Deprofessionalizing Higher Education

Posted by on October 6, 2011

Books criticizing higher education are gaining in popularity,  judging from the number written and published in the last year or so (see here, here, here, and here for just a few examples).  Naomi Riley’s The Faculty Lounges And Other Reasons That You Won’t Get the College Education You Paid For, which I was asked to review by the publisher, has just joined these ranks.

In her book, Riley tackles an important question facing the U.S. higher education system – that is, whether the increasing number of contingent faculty, including adjunct professors and part-time instructors, has eroded the value and quality of a university education.

According to recent estimates, more than half of all instructional staff now consists of part-time and contingent faculty. Although some have argued that this can help to lower costs and increase flexibility, most research indicates that tenured faculty members are more effective and produce better results (e.g. greater student retention and engagement) than adjunct faculty (see here and here), leading to campaigns for more tenure-track positions. In other words, permanent tenure-track positions are seen as the “gold standard.”

Riley looks at these same trends and turns this argument on its head. Instead of advocating for an expansion of tenure-track positions, she argues that tenure itself should be abolished.

According to Riley, tenure protects professors too much and encourages faculty to focus more on research than on teaching, which ultimately harms both students and the institution. Essentially, tenure gives faculty members too much power, she writes, which they use to minimize teaching loads, especially when it comes to introductory-level courses and contact with students, particularly undergraduates. As a result, Riley argues, administrators are forced to turn to adjunct staff to meet the university’s teaching needs. In short, contingent faculty exists so that tenured faculty can live the good (research) life.

Unsupported Premises, Invalid Links & Missing Pieces

Unfortunately, as will be shown next, Riley’s argument is so weak – inaccurate and unsupported by data – that it undermines what could have been a serious discussion of tenure reform.

Indeed, Riley cites some of the research suggesting that contact with adjunct staff is negatively associated with student retention and engagement.  But she presents no evidence – other than her own views and anecdotes – supporting her depiction of tenured faculty as spoiled researchers who refuse to teach except under their own self-serving conditions. And she offers absolutely no research supporting her notion that decisions to hire adjunct faculty are driven by the attitudes and behaviors of tenured faculty.

For someone so concerned about the proper functioning of institutions, I find it odd that Riley chooses to overlook the most plausible institutional explanation for the rise of adjunct faculty: namely that administrators just want to cut staff costs.

So, in Riley’s thesis, not only are individual axioms unsupported, but so are the causal links among the different premises. Competing explanations and mechanisms are also left unexamined. For example, it would have been interesting to explore if retention rates and student engagement improve when contingent faculty are better paid. After all, the most compelling theory is that good working conditions increase job satisfaction, which in turn affects worker productivity.

A World Without Tenure

The Faculty Lounges’ most serious mistake is one of omission. The book indirectly lauds the virtues of privatization and free market ideology, strongly suggesting that higher education would be vastly improved through the adoption of more market-based practices. Although one could argue that the jury is still out on these issues, the returns are trickling in and, at least so far, the market approach isn’t faring that well.

For example, it could be argued that the growing for-profit education sector represents a natural experiment on the relationship between market-based reform and the quality of instruction. In the vast majority of for-profit colleges and universities, tenure has already been eliminated or effectively circumscribed. What are the results? How has the quality of education been affected?

While it’s true that for-profits have brought innovative practices to higher education, there’s a growing consensus that they are mostly negative. By now, many people have heard about the unethical business practices of some for-profit institutions: aggressive marketing and sales tactics, student debt, and degrees that are of questionable labor market value. According to data released recently by the U.S. Department of Education, students at for-profit schools are more than twice as likely as their peers at public institutions to default on their federal loans.

With enrollments that are about 50 percent low-income and 37 percent minority, for-profit colleges are increasingly under fire, described as subprime-loan purveyors who prey on vulnerable youth and deliver “little more than crippling debt” (here).

As the for-profit phenomenon suggests, contingent faculty are not a side-effect of tenure, but a glimpse of a world without it.

What Is Tenure and What Is It For?

Tenure is not carte blanche to do what an employee pleases; it’s a policy that gives workers the right to a fair hearing prior to termination. In higher education, there’s a tradition of trying to protect academic freedom by granting a faculty committee some decision-making authority in the granting – and removal – of tenure. It is also notoriously difficult to earn, and in recent years has become even more so. In fact, it is increasingly rare for academics to be offered a tenure-track position.

Tenure signals – and is based on the notion – that academics are highly valued expert professionals. As such, society has considered them accountable to their peers and themselves.

In academia, tenure also exists so that unpopular opinions can be voiced without fear of retaliation; tenure facilitates freedom of inquiry and communication. Tenure is a commitment on both ends: the researcher to a life of learning and the university to the furtherance of scholarship.

Riley asserts that academic freedom is unnecessary and that few academic fields require such protections anymore. As examples, she cites the fields of nutrition and gender. At some point the author asks: “What if you happen to believe gender differences are biological?” In so doing, she helps to prove the very point she tries to invalidate: Most scientific questions and/or their implications are very controversial. In fact there is an increasing consensus in the scientific community that gender is not primarily a role that is taught in childhood and enacted in family relations. Instead, gender is viewed as “an institutionalized system of social practices” for constituting people as two significantly different categories, men and women, and organizing social relations of inequality on the basis of that difference – see here.

Even if tenure is not perfect, why throw out the baby with the bath water?

Riley briefly discusses scholarship suggesting that tenure could be rethought to avoid its well- known problems, namely the lesser value and attention it places on teaching. Riley cites the book Scholarship Reconsidered, in which Ernest L. Boyer proposes that scholarship be expanded to include (1) discovery (2) integration (3) application and (4) teaching. Similarly, Riley mentions the work of William Chace, who suggests redefining the standards of tenure so that more attention would be paid to teaching.

Riley dismisses these proposals on the grounds that “teaching is in need of constant evaluation” (p. 61). While the quality of past research informs the quality of future research, a good teaching record does not, according to Riley, predict future instructional quality. (Undoubtedly a shock to all those advocating for value-added in K-12 teacher evaluations.) Thus, teaching (but not research) requires permanent re-assessment, and tenure status precludes such evaluation. No explanations are given. No evidence is cited. No reason is provided for why we should believe this.

In my view, the notion that teaching professionals require constant oversight is a particularly harmful idea insofar as it promotes an infantile and condescending view of teachers, teaching, and the value of experience. Riley gives herself away – she is critical of the higher status that research enjoys vis-a-vis teaching, but her rhetoric reflects endorsement of this cliché. Her discussion implies research skills are solid, stable, therefore reliable, while teaching skills are fragile and therefore need constant supervision and review.

***

The Faculty Lounges focuses on issues that worry even defenders of the tenure system – the number of adjunct faculty is increasing, while the percentage of tenured faculty is decreasing. But Riley mistakenly places the blame on tenure itself, when in fact the problems run much deeper.  It would have been nice if The Faculty Lounges had instead focused on more of the real issues that in higher education. For example, (1) the tension between research and teaching, (2) the role of science and the scientific endeavor in today’s socio-economic context, or (3) the ethics of corporate-funded research.

The Faculty Lounges touches on important issues and asks excellent questions but, in my view, is too preoccupied with assigning guilt to the usual suspects. As a result, all these questions are only superficially addressed.

- Esther Quintero


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