Hogan's Alley

Saturday, March 04, 2006

John Tierney On The Dim Prospect For Academic Reform

Behind TimesSelect's subscription wall is an interesting piece by John Tierney on the almost hopeless situation in today's universities. Here's a quote:

Authority is so diffuse that no one's accountable. Lawrence Summers was ostensibly in charge of Harvard, but he had little power to fire or hire anyone. The candidates are picked after a vote in each department. Summers could veto new hires and try to push departments in new directions — but once the faculty got annoyed, he was out of a job.

If newspapers were run like this, by committees of tenured journalists unconcerned with circulation and ad revenue, we wouldn't spend much time trying to improve the weather map or the news summaries or movie listings. We'd all be too busy writing 27-part series to be submitted for peer review by the Pulitzer board.

After a while, as we hired more reporters like ourselves, we'd be surprised when outsiders complained.

And this:

Humanities survey courses are out of favor now, partly because they're too concerned with dead white males, and partly because professors can save time by teaching their own specialized work. The system rewards professors for not focusing on teaching. The incentive is to devote yourself to research — at least until you get tenure, at which point even the research becomes optional.

One way to fix this would be to give university presidents the hiring and firing authority that most executives have. That way, they could insist on more attention to teaching. They could require tenured professors to keep doing productive research. They could hire a more intellectually and politically diverse faculty.

They could do all those things — but would they? University presidents don't face the same market pressures as C.E.O.'s. If it's a school with a good reputation, the president can count on income from tuition, alumni gifts and the endowment. If it's a state school, the president can also count on public money.

Without outside pressure, the president's chief concern would be the same as it today: to avoid any unpleasant public battles with the faculty. As the incumbents with the most direct stake in the institution, they'd still be a power. Roger Meiners, the co-author of "Faulty Towers," a critique of academia, doesn't think that eliminating tenure would make much difference in how university administrators behaved.

"Any dean who would fire anyone would have a reputation as a nasty person and could never advance in academic administration," said Meiners, an economist at the University of Texas. "You get ahead by massaging the system as it is, not attempting so-called radical reform by dumping academic dolts."

What solution is left?

So is there any way to change academia? "The Achilles heel of academics is their status anxiety," Siegel said. "The only way to attack them is with mockery."