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.
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 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.
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.
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign officials have argued that they were justified in refusing to hire Steven Salaita because his bigoted comments indicated a bias that would deprive students of their right to be “comfortable” (a right that does not and should not exist at any college committed to the discussion of ideas that may lead to uncomfortable truths).
But what’s been missing from the Salaita debate so far is the fact that, only four years ago, the University of Illinois dealt with a remarkably similar case of academic freedom involving allegations of bigotry against a professor. In that case, the University of Illinois came to a radically different conclusion. Kenneth Howell was teaching a class on Roman Catholicism when he wrote an email to his students on May 4, 2010, that offended the friend of one of Howell’s students, who complained about it. Howell wrote to his students, “in a sexual relationship between two men, one of them tends to act as the ‘woman’ while the other acts as the ‘man.’ In this scenario, homosexual men have been known to engage in certain types of actions for which their bodies are not fitted. I don’t want to be too graphic so I won’t go into details but a physician has told me that these acts are deleterious to the health of one or possibly both of the men.”
The chair of religion department at the university decided not to reappoint Howell, an adjunct, to teach the class again in the fall of 2010. Howell’s defenders, including the Alliance Defense Fund, argued that he “was fired for explaining the position of the Roman Catholic Church on human sexual behavior.” Considering that Howell was rambling in his email about what an unnamed doctor told him about gay sex, it can hardly be regarded as an explanation of Catholic doctrine.
By the standards announced in the Salaita case, it is difficult to see how anyone could endorse the employment of Howell. Chancellor Phyllis Wise argued about Salaita, “What we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois are personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them.” Certainly, Howell was demeaning gay people in a personal and disrespectful manner.
The University of Illinois Board of Trustees wrote about Salaita, “Our campuses must be safe harbors where students and faculty from all backgrounds and cultures feel valued, respected and comfortable expressing their views.”
Can gay students feel valued and respected in a class where the professor publicly advocates that the government should discriminate against them, as Howell did in opposing gay marriage? If Salaita (who has never called for government discrimination against Jews) deserved to be fired, then every professor in the country who opposes gay marriage should also be fired.
One article praising Howell during the 2010 controversy over his class quoted him as saying, “Everyone who has a good conscience can see that killing an innocent human being is wrong. In the same way, certain sexual acts are wrong, because they go against the natural course of things." So, Howell believed that gay sex is like murder, because it’s unnatural. And Howell was saying that if you think gay sex is permissible, then you don’t have a good conscience.
Cary Nelson argued about the Salaita case, “Will Jewish students in his classes feel comfortable after they read ‘Let’s cut to the chase: If you’re defending Israel right now you’re an awful human being’...?” But would gay students in Howell’s classes feel comfortable with a professor who claims that they’re unnatural, comparable to murderers, lack a good conscience, are physically damaged, and should be discriminated against?
Back in 2010, Nelson defended Howell: "What's better for a student? To in a variety of learning environments hear these positions and the consequences of these positions advocated with passion and commitment or to hear them all presented with a style of even-handedness? I would rather hear them advocated strenuously." Nelson in 2010 was right, but today he has abandoned that belief that passionate professors, even those accused of bigoted ideas, are a valuable thing.
The similarities between Howell and Salaita are extensive, except that Salaita’s case for academic freedom is stronger in almost every way. Both Howell and Salaita never had a contract approved by the Board of Trustees, and were not regarded by officials as employees of the university (in a bizarre practice now abandoned after his case publicized it, Howell’s salary was paid by the Peoria Diocese of the Catholic Church, which also had selected him to teach the University of Illinois class). Neither Howell nor Salaita received a hearing about their academic competence. Both Howell and Salaita were accused of bigotry for their offensive remarks (although Howell’s came in a classroom environment, where professional standards do apply).
And one factor in Howell’s dismissal was a strange discussion in his email of utilitarianism, which he claimed would justify bestiality and pedophilia on grounds of consent, an analysis that some faculty in his department felt was evidence of professional incompetence. By contrast, no one on the Board of Trustees ever questioned (or even examined) Salaita’s professional record.
Both Howell and Salaita were very popular teachers with their students. While there is no evidence of any student even making a complaint about Salaita, the complaint in Howell’s case raised an (unproven) allegation that Howell silenced dissenting views in his class: “my friend also told me that the teacher allowed little room for any opposition to Catholic dogma. Once again, he is guilty of limiting the marketplace of ideas and acting out of accord with this institution’s mission and principles.” And Howell’s own letter to his students declared (without any sense of irony): “Unless you have done extensive research into homosexuality and are cognizant of the history of moral thought, you are not ready to make judgments about moral truth in this matter.” When a professor declares that only experts on a subject are allowed to judge moral truth, it does seem like an attempt to silence students.
But the reactions of the University of Illinois to the Howell and Salaita cases were radically different. Out of concern about academic freedom (even though issues other than his offensive comments had been raised), the University of Illinois administration (with the cooperation of the Board of Trustees) decided to overrule an academic department and hired Howell to teach in fall 2010 while awaiting a report by the Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure (CAFT). By contrast, Chancellor Phyllis Wise and the Board of Trustees immediately decided to fire Salaita on July 24, 2014, without consulting any academics.
The CAFT report in the Howell case was critical of Howell as “unlearned” but declared that “students have no right not to be offended” and added, “We could not do our job, which is to instill the habits of a critical mind, if we had to be chary of giving offense.“
Howell was hired again to teach in spring 2011, but he then decided not to apply for a one-year visiting position (believing that it was a plot “engineered” to get rid of him). Howell is now director of pastoral care for the Coming Home Network International, but he remains free to express his homophobic views, such as this: “the imposition of a gay philosophy on American society is one of the biggest threats to American welfare that I’ve seen in my lifetime.”
As I noted during the Howell case, I think the University of Illinois deserves praise for that decision. Compared to the Howell decision, the Salaita case is a much easier call to make: Howell’s words were more clearly bigoted, they came in a classroom discussion instead of extramural utterances (which, under American Association of University Professors guidelines and University of Illinois statutes, cannot be punished). Howell’s professional competence as a teacher was also questioned, as was his openness to dissenting views in the classroom, while Salaita’s teaching record has never been attacked.
In the Howell case, the University of Illinois administration, in order to protect academic freedom, overruled a department’s judgment because of the fear that non-academic criteria might have influenced the decision. In the Salaita case, the University of Illinois administration took precisely the opposite position by firing a professor purely for his non-academic comments online.
Rarely has any university taken such radically different approaches to academic freedom within the span of a few years, which is especially strange considering that Board of Trustees chair, Christopher Kennedy, and a majority of the current voting trustees served during both the Howell and Salaita controversies. (Chancellor Wise had yet to arrive at Illinois at the time of the Howell debate.)
The Howell case established an important precedent for the University of Illinois: that dismissing a professor scheduled to teach requires a fair hearing by an academic committee, that allegations of bigotry do not trump academic freedom, and that students have no right to feel comfortable in a class even if their professors made offensive comments. But the Howell precedent was completely abandoned in the Salaita case.
Unless you think that the alleged bigotry of an anti-gay professor is more palatable than the alleged bigotry of a critic of the Israeli government, it’s hard to conceive of any principle that would justify the University of Illinois’ aggressive protection of academic freedom during the Howell case and its complete abandonment of academic freedom during the Salaita case.
John K. Wilson is the co-editor of AcademeBlog.org, editor of Illinois Academe (ilaaup.org), and the author of seven books, including Patriotic Correctness: Academic Freedom and Its Enemies.
Less than a year after Alamo Colleges professors objected to their chancellor's plan to require a course in part on the '7 Habits,' they cite new concerns about shared governance, including a move to abolish program-based associate degrees.