Wednesday, September 2, 2015

A Philosopher Looks At Today’s Higher Education





By Professor Doom

     I’ve certainly given the mathematician’s perspective on what’s going on higher education, and I’ve also provided the English professor’s perspective, and the Liberal professor’s perspective. Despite our disparate fields, we’ve independently come to the same conclusions regarding higher education today.

      A philosopher has provided his viewpoints as well, in a post entitled “The University as a Money Funnel.” One can guess from the title what he has to say, but it’s interesting that a philosopher, not exactly a practitioner of what is considered a seriously pragmatic discipline, still manages to connect the dots on the reality of higher education today.

      Let’s take a look at what he has to say:

What seems to be the major factor contributing to costs is the ever-expanding administrative class at universities. This expansion occurs in terms of both individual salaries and overall numbers. From 2000 to 2010 the median salary for the top public university administrators increased by 39%. The top administrators, the university presidents, enjoyed a 75% increase. In stark contrast, the salaries for full-time professors increased by almost 19%.

     While can read from that last line that faculty pay has been increasing, realize that 19%, over the course of a decade, doesn’t keep up with inflation. Realize also he’s qualified that increase with “full time professors,” a dying breed on campus, and not the ones doing most of the teaching. While professors are dying out, administrators are thriving.

     The philosopher considers this:

From 1978 to 2014 administrative positions skyrocketed 369%. This time period also marked a major shift in the nature of faculty. The number of part-time faculty (the analogues of temp workers in the corporate world) increased by 286%. The use of adjuncts is justified on the grounds that doing so saves money. While adjunct salaries vary, the typical adjunct makes $20,000-25,000.

     Realistically, then, if by “professor” one means “teacher at a college or university,” then the professor pay has dropped, while administrative pay has skyrocketed.
     Full-time professors are undesirable now:

There was also a push to reduce (and eliminate) tenured positions which resulted in an increase in full time, non-tenure earning positions by 259%. Full time tenure and tenure-track positions increased by only 23%. Ohio State University provides an excellent (or awful) example of this A&A Strategy: the majority of those hired by OSU were Adjuncts and Administrators. To be specific, OSU hired 498 adjunct instructors and 670 administrators. 45 full-time, permanent faculty were hired.

     To put those numbers in perspective, for every full time professor hired, there are 15 administrators hired, the latter being individually paid much more than the professor. There were also 11 adjuncts hired, for a tiny fraction of the cost. The philosopher doesn’t delve into details, but many of these professor positions are filled not through academic need (that’s what adjuncts are for), but as political patronage.

      One can hardly fault the philosopher’s pragmatism here: he’s clearly looking at the numbers, and coming to the same result any other decent faculty member can reach:

Someone more cynical than I might note that the university seems to no longer have education as its primary function. Rather, it is crafted to funnel money from the “customer” and the tax payer (in the form of federal student aid) to the top while minimizing pay for those who do the actual work.


     No, it’s not cynicism, it’s empiricism. It’s a simple fact that the university now spends most of its money on the administrative caste, while leaving the students and faculty—the ones that would be important if education were on the agenda—to pay the price.

     I’m fairly ambivalent about tenure, since I see much potential for abuse there. While philosophers tend to be far more ambivalent about things than mathematicians, curiously, this philosopher sees only advantages of tenure:

Tenure has been a target in recent years because tenure provides faculty with protection against being fired without cause (tenured faculty can be fired—it is not a magic shield). This is regarded by some as a problem for a variety of reasons. One is that tenured faculty cannot be let go simply to replace them with vastly lower paid adjuncts. This, obviously enough, means less money flowing from students and the state to administrators. Another is that the protection provided by tenure allows a faculty member to be critical of what is happening to the university system of the United States without running a high risk of simply being let go as a trouble maker.


     This is indeed the truth: only the tenured faculty feel like they can speak up now. I was at one university, over half a century old, that had only one tenured professor in a large department, and he did speak up, did try to stop the debasement of the state institution into little more than a trap to lure in students, suck their loan money away, and spit them back out.

     Tenure protected him from being fired, it is true, but the nonstop harassment by admin, combined with constant “betrayals” from the non-permanent faculty who had little choice but to betray him or be fired, wore him down. So while tenure does protect, a little, from the debasement of higher education, tenured faculty are such a minority now that this benefit is questionable.

     On the other hand, I totally understand, and agree with the philosopher, tenure is a problem for the plundering, mercenary caste of administration who rules now: every dollar that goes into a tenured faculty’s pocket is a dollar that’s not going into administration’s pocket, and that, from their point of view, is bad.

     Of course, the philosopher may have a good reason for approving of tenure:

As you might guess, I am a tenured full-professor. So, I can use my freedom of speech with rather less fear of being fired. I also enjoy the dubious protection afforded by the fact that people rarely take philosophers seriously.


      Careful, professor, I’ve documented and seen plenty of administrative retaliation against tenured faculty for daring to speak out. Even if administration doesn’t take you seriously (not that I’m implying that they are necessarily people), they’re more than petty enough to do you all the harm they can, as a show of power if nothing else.