BOOK TALK: A Vuvuzela Rattles the Ivory Tower

December 3, 2010 | CUNY Matters

By Gary Schmidgall

The joint authors of Higher Education? (Times Books) have produced a vuvuzela of a book intended to rattle nerves in some normally complacent corners of the nation’s ivory towers: faculty lounges, presidential suites, trustees’ board rooms, and field houses of varsity boosters.

They may not get an “A” for specificity about what they would really like to see on U.S. campuses: They declare that a baccalaureate degree’s “original and enduring purpose” is simply “to challenge the minds and imagination of this nation’s young people.” But Andrew Hacker (who teaches political science at Queens College and is known for his contributions to the New York Review of Books and his best-selling Two Nations: Black and White) and Claudia Dreifus (who teaches at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs and writes for “Science Times” in The New York Times) are highly specific about the many diseases they find afflicting undergraduate education in our 4,352 colleges and universities. That question mark in the title is one of sarcasm and disbelief. The book’s dedication aptly promises bluntness: “To our country’s students, who deserve better.”

That question mark in the title is one of sarcasm and disbelief. The book’s dedication aptly promises bluntness: “To our country’s students, who deserve better.”

That question mark in the title is one of sarcasm and disbelief. The book’s dedication aptly promises bluntness: “To our country’s students, who deserve better.”

The “world of the professoriate” claims their first attention, and the picture is not pretty. Self-governance produces a “committee virus.” Carleton College in Minnesota has 68 standing committees, they note. To the authors, this is “busy work,” often a surrogate for “faculty members who have long since given up on scholarship.” Professorial hubris is also endemic: “At many colleges, professors like to feel they have co-equal status with their president.” Are there really professors that nutty? And professors do so little work for such “munificent” salaries! The authors calculate a Yale professor’s wage at $820 an hour, but they do not include time spent preparing classes, reading exams and papers, or directing theses.

Though statistics are frequently injected usefully into their thesis-building, there is much argument by scathing anecdote. Occasionally, these verge on the far-fetched (not to say catty), like this one on a classroom flatliner: “A story is told of a classroom where all the students were busily scribbling as the professor droned on. All, that is, but one, a young woman in the back row, who wrote down nary a word. How so? She had with her the notes that her mother had taken for that class during her own student days.” And would any professor say at a first class, as one at Oregon State is quoted as saying, “I’m here to do research; I’m forced to teach; so you are not going to have a good term”?

Sabbaticals do not appeal to these spartan authors; paid ones should be ended. “If professors are burning to write books, they have long summers and three-day weekends.” Indeed, the one mention of CUNY in the book is apropos its (fairly recent) increase of sabbatical support from 50 to 80 percent of salary. And what do these sabbaticals produce? Publications! They are another “virus” which gets in the way of teaching. “If anything, there’s an inverse correlation between good teaching and academic research,” say Hacker and Dreifus.

Needless to say, the authors don’t like tenure and reject academic freedom as its raison d’être by concluding that, when institutions really want to can a professor, they will do so (the University of Colorado’s Ward Churchill, famed for calling 9/11 victims “little Eichmanns,” is their trump card here). Another downside to tenure is all the risk-averse assistant professors it encourages. In any event, the actual revocation of tenure for cause is extremely rare, and the authors, unwilling to entertain the extreme of mandatory retirement, might have been more specific about ways to put teeth into “post-tenure review” and tackle the most common tenure problem: how to remove incompetent teachers from the classroom.

Big is Bad is a consistent theme of Higher Education? Particularly appalling is explosive growth in administrative personnel on campus (70 percent of prestigious Williams College’s employees are non-teaching). They also dislike the proliferation of majors that, instead of “enriching young minds,” are purely vocational. They list on one page 33 bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2008 that they feel should be non grata on campus, among them resort management, sport management, baking and pastry arts, robotic technology, and hazardous materials management. I’d hate to be the one to banish them today, though, when the hue and cry is jobs, jobs, jobs.

Engineering programs, too, are not for undergraduates; they are best left for graduate study. As for business schools, Hacker and Dreifus cite the “best study” they could find on the subject (from Penn), which concluded that “the most crucial skills are learned on the job, across all occupations and professions.” Sayonara, undergraduate Whartonites!

Some readers of Higher Education? may applaud the authors’ dim view of “the world of self-delusion and magical thinking that shrouds much of intercollegiate athletics.” They point to the University of Texas, which has in place a $100 million budget for its 16 varsity sports — in which a mere 1.4 percent of its students participate. Its football coach has a $5 million annual salary, and half of NCAA coaches earn at least $252,000. We also learn that the “overwhelming majority” of 17,917 sport teams end up losing money; 113 of the 118 teams in Division I football run a deficit. Sports on campus, Hacker and Dreifus say, is an “incubus.” They point to Cooper Union as having the proper game attitude: its budget for teams in 15 sports is $20,000, and students, who compete for fun, get to their away games on public transportation.

Among other chapters are ones devoted to “The Golden Dozen” (prestigious schools whose glamor blinds us to virtues of schools in lower tiers), “Contingent Education” (the exploited underclasses on the faculty payroll), and “Why College Costs So Much” (among the answers: an out-of-control “amenities race,” too much dependence on expensive college loan programs).

Hacker and Dreifus also offer a surprising, serendipitous list of their “top ten” picks for a bachelor’s degree, urging parents to “think outside the box.” Their list certainly does. It includes Ole Miss (for its new spirit of racial reconciliation and Center for Southern Culture), Cooper Union (who couldn’t love a place that, thanks to its endowment, has no tuition?), little Berea College in Kentucky (also no tuition, but students must give 10 hours of labor a week), and Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA (“John Dewey would love Evergreen,” with its communal ideals and democratic governance).

They sum up their recommendations in a final Coda, which includes: Stop relying on loans, presidents should be public servants, spin off medical schools and research centers, demand that the Golden Dozen deliver, end exploitation of adjuncts and make students use their minds. All easier said than done.


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