Professors do far less teaching than the public imagines

I read Daniel’s LIBOR for the universities? with great interest, not least because I think the central thesis…

Bankers have had their day under scrutiny. But so have Members of Parliament (expenses scandal). So have journalists (phone hacking). So has the Church (paedophilia cover-ups). So has the BBC (ditto). This isn’t a specific issue about financial sector corruption. It’s a general trend, one of gradual social re-assessment of whether the fiddles and skeletons of the past are going to be tolerated in the future.

…is spot on, even translating it across the Atlantic.

However, I think his LIBOR comparison is a bit too literal, his scandals in potentia all hinging on system-gaming. In the U.S., kiting of research assessment and post-grad employment is small beer. Senior faculty claiming authorship is already regarded as a personal rather than systemic crime. U.S. New and World Report is simply making the previously tacit prestige ranking visible to the public. (I forget if it was Billy the Kid or Sun Yat-sen who said that academic politics is so vicious because the stakes are so low, but they both had a point.)

Nevertheless, I think there is a scandal brewing, though, like all academic change, it is moving slowly. That scandal is tied to growing realization that professors do far less teaching than the average citizen imagines.

What the public doesn’t understand (and what many academics don’t understand that the public doesn’t understand) is that the social compact between taxpayers and selective public colleges has been re-written. Up through the 1960s, state schools committed most faculty to teaching most of the time, while directing only a few institutions to hire and promote based on research. (Clark Kerr, PBUH, designed his famous Master Plan assuming that very few California schools should be able to offer Ph.D.s)

This limitation proved unsupportable. After WWII, research was where both the money and prestige was. This shift in our self-conception coincided with the spectacular but unsustainable support we got from the states after Sputnik. For fifteen glorious years, academies were funded as if we ran missile systems instead of monasteries. We used the money to reduce our teaching loads (in the old Carnegie model, a 4-4 load was considered full time) and allowed course release for anyone who brought in additional research dollars.

When our Cold War funding began to ebb in the mid-1970s, rather than go back to the classroom, our selective institutions began calling up an army of TAs and adjuncts to shoulder the teaching load, a transition so enormous that contingent faculty is now the majority, and we tenured faculty the minority.

As long as college was still cheap, and a degree consistently raised income, the public was largely indifferent to the increased reliance on contingent faculty to fill the gap left when we reduced our teaching loads. That period is ending. Constantly rising tuition and the emergence of a Bachelor’s degrees as a prerequisite for middle-class life is exposing the American academy to a degree of scrutiny and skepticism that little in our history has prepared us for.

That scrutiny of the hiring practices at selective schools is slowly going public, first as a source of conversation in the Chronicle, then Slate, and recently, in The New Yorker, as people who look back on their college days come to realize that many of their favorite professors weren’t actually professors.

This confusion is often quite deliberate. Last year, I got a copy of an NYU magazine (my institution.) On the cover, it said one of our professors was testing a new tool for family reunification in Internally Displaced Persons camps. That caught my eye, as one of my former students had also developed a project like that, and was teaching as an adjunct that semester. I thought, “Oh, I should tell Jorge about this professor’s work.”

But when I turned to the article, there was … Jorge’s picture. NYU was writing about his project, but since they were bragging on him to the outside world, they’d upgraded his title to Professor. Now imagine that Jorge had showed up, brandishing that magazine, to a Faculty Senate meeting. He would have been thrown out. Tenured faculty won’t let adjuncts play in any reindeer games, but our institutions won’t tell the public which teachers are and aren’t ‘real’ faculty either. The distinction between ‘people we trust to teach’ and ‘people we allow to be professors’ is not just something the public doesn’t understand; it’s something we actively hide.

However much academics assure one another that our research is what matters, a belief reinforced one tenure committee at a time, it is teaching that legitimates our work and our institutions in the eyes of the public.

If you want to see this playing out with real stakes, tune into North Carolina. In the state legislature, Senator Tom McInnis (R-Naturally) is proposing all that teachers in the UNC system have their compensation tied to a full-time teaching load (which he construes, as Carnegie did, as 4-4). Let us stipulate, as the lawyers say, that these legislators are knuckle-dragging, anti-intellectual boors and that SB 593 is a thinly disguised attack. Nevertheless, it’s the state’s money, so SB 593 requires a response.

The usual response has been to insist that if UNC professors are expected to teach more, they will not have as much time for their research. Responding to the proposed bill’s expectation that course release time would come from local endowments, Stephen Leonard, a professor at Chapel Hill, said “Good luck with that. Almost all of the campuses that are not Research 1 institutions would have a hard time coming up with the funds to do that.” Indeed. It’s almost as if R1 institutions were designed to be the ones funding large research programs.

Leonard takes it as axiomatic that the North Carolina system should allow the maximum number of faculty to do research, even if that takes them away from the classroom. In fact, it was designed (as most state systems were) to privilege teaching over research in most cases, and the change away from that model is recent. Faculty assumes this change was for the good; it is not at all clear that the public, once they understand what has happened, will agree.

Alongside this argument, another response to SB 593 has been horror that ‘meddlesome’ state legislators think they have any right to say anything about U.N.C. at all. This is a sophisticated version of “Keep your Government hands off my Medicare!” However satisfying withering contempt may be as a reply, even a whiff of “We are special snowflakes. The world owes us a living” will not go down well with taxpayers and voters, whose goodwill is the source of our institutional position and our daily bread. And while this affects state schools most, every college in this country is so wound up in tax breaks and Pell grants that we are all effectively public schools.

It seems to me a scandal needs two parts: unobserved behavior that suddenly gets scrutinized, and a sense that the behavior triggers moral questions, not (or not just) legal ones. It’s not clear that SB 593 will carry the day – it seems to be as much polemic as proposal – but McInnis’s strategy is not simply to argue that faculty have contractual obligations that should be re-balanced blah blah blah. His strategy is is to try to make our attitude towards teaching a scandal.

That is my bet on one of Daniel’s skeletons of the past that will not be tolerated in the future. With the rise of contingent faculty, now decisively the majority, the price of attending college is increasingly divorced from the cost of supporting the people doing the actual teaching, undermining the most basic rationale for tuition. Inside the academy, this is treated as business as usual. Outside the academy, the taxpayers don’t even understand that it has happened.

The fight to treat teaching as a valued activity, starting with treating adjuncts fairly, will require a revolution, precisely because it will require senior faculty to spend more time in the classroom, or it will require us to elevate contingent faculty, who do much of the actual teaching, to the status of valued colleagues. Neither is compatible with current norms.

That change could be gradual, as college continues its shift from being an elite to a mass experience, but like Daniel, I am betting it will be accelerated by uproar, as our insistence that we be subsidized then left alone, while grad students and adjuncts teach the teenagers left in our care, comes to sound increasingly scandalous when spelled out to the public.


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