Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Friday, March 17, 2006

American Academia

Hi All,

Last weeks issue of The Economist (the one with Bush riding a nuke) has an article about what's wrong with American academia. They argue that the biggest problems are the tenure system which prevent unproductive professors from being fired, a systematic disrespect for undergraduate teaching, and pervasive limitations on free speech imposed by a wide spread ideology of political correctness. I usually agree with The Economist but on this one I think they got much of their argument wrong and some of the rest of it backwards.

I think the biggest problem in American academia is the increasing share of the university budget being devoted to matters completely unrelated to either the research or the teaching mission of the university. Administrative functions and "student life" functions are growing exponentially as a share of the university budget. Even as overall budgets decline (especially at state universities), the amounts spent on and by various Deans, Associate Deans, Provosts etc goes up every year. Yet this was not mentioned by The Economist.

The next biggest problem in American academia is related to the explosion of administrative overhead. That is the proliferation of separate departments for every obscure and politically motivated field of study. For example while sociology, political science, anthropology and history all produce volumes of work on ethnicity and culture, there are now separate departments (which means separate administrative staff, offices, budgets etc) for every ethnic group you can imagine. The existence of these new disciplines depends entirely on the political demand for departmental status by interest group activists rather than any real difference between the new discipline and the more established fields. This was mentioned tangentially by The Economist.

The Economist reserved its greatest criticism for the tenure system. They blame it for "unproductive" faculty who don't spend enough time teaching undergraduates. But they fail completely to define what a productive faculty member would look like. If universities banned tenure tomorrow but still required publications for promotion, it would make faculty less attentive to undergrads not more. Furthermore, the tenure system was originally designed (and is often used) as protection against exactly the kind of PC tyranny that The Economist complains about. In the past it was centrists and leftist academics being protected from the excesses of the far right. Now it is the far left that is threatening academic freedom on campus (although not nearly as much as the far right did in the past).

So what do I propose? If I were dictator of the universe, I would eliminate all the "fill-in-your-favorite-group-studies" departments and fold their faculty back into the traditional fields of their choice (anthro, soc, poli sci, history etc). That would allow me to lay off dozens of otherwise useless administrators who do little more than soak up resources. Any extra money created by this process would be spent on hiring more faculty so that the ridiculous practice of crammig hundreds of students into each course could be addressed.

What do you all think?


Anonymous said...

I haven't read the article yet. However, I think that in addition to what you propose, there are some bigger systemic problems with Academia and what it does to academics.

1. The prevalence of the publish-or-perish culture. 

Academics/intellectuals often bring intangible assets to the table, thus their production levels can't be easily measured. So there is the idea that you can measure their influence and thus contribution only by how many articles they got published and how many committees they sat on. None of these things enriches the teaching aspect of the university mission. This leads to additional problems such as increased competition among peers, shoddy research, and a bad attitude on the part of academics. A lot of what gets published under the title of "scholarship" is rubbish or so fringe that no one but a minor few are interested. Thus, it gives little back to society as a whole.

To alleviate this, I'd do two things. A) I'd separate the research side from the teaching side. B) I require my professors to do community service.

California sort of tried idea A by creating a 2-tiered university system. However, the publish-or-perish culture is now seeping into the CSU system. The way I see it, those professors who want to do research can do that and those that want to teach can teach while inviting the research professors to come into the classroom from time to time to lecture and share their research with students. The role of a TA would be to assist the professor in counseling students and grading papers, or to step in when the professor is ill or can't teach. TAs do not replace the professor. Beyond that, my professors would have as their primary mission to teach.

My professors who research would have TA as well, but those would be used to assist in the lab, help do research for papers and edit, etc.

I wouldn't expect one person to be both teacher and researcher. With all the work that teaching requires, that isn't possible. I think if you could pull professors out of the publish or parish culture, you'd find the strength of the teaching greatly improve.

As for B, If we make students do community service work, I think it wouldn't hurt to require professors to do it as well. In fairness, many already do. I'd make it mandatory. It might better inform their teaching and, if they have time, their academic articles. And it would alleviate the ivory tower syndrome, build character, and perhaps instill a bit of humility.

2. Professors who use their degrees to legitimate themselves as news spinners or celebrities.

These are the guys who leave teaching for to go sit in a think tank and then start turning up on Fox News as "experts". The problem here is that these outlets are not forums for reasoned debate or discussion, but for sound bites. So academics will give up their gravitas to blend in. Result- inappropriate use of their knowledge and a cult of personality. It is always easier to spout sound bites than real information. So rather than improving the national dialogue, these guys in their arrogance, actually bring it down. RBR is correct in his tactic to build a Chinese wall between the two areas as he does.

Universities love this sort of news thing because it gives them PR. I think eliminating some of the administrative overhead would also eliminate the PR focus. Administrators are business people very often and they think like business people. They need to stay out of the classroom and let professors do their jobs.

I would not want to take away my professors' freedom to speech, but I would make it clear that if they wanted to show up on TV, they would have to do so as private citizens, not as representatives of the university and thus, the university name would not be allowed on to show up on the crawl bar. No careers in infotainment for my profs.

3."Ivory tower" syndrome.

On this last point, I know I will ruffle feathers, but I see it all to often. One thing I see every day in my work is that academics often spend more time panning other peoples' ideas than producing anything useful for solving practical problems. This relates to my first point above. Academics have been trained to examining ideas and critiquing policies (ideally dispassionately). This is very important. Done correctly, it helps all of us look at things differently and it has an educational role. However, once someone decides he has become an expert, you can't teach him anything much less get him to listen. Academics are consultants, not decision makers. When academics insert themselves into policy making roles, or when they are inappropriately put in that position, you run the risk of getting a great policy on paper, but one that doesn't actually fix anything and in some instances, they may make it worse.

In fairness now to administrators, you need a few of them, as RBR acknowledges. Someone has to do the practical work of say keeping the university financially a float, making sure policies are properly followed, facilities are maintained, etc. In my experience, if that type of stuff was left up to academics, most of our universities wouldn't last very long.

// posted by UNwest

Anonymous said...

I much agree with you, but I am not quite sure that ''eliminat(ing) all the "fill-in-your-favorite-group-studies" departments and fold their faculty back into the traditional fields'' is a necessarly a good thing.

It would allow you to cut down the administration volume (which is a plague even here in the Canadian Universities), but it would also kill some research fields who have become very important in the actual universities.

I study Communication at the University of Montreal. This field of research is a blend between: sociology, anthropology, linguistics, psychology, cognitive research, cultural studies (which is a specialized thing in itself), history, economical studies, politics, etc.

Communication is not considered as a science, it is more a field of research with plural avenues. Bringing down those specific field of reasearch is also bringing down the new knowledge and the new aspects of human culture which entered the universities not so long ago.

As an example I am interested in the Direct effects (or hype) of alternative medias over the consumption of cultural products and the glorification (or adding value) of geographically determined cultural communities (Montreal music scene, or Seattle as an example).

You have there: cultural studies, communication studies, mass media, psychology and that new field I would call ''geographically determined cultural communities''.

You might think that those studies are useless, but they help understanding what is happening right now in the real world.

The real proclem right now is that people don't give a damn about what intellectual are doing, and intellectual care even less to be understood by regular folks. I am not against conservatism: intellectualism need knowledge to survive; but in my point of view there aren't any bad knowldege or bad subjects.

You bring the university down to people or you pull the people up to the university. Our society has chosen his path.

I hope I didn't get you wrong, but choosing the departments with such radicalism, involves taking decisions more with point of views than rationality and general usefulness to the intellectual communities.

Furthermore, sociology wasn't a science at one point... just think about your first sociology school Chicago. 

// posted by Heicktopiertz

Anonymous said...

Heicktopiertz makes a good point. However, I think that RBR was referring maybe more to things like "women's studies", African American Studies, etc. Women's studies is a prime example of something that should be folded back into political science. It was initally established becuase the traditional field of political science often ignored women contributers or their concerns. So now get things like development issues, political reproductive issues, etc segmented out of political science. These things need to be made part of mainstream political science departments so that everyone studies them rather an a few interested parties. I think that is what RBR meant. Correct me if I am wrong. 

// posted by UNWEST

Anonymous said...

If I ran the circus, I would first make public universities available at Target rather than Banana Republic (or Barneys) prices.

While I think state universities can be funded in a variety of ways (some take in a tiny proportion of their operating expenses from state goverments), it weakens the state university systems when the price break between private and public colleges is getting ever slimmer.

If Bright Joe Backpack has to take on an enormous debt load to go to State U., or a slighly more enormous debt load to go to Private U., the incentive for Bright Joe to attend a state school gets lower and lower. Or maybe he won't go to U. at all.

As for the departments of the recently oppressed, I'm not a big fan of these either. One of these departments at my alma mater was widely known as the "A- minus" major. While the faculty might have been doing good research and publishing great books, students who didn't want to do a lot of work got a lot more leeway to get inflated grades than they would have in the English department. But enough with my Spanish Inquisition-style grade deflation ideas...

-Seventh Sisiter


// posted by Anonymous

Dr. Strangelove said...

RxR asks some interesting questions and I am impressed by the depth and quality of responses, esp. UNWest (USWest?) Since she has provided a handy outline, I'll follow it and extend it to incorporate the comments of others.

1.a. [Publish/Perish] It is high time universities recognized explicitly what we all know: experts are often not the best instructors, because researching and teaching are different crafts. Rather than separating research from teaching entirely, maybe a better solution would be for universities to grant some reasonable portion of full, tenured positions on the basis of teaching alone. While all professors would be free to do a mixture of teaching and research, there would naturally be cores for each.

1.b. [Community Service] To the extent that students are required to perform community service, I agree that professors (and administrators?) should do likewise. And perhaps instituting that requirement would cause universities to realize suddenly that such requirements are not a good idea. I personally dislike them. Charity should not be forced. College students are not boy scouts who must perform a certain number of good deeds.

2. [Misuse of Degrees/Spinners] I am not concerned about this, actually. Professors who do such things are opportunists, and they exist everywhere. While I agree that administrators may pressure departments to hire such people, confusing celebrity with talent, I think academic departments usually have sufficient flexibility in hiring to resist that pressure.

3.a. [Ivory Tower Syndrome] Yes, too much of what professors do is useless. Sometimes it seems to me that whole departments are just bent on creating a cottage industry for themselves without producing anything of value. But we still have great universities. I am willing to accept this flaw. I do not see a solution that would do less harm than good.

3.b. [Need for Administrators] I agree with UNWest that they are needed and probably maligned more than is necessary--and she is right, this is not something that can be left up to academics. I am not sure RxR is correct that administrative budgets are growing "exponentially as a share of the university budget." I am not sure what "student life" functions are... but as one who worked in student government, I feel there is precious little money for student concerns.

4. [Folding ethnic studies back into other departments]. I agree, and I suspect that--as far as most observers are concerned--the least productive university work comes from these departments. The most opportunist celebrity-seeking professors often come from these as well. There's an "Emperor's New Clothes" syndrome around some of them. I think it would help everyone (except the professors involved) to either follow RbR's suggestion, or make a large "cultural studies department" incorporating them all.

5. [Grade Inflation] I feel this is a significant problem. I would likely support the draconian measures 7th Sister alludes to. It waters down achievement and education. Universities are not businesses; you do not deserve a diploma because you paid the money. Nothing threatens the institutions of higher learning more in the long run than the graduation of poorly educated students.

6. [Fees] I'm sure all the citizens agree with 7th sister that fees are a big problem. Qualified students should be able to go to school for free. The nation benefits as a whole. But this couples with the grade inflation problem, though. The more colleges start to be viewed as diploma mills, the more people will feel complacent about charging for them.

7. [High Schools]. Another downward pressure on universities is the poor quality of the secondary education that underprepares freshmen, and yet paradoxically leaves them more desperate than ever for a better diploma than high school. If we improved high schools, it would relieve pressure on universities.

I think the Economist's notion that universities should end tenure is their typical claptrap about the free-market as panacea. Running unversities as businesses is not the solution; that is in fact the *problem* that has been caused by the profliferation of business-minded academics who want to churn through students and market their universities by peddling celebrity professors on FOX news (as UNWest mentioned.)

Anonymous said...

To clarify my position on fringe departments. My arguement was not that people should stop studying Women's Studies or African American Studies or Latino/Latina Studies or Communications for that matter. My argument is that these interdisciplinary areas do not need departmental status to thrive. They do need a tenure system to protect avante garde researchers from persecution by more conservative researchers.

In several of the political science departments with which I am familiar, there are political scientists with PhDs in political science doing research on Feminist Theory, Latino Studies, African American Studies, Communications, etc. These people do their research with great enthusiasm and have been promoted within the field of political science. My point is that having a seperate department - and office staff is not a neccessary condition for the research agendas to move forward. However the extra administrative staff is a drain on the budget.

Dr. Strangelove, non-teaching, non-researching staff at universities has exploded in the last 20 years. I don't have data handy but I'm confident that the share of the budget spent on functions that are not directly related to either the teaching or the research function of the unviersity are going up all the time. The number of staff members per 100 professors is going up all the time etc.

Student life stuff is the administrative staff who run things like dormatory social functions, pep squads, etc. At many universities there are multiple offices (for example Student Life and Residential Life) that have overlapping missions neither of which is neccessary to the function of the unviersity.  

// posted by Raised By Republicans

Anonymous said...

I agree with most of what has been said here. 1. In particular, I think the "publish or perish" culture dramatically injures teaching at major research universities. Grade inflation is not just the result of students grade-grubbing - it's the result of professors who don't care about undergraduates at all. Not that they're bad people. They're just not paid to care. Great student reviews get you, at most, the envy and animosity of your colleagues. Great publications get respect. So it goes. Research is also overrated in many fields. Most students will benefit from discussing the tremendous amount of knowledge and ideas already out there. You get silly things now such as classicists having to do "research" and publish "new findings," when the whole subject matter closed 1500 years ago.

2. I disagree with the reasons given for axing the "fill-in-your-favorite-group studies." My concern is that these are too narrow. A student should study anthropology, not just (usually his or her own) ethnic group. Chicano/a studies is a favorite of Mexican-American radicals, and results more often than not in a very narrow literature.

3. Tenure is a mixed bag. Why don't other professions have guaranteed employment? Any economist can tell you: that takes away incentives for productivity. Almost no matter HOW you measure professorial productivity, this is the case. The main supposed benefit of tenure - academic freedom, is limited in many ways. For example, tenure also dramatically constrains academic freedom for the un-tenured, who are hired and fired at the whim of tenured clique.
To my mind, the question is not whether to keep tenure, but who has the hiring/firing authority. I think the current university power structure concentrates power in departments, that can be as bad as fraternities, and in random deans. I would extend significant job protections to new hires, which do not exist now, and make tenure almost automatic.  

// posted by LTG

Anonymous said...

The original reason for tenure was to protect professors from political witch hunts that occur far more often in academia (especially at state universities) than in other professions. It also was set up at a time when there was an increasing enrollment at universities and a shortage of professors. Ask an economist about that some time.

But on grade inflation: It's not the research oriented professors who inflate grades. It's the non-tenure track, visting lecturers who teach 3 or 4 courses a term and who's employment depends on high teaching evaluations that inflate grades. I've served as both a visiting lecturer and a tenure track professor and I can tell you that pressure to get good evaluations is higher on the lecturers. They know that students at large state universities are shameless about rewarding high average grades and punishing low average grades.

Grade inflation is really not related at all to the publish or perish issue. It's related to the practice of giving the faculty who teach the most short term contracts dependent on naive assesments of their teaching.

This brings me to another point. US West said that we should seperate the teaching and the research functions. This has effectively been done at many state universities. Especially in the UC system but also in the Big 10 and the handful of good Southern research schools. Most teaching is done by non-tenure track faculty with short term contracts, no pressure to publish (unless they are applying for tenure track jobs elsewhere), and heavy teaching loads. These faculty often come from PhD programs outside of the top 10 or 20 and/or are from top programs but had some "defect" in their CV. Some are very good at what they do but most are not. Coming from second or third tier programs means being trained in out of date approaches and having done substandard research for their dissertations. The result is courses based on ancient, recycled syllabi that as bad as the worst cases of teaching abuse by senile emeritus professors. Students invariably think these visiting lecturers are the "best" faculty despite getting out of date research results tought to them. The reason is the horribly inflated grades these non-tenure track faculty hand out.  

// posted by Raised By Republicans

Anonymous said...

I should point out that the place I'm at now has an emeritus professor who still teaches and still updates his syllabi with the most recent research and approaches.  

// posted by Raised By Republicans

Dr. Strangelove said...

Case 1: A very busy, not-yet-tenured physics professor who felt he had little time to deal with student issues. Privately, he told me his grading policy was very simple: "give everyone a grade higher than they deserve, and no one will complain."

Case 2: A tenured economics professor I met once explained to me with some pride (!) that he deliberately gave very bad, very difficult lectures for the first couple of weeks of any course to reduce the number of students in his class.

Case 3: A geology professor I worked with once announced to the class, "15% of your grade is 'participation'--which basically means whether I like you or not. So the next time you think about coming to me to complain about your grade, ask yourself whether it would really be worth your while."

Case 4: I have worked with several diligent professors in several fields, both tenured and non-tenured, who worked hard to provide excellent lectures and who made sure to grade strictly (but fairly).

In all these cases, the common thread is this: since there was little real pressure on any of them to teach well and/or grade accurately, each professor was largely free to apply their own policies, however well or poorly intentioned. And people being people, some took their responsibilities seriously and others abused the system.

The Economist rightly understands that pressure is needed to get the "bad" professors to shape up or ship out. But they wrongly believe that the answer is for administrators to apply competitive, free-market pressure to the individual professors by revoking tenure.

I think a better answer would be for administrators to apply this kind of pressure to departments, or to use incentives instead of just disincentives (threat of losing job)--and to let those departments achieve better results by tailoring their list of who teaches what, and how often. (Department schedulers know damned well who is good and who is not.)

BUT unfortunately, almost any attempt by administrators to apply pressure either on departments or professors from above inevitably will have unintended consequences below. That's basic economics, which even The Economist should understand! So I'll tell you the best solution I have ever seen for bad professors: team teaching.

All you need is two professors, but three is even better. Working together, professors subtly pressure each other to perform better as lecturers and graders, to enhance or defend their reputations. It keeps them honest, and prevents the shenanigans I described in the first three cases. While of course is possible for professors to collude, this still provides an improvement. It is a way of taking sole responsibility for a course away from an autocratic professor, without giving that power to departments or administrators.

From my few experiences with it, team teaching works well, especially if the professors involved are from different departments. It would be interesting to see them try it.

Anonymous said...

If RBR remembers, I did point out in my original post that CA's univeristy system did try to separate things out. However, I mentioned that the publish-perish culture was entering the CSU system. Part of this is natural evolution. In my situation, which is hardly typical, tenure simply means that to fire me, they have to give 6 weeks notice and provide me with a severence package. Without tenure, they can dump you tomorrow.

As for guest lecturers, I have been one and I worked my ass off. I had no office space and no aid. I had 150 students in 3 classes. I was one of the ones who cared. I can't say what the others were doing. But many of them were lecturing at multiple institutions to make ends meet, thus they were a bit tired by the end of the week. I am sure this is in part why they let a lot of stuff slide by as well. But I do agree with RBR that reliance on guest lecturers allows univeristies to get off cheap. It is linked to the "business" atmosphere of universities who want to maintain felxible faculty, and not have to worry about unions, benefits, keep costs down, etc.


// posted by USWest

Anonymous said...

A small point about grade inflation. While I'm not sure how you would accomplish this at larger institutions, I recently found out that my alma mater has instituted a policy designed to combat grade inflation.

Introductory courses, and courses that don't require a specific background (e.g., a specialized American history class) cannot have a median grade above a certain point, and the median grade in the class shows up on school reports (but not official transcripts). This doesn't actually require a curve but does keep gut courses away from the eternal A-.

It sounds pretty good to me, though I'll be sure to harass some young whippersnapper at our next local meeting to see what she thinks.

-Seventh Sister

// posted by Anonymous

Anonymous said...

I've been involved in team teaching and it can be a good thing. But often it merely compounds problems by introducing conflicting signals and disorganization to the mix.

I think the funadmental problem with teaching quality is the evaluation method. Student evaluations are notoriously sensative to the average grade. Profs who hand out lots of A get good evals regardless of the content of their course. Profs who hold the line against grade inflation get bad evals regardless of the content of their course.

If departments make promotion and tenure conditional on teaching but keep the current eval system, the problem will get worse not better. While there are good visiting lecturers out there they are more likely to have less developed courses with substandard content. I mention this again because the biggest difference between the incentives facing tenure track and non-tenure track faculty is that non-tenure track faculty are judged entirely on their teaching (the supposed ideal of the anti-research/anti-publishing crowd). Yet they exhibit worse grade inflation as a group and worse content as a group than the supposedly cynical, research oriented, tenure track faculty.

They also have heavier teaching loads with less support from graders and TAs which means they tend (as a group) to assign fewer writing assignments and more "multiple guess" exams - with an emphasis on the magical scantron machine.  

// posted by Raised By Republicans

Anonymous said...

I understand RBR's defense of the tenured research-oriented professors, but I have some issues. The problems with non-tenured lecturers that RBR points to are, in part, a result of the fact that the incentive structure does not encourage teaching by tenured research-oriented professors. And does not encourage good teaching at all (teaching up to date methods is not the same as teaching well).

I'm also not sure where RBR gets the figures that show that grade inflation is worse among lecturers. I know that lecturers tend to have larger classes, often much, much larger, so the effects are more obvious, but the I doubt the simple equation of good grades by students with good reviews. Many student reviews complain about easy boring classes, the sort RBR claims are the most popular.

Grade inflation is not, I think, the result of internal departmental dynamics. Several internal departmental issues contribute. RBR may be right that non-tenured faculty give good grades to increase evals. Tenured faculty do so to reduce complaints, or (more often) because they are not doing the grading at all, and just rubberstamp the TA grades, because it's a very low priority for them anyway.

The problem with grade inflation is, as I think we all know, driven by the job market and the changing demographics of university students. There are many more university students from the middle and lower classes, yet there are simply not enough good-paying skilled jobs out there for college graduate students. Same with professional school slots. So good grades are extremely important to a good job or good professional school. 50 years ago, what mattered was that you went to college, or where you went. Pressure was exerted by the rich to get their kids into the right school. The "gentleman's C" was no barrier to future success - indeed, if the C was earned by socializing, all the better. All that has changed. 

// posted by LTG

Dr. Strangelove said...

Of student evaluations, RbR writes, "Profs who hand out lots of A get good evals regardless of the content of their course. Profs who hold the line against grade inflation get bad evals regardless of the content of their course."

I agree with the first part. I have seen lousy professors get good evaluations because the class was easy. But the second part is not consistent with my experience. I have seen good professors get good evaluations for tough courses.

I also cannot agree with RbR's assertion that the, "fundamental problem," with teaching quality is the evaluation method. Quite frankly, student evaluations meant very little my department; good or bad, they were ignored. The lack of meaningful incentives for good teaching, and lack of disincentives for poor teaching, make moot the question of the method of evaluation.

However, regarding the problems of applying pressure to the faculty, see my earlier comments.

Anonymous said...

I agree with LTG and Dr. Strangelove that some improved method of judging and rewarding good teaching needs to be found. Perhaps we could start a conversation about how we would construct such a method if we were in charge?

I think that would be better than debating the value of acedemic research or something. 

// posted by Raised By Republicans

Anonymous said...

Just a last point: I have never had any employer or prospective employer ask to see my transcripts. All they saw was that I had a BA and an MA and where it was from.

Maybe it depends on your profession. If you go and teach in a university, of course they want your transcripts. But in thie business world, not very many care. So I wonder about LTG's point above about grades making a difference in the job market. 

// posted by USWest