Let's begin with a riddle: When is Purdue University to be preferred over Harvard? You might guess that there is an agriculture or engineering program at Purdue that Harvard cannot match. But we had something less rational in mind: namely, the annual spring ritual in which department heads seek outside letters of evaluation for faculty members being considered for tenure and promotion.
A few years ago, a friend of ours who played that role at a large public university experienced a little more than the usual level of frustration. Like many higher education administrators, the provost at this university had announced that outside letters evaluating candidates for tenure had to be from "peer" institutions. It is standard, though far from rational, for administrators to insist that outside letter writers must come from schools at least as good, but the short-lived pasha at this university added a less common caveat: the letters should not be from either lessor or greater institutions. Based on the institutional categories used at the time, there were 32 public research universities sharing the institution's rank. They were to be the only acceptable sources of evaluation letters. Letters from Ivy League universities or distinguished liberal arts colleges would not do. In a choice between Purdue and Harvard, you'd best choose Purdue.
Like faculty all over the country, we endure only slightly less crazy rules at Illinois and Indiana, where "equal or better" quality institutions are mandated, among other credentials, for letter writers. Last year an administrator at one of our institutions pushed his glasses down his nose, looked wisely over them, and asked "Is Penn State really a peer institution?" A department at another college had to reject the possibility of using a letter from an internationally renowned sociologist at Louisiana State University because the university was considered no match for his own. Then of course there are the apples and oranges matches: How do you compare a small, distinguished liberal arts college to a megauniversity?
Our own universities are hardly unique in employing such practices. Precisely because they are so common across the academy, the time has come for a national meditation on the procedures commonly associated with promotion and tenure. We begin with letters of recommendation because they are one of the more conspicuous and egregious components of a system in dire need of an overhaul. That's what we want to advocate here: a reform of the practices associated with awarding tenure and promotion to younger faculty and an equally serious reform of the procedures employed in promoting tenured associate professors to the rank of professor.
In some ways the rampant insanity of the process is even more striking in the latter case, where a lifetime employee is implicitly told: "You've done a great job, and we want to promote you. But over the next year we want you to assemble a lengthy dossier about yourself while we seek out poorly paid -- or unpaid -- experts to prove to us that you're worth it. Meanwhile, we may raise unpredictable and demeaning doubts about your qualifications. After we've finished with a ritual that makes fraternity hazing seem compassionate by comparison,we'll let you know if you've met the grade."
At a major Midwestern university this year, colleagues await the final decision in the case of an associate professor of philosophy up for promotion to full professor. He is the author of two books, each 400 pages in print, the co-editor of a massive reference book, and the author of half a dozen articles. His department voted unanimously to promote him. Then the problems began.
Although his outside letters were all clearly positive and supportive of promotion, some members of a college review committee felt they were not positive enough. That opened the door to a series of additional ill-informed complaints: he hadn't presented enough conference papers; he had no outside grants; the time between the publication of his two authored books was too great; he hadn't directed enough dissertations.
Cast aside as irrelevant was his decade of service in his department. Cast aside was the evidence of his devoted mentoring of graduate students not in his field. He had spent a summer writing the department's 60-page guide to graduate study. Cast aside was the evidence in both his writing and his teaching that he is a passionately committed intellectual. Cast aside was the judgment of both his colleagues and the outside referees.
After berating the philosophy department head for even proposing the promotion, the college committee voted against promotion. An appeals committee reacted in obvious anger, urging that the dean write a strong letter endorsing the promotion. Another committee is now reviewing the decision.
Why did the college executive committee act with such cruelty and irrationality? Why humiliate a faculty member who already has tenure? Why chip away at a case in which the faculty member has met all objective criteria?
The answer may have come from a dean at Indiana, who remarked recently that wholesale retirements over the last few years have made it impossible to appoint a competent college committee. There just aren't enough sane senior faculty members available to make up a committee with a sense of institutional history, a rational sense of fairness and an in-depth knowledge of campus standards. It is hard to rely on a college executive composed of three chimpanzees, a scorpion, a pit viper, and a coma patient.
Meanwhile, they are egged on by empty demands from provosts and chancellors to ratchet up "standards." At some point ratcheting up the standards for outside letters merely means institutionalizing paranoia. For many years we have argued that the scholarly achievements and status of the individual referee should be the basis of comparison. No sale.
We are told that a faculty member at a liberal arts college will not understand the standards at a major research institution. Of course that is complete nonsense. The standards at major schools are well known. Anyone actively participating in the profession will fully understand the criteria for tenure at the best institutions. It's the standards at the other end of the spectrum -- at small colleges with modest or largely nonexistent expectations for publication -- that are often mysterious.
When administrators demand letters from institutions that are equal or better, the latter is often preferred. This is all part of the pressure to increase standards for promotion. Since administrators cannot actually evaluate a candidate's work, they must ratchet up such "objective" criteria as the quality of colleges approached for outside letters. This goes hand in hand with demands for increased numbers of publications.
We'd rather see a candidate have one splendid book than three average ones, but judging the quality of scholarship requires serious intellectual engagement with a person's work. Hardly a job for a multidisciplinary committee or an administrator outside the field.
As we saw in the case of the philosopher, once the outside letters leave the department they may be subjected to another strange rite of passage. They are read and reread in search of doubts, criticisms, or exceptions. In a world organized into paranoid hierarchies, any reservations in a letter are immediately seized upon as evidence of "the truth." Praise is considered suspect or formulaic; criticism is obviously heartfelt, honest, sincere, and unfailingly insightful. The one point of criticism in a single letter may carry more weight than a stack of superlatives. Outside evaluators who insert a criticism or two to make their letters balanced have obviously not learned how the game is being played.
All this makes the departmental vetting of potential referees increasingly difficult and increasingly necessary. Publishers have long known that a manuscript should be evaluated by someone sympathetic to the kind of work being done who can then decide whether the work is done well. Anything else is a waste of time and potentially unfair. You do not send a feminist scholar's book to a Taliban cleric to evaluate it, because you know what to expect from such a reader.
Of course that is essentially exactly what happened to many feminist scholars in the 1970s, when it was widely assumed anyone really knowledgeable would be biased in favor of the work. Scholars working in new or marginal areas are still subjected to the same disabling ideology and outside letter writers are sought out who are either ignorant or antagonistic. But the reverse can be equally risky. If an aggressively traditional scholar may be a bad bet to review innovative work, a scholar deeply committed to recovering, say, forgotten gay poetry may not be a wise choice to review someone writing about Catholicism in modern literature.
A reasonable match between the research expertise of candidate and evaluator is the best bet. Unless, of course, the candidate seeks to overturn the dominant values in a particular field. One of us recently encountered exactly that problem with a brilliant candidate who received problematic letters and was denied tenure as a result, despite a unanimous positive vote by a department convinced he was the best untenured person in the field. What all this suggests, at the very least, is that the character and quality of the referee should trump such considerations as where he or she teaches.
"Character" can be understood in both professional and personal terms as well. It is crucial to the enterprise that reviewers not only be accomplished intellectuals but also rational, fair-minded human beings. Does the person step back and judge work on its own terms? Or does the person tend to say what sort of book or essay he or she would have written and criticize the candidate for failing to do so? There are no certainties in these matters, but running the names of possible referees by a knowledgeable colleague in the field can eliminate notoriously destructive scholars.
Such considerations should also trump academic rank. It should be clear that accomplished associate professors are fully capable of judging -- and in some cases better able to judge -- certain kinds of scholarship than are many full professors. A generation ago, associate professors regularly served as outside referees. Now the standards have been "raised;" at our institutions and others they are virtually prohibited.
Then there is the recurring nightmare for department chairs, as one of us happens to be: trying to find authors for the number of letters required. This year Indiana's English department set out to assemble papers for one assistant and four associate professors. At Indiana each case requires 8 letters. That figure, happily, is down from a previous requirement of 10 -- all the extra two letters did was increase the chance of bagging a cranky letter writer and throwing the case into crisis.
To reach the total of 40 letters required for this year's 5 candidates, nearly 80 faculty were contacted. Eighty names vetted and researched, submitted, and approached. Many didn't even bother to respond to an initial e-mail request, apparently deciding even that amount of labor was more than they were willing to exert. Many more politely declined. Several responded rudely. Others mimicked their undergraduates, dreaming up reasons to say no. Fortunately, this year no one's grandmother passed away suddenly.
Not surprisingly, in such a climate department chairs call on their brother and sister chairs, souls sympathetic to the dilemma. Old debts are called in. At times, a kind of quid pro quo system develops; you help me this year, I'll help you next. Anxiety, abjection, occasional despair of ever completing the task -- all these are byproducts of the process for both chairs and candidates.
A few years ago in "The Random Insanity of Letters of Recommendation" ( The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 1, 2002), Deirdre McCloskey called the use of outside letters "a scandalous failure of common sense. It is corrupt, dishonest, unscientific." Since then, matters have only become worse. McCloskey urged "the responsible body to read the candidate's work and discuss its intellectual quality with immediate colleagues in a context of believably disinterested assessments from outside."
Some departments would be capable of holding such discussions, though the paranoid ratcheting up of standards makes any admissions of weaknesses in a candidate very dangerous indeed. But few college or campus level committees are any longer competent to serve this role.
Deans should be willing to invest resources in both internal committees and external referees. Given the increased risk that the single disciplinary representative on a multidisciplinary committee may be an assassin or a fool, it may be necessary to assemble separate committees to assess candidates in the sciences, social sciences, humanities, and fine arts. Members of these committees might be compensated by a released course to give them time to conduct thoughtful reviews.
External reviewers who are expected to read a substantial amount of work and write detailed letters of evaluation should be compensated financially, as the Modern Language Association recommends. At present, humanities reviewers read much and write detailed letters. Scientists read much less and often write a perfunctory paragraph or two of confirmation.
Our own departments pay about a $100 for an evaluation -- far better than not paying, which is unfortunately the option most colleges choose, but still far less than adequate. The University of Minnesota pays $300 and makes it clear that it expects a thorough, detailed report. The University of Notre Dame provides $200 and expects the same.
While still far less than one would typically be paid for giving a single guest lecture at a university, Minnesota's practice is at the high end of the scale; it represents dignified compensation and generates more complete, thoughtful, and reliable letters. If other institutions did the same, the process would be improved over all.
Limiting the number of letters required also makes sense, especially since many faculty members receive several such requests every year. It is not unusual for referees writing numerous letters to spend a full week or two reading materials and composing reports. Two weeks of uncompensated labor can make anyone grumpy and less careful.
The aim is not to guarantee positive letters, but rather to assure every candidate a measure of justice and dignity. If hiring committees have done their jobs well and carefully chosen new faculty whose talents meet the needs, expectations, and ambitions of the department, then most probationary faculty members should earn tenure.
Worst of all is a set of problematic letters for a candidate whose teaching and research the department genuinely admires. As the standard for letters becomes increasingly higher and the price to be paid for one negative letter becomes ever more commonly catastrophic, the process risks becoming arbitrary and insane.
Campus review committees determined to raise standards can, in turn, become suspicious of departments that consistently assemble positive letters for their strong candidates, as if it were somehow a setup. On the other hand, when a department believes in a candidate but cannot gather appropriate letters the campus considers the department incapable of making sound judgments on its own. Negative views always trump positive ones. It is a high stakes game in which the best interests of the institution -- retaining quality faculty -- can too easily be set aside.
At the very least, some distinctions between tenure decisions and promotion to full professor need to be enforced. We would not grant the latter casually or for time served in rank. But an associate professor who has clearly met the standards for publication should be promoted in rank. Such promotions should always entail increased compensation. And campus review committees should overlook minor weaknesses in those cases.
There should be an institutional commitment to collegiality and to creating a positive workplace, both aims that are undermined when people who already have lifetime tenure are humiliated and degraded. A more exacting standard may be warranted when the decision to grant lifetime tenure is at stake, but even then sanity demands that the preponderance of the evidence be the standard. When committees ignore the preponderance of the evidence and focus on minority opinion they inflict wounds that even survivors of the process can carry for years.
Our experience suggests the tenure process now occasionally goes crazy, but it is not impossible to see how the system can be improved.
Cary Nelson and Stephen Watt
Cary Nelson is Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences and professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Stephen Watt is professor of English and chair of the department at Indiana University. They are co-authors of Academic Keywords: A Devil's Dictionary for Higher Education and, most recently, of Office Hours: Activism and Change in the Academy, both published by Routledge.
I know a man who teaches at a branch campus of one of the largest state universities in the country. He hates it. One reason: his colleagues. Not only do many of them lack his professional seriousness or scholarly aspirations. Some have other jobs on the side, in real estate or auto dealerships. He tells of a few people who have worked out deals with the English department to steer students their way who write about difficulties with housing or cars.
Academe, one of thy names is money. Not officially of course. For public consumption, we faculty members -- tenured or adjunct -- accept our salaries in the name of our responsibilities to our students or our dedication to our discipline. Of course we all deserve more money, although not as much as football coaches, who deserve less, and don't get us started on overpaid administrators. But we did not become teachers to make money. We became teachers to profess ideals.
Result? We are baffled with the vulgar particulars of what we do make, ranging from the starting salary we command or the pay raise we receive upon promotion to -- well, to what, exactly? In fact, aside from the special case of merit pay, the only money virtually all of us make is represented by our respective salaries. This is why we are so reluctant to disclose them. This is also why anybody who actually tries to make additional money, much as my above friend's colleagues, makes us so uneasy, to say the least.
Adjuncts can be excused. Everybody knows they are woefully underpaid. So if they do something other than teaching -- I've taught with a man who runs a T-shirt business, another who was a salesperson at a mattress company -- more power to them.
However, back on the tenure track, even if our contracts do not in theory forbid us from working at something other than teaching, we are effectively enjoined from additional work. That is, unless we are in science or engineering, grant-driven and consultancy-rich fields both, where, if anything, the opposite might be true.
These significant exceptions, I believe, prove the rule: the closer to business, the more accepting of money. My own experience has been far removed, at an opposite pole, in the humanities, where money is understood to be necessarily distant from the community of learning, the mission statement, the spirit of diversity or any number of other pieties designed (in part) to keep us on track. Not to mention the venerable triad of teaching, scholarship, and service.
Whatever "service" means, come tenure review, it does not mean affordable housing having been brokered by the individual under consideration for selected members of her or his community, or used automobiles having been sold to them at equitable prices. Nor does "research" always translate into consultancies held or grants recieved, much less invited lectures given, or book contracts signed.
But of course the first set of activities is precluded from consideration -- in any field -- because they are too obviously motivated by money. The trick for an academic is to make money without appearing to be doing so, in some way apart from teaching. Granted (if the pun be forgiven), this is easier to accomplish in some fields than in others. But the necessity for it to remain a trick remains, I think, essentially the same.
Let pro athletes yowl about being "disrespected" while demanding more millions or politicians whine about being "smeared" concerning their financial dealings while denouncing their opponent's "tactics." We academics go about our monetary business differently, beginning with the fact that we disdain the business. If we write an op-ed column, it is because we either are or aspire to write as public intellectuals, not because we crave a quick $500, which buys a lot more groceries that the two free magazine copies or 25 offprints we received for the publication of our last scholarly paper.
Just so, if we publish a book, it is because we are scholars, not because we hope for a big royalty check. The most I have ever received for one of my books was $137, at the end of its first year of publication. It seemed like a fortune! My totals for the three preceding books were: 0, 0, and $12. So it goes with most of us, who, er, count ourselves lucky to publish a book at all. Stephen Greenblatt was rumored to have received a six-figure contract from W.W. Norton for what became his prize-winning book on Shakespeare, Will in the World.
In terms of the academic publishing business as usual, though, one may as well be reading about J.K. Rowling's latest Harry Potter. As usual, consideration of the academic Big Leagues suggests the existence of a whole new ball game. Awhile ago I chanced to learn that the standard lecture fee of one of the Biggest Names in the country was $5,000 -- up front, period, no more, no less. The cost has the immense virtue of being neat and clean; nothing more required of his hosts, thank you, ranging from airport pick-up to hotel reservation or dinner.
How not to swoon that such an assessment represents, in its way, the conduct of a real pro? And yet how to compare such a fee to the salaries of his audience?
Moreover, how not to wonder, well, whether there was more than one previous lecture that this Eminence had given just for the money? And finally, how not to imagine the opportunity without envy? Just as the man had earned his eminence, after all, he had earned its price. If the very nature of a "public intellectual" continues to be disputed, is it not at least partially because the role takes place too intimate with the marketplace, where ideas are customarily converted into cash? Once again, we academics are uncomfortable with money, which becomes, in turn, one measure by which we are uncomfortable with ourselves.
Furthermore, this discomfort (other words could be used) is all of a piece with our constitutive unwillingness merely to utter the very word "money," except perhaps when either a new football coach or a college president is hired. Instead, we try to employ a vocabulary scrubbed clean of filthy lucre. A friend tells me, for example, of meetings with a dean to whom as a chair he would regularly conclude something like, "so the problem is money," only to have the dean usually reply, "Yes, Jim is right, we do have a resources issue."
A happier attitude toward money would begin with a better vocabulary, which would grant the element of competition fundamental to any enterprise. Our academic version is not exempt. Competition of course does not necessarily have to be subject to monetary valuation. (But try writing a grant without it.) Such valuation does not necessarily have to be withheld either, and we all, academics included, live in a culture in which such a withholding is not only almost impossible to perform but even more impossible to perform in good faith.
Instead, what we find throughout academic life concerning just about anything to do with money is bad faith. I find this impossible not to be the case even in science and engineering. Bad faith hurts adjuncts in any field most of all. Adjuncts receive a fee, not a salary. They are obliged to writhe in the coils of such dressed-up ideals as "respect" or "security" when what they want most is simply a living wage, expressed in dollars and cents.
Alas, their labor takes place within a system that insists such an expression is vulgar, embarrassing, and alien to academic traditions. Meanwhile, everybody else looks high and low for money, whether in the form of grants and fellowships to pay off research or merely a summer section of one of the department's basic courses in order to pay for the new roof on the house. There need be no scandal in any of this. Or rather, the scandal, it seems to me, is to purport that any consideration of money is on a par with that of the student who protests, "I'm paying for this course," and then solidifies the claim with, "I'm paying for your salary."
The course is not reducible to a commodity. (Nor are we.) However, it can be transformed into one. The conversion cannot be denied out of hand (or out of pocket). Money is a consistent, ineradicable presence in our values as well as our lives. Until we academics learn to talk about money at once more candidly and more searchingly, we have not earned the right to chortle at those of our colleagues who, like those of my friend back at the branch campus, have other business ventures on the side. Even in their crudity or dishonesty, these ventures illuminate ours. Especially working alongside adjuncts so radically exploited, even the most favored among us can no longer afford to act as if our ideals or our ideas pay for themselves.
Terry Caesar's last column was about the relationship between professors and their former students.
In the past year or so, the latest in the perennial waves of attacks by conservatives against liberal bias in college faculties has included several research reports like one by National Association of Scholars allies Stanley Rothman, S. Robert Lichter, and Neil Nevitte, "Politics and Professional Development Among College Faculty,” decrying a preponderance of Democrats in academe. These reports have worked in tandem with the crusade led by David Horowitz for an "Academic Bill of Rights," versions of which were introduced into several state legislatures.
Aside from the disputable accuracy of conservatives’ charges, it’s time to call attention to their frequent origin in organizations funded by Republican-aligned foundations.
Conservatives claim that "their" foundations and think tanks simply serve to counterbalance more highly funded liberal foundations, professional organizations like the American Association of University Professors and the Modern Language Association, and the totality of university scholarship. These are false comparisons:
1. The conservative foundations and think tanks established in the past 30 years were designed to be, in effect, public relations agencies or lobbies for the Republican Party and the political and economic interests of their corporate sponsors, many of whose executives have also been visibly partisan, influential figures in that party, such as Richard Mellon Scaife (Scaife Foundations), the Coors family (Heritage Foundation), William Simon (Olin Foundation), and William Baroody (American Enterprise Institute). The same cannot be said for more liberally inclined foundations like Ford, Rockefeller, Carnegie, and MacArthur, in relation either to corporate sponsors or the Democratic Party. The very fact that these foundations fund projects that are often antithetical to their corporate patrons' class interests is evidence that their motives are philanthropic, not propagandistic; they fund precisely the kind of projects least likely to attract corporate sponsorship. This can also be said about George Soros’ politically oriented projects; Soros, perhaps more than any other liberal sponsor, does have Democratic Party ties comparable to those of Scaife and other Republicans -- he supports MoveOn.org, the Center for American Progress, Emily’s List, Americans Coming Together and several labor unions -- but it would be hard to make a case that his philanthropy advances his corporate interests. Much of his and his grantees’ writings warn against capitalists like him gaining too much wealth and power. In contrast, the outcome of the ostensibly objective research conducted by conservative corporate-funded scholars is virtually predetermined to support its sponsors’ financial and ideological interests.
2. Academic professional associations democratically represent their membership, and are primarily funded by dues. Their officials are not appointed by, and are not accountable to, any higher power or special interest other than the majority rule of their members. Thus, whatever political biases they may have are those of their own constituencies, not of patrons or party organizations.
3. Likewise, the terms of faculty hiring and salary are normally determined by peers, not patrons or parties. The political views of faculty members in the humanities and social sciences are, in general, the consequence of their years of independent study, not influenced by outside sponsorship or affiliation with party apparatuses. That is, they may vote Democratic, but, with rare exceptions -- Robert Reich comes to mind -- faculty liberals, and especially radicals, in recent decades have not had the kind of insider roles in the Democratic Party or presidential administrations that Republicans with academic backgrounds like William J. Bennett, Lynne Cheney, Irving and William Kristol, and Chester Finn, all also beneficiaries of the conservative foundations, have had in that party. It is a breathtaking bit of sleight-of-hand that so many conservatives’ high-minded protests against the politicizing of higher education have come from individuals and foundations that are up to their neck in Republican politics and that have the power to incite government action against their academic opponents.
I do not doubt that many scholars who accept money from the conservative foundations maintain intellectual independence and integrity, and are motivated by their own beliefs. It is disingenuous of them, however, to claim they are not compromised by their sponsors’ motives of recruiting the best minds money can buy. These scholars claim that the sponsors do not dictate a line to them, which may be strictly true, but there have been cases of withdrawal of support to grantees who depart too far from the sponsors’ line. Ample evidence of sponsors’ direct control of studies by conservative think tanks and foundations has been provided by apostates from them like Michael Lind and David Brock.
Lind, in Up From Conservatism, writes: “The network orchestrated by the foundations resembled an old-fashioned political patronage machine, or perhaps one of the party writers' or scholars' guilds in communist countries. The purpose of intellectuals was to write essays and op-eds attacking liberals and supporting official Republican party positions.” Brock, in Blinded By the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative, describes the executives heading the conservative “counter-intelligentsia” as “Leninists of the right,” who exercise control over their subordinates that is “far more rigidly doctrinaire than the PC crowd that had so offended me [as an undergraduate] in Berkeley.”
Brock exposes the pseudo-scholarly trappings of conservative think tanks, mocking his own former title of “John M. Olin Fellow in Congressional Studies” at Heritage. He also recounts how Scaife, the biggest financier of right-wing attacks on Bill Clinton before and throughout his presidency, withdrew funding from Brock (who at that time was the highest paid political journalist in America) and later from The American Spectator when he found their writings about both Bill and Hillary Clinton insufficiently damning.
Conservatives insist that their studies should be judged solely on their intrinsic validity, and they dismiss any suggestion that their sponsored scholarship or journalism is tainted as a fallacy of guilt by association, poisoning the well, or argument ad hominem (perhaps ad lucrem would be the more appropriate term). But a rhetorician’s motives, associations, and past credibility are sometimes relevant considerations. Are we not justified in being more skeptical about the motives and merits of arguments presented by hired lobbyists (say, for the tobacco industry), party propagandists and spin doctors, advertising or public relations agents, than we are about those presented by independent scholars and journalists? So shouldn’t those who accept funding from the Republican-aligned foundations also be willing to accept the burden of proof on their independence?
Conservatives may not like the politics of us tenured radicals, but it would be hard for them to claim that many of us are in it for the money. For example, the Radical Caucus in MLA, to which I belong, for the past 30 years has been publishing the journal Radical Teacher. Its editors from the beginning have included such leftist notables as Richard Ohmann, Louis Kampf, Paul Lauter, and Lennard Davis, who are portrayed by conservatives as immensely powerful figures. (Lynne Cheney’s 1995 book Telling the Truth singled out Radical Teacher as a key organ of the leftist menace.) When academic leftists were starting out in the sixties, we were as marginalized as conservatives now claim to be. Many of us didn’t get jobs or were fired after gaining them, because of our politics. (This still sometimes happens, contrary to conservatives’ lurid accounts of leftist academic hegemony; some editors or contributors at Radical Teacher are afraid to list it on their vitas.)
To be sure, several radicals by now have indeed become tenured, respected, and in some cases -- through the cultural contradictions of capitalism -- have acquired endowed chairs, incomes in the (low) six figures, administrative positions, foundation grants, and other perks. (My own salary, more typically, peaked at around $65,000 after 35 years of teaching.) Their success, however, is mainly attributable to the quality of their ideas and scholarship developed over four decades, not to patronage. (Are there zealots, cronies, and incompetents on the academic left? For sure, though not demonstrably more than among those of any other ideological or theoretical bent, including conservatives, and they are disowned by more responsible colleagues.) No one has received a penny in payment for the countless hours they have put into the Radical Caucus or Radical Teacher, whose current financial balance amounts to $15,000, and which subsists solely on subscriptions and limited newsstand sales, with virtually no advertising and only small contributions by individuals.
Compare that record with the millions and millions spent by conservative foundations in the past three decades funding the National Association of Scholars (which in 2003 received $250,000 from the Scaife Foundations alone, according to the Scaife Web site), the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, Campus Watch, Horowitz’s enterprises, conservative student organizations, and research like Rothman, Lichter, and Nevitte’s. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, Horowitz has been making upwards of $500,000 a year in personal income from Scaife, Bradley, Olin, and other foundation grants and college lectures, at $5,000 each, also subsidized by the same foundations through funding of conservative campus organizations.
One can understand that as conservatives see it, they are outnumbered, outspent, and discriminated against in the humanities and social sciences, and so they have turned to conservative foundations as their only recourse. Nothing should prevent them from doing this, but neither would anything prevent these acolytes of free-market competition and overcoming adversity through individual spunk from independently gaining a foothold in academia and expanding it purely through the value of their ideas and scholarship, as leftists have done over four decades. Again granting the integrity of many cultural conservatives, isn’t it coy of them to get indignant over any suggestion that multi-million-dollar patronage by special interests gives their beneficiaries an unfair advantage and is likely to attract opportunists?
It is also legitimate to ask how similar the kind of research on which conservatives’ cultural offensives are based is to the pseudo-scientific variety produced by corporate special interests through the usual foundations and think tanks (and all too often through ostensibly independent university scholarship) -- research that purports to refute all evidence of corporate damage to the environment, health, and safety. The greatest danger of the machine that has been set up by Republican fronts, in science as well as in the humanities and social sciences, is that it has developed the capacity to take any finding produced through independent research or analysis, no matter how valid, and fabricate counter-research to discredit it, thus jamming the airwaves of public discourse to the point where ascertaining the truth is virtually impossible.
Conservatives have sanctimoniously denounced poststructuralist theories denying any objective truth and have accused leftists of being Orwellian twisters of the truth, but many of their own forces -- political, journalistic, and academic -- have cynically pursued the 1984-ish policies that truth is determined by whoever has the power to dominate public perceptions of it and that the righteousness of their ends justifies dishonest means such as distorting and ridiculing their opponents’ positions without substantive refutations (as my arguments here will predictably be distorted and ridiculed).
Thus, I do not think it is unfair to ask conservative scholars and journalists of integrity to demonstrate it by honestly addressing the ethical problems posed by Republican-aligned foundation sponsorship, by dissociating themselves from the more extreme positions of the Republican Party and its corporate, religious, and journalistic allies (e.g., Pat Robertson, Rush Limbaugh, and Ann Coulter), and by presenting a body of evidence proving that they apply the same critical standards and zeal to the forces of the right that they do to the left, along with similar evidence that their sponsors are willing to subsidize such criticism.
One such model of integrity is Nathan Glazer, the prodigious Harvard sociologist who throughout his long career has shown scrupulous independence, extending to his role as co-editor with Irving Kristol of The Public Interest, subsidized by the Olin, Bradley, and Smith-Richardson foundations. Although he identifies himself as a neoconservative, Glazer has written in defense of affirmative action and multiculturalism, and, as he noted in the final issue of The Public Interest this spring, “in defense of the more developed welfare states of Europe, which to my mind have created a better society than we have in the United States.” If such refreshing heresies against Republican orthodoxies were the rule rather than the exception in conservative intellectual circles, I would cease and desist from further criticism.
Here is a proposal that might forestall the further descent of polemics on these issues to the level of, “Yeah, and you’re one too!” Horowitz’s blog Discoverthenetwork.org comprehensively surveys the forces of what he defines as the American left in politics, the media, foundations, and academia, along with their sources and amounts of funding. Suppose that he, or like-minded conservatives, were to collaborate with leftists on assembling a comparable survey of the American right (including, say, major corporations and the military, along with university faculties in service to them, and the forces of the religious right), so that something like an objective comparison of relative power could be attained. Who will volunteer for such a project -- and what foundations will fund it?
Donald Lazere is professor emeritus of English at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. His textbook Reading and Writing for Civic Literacy: The Critical Citizen's Guide to Argumentative Rhetoric was published this year by Paradigm Publishers.
Nothing generates academic interest like a conversation about pay. Much faculty salary discussion focuses on why someone else makes more money. Often the contemplation of salary differences takes as its premise that the disparity must come from favoritism or some other illegitimate source rather than being a reflection of merit or that surrogate for merit, the market.
These conversations tend to be one-sided since the initiative comes primarily from the colleagues who feel underpaid. “Overpaid” colleagues rarely participate in this discussion. Thus, it is always good to see a systematic, data driven discussion of the subject of faculty salary differentials such as the recent much-quoted item from Ehrenberg, et al. at Cornell University.
Their study shows not only significant salary differences between disciplines on average (economists being paid more than English professors) but significant variation in that difference among institutions. This, they say, is because high quality departments pay more than low quality departments in the same discipline. If English is a weak department and economics is a strong department in one university, the difference in average salaries will be greater than if, in another university, both departments have the same quality.
These results validate in a systematic, statistical and aggregate way what individual participants in the academic market place have known and practiced for years. We who hire faculty or seek employment know that desirable scarcity drives up the market price of faculty. High quality, defined almost entirely by research success, is scarce, so the university has to pay for it. Medium quality is common so salary levels are less. The "outside offer" that comes to the faculty member whose local salary is significantly below the market resets that individual’s salary to meet the national market, whether through a counteroffer or a change in institution.
This process, however, has many complexities not easily reflected in the aggregate data. Faculty have a local salary, the amount paid by their current institution. At the time of first hire, the local salary and the market salary are the same, because the hiring university must pay the market rate for the faculty member. This market rate reflects the faculty member’s current and expected value and includes any special premiums that might apply. However, the local salary diverges from the market the day after the faculty member begins work.
Changes in the local salary depend not on the market, but on local circumstances. Across-the-board and merit increases negotiated by unions or established by administrations adjust the local salary to local concerns. Faculty who publish and get grants, and therefore are connected to the external market, tend to increase their local salaries faster than faculty who teach and perform a variety of service roles for the institution. Even so, the rate at which the local salary rises is somewhat to significantly independent of the national salary market place, although most institutions attempt to keep local salaries above the level of initial hires in the same field at the same rank.
Promotion increases, which reward achievement as defined locally, also increase local salaries, but again at rates relatively independent of the market. In these local markets, politics and personality can intervene to slow or increase the rate of salary improvement. Other circumstances such as major budget crises in public institutions for example can hold back salary increases. On unionized campuses, the union’s principal effect is to raise the floor for all faculty, and in some places regulate the rates of increase.
The market salary for a faculty member is not always higher than the local salary. The market may not pay more than the faculty member currently earns. This is often the case for faculty who have been in rank for a number of years, who do good work, but who have no particular distinction that the external marketplace cares to reward. This is the case for a majority of the faculty at most institutions. Simply put, the marketplace is not much interested in hiring midlevel faculty with good if not distinguished capabilities because an institution gains little by doing so.
The hiring institution will have its own cadre of embedded faculty who are also good and experienced, but not spectacular. They rarely need to buy more of this kind of talent. The marketplace is available for those relatively few faculty members whose value is substantially above their local salary. These people can enter the market and receive an offer from a competing institution. This will set a new salary level for them because either their current institution will match the offer or they will leave and take the new, higher salary offer at the competing institution.
Special circumstances complicate this marketplace. For example, senior minority or women faculty of significant scholarly distinction often carry a premium over equivalent individuals without the special characteristics. Faculty with the potential for leadership at a new institution but no leadership opportunities at their current institution can often command a premium because the new institution needs that leadership more than the current institution. Faculty with expertise of value in external commercial marketplaces command a premium over faculty of equivalent quality who have no commercial market value.
Many other circumstances discourage faculty entry into the national marketplace to attempt to improve their salaries. Faculty with a marketplace value may not enter the market because they do not want to pay the relocation costs, because they have an employed spouse in their current location, or because they have a life style that would require substantial change. Other faculty have retirement plans and options that they would lose if they enter the market and take another position elsewhere.
These conditions help explain faculty behavior in their local environments. Because only a few actually access the external marketplace in any one year, and for most faculty the opportunity to take advantage of the external marketplace will happen only once or at most twice in their 30 year careers, most faculty salary effort is locally focused. This increases the politics around local salary policies. It also encourages faculty to develop strategies that manipulate and usually reduce their workload as an alternative to increasing direct compensation.
The inaccessibility of the national market for most faculty encourages the local proliferation of quasi-administrative roles such as program chairs, faculty governance leadership, micro departmental organizations, and other structures that provide a rationale for a salary supplement for administrative service. Faculty pursue major administrative appointments that offer salary increases unavailable to them in the academic marketplace. They take on consulting, publish textbooks, create start-up companies, and supplement their salaries with summer grant funding. Unions and tenure ensure that the institution cannot force faculty members into the marketplace where they might have to accept a lower, market-determined salary. Unions also usually ensure that whatever happens in the marketplace, the salary levels of continuing employees will keep rising.
Faculty salaries also capture the value of security. Compared to many outside professionals of equivalent education and sophistication, faculty salaries appear low. When we account for the fact that faculty, once tenured, have a lifetime employment with compensation and benefits guaranteed, we recognize that part of the lower dollar payment reflects the much lower employment risk for tenured faculty compared to their professional counterparts in the commercial marketplace. College coaching salaries offer a clear demonstration of this. They often appear very high to many observers but actually capture two high-risk circumstances: coaches must win or be fired, and their compensation frequently depends on the amount of revenue their teams earn.
Universities in search of high quality research faculty, defined in the national competition for grants, awards, publications, and the like, will always pay a premium for the individuals who fit their expectations. As the Cornell study shows, if an institution has a particular disciplinary focus for its quality aspirations, it will pay more for the faculty in that field than it will for faculty in fields where its aspirations are less.
At the top rank of public and private universities, almost every field is expected to be at the top level of quality, and in those universities, the salaries of all faculty will most closely reflect the national marketplace for their subdisciplines, including the built-in differentials between English and economics. The farther from the top rank a university is, the more its salaries will diverge from the marketplace level set by the top performers and the more its salary system and interests will focus on local concerns.
To understand the faculty salary game, it helps to know the whole system.
When the American Association for Higher Education shut down this spring, many of its files went to Clara M. Lovett, its last president. She recently found a speech given in 1948 at the annual meeting of the higher education division of the National Education Association, which helped create the AAHE. Lovett thought the speech -- about challenges facing higher education as the U.S. confronted the Cold War -- had relevance today. With thanks to Lovett for the find and to the NEA for permission to reprint the text, we offer the following thoughts from an earlier generation.
Universities are among our oldest social institutions. Speaking generally they have characteristically been indifferent to their social responsibilities. They have often looked down their noses at modern problems and modern cultural development. They have been slow to change and slow to assume new social or educational responsibilities. Not infrequently have they viewed questions of social policy as practical matters which lie outside of the rightful concern of the university. The events of the last three decades have, however, shaken the complacency of many university faculty members and plunged a few of our leaders into a study of the ways and means whereby the university can make its appropriate contribution to the building of a decent and peaceful world.
There are several major developments which have been responsible for the change in the typical attitude of the university. Experience in Germany and other totalitarian countries proves conclusively that no true university is possible in a police state. This being so, every university has a stake in the preservation of freedom. Even though a university looks upon itself as an ivory tower, its staff members know that no ivory tower is even a remote possibility in anything but a free society. In the realm of the sciences, many leaders have looked in on the processes of nature in the area of atomic fission. What they have seen has so frightened them that they have become our most articulate and effective protagonists for the types of social change designed to insure a peaceful world. Thinking university people know that broad forms of adult education are the only means whereby social change can be sufficiently accelerated to head off worldwide catastrophe in the form of atomic war. Thus for the first time in academic history it now seems feasible to interest the academic world in the problems of world peace and the problems of social reconstruction upon which any enduring peace must be built.
In universities our characteristic response to a new responsibility is the addition of a new course, a new curriculum, or at leaset some proposal for the acquisition of new knowledge on the part of our students. We have every reason to doubt the wisdom of our past responses in such situations. It is going to take something more than knowledge of new facts to brings about a peaceful world. New courses can teach new facts, but they do not necessarily give our students and graduates the will to build a peaceful world or the social effectiveness for bringing such a world into being.
The plain fact is, we do not as a people understand the problem of world peace. We do not have a sufficient determination to build a peaceful world. We do not sense our own individual and collective responsibilities in relation to world peace. As a people we lack the consecration to human values and the devotion to human brotherhood that must of necessity be a foundation for a peaceful world. Perhaps most important of all we fail to realize that it is the success of free institutions inside our own country and other countries that is the primary requisite for the success of any international organization any effort at the maintenance of an enduring peace. If we are interested in examining the role of the university in building world peace, we should examine the course which has been followed by our own country in both the international and domestic scene since V-J Day. Through such an examination we can discover our major errors and identify the elements of unsoundness in our domestic and world leadership. From a study of these errors we can, I believe, map a sound emphasis for the university as it seeks to make a contribution to enduring world peace.
We have seen our country disappoint liberty-loving peoples the world over. Our international role has been characterized by confusion, uncertainty, vacillation, and, on occasion, downright dishonesty. While we have faltered in the international scene, we have stumbled about ineffectively at home. As of the present moment there is more fear in the heart of the average American than there has been at any time in the history of our country. This fear is not easily explained. It is an oversimplification to say that we are afraid of Russia. Our fears cannot be connected primarily with the rise of communism; nor is our state of mind due entirely to the development of the atomic bomb. While we may not be able to explain our fears, their results in our national and international behavior are plain to be observed. We carry on or propose witch hunts after communists. We send billions of dollars abroad in an effort to stop communism, and we order a draft of our young men on the chance that we may have to fight our ideological enemies....
We have, it seems to me, made four major errors in charting the domestic and international course of our country and the entire democratic world. If the university is to play its proper role in the building of world peace, it must give its students a type of experience and equipment which will help us as a nation and as a world to correct these errors and chart a sound course in the direction of world peace.
In the first place, we in the Western world in general and in America in particular have failed to realize that human freedom is our most priceless asset. In one way or another we have been willing to compromise this freedom, sometimes in search of economic security, at other times in what we think is a battle to preserve this freedom. In this discussion I am taking the position that of all of the components of our culture and our heritage, our freedom is our greatest trust and our greatest hope for the future. With every passing year I am less willing to surrender any part of that freedom, regardless of the pretext upon which I am asked to make the surrender. I am thus wary of loss of individual freedom through over-centralization of government, through dictatorial organizations of labor and industry, through over-concentration of wealth and economic power, or through excessive controls of local affairs on the part of state and federal government.
Similarly, I am not only fearful of losing our freedom through a war, through a fascist or communist coup, but I am equally fearful of losing it through the adoption on our part of the police-state methods of the totalitarian world. I am accordingly extremely skeptical that the present much talked-of efforts to ferret out the Communists can actually be carried through without the loss of freedom for us all. And if through panic and fear of communism we lose our freedom, we have lost it just as truly as if it had been taken away from us by a foreign power.
Tragic as it may be, even our university graduates do not understand the meaning of our freedoms; nor do they realize the ways and means whereby these freedoms can be preserved. Therefore, teaching the meaning of human freedom is the first responsibility of the university in building world peace. We should, however, hasten to add that no perfunctory subject matter approach to the problem of freedom will be effective. For years our college students have studied our history. They have read our Constitution. They have read the Declaration of Independence and other documents, but these and other materials have become stereotypes. They have been viewed in terms of political freedom alone. No organized and concerted attempt has been made to develop democratic principles in the area of economics, or of human relations, or in the field of the fine arts. As a result, a large proportion of our college graduates see no conflict between our great historic documents of freedom and segregation of whites and Negroes, poor housing, periodic unemployment, and lack of educational opportunities. Had our colleges and universities properly taught the meaning of human freedom, we would have had federal aid to education decades ago in this country. Had all the educational institutions in our nation really believed in our freedoms and taught them effectively, our country would today be vastly more democratic than it is.
But as a nation we have made a second tragic error since V-J Day. Somehow we have assumed that the problem of world peace can be solved through a world organization such as the United Nations, regardless of the success of our free institutions at home.... Our failure to see the relationship between the problems of our domestic society and the difficulties of our world leadership grows out of our tendency to compartmentalize world problems, to blame our difficulties on other countries and on the weaknesses of governmental machinery and other forms of democratic implementation. We blame the machinery and we blame other countries when it is our own lack of moral conviction and sense of duty and responsibility that is to blame.
Clearly in this area the university has a large responsibility. It is not, however, enough for colleges and universities to convince the students of the inter-relatedness of our national and international problems. Something far deeper and more vital is demanded. The plain fact is, the whole Western democratic world has suffered a moral relapse in recent decades. The church has lost its hold on millions of our people. No substitute moral influence has come into our life. Opportunism, gross selfishness, and unbridled greed have had their unexampled innings. Irresponsible self-seeking has not only invaded business and labor but has made deep inroads into the profession of education itself. If freedom is to be saved and if world peace is to be achieved, the university must meet its responsibility in the realm of ethical and moral education.
In state-supported institutions, we cannot use the fact of legal restrictions on religious education as an alibi for failing to teach ethical and moral standards to our young people. Our own heritage of democracy is rich in ethical and moral content. Our literature presents enormous opportunities that can be exploited in many directions. The fine arts have a great potential contribution, and -- most important of all -- human relationships of the college and university campus can make an outstanding contribution if only we appreciate their importance and plan their programs and activities intelligently.
The third misconception which has undermined many of our domestic and international post-war policies has been the assumption that good can be accomplished through the doing of evil. We seem to think freedom can be saved for ourselves through a sacrifice of freedom for minorities and small nations and that we can further freedom for our own country by playing fast and loose with the welfare of small and less powerful countries and groups. Looking back over the period since V-J Day it seems almost impossible to understand how we can as a nation have been led into so many embarrassing and ambiguous positions. The most charitable way we can account for our blunders is to assume that we simply did not understand the processes whereby human freedom can be saved. There is in this connection a very simple principle. Freedom will not live unless it works. If it does not work, no amount of defense of freedom through persecution of its opponents, through spending money for relief, through propaganda, or through military efforts will avail....
If our universities are to play their appropriate role in the building of world peace, they must be the instrumentalities for making human freedom a working reality. As long as there are despotic, dictatorial police-state governments in the world there will be threats to peace. As long as there are social injustice, lack of educational opportunity, racial subordination, and discrimination, there will be threats to world peace. The problem of world peace has a unity and integrity which we in the academic world have failed to sense. We cannot preserve freedom for ourselves without doing all we can at all times to extend freedom to others. We cannot achieve prosperity for ourselves unless we do all we can to contribute to the prosperity of others. We cannot hope to enjoy uninterrupted liberty at home without honestly seeking liberty for the human spirit in all parts of the world, and we shall never sense this inter-relatedness until we come to understand the true foundation of our free institutions.
Freedom is not a mere accidental human aspiration. It is not only a philosophical conception; it is not only a theory or a hypothesis. On the contrary, free institutions are deeply rooted in the findings of those sciences which throw light on the nature of the human organism and on human behavior. Biology teaches us that all human individuals are different. Each person is unique, and it is out of this uniqueness that all creative power comes. We need a free society, therefore, in an effort to release the greatest creative powers of all individuals and through this release to enhance the achievements of society as a whole. We learn that personal and emotional security is essential to the greatest personal and intellectual growth. Thus respect for personality and for the worth and dignity of the individual has a sound foundation in the findings of science. It is essential that a university education should establish this scientific foundation for human freedom in the mind and heart of the student. With such understandings our citizens will be less vulnerable to propaganda, more effective in the defense of their heritage, and more zealous in the efforts to preserve it.
Our fourth serious error grows out of our tendency to feel that we have achieved the fruits of freedom merely through talking about it. Fourth of July speeches, political convention oratory, and speeches of educational philosophers are examples. We have in fact become so skillful in mouthing the beautiful phrases of our democratic heritage that the mere sound of the words themselves seems somehow to have brought a democratic society into being. In our saner moments we know that nothing is further from the truth, and here we, in the university, must hang our heads in shame. With all our talk about teaching the principles of human freedom and democracy we must openly confess that our universities are not democratic in organization, in administration, or in the conduct of their educational activities or campus affairs.
My own experience in university life is now of sufficient length and in a sufficient number of different institutions that I feel I have some experiential basis for the observations I am about to make. It is my honest conviction that the universities of this country will not become major factors in teaching human freedom and democratic ideals until they begin seriously to practice these ideals in their own organization and administration. Let us, however, be more specific in treating this issue. I refer to such specific and mundane things as the determination of faculty salaries. It is my observation that no single item of expenditure in a university is as difficult to increase as the salary of a professor. One can get money for new buildings, for new equipment, for research, for public relations, yes, for almost anything you can think of before one can get money for improved salaries. I have never read any religious or ethical document which held that increasing a professor's salary is a sin, but when I observe the attitude of university administrators toward salary increases I am almost led to the conclusion that they must view such increases as a dreadful sin. If we really believed in educational democracy, we would see to it that every possible dollar is spent on good faculty salaries in order to bring the finest teaching talent to our students and put our staff members in position to render the very finest and most creative service. My experience is that we operate on almost the direct opposite of this policy.
But it is not only in matters of salary that we are undemocratic. I have now seen successive generations of young men enter academic life with great enthusiasms, high hopes for the future, and commendable consecration to the welfare of their students. I have observed them five or ten years later only to see that they have become cynical, discouraged, embittered, and resigned to the doing of a routine job, the drawing of meager salaries, and the achievement of a tenuous security. It is the most distressing and painful observation of my entire academic experience. Primarily, it grows out of the way in which a university organization functions to restrict the individual in the exercise and development of his creative talent. Here it is not only the presidents and deans who are in error. Department chairmen, full professors, and perhaps even an occasional instructor are at fault.
Excessive regimentation on the part of administrators, on the part of faculty committees, and through faculty regulations plays its part. Here we are, of course, primarily concerned with the impact of the university on the problem of saving our freedom, preserving our democratic heritage, and building a peaceful world. Certainly we shall not achieve these far-flung and difficult objectives through a program of mealy-mouthed utterances concerning the glories of freedom. If we are really serious about teaching these human values, we must see to it that the institutions in which we teach are themselves fine examples of the democratic principles and concepts of freedom we are seeking to teach. As things are, much of what goes on in a university does not teach the student the meaning and glory of freedom, but gives him a cynical notion that freedom is something you talk about but probably never will enjoy.
Clearly we shall not give our college students the understandings of the problems of world peace through a few specialized courses in the social sciences, or through occasional lectures, or through any single pedagogical or curricular device. The meaning of human freedom, the devotion to human values, the understanding of human brotherhood, and the required social effectiveness for the practice of all of these are all too involved, too subtle, too difficult to come by, for any such lick-and-promise treatment. If universities are to be successful in their efforts to preserve human freedom, they must themselves believe in our free institutions. They cannot teach without a great faith.
It is the building of this great faith that is the major task of higher education. The progress made in human freedom to date has been made by those leaders who possess a great faith in the common man and in the processes of a free society. But the problem of building a great faith is not essentially or primarily a verbal undertaking. As human beings we believe in those principles and institutions which, over a period of time, serve mankind by bringing widespread human well-being. If we want our people to believe in democracy, we must make it a working democracy which delivers well-being to the masses of our people.
We tend also to maintain our faith in those principles and processes to which we can ourselves make a contribution. It is hard for an individual to continue to believe in a process that is for him remote, external, and detached. The individual citizen will keep his faith in those processes in which he can participate and to which he can contribute. We must find more ways whereby the average citizen can participate in the affairs of the community. In our universities we must discover more ways in which students can share in the improvement of university life. We must give our students an opportunity to experience the benefits of democracy in the source of their college education.
If freedom is to live, the world needs an honest and forthright America, an America that practices her freedoms at home and defends them abroad. Such an America must have citizens that have deep faith in freedom and a new consecration to human service -- citizens who courageously practice the ethical and moral principles of democracy. Universities will play their proper role in building world peace when they give us a citizenry with these qualities.
Ernest O. Melby
The late Ernest O. Melby was dean of the School of Education at New York University when he gave this talk.
Of all the tasks that confront a tenured community college professor, perhaps the least useful is the tri-annual self-evaluation. This year, I’m on the Pasadena City College committee that is reviewing the evaluation process for tenured faculty members, and last week I was handed the administration’s proposal for the new “Self-Evaluation Review of Professional Performance.”
It’s never been clear to me that anyone in the administration, from our department chairs to academic vice presidents, ever actually reads these self-evaluations. For tenured professors, reviewed once every three years, the main administrative concern is with student and peer evaluations of teaching. (We, of course, have no publishing or research requirements at the community college.) In the dozen years I’ve been at the college and involved in union politics, I’ve only heard of a handful of tenured colleagues receiving negative over-all evaluations from the administration. None have ever been dismissed. As far as I or anyone else I’ve asked knows, a poor self-evaluation has never been used against a tenured faculty member.
Here are three of the proposed questions for our new evaluation:
1. How has your perception of your role as a faculty member changed/developed since your last evaluation?
2. After taking time to reflect, what more could you do to provide students with a successful learning experience?
3. What can the college do to support you in your professional goals and development?
These are very different from the queries on our old self-evaluation forms, which simply asked us to list the courses we taught and what achievements, if any, we had had since our last evaluation. Reading these new questions, I’m struck by the increased emphasis that the college puts on never-ending personal and professional growth. These are questions to be answered by men and women who already have the security of lifetime employment, who (barring a felony conviction or gross incompetence) will never be forced to apply for another job again.
With the first question, I’m stumped. In 2002, I thought that my job as a professor was to be a good and interesting teacher, an attentive mentor, and an amiable colleague. That’s what I thought in 1999 and 1996, too. I suspect it will be my definition of a good faculty member in 2008, 2011, and beyond. But I suspect that that’s not the answer the administration wants. What shall I tell them? That I have suddenly discovered an interest in “student success”? (That’s the great buzzphrase on the lips of the Ed.D.’s who run the joint.) That it finally occurred to me to start getting my grades in on time? That I’ve at last thought better of telling sexist jokes to my women’s studies class? The notion that we ought always to be “professionally developing” suggests a career trajectory that resembles nothing more than a 30 or 40-year adolescence. Teenagers reinvent themselves with predictable regularity; the new model of faculty development seems to suggest that we do the same.
The second question is the shiny new academic version of that great interview trap question “Tell us your greatest weaknesses.” (As I recall, the correct answer to that question is “I’m a relentless perfectionist, and sometimes I’m too hard on myself.”) What more could I do than I am already doing to provide my students with a successful learning experience? Well, I could drop three-quarters of them in the first week, so that I would have more of an opportunity to mentor those who remained. I could become a far more dedicated activist to the cause of lowering textbook prices, so that my students would actually buy the books instead of trying to pass my classes on lecture notes alone. I could set up a Starbucks franchise in the corner of my classroom, so that the overworked and the over-videogamed could stay awake for a 9:00 a.m. lecture on Carrie Chapman Catt or Cato the Elder.
On the other hand, if the administration defines success as a passing grade, I could eliminate the requirement that my students form coherent English sentences. I could encourage the use of Wikipedia entries as a substitute for research papers. I could give A’s to the deserving and undeserving alike. I could, ala the Dodo in Alice in Wonderland after the races, announce that “Everyone has won, and all must have A’s”.
My colleagues and I are busting our collective behinds to reach students with limited English skills, who work three jobs, who are single parents, who are struggling with addiction. We teach five, six, and seven classes a semester, 35 to 40 students each. We have no readers or T.A.’s. But regardless, the new self-evaluation form insists that there must be more we could be doing. No matter how hard we’ve been trying, the question implies, the administration (staffed as it is by those who have rarely spent time in the classroom) feels strongly that we ought to be able to identify still more that we could be doing. Am I the only one reminded of a good old-fashioned Maoist self-criticism session?
As for the final question -- what more can the college do for us -- this is the one query that I’m confident will get an enthusiastic response. Yes, for starters, you can pay us more. You can reduce our teaching loads so that we can spend more time with our students. But above all, you can stop treating us like perpetual teenagers, doomed to a world of perpetual self-criticism and reinvention. Some of us will change over the course of our career for the better, some for the worse. And some -- not an insignificant number, either -- will continue to bring to the classroom what they have always brought, teaching at 50 much as they did at 30. Will their students be the worse off for it? I suspect not.
Hugo B. Schwyzer teaches history and gender studies at Pasadena City College. He teaches and blogs about such issues as the interplay of faith and sexuality, American history, and masculinity.
In my recent article, “Homeward Bound” ( The American Prospect, December 2005), I propose that the low representation of women at the highest level of the American government and economy is due in substantial measure to a steady stream of educated women deciding to leave full-time work. Recent analysis of the opt-out revolution reveals that the only group of mothers not continuing to raise their work-force participation despite economic ups and downs is mothers with graduate and professional degrees. Their numbers are flat and have been for several years. Their decisions matter because their careers, if realized, would be influential. Their decisions are a mistake because they lead them to lesser lives, by most measures, and because these decisions hurt society. And their decision is not freely chosen, even if they “chose” it, as it is made in the context of an ideology that assigns childrearing and housekeeping to women, an ideology that, interviews reveal, they themselves accept.The solution will not come from employers, who have no motivation to change economically productive behaviors, nor from the government, firmly in the hands of conservatives, who believe in the ideology. Instead, I recommend that women start by refusing to play their gendered role, preparing themselves for lives of independent means, bargaining from this position of power with the men they sleep with, only looking for help to more distant sources as a last resort.
The readers of this Web site would largely fall into my definition of highly educated people, even though academics do not normally earn salaries as large as similarly educated people in more conventional market positions. And this site has devoted substantial space to the subject of the advancement of women’s careers and the role of the reproductive family, which also inspired my American Prospect piece, reflecting a widespread debate in the academy. Does my analysis apply to the world of Higher Ed?
Straight off I confess I did not interview many academics or former academics. My data included the U.S. Census Bureau’s Population Survey, the media reports of anecdotal evidence, my personal experience as a university teacher, and my interviews with the couples who announced their weddings in The New York Times on three Sundays during 1996, which sample did include a couple of academic women. After I wrote, I reconfirmed my data against the findings of economist Heather Boushey regarding highly educated women, although her failure to break out full- and part-time work makes her findings of questionable relevance to mine. The academic literature, however, includes a rich trove of data about the matter. As one would expect from a world of researchers!
For example, the American Historical Association reported that although in 1988, 39 percent of assistant professors of history were women, 11 years later, as one would have expected some of that cohort to have raised the percentage of full professors closer, if not fully, to 39 percent, the full professor ranks were still only 18 percent female. In 2003 over 45 percent of Ph.D.'s were women, while only 36 percent of the hires at the University of California were women. Judith H. White writes in Liberal Education that “while in 1998 women made up 42 percent of all new Ph.D. recipients, the portion of women faculty in the senior tenured positions at doctoral research institutions had reached only 13.8 percent -- up from 6.1 percent in 1974.”
The same article reports that careful studies out of Berkeley show that academic women having children within five years of their Ph.D. fail at tenure vastly more often than men in the same parental position. Academic women who have children later succeed at tenure just as much as childless women do. But findings from the 2001 Journal of Higher Education ("The Relationship Between Family Responsibilities and Employment Status Among College and University Faculty") also suggest that the employment of women in non-tenure-track positions is attributable in part to their marital status. Although a smaller share of women than men junior faculty are married (67 percent versus 78 percent), being married increases the odds of holding a part-time, non-tenure-track position for women but not for men. This study suggests that married men faculty and male faculty members with children are also benefiting from their marital and parental status in terms of their employment status.
This is very valuable data. One of the hottest debates in gender politics today is whether women fail at work compared to men more because of workplace hostility and discrimination or whether they fail more because of their “choice” to take their financial support from their spouses and tend the babies or the husbands and the home fires. But common sense tells us that something besides marriage must be at work. Nancy Hopkins’ groundbreaking study of resource allocation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology lifted the veil on an ugly part of what goes on -- plain old discrimination, conscious or unconscious.
In this, I suspect the academy is worse than the world of finance and medicine and the like where my research subjects had worked before they quit. While no sane woman I’ve ever met claims that there are workplaces completely free of sex discrimination (it is, after all, only 85 years since the 19th Amendment!), research on gender reflects that the arena for discrimination is greater where there is not a clear monetary measure of productivity. So the world of the research university is a perfect playground for subjective opinion, including ideas about women’s proper roles, conscious or not, and the powerful lure of autobiography in each hiring committee member’s inaccessible subconscious.
But you already knew that. Nancy Hopkins and all the others have been telling you that loud and clear for what feels like 85 years as well. Is that all there is? I think not. In American Prospect, I did a Larry Summers and said that the male dominance of influential jobs is partly due to elite women’s decisions to devote themselves to childrearing and housekeeping, an opting out that is not new, but has not subsided, either. Most of the Times brides I interviewed didn’t take their work seriously and had been preparing to bail for years before their kids came. My experience in a very liberal classroom was that a lot of the female students were already preparing ... to prepare to bail. And I said it was a mistake for the women to do that and that they shouldn’t be looking for help from Jack Welch or Tom DeLay. Aw, hell, nobody from the Harvard presidential search committee was calling me anyway.
Here again the academy may be different, but in this way, better. Women may not be as eager to leave academic jobs as their well educated sisters were to quit journalism, law and publishing. There are two reasons for this. One, the hours are better. While the business magazine Fast Company reports that a 60 to 75 hour work week is typical for business leaders, ladder rank faculty with children in the University of California study (according to their own self-reporting) worked 53 to 56 hours a week. Second, university teaching is really good substantive work, between the good students and researching things that interest you and making them real, even if just in a book (like some of mine) nobody reads but mom. So it’s understandable that women faculty are pressing universities to make it possible for them to have children and stay on track, through devices like extended tenure periods and the like. Moreover, the effort to extract help from the workplace may succeed better at Harvard than at General Electric, because, when clear, objective programs are proposed, nonprofits like Harvard are not up to their eyeballs in the Hobbesian world of globalized late capitalism, so it’s easier for them to yield a little.
But in the end, it’s a fundamental mistake to ignore the gendered family in favor of putting so much emphasis on institutional programs or policies. The University of California reports that young faculty women with children work 37 hours a week on family care; if they are 34—38, they work a self-reported but staggering 43 hours a week on family care. Young dads work only two-thirds as much (25 hours); in the 34--38 age bracket the gap is even higher -- dads work half as hard as their female counterparts. No wonder, when the University of California proposed one of the many initiatives surfacing nationwide of flex time for tenure decisions, 74 percent of women with children supported the policy, but only just over half the men did. The statistics exactly mirror the difference between the dads’ family care hours and the mothers’.
Commentators on the California plan worried about the reduction in faculty productivity, especially in teaching, and the substitution of increasing numbers of serfs from the non-tenure track. Where such policies exist, it is overwhelmingly the women who take advantage of them. Stopping the tenure clock is one thing, but, as one of the commentators also asked, what will the promotion committee do when, years later, it looks at a CV half again as long for the man as for the woman? The women’s own reports of their domestic arrangements clearly show that the main guy in an academic woman’s path may not be Larry Summers after all -- he may be her own husband.
Here’s an answer to the commentators who worried about the reduction in faculty productivity and the length of male résumés. Since young faculty fathers spend two-thirds the time on family care that mothers do, why not simply require faculty fathers to produce half again as much (teaching, scholarship, whatever) at each step of the way that the faculty mothers do, rather than lowering the requirements for the women? Demanding of these pampered fellas that they work as hard, over all, as their female counterparts do would add a salutary dash of reality to their perceived superiority to women in the workplace, level the playing field and create some job opportunities for ambitious women who want to do a little extra. A modest proposal. In the end, I contend, the workplace will never be a substitute for women standing up for what they need in the reproductive family. It’s not only the tenure clock that’s the villain here; it’s the guys on the couch 12 hours a week while faculty mom does the wash. As Mothers’ Movement Online’s Judith Stadtman Tucker said in an interview, “Women will take on the worst bastard in the world rather than ask their husbands to help out.”
A final note. When my American Prospect article was linked over to some of the many Stay at Home Mom Web sites, it generated a lot of commentary like “fuck you,” “you make me want to vomit,” “oh, puhleeze,” “she’s only looking for a book contract,” and similar well-reasoned responses. A brief look at the sources of these contributions to the discussion of this important issue revealed an alarming number of them came from retired or active female academics. I’m all for free speech, and I hope people who disagree will offer their views and critique my ideas, but a professional Web site like this one is normally blessedly free of such empty calories. I hope such will be the case again here. This is too important an issue for tactics like that.
Linda Hirshman retired as Allen-Berenson Distinguished Visiting Professor of Philosophy and Women’s Studies at Brandeis University.
Submitted by Alex Golub on December 16, 2005 - 4:00am
When does one really enter the community of scholars and become a "real" professor? When you finish your Ph.D.? Perhaps -- but having a degree is very different from being a professor. What about teaching for the first time? But many people do that before they complete their Ph.D. Getting hired a professor? Getting a tenure track position? Getting tenure? As a new Ph.D. I thought these questions would end with a successful dissertation defense. And yet now as a young professor I find that the goal posts of disciplinary self-confidence seem to shift ever backwards over the horizon. Or at least they did. Today, however, my doubts have been erased with a single stroke. I now know, with a certainty and firmness beyond doubt, that I am a real professor: I have just found out I have been rated at ratemyprofessors.com.
Most obviously, I'm happy with "my reviews" because they've good (all three of them): I get a 4.8 out of 5 for overall quality.I am a "good professor," a "very great instructor," and I teach "a very interesting class." Although I was surprised to hear that in my classes there is, apparently, "no right answer." Some comments are even more enigmatic, like the one noting that "one of the books he has chosen for the class is very different from other books." But make no mistake about it, I’m gratified that someone cared enough about my course to register an opinion one way or the other, and delighted that the opinion was a good one.
In fact, comparatively my reviews are quite good -- of the four other rated profs in my department, I tie for second in terms of overall quality, although I am second to last for overall easiness (i.e. most professors are easier than I am). There is one thing that I am missing though: the coveted chili pepper icon, which indicates that at least one of my students thinks that I am "hot". This lack of hotness is something I share with only one other professor in my department. Transference: it's complicated. When I told my chili-peppered department chair that I lacked this most desired icon, he just put his hand on my shoulder and said "don't worry, Alex, it'll come. Just give it time."
What does the existence of sites like ratemyprofessors.com have to teach us? Quite a lot, actually. We professors worry constantly about how our corporeal classrooms spill out onto the Internet. Was Dan Drezner denied tenure because of blogging? Is Ivan Tribble right that blogging hurts your chance of being hired? Is it ethical for profs to blog anonymously? Ratemyprofessors.com raises a related problem: what happens when students, rather than professors, virtualize the classroom dynamic?
The first response of many professors to their virtual rating is, of course, the same one they bring to bear on their real-world evaluation: angst and denial. Frankly, I understand the usual end-of-term outpouring of complaints that professors release into the blogosphere about how unfair and unrepresentative student evaluations are. I am sympathetic to much of this, and I can understand why ratemyprofessors.com would be even more galling. Completely anecdotal, unregulated, random -- despite pretensions to quantitative rigor -- and biased, as a diagnostic of actual teacher performance it probably stinks. As someone with good ratings on the site, I can shrug off the weight of these problems. But as someone lacking the chili pepper, I know all to well how these sorts of sites can sting.
How to respond to our students' virtual evaluations? Is it wrong, in other words, to go in to my class and thank them for the rating and tell them I'd really appreciate a chili pepper? Intuitions vary wildly here, but I bet some of you reading this think that mentioning virtual discussion of a professor’s performance in class somehow violates our students’ privacy, or at least the in-class/out-of-class divide that structures so much of our relationships with our students. Here we see the strange dual nature of the Internet at work again -- writing on the Internet is both public and private, and the mediated nature of interaction on the Internet makes every blog post and Amazon review written both a personal confession made in the solitude of a glowing screen and a world-readable, deeply public statement.
There is an even more interesting question here: what about my world-readable confession? Which bounds of propriety am I crossing if I discuss my ratemyprofessors.com entry not in class but on screen? If we started with a recognition that not only professors talk out of class, then we can now ask: What happens when professors blog back?
I imagine the situation could ultimately come to resemble that in Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious, where Ingrid Bergman goes undercover and weds the Nazi Claude Rains in order to track down a post-war cabal hoping to revive the Reich. He discovers her secret, and begins poisoning her food. She knows what is happening, he knows that she knows, and she knows that he knows that she knows, but they go about as if nothing has happened in an eerie, very Hitchcock set piece in which no one is willing to admit that the game is up. It could be that my students and I could each end up blogging behind our backs, unwilling to admit in class what we have both been saying behind each other's backs.
So in some sense ratemyprofessors.com has the potential to provide me both existential solace and to affect my in-class dynamic in a way which, if not as poisonous as Claude Rains's meals, at least has the possibility of being unhealthy. Ultimately, however, I think that the way to navigate this dilemma is simply to accept it. Increasingly today young Ph.D.’s (or at least young Ph.D.’s like me) recognize that the question is not whether you will leave a data trail on the Internet, but simply what sort of trail it will be. Reconciling with the fact that information about you is going to circulate willy-nilly, means accepting that part of being a professor these days means actively construing yourself online -- shaping your data trail to make it behave the way you want it to. The solution, as I see it, is not to futilely rail against sites like ratemyprofessors.com, but to learn to live them. Which is just to say that for a professor like me, the surest sign that we have well and truly arrived is not an august sheepskin with my name on it, but a small smiley face icon next to my name at ratemyprofessors.com. Preferably with a chili pepper underneath it.
Alex Golub finished his dissertation in anthropology at the University of Chicago in 2005 and is now an adjunct professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He blogs at Savage Minds, a group blog about cultural anthropology.