwholesome features of our current culture.

In order to illustrate, I will identify the main themes that emerge from the email cavalcade that I endured:

  • The student claims to have worked hard on the course. In some instances, this may be true; but in many, I know that it is not. Too many students have a warped idea of what hard work actually entails.
  • The student is always a victim of some special circumstance (illness, accident, family crisis, poor advice, exceptionally challenging workload, etc.). The victim card is played often and instinctively. “It’s not my fault!”
  • The student asserts his “right to pass.” Implicit is the belief that if he is properly enrolled, in good standing and pursuing a legitimate degree program, then he is entitled to be passed through this checkpoint in his journey – regardless of performance. He is entitled to a C merely by his legitimate presence in the course.
  • “If you don’t give me a C, my future is in jeopardy.” Not only is he entitled, but the penalty for depriving him of his right will be severe. The resulting consequences for him will far outweigh any moral anguish suffered by me for distorting the legitimate outcome of the course’s process.
  • Finally, “You, professor, can fix this.” No notion of personal responsibility enters the equation. The burden of this unfortunate affair lands on my doorstep to correct the injustice. The student inhabits a cosmos in which he is not in control of his destiny.

I propose that each of the above five manifestations of the student entitlement mentality is reflective of patterns present in society in general.

  • Admittedly, this might be too heavily concentrated among government employees, but who hasn’t encountered an employee that complains of being overworked at the same time that both his inbox and outbox are suspiciously empty.
  • We’re all victims these days; of racism, sexism, ableism, and other isms you haven’t yet recognized. We’re being screwed by big corporations, small businessmen, unscrupulous co-workers, bad neighbors, even members of our family. We are all categorized into boxes according to race, gender, age, geography and so on. And we are certain that those in the other boxes are working feverishly to limit opportunities for the occupants of our box.
  • As a victim, my rights are being violated. I speak not of the rights granted to me by the Constitution, but instead those guaranteed to me by politicians.  These include my right to a great paying job, a fine home, the best medical care, a secure retirement, an exceptional education – not to mention nice clothes, top notch appliances, a month’s annual vacation and a great set of wheels. To all this, I am entitled because … well, because from FDR to Obama, I’ve been told so.
  • And if I don’t have these things, then not only are my rights being violated, but my life is being ruined.
  • Finally, it is the primary responsibility of the government to ensure that my rights are not violated and that all the things promised to me by government are delivered to me by that government.

Well, perhaps I’ve engaged in a bit of hyperbole to make a point. In fact, most students are hard-working, conscientious and respectful. But the fact that the number who are not is increasing is troublesome. That they are increasing in number could be a reflection of unhealthy trends in society in general.

Dealing with these societal issues is a topic for another time and place. But the university is equipped to cope with their manifestations on campus. I have communicated to the Department Chair, College Dean and Dean of Undergraduate Education some recommendations to do exactly that. They include:

  1. It should be explained emphatically to new students at freshman orientation that grades are not a commodity to be bargained for or negotiated over. Grades express faculty evaluation of student performance over an entire course. They are not an opening bid in an auction. They are arrived at carefully by faculty based on specific course performance criteria spelled out in detail at the start of the course. On most campuses, faculty are already obliged to make these criteria known to students at the outset of the semester.
  2. If a student feels very strongly that the grade he was issued violates the terms of the criteria, he may politely ask the faculty member for a clarification. If, after the reason for his grade is outlined to him by the faculty member, he is convinced that the faculty member has violated his own rules, then the student may file a formal grievance above the faculty member’s head at the Department or College level. American campuses have long experience in setting up structures to administer such a procedure. However, also at freshman orientation, it should be stressed to students that grade grievances should only be filed in the extremely rare instance that a faculty member has manifestly behaved unjustly.
  3. Students should also be apprised that anyone who files more than one grievance over the course of an academic career will be called in by the Dean of Undergraduate Education for an interview. At that time it can be pointed out to the student how multiple grievances are telltale signs of one or more of the unhealthy societal behaviors outlined earlier. The student would then have an opportunity to confront, evaluate and perhaps alter his cultural axioms.

The university has traditionally played a societal role in converting callow youth into mature and responsible adults. Let us not subvert that role by giving in to immature and irresponsible behavior.

This essay appeared in a slightly abridged version, under the title “Give Me a Better Grade — I Deserve It” in Minding the Campus

Beating Up the Faculty

The essays that appear in Minding the Campus, the journal in which this essay originally appeared, are often critical of academic faculty. The criticism is frequently legitimate, as faculty are oftentimes complicit in the formulation and execution of academic policies that garner this journal’s disapproval. Alas, faculty are too often found at the forefront of efforts to: install speech constraints on the campus community; impose admission quotas based on race, gender, ethnic origin and other illegitimate grounds; and enforce a deadening group think in academic discussion that brooks no support of free market capitalism, American Exceptionalism, faith-based life or – heaven forbid – doubts about global warming. Essays in this journal bemoan the decay of American universities from bastions of individual thought devoted to the pursuit of knowledge, truth and beauty into heavily regulated job mills that are rife with propaganda and largely in the business of brainwashing its students in favor of the progressive movement’s agenda.

All true! But even so, it is still the case that the academic profession – much like the medical profession – has been subject to powerful forces that have rendered life much less rewarding for those who pursue the profession. The forces that have smacked doctors – who, until a generation or so ago, were amongst the most admired and rewarded communities in the country – are well-known. It is my purpose here to outline the lesser known assault – namely, the developments that have rendered the academic profession less pleasant and rougher to navigate than it was when I entered it more than four decades ago.

Here are a dozen manifestations.

  1. Overregulation. The faculty is subject to scrutiny, evaluation and regulation far beyond what was common fifty years ago. From the requirement to complete faculty assessment reports to the need to adhere to behavioral codes (e.g., regarding tobacco, sexual conduct, “bullying,” and the like); from the need to comply with stringent lab and research protocols to the command that we offer remedial opportunities to “disadvantaged” students; from the demands to structure our course presentations in the most student-accessible formats to the obligation to conform to standards set by campus advisory boards (for research, teaching, even administration); from semester to semester, faculty are increasingly constrained by an ever-growing epidemic of central campus regulations that make the professorial profession more onerous, less independent and more administrative than academic.
  2. Shared governance. At the same time, university administrators promote the fiction of shared responsibility in running the campus. This leads to committee assignments, studies and reports, and an enormous waste of faculty time, which does not mask the fact that the campus agenda is still largely set by central administrators, not the faculty.
  3. Publish or perish. For faculty at private or public research institutions, and even for those employed at primarily teaching colleges, the pressure to publish – in the best journals, of course – grows in intensity every year. Faculty want to do so, naturally, but having to do so with a gun to one’s head doesn’t foster the creative juices.
  4. Student evaluations. This practice is now ubiquitous. At best, the results are useless; at worst, false and destructive; and most often – just misleading. Another joy of the modern professoriate.
  5. Student quality. Now that the nation has seemingly decided in favor of universal higher education, it is not surprising that the quality of the student body is suspect. When the student body was thinner, the quality was better.
  6. Salary. Academic salaries have evolved somewhat as in the entertainment industry. The top profs do fantastically well. Those who bring up the middle or rear – not so much. By the way, academics – like doctors – have a long pre-professional apprenticeship (4-5 years of graduate school followed by multiple postdocs) before they can earn a serious salary. The pre-professional period has been lengthening in recent years.
  7. Infrastructure. We teach on enormous campuses with ancient buildings that manifest decaying infrastructure. It’s not sexy to replace a dying heating system. The campus would rather spend money on a fancy new rec center or a luxurious dorm complex. Writing on a broken chalk board in a freezing, huge lecture hall with student sight lines impeded by crumbling support pillars is not what I would call excellent work conditions.
  8. Staff. In the old days, faculty could rely on staff to help prepare academic research papers and exams, schedule meetings and take care of academic record keeping. Not anymore. Everything is computerized, so faculty are expected to discharge all these responsibilities by themselves. OK, we do it – but it takes time away from our more important duties, and it’s not exactly great fun.
  9. Grants. It’s hard to have a successful academic career unless it is supported by one or more granting agencies. Obtaining grants is time-consuming, unpredictable, highly competitive and rather tedious. Without grants, the graduate program collapses, leaving us without teaching assistants, rendering our jobs infinitely more difficult. The pressure increases annually.
  10. Jobs. The academic job market has been in a funk since a decade after Sputnik. It shows no sign of improving. Faculty are often desperate to get a job and they can wind up in less desirable positions at places in the nation (or even the world) that were not in the game plan.
  11. Public support. Gone are the days when being a professor was a mark of distinction that garnered great support from the public. Today we are often held in contempt. Of course, considering the way we have been messing up their children, the public’s disapproval is not so surprising.
  12. Tolerance. Last, but far from least, those faculty who – like me – have a conservative bent find themselves working in a poisonous atmosphere in which we are viewed as at best slightly strange folk who can safely be ignored, and at worst, dangerous counterrevolutionaries who must be silenced or expelled. It is awful. (I have written about this at some length in Swimming Upstream: The Life of a Conservative Professor in Academia.)

Don’t mistake me: these changes for the worse don’t compare with the degrading of coal mine jobs in Kentucky; low tech jobs that have been obliterated by the Internet; or other professions that have been swept away by “creative destruction.” But the changes I outlined do represent steps in the wrong direction. And they may portend much greater change as many believe that higher education is America’s next bubble.

When I received my PhD, I had a non-academic job offer from an outfit at which I worked in the summers during graduate school. It was potentially quite lucrative. But I yearned for the academic life. I wanted the freedom to choose my own lines of professional inquiry; to be independent; to have the opportunity to interact with the best minds (around the globe) in my field; to do something worthwhile – whether it led to a marketable product or not. Were I faced with the same choice today, I’m not sure that I would make the same decision.

This essay appeared originally in Minding the Campus.