Submitted by KC Johnson on February 25, 2005 - 4:00am
Monday's Harvard Crimson revealed that 56 percent of Harvard's faculty members believe that the fallout from President Lawrence Summers' statements about women and science has diminished the university's reputation. Yet as a visiting professor at Harvard this term -- someone at the institution but not of it -- I have found the Summers affair and its aftermath dispiriting not because of its short-term effect on Harvard's standing (the university surely will remain the nation's premier institution of higher education) but due to its possible long-term, harmful, effects on the academy.
Many aspects of this case, of course, are peculiar to Harvard: questions about Summers' efforts to expand the Allston section of the campus; a feeling among many professors that the president has not treated them with appropriate respect; a belief that Summers uses an overly centralized approach in running the university. At Tuesday's faculty meeting, Caroline Hoxby, an economics professor, observed that concern over Summers' management style, not a battle of "right versus left" about political correctness, accounted for the faculty uprising.
Many figures beyond the campus, however, have aggressively tried to frame this issue as one of ideology. Princeton's president, Shirley Tilghman, for example, joined in a statement rebuking Summers which subtly attempted to assert the hegemony of her own dubious educational vision. Yale's graduate student union, meanwhile, cited Summers' comments and their institution's alleged lack of day care facilities to demand that Yale rework its tenure evaluation process.
Given these non-Harvard patterns, the reaction to Summers' comments bequeaths three potential problems. First, though the president's address ranged widely over possible tensions between promoting diversity and upholding standards, the firestorm that greeted his thesis about women and science threatens to discredit other, more valid, points that he made. Summers opened his substantive remarks by urging the compilation of "hard data" regarding "what the quality of marginal hires are when major diversity efforts are mounted," if only to rebut the "right-wing critics" who fear "clear abandonments of quality standards." If members of the academy want to sustain popular support for diversity initiatives, he noted, "they have to be willing to ask the question in ways that could face any possible answer that came out."
As Harvard has joined other elite universities in continuing to demand high-quality research accomplishments while striving for greater faculty diversity, its answer to Summers' question no doubt would be satisfactory. Some non-elite institutions, on the other hand, have refashioned their personnel processes to make achieving "diversity" the preeminent, rather than a complementary, goal. The best examples: Virginia Tech, which took hiring decisions away from academic departments and gave them to a pro-"diversity" dean; and the University of Arizona, which is considering recruiting critical masses of "diverse professors who have shared intellectual interests," thereby coupling a pursuit of diversity with a desire for ideological conformity among the faculty. It could be that professors hired according to such models will outperform those selected under more accepted standards of merit. Yet this proposition cannot be accepted simply on the faith of assertions from its most zealous advocates.
Second, some of the reaction to Summers' comments reinforced concerns offered in a perceptive 2004 essay by Mark Bauerlein in The Chronicle of Higher Education, which analyzed higher education through the lens of the "law of group polarization." In such an environment, according to Bauerlein, faculty members "lose all sense of the range of legitimate opinion," leaving them "no idea how extreme [their] vision sounds to many ears." For instance, the professor who initially objected to Summers' comments did so, she said, because "this kind of bias makes me physically ill." At last week's Harvard faculty meeting, one critic questioned the president's fitness by pointing to environmental policies he had proposed when running the World Bank in the early 1990s. Has the academy reached the point where hearing distasteful ideas makes professors sick, or where supporters of "globalization" should be excluded from the ranks of college presidents?
The reaction to this controversy from outside higher education brings into relief professors' tone deafness as to how non-academic figures interpret such comments. It came as little surprise that neoconservative iconoclast Andrew Sullivan defended the Harvard president. But so too did the liberal editorial pages of The Washington Post and, less enthusiastically, The Boston Globe.The Post concluded that if "Summers loses his job for the crime of positing a politically incorrect hypothesis -- or even if he pays some lesser price for it -- the chilling effect on free inquiry will harm everyone."
Finally, despite the more temperate atmosphere at Tuesday's emergency faculty meeting, the impression outside of Harvard remains of an initial campus reaction -- as described by Judaic studies professor Ruth Wisse -- that left Summers "sounding more like a prisoner in a Soviet show trial than the original thinker that he is." This legacy risks discouraging other administrators from articulating views perceived as politically incorrect -- even when doing so would serve their university's best interests.
Such an outcome would especially harm the well-being of less elite institutions, whose most serious personnel-related problem, which is growing more pronounced, is a lack of intellectual diversity among the professoriate. Even Brown president Ruth Simmons recently worried about the "chilling effect caused by the dominance of certain voices on the spectrum of moral and political thought" on campus. Peer pressure for faculty to produce quality scholarship, alumni and parental involvement, and student demand for an intellectually diverse range of courses provide built-in checks to ensure that elite institutions hire on the basis of merit rather than a candidate's perceived belief system, at least most of the time. These forces are much weaker, or do not exist at all, at many less prestigious colleges and universities. I speak from personal experience in this regard: the Brooklyn College administration attempted to displace scholarship, teaching, and service in evaluating my (ultimately successful) tenure application, basing its judgment instead on "uncollegiality," which college documents defined in writing as disagreeing with the personnel and curricular preferences of some senior colleagues.
This lack of intellectual diversity provides one key explanation for the elimination or redefinition of fields -- such as, in my own discipline, political, diplomatic, and constitutional history -- on the grounds not of curricular need but that such topics are "old-fashioned" or "conservative."
How to tackle this problem, however, remains an item of debate. As Inside Higher Ed's "Around the Web" column reported last week, the American Association of University Professors has set up a Web page denouncing government initiatives that guard against the imposition of ideological litmus tests in personnel matters. (The organization's move would have been more helpful had the AAUP offered proactive steps on how to address concerns like those raised by Simmons or Columbia president Lee Bollinger. ) Since leaving the problem to the same faculty bodies that created it is unlikely to produce a happy solution, administrators themselves must champion the cause of intellectual diversity, even at the risk of arousing controversy.
The coming months will reveal whether the reaction to Summers' remarks resulted more from institutional factors confined to Harvard than from issues of broader relevance to the academy. Those on the outside can only hope that this controversy does not spread any further beyond Harvard Yard.
KC Johnson, a professor of history at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, is a visiting professor at Harvard University for the spring 2005 term.
As Commissioner Bud Selig and several prominent players attempted to evade subpoenas for recent House of Representatives hearings on baseball’s steroid problem, Rep. Henry Waxman observed, “What strikes me is that baseball doesn’t want to investigate it and they don’t want us to investigate it.” The California congressman summed up baseball’s policy as “don’t know, don’t tell.”
This “Selig Strategy” could also describe the academy’s response to indications that the nation’s humanities and social sciences departments suffer from a lack of intellectual and programmatic diversity. Calls for outside inquiries have been denounced as violations of academic freedom, while few if any signs exist that the very internal academic procedures that created the problem can successfully resolve it.
Instead of imitating baseball’s strategy of trying to cover up relevant information, the academy should bring transparency to the now-cloaked world of faculty hires and in-class instruction, compiling and publicizing the necessary data, probably through college and department Web sites. Such a response would allow the educational establishment to employ the habits of the academic world, namely reasoned analysis through use of hard evidence, to address (and, when false, disprove) specific allegations of ideological bias. At the same time, the exposure associated with greater transparency might deter those professors inclined to abuse their classroom authority for indoctrination.
Calls for any greater openness have encountered fierce resistance from some quarters of the faculty — as seen in many of the contests for the American Association of University Professors' governing council, for which balloting concludes on April 15. Four of the ten races (Districts 1, 3, 8, and 10) feature one candidate who defines academic freedom as chiefly a tool for protecting the professoriate’s dominant ideological faction -- to the point of resisting outside scrutiny and limiting publicly available information about academic matters. In a fifth race, for District 7, both candidates have endorsed this vision. This cohort has deemed transparency a negative force, and instead has outlined a vision of:
Imagined reality, in which leftists and far lefists -- despite myriad surveys suggesting their substantial overrepresentation on the nation’s campuses — represent a besieged minority in the academy. In 1999, for instance, District 8 candidate Ellen Schrecker doubted that if “America was to enter another Vietnam War,” junior faculty members would “express themselves as freely as we did in the 1960s.” Though the professoriate’s outspoken hostility to the Bush administration’s Iraq policy belied this prediction, the platform of District 7 nominee Jeffrey Halpern nonetheless continues to assert, "The exercise of free expression among tenured faculty is being radically curtailed in the name of national security." Radically curtailed?
Professorial privilege, in which faculty possess an apparently unlimited right to bring their political agendas into the classroom. After a 2001 job action by the California Faculty Association included calls for professors to insert pro-union statements into their course syllabi, District 1 candidate Susan Meisenhelder scoffed that administrators who protested the policy overlooked how “important university traditions such as academic freedom” allowed professors to infuse their courses with political material. In this vision of the academy, undergraduates, like administrators, cannot even publicize their dissent. In early 2005, Schrecker charged that students who criticized the imtimidating behavior of anti-Israel professors of Middle Eastern studies at Columbia University wanted “to impose orthodoxy at this university, often in the name of academic diversity.” Better, evidently, for universities to cover up classroom misconduct, especially if the professors in question are expressing the preferred viewpoint on contemporary foreign policy issues.
Freedom from oversight, in which faculty members are responsible to no one and the goal of professional organizations is to conceal information that faculty ideologues find inconvenient. District 3 candidate Roxanne Gudeman promises to contest "unacceptable intrusions” that seek “to monitor and censor the political, ideological, and ethnic backgrounds of members of the academy and their teaching and research.” (Gudeman also champions ethnic and racial diversity programs, which, if nothing else, monitor the “ethnic backgrounds of members of the academy.”) District 10 candidate Michael Bérubé has committed himself to fighting "concerted and well-organized attacks on the professoriate,” including calls for an advisory board for Title VI area studies programs -- as if professors, alone among recipients of federal appropriations, are entitled to receive public moneys without legislative oversight.
The polar extreme of these viewpoints, of course, is David Horowitz’s Academic Bill of Rights (ABOR), which the AAUP has formally condemned as a political intrusion into the academy. The “Selig Strategy,” however, represents a remarkably ineffective response to the ABOR movement. Public support for ABOR derives from a perception that most professors have little interest in restoring intellectual diversity to the academy. In light of scandals at such prestigious institutions as Columbia and Colorado, faculty organizations issuing blanket assertions that all is well in their ranks and dismissing outside criticism as illegitimate only reinforces the impression that the professoriate has something to hide regarding the ideological tenor of classroom instruction.
There are, of course, occasions — the McCarthy Era was one, the early stages of the Vietnam War, perhaps, another — that justify aggressively utilizing the principle of academic freedom to prevent inappropriate outside scrutiny. But higher education, like baseball, is an institution whose survival depends on public support. Just as Mark McGwire sacrificed the public’s trust when he told congressmen that he would not “talk about the past,” so too will higher education’s public standing be diminished by continued claims that academic freedom allows the professoriate to ignore allegations of ideological bias. Even institutions not reliant on taxpayer support cannot long flourish in an atmopshere of widespread public distrust of the academy’s values.
Fortunately, a middle ground exists between the “Selig Strategy” on the one hand and having state legislatures dictate classroom content on the other. Transparency — not a claim that academic freedom prevents public scrutiny — represents the most effective way to respond to criticism of bias among the professoriate. “Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” noted Alan Charles Kors and Harvey Silverglate in Shadow University, applying Justice Louis Brandeis’ famous dictum to the problems of higher education. The Internet provides an unparalleled opportunity to demonstrate the inner workings of the academy to legislators, trustees, alumni, and taxpayers. If professors have nothing to hide, they have nothing to fear from drawing back the curtains regarding personnel and curricular actions.
To my knowledge, no university requires departments to publicly explain how and why they have allocated new lines. Imagine if every other year, every college department published on its Web site a statement about shifts in lines. For example, a religion department that had replaced one of four slots studying Christianity with one focusing on Islam might explain that it did so because of increased scholarly and student interest, post-9/11, or because the field had produced important new scholarship on Islam-related themes.
My own discipline, for example, has witnessed a sharp decline in positions in political, diplomatic, constitutional, and legal history over the past generation. Perhaps intellectually compelling reasons exist for dramatically shifting staffing toward adherents of the trinity of race, class, and gender. Yet absent any public justification, it’s hard to think of a reason other than ideological bias why, say, the University of Michigan’s History Department, whose ranks already included five U.S. women’s historians, used new lines to hire three more specialists in women, gender, and sexuality — all while the department lacks even one historian currently working in U.S. foreign policy.
Even more discouraging, despite the credible allegations of in-class bias by professors, I know of no university that requires faculty members to publicly post their course descriptions, syllabi, assignments, and lecture notes. The latter requirement, admittedly, would mean more work for professors, in that notes would need regular updating, but it also would provide concrete evidence that faculty members are always revising their in-class presentations to reflect new scholarship in their fields, while seeking to teach the subject matter at hand rather than attempting to shape their students’ viewpoints on controversial contemporary issues.
Of course, this strategy also would expose improper conduct to the light of day — as when Professor Joseph Massad, of Columbia’s Middle Eastern studies department, informed one class that “Israelis introduced plane hijackings” to the Middle East and that Zionist leader Theodor Herzl allied with “anti-Semites” to “help kick Euro[pean] Jews out.” Faculty members committed to the indoctrination approach could theoretically post neutral lecture notes while maintaining wholly biased classroom presentations. But such a strategy would constitute outright deception on the part of the professor, behavior that few administrations would be likely to tolerate.
In their platform, Schrecker (who has darkly hinted of an Internet-related “virtual McCarthyism”) and her cohort oppose any movement toward greater transparency. Might they fear that sunlight would confirm some or all of the outside critique of ideological bias? More ominously, do they speak for a majority in the academy?
“The thought police,” Harvard professor Stephan Thernstrom recently observed, are now “not just outside, on some congressional or state legislative committee. They are inside too, in our midst.” The educational establishment can imitate baseball’s 1990s strategy and ignore the problem, hoping that no one notices the ever more powerful internal threat to academic freedom. But, as Bud Selig and Mark McGwire have just discovered, the “don’t know, don’t tell” approach entails substantial risks. In this situation, transparency, not utilizing “academic freedom” to shield professors from outside scrutiny, represents the best course for the academy to adopt.
KC Johnson, a professor of history at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, is a visiting professor at Harvard University for the spring 2005 term.
Tasi. Stavanger. These are the names of actual cities. For me, these constitute something more: actual names from among the most remote locations in the fantasy structure of my career. I have never been to either city -- in Moldovia and Norway, respectively. (Fifteen years ago, the one had a Fulbright position, while a few weeks ago I noticed the other as the location of a job vacancy.) Yet how not to dream of going? I have always had a desire to work somewhere else.
Where? Just about anywhere. I used to joke with a former colleague about attractive job descriptions I chanced upon. It seemed he had already once applied to every one of the departments in question, and he always knew something precise about the geographical setting of each university. So much for my fantasy, whether or not somewhere I had no desire to go in Texas was actually (according to him) quite pretty, or somewhere else maybe more attractive in Indiana was in fact the most godforsaken place on earth.
Usually, though, the most important thing about a particular place is that it has simply been, or rather represented, Elsewhere. Anywhere can be elsewhere. At various points in my career, all sorts of places have suddenly and seductively appeared, from Waterford, Maine to Portland, Oregon. To apply for a job at respective universities there was to quiver at the romance of Arctic temperatures or to thrill to -- well, I never decided precisely what Portland evoked, although I could fancy myself bent over some dense volume at Powell's Books while drinking a steaming cup of latte.
What about the job descriptions? Finally, they never mattered. The institutions only mattered a little more. The decisive consideration was always geographical location. According to my fantasy terms, anywhere was just about an equivalent term with Elsewhere, although if I chanced to have some personal knowledge of a place, I usually ruled it out. (The region too remote, the town too small, and so on.)
Otherwise, I could not do so, at least for the purposes of an initial application. No wonder, therefore, that I virtually never got any interviews. My interest in any one specific position was not academic enough!
No wonder, also, that eventually I began to seek out employment opportunities abroad. Not only is the imaginative category of Elsewhere best -- most exotically -- represented by the Foreign. Many universities throughout the world cannot easily be known in terms of the exact circumstances of their location. So more or less through chance have I found myself, for example, teaching at one of China's most provincial universities as well as one of Brazil's most prestigious. In each case, I was content. I had gotten the location I had desired.
Just as good, the respective departments had no agonizing politics, the students no recalcitrant identity, and the universities no problematic status. To be fair, I'm sure there were issues in these respective places about which both professors and students felt great passion. But neither the issues nor the passion intruded upon a visitor's experience.The nice thing about teaching abroad is that you are just passing through.
Back home, on the other hand, there remain the colleagues with whom you try not to make eye contact in the halls, the students who still have to be told repeatedly not to leave their seats to sharpen pencils, and the deans who assure parents and congressmen that the reputation of the university has never been better. That is, back home you are an academic, for better or worse, in sickness and in tenure, till death or retirement do you part.
Elsewhere? Pure fantasy for most tenured people. Tasi? High-flyers only get invited to such places, for one-day improbable conferences on even more improbable subjects. Stavanger? Who knows who applies there?
Maybe they are people who never got a Ph.D., or tenure, or a break. But in any case, you yourself have to worry about tomorrow's meeting of the Curriculum Committee, not to speak of next week's seminar preparation, the cost of the upcoming summer's new roof for the house, or, surely by then, the reader reports for your manuscript that the press has had for, it seems, years. In three or four more you can apply for a sabbatical and then take the family to, well, London. But right at this moment London seems as much a fantasy as Londrina.
What about off the tenure track? There is undoubtedly a whole class of people in the United States for whom the Tasis and the Stavangers of the world are remorselessly real places because they are the only ones where full-time employment can be obtained. In addition, prior to 9/11, certain universities in the Middle East had larger academic expat communities, where scholars enjoyed salaries and private schools for their kids that they could only dream about back in the U.S.
In any case, though, few of these people are (or were) adjuncts. Granted, adjuncts do not have to serve on committees. In theory, they are free to go anywhere. In practice, few even dream of it. If there is an Elsewhere, it is just across town or 40 miles down the road -- or else more defined by the availablity of a tenure-track job than geography or culture. Not only are adjunct circumstances remorselessly local. Adjuncts have no security. You can only have a fantasy structure to your career -- you can only have a career at all in the fullest or most meaningful sense -- if you enjoy job security.
Rather than beginning my own career at somewhere in Missouri I had never heard of I began it at somewhere else I never heard of in Pennsylvania. Perhaps this is why Elsewhere has remained so vivid to me. What if I had made the wrong choice? However, in today's terms, at least I had a choice to make. Opportunities are more scare today.
Those fortunate enough to reside in full-time, tenurable positions now are likely to have secured them with few, if any, alternatives (except becoming adjuncts). In this respect, it seems to be one thing to have working conditions in which a fantasy structure of escape or travel is embedded. It seems quite another thing to have work that neither elicits nor provokes a fantasy structure to begin with.
And yet, these two things may not in the end be so different after all. Readers may recognize the title of this column to be the same as the title of one of Philip Larkin's poems. Larkin does not romanticize Elsewhere. He begins, "lonely in Ireland." Yet, strangely, he cherishes his separateness. Back home in England, he has "no such excuse." It would be more "serious" to refuse his own customs and establishments.
"Here," the poem concludes,"no elsewhere underwrites my existence."
Should this be the case? In the poem it simply is: the very conditions of our permanent lives require an "elsewhere."
Just so, I would argue, the academic conditions of the present moment, especially the most pure -- settled, tenured, on the road to the next promotion and well past the last mortgage payment -- virtually mandate being underwritten by elsewhere. But of course one could just as well argue that 'twas ever thus. Some imagination of such places as Tasi and Stavanger enriches our lives both as members of our communities or as separate individuals.
Our dreams of being somewhere else are every bit as important as the realities of being professionals in one place. Indeed, it is because we are professionals that we can have such dreams at all.
Who would have thought that the number three could wield such power?
It’s such a simple, unimposing numerical value; almost cute in appearance. Yet as it turns out, this small digit is value-packed. "Three" is apparently a well-known assessment measure, a highly accurate indicator of academic prowess. Or so I’m told. This number is the key at my institution, at least in most departments, to determining which young faculty should be kept for the long haul or discarded back into the pile. If the latter occurs, it is a gross understatement to simply say that a pink slip has been handed out. There is finality in that decision, because so many who have been sent packing at one institution cannot endure the thought of being rejected again. Oftentimes, a career in academia has been put to an end.
How did three get selected to be so important, so insightful, so utterly determinative? Why was this number picked instead of, say, 4, or even 10? I do not have those answers. What I do know, or have been told, is that standards must be set, a proverbial bar must be attained. And that at any respectable place of employment, at least one to be recognized by U.S. News and World Reports, the standard cannot be lower than three.
I am referring, if you hadn’t guessed, to the number of publications needed, under most circumstances, to be awarded tenure at my institution. Why am I so cynical about this? No doubt some of you may say that three publications is a reasonable expectation over a six year time frame. Let me be clear: The actual value of three publications is not that troublesome to me.
What frustrates me is that the standard for research and scholarship at my institution and in my department has (I should say had) always been vague. In fact, during my ‘probationary faculty’ daze, I would meet annually with my department chair and dean to ask what the target was for research publications. I wanted a number. If nothing else I was looking for reassurance and piece of mind. I would usually hear "You are on the mark" or "Don’t worry, your research is good." But I was never offered a numerical value.
Asking other members of the department did not help. No one offered a firm target that I could set my sights on. After asking many times, I was finally told that the department did not have an exact number that the tenured members were looking for. Rather, I would need at least one publication for tenure, but two or three would be better. My interpretation of that statement was three is safe, but more is probably in the comfort zone.
So prior to my time to apply for tenure, I worked to far surpass the firmly vague target presented to me. Mission accomplished. I surpassed the target, and thankfully, the tenure process went very smoothly. However, I struggled with the reality that no one would commit to a narrowly focused standard for research during my probationary window. Mentally, I wanted to know the exact goal. But the exact height of the illustrious bar that I needed to clear was kept secret.
As I understand it, the vagueness allowed some wiggle room. For example, in an instance when someone was a dynamic teacher and provided exceptional service to our students, department and/or college, it was potentially permissible to be only so-so as a scholar and still make tenure. A hard and fast research standard would conceivably injure these individuals. And after all, I needed to remember that our primary focus as a college and department was on undergraduate education. Teaching is of prime importance at schools with such a mission, and service rivals research. Although vagueness is an approach that is difficult for a biologist like me to grapple with, I came to appreciate the intent.
This admittedly awkward research standard was the norm at my institution for quite a long period of time -- until recently. But research expectations have changed college-wide. Determining exactly when has been difficult, but the climate here is most certainly at a different place than it was a few years back. Vagueness was replaced with exactness. A numerical value was established as the minimum standard for being on track for tenure: three is that value, and the value shall be three. This is the target that the administration uses as the measure for evaluating a tenure application, at least for those in the sciences. Notice that I have not mentioned teaching or service. The reality is that those responsibilities have been moved to a somewhat different level of significance in the evaluation process.
I sought such a standard when I was an untenured faculty member, so shouldn’t I be ecstatic now, or at least satisfied? But I am not. The number that I have mentioned arrived rather suddenly on campus and in stealth-like fashion. And it has taken a toll.
About seven years ago, my department hired a promising young biologist who was enthusiastic about teaching and already established as a talented researcher. She was hired during our “vagueness” period. She was told the same thing that I was years earlier: for research publications, one is a must, more is better.
But while this young faculty member was traveling down this path, a detour suddenly appeared: The exactness period was ushered in. The short version of a rather nasty story is that my colleague was seemingly held to the new standards. It goes without saying that, if true, this was not a fair or appropriate practice for tenure protocol. No doubt you have predicted the outcome of her tenure decision: She was denied. Notice that I have not mentioned whether I thought she deserved tenure, because that is not the point. Her shortcoming was that she did not meet “the power of 3.”
My message is not a mere plaint on behalf of a fallen colleague. It is larger than a single individual. The current trend in higher education is to focus on scholarship, more correctly on scholarly output, most notably at schools that have traditionally served as predominantly undergraduate institutions. This in and of itself is not a poor strategy. I personally believe that teaching and research are intimately woven, and that an excellent teacher is most likely an outstanding scholar. So I embrace the idea of elevating research at my institution when the pursuit of knowledge and discovery will generate excitement and passion within the classroom.
But an appropriate balance between teaching and research must be established. The reality is that any faculty member at an undergraduate college or university must juggle heavy teaching responsibilities with mentoring, advising and college service, all while remaining a productive scholar. Unfortunately, as the demands for the latter increase, it can only come at the expense of the other responsibilities, including time dedicated to family. This means that teaching, mentoring and advising lose importance out of necessity.
Clearly, priorities are being confused. In the current market place, many institutions are competing for high quality students. The competition is made more intense by the soaring costs of attending college, particularly at private institutions. Regardless, schools that were outstanding because of the original mission (educating undergraduates) are trying to redefine themselves. The cost is becoming enormous in terms of the potentially diminished education provided to the students and in terms of the faculty that get discarded along the way.
This fall, I started the term without my friend and colleague. She has moved on. Thankfully for the students, she has stayed in academia. I understand that change is inevitable and that progress can only come through change. So maybe our new standards will in fact elevate my college to a higher level, allowing us to achieve academic accomplishments our students never reached before. Maybe.
Or just maybe the members of the college will like the taste of elevated scholarship and want to drink more rather than integrating it with our undergraduate mission. I am afraid the latter will take hold. The faculty governance on my campus already is debating whether the tenure standard should be raised even higher, and a member of the Board of Trustees has stated that the value of an undergraduate education goes up each time a publication appears with our institution’s name.
A friend of mine has argued that trends in higher education move like a pendulum, so this current craze will come back to equilibrium at some point. I’m not so confident. It appears that our pendulum lacks counterbalance, at least at the moment, and may just as easily rise so high that it crashes back down on top of us.
David B. Rivers
David B. Rivers is an associate professor of biology at Loyola College in Maryland.
When she interviewed at the university, my friend Jill asked very few questions. During the first year, she found a mentor and worked on improving her teaching techniques. She received excellent reviews from the chair, her peers and even her students. Frequently described as "thoughtful" and "amusing," a number of students followed her throughout the English sequence.
Inspired by her ability to take even dry subjects and make them seem lively and relevant, the chair began asking her to teach other courses in the humanities. By her fourth year, Jill was teaching a graduate course each semester, in addition to the "nuts and bolts" English courses in which she was an expert. Confident that she would be teaching at this Midwestern university for some time, Jill bought a house. Although it was no mansion, this duplex would allow her to keep her two dogs downstairs while she had a paying tenant upstairs. She loved the old-fashioned trim dividing the walls, the creaky wooden stairs, the octagon shaped window in the front room. She imagined that she would grow old here.
She had found her paradise. She had a job she loved, a campus that valued her, students that would stop her outside the Buehler’s Buy-Low to say hello, canine companionship and a group of close-knit friends. She belonged.
What happened in the sixth year of her employment was a shock. The chair of her department told her that although she had excellent reviews and the campus had no complaint about her work, she was being let go. Her initial three-year contract had lapsed into a yearly renewal; after this coming year, she would have no job. She had sat there, hands trembling, refusing to cry. She asked what had happened. The chair had said dryly, "Haven’t you heard of the six-year rule?" At home she found her faculty handbook and flipped to tenure. Buried on the fourth page of that section were the terms that would now crush her future:
"Tenure… is acquired de facto in the seventh year of a faculty member’s full-time service in the tenure-accumulating ranks, unless the faculty member receives notice during the sixth year that the seventh year of employment will be 'terminal.' Tenure de facto is automatic. It is conferred without a tenure review solely by reason of the faculty member’s appointment."
Because Jill did not have a Ph.D., she was not eligible for tenure; indeed, she had never hoped for tenure. With this rule, she saw that the campus had never intended to keep her for any time; it was one thing to be renewed every year -- it was another to find that for the administration she was a temporary employee, bound to be terminated.
She felt angry. She felt betrayed. She had built her life around her teaching schedule there. She had invested her time, her energy and her heart. Her reward was six years of paid work and a notice not to return.
Bitterly, she was moved to action, readying her résumé and making phone calls. By the time she had packed her office, she had a part-time job with another local university preparing high-schoolers for college. She ate at home every day, packing a thin sandwich to carry in her eight-year old car when she worked during the day. When her health insurance ran out, she simply prayed not to get sick. After her tenant upstairs moved out, she walked the floor, realizing that she did not even have six dollars to replace the ruined baseboard by the front door. The house where she had hoped to retire had suddenly become a luxury that she would surely lose.
I met Jill at the coffee shop she used to frequent. Although she sat in front of the bookshelves that day, there was no colorful ceramic mug of coffee on the wobbly table next to her chair. When I offered to buy her a cup of tea, she adamantly refused. Proud, she would rather sit thirsty than accept charity from another. We talked for hours. I could see how students and faculty would be drawn to her. She was unpretentious, thoughtful -- even funny as she reflected on the process that has left her pocketbook empty and her soul disappointed.
I never felt awkward around her -- even though I could see that, in effect, I was the enemy. The Midwestern university that had been her home for her formative teaching years was to be my newfound employer. In two months time, I would be walking those same halls, talking to the same faculty members, teaching the same population and answering to the same department chair.
Like her, I was hired as a non-tenure track instructor. Like her, I have only an M.A., and no Ph.D. Like her, I was not told of this limitation that would result in my shortened career there. If I thought this was bad, the worse news is that this "six-year" rule is enforced at universities all over the United States. Not only had Jill and I unwittingly become fixed-term instructors, but tens of thousands of non-tenured instructors all over the United States will find themselves on the street at the seven-year mark.
Initially I had been thrilled about the offer, and thought of this town as a place to retire. One of the reasons I had accepted a job there was not only because of the prestige of working for a university, but because the department chair and dean had gone out of their way to treat me with kindness before and during the interview.
Months later when they made me an offer, I had presented them with an awkward situation -- I had already accepted an interview with a community college on the East coast. Both the dean and department chair told me that if I did decide in favor of their university, they would simply reimburse the other campus for any expenses already paid out. At the time, I was impressed. These administrators didn’t even know the folks at this small community college. Yet, they were taking the high road. Considering the impact of my decision on another, they had sought to make it right. It was a heady moment for this applicant. It made my decision very easy. Go with the campus that takes care of their own.
Now, I feel cautious. Yes, even though I have been asked on no less than 13 other interviews since I signed a three-year contract with the Midwestern university, I have decided to stick with my original decision. In August, 2005, I will be there, working to teach freshmen- and sophomore-level English composition.
Before I found out about the "six-year rule," I'll admit that my attitude was noticeably different. I had planned to decorate my shared office: posters for the walls, a rug for the floor, a bookcase for my favorite texts. I had also surfed the house-for-sale sites online, frequently printing out "zero percent down for first homebuyers" and "low down for first-time qualifiers" advertisements. I had investigated the town with a fervor that I had never felt for my own town. I had three historic books on the area and loads of sites bookmarked that described the small zoo, the combination science and art museum, the used book store, the mall, the weather -- everything.
I really thought of this move as my last in education. After six years of adjuncting in California, I was finally going to make a home in the Midwest. With the terrific reviews I had always received, I was convinced that I would be renewed until retirement; this stability would allow me to develop as an instructor and really work at retaining students year after year. The idea of a place to really contribute (and to retire) made me smile.
Now I think of this university as a place that I will park myself for three years. I have been forewarned by colleagues not to wait until the axe falls to move on -- but to start looking at the end of each academic year. To turn down no offers to interview, to take every chance to make my résumé look good, but not to stick my neck out for the campus that will provide me with only a limited chance to teach.
It’s a sad turn of events. Yes, I will teach as well as I can, but I will not be thinking of aligning myself with a particular pedagogy, with a carefully chosen mentor, with one lucky student population. In effect, I will be an adjunct again -- gauging time spent on each project or assignment, time spent with each student during an office hour, minimizing preparation time when I can, and most importantly, always thinking of where I will work next. The rolling contract system has ensured that knowledgeable, qualified (even inspired) instructors such as my friend Jill and myself will not find a home in the university system.
I understand that in 1940, the American Association of University Professors and the Association of American Colleges were thinking of keeping instructors from being strung along when the associations adopted the policy that set up six-year rules. In a superficial way, I understand that non-tenured instructors would be judged on merit at the end of their probationary period (although my friend was given no such review). I applaud the concept of tenure; someday, too, I will have the security, the freedom to teach as I see fit, to interject the controversial opinion now and then, to really give all that I have to one campus, knowing that I will be rewarded with a career lifespan of support.
Of course, this will not happen for me in the university system proper; instead, I will be shopping at community colleges for a long-term position. Should I be able to afford a Ph.D. at some time, I may consider the university system again; perhaps not.
Some have suggested that the tenure system be abolished. I don't agree. But "de facto tenure" was created 60 years ago to protect contract employees from abuse. The idea was to force the university system to actually give tenure to long-term instructors who had served good time and produced viable results. Now, with a bulging market of a hundred applicants (even thousands) for each full-time teaching position, universities no longer hire on contract with the idea of giving tenure later. Instead, they lure desperate non-Ph.D.s with an initial three-year contract with the vague promise of renewal year after year.
Part of my argument is with the university administrators who allow this "six-year term" information to be buried in 157-page documents rather than having it clearly stipulated in the job description. I know from experience that there are a few faculty members on hiring committees who feel poorly about deceiving inexperienced university candidates. In an online forum, one departmental secretary confessed that she felt "like part of a conspiracy" when the chair specifically told her not to inform potential candidates of this term limit.
A staff member I know in Human Resources confided that she "could almost feel an audible exhale" when she lifted stacks of six-year term faculty from the "active" file cabinets to the archives. She says that she feels badly, but knows there is nothing she can do. "These are people, you know," she told the student assistant whose job was to load files into cardboard boxes to be filed in an almost-abandoned building a mile away.
Information breeds responsibility. But then, I’m an instructor who withholds nothing in my syllabus. On the first day of class, students know exactly what is expected of them and how to earn a winning grade. They even know how many minutes into the class hour constitutes a tardy, as well as a bi-monthly accounting spelling out what their in-class grade is and how they achieved that. It’s also clear to my students how the essays count -- exactly how they count -- into their final grade. Although I may parcel out assignments in English composition, I do not hold back on information about how my students are expected to perform. Though it means lots of thought, working and reworking of syllabi (and an extra sheet of paper), I believe that assisting adults in making solid decisions involves informing them rather than letting them stumble across the information when it is too late to do anything to influence the outcome. But then, that’s just how I work.
Flawless reviews and gushing letters of recommendation may suggest that others find my techniques (and underlying belief system) appropriate for higher education. The good news is that this budding file-folder will ensure that I continue to work in academia -- wherever I am valued.
Perhaps I am naive in my evaluation. But I know there is a heart out there somewhere. In tapping it, I ask that the American Association of University Professors consider abolishing or rewriting the "six-year rule." Let's stop the creation of a roaming, transient "third-class" of full-time adjuncts and return to the meaning of "de facto tenure" -- protecting our professors rather than allowing them to be abused.
Shari Wilson is the pseudonym of an adjunct at several colleges in California. In the fall, she will join the ranks of untenured full-time instructors at a university in the Midwest where she will stay, of course, no more than six years.
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.
To: Tom Werner, executive producer, The Scholar From: Donald E. Heller Subject: Capitalizing on the success of The Scholar
I know you’ve been really busy with The Scholar, which I hear has had some great ratings. Never mind all your work with the Red Sox – by the way, great to have a hit after 86 years of failure, huh? – and your on again, off again relationship with Katie Couric. But I hope you have a few minutes to review this work-up for what I am convinced is the next hit reality show: The Chosen One.
Everybody has loved watching the competition to see which of those spunky little 18 year-olds on The Scholar is going to receive the scholarship. But those kids are so bright and overachieving that the audience knows that all of them, not just the winner, will end up going to college somewhere. But think about how much more interesting the competition will be as graduate students battle it out for the holy grail of American higher education: a tenure-track faculty position! With so few graduating Ph.D.’s landing one of these babies, the competition in this reality show will make Survivor look like a walk in the park.
Here’s the outline of the show. I’ve indicated a few places where there are some great product placement opportunities (PPO) to help maximize the revenue from the show.
The Search Committee: Every good reality show needs a panel of judges that will grab the audience. After all, people don’t watch American Idol to hear talentless people sing; they tune in to see Paula bicker with Simon. This is what’s keeping The Scholar from knocking Idol off the top of the charts. The judges on The Scholar are knowledgeable, but they’ve got the collective personality of a medieval history conference.
Here are a few ideas to kick around. For the lead, there’s only one obvious choice: Lawrence "Larry the Barbarian" Summers. He's received more press lately than anybody in higher education other than Ward Churchill (my guys talked to Ward, but he’s laying low these days and wasn’t interested). And who’s better at playing the Simon role, insulting people and putting them in their place? Larry’s got to be the top dog in this show. It shouldn’t matter how much money it takes to land him -- you have to get him on board. (PPO: Rather than the ubiquitous can of Coke on Idol, I see Larry with a bottle of Chardonnay in front of him -- lots of opportunities to get a vineyard on board.)
To create fireworks, you need somebody who will clash with Larry. Again, there’s a clear choice: Cornel West, Larry’s old nemesis from Harvard who flew the coop to Princeton after one too many insults. The idea of Larry and Cornel (can we get him to use the nickname “Corny” -- “Cornel” sounds a bit stuffy for a mass audience?) going at each other from opposite sides of the table has me salivating about the ratings potential.
The third judge isn’t nearly as important (who can ever remember Randy Jackson anyway), but I do have a few ideas. Stanley Fish looked like he would be tanned, rested, and available after he retired from the University of Illinois at Chicago, and who knows more about higher education than him? But then he took that position in Florida so he may be out. Skip Gates is another good choice, but that may make it look like he and Corny are ganging up on Larry. Might want to go after Elaine Showalter; she’s not nearly the household name the others are, but boy, can she dress! (Great PPO opportunities with her -- Prada or Versace?)
The Candidates: This is a little bit tricky. Ten students should work -- this is about the right ratio of Ph.D. graduates for every tenure track position available, and will ensure enough candidates to appeal to a broad audience. You need that combination of attractive looks and engaging personalities to keep the viewers coming back week after week. Need to avoid that library pallor so many graduate students share, so we’ll have to do a national search to find the cute ones with the bubbly personalities. (PPO: We’ll want to make sure they’re dressed well, so let’s talk to The Gap and Abercrombie & Fitch, maybe even Polo for the interview clothes.)
Diversity is important – every viewer wants to be able to connect with at least one of the candidates. So let’s make sure we get a good selection of people from different races and different parts of the country. And let’s make sure they’re not all from Ivy League colleges – it’s important for the world to see that there are smart people at other places too -- I’m having some people confirm this for me. (PPO: Maybe there’s an opportunity here for a second-rung institution to “sponsor” one of their grad students into the competition. I can see somebody wearing a “Northwestern East Podunk University” sweatshirt -- institutions like that normally can’t buy that kind of publicity!)
We need to be careful about what disciplines the candidates come from, or we’ll lose our audience. While everybody likes the idea of a rocket scientist, nobody wants to watch them writing physics equations on a whiteboard (yes, I know it worked in Good Will Hunting, but they had Matt Damon and Ben Afleck). If we have an English student, at the first mention of Foucault people would be flipping the channel to Bill Frist on C-SPAN or Rachel Ray making green bean casserole on the Food Channel.
Everybody watching The Scholar has liked that the contestants share dorm rooms, so let’s have all 10 of the grad students share a house, sort of like on The Real World. (PPO: this is a no-brainer – Ikea!)
The Episodes: The episodes should be reflective of the typical career of a grad student, and give the judges the opportunity to assess their potential to be a faculty member. Nobody would want to sit through the life of a Ph.D. student in real time however, so we’ll collapse the normal seven year period into seven weeks of television. Here is a first cut at the episode list.
1. Meet the grad students. The audience gets to meet each student and choose favorites. Students get a chance to introduce themselves, explain why they’re unique, and why they should be The Chosen One.
2. The students deflect a sexual advance from a tenured faculty member. This is an important milestone in graduate student life. To keep it interesting, we can throw in at least one same-sex harassment situation (we need to remember this as we cast the show). It is unlikely we will be able to hire real professors for this, but with all the out-of-work professors out there, some of them must have had some experience in this arena. (PPO: a law firm?)
3. Organize a TA union. What a great opportunity for conflict between the grad students and the judges! The grad students will be required to build the case for why they should be allowed to unionize, and the judges will test them by explaining why grad students do not do real work and should be considered students, not workers. (PPO: United Auto Workers or The Teamsters?)
4. Cobble together funds to attend a conference and network with academic stars. The grad students will run around the campus to various offices to beg, borrow, and steal the money necessary to attend an academic conference in order to schmooze with the big shots. They will then have to demonstrate how they can spend three days in a major city on a paltry sum, and still look presentable and impress the stars. Great opportunity here for cameos from some real academic stars. I’m sure most would jump at the opportunity and work for union scale. (PPO: airlines and hotels)
5. Form a dissertation committee. The grad students go in front of the judges and explain why they are worthy of having a faculty member serve on their dissertation committee. Each judge will require the students to jump through the requisite academic "hoops," such as babysitting the judge’s children, walking the judge’s dog, or picking up their dry cleaning. Every good reality show has a weeding-out process. This episode is where we can reduce the 10 candidates down to a smaller number, as those who are unable to form a dissertation committee are cast aside.
6. The job talk. The candidates explain their research and why they’re worth of being The Chosen One. As I mentioned earlier, it is critical that we find grad students with interests that reach a wide audience. Let’s look for somebody in sociology who researches the interlocking sexual and economic relationships among suburban, upper middle class housewives. Or a criminology student who specializes in homicides among young, beautiful women who live in major urban areas with attractive friends and interesting jobs.
7. The selection. At long last, the judges choose the single graduate student who will be The Chosen One. The winner will be awarded a tenure-track job in their field at the institution of their choice. We may have some problems getting every college and university out there to agree to participate, but given the revenue constraints they’re all facing, throwing some of the PPO money their way should be enough of an inducement.
I think this one is a winner, Tom, so let’s do lunch and work it out!
Donald E. Heller
Donald E. Heller is an associate professor and senior research associate in the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Pennsylvania State University at University Park. The only reality show he is watching this summer is the Boston Red Sox.