What's Wrong With the American University System


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Holt/Times Books

Andrew Hacker, who is professor emeritus at Queens College in New York, recalls the day a young political scientist walked into his department to interview for a job. Everything about the man's resume made him an ideal candidate. He was finishing his dissertation at a top university. His mentors had written effusive recommendations. But when the young superstar sat down with the department chair, he seemed to have only one goal: to land a tenure-track position that involved as many sabbaticals and as little teaching as possible. He was not invited back for a second interview.

Hacker and his coauthor, New York Times writer Claudia Dreifus, use this cautionary tale to launch their new book, a fierce critique of modern academia called Higher Education? "The question mark in our title," they write, "is the key to this book." To their minds, little of what takes place on college campuses today can be considered either "higher" or "education." They blame a system that favors research over teaching and vocational training over liberal arts. Tenure, they argue, does anything but protect intellectual freedom. And they'd like to see graduates worrying less about their careers, even if it means spending a year behind the cash register at Old Navy.

I spoke with Hacker about how American students are being neglected by celebrity professors, shortchanged by rising tuitions, and led astray by college football.

This book has a sense of urgency about it. What were you and Claudia seeing around you that compelled you to blow the whistle?

I've been teaching for a long time—I won't say how long. In the past 10 or 15 years, I've seen a tremendous over-professionalization of the academic world. Professors are identifying with their arcane disciplines, the minutiae, the esoteric research. Schools get status by bringing on professors who are star researchers, star scholars. That's all we really know about Caltech or MIT or Stanford. We don't really know about the quality of undergraduate teaching at any of these places. And it's the students who suffer.

But those star faculty members do attract students to the campuses you named. So there's a reason universities keep hiring them.

Well, there are two ways to pick a college. One is to go to a prestigious college, and when you graduate the world will know you went to Princeton or Stanford. It doesn't matter what happened in the classroom as long as you have that brand behind you. Claudia and I were up at Harvard talking to students, and they said they get nothing from their classes, but that doesn't matter. They're smart already—they can breeze through college. The point is that they're going to be Harvard people when they come out.

The second reason to go to college is get a good liberal arts education. We argue that you can get a better education at second or third tier colleges. Have you ever heard of Linfield College? It's in a little town called McMinnville, Oregon. We were very impressed with the campus. The professors care. They spend time with the students. The same is true in a place called Hendrix College in Arkansas, or Earlham College in Indiana. They provide a good education because they don't expect professors to do research.

That's a strong theme in the book: professors spend their time doing research and teaching relatively few classes, and students end up footing the bill. Are you against the idea of faculty research altogether, or do you think some research deserves to be funded by universities?

The problem is that there are just too many publications and too many people publishing. This is true even in the hard sciences. If there's a research project on genetics in a lab, they will take certain findings and break them into eight different articles just so each researcher can get more stuff on his or her resume.

And many of the publications are too long. A book on Virginia Woolf could be a 30-page article. Somebody did a count of how many publications had been written on Virginia Woolf in the past 15 years. The answer is several thousand. Really? Who needs this? But it's awfully difficult to say, "Here's knowledge we don't need!" It sounds like book burning, doesn't it? What we'd say is that on the scale of priorities, we find undergraduate teaching to be more important than all the research being done.

But what about lifesaving research—for example, finding a cure for cancer?

How much really valuable research is being done on cancer? When I was at Cornell, Congress announced that they were going to pour a lot of money into cancer research. So a memo went out to the Cornell professors—not just in the sciences, mind you—saying, "Can you take your current research and cancerize it?" There's a lot of that going on. So sociology professors decided to research cancer communications, and so on.

And then there's the whole issue of sabbaticals. Right now, about half a million academics—assistant, associate, and full professors—are eligible for sabbaticals. At Harvard and Yale, senior professors get every third year off, not every seventh. This coming year—are you ready for this?—20 of the 48 professors in Harvard's history department will be on leave. They're expected to take that time away and have a publication come out of it. Even if a professor goes off to Tuscany, he says, "I'm taking my manuscript with me and revising it there." We don't need that many new publications. We absolutely don't.

James Fallows: "Admissions Racket"
Caitlin Flanagan: "College Prep"
David Brooks: "America's Future Elite"
Megan McArdle: "Questioning Tenure"
Professor X: "Unready for College"

A lot of the pressure to publish is tied in with the pressure to earn tenure. You argue that tenure actually doesn't do what it's supposed to do—it doesn't preserve academic freedom.

Here's what happens. Academics typically don't get tenured until the age of 40. This means that from their years as graduate students and then assistant professors, from age 25 through 38 or 39, they have to toe the line. They have to do things in the accepted way that their elders and superiors require. They can't be controversial and all the rest. So tenure is, in fact, the enemy of spontaneity, the enemy of intellectual freedom. We've seen this again and again. And even people who get tenure really don't change. They keep on following the disciplinary mode they've been trained to follow.

What bothers us, too, is that over 300,000 professors have it. That's a tremendous number. What that means is these people never leave. There's hardly any turnover in the senior ranks—not just at Harvard, Yale, and Stanford but at small colleges in Kentucky, everywhere. You go to a campus and over two thirds of the faculty have been there at least 25 years. They begin to stagnate. In many ways, they become infantilized, embroiled in ideological issues like faculty parking.

Why do you think it is that tenure decisions depend so much on research instead of being based mainly on a professor's teaching ability?

It's a very important question. Good teaching can't be quantified at the college level. There are excellent teachers on campuses, but they don't have national reputations. So if there's a great chemistry teacher at UC Berkeley, there's no way the University of Chicago is going to hire that person away. The University of Chicago only cares what that person has published. I'm not even sure how many reputable scholars are really known for being good teachers. Many don't want to teach; they don't have the personality for it.

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Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is The Atlantic's digital features editor. More

Jennie Rothenberg Gritz, an Atlantic senior editor, began her association with the magazine in 2002, shortly after graduating from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She joined the staff full time in January 2006. Before coming to The Atlantic, Jennie was senior editor at Moment, a national magazine founded by Elie Wiesel.

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