[The Montana Professor 21.2, Spring 2011 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—and What We Can Do About It

Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus
New York: Times Books, Henry Holt and Company, 2010
271 pp., $26 hc

Henry Gonshak
Montana Tech-UM

Abolish faculty tenure. Get rid of university-sponsored professorial research. Downsize college administrations and cut administrative salaries, especially for college presidents. Pay adjuncts the same amount as tenure-track faculty if they teach the same classes. Replace vocational education with a focus on the liberal arts. Eliminate varsity athletics, making college sports exclusively intramural. Reduce faculty governance. Slash the cost of a college education.

These are some of the sweeping proposals offered by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus in their provocatively titled Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—and What We Can Do About it. The media buzz on their book is that it is a hatchet job on academia. Probably many academics will accept this verdict and dismiss the book out of hand. But Higher Education? deserves a more thoughtful response. Parts of the book are certainly over-stated, and some of the authors' proposals are highly unrealistic, even if they have validity. However, in my own experiences as a professor and in talking with colleagues on my own and other campuses, I sense a consensus among the professorate that something is profoundly wrong with American higher education, and reading this book has only confirmed my fears. Rather than merely defensively circling the wagons, professors and college administrators need to be holding meaningful discussions—among ourselves and with the wider public—about how to solve some of the pressing problems confronting contemporary higher education. After all, the future of the next generation is at stake.

Intriguingly, Higher Education? is an attack on the university that comes, for a change, from the political left. Andrew Hacker is a respected liberal academic (he teaches political science at Queens College in New York City) who is best known for publishing an unapologetic defense of affirmative action and an attack on the continued scourge of racism in our society: Two Nations: Black & White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal. His co-author, Claudia Dreifus, is a science reporter for that bastion of the journalistic left, The New York Times. Indeed, the authors have relatively little to say about the much-ballyhooed debate over "political correctness" in academe, beyond noting that studies show that the American professorate is overwhelmingly liberal, especially on elite campuses. (A study at Stanford, e.g., revealed that Democrats outnumber Republicans among Stanford professors by a ratio of nine to one.) But, in general, the authors' criticisms of higher education are more practical than ideological.

Hacker and Dreifus begin by discussing an issue that has received an increasing amount of public attention: the privileging of research over teaching in determining faculty tenure and promotion. The authors make the obvious point that when promotion is decided primarily by publication record, professors will naturally focus mostly on their scholarship, to the detriment of their teaching. Hacker and Dreifus note that this imbalance exists today even at less prestigious colleges. There is truth here. At my own school of Montana Tech, e.g., which bills itself as a teaching institution, it used to be possible to be granted tenure on the basis of good teaching alone, but now one must have at least some publications in order to get promoted, regardless of one's teaching ability. Hacker and Dreifus also question the wisdom of granting professors paid research sabbaticals, which pull these faculty out of the classroom. As a result of sabbaticals, and of teaching loads kept low in order to facilitate research, star professors may rarely teach undergraduates. The authors question the professor/scholar model enshrined in academia today. A professor's primary purpose, they insist, must be to teach. How many parents saving their hard-earned money in order to send their children to college are aware, they ask, that most schools value research over teaching, regardless of what their public relations divisions proclaim?

The authors challenge academia's common defense that teaching and research complement one another, since professors can channel their scholarship into their pedagogy and vice-versa. In rebuttal, Hacker and Dreifus stress that most professorial scholarship today is so specialized and arcane that it is incomprehensible to the average college student, especially on the undergraduate level. On the contrary, the practical result of the teaching/research nexus, they insist, is to push faculty to teach their specialities, rather than offering the kind of broad, introductory education students actually need. In support of their contention, the authors share a sample of esoteric course titles they have gleaned from a perusal of college catalogs: Quest, Riddle, and Resolution in Modernism; Realisms and Anti-Realisms; Language, Disability, Fiction; Transgression and Redemption. General educators need not apply. Hacker and Dreifus conclude this section of the book by arguing that if professors wish to do research, they should do it on their own time (during, say, their extended winter and summer vacations), rather than expecting institutional support.

If research-oriented academic readers of Higher Education? are not sufficiently irate by the time they finish this chapter, they should be truly incensed when Hacker and Dreifus question one of the most cherished of professorial prerogatives: shared faculty governance. Most colleges and universities are run, at least in theory, democratically. The "Statement of Professional Ethics" issued by the American Association of University Professors, e.g., lists as one of its items: "Professors accept their share of faculty responsibilities for the governance of their institution." But Hacker and Dreifus wonder whether this is the most efficient way to run a university. As the saying goes, too many cooks spoil the broth. Can a college smoothly operate, they ask, when most institutional decisions have to be proposed (or at least seconded) by a faculty committee?

Here, I am ambivalent about the authors' argument. On the one hand, like many professors, I imagine, I have sat on too many academic committees to extol them as a model of managerial excellence. On the contrary, in my experience, such committees usually meet repeatedly (meetings at which long-winded faculty members drone on incessantly), draft lengthy reports, and then...nothing gets done. On the other hand, I think Hacker and Dreifus are much too sanguine about what will happen if administrators are granted free rein. Even with the faculty governance model in place, professors often complain about administrative high-handedness. At Montana Tech, e.g., the administration tried to push through a proposal that would have mandated that every faculty member follow a standardized syllabus, rather than, as is currently the case, crafting a syllabus tailored to the professor's individual course. It was only faculty governance which defeated this ill-advised proposal.

While Higher Education? wants, as noted, to grant more power to administrative governance, this is by no means a book which will warm the cockles of an administrator's heart. Instead, Hacker and Dreifus maintain that—as part of a larger trend in American society toward excessive bureaucratization—there is a big problem in the American university with administrative bloat. As evidence, the authors cite some of the dubious new administrative posts which have been created on some campuses: Residential Communications Coordinator, Coordinator of Learning Immersion Experiences, Director of Knowledge Access Services, Dietetic Internship Director, Vice President of Student Success. Are all these new administrators really needed? I do not doubt that Hacker and Dreifus have a point, but it seems unfair for the authors merely to list these administrative posts without examining what it is these administrators actually do. A Vice President of Student Success, e.g., might contribute to a university's educational mission. Nor are all colleges expanding their administrations. For instance, at Montana Tech, over the last few years we have actually cut two administrative positions—a vice-chancellor and a dean. (I might add that Tech has functioned just fine without them.)

Continuing their assault against collegiate administration, Hacker and Dreifus claim that not only do universities suffer from administrative bloat, but administrators, especially college presidents, tend to be grossly overpaid. As one of many examples, they cite E. Gordon Gee, president of Ohio State University (a public institution), whose annual salary package exceeds $2 million. The common defense of such astronomical salaries is that colleges must offer this money in order to attract top administrators in the field. But Hacker and Dreifus insist (perhaps with excessive idealism) that university presidents should remember that they are public servants—paid to provide the best possible education for their students, not to amass a personal fortune. If they want to rake in the dough, let them apply to be a CEO at IBM. The salaries of college presidents are one of many reasons, the authors argue, for the exorbitant cost of college tuition.

Another reason for the soaring cost of a college education, according to Hacker and Dreifus, is varsity athletics, which cost a bundle and almost always lose money. Moreover, only a tiny percentage of the student body actually participates in varsity sports. By the authors' count, only 6 percent of college men and 3.6 percent of college women spend time playing varsity athletics. All those other students are reduced to the rather pathetic role of wildly cheering fans, even though their student fees partly finance the considerable costs incurred by these teams. As for the college athletes themselves, they often travel huge distances to play teams from other states, missing scores of classes. Hacker and Dreifus wonder why team schedules cannot be restricted to opponents closer to home. Admittedly, college sports have been excoriated in many other books, such as Murray Sperber's Beer and Circus: How Big-Time College Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education (a source Hacker and Dreifus acknowledge), and the authors of Higher Education? have little new to add to this bandwagon.

In perhaps their most important chapter, Hacker and Dreifus consider the consequences of the explosion of adjunct faculty and graduate teaching assistants as instructors for many undergraduate courses (especially at the introductory level), while tenured profs devote their time to cozy graduate seminars filled with a handful of adoring acolytes. Not mincing words, the authors depict these instructors (whom they label "contingent" faculty) as a kind of peasant class toiling in the supposedly democratic groves of academe. In 1975, they note, only 43% of college teachers were classified by the US Department of Education as contingents; today, the figure is nearly 70%. These professors teach for the equivalent of eight or nine dollars an hour, sans benefits. Universities are able to hire contingent faculty at such starvation wages because over the last several decades higher education has been spewing PhD's out of graduate programs into a depleted job market. Between 2005 and 2007, American universities awarded 101,009 doctoral degrees, while the number of new assistant professorships created in those years was only 15,820. (Admittedly, this statistic fails to consider the number of replacement positions that were available.) It does not help that tenured professors are often loath to retire (even after they are well past their prime as teachers), and, when they finally do step down, universities often fill their positions with contingent faculty as a cost-saving measure. Here, I am in complete agreement with Hacker and Dreifus. The prevalence and mistreatment of contingent faculty in academia is a disgrace. I fully support their proposal that if contingent instructors teach the same courses as tenured profs, they should receive the same salaries, including benefits.

I am less incensed, however, by the policy of having introductory courses taught by graduate teaching assistants. When I was a grad student at the University of Denver back in the '80s, I was an English TA, and it was a good arrangement. Not only did we receive free tuition and a modest stipend, but we also garnered valuable teaching experience that helped us when we began applying for tenure-track jobs. Of course, I was under no illusion that the university was offering these teaching assistantships out of a tender regard for our well-being. On the contrary, we were a willing pool of cheap labor, who taught the courses the tenured faculty hated, especially Freshman Composition. Still, as noted, it was a good deal. The only losers, it seems in retrospect, were our students, since most of us (generally only a year or two older than they) were woefully ill-qualified. At DU, I was required to take exactly one teaching seminar (devoted almost entirely to compositional theory) before I was thrown into the classroom. Not surprisingly, I was not Mr. Chips.

The most controversial chapter in Higher Education?, at least from the perspective of academic readers, is the authors' call for the abolition of tenure, probably the professorate's most jealously guarded perquisite (as Hacker and Dreifus fully recognize). Academia's standard defense of tenure is that it protects academic freedom, the ability of professors to teach new, possibly controversial material, without fear of getting fired. Such freedom is required, this argument goes, if education is to push into hitherto unexplored terrain, which it must do in order to remain relevant. The alternative to tenure, these defenders invariably argue, is a return to the dark days of McCarthyism, when professors were routinely fired for alleged Communist sympathies. Hacker and Dreifus are no fans of McCarthyism, but they insist, in a counter-intuitive argument, that tenure does not protect academic freedom, that if administrators are hell-bent on terminating the contract of a faculty member they will do so, tenure be damned.

As proof of this assertion, the authors cite the well-known case of Ward Churchill, an Ethnic Studies professor at the University of Colorado. Shortly after 9/11, Churchill published an inflammatory essay in an obscure academic journal in which he claimed that the victims of the World Trade Center terrorist attacks were "little Eichmanns," since, as financiers for American imperialism in the Muslim world, they played a role in fomenting the grievances of Al-Qaeda. Years later Churchill's article was exposed, and a predictable public furor ensued. Eventually, the UC administration fired an unrepentant Churchill—insisting, rather implausibly, that the grounds for termination were based on charges of plagiarism in Churchill's scholarship, rather than on his incendiary article. The fact that Churchill was tenured did not prevent his being let go. Not surprisingly, Churchill appealed his firing in court, and the UC administration's decision was reversed, although an ambivalent jury awarded Churchill only $1 in compensatory damages. Moreover, when the university appealed, in 2009, the verdict was reversed, and Churchill's termination upheld, with the judge ruling that the university had acted in a "quasi-judicial" manner that shielded them from lawsuits. Of course, Churchill's lawyers are re-appealing, but legal experts give the ex-professor little chance of winning his suit. The ultimate verdict in the Churchill case would seem to support Hacker and Dreifus' central contention: if university administrators are committed to firing a faculty member, they can successfully do so, even if he or she is tenured.

As the Churchill case demonstrates, the debate over professorial tenure is hardly theoretical. As of this writing, a bill has been proposed in the Montana legislature to abolish tenure not only in higher education but also on the K-12 level. Hacker and Dreifus argue that tenure should be replaced by long-term, renewable contracts for faculty. Such contracts, they claim, would solve the problem of dreadful teachers who are shielded from disciplinary action by their tenured status. Even under this new system, the authors maintain, universities would still be free to institute policies that protect academic freedom.

Hacker and Dreifus' call for the abolition of tenure is their least persuasive proposal. The authors correctly note that untenured professors are anything but free, since they must weigh every move they make on the basis of whether or not it will please their colleagues, who hold their academic futures in their hands. How, though, would this situation be improved by abolishing tenure? Would not such a move simply mean that all faculty, rather than merely untenured ones, would operate in a state of permanent anxiety, forever fearing that if they did anything to annoy their superiors their contracts would not be renewed?

On the other hand, Hacker and Dreifus have unearthed a legitimate, indeed serious problem, the invulnerability to correction of lazy or incompetent or tyrannical tenured professors. Academics should be seeking solutions to this problem, rather than merely defending to the death the tenure system. If the abolition of tenure is not the answer, then other answers must be found. One solution is to put teeth in the process of post-tenure review—a process which now is largely a formality. But this is easier said than done. Hacker and Dreifus are right that a main reason administrators fear disciplining tenured profs is because they are terrified these professors will sue, citing the alleged abrogation of their tenure protections. (As an aside, the authors note that colleges are among the most often sued institutions in American society—another reason for the staggering cost of a college education.) But if the grounds for revoking tenure were broadened, enabling administrators to display more fortitude, perhaps post-tenure review could actually mean something. Another possibility, raised to me by a colleague, is to withhold salary increases for grossly underperforming tenured professors. No doubt such a proposal would raise the hackles of the professorate, but it is worth considering.

Just as I am unpersuaded by Hacker and Dreifus' call for the abolition of tenure, I am equally dubious of their proposal to eliminate all vocational education, replacing it with a curriculum focused exclusively on non-vocational subjects such as those found in the humanities and the liberal arts. Not that their argument here is without merit. The authors are right that it is absurd to force callow 18-year-old freshmen to choose a career that will occupy most of the rest of their lives. Moreover, as an English professor, I am pleased by their insistence that college should make students more empathetic, informed human beings, rather than merely training them for future employment. I am even intrigued by the authors' claim that, since they are usually taught by professors with doctorates rather than by people with hands-on experience in the working world, most vocationally-oriented courses focus on theoretical rather than practical knowledge. The authors claim as well that many vital vocational skills can be learned on the job from superiors and co-workers, rather than in a classroom.

Nonetheless, the fact remains that higher education is moving in a more, not less, vocational direction. As an English professor at Montana Tech, I am reminded of this reality every day. This vocational focus is economically driven. In our shaky economy, students are under enormous pressure to garner job skills during their college years. The liberal arts may entice them, but they are almost always seen as an unaffordable luxury. No matter how much Hacker and Dreifus lament this state of affairs, it is not going to change. Their call for the abolition of vocational education on the undergraduate level, alas, cannot be taken seriously.

However, many other arguments in Higher Education? deserve to be taken very seriously indeed. Hacker and Dreifus' provocative book provides a good starting place for a discussion about how to fix the broken American university.

[The Montana Professor 21.2, Spring 2011 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

Contents | Home