How Professors Play the Cat Guarding the Cream: Why We're Paying More And Getting Less In Higher Education

Richard M. Huber
Fairfax, VA: George Mason University Press, 1992
201 pp., $19.95 hc

Paul Trout

Huber's little book is a startling exercise in truth-telling and ironizing. Meant to stir up tuition-paying mums and dads to demand that professors teach more and publish less, it winds up--ironically and inadvertently--justifying the academic value system it purportedly seeks to discredit. Huber is too little the polemicist and too much the critical thinker.

Huber wants to explain to parents and taxpayers that the procedures and values of academic culture are undermining the quality of undergraduate instruction and driving up the cost of tuition. In May 1993, Yale University announced that the four-year cost for tuition, room and board would be $100,440. The tuition at Dartmouth and most other Ivy League universities hovers at around $25,000 a year. According to Huber, undergraduate education is more expensive than it needs to be and not as good as it should be because administrators and professors have elevated research and publication over teaching.

The reason is quite simple. Research and publication, not teaching, confer "prestige" and enhance a university's reputation. Almost all schools want to increase their reps because a good rep brings benefits--from outside grants to larger endowments. Administrators thus reward research and publication, and professors naturally respond to the reward system. They research and write, because it's publication, not the amount or quality of teaching, that separates a $30,000 salary from a $40,000 salary.

Because professors do as little teaching as possible, TAs and adjuncts have to be hired to teach the students professors don't, thus driving up the cost of education. This is the dynamic at all universities aspiring to academic distinction.

Administrators, of course, want to keep this from taxpayers. They proclaim that teaching is the most important activity on campus; professors smirk and rally behind the administration for lying on their behalf. One way the administration keeps the cost of research hidden, Huber argues, is by listing the salaries of professors on research leave as an instructional expense.

Huber tells it like it is: the more scholarship being done at a university, "the fewer the students taught by the faculty and the less productivity per student. The less productivity per student, the higher the cost to nourish the undergraduate to the baccalaureate. The higher the cost, the higher the tuition" (138). In other words, when parents pay the high tuitions at prestigious scholarly institutions, they are paying for their kids not to be taught by the renowned scholars who give the institution its reputation in the first place.

Huber, a traditional liberal-arts educator, is troubled by all this because the educational mission of the university "is not supposed to be about the self-interest of the teacher but the self-development of the students. Teachers do not pursue ambitious personal goals but rather guide others to their goals."

The problem goes well beyond the issue of costs and productivity, however. Huber believes that this value system also undermines the quality of undergraduate instruction. Professors, more concerned about their scholarly reputations than the intellectual development of a handful of unsophisticated students, teach narrowly focused courses designed to support research, not broad-based courses that introduce students to a wide range of topics. "A sophomore English major said his introduction to Hemingway was a course this year devoted to how Hemingway novels deal with homosexuality" (114). The best undergraduate education, Huber believes, "is taught by generalists who take their students on an adventure into contrasting texts and events, not specialists entering a tunnel of narrowing documents probing for answers to stunted questions" (115). Needless to say, compliant administrators are eager to go along with the professors because anything that gives professors "an advantage in the annual bake-off of papers at scholarly conventions" (114) eventually enhances the reputation of the university and increases the salaries of administrators.

Although Huber's depiction of academic culture is disconcertingly accurate, his analysis and interpretation of the effects of that culture are not wholly satisfactory. For example, Huber does not explain how this dynamic began in the first place. Why should research and publication confer prestige while teaching does not? Could it be that teaching is neither as difficult nor as important as we publicly say it is? Could it be that the production of published knowledge is inherently more valuable to society than classroom pedagogy? Could it be that the sciences--where publishing research for experts is clearly more important than announcing it in class--provide the scholarly model for other academic disciplines?

Huber's concept of "productivity" is woefully narrow. In computing the rising costs of education wrought by research, Huber's humanist bias prevents him from factoring in the enormous sums brought to campus by research grants. Would the availability of this money explain why schools hunger for prestige? Would it somehow justify economically the privileging of research and publication over undergraduate education?

Also, there are other ways of explaining rising tuition than the cost of paying productive scholars to publish more and teach less. Two-year colleges--where research is not required--have almost the same rate of tuition increase for the five years after 1980 as colleges overall (65 percent for public two-year colleges versus 69 for four-year public colleges, and 69 percent for public two-year colleges versus 70 percent for public four-year colleges). I'm no whiz with numbers but these figures (from 1992 Statistical Abstract, Table 269) would weaken the case that playing the research game is what drives up tuitions! (For the opposite view, see "Why College Tuitions Are so High," The Atlantic, March 1993, 32).

Another factor that might be driving up tuitions is that more and more students are apparently coming to campus in desperate need of expensive "student services"--how to put on a condom, how to say no (to whatever), how to write, how to think, how to read, how to stay sober. And even undergraduates need new labs, library books, computers, and other things that give them a solid education.

Another problem is that Huber has nothing to say about the cost-effectiveness of graduate education. He dismisses this crucial component of higher education by asserting that "graduate school is designed to produce scholars" (124), but this is a gross oversimplification of a very complex enterprise. Is it possible that there are more social and economic benefits from graduate education than Huber wants to admit?

And it seems to me that Huber's basic indictment of the research vs. teaching dynamic stumbles over the ironies he himself draws out. As Huber sees it, the greater a university's reputation for scholarship, the more it can charge for tuition. The more it charges for tuition, the greater its reputation. The greater its reputation, the more placeable and successful its graduates. The more successful its graduates, the bigger its endowment. The bigger its endowment, the more it can afford to support research that increases its reputation!

In other words, a collusion of economic interests conspire to make research more valued than teaching:

Faculty scholarship largely determines the academic distinction of the university. A portion of the tuition increase is justified as money to provide faculty with facilities and time to do research. Parents benefit because their child has earned a baccalaureate from a prestigious college that the scholarly faculty has created. Students enter the real world with a marketable degree for a promising career. Faculty, for whom academic prestige is often the sharper spur, publish and are honored by their peers for scholarly eminence. Alumni enjoy equity protection of their degree. "Town" benefits from the flow of income from a secure and sought-after "Gown." The nation recognizes the faculty contribution to knowledge which helps to sustain the United States in its position of cultural, scientific, and economic preeminence around the world. (8)

But hasn't Huber given away too much here? People are willing to pay the enormous tuitions mentioned earlier because a degree from a distinguished university is economically worth more than a degree from a less distinguished university. A university distinguishes itself not through superior teaching or more onerous faculty workloads (!) but through publications and grant money. So, if students and parents are economically benefiting from this situation, then what's the problem? Maybe tuition is going up at prestigious universities but the value of degrees from these schools is going up, too, thanks to the reputations these schools have earned through research and scholarship. The only complaint students and parents could have is if the cost of the tuition is going up faster than the equity of the degree, but Huber doesn't even try to make this case. In other words, the cats are guarding the cream.

I suspect that Huber is actually troubled by something else. He believes, I think, that an emphasis on research hurts the quality of undergraduate education. Many others have argued the same thing. The problem with this argument is that there is no cogent evidence to support it. No one knows for sure if undergraduate instruction is better, worse, or the same; folks, we don't even know what these terms mean.

In the absence of statistically valid national studies, all we have is surmises. One surmise is that teaching must be worse because TAs are doing almost half of it. But the mere fact that TAs are teaching a number of underdivision courses is not itself persuasive proof that their students (most? many? some?) are being taught poorly or in any other way disadvantaged. Part-timers and TAs may not be as knowledgeable or credentialed as the distinguished, much-published scholars they replace, but this does not mean that they are less qualified than these professors to teach lower-division courses. Couldn't it just as plausibly be argued that today's first- and second-year students could learn as much from personable, conscientious, and committed part-timers and TAs as from hot-shot middle-aged scholars preoccupied with the latest research and trendiest ideas? Would not TAs and part-timers be more inclined to offer those broad, generalist courses and approaches that Huber so much esteems? Who knows, maybe it would be beneficial and cost-effective to keep publishing scholars out of lower-division courses?

It is also logically inconsistent to argue that there is something seriously wrong with undergraduate education at research institutions and then to say that those who graduate from these institutions enter the world "with a marketable degree for a promising career." If that's the case, then how are these students being disadvantaged?

Perhaps Huber's would respond by saying that although students have been taught well enough to get high-paying jobs, they still haven't had a humanistic education. For the sake of argument, let's admit this. But look on the bright side. Liberal-arts courses have done precious little to protect English professors from all manner of private and professional absurdities. Given the unmoored and politicized state of most disciplines in the humanities, it might be better if students took fewer such courses, not more. What Huber and other humanists find hard to admit is that there are other and perhaps surer routes to wisdom than classes in "UFOs in American Society" (Temple), "The Beatles and their Age" (Amherst), "The Virtues of Vice" (Hampshire), and "Transsexualism and Society" (Northern Arizona).

These are only some of the ironies and ambiguities Huber identifies but fails to puzzled out in his otherwise shrewd and provocative analysis of a complex and obscure culture.

[Editor's Note: Recent polls show Ivy League graduates, whose schools emphasize research, make an average of $32,000 more than graduates of other universities.]

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