Archive for the ‘Academia’ Category



September 19, 2010

Here’s a fun little post that more or less yanks the guts out of Mark C. Taylor, the self-aggrandizing Columbia professor now pushing the line against all things holy in academia:

Mark C. Taylor’s unbelievably misguided book provides an almost textbook example. In April, 2009, he published an incendiary New York Times op-ed entitled “End the University as We Know It,” which denounced graduate education as the “Detroit of higher learning,” demanded the abolition of tenure, and called for the replacement of traditional academic departments by flexible, short-lived “problem-focused programs.” Widely criticized (by me, too, in this magazine), the piece stayed at the top of the Times’s “most e-mailed” list for a cyber-eternity of four days. Enter Alfred A. Knopf.

Just sixteen months later, the book is here, and the signs of the syndrome are all too evident. Taylor, the chair of the Department of Religion at Columbia, has enveloped his original argument in an overblown, cliché-ridden theoretical framework about the on-going shift from a “world of walls and grids” to a “world of networks.” The globe, Taylor declares, with a certain lack of originality, has become “more interconnected.” “Global financial capitalism” is replacing “industrial and consumer capitalism.” And “as cross-cultural communication grows, it transforms old assumptions and ideas.” Recounting a lengthy anecdote about a course he taught partly via video conferencing, Taylor remarks, “That was the Aha! moment in which I knew the world had changed.” (The world is flat!) Abandoning his earlier facile comparison of higher education to the auto industry, Taylor now likens it with equal facility to the financial sector, and speaks in doom-laden tones of the “education bubble.”


The Money Tree

September 16, 2010

I’ll confess to being somewhat skeptical of the current batch of gripes regarding the cost of the modern university, conveniently distributed at exactly the same time as several books by the same authors on the same topic. Recently Mark C. Taylor has been attracting most of the attention, but there apparently several other mindless curmudgeons. Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, both lost in the dark shadows cast by the sunset of their careers, also want in on the game.

On one hand, I agree that education has grown tremendously expensive, and perhaps unnecessarily so; but on the other hand, I’m not sure that the reasoning of these authors is correct. Here’s an article from the LA Times:

If you look at how that added revenue is being spent, it’s hard to argue that students are getting a lot of extra value for all that extra money. Why? Colleges aren’t spending their extra revenues, which we calculate to be about $40 billion a year nationally over 1980 revenues, in ways that most benefit students.

<snip, after some grousing about the expensive athletic programs of universities, with which I agree>

Another source of increased expense is administration. Since 1980, the number of administrators per student at colleges has about doubled; on most campuses their numbers now match the number of faculty. Here are some of their titles: senior specialist of assessment; director for learning communities; assistant dean of students for substance education; director of knowledge access services.

Needless to say, these officials claim that they offer needed services. Who can be opposed to ensuring access and assessment? But let’s not forget that tuition pays for all these deans and directors; having more of them means higher bills for students.

Okay, stop.

Part 1: True, university administration costs a pretty penny. Is it all money well spent? Probably not. Surely, cutting back on administrative costs would help to alleviate some cost burden. But we don’t actually get an argument about which administrators should go and why. We just get a blanket argument about the cost of administrators. That’s not a real argument; and it’s not clear that losing some administrators wouldn’t also cost in other ways. Or, put differently, it’s not clear that these administrators aren’t actually contributing substantially to the educational mission of the university. We just don’t know, and the authors don’t give us a reason to trust their reasoning.

Here’s another bold claim:

Added tuition revenue has also gone to raise faculty salaries. Yale’s full-time faculty members now average $129,400, up 64% in inflation-adjusted dollars from what they made in 1980. (Pay in other sectors of the U.S. economy rose only about 5% in this period.) Stanford’s tenured and tenure-track professors are doing even better, averaging $153,900, an 83% increase over 1980.

We’re told such stipends are needed to get top talent, but we’re not so sure. Faculty stars may raise prestige, but they are often away from the classroom, having negotiated frequent paid leaves and smaller teaching loads — underwritten, of course, by tuition. At Williams College this year, for example, three of seven religion professors are taking off all or part of the academic year.

Okay, stop.

Part 2: This is what I really wanted to address. First, whether the percent increase in inflation-adjusted dollars from a 1980 salary is a fair or unfair increase can’t be established simply on the basis of the percent increase. If they were making bupkes in 1980, for instance, this clearly doesn’t entail that there is any kind of injustice in a 69% increase. As far as I’m concerned, high school teachers and firemen should get a 69% increase from what they currently earn.

Second, their sample is insane. $129,000 does seem like a helluva lot for a full-time faculty member, but it’s roughly twice as much as I make, which seems to be pretty uniform across my university.  To draw conclusions from one of the best endowed universities in the country is extremely misleading. Yale pays its professors a lot of money. That’s no surprise. It is and always has been a school for the exceptionally rich.

Moreover, to clump all faculty into one category — assistant, associate, full, with distinction, emeritus — from all ranges of discipline — economics, business, particle physics, philosophy, and English — is absolutely asinine. Surprise! It takes more to buy an econ guy than a philosophy guy. Hard to figure out why that might be.

Fourth, on a slightly different point, that faculty stars are often away from the classroom is probably a good damned thing. It’s good for the school and good for the students to have people producing research, learning from one another, and staying ahead of the game. You don’t want to strap Martha Nussbaum to the classroom so that she can’t participate in the public discourse, for instance. That would be an incredible blow to the University. You don’t want to tell Peter Singer to stop making appearances on the Daily Show so that he can get back to telling students what he thinks. That would hobble your asset.

The authors imply that the religion professors at Williams are just taking the year off, as if they’re going fly fishing, or as if they’re off to drink cocktails on the beach. Nothing could be sillier. I have no information about what those professors are up to, but I’d put my money on research… research that will eventually be published and trickle back to the students in the form of networking, prestige, experience, current knowledge, and so on. Depending on the kind of school in question, that’s what professors are paid to do. At an R1 university like the University of Colorado, it’s explicitly written into our contract that 40% of our time is to go to research. Couple this with the fact that most of us teach in our areas of research (naturally), and you’re looking at much larger chunks of our time dedicated to research, all of which essentially enriches the educational mission of the University. Fancy pants professors work closely with grad students who are kept up to date on the latest greatest stuff; grad students work with undergraduate students who get a slightly filtered picture, but still deal with budding young academics. It’s a pretty reasonable system, all told.

What should be called into question is not necessarily where the tuition money is going, but whether the authors of this absurd article understand the first thing about academia. They seem to have no or little clue what goes into a good education…at least a good education at a major research university.

…to be continued.

Caveat Emptor: I haven’t read their book. I’ve just read the populist drivel in this article. It’s intolerably boring and predictable. I’m sure the book will sell, but it’s easy to sell completely stupid ideas so long as they reinforce common ideological tropes…and this position certainly does that.


Online Ed

May 27, 2010

GinandTacos, by far one of my favoritest and cleverest writers in the blogoverse, has this interesting screed on Online Education:

When I first read DIY U, with its “Are you shitting me? Jesus, you’re serious, aren’t you?” subtitle Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, I knew nothing of author Anya Kamenetz but I was willing to put my life savings on her being affiliated with either Cato or Fast Company. Sure enough she turned out to be a Fast Company Imagineer or whatever they call their practitioners of this brand of sycophantic free market leg humping:

There’s something about “leg humping” that just starts me giggling, even when it’s my leg under the hump. Tell me honestly that it isn’t just gigglefest hysterical when some rat poodle decides that your ankle makes a fine motel room.

More seriously though, some administrators seem to like the idea of online education. They see it as a panacea. Some are so enamored with it that they’ll cut core departments. (Not sure if that’s actually the reason that the Middlesex philosophy department is under the knife, but you should probably read more about it and head over to this petition if you feel strongly enough.)

At Colorado, we’ve had a discussion in the philosophy department about our own online offerings, and to my surprise, a substantial number of my colleagues seem to acknowledge that there’s role and a space for online courses. I’ll confess to wildly tempered agreement. My wife, for instance, in prepping to retrain and enter a new grad program, took a few online classes to fulfill some undergraduate prerequisites. She seems to have been a model student. Not to boast, her virtual professors were all glowing about her performance. I think she even learned a fair amount. So I’ve seen online courses work and I believe that, in a few circumstances, they can work relatively well. I do think there’s a role for online education. But I can’t believe, as G&T rightly notes, that it will work very well in most circumstances. It certainly does not provide an education to the student. At best, it only offers the resources for a student to do better by themselves. But these resources have been in our libraries for centuries.

Online courses are, for lack of a better term, shit. No one who has taken or taught one can claim in earnest to have learned more than they do in traditional courses. Few could honestly claim that they learned anything at all. When the author of DIY U describes a model of students “cobbling” together a self-guided degree consisting of “course materials readily available online,” I cannot convince myself that the Yale-educated author believes that even as she is paid handsomely to type it. Perhaps 1/10 of a percent of undergraduates are mature and motivated enough to effectively direct their own course of study. What Kamenetz describes feels more like replacing the 12-course tasting menu at El Bulli with a trip to Old Country Buffet and calling it a wash. The idea that anything meeting her description would qualify as an education is prima facie ridiculous and requires no further discussion.

Sounds about right to me.

I haven’t yet peeked at this book by Martha Nussbaum, but it does seem that it may offer a counterbalance to the current absurdity afflicting the humanities.


Fishing Hunt

May 13, 2010

For those who may be of the mind that Cucinelli’s witch expedition against Michael Mann is limited to the climate community, I’m here to report that other academic blogs are now picking up the thread. Brian Leiter linked to it today, with the title, “The End of the University of Virginia.” More are sure to follow. Here’s a nice piece from the American Constitution Society.

Cuccinelli has acknowledged that he has a political agenda, and he seems to be pursuing it with every means at his disposal. As he told one reporter, “you know I’m a politician and I ran on an agenda for attorney general winning the most votes that anyone has ever gotten in history and I’m doing exactly what I said I was going to do.” (Apparently the role of the attorney general does not include coordinating with the governor, even in the same party; as Governor Bob McDonnell toldWashington Post reporter, “What the attorney general’s theories are – I only know what I read in the paper, and I’ve not spoken with him.”)

Cuccinelli has also said that he does not believe that human activities caused global warming. Eight days before he served the university with the subpoena, he filed suit against the Environmental Protection Agency, contending that the “Climategate” emails constitute after-discovered evidence – despite the academic and scientific consensus suggesting otherwise – that should compel the EPA to re-open public discussion over regulation of fuel standards.

Translation: this move against Mann is entirely political… which is a pretty damning (albeit not surprising) admission, if it’s the case that the allegation against Mann is that his science is sullied by the political.


Net Positive

April 12, 2010

Robert N. Watson, English Professor at UCLA, argues in this article that the humanities are a winning financial proposition for universities. I don’t have the numbers to confirm his calculations, but in a way, it makes sense to me. We teach a lot of classes, we don’t demand all that much, and we insist that our students wear togas. At least, that’s what we do at CU-Boulder. Here, read for yourselves:

But, according to spreadsheet calculations done at my request by Reem Hanna-Harwell, assistant dean of the humanities at the University of California at Los Angeles, based on the latest annual student-credit hours, fee levels, and total general-fund expenditures, the humanities there generate over $59 million in student fees, while spending only $53.5 million (unlike the physical sciences, which came up several million dollars short in that category). The entire teaching staff of Writing Programs, which is absolutely essential to UCLA’s educational mission, has been sent firing notices, even though the spreadsheet shows that program generating $4.3 million dollars in fee revenue, at a cost of only $2.4 million.


That isn’t an eccentric calculation. Of the 21 units at the University of Washington, the humanities and, to a lesser degree, the social sciences are the only ones that generate more tuition income than 100 percent of their total expenditure. Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, recently cited a University of Illinois report showing that a large humanities department like English produces a substantial net profit, whereas units such as engineering and agriculture run at a loss. The widely respected Delaware Study of Instructional Costs and Productivity shows the same pattern.


Mama’s Boy

April 10, 2010

Crooked Timber and FeministPhilosophers both have posts about the case of a female colleague of mine — no, not a CU professor; in my wider community of colleagues — who has been given all manner of inappropriate run-around in response to revealing that she (a single mom) would need to bring her pre-teen son with her to an NEH seminar. You can read about the case at either of the above blogs.


For My Students

March 28, 2010

Tips on outlining for an exam. Also of interest is this nice overview of San Francisco’s proposed “sit-lie” ordinance.