Nobel in Physics

Three professors this morning were named winners of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physics “for the invention of efficient blue light-emitting diodes which has enabled bright and energy-saving white light sources.” The winners are Isamu Akasaki of Meijo University and Nagoya University, in Japan; Hiroshi Amano of Nagoya University; and Shuji Nakamura of the University of California at Santa Barbara. Details on the winners and their research may be found here.



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Essay on the way many reformers of higher education are ignoring the faculty role

The academic profession is squeezed from all sides. A recent white paper from the Presidential Innovation Lab of the American Council on Education focuses on “unbundling” and redesigning faculty roles — in a way assigning professors to specific functions in an assembly line of higher education. Some will teach only, others will do research, and so on.

Fewer and fewer faculty in the United States now have full-time tenure-track positions that lead to a stable career. Indeed, for the past 20 years, the majority of “new hires” (between 50-58 percent) to full-time faculty positions have been off the career ladder; and over the past five, the number of part-time faculty has risen to match the number of full-time faculty — three-quarters of a million each. Many current policies are destroying the traditional tenure system without formally dismantling it: only 47 percent of full-time faculty, and only about one-third of the headcount faculty, are now tenured or tenure-track.

The fact is that much of the debate, in the United States and elsewhere, about the challenges facing higher education is focused in the wrong direction. Rather than constantly squeezing the professoriate and trying to ensure maximum productivity in narrowly defined areas — and ultimately blaming the professoriate for the ever-expanding list of the university system’s shortcomings — the focus should be on how to lure the best and brightest into academe, and how to create an attractive career for those who choose what used to be termed the “academic calling.”

If those who are teaching, conducting research, providing service to students, and creating the most innovative online courses and degree programs are not well-motivated, reasonably paid, and intellectually able, the entire academic enterprise must fall short. After all, presidents and rectors, not to mention state legislators or even President Obama, do not design and deliver the academic program. Technology experts do not create innovative MOOCs. The ideas, and the delivery, come from the professors.

In our recent survey of faculty salaries in 28 countries, we found that in no country were academics paid an equivalent salary to their peers in other fields outside of the university. In at least half the countries, including China and Russia, academic salaries did not permit a middle-class lifestyle, and moonlighting was necessary. Other data show that, in general, academic salaries do not keep up with the rate of inflation. This is certainly the case in the United States, where the situation is better than most.

The pressures continue to mount. Massive open online courses threaten traditional professors — but at same time the faculty members who create MOOCs typically do not own them. Online programs are seen as a less expensive way of providing degrees, but few faculty members are trained to work with them. Great stress is placed on increasing faculty productivity, but at same time the means of measuring that productivity, particularly in terms of teaching performance, is haphazard and not well-developed. Performance expectations are not clearly articulated and are constantly changing. The list could go on — our point is that the conditions of academic life for faculty are deteriorating.

What Do Professors Think?

Evidence of that deterioration is apparent in the results of an international survey of the professoriate in 2007-08. Faculty in the U.S. reported a precipitous decline in working conditions over the past decade — in line with other English-speaking countries — and a majority confirmed that “it is not a good time to begin an academic career.” When it comes to one of the most essential requirements of the profession, only about 40 percent of U.S. faculty agreed that “administrators support academic freedom,” significantly lower than the two-thirds in Canada and Hong Kong and the 55 percent in Norway, Finland and Germany — a relatively disturbing picture. Institutional loyalty has plummeted from 9 of 10 who indicated a strong or moderate sense of loyalty to their institution in 1992 to 6 of 10 — a drop over a 15-year period second only to the United Kingdom and Australia.

Finally, when it comes to overall jobs, two out of three American faculty express high or moderate satisfaction. This places the American faculty in about the middle of the global pack among the survey’s 19 participating countries.

Lagging Salaries

Academic salaries have atrophied, especially in response to the recession of 2008. Most faculty have yet to recover to the pre-2008 level — and in fact salaries have not kept pace with inflation since 1980. Emerging evidence from the Delta Cost Project (as well as other studies) has shown that the exploding costs of higher education are not primarily caused by a heavily tenured faculty and their “big” salaries. Indeed, over the past decade or two, as the faculty had been reconfigured, total institutional expenditures for instruction have declined — offset by increased expenditures for administration, student support, and auxiliary enterprises.

American higher education has not put itself on a diet. Rather it is being starved by state governments, which have dramatically decreased their support for higher education generally, and by budgetary reallocation from the faculty — and teaching — to administrators and elsewhere

Research Universities

Research universities are a small part of any academic system. In the United States, there are perhaps 200 research universities out of a total of more than 4,500 postsecondary institutions. But these universities are of great importance because they are at the pinnacle of the system, produce most of the new knowledge, train the graduate students who will be the future professors in all of higher education and have a complex mission. Research university professors are, in many ways, a special breed. Although a larger proportion of their faculty is in tenure-track positions, pressures for increased productivity are immense and often ill-defined, and attrition in the pre-tenure period is heightened. Increased pressure to obtain external funding (ideally pay their own salaries from external funds), to publish articles that can be measured by their “impact” factor, and in general to produce more is universal.

Many universities have created a two-track system of faculty with research responsibilities and those who teach only. The research faculty are on the tenure track while the others are often subject to renewable term appointments. This idea of a dual-track faculty is contrary to von Humboldt’s concept of the university, where teaching and research are integrally linked — the Humboldtian model has been the guiding principle of the American research university since the beginning.

Mass System

Most colleges and universities, in the United States and elsewhere, are mainly focused on teaching. The faculty in these institutions are perhaps under even more pressure than their colleagues in the research universities. The proportion of full-time faculty, tenure-track or not, has declined, and part-time teachers are increasingly common — in the community colleges, part-timers have dominated for years. Conditions for work have deteriorated — teaching loads are up, many do not have their own offices (how do you have serious conversations with students without office space?), and administrative controls are increasingly stringent. This sector is under great pressure to admit more students, often regardless of qualifications, and to graduate the vast majority of them  — on time. Access and completion are the slogans of the day — and the academic profession is tasked with ensuring student success.

Dissing of the Profession

No one — the media, government officials, and university and college administrators — has anything good to say about professors. They are seen as lazy, unresponsive to students, too focused on their research, unwilling to adapt to online education or other innovations, and opposed to needed changes in their institutions. They are part of the problem — indeed, they are often seen as the problem. Higher ed associations and think tanks constantly propose the need for new models for teaching to change the presumably flawed existing models. The only people who seem to like professors are students — most students evaluate their professors positively.

Killing the Goose that Lays the Golden Egg

The fact is that the entire higher education enterprise depends on the academic profession for its success. No doubt, if current trends continue and the best-qualified and committed young people leave the academic profession or choose not to enter it in the first place, the work of teaching will go on. Perhaps MOOCs will take over. Or the entire teaching force will be part-time, rushing from one university to another to teach a class. Since research will have no role — why bother about requiring a Ph.D. of faculty hires? The research universities will have three classes of professors, like the airlines. A small first-class cabin of researchers, a business-class section of academics who will teach and do some research, and a large economy cabin of poorly paid teachers. The idea of an academic community and of shared governance goes out the window with any of these models. Who would want to spend the time, energy — and money — to prepare for such a profession?

What Can be Done?

Maintaining, and in part rebuilding, a committed academic profession is hardly rocket science. In fact, until fairly recently, such a profession was largely the norm in the United States — and it still exists in some elite institutions. The following elements are required:

  • A career structure that permits reasonable security of tenure and clear expectations for evaluation and promotion. In fact, the traditional tenure system has done this fairly well — although reforms that provide for stringent post-tenure review and additional flexibility are desirable.
  • Salaries that permit a middle-class life style for academics.
  • Strengthening, not weakening, of shared governance so that a community of scholars can be maintained.
  • Better differentiation of institutional functions so that faculty in research universities can, with few exceptions, maintain their traditional commitment to both teaching and research, while much of the rest of the academic system can be even more focused on teaching and serving an increasingly diverse student population.
  • Less reliance on part-timers, and reasonable remuneration for those who are hired, while at the same time recognizing the legitimacy of hiring full-time contract teachers outside of the research university sector. 

These suggestions will be seen by the “unbundlers” as soft and overly traditional. The fact is that the American higher education system has been quite successful, and also quite innovative, by global standards. Over the past century, it has supported massive expansion of enrollments while at the same time it has built high quality at the top. By any measure, the United States remains home to more top research universities than any other nation. These are revolutionary times for higher education. If we do not take the academic profession more seriously, we truly are in danger of killing the goose that lays the golden egg.

Philip G. Altbach is research professor and director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College. Martin J. Finkelstein is professor of higher education at Seton Hall University.

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National Adjunct Walkout Day Planned

What would academe look like without adjuncts? That question could be answered, at least for a day, on the first-ever National Adjunct Walkout Day, planned for Feb. 25, 2015. The protest to highlight adjuncts’ relatively low wages and working conditions – despite the fact that they make up the majority of instructors – is gaining traction on social media, including on Facebook and on Twitter at #NAWD.

An adjunct instructor of writing at San Jose State University who did not yet want to be identified by name, citing concerns about her job security, proposed the idea last week. She said the response has been “enormous,” even in a short period of time, “because an action like this is long overdue.” The adjunct said the walkout day doesn’t have a central organizing committee, and that it will look different on different campuses. Groups might highlight the “educational or administrative issues impacting adjuncts within that particular campus, across the country, or [the] plights of individual adjuncts,” she said. But the central idea of the movement is that “no adjunct or campus must face these shared issues alone.”

Maria Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority, a national adjunct advocacy organization, said she didn’t know the adjunct who had proposed the walkout, but liked her idea. “Any actions that raise awareness and continue to put pressure on higher education to reform are welcome and contribute to the momentum that has been building over the last few years in particular,” she said.

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Essay on how to write research statements in applying for academic jobs


Cheryl E. Ball explains the various ways job candidates in humanities fields are asked to describe what they study -- and why these descriptions are important.

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3 Share Nobel in Medicine

Three researchers were named Monday morning as winners of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Medicine "for their discoveries of cells that constitute a positioning system in the brain." Half of the prize goes to John O'Keefe, director of the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre in Neural Circuits and Behavior at University College London. The other half will be shared by two Norwegian scholars, May-Britt Moser, director of the Center for Neural Computation at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, and Edvard I. Moser, director of the Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience at the university. Details may be found here.

The Mosers are the fifth married couple in which both partners have won a Nobel. Two of those couples involved the Curie family, and the husband and wife in one couple won separate prizes: Gunnar Myrdal for economics and Alva Myrdal for peace. Details on married couples (and other "family" Nobels) may be found here.




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Obama Honors 10 With National Medal of Science

President Obama on Friday announced 10 recipients of the National Medal of Science, the nation's highest honor in science.

The winners are:

  • Bruce Alberts, University of California at San Francisco
  • Robert Axelrod, University of Michigan
  • May Berenbaum, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  • David Blackwell, University of California at Berkeley (awarded posthumously)
  • Alexandre J. Chorin, University of California at Berkeley
  • Thomas Kailath, Stanford University, CA
  • Judith P. Klinman, University of California at Berkeley
  • Jerrold Meinwald, Cornell University
  • Burton Richter, SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and Stanford University
  • Sean C. Solomon, Columbia University

More information and links on the winners may be found here.


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Adjuncts at California College of the Arts Form Union

Adjunct professors at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco and Oakland voted 181 to 113 to form a union affiliated with Service Employees International Union, they announced this weekend. Adjuncts at Mills College and San Francisco Art Institute also have formed unions as part of SEIU's Adjunct Action campaign in recent months. SEIU says it now represents 21,000 adjuncts nationwide. “Now we look ahead to addressing faculty working conditions and student learning conditions — the basis of our institution,” Carol Manahan, a senior adjunct professor of critical studies, said in a news release. Melanie Corn, provost, said in an email to faculty staff that the administration remains "committed to collaborating with the entire [college] community to ensure that the educational experience for our students is our highest priority."

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Program Suspensions, Faculty Layoffs at Mansfield

Mansfield University, in Pennsylvania, on Thursday announced that three academic programs would be placed in "moratorium," and that the suspension of these programs would lead to faculty layoffs. The programs are business, education and special education (except for music education) and the school library and information technologies online master’s program. Officials said that while financial cuts were part of the reason for the changes, so was a desire to invest in other fields. Kenneth Mash, president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties, told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that these cuts would hurt the university and students. "A university does not get better by hurting its current and future students; doing so only creates a downward spiral,' he said.


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The humanities Ph.D. is a calling, not vocational training (essay)

Georgetown University recently announced plans for an English Ph.D. tailored to non-university careers, reflecting ongoing deliberations within the Modern Language Association about what to do about the anemic employment market.

In their important, humane contribution to the same conversation, “No More Plan B,” the American Historical Association’s Anthony Grafton and James Grossman argue that, at a time when the employment market for history Ph.D.s is dismal, historians with Ph.D.s have high-level skills that should be recognized by employers. Some evidence suggests, not surprisingly, that Ph.D.s in the humanities are already thriving in the private sector.

These conversations reflect the efforts of concerned academic leaders to find ways to deal with the human cost of declining faculty positions in the humanities (and, one might add, in the natural sciences).

These proposals are controversial because, to their detractors, they turn graduate education in the humanities into job training. At a time when the liberal arts are threatened, and when many policymakers are emphasizing narrowly vocational goals over a broad general education, this is not an unreasonable concern.

Graduate education in the humanities cannot be defended because it prepares people for any job. That’s not what brings students to graduate school. Students enter graduate school because they love their subjects. They have had good teachers who have inspired them to see the world in new ways. They have learned to ask the kinds of questions that only the humanities can answer. They have been converted.

We therefore cannot treat the humanities Ph.D. as a high-end professional credential — an alternative to the M.B.A. When we do so we corrupt what graduate study in humanities is for. Unlike the undergraduate major, which is intended as broad preparation for life, the graduate degree is designed for those who wish to engage in deep study in order to enter professional work in the humanities.

Instead, I propose we think of graduate education in the humanities as closer to ministerial education. We must prepare students not just with the knowledge required to understand their field, but with the skills necessary to carry out their ministry in the different places to which they might be called. By imagining ministers instead of M.B.A.s, we might be able to find a language that makes it possible to reform graduate education without giving in to vocationalism.

Addressing Supply and Demand

Before reforming graduate education, however, we must not forget the primary issue faced by the humanities: the structural problems that plague the university.

On the demand side, we must expand the number of tenure-line positions in the humanities across the nation and resist the deprofessionalization of teachers and professors.

On the supply side, institutions that prepare graduate students must recognize that, too often, graduate students are valued for their cheap teaching labor. This is not to suggest that individual faculty members do not invest their hearts and souls in mentoring graduate students, but instead that universities have underinvested in tenure-line faculty. As Marc Bousquet pointed out, in some ways graduate students are the waste products of the system, their value to the university used up when they receive their degree.

Focusing on structural solutions would help those called to the humanities find university positions.  If the jobs are not there, however, the answer may not be to continue to overproduce Ph.D.s and market them to private employers, but to curtail production. Unlike the undergraduate humanities major, which is part of a general liberal arts education and needs no vocational justification, the graduate program is designed to lead students to meaningful employment.

Humanities as a Calling

Students come to graduate school because of their passion for the humanities. We must respect what brings them to us. We must refuse to see them as budding entrepreneurs; they are ministers committed to spreading the gospel of the humanities. We must prepare them for the ministry they came to undertake, whether in schools and universities, in government, or in other organizations.

For most humanities Ph.D.s, the primary work will be teaching. Humanities Ph.D.s teach at the secondary and college levels, but humanities programs have been relatively disengaged from the task of preparing teachers. We have allowed teacher preparation to take place almost entirely within education schools, but there are many reasons why liberal arts programs should be more involved in preparing teachers.

Moreover, the cost of the split between secondary teachers and professors has been significant. In the history profession, as the AHA’s Robert B. Townsend makes clear in his book History’s Babel, the division between professors and other historians has devalued the daily ministry of most historians, led to an overemphasis on scholarship, and denied secondary school teachers opportunities to engage in the life of the discipline.

Even if most humanities graduates’ primary task will be teaching, we should not denigrate scholarship. Too many policy makers and commentators have suggested that humanities research does not matter. It matters greatly, both in the public sphere and in the classroom. To sustain scholarly inquiry, we need scholars around the country and world engaged in research and capable of critically assessing each other’s work. We need to ensure that humanities graduates at all levels — in K-12 schools, museums, local societies, media, universities, and government — have the space and time to engage in scholarship and be part of the conversation.

Reforming Graduate Education

If it is deemed necessary to reform graduate education, we must always keep in mind that we are preparing humanities ministers. To keep this first and foremost opens up alternative ways to reimagine graduate education.

We might, in addition to or instead of the Ph.D., offer a doctorate of humanities (like the JD or MD), a four-year program that would offer a solid academic education, require a significant work of scholarship in the form of a publication-worthy thesis, but also provide practical skills to help young humanists enter the humanities fields at various levels in different kinds of organizations. The doctorate of humanities could be interdisciplinary or field-specific, as different institutions and programs and the needs of scholarship determine appropriate.

To get a sense of what this would look like, we need only examine the curriculum for the M-Div at Princeton Theological Seminary, in New Jersey. The degree “is designed to prepare students for the diverse ministries of congregational leadership, for further graduate study in theology and related disciplines, for various types of chaplaincy, for mission work at home and abroad, and for other forms of church vocation. The curriculum is planned to provide the flexibility and independence consonant with a broad theological foundation.”

Students are expected to take coursework in Biblical studies, history, and theology. But academic work is insufficient. There is also a “practical theology” component to help ministerial candidates learn how to preach, educate, and perform pastoral care. Finally, the program requires “field education” under practicing ministers. At Princeton Theological Seminary, without reducing or diminishing academic preparation, candidates are taught to use their academic knowledge to carry out the very important work that they will undertake as ministers.

A similar combination of academic and practical education could prepare graduate students better for their jobs as teachers, but also for work in the public, nonprofit, or private sectors. Such a degree would be more portable, and as a result, it would also reduce the human and financial cost for those who cannot find professional humanities work and move on to other careers.

There is no reason to believe that this will reduce the quality of humanities scholarship. A four-year doctoral degree with a serious research component should prepare graduates for research as well as other kinds of work. After all, most ministers do not need Ph.D.s, nor do most lawyers or MDs. They need an education that enables them to undertake their daily work with thoughtfulness, the skills to make them effective at it, and the ability to engage in scholarship.

In many ways, that seems like what the proposed Georgetown English Ph.D. seeks to do. It would create a four-year program for students who already have an MA, provide a strong academic foundation, require a significant work of scholarship, and also provide field experience in an organization that promotes humanistic endeavors.

In conclusion, we need to continue to move forward on two fronts. The crisis of doctoral education is, to a large extent, a crisis of the university. We must continue to emphasize the need for more tenure-track hiring in the liberal arts. Nonetheless, there is a good case to be made that graduate education in the humanities could be more expansive, not because we need to bow down to the anti-intellectual forces reshaping higher education, but because we can better prepare graduates for the diverse ministries that they could serve.

Johann Neem is professor of history at Western Washington University and a visiting faculty fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.

Essay on finding perspective about the tough academic job market

William Bradley explains how he found perspective on the tough academic job market.

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