'The Faculty Lounges'

It will surprise no one familiar with her work that Naomi Schaefer Riley is not a fan of tenure. In recent years, the former writer and deputy Taste editor of the Wall Street Journal and author of the book God on the Quad has emphasized themes, both in writing and on panels, of what she sees as the damage that tenure can wreak.

June 8, 2011

It will surprise no one familiar with her work that Naomi Schaefer Riley is not a fan of tenure. In recent years, the former writer and deputy Taste editor of the Wall Street Journal and author of the book God on the Quad has emphasized themes, both in writing and on panels, of what she sees as the damage that tenure can wreak.

In her new book, The Faculty Lounges and Other Reasons Why You Won't Get the College Education You Paid For (Ivan R. Dee), Riley fleshes out this argument, mostly through choice anecdotes, to buttress her view that tenure has become too costly to the enterprise and harmful to the quality of higher education (faculty unions come in for criticism, too, but that's mostly confined to one chapter). In prose that is vigorous and readable -- if also prone to sweeping generalizations -- Riley maps out several facets of her critique. Her book, which is the subject of a session today at the Heritage Foundation, is starting to garner publicity in advance of its June 16 release.

Tenure, argues Riley, leads to the ideological ossification of faculty members and protects the incompetent (this stance echoes her own recent writings). She also blames tenure for allowing senior faculty members to set their own schedules in a way that often minimizes their contact with students, particularly those at the introductory levels (though this is typically more of an issue at top-flight research institutions than, say, community colleges). In addition, tenure prevents the freer flow of labor and, Riley says, enshrines dual strata of haves and have-nots in academe, which leads to the steadily worsening plight of adjuncts.

The widespread use of adjuncts is, of course, thorny and complicated. Many academics attribute the problem to a neoliberal, market-embracing, bottom-line philosophy that has taken hold in universities. Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, argued that tenure is not the problem, but the solution.

"Long-term adjuncts would benefit from tenure if they received it at their level of employment," said Nelson in an e-mail. He also strongly disagreed with the notion that tenure too often provides lifetime job security to the unworthy. "If you hire high-quality from the outset, you will not be unhappy with their post-tenure productivity or their openness to new ideas," he said.

Riley also attempts to decouple tenure from academic freedom. Few fields truly require protections to explore controversial ideas, she says. For example, Riley cites security studies, nutrition and other vocational fields as fields that are unlikely to raise explosive and unpopular questions -- a contention that Nelson said left him "speechless."

"Such fields often compete for corporate funding and such donors have strong positions about public policy," Nelson said. "Faculty need to be able to criticize corporate policy without fear of retaliation." On the other hand, Riley points out examples of university researchers, some of them described in Jennifer Washburn's book, University, Inc., who seem willing to forgo academic freedom regarding their research in exchange for corporate support. "If they're voluntarily giving [academic freedom] up, should we really worry about taking it away?" Riley asks.

Inside Higher Ed interviewed Riley via e-mail about her book -- which she describes as giving voice to an argument that some in academe are willing to explore and even endorse privately, but are still loath to acknowledge publicly.

Q: At the beginning of your book, you mention your upbringing as the daughter of two academics -- your father is a tenured professor of political science at the College of the Holy Cross, and you describe your mother as having been something of an itinerant academic laborer before she founded a think tank, the Worcester Regional Research Bureau. How do you think your experience shaped how you view higher education in general and professors in particular?

A: I joke with my parents that this book could have been subtitled "Confessions of an Ungrateful Child." But I think they know I'm not.

I grew up with a great appreciation for higher education. My father would say that college changed his life and my mother would say that graduate school changed hers. They speak in awe-inspiring terms about their own professors, and many of their classmates, too. I remember a steady stream of my parents' friends and former students coming to our house, having animated arguments and illuminating conversation about political philosophy, current events, and everything in between. There was never a silent -- let alone dull -- moment. They also started querying their friends about where I should go to college when I was in preschool. College was clearly where the mind was supposed to be most fully formed, where the opportunity to interact with the most learned men and women was possible and where, well, lives were changed.

On a more mundane note, I was also aware on some level of two problems with academia. The first were the unstable personalities who seemed to populate various departments my parents had contact with over the years. (Obviously I'm biased, but I think it's safe to say that many academics would agree with me.) And the second was the job issue. My mother moved with my father for his tenure-track job when she was pregnant with me, then proceeded to teach at half a dozen different colleges in the area over the next several years. She eventually left academia in frustration and created a good position for herself. But so many of my parents' friends and acquaintances did not have that good fortune. They had commuter marriages or were only able to cobble together part-time jobs. Some couldn't complete dissertations because they had to find a way to support young families.

Q: You dedicate much of the book to arguing for the end of tenure. If tenure were to be abolished tomorrow, what do you think would be the impact -- both good and bad?

A: I argue for replacing tenure with multi-year renewable contracts. I think quite a number of things would change. As one expert I interviewed said, eliminating tenure would be like changing the the pitcher's mound or the distance between the bases. When you do that, a lot of other things about the game would change, too. First, I think this would allow universities to fire some people. I think they could get rid of some senior faculty who are bringing higher education into the gutter -- the Holocaust deniers, the sex-demonstrators. Then I think they could put on notice some of the remaining professors -- say, the lazy, the incompetent, and the distracted -- explaining that they will have to start doing a little more to demonstrate that they are actually teaching the students in their classes. It would probably result in a few senior professors simply leaving and deciding they don't want to do the work that would be required to keep their jobs.

Then I think academics would start to move around to the institutions that they are most suited to. One of the problems of tenure is that it sticks everyone in one place for life. It puts people far from family, and in locations they don't find desirable. There would simply be more movement in the market. Depending on how widespread the tenure abolition was, I think that salaries for some professors would have to go up in order to make up for the lack of guaranteed lifetime employment.

So the bad parts. I think in the short term, some dissenting professors (probably the conservative professors but perhaps others as well) would lose their jobs. People who had gotten on the bad side of deans over the years probably would have trouble without the protections of tenure. This is no small thing, given how little intellectual diversity exists in the academy as it is. But I think that in the long term these professors too would find suitable positions as well.

Q: The title and subtitle together imply that the faculty is the chief force driving up the cost of college. But you also cite research by the Delta Project that shows that colleges have increased their non-instructional spending more than their instructional spending -- and you acknowledge that professors were not the ones choosing to spend the money this way. If you had to assign rough percentages or rankings to the various reasons that, as your subtitle says, students don't get the college education they paid for, what would they be?

A: I don't mean to nitpick but in the title I'm blaming the faculty for not giving the students a good education, not for driving up the costs of that education. I'd say the bulk of the blame for the cost (let's say more than half) goes to our third-party payer system of financial aid. Every time the federal government adds money to what they will kick in for student tuition, colleges jack up their prices. Administrative bloat probably accounts for another quarter of the blame. The instruction costs have not gone up as significantly as non-instruction but instructional costs is something of a misnomer. From the data collected by the federal government, it’s very hard to discern what activities faculty are getting paid to do for what percentage of their time. As Jane Wellman of the Delta Cost Project notes, the standard category for reporting expenses is “instruction,” but that includes all the spending for faculty, including time spent on research, serving on university committees, and so on. “If you have faculty who make sure birds don’t fly in the window, they’re included in that too,” she jokes. So I think faculty may be responsible for kids paying for the faculty to do things that are irrelevant to their education.

Q: In your book, you describe faculty as too powerful and say that "the institution of tenure largely ensures that administrators will be powerless." I imagine that tenured professors who have seen their faculty senates circumvented or dissolved, or the one-half to two-thirds of faculty who are adjuncts and have no tenure, might find that characterization surprising. How do you see tenure as being related to the widespread use of adjuncts? And, if tenure confers a power that applies only to a minority of the faculty, how much of an impact do you think it's having?

A: The tenured minority are a very powerful minority and they have an advantage over everyone else on campus -- they have time on their side. Whatever the issue, whatever the debate, whoever is on the other side, it is a battle of attrition and the tenured faculty will win out eventually. The administration cannot make them do anything they don't want to. What's interesting to me is that most adjuncts support the idea of tenure, as if they think they will get it someday, as if all of these senior faculty are just going to move aside and let younger people into the profession soon.

Q: You cite some anecdotes about what you describe as the harmful effects of tenure on teaching. On the other hand, you also cite research that seems to run against these anecdotes -- including data suggesting that tenure status tends to correlate with better educational outcomes for students and that tenured faculty tend not to inflate grades as much as their non-tenured counterparts. How do you square these anecdotes with the research?

A: It is not clear to me why higher education has to be divided in this way -- why is it that you either effectively have a job for life (or are working toward that stage) or you are completely expendable and could find out a week before the semester begins whether you are employed at all? This is not how most white-collar or even blue-collar jobs in America work. Most professionals go into work every day, do the best we can, try not to piss off our bosses too much, while at the same time maintaining our professional and personal integrity, and assume that we will do the same tomorrow. It doesn't always work out that way, but the idea that anyone who doesn't have tenure has to live in constant fear and anxiety about being fired without just cause the next day seems contrary to the reality that most of us live in.

So while I think the adjunctification of the university has been bad for undergraduate education, I don't think the solution is to give all adjuncts tenure. It's to make them employees with contracts and work conditions that are conducive to better undergraduate education. That means office hours, some sense of workload from one semester to the next and an evaluation process that includes other faculty and administrators sitting in on classes and making sure they know how to teach -- not just student evaluations.

Q: You are also very critical of faculty unions in your book, particularly in light of the existence of tenure. What do you see as the effects of academic unions? And, if unions represent about a third of the faculty in the U.S., what do you see as the extent of their influence?

A: I believe that given the work conditions of adjuncts and graduate students in many schools, unions are a kind of natural reaction. I am particularly in agreement with John Silber, who told me that if universities are not actually training graduate students to teach well and are instead just throwing them in front of a classroom as cheap labor then those universities may deserve the unions they get. Beyond that I find the justification for unions to be pretty thin. Do you need tenure and a union card? Talk about belt and suspenders protection from any kind of accountability for the job you do.

The influence of unions has been minimized because most faculty on flagship campuses have not organized. But wherever they have organized, faculty have complained that there are no rewards for merit anymore. Pay is determined by union rules, for instance. Unionization puts all the wrong incentives in place. (This is all aside from my objection to any kind of public-sector unionization; that's another story.) I believe that unions have been largely responsible for the poor state of our K-12 education system and I worry they'll do the same thing to higher education.

Q: You are also critical of research -- particularly newer research in the humanities and social sciences, but you also quote one source who raises concerns of intellectual stagnation (though this source sees tenure as the culprit). How would you propose to determine which fields and which scholars should pursue new areas of thinking and which ones should focus on teaching what you call "age-old truths"?

A: At private universities, faculty and administrators may determine that research of all sorts is important to their institution. In fact, there are institutions out there -- think tanks -- that devote themselves only to research and not to teaching at all. But if you're an undergraduate student or the parent of one or a taxpayer, I think you should seriously consider that research in most of its forms is not what it's cracked up to be. It's not that I don't think there is ever an interesting humanities or social science paper or monograph that comes out -- I sometimes read them and cite them. It's that these cannot be our priorities.

There are basic skills that students starting college don't have -- hence the growth of remedial education. And there are basic skills and knowledge they are leaving college without. Most employers didn't need Academically Adrift to tell them that, though it's been very useful in explaining the problem to the American public. Maybe people pursuing Ph.D.s in these subjects didn't get into these areas to teach college sophomores how to read and write and give them a survey course on American history or Shakespeare, but that's what these kids (even at the higher-tier universities) need. They don't need a seminar on whatever obscure topic some academic has decided to write a book about.

As for the physical and biological sciences, the argument seems to be that these areas of research are of economic benefit to schools and society as a whole. In some cases, that's no doubt true. But I do think that some of this research would be done in labs outside of universities just as well. At the highest levels of the academy maybe you could have the luxury of worrying about the intellectual stagnation produced by tenure. In most cases, though, I'm much more concerned about tenure's role in reducing academic curriculums to a pile of random, eccentric faculty research topics and its role in limiting the emphasis at universities on undergraduate education.


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