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Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Old business

Earlier this month, our hard-working civil servants in the Department of Education released an “issue paper” on “Frequently Asked Questions about College Costs.” The .pdf, should you want to consult it, is available for your perusal hyar, and the accompanying Inside Higher Ed story is thar.  And the paper’s argument, should you dare to believe it, is that college costs have risen so precipitously because of . . . tenure!

You heard that right, folks:  tuition has been going up 10 percent a year for the past 15 years, faculty raises have averaged 3 percent a year during that time, therefore faculty are to blame for rising college costs.

The time-honored practice of tenure is costly.  Tenure was originally conceived as a means to protect “academic freedom.” It has evolved into a system to protect job security.

What a travesty!  Everyone agrees that professors should have academic freedom.  But now, it appears, they want to keep their jobs when they say unpopular things, as well!  This needs to stop, because it costs too much money:

A combination of institutional practice and emerging case law has resulted in a situation where institutional flexibility is reduced in two key ways.  First, if student demand for academic programs shifts, faculty capacity to deliver it cannot.  Tenured faculty members are not interchangeable parts (a physics professor can’t usually teach journalism, and vice versa).  Second, it has become increasingly difficult for college administrators to remove a tenured faculty member who is no longer effective.  Thus, the decision to tenure has an accompanying long-term price tag that easily exceeds $1 million per person.

You gotta love that free-floating “thus.” I only hope that Robert Dickeson, the author of this little gem, raised his pinky to his pursed lips when he trotted out the figure of one million dollars.

As for those unpopular academic programs: yes, it’s true, tenure prevents universities from firing entire departments of physicists, classicists, art historians, and philosophers whenever there’s a student stampede to the Accounting department.  That’s just one of the reasons that universities are not Engines of Dynamism®! 

Indeed, Dickeson names the problem in so many words, under a separate heading on page 2: “Colleges are not managed with efficiency as the primary value”:

Colleges maintain large physical infrastructures that often include libraries, computing centers, academic and student-oriented buildings, power plants, research facilities, theatres and stadiums.  This infrastructure is rarely used to capacity.  Typically facilities are used only eight-to-twelve hours a day, five days a week, for less than 52 weeks per year.

Well, that’s easily remedied.  Close the unpopular libraries and research facilities, and schedule the student production of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” for the 4-6 am slot at the Student Union 24-Hour Theatre.  I imagine that the 2-3:30 am section of Introduction to Metallurgy will be a big hit, too.

There’s much more in this vein: the very next paragraph complains about “the unique culture and extraordinary power of the faculty,” who seem to believe that “they are the university” and that they “‘own’ all curricular decisions.” And, of course, there are plenty of useful suggestions for how to fix all this:  hire more part-time instructors, offer more on-line instruction, and, most of all, take your cue from the private sector:

Proprietary, for-profit schools, sometimes called “career colleges,” are gaining in popularity, particularly among adult learners.  For-profit schools use a business model to deliver higher education.  Almost all faculty are part-time, thus lowering costs.  Only programs for which there is demonstrated demand are offered, and they are offered at times and places convenient to the students.  There is little capital outlay for high-expense items, such as libraries or football stadiums.  There is no research function or public service function.  The curriculum is fixed, the outcomes are measurable, and teachers are held responsible for results.  The reward structure for these institutions is directly related to student success.  There is a fundamental model shift in organizational expectations to “What’s it going to take to satisfy students?” from the traditional, “What’s it going to take to satisfy faculty?”

But the problem with this “issue paper,” in my humble opinion, is not that it reads as if it were written by a 19-year-old who can quote Atlas Shrugged by heart.  The problem is much more severe.

This entire paper is plagiarized.

It’s a serious charge, and I do not make it lightly.  But I happen to know who wrote the original version of which this is a cut-and-paste copy: I did.

Just over six years ago, I wrote a parody essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education about how universities could become more like businesses.  Here are some of my most controversial suggestions:

It will be objected (rightly, I must admit) that, even now, students are not getting enough for their money.  That is why tuition deregulation must be accompanied by curriculum re-regulation.  On many campuses, entire departments do little or nothing to prepare students for employment, enhance the university’s portfolio, or develop new products for corporate underwriters.

I refer, of course, to the arts and humanities.  According to one conservative estimate from a former higher-education leader, 50 percent of the research currently being conducted there is nonsense.  Departments of history, for instance, often focus obsessively on the past, while our children need to be prepared for the future. . . .

But when it comes to the long-overdue task of initiating mass firings of faculty members, we run into the biggest problem of all: tenure.  The institution of tenure is profoundly antibusiness and, consequently, profoundly wrong.  As James F. Carlin, businessman and former chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education, perceptively wrote in these pages on November 5, “lifetime job guarantees border on being immoral.”

Moral law, in other words, clearly mandates termination-at-will forms of employment, not merely because all healthy growth requires regular pruning, but also because American society ought not to support anyone who has become unproductive.  Nor, as Mr. Carlin noted, will dismantling tenure jeopardize academic freedom, for “state and federal statutes, commissions against discrimination, and the vigilant news media protect anyone—in or out of academe—who wants to expound unorthodox beliefs.” Surely faculty members are aware that the American mass media will stand firm in defense of controversial scholars, as they have done so often in recent memory.

More to the point, tenure prevents university presidents and trustees from engaging in what may be the hallmark of American business today: the use of efficiency experts and external consultants to fire middle-aged account executives, nurses, editors, and secretaries, after having made them run a humiliating gantlet of pointless self-assessment trials.  That ritual is vividly (and, I confess, entertainingly) depicted in contemporary films like American Beauty and Office Space.

Like business, academe is rife with anxiety, territorialism, and ill will.  But what academe lacks is a mature culture of abjection and groveling.  Fiftysomething faculty members with 30 or more years of service to their colleges simply do not live in terror that they may be terminated without reason.  That constitutes a major reason why most Americans do not understand the institution of tenure.

Dissatisfaction with tenure is all the more rampant now that new technology has the potential to make faculty members as obsolete as telephone operators.  With the judicious use of the Internet and your ordinary household touch-tone phone, in fact, most college courses could be conducted for $4.95 a minute: “Press 1 and the pound key for a lecture on the Italian Renaissance, press 2 for a lecture on the French Revolution.  For seminar credit, just log on with a password and a credit-card number.” If not for tenure, such systems would already be in place—and colleges and universities would be richer places of learning for it.

Finally, academic institutions have stubbornly refused to engage in the single-most-important activity of American business in the 1980’s and 90’s: namely, mergers and acquisitions.  Think of how a powerful conglomerate like Harvard/ M.I.T./ Tufts/ Boston University/ Boston College could revolutionize education delivery in the greater Boston area. And why shouldn’t a lean, sleek enterprise like Adelphi University attempt a hostile takeover of the entire bloated, mismanaged State University of New York system? Not only would that force SUNY to cut personnel costs and close outlying plants in Geneseo, Plattsburgh, and New Paltz, it would drive up the value of both SUNY and Adelphi, to the benefit of stockholders.

Of course, for mergers and acquisitions to work, academic institutions would have to issue stock. It has long been a truism of academe that a free society requires a free marketplace of ideas. It’s about time the products of that marketplace were made available to the ordinary investor. Indeed, this is perhaps the most critical item of all: If American colleges and universities truly want to reconnect with the American public, they will have to go public. It worked for Martha Stewart. It can work for Sarah Lawrence.

I know, I know, you can’t parody the libertarian loons, whether they’re in the Star Trek wing of the blogosphere or writing “issue papers” for the Department of Education.  All I’m saying is that I want the credit for saying it all first, and for saying it so clearly.

Posted by Michael on 04/25 at 10:35 AM
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