October 27, 2003

A Renewal of the Academic Commons?

As mobility in the senior ranks of faculty members has increased, so have the differences in compensation between the most sought-after professors those whom Mr. Sexton lauds as his 'blue team' and the 'gray team,' everyone else. Trophy professors are wooed with outsized paychecks, splendid housing, travel allowances, well-endowed research centers, brilliant colleagues and the promise that they'll rarely encounter an undergraduate.

-- David L. Kirp, "How Much for That Professor?"

In an op-ed in today's NYTimes, David L. Kirp, professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and author of Shakespeare, Einstein and the Bottom Line: The Marketing of Higher Education, endorses NYU President John Sexton's recent "summons to engagement." This is in reference to a report (which I blogged about here) in which Sexton calls for a renewal of his university's teaching mission, which would require that tenured faculty spend more time with undergraduates, and which might also involve the creation of new categories of teaching faculty.

Interestingly, and I think persuasively, Kirk views the star system in the light of a failure of the academic commons.* Of NYU's own partipation in the "frenzy of renown," Kirk has this to say:

A bevy of star hires has elevated the department's academic standing, and with it the university's. But the new recruits have only modest teaching responsibilities; especially in big undergraduate courses, the burden of teaching falls on graduate student instructors and adjunct faculty, higher education's replaceable parts. What's more, the newcomers are narrow-gauge specialists whose intellectual insularity a disengagement from both the classroom and the common public sphere presents a formidable obstacle to the neighborliness that Mr. Sexton now asks of his 'blue team.'

Given NYU's success at this game, it will not be easy, Kirk writes, to "pull off this sea change a shift from 'me, myself and I' entrepreneurship to participation in a genuine community of scholars." Indeed, it may not even be possible. Certainly, Kirk does not sound optimistic.

As with grade inflation, one serious obstacle to reform is the difficulty of unilateral disarmament: "[Unless] other top-rank schools decide, improbably, to declare a truce in the star wars, his efforts are likely to fail. In higher education as elsewhere, competition, not the congregation, rules." Kirk concludes with this rather pessimistic observation:

If all big research universities were to pledge not to use lightened teaching loads as a bargaining chip, a 'common enterprise university' might stand a decent chance. But that's not how this blood sport is played. New York University knows this very well. Barely six months after the university stole him from Oxford, Niall Ferguson accepted an offer from Harvard, which for more than a century has made the poaching of star professors an art form.

*For a discussion of the academic star system, see the comments to my entry on "The Celebrification of the Academy"

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at October 27, 2003 09:05 AM

What if the "stars" were required to do teaching of undergraduates...but with a caveat: they would only teach *worthy* undergraduates...those in honors programs, or even those they personally select?

I can sort of understand why a world-renowned scholar with books to write wouldn't want to spend too much time teaching airheads...but if he also doesn't want to teach students who are sincerely interested, then I question whether he should be in academia at all.

Posted by: David Foster at October 27, 2003 10:36 AM

I think it's worth making explicit the logical contradiction between the same university talking about a renewed commitment to teaching AND endlessly trolling for high-priced research nomads [like Niall Ferguson, these are restless souls condemned to wander ever, in quest of a transcendent salary]. The very phrase the NYU President uses to describe his wonderful new idea about professors who teach - "summons to engagement" - has the vacuous happy feel of the public relations office's writers at work [perhaps NYU's people have been reading the novel Summons to Memphis]. People praise Stanley Fish's prolific high-profile new hires, but they tend not to notice the way in which a significant number of these people do exactly what Ferguson did - disappear after a few years (if they stay that long) when the next fat deal comes along. I understand that a university should wish to have the strongest faculty it can, and that it should be free to pay quite a bit to get it, but this is way over the line.

Posted by: constance at October 27, 2003 02:04 PM

Here's the trick. Suppose you're the new president of a not so well-regarded research university and you're dissatisfied (probably legitimately) with the culture and outlook of your institution, and have a feeling that you're slipping even further. Suppose you have a lot of leeway and money to work with.

Suppose now you decide not to rebuilt through pursuing stars, but instead by trying to build around the most mensch-like teaching faculty you can find, the people who do massive amounts of voluntary labor on behalf of their institutions, who care deeply about teaching, who are smart and productive but generalist intellectuals rather than specialists, who are supportive and giving in conversations with colleagues and students--basically the people who make the wheels turn round at most institutions.

Ok, good idea.

How are you going to find them?

I wouldn't have the faintest idea where to start.

Posted by: Timothy Burke at October 27, 2003 07:34 PM

The one poster commented "What if the "stars" were required to do teaching of undergraduates...but with a caveat: they would only teach *worthy* undergraduates...those in honors programs" -- well, that is exactly what I encountered when I was in the BYU honors program.

I'd also note that when I was at Cal State Los Angeles the Business/Econ program had full professors teaching intro classes (my intro micro class prof ended up as dept. chair) -- but the program moved into the top 100 while the rest of the university is still far behind.

Surprisingly, that sort of commitment can pay off in writings and student learning and placement.

Posted by: Ethesis at October 27, 2003 07:52 PM

What bothers me the most about these articles and the constant references to Ferguson is the fact that he is NOT a great historian and that he made his name by jumping on a trendy bandwagon: the study of imperialism. Among British historians (and that's my training), Ferguson is not seen as a great historian whose ideas will shape our field long after his death. When universities search for leading scholars, there is a tendency to go for the showy and the trendy (Ferguson exemplifies this). The hires are often done by people outside the field (a dean reads abt Ferguson's work in the NY Times and assumes this means he's great). I worry that, on top of the teaching issue, there has been a distortion of various fields because of this.

Posted by: Albion at October 28, 2003 10:49 AM

Part of the problem Timothy Burke refers to might be the approach to graduate education. Me and a lot of other grad students look forward to careers as college teachers - given a hard choice between teaching three classes a semester of 20 students each while publishing only occasionally and teaching two classes while spending my time producing profound books exactly 15 people will understand and find interesting, I would choose the former. (Whether all of us actually mean it is a different question: I think the best college professors have to like people as much if not more than their topic. And a caveat: I've realized this is as much about applying what I do than just teaching - teaching would be ideal, but as long as I'm not buried in an archive my whole life I'll be ok.)

Anyway, despite that, graduate training cares about nothing but research, and certainly all the professional role models we have are sometimes migrant research scholars. One of my friends was once told by the prof he was TAing for that the prof wanted to TA to make sure no undergrad visited him all semester. This sort of disillusionment drains people, and hence due to the increased risk of burn-out in that category, the pool of people Burke seeks.

Posted by: Brian Ulrich at October 28, 2003 12:30 PM

Why Niall Ferguson/i>? At NYU? I feel very cynical about this.

Somewhere I came across a recent study suggesting that NYU is one of the most leftist activist campuses in the U.S.

These students will not welcome the neo-imperialist and nostalgist for the Raj (not to mention media whore -- he wrote several times for the New York Times Magazine on the need for Empire).

For his own safety, Ferguson had better demand the privilege of not having to teach undergraduates; he can offer seminars for the small number of right-wing foreign policy students that may be there.

If students protest Ferguson's politics, the right-wing media will leap on "the intolerance in liberal academia." The Google points of NYU will be increased, even by bad press.

Posted by: sara at October 29, 2003 11:37 AM