Posted: January 30, 2012
f the newest books on the situation of the university are correct, we tenured professors are like the aristocrats of the ancien régime in the 1780s, barely conscious of the privilege that structures our lives and oblivious to the storm gathering around us. "The balance of power at universities needs to be restored. The most certain way of doing that is by eliminating tenure," concludes the journalist Naomi Schaefer Riley. "Lifelong tenure should be abolished," cry Andrew Hacker, a regular in the New York Review of Books, and Claudia Dreifus of the New York Times. "The only way for American higher education to remain competitive is to abolish tenure and impose mandatory retirement at the age of seventy," intones Professor Mark Taylor, formerly of Williams College, now of Columbia University. Only the statistical social scientists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa are more cautious, not straying from their focus on student learning. But they, too, indict faculty for a bleak situation: "Standing in the way of significant reform efforts are, of course, a set of entrenched organizational interests and deeply ingrained institutional practices." You don't need a Ph.D. to figure out what is most entrenched and most deeply ingrained.
Where did this consensus come from, and where is it headed? In their own way, each of these books adheres to the central message of A Test of Leadership, the 2006 report of the Spellings Commission (named after U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings). Undergraduate learning is no longer central to our universities and even our colleges, it argued, with the result that the American workforce is increasingly ill-prepared for the 21st century's challenges. Faculty indulge their passion for research, students attend to their social lives and networks rather than acquire intellectual skills and master a body of knowledge, while administrators and staff support every possible ancillary interest of faculty and students but are clueless about the essential core of higher education. Truth is, hardly anyone who spends time in a classroom can deny this crisis.
But is tenure the cause of the problems that plague higher education today? Naomi Schaefer Riley certainly thinks so, although her publisher yanked the word "tenure" from her original title and substituted the vapid The Faculty Lounges, and Other Reasons Why You Won't Get the College Education You Paid For. It might be true that parents and students are not getting their money's worth from colleges, but it is not because most faculty are lazy. Riley's argument is, in fact, based on the opposite supposition: they are too busy publishing arcane research in peer-reviewed journals to care about teaching or even about learning in anything but the narrowest sense of the term. They acquire this habit on the road to tenure, and since promotion to full professor is often like "getting tenure twice," they persist in it, building the much-noted "research silos" where small groups of specialists criticize and approve each other's houses of cards and fund each other's grant proposals, also peer reviewed. Success that is recognized outside one's own institution, she contends, comes from a record of publication, not from teaching, and this is the success that administrators crave—it builds the prestige of their institutions and thus enhances their own marketability—and thus what they reward.
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The truth is even worse than Riley tells. Within a discipline, professors count rather than read the publications of their colleagues who are up for tenure; and once one gets outside one's field, no one dares quarrel with a record that contains enough articles in good enough journals that are widely enough cited. Riley is put off, justifiably, by this system of self-congratulation. The experts are unaccountable, and their ever-increasing research specialization draws them ever further from the needs of the students in the classroom who are paying their bill, or the taxpayers who are providing the subsidy. Besides, she adds, most of those who benefit from this system are liberals, who seem to have invented a system for entrenching their ideology and who "love the security of statism," in the words of a Harvard professor. True, she admits, tenure protects conservatives, too, or at least those social conservatives who seem to like and use it. But listen, she advises, to educational policy analyst Chester Finn: "Protecting 411 conservatives is insufficient reason to retain a tenure system. Because it's protecting 400,000 liberals, too."
Leaving aside the protection of conservative voices in the academy, it is not persuasive to place the entire blame for excessive specialization on tenure. Though Riley quotes social scientists Christopher Jencks and David Riesman to the effect that administrators "can be relied on to care more about teaching than professors ever would," more recent analysis suggests that administrators typically encourage precisely the sort of resumé fattening that rewards hyper-specialization. Replacing tenure with multi-year contracts makes administrators more rather than less inclined to rely on these "objective" measures of "productivity."
Riley fails to absorb the main argument of Allan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind (1987): the crisis of American higher education is rooted in intellectual problems, not organizational ones, and can only be addressed by thought and dialectic, not clever adjustments. The Nietzschean relativism that Bloom observed in the world at large can explain the silos, with their independent research cultures opaque to uninitiated outsiders. The undeniable success of modern science has led the humanities and social sciences to imitate its research model, with barely anyone bothering to ask whether methods that uncover causation among mute, irrational, and amoral things should be applied to explain beings with rational souls.
There is much that is useful in Riley's book, including a discussion of how widespread use of adjuncts enables rather than contradicts the commitment to tenure, the suggestion that tenure is not appropriate in wholly technical fields, and especially the account of how unionization is beckoning on the campus scene. But even in the best parts of The Faculty Lounges it is sometimes hard to follow the author's logic. When she notes that adjuncts "tend to give higher grades than their tenured or tenure-track peers," doesn't that support rather than undercut the case for tenure? If all professors are contract employees rather than members of a self-governing faculty, isn't formation of a union more likely? Good for the Olin College of Engineering, which she presents at the end as an attractive model of an innovative school without tenure. But it is not a university, however, nor is a university only for engineers.
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To be fair, Riley's book does not pretend to be more than journalism, bringing an issue before the public for debate. Not so Mark Taylor's Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities. Taylor, chair of Columbia's Department of Religion, expands in his book on a New York Times op-ed he wrote after the financial crisis swept the other end of Manhattan. "The education bubble is about to burst," Taylor warns. Indeed, the bubbles come from the same bottle. Parents "remortgage their houses to pay for college, only to have their young graduates return home and begin their working lives in run-of-the-mill service jobs." Universities and colleges "are overleveraged, liabilities (debts) are increasing, liquidity is drying up, costs continue to climb, their product is increasingly unaffordable and of questionable value in the marketplace, and income is declining."
Before you have overcome your astonishment that a professor of religion can actually speak about money as if he respects it, you are treated to an inside tour by a modern academic entrepreneur. Taylor tells us about the programs he founded, the joint ventures he pioneered, the new technologies he explored, the innovations he has made. The problem is specialization in the old disciplines—Taylor's discussion is more persuasive than Riley's, since it comes from the inside. He correctly observes that "too many courses represent what the professor wants to teach rather than what students need to learn."
Taylor's prescription is less compelling than his diagnosis. He wants colleges to embrace the "interdisciplinary," offering cool courses, like the one he taught at Williams called "Real Fakes," about counterfeits and forgeries. Other proposals include a fourth division of the university besides the sciences, social sciences, and humanities, called "Emerging Zones"; or flexible curricula, like the one he is designing for the graduate students in his Columbia department, where the new subfields will be "Time and Modernities, Space, Transmission, Body and Media." Forget walls, think networks. Forget the distinction between public and private schools, or even between schools and businesses. Everything can be linked through the web.
What need is there for tenure among such entrepreneurs? That's for old saps who think teaching religion requires pondering the proofs of Aquinas's Summa, working through Calvin's Institutes, studying the Talmud, or meditating on the paradoxes of Paul or the tribulations of Job. Yes, Taylor tells us he can do that sort of thing: he rather likes teaching a seminar on Hegel, Schelling, and Kierkegaard. Yes, "it remains absolutely essential for students to learn how to read and write in traditional ways." He feels so strongly about this that he made his own children write a three-page essay about a subject of their choice every week all summer between 6th grade and college. Yes, "teaching small classes to gifted undergraduates and seminars with committed graduate students is one of my greatest pleasures."
Here is where his book shows its true colors and becomes deeply dishonest: "I realize, however, that in the future, fewer and fewer students and faculty members will have the opportunities my students and I have enjoyed." So all that commercialized excitement was about what is second best? Mozart is dead, but Elvis lives? When Taylor writes that colleges can network, thanks to easy travel and telecommuting technology, he notes that there is absolutely no reason why every university needs a department of philosophy. Of course not: when everything is the play of shadows, who is afraid of the dark?
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Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus's Higher Education? How Colleges are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—and What We Can Do About It is a page-turner, full of outrageous factoids and indignation that knows how to stop short of outrage. The authors are unapologetic liberals, concerned about access to higher education, stunned by inequalities among institutions, and confident that "every student has a mind and is curious about the wider world." Professors who barely teach appear here, too, along with their salaries, as do administrators with compensation packages like Wall Street parachutes. Research is "all just compost to bulk up résumés." They bristle when data confirm the "Golden Dozen" who top the ladder of prestige and most successfully place their graduates: the Ivies, plus Stanford, Duke, Amherst, and Williams.
Hacker and Dreifus seem to have been everywhere in America, not quite at random, not quite systematically. Sometimes their opinions are meant to be quirky: Queens College does without football, and so can everyone else, except as a club sport. Always the issues are serious even when the tone is light. Is it really conscionable to ask students to finance their college education by incurring significant debt? Can we expect them to study, even taste, the liberal arts that are the core of true higher education if they do?
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The book earned a lot of press when it came out last year for the authors' conclusion: "Schools We Like"—their top ten list. Usually the key is leadership: Ole Miss, for its reconciliation of the races, a surprise to the Yanks; Notre Dame, "for being true to itself," by which they mean not giving in to "anti-abortion conservatives" who think a Catholic university should not honor those who reject Catholic principles; and MIT for high pay and benefits to adjuncts. Eventually it becomes clear that Hacker and Dreifus have no brief for excellence or true distinctiveness. It isn't just their intolerance of sport, that great mediator at public universities in the South and Midwest that earns the enthusiastic applause of ordinary people for extraordinary achievement and thus gives them a symbol if not a full appreciation of what the university as a whole is about.
Despite their fine words about what a liberal education entails, Hacker and Dreifus are in fact facile about its achievement. Speaking of regional state universities, they claim, "the students are as bright and academically committed as any." True of some, no doubt, but wouldn't many have gone somewhere more challenging if they had the preparation, talent, ambition, or the funds? In the end, their critique of American higher education is in fact a celebration of its extraordinary diversity, and in this one can readily concur. Why then begrudge the leading institutions their role just because of their wealth, especially if, by educating those who educate the others, they hold a key to the system as a whole? If they are doing a poor job of it, then explain why, not just by complaining about their good food and high-quality gymnasiums. If a school ought to avoid "faddish trends" and "compulsive consumerism," explain the higher end to which other ends should be subordinated. But once you do, then some schools will be better and some worse at achieving it.
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Who would have thought that a book by a couple of sociologists would be the best on the shelf? Richard Arum and Josipa Roska's Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses deserves attention from administrators and those willing to work through the 144 pages explaining its findings. (And I leave to the technically adept any analysis of Adrift's 68-page methodological appendix.) Their focus is clear and salutary—not on professors and their unpopular ways, but on what students actually learn at school.
Not much, it turns out. Arum and Roska readily acknowledge the limits of their study. They take the results of a single test, administered at the beginning of students' freshman year and the end of their sophomore year, and see how they change. Then the researchers submit the results to multiple regression analysis across a wide range of variables, including students' demographic and educational backgrounds, the kinds of courses they have taken, the study habits they have formed, the social lives they lead, and the selectivity of the institutions they attend.
The test is the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), an open-ended writing instrument designed to test students' ability to think critically, solve problems analytically, and write well. Rather than the usual multiple-choice questions with a computer-graded answer key, the CLA includes a "performance task," describing a scenario and assigning the students a memorandum detailing the goal sought and a desirable course of action.
What limits the students' ability to improve their scores over the course of their first two years of college? Partly it's their background, especially whether they come from a college-educated family and whether they attended a rigorous high school. But just as much depends on two characteristics of their college experience: taking rigorous courses (defined as requiring at least 40 pages of reading a week, and at least 20 pages of writing a term), and studying hard (defined as at least 15 hours a week outside of class, mostly alone rather than in a group). It is a sorry testimony to the state of university education to have to demonstrate statistically the first things a successful student learns from experience: you learn more from the teachers who challenge you, and you have to do your own hard work if you want to reap the rewards of understanding.
Nothing is easier than to point out the limits of such research: it covers only two years of college, measures only basic skills, doesn't show what students gain from their majors, and doesn't even differentiate the quality of the teaching, only the amount of work assigned. The authors are aware of all of these objections, and they meet them patiently. Moreover, they are cautious but clear in explaining what the data show about the influence of ethnic heritage and family background, the burden of cost and debt, and about the selectivity of the institutions they examine.
Above all, Arum and Roska are unabashed in reporting their findings. Most students neither study hard nor avail themselves of guidance about what to study and how. As a result, the modern college student is academically adrift. To anyone who went to college more than a dozen years ago and then completed an advanced degree, the report about how little time students spend on schoolwork outside class is eye-popping. I'll no longer take it personally when students look at me as though I'm crazy for recommending at least two hours outside class for every hour inside.
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Blame it on us faculty, to be sure, but not just because we're tenured. We are cheating our students by not demanding enough of them, and that is because we are demanding the wrong things of ourselves. College has a social dimension that will inevitably shape our students' futures, a fact these books all acknowledge and dance around, especially the serious issues concerning students' moral formation—and corruption. Except for an occasional moment of grace, and the influence of a good example, this is largely now outside the faculty purview. That may change in the long run, but only if faculty themselves focus on what is central to our business—persuading the students to want to learn, and then supplying what they want and need.
All these books identify a crisis of student learning, and attribute it to faculty neglect. Most seem to connect that neglect to the character of contemporary scholarship, but none offers a solution or sensible reform program. I don't think it will be found in the abolition of tenure, but rather in taking steps to restore the integrity of learning. Faculty research is indeed the ground of faculty teaching. Those who do not know cannot teach, and those who do not seek and learn cannot know. Those who claim to know must, in turn, explain how their learning fits into the great scheme of things, not according to some private theory but through dialogue with their fellow learners.
It shouldn't be impossible evaluate research in a way that rewards those who learn something outside their specialty, maybe even outside their discipline, and sanctions those who never do. This will require administrators to read, not just count. The process cannot be managed like a business, but can be conducted in a community. Tenure is part of this community's constitution, and if it works—if it gives scholars the confidence to think independently and reasonably, and sustains the seriousness of purpose that only a lifetime commitment can entail—then it ought to be able to foster the sort of teaching that makes possible genuine learning on the part of our students.
I speak as though we faculty must restore our own integrity before approaching students, but of course this is nonsense. Every teacher knows that one's best ideas often come from teaching, in response to able and inquisitive minds. I started with the threat of revolution, and now am proposing something really radical: a tenured revolution that can wear the mantle of reform.
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For Correspondence on this review, click here.