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?
Friday, March 17, 2006
Posted by Raised By Republicans at 5:07 AM