Commentary Magazine

Faulty Towers

The Faculty Lounges:
And Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Paid For
By Naomi Schaefer Riley
Ivan R. Dee, 216 pages

In 2008, the yearly tab for a four-year private college averaged some $27,000, up from $10,000 in 1980. An Ivy League education will break the bank further, at $38,000 a year—excluding bed and board. Where does all the money go? Some is easy to spot. There are the lavish sports facilities, gourmet cafeterias, posh dorms, and ever-sprouting new faculty buildings that have become commonplace on today’s campuses. But in her engaging new book, The Faculty Lounges, Naomi Schaefer Riley directs our attention, and her most discerning criticism, to higher education’s less visible expenditures: tenured professors.

Tenure, proponents say, is necessary to protect the “academic freedom” of professors from overzealous administrators. How better to ensure that great minds are left to their great thoughts and not distracted or compromised by the cruder affairs of institutional survival? But, asRiley informs us, this was not always tenure’s chief justification. Rather, tenure, or the “presumptive permanence” of academic positions, was intended to meet a financial, not an intellectual, need. Back when most people worked entire careers in one position, offering “economic security to a group of people who devoted long years to training for a job that didn’t provide much remuneration” seemed reasonable.

What’s more, “early on, professors didn’t need tenure to protect their academic freedom, because academic freedom wasn’t much of an issue.” Schools had clearly defined, and often religious, missions. While professors who strayed from these missions gave administrators just cause to dismiss them, “few faculty members in the 19th or early 20th centuries ever suffered dismissal as a result of controversial scholarship,” Riley notes. “And few politicians or members of the public demanded it.”

In the early 20th century, the model changed. The spread of German-style research universities emboldened faculty who “had their own ideas about what they wanted to study and how” and “didn’t much care for outside interference.”

Today, the gross politicization of university education is no mere matter of academic freedom, but of license. Most universities have little interest in academic freedom as it has been traditionally understood. If a professor’s teachings are out of step with academia’s pervasive leftism, he will sooner find himself the subject of ostracism than of professional solidarity. To the extent, moreover, that the tenure selection process encourages up-and-coming professors to tow the faculty line, it may result in more, not less, insular thinking.

Meanwhile, star professors command high-six-figure pay packages, and the average full-time professor makes the kind of money academics of an earlier generation wouldn’t have believed possible. At Duke University, Riley observes, faculty salaries have risen 65 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars since the 1980s. Whereas it was once hoped that tenure made a difficult life of noble pursuits more feasible, today it serves to lock in jackpot winners for a long-term payout. “First get tenure, then hoist the Jolly Roger,” jokes Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield in The Faculty Lounges.

It is not surprising that the tenure system creates the wrong kind of incentives. Not only does it reward published research over good teaching; tenured professors, Riley notes, have struck a devil’s bargain of sorts with students. In exchange for doling out light workloads and inflated grades, professors are left alone to pursue their research interests. Meanwhile, the students aren’t learning. In 1961, the average full-time student attending a four-year college spent 24 hours a week studying; today, the number has slid to 14. In the words of Ohio University economist Richard Vedder, college has become a “hedonistic warehouse.” Dropout and deferment rates are accordingly dreadful. Only 40 percent of American students graduate in four years.

As The Faculty Lounges points out, tenure has compromised colleges in more ways than one. With tenured professors on a kind of permanent vacation, a system of outsourcing has evolved:

To do the real work of teaching, colleges have “adjunctified” themselves, using part-time faculty, graduate students, or others hired on a semester-to-semester basis. These faculty—who sometimes work at more than one campus, often earn less than minimum wage, and generally don’t get benefits or even an office—turn out to be harmful to students’ educational experience and even their graduation rates. And these adjuncts are treated as second-class citizens by their senior colleagues. The system of tenure was supposed to protect academia as a “profession.” Instead it has worsened conditions for those on the bottom rungs of the academic ladder.

The Faculty Lounges is peppered with interesting facts, from a description of how colleges compete on university rankings, which privilege inputs (spending) over outputs (learning), to the outrageous cost to taxpayers of scholarly “work” ($50,000 per academic journal article, estimates a former statistical chief at the U.S. Department of Education).

Long before the end of The Faculty Lounges, one is left with little doubt that tenure is a worthy target for Riley’s unsparing exposition. But when it comes to how we rid ourselves of this toxic system, things get complicated. Part of the problem, Riley acknowledges, is that the cards are heavily stacked against college administrators who may wish to do battle with tenure. The keepers of the purse, the college trustee boards, nearly always defer to faculty in disputes with administration. Witness the power of Harvard’s faculty to push their one-time president, Lawrence Summers, out the door at the first whiff of controversy. And the problem runs deeper still. Not-for-profit institutions, after all, have a long history of prioritizing the interests of managers over those of the people they claim to serve.

Yet there is reason to think that the campus money-go-round, tenure and all, is on the verge of catastrophe. Foremost, it may find itself the victim of larger crises. Demand among prospective students will likely wane in coming years as federal and state governments, scrambling to avoid insolvency, cut back on subsidies. Another factor is America’s changing demography: the 18-to-22-year-old college-age cohort has simply stopped growing.

Indeed, in certain areas, the dominoes are already falling. Applications to law schools are down. Mid-tier business schools, meanwhile, have responded to feeble demand by admitting hordes of weaker students. And whereas in 1970 tenure-track positions accounted for 55 percent of all faculty jobs, Riley writes that today they account for less than one third.

Like those who were once indefatigably bullish on the housing market, some observers argue that, despite all indications, demand for higher education must trend forever upwards. The new “knowledge economy” requires it, they assert, and this alone will make it so. That kind of analysis may strike the reader of The Faculty Lounges as all too familiar. It bears the unmistakable hallmark of a mind shaped by tenured educators.

About the Author

David Kimble is a speechwriter at the United Nations and a part-time researcher at the Hoover Institution.

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