Here’s an arresting statistic that economist Richard Vedder thinks goes a long way to explaining the rapid rise in college tuitions: 80 percent of faculty at the University of Texas at the flagship campus in Austin teach fewer than half the students. In view of the fact that faculty salaries make up the largest expense at the university, one simple change would reduce tuition. Get the 80 percent back into the classrooms.
Vedder anticipates the objection that forcing the bulk of professors into the classroom will harm the research mission of the university. His most devastating response is again a simple statistic—20 percent of faculty account for 99.8 percent of external research grants and funding. That leaves 60 percent of faculty who have very low teaching loads whose research—or in many cases whose lack of research—is financed by the general operating budget of the University of Texas. His proposal: have them teach two classes each semester, adds up to 200 hours per year in the classroom. As they say in Texas, that ain’t too bad for a payin’ job.
I’m sure Vedder is correct that the absence of faculty from the classroom contributes a great deal to the rapid rise in tuition bills. But my concerns are not economic. I worry more about our educational culture. Professors who do not teach are not professors at all. They are academic careerists and placemen.
More than fifty years ago Jacques Barzun wrote in The House of Intellect that professors were fleeing from the classroom, shifting responsibility for teaching to graduate assistants, or finding ways to redefine their jobs as entirely devoted to research. “The highest prize for the teaching profession is: no teaching,” he wrote. “For the first time in history, apparently, no scholars want disciples.”
It was a prescient observation. In the mid-sixties, David Riesman and Christopher Jencks published The Academic Revolution, an unsurpassed analysis of the post-War transformations of the university into a highly fragmented aggregation of academic disciplines. Professors no longer saw themselves as teachers at their college or university, but rather came to view themselves as researchers whose identities were tied to their disciplines and professional associations.
This change led to a shift in the paths of career success. A professor advanced in accord with his reputation within as a physicist or sociologist, which turned on publications, as well as lots of time networking at conferences with other academics. Not surprisingly, undergraduate education became more and more peripheral. At best college students were treated as proto-graduate students, but more often than not they were seen as just being in the way.
It’s gotten worse since Barzun, Riesman, and Jencks sent up their warning flares. In the natural sciences graduate students have remained important. Big Science requires bright young things to staff vast laboratories and work in teams. But in the humanities and some of the social sciences things have gotten so bad that professors shirk responsibility for educating graduate student as well. Overseeing dissertations is very time consuming, and not a few professors at research universities maneuver to avoid directing graduate students. Everybody dreams of crafting their personal All Souls College, the Oxford institution that has professors but not students.
One major cause of this baleful trend is the growing importance of higher education as a source of upper-middle-class status. But the all-powerful U.S. News & World Report rankings have made higher education the very worst kind of hyper-competitive industry: one without clear metrics. Want the cheapest ton of low sulfur coal? Want the lightest lap top computer? Want the fastest car? These questions admit of answers. Want the best education? Not so easy to answer, not the least because it depends a great deal on what the student brings to the equation, and even more difficulty is best really means most likely to enhance the status of your children.
In view of the impossibility of determining which educations are “best,” reputation comes to serve as a proxy for quality, and along with the achievements of alumni, it’s the notoriety of faculty that make the reputation of a university. The University of Chicago has how many Nobel Prize winning professors in economics? Harvard how many in physics? Where does Alasdair MacIntyre teach? Harold Bloom? Simon Schama? Because a university needs stars—or thinks it needs stars—in order to win the reputation game demand goes up, and the stars get to write their own job descriptions, which as Barzun pointed out involves the desire to be a professor without students.
These special deals for the genuine stars wouldn’t make much difference. But there aren’t enough Nobel Prize winners to go around, so lesser universities chase the also-rans and young phenoms in the hope of gaining ground in the reputation race, offering them lighter teaching loads. To dampen the ill-will that arises when regular faculty began to envy the student-free lives of the academic heroes the wealthier universities have consistently moved toward across-the-board reductions in teaching loads, with not-so-wealthy schools imitating this trend as best they can. This, of course, requires shifting still more teaching to graduate students and other adjunct, non-tenured faculty. Which brings us to the present day. Many universities now have an extremely rigid and cruel class system over which tenured faculty reign with serene indifference.
Is this flight from the classroom sustainable? I don’t know. We live in a very rich country seemingly capable of financing absurdities for decades. And in any event the hyper-competitive market in higher education will certainly encourage the more wealthy and elite schools to give professors what they want. The last twenty or more years have been a terrible time for young PhDs on the job market, but it’s been great for the senior scholars who have reputations to put up for auction.
So perhaps sustainable, but nonetheless almost comically perverse. Administrators seem to have forgotten that 99 percent of academic fame is ephemeral, and professors seem to have forgotten what academic life is for. Who can name the past presidents of the American Historical Association or the American Philosophical Association? Who remembers more than one in twenty award-winning academic books even of the last decade? Visit used bookstores. It’s a sobering exercise in the high mortality rate of reputations.
The only reliable way to have a lasting influence on intellectual life is through one’s students, as Socrates and Jesus demonstrated. Indeed, one need not appeal to such exalted examples. My own teachers were much mocked as suffering from what was known in theological circles as the “Yale disease,” a perfectionist mentality that led to very few publications. Yes, to a great degree true. But I dare say that those professors—Hans Frei and George Lindbeck especially—have had a penetrating influence through their students.
It’s people, not books and articles, who constitute the house of intellect, as Barzun knew so well.
R.R. Reno is Editor of First Things. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.