Blogs > Liberty and Power > Informed vs. Uninformed Commentary on Academia

Feb 20, 2004 4:22 pm

Informed vs. Uninformed Commentary on Academia

I will join Steven Horwitz in giving a thumbs-down to this piece by Arnold Kling–and a thumbs-up to this piece by Tim Burke.

In claiming that academics lean Leftward, because the Left craves freedom without responsibility, and professorial life exemplifies the desired condition, Kling engages in the same caricaturing that one finds in Charles Sykes’ book ProfScam. (Sykes is a lot more fun to read, though, because he did real research, and has colorful details to offer.)

Here are the essentials of the ProfScam portrayal:

  • All professors are tenured
  • All professors work at flagship research universities
  • All professors flee undergraduate teaching
  • All administrators are helpless puppets who carry out the will of the professors

First: Since at the present time 43% of college and university instructors are not on the tenure track at all, the first assumption is blatantly unrepresentative of the profession as a whole.

Second, as Steven points out, flagship research universities aren’t that common. We’d have to talk precise criteria if we wanted to do better, but a ballpark estimate would put the number around 100 (out of over 3000 colleges and universities in the United States). By the way, the Carnegie Foundation has dropped its old Research I category because, as one of its reports stated a few years ago, the statistics that CF was using did not track total grant and contract funding of research all that accurately–and too many university presidents were announcing that Research I status was a goal for their institutions. At present, what used to be called Research I and Research II are being lumped together, while they try to figure out a better way to classify universities.

Third, the flight from teaching is a reality at research universities. But even at research universities, a lot of undergraduate teaching is still happening, and elsewhere, it is a responsibility that professors neither can nor (for the most part) want to dodge. As state universities in the research sector charge more and more for tuition, they are beginning to discover that students and their parents want better service–which means that undergraduate teaching will be making a comeback, at some institutions that thought the path to prestige lay in shorting it.

Finally, my posts, and those of some other contributors here, have made it clear that administrators are a long way from being subservient to the faculty. Quite the contrary: they have their own agenda, often regard themselves as superior to mere professors, and are frequently in a position to spend more on themselves and their fellow administrators. Administrators often behave as though the university exists for the sake of its administration, and faculty are increasingly subservient to them–not the other way around.

A further difficulty attends the ProfScam model: if valid, it applies across all disciplines. Consequently, any political bias that follows from enjoying “freedom without responsibility” should prevail across disciplines. Indeed, the flight from undergraduate teaching is often more in evidence among science and engineering professors, because they are by far the most likely to be doing big-ticket grant-funded research. But science and engineering professors are not the ones that people usually complain about when they object to Left-wing bias in the department or in the classroom. So Kling has to write as though all professors are in the humanities, plus perhaps sociology, education, and psychology. And that assumption is as blatantly unrepresentative as any of Sykes’.

Kling’s diatribe is indicative of the way a lot of conservatives and libertarians think. (I’ve encountered the same kind of attitude, many times, in discussions with Objectivists.) That is, academia is reducible to its most politically obnoxious features, and no one really needs it for any legitimate purpose tear it all down, or let it rot, or something. We can certainly debate whether all of the functions colleges and universities are presently expected to perform are truly vital, and I certainly hope more consideration will be given to ways in which they might carry out their core missions more effectively. And what about separating higher education from the State? That issue doesn’t come up very much, when this type of complaint is made. But then, current trends suggest that keeping the State involved might be the best way to insure that the whole system will rot...

Burke’s essay I heartily recommend to everyone with the slightest interest in these issues. He understands how complex the internal politics of universities can be, and how weakly the internal politics of various faculty members may correlate with their external politics. My own experience indicates that some faculty who favor the free market will reliably suck up to the administration of a state university, and some far-Left types will reliably take on that same administration when it strives to crush dissent, railroad a faculty member, or cover up academic malfeasance.

Burke could have developed one of his points a little further... namely that while universities do compete with one another in certain ways, they are basically non-market institutions with a severely hampered labor market. It’s not fair, though, to ask him to do everything, and contributors to Liberty and Power are certainly in a position to address the non-market nature of most higher education.

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