Commentary Magazine


ProfScam, by Charles J. Sykes

Higher Education?

ProfScam: Professors and the Demise of Higher Education.
by Charles J. Sykes.
Regnery Gateway. 304 pp. $18.95.

ProfScam is muckraking journalism; the muck has never been better, but the raking is not always as good as it might be. Sykes sees only a part of the problem in higher education, and therefore he exaggerates that part. In addition, the evidence he adduces is not always well sifted. Still, that evidence is compelling, and if the problem in higher education is not exactly as Sykes sees it, at least he has shown that higher education is indeed a national disgrace.

Let us begin with a sampler of the evidence. At Harvard, the size of the faculty more than doubled from 1952 to 1974, yet during the same period the number of undergraduates increased by only 14 percent while the number of courses in which they were enrolled actually fell by 28 percent. At the University of Wisconsin, it was discovered in 1987 that increased funding for classroom instruction was being used to reduce faculty teaching loads, with the result that fewer classes were taught.

Consequently, the average size of classes has ballooned. A figure of 100 students per course is frequent, and on many state campuses classes of 500 to over 1,000 are common. It is hardly surprising, then, that a University of Illinois professor found in a class consisting primarily of juniors and seniors that 80 percent had never written a term paper or taken an essay-question exam.

As for what is being taught in these classes, Sykes offers a litany of depressing examples. According to one survey, only 7 percent of college students think they could understand a native speaker of another language. Pretentious theorizing permits courses such as one at Middlebury College which discusses issues of aesthetics raised by the films of Brigitte Bardot, while at Duke, literature professors earning six-figure salaries—“the richest Marxists in the country,” one colleague quips—teach Louis L’Amour Westerns and films about the Mafia. Harvard’s famous core curriculum turns out to be a smorgasbord of 150 specialized courses, such as “Tuberculosis in the 19th Century.” And even E.D. Hirsch, Jr., the author of Cultural Literacy, is quoted here as reassuring his academic colleagues that to be culturally literate “one does not need to know any specific literary texts.”

Research is the excuse made for the “flight from teaching”—yet Sykes quotes former Assistant Secretary of Education Chester E. Finn, Jr.’s charitable estimate that only one professor in ten produces any research worth reading. There has been an enormous explosion in the number of trivial articles, new journals to print them (71 in philosophy alone, 142 in sociology), academic conferences in pleasant locales, books published by university presses to be purchased by few except university librarians—in short, a flood of mediocre stuff, mostly unread. Sykes makes the excellent point that publish-or-perish has spawned fads and esoteric “methodologies” motivated less by the pursuit of knowledge than by the need to crank out publications. The worst offenses are found in the social sciences and humanities, yet even in the natural sciences abuses have grown, including trivial papers, repeated publication of the same data, lower standards of review, and a higher incidence of sloppiness and outright fraud.

Sykes’s thesis is that professors, by being organized into academic disciplines, have undermined the teaching function. Especially in the universities, but to some extent also in liberal-arts colleges, hiring, tenure, and promotion depend on review by one’s disciplinary peers, in which published scholarship is the only criterion. Consequently, teaching is not rewarded but scholarship is, with the highest salaries and prestige going to those who teach least and publish most. Faculties, in turn, develop loyalty not to their teaching institutions but only to the network of journals and professional societies on which their reputations depend. These “academic villages,” as Sykes calls them, are the true locus of academic authority, subverting any effort to reform teaching.

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Sykes’s solution is to break the authority of the “villages” and have professors spend more time in class. By abolishing tenure and by other means, he would increase the power of administrators to reform the curriculum and teaching. But this proposal shows that Sykes is unaware of the role played by administrators themselves in the academic scam he deplores. It shows, too, that he does not sufficiently appreciate the problem posed by the contemporary academy’s political climate.

Readily available statistics, which Sykes does not cite, show the enormous increase that has already taken place in the number of university and college administrators and in their share of academic budgets. From 1976 to 1986, while instructional costs for all U.S. colleges (including library purchases, etc.) went up 21 percent, administrative costs rose at double that rate, or 42 percent. In the University of California system, the number of administrators increased by 31 percent in four years while enrollments increased by only 5 percent. As administrators hire more administrators, their power and sense of importance increase proportionately, as do the salaries they command. This growth is rationalized in part by newfangled programs, curricular and extracurricular, which require more administration than do traditional forms of instruction.

But that is only part of the problem. In private colleges and universities, these new programs are usually started with seed money from the large foundations, whose idea of the good is often less intellectual than social. Hence, the programs they tend to support frequently dilute academic content in favor of social reform. At the very least, what they fund has to be new and different; otherwise what is their raison d’etre? This provides a powerful motive for administrators to rely on the more radical members of their faculties, always fertile in inventing new ways to use the curriculum to “address social problems” and always willing to design the kind of jazzy “interdisciplinary” studies in which their politics are so often cloaked.

In general Sykes does not appear to recognize the degree to which the culture of the academy is now ruled by radical political ideology. What to him is a transparent scam is to many educators a holy crusade, a vehicle for a revolution that will save the world from patriarchy, racism, capitalist greed, and so on. If administrators were given even more power over faculty and curricula, the result would be a greater increase in politically tendentious teaching.

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Sykes writes from the point of view of the educational consumer—i.e., students and their parents. Why, he demands, are these highly paid professors not spending more time in the classroom? But students and their parents are not the only consumers of higher education. The whole of society has a stake in the education of the young—and also in scientific research and in scholarship. The suggestion that such research is itself a kind of dodge, an unwarranted escape from the classroom, is thus misplaced.

Still, though Sykes’s charges are not always entirely on the mark, he is basically right about the “scam” that allows scholars to remove themselves from teaching, that overloads academic circuits with inferior work, that raises the cost of education without improving the state of our knowledge, and that results not only in larger classes but in classes taught by underprepared and overworked junior faculty or graduate teaching assistants. Not as eloquent, as erudite, as insightful or as witty as Allan Bloom, Sykes nevertheless tells us much more than Bloom does about the sickening tailspin into which American higher education has fallen, and he tells it in a brief, rapid-fire, and useful way.

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