Thursday, September 16, 2010

Could academic tenure become a repugnant transaction?

In an essay in the NY Times Book Review, Christopher Shea reflects on some recent books that suggest it might: The End of Tenure?

"In tough economic times, it’s easy to gin up anger against elites. The bashing of bankers is already so robust that the economist William Easterly has compared it, with perhaps a touch of hyperbole, to genocidal racism. But in recent months, a more unlikely privileged group has found itself in the cross hairs: tenured ­professors.

"At a time when nearly one in 10 American workers is unemployed, here’s a crew (the complaint goes) who are guaranteed jobs for life, teach only a few hours a week, routinely get entire years off, dump grading duties onto graduate students and produce “research” on subjects like “Rednecks, Queers and Country Music” or “The Whatness of Books.” Or maybe they stop doing research altogether (who’s going to stop them?), dropping their workweek to a manageable dozen hours or so, all while making $100,000 or more a year. Ready to grab that pitchfork yet?

"That sketch — relayed on numerous blogs and op-ed pages — is exaggerated, but no one who has observed the academic world could call it entirely false. And it’s a vision that has caught on with an American public worried about how to foot the bill for it all. The cost of a college education has risen, in real dollars, by 250 to 300 percent over the past three decades, far above the rate of inflation. Elite private colleges can cost more than $200,000 over four years. Total student-loan debt, at nearly $830 billion, recently surpassed total national credit card debt. Meanwhile, university presidents, who can make upward of $1 million annually, gravely intone that the $50,000 price tag doesn’t even cover the full cost of a year’s education. (Consider the balance a gift!) Then your daughter reports that her history prof is a part-time adjunct, who might be making $1,500 for a semester’s work. There’s something wrong with this picture.
"The higher-ed jeremiads of the last generation came mainly from the right. But this time, it’s the tenured radicals — or at least the tenured liberals — who are leading the charge. "

He goes on to say that the books he reviews call for a separation of research and teaching, with universities to concentrate only on teaching.

Tenure is tied up with a different bundle of issues at research universities, but even here it can raise questions, as the Harvard Crimson reports in connection with a recent, widely reported case of academic misconduct (about which relatively little has yet been made public): Hauser Losing Tenure Not Likely, Harvard’s History Shows--A review of recent cases of faculty misconduct reveals tenure termination is rare

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