Friday, March 04, 2011

Editorial Friday: Tenure & Unions & Conservatives in Higher Ed

Do the math.

Naomi Schaefer Riley has a very predictable agenda, and she’s absolutely tireless in pursuing it. As she wrote a while back in the Wall Street Journal:

Where she extols the virtues of doing away with tenure, because once one does that suddenly one is ready to start “offering students a fulfilling education.”

It’s a strategy of assertion, dotted with quotes from university presidents (Amazing! They’re mostly against things like tenure!) and special cases. It’s true, higher education can go along quite well without unions and tenure (etc), but it can also go along quite well with them. That doesn’t make a very good claim, however, so she keeps with the binary. If one is going to make claims about higher education in general, one is going to have to find general evidence, not possibly anomalous anecdotes.

She has other things on her radar as well, mostly the usual: feminists are bad, religious colleges are great. And yesterday, another of her obvious positions: faculty unions are bad. Very bad.

The title of her new book, coming out in a few months, tells you pretty much what you need to know: The Faculty Lounges . . . And Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the Higher Education You Paid For. Lazy faculty! We’re all a bunch of fat cat freeloaders! It's a wonder I even had the energy to get through that whole title . . .

She has an editorial in yesterday’s USA Today, titled “Why unions hurt higher education.” Once again, it mostly skips research, and reads read from the script: “with that sort of belt-and-suspenders security you can expect even the laziest, most incompetent or radical professor won’t get fired.” People in unions are always lazy, aren’t they? Because if they weren’t lazy, they wouldn’t need unions. And if they weren’t incompetent, they’d be conservatives . . .

Her upcoming book should do very well, and, like so many books on education, completely miss the point. Should there be such a thing as tenure? I’m ambivalent, to be honest. I used to think of it as a way bad teachers could hide, but, the truth is, bad teachers (as well as poor administrators, etc) can hide pretty well without tenure. From my experience, tenure doesn’t do much one way or the other. If it would make conservatives shut up, I’d be more than willing to give it up. On the other hand, does tenure shield faculty from the whims of administration? In general, I think it does. When you have an administration like the one at my university, where the university president makes something like $225,000 a year (That was our last president. I don’t know what the new one makes.) while faculty, such as myself, as an Associate Professor (with tenure) make $50, 625 a year, you’re going to have a power imbalance that matches the pay imbalance. Administrations are always trying to impose new and fancy ways they think we should teach out classes. Tenure allows us to stand up for our curricula, as do unions. But they’re not absolutely necessary. There are other ways to have a voice in what goes on in our classrooms, just as with tenure and unions, there are still ways that administrators can have a voice in what faculty do in their classes. All people want job security, and do all sorts of different things in different situations to try and get it. The corporate model, which Riley and other conservatives prefer, is hardly a study in success either, with its porous hidey holes where all manner of lazy, incompetent, and radical people can hide.

But of course, giving up tenure or unions (there’s no union where I teach, so that one would be pretty easy for me to give up) wouldn’t make conservatives stop their assault on higher education. There are many other things Riley would like to see change: the easy conservative targets of unions and feminists, and the easy suggestions for change: more religious ideology. But one that always seems to get dropped into opinion pieces such as the one in yesterday’s USA Today is the lack (genuine and/or perceived) of faculty who are conservative Republicans. As long as this “ideologically one-sided” situation exists, it will be in the best interest of people like Riley to throw whatever they can at higher education. Faculty, by and large, don’t vote for them. We’re easy targets, just as are many branches of science, along with artists, public television, and unions.

Here’s what I have to say to those who keep on about the lack of ideological balance in the sciences and academia: money. I posit that if there started being a lot more money paid to faculty in higher education, then all those conservative undergraduates who love the humanities (and there are plenty) but become business majors “because that’s where the money is” instead, would decide to become teachers. I don’t know why it is that liberals and moderates (I know many people who teach in higher education who vote Republican-ish, but none who are what would be called “ultra conservative”) are the ones to “follow their hearts rather than their heads” and stick it out to go to graduate school for years only to turn around for a starting salary that is currently (national average) 48,000, and who after seven years (the tenure process at my university) would look forward to a raise of around $2,000.

“We’re in it for the love of what we do, not the money,” I’ve heard some academics say. And then we turn around and get told by people like Naomi Schaefer Riley how lazy and radical and liberal we are, and what terrible educations we’re giving the youth of America. I’d be quite willing to give a very large raise a try.

Because we all dream of the free and easy life of teacherdom.

(Side note: If people who teach in higher education are bent on liberal indoctrination, then why is it that there are so many conservative graduates from higher education? Are we all such incompetent indoctrinators? If so, then why on earth would conservatives try to make us more competent? Wouldn’t that just help us indoctrinate people into our liberal anti-Americanism more successfully?)

Let's be logical.


At 3/04/2011 5:48 AM, Blogger Karen J. Weyant said...

Thanks so much for this thoughtful commentary. Yes -- bad teachers do not need tenure to hide. I teach at a community college, and I guess I am "lucky" enough to have tenure. But to be honest, having tenure hasn't changed me or what I do. I still love teaching, have frustrating days, and well...act live a human being. Not especially profound statement, I suppose.

Oh! And for all those who suggest that college professors make so much money. We are 60 percent adjunct -- and even though we are unionized, our adjuncts have no benefits and little pay.

At 3/04/2011 8:03 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

I'd counter the basic premise of her argument with this simple challenge: show me college students who want to learn.

The ones who do, do. The ones who don't, don't. It's pretty simple.

At 3/04/2011 8:57 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

The biggest joke on those in higher ed and others who are most often attacked by writers such as Riley is, by and large, how little they're paid. Those rich Ivory Tower liberals in their fancy cars . . . right.

Fuzz, yeah, but they counter that tenure and unions, etc., make teachers uninspiring and lazy, working against even those students who want to learn. It's flawed, yes, but it's the argument.

At 3/04/2011 5:28 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 3/04/2011 6:24 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...


"Ineluctable preoccupation with The Verb gives a poet one priceless advantage: whereas nonmakers must content themselves with the merely undeniable fact that two times two is four, he rejoices in a purely irresistible truth (to be found, in abbreviated costume, upon the title page of the present volume)."

E.E. Cummings
From the Foreword to 'is 5'.
Copyright 1926

At 3/06/2011 6:37 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Indeed. I was also thinking, not quite as beautiful, but more danceable, Radiohead's "2+2=5":

January has April showers
And two and two always makes a five


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