Sunday, August 4, 2013

Faculty's Role in the Rot of Higher Education

Faculty’s Role in the Rot of Higher Education

By Professor Doom


“This department will now have an 85% retention rate.”

--administrator explaining a new initiative to improve education. I trust the reader hasn’t forgotten that retention and passing are the same thing. But what if all the faculty refused to go along with this shenanigans?


     Up until now, I’ve mostly addressed the mechanics that have led to the corruption of higher education, focusing on everything except the faculty. Outside the education industry, it’s widely believed that faculty are the ultimate barrier against bogus degrees. There’s certainly some truth to this, even as I’ve outlined many administratively created policies that have facilitated the “6 years to graduate, deep in debt, no skills or knowledge” status of so many college graduates.


“Yes, they’re weaker students, so grade them more generously. This is their chance to improve themselves.”

---Administrator, trying to make faculty feel good about increasing retention.


      A student that knows absolutely nothing is not going to pass a course, no matter how watered down that course is, unless the faculty teaching the course passes the student. That’s just one course, and there’s no way to get a degree without passing thirty or more such courses. If it takes thirty or more courses to get a degree awarded, it must take a like amount of faculty, across all disciplines, failing in their duties to offer legitimate education. Thus I conclude that a college that gives out bogus degrees can only do so if the vast majority of faculty members fail to act with integrity…it can’t just be one department.

     A case could thus be made that the massive fraud in higher education today ultimately rests at the feet of faculty. If faculty did not cave in to administrative demands en masse, perhaps the mess of higher education today would be just a little cleaner.

     At the very least, it’s clear there’s a shortage of honest and bold faculty members in education today, too few to resist administrative demands. To see why honest faculty are such a rarity, I investigated what it takes to become a faculty member in higher education today.


First, Get the Graduate Degree


1) “A 1480 on the GRE, a national award for undergraduate research (second place went to a student at MIT), and a 3.58 Honors Program GPA.”

2) “Just fill in this form.”


--The first lists the qualifications I needed to get acceptance into a mathematics graduate program at half of the institutions I applied to--the other half rejected me. Yes, rejected outright; national awards and high percentile exam scores notwithstanding. The second “list of qualifications” is what I needed to get accepted into every Education graduate program I applied to, they never even asked about grades or anything.


     It takes a considerable amount of education to even become qualified to hold a faculty position. First, it takes four years to get a degree in an academic field, only achievable by a good student (typically, academics are pretty good students). It takes another two years to get a Master’s degree  (the bare minimum to teach at an institution of higher learning), and quite possibly another four years to get a Ph.D., the terminal degree, assuming acceptance into a legitimate program, which my example above shows is not a sure thing even with solid credentials. After six to ten years of a very successful academic career, it’s time to get a job.

     This process alone means there will be very few potential faculty with legitimate degrees, although certainly some graduate programs are much, much, easier to get into than others.


Second, Get and Keep the Job


“Candidates for a permanent position will have demonstrated a high retention rate.”

--part of interdepartmental announcement for permanent positions opening up.


     Most people outside the industry believe that college faculty have tenure, the utmost in job security. Indeed, in decades past, it was one of the biggest advantages to teaching in higher education. This presumably gave faculty the academic freedom to say unpopular things in his field, although in many fields (such as mathematics), I’m hard pressed to see what could be said that would require such job protection. Tenure is much maligned, with many semi-mythological tales of “dead wood” tenured professors that do nothing in the way of research or teaching. Certainly, there are such abuses, particularly in the primary and secondary education system, where teachers can automatically get tenure in merely three years, by just barely doing their jobs1. In higher education, however, tenure can take seven years to even qualify for applying, and is only granted after an exacting process, assuming the extensive qualifications are met.  A professor that applies for tenure, and is rejected, can end up losing his position, making it a gamble that not everyone would be willing to take. Despite the vetting process and the risks involved, it seems every other school has a story of an unworthy professor nevertheless holding tenure. I’ve never met such an unworthy person, however, and I’ve seen a few tenured faculty get fired all the same.

      “We can provide a better education if we didn’t have so much dead wood,” whined administration, and over the years, policies changed to the point that discussion of the value of tenure is moot in higher education: tenure is all but gone, and those that have it are an aging population; the average is well past 50, and the average goes up nearly a year every year. While eliminating forced retirement contributes a little to the aging of tenured faculty, it’s clear that most of the new faculty coming into the system in the last decade have not received tenure. Most of the over-50 crowd with tenure received it before hiring and policies were changed to make tenure no longer a realistic possibility. Today, tenure track positions where a faculty member could theoretically get tenure represent less than a third of full time faculty positions in higher education2.

      Tenured faculty, with no risk of losing their job by refusing to yield, could resist the corruption from the pressure to pass more students, but the administration sets policies to make such faculty an old, minority breed not long for the system. At one mature institution I taught at with over 25,000 students, the whole 50+ member department had one (!) tenured faculty member, and he really did try to stop what was happening year after year, enduring open and extreme hostility by the administration until he decided to retire and be done with it. His efforts at resistance rarely accomplished anything, as he was casually outvoted by the faculty in no position to resist.

     Tenure is gone. Instead of full time, tenure-track positions, many institutions hire large numbers of adjuncts3, getting only the barest minimum number of permanent faculty. Adjuncts get perhaps $2000 a course, with no benefits. Do the math here: an adjunct teaching 10 courses a year teaches as much or more than many full time faculty (a typical faculty course load is four classes a semester), for less pay than a janitor, actually much less money since benefits are out of the picture.  After 8 years of schooling and advanced degrees, an adjunct position is the “best hope” for many would-be academics. An honest academic wanting to be a faculty member has to accept the possibility of spending a decade or more working for menial wages just in the hopes of landing a permanent position.


Administrator, evaluating a faculty member: “Your student evaluations for your five classes are 3.1, 2.8, 2.7, 2.6, and 2.4. That averages out to 3.6, making you the highest rated member in the department. Good job!”

Faculty member: “Thank you. Is that all?”

Administrator: “Yes. Keep up the good work!”

--A friend of mind explaining why he got kudos for high evaluations; he chose not to even try to explain to the administrator that an average can’t be higher than any of the averaged numbers. I sometimes wonder if its only mathematicians that find it grating to be judged how well we do our jobs by people that clearly have no understanding of even basic concepts.


      Adjuncts are trivially replaceable and in no position to resist administrative demands, making it difficult to last a long time as an honest adjunct. I’ve substituted for adjunct faculty when illness or other issues made it necessary, and consistently they’re far behind the course material, although they have much higher retention rates than I do. Students that come to me from adjunct-taught prerequisites invariably are ill-prepared. 

     Adjuncts are blameless; covering the material we’re supposed to cover in a college level course, much less the difficult material in a course, leads to student complaints, which adjuncts can ill afford.   An adjunct who did an honest job will simply lose his position when administration finds out about it.

    It is quintessential evil for administrators to fill classrooms by telling students they’ll have a better life through education…then educate them with highly educated adjuncts so poorly paid that they qualify for welfare assistance.

     When permanent positions do open up, adjuncts naturally have an advantage, being already known to the institution, and are often high on the list of candidates to receive permanent positions. Having already demonstrated willingness to accede to administrative demands, and desperate to no longer live a vagabond life a step above poverty, these adjuncts are poor choices for standing up to the administration once they get a permanent position.

     Full time faculty without tenure are in a slightly better position, but know if they lose their job, they’re unlikely to get another. This is significant pressure, and it’s difficult to keep much integrity in this situation. Alas, there’s an additional matter that makes it difficult to expect much from faculty:


Faculty: “The committee reviewed the candidates and ranked the ones we wanted in order. Why did the candidate we rated the lowest, the one we identified as the worst possible choice, get hired?”

Admin: “Because he was the only one who accepted our offer.”

Another candidate, a month after the hiring of the lowest candidate, contacted me via e-mail: “I never heard back. Did you fill the position?”

--The lowest candidate had a degree the administration wanted. When we re-interviewed, we had several of the same candidates apply again, making administrative chicanery even more hysterical.


      In brief, faculty don’t hire faculty, administrators do. Yes, faculty can go on selection committees and go through the motions of choosing who they’ll work with, but ultimately that hiring decision is made by administration. I’ve been on many selection committees, and the committee’s selection, much like in my example above, has been overruled far more often than not. Those occasions where the person hired matches who the committee chose are few enough that it’s likely the committee simply just coincidentally chose whoever administration wanted in the first place.


Administration: “We are pleased to announce the permanent position has been filled by [name]

Faculty, in an uproar: “This person was not even on the list of candidates!”

---one time, the Dean decided his girlfriend would get the faculty position, overruling the hiring the committee in the most blatant way possible. She wasn’t on the list of candidates because she had no qualifications for the position. The announcement nearly caused a fistfight to break out. Accreditation doesn’t check qualifications, the institution does, so this wasn’t a problem, as far as accreditation is concerned.

     There’s much more to say about why “spineless” is a common faculty trait, but ultimately administration’s stranglehold on hiring, and the elimination of any way for faculty to stand up to administrative excesses are the greatest factors. The entire process is set up so that spineless teachers are in the best position to become faculty. Does this make faculty less responsible for allowing higher education to degenerate into the massive student loan scheme of today?

Think about it. I still can’t decide, myself.


1)      Sentell, Will. “Public School Tenure System Questioned.” The Advocate. August, 2011.

2)      Conley, Valerie Martin. “Survey of Changes in Faculty Retirement Policies 2007.” American Association of University Professors. March 2007.

3)      Hoeller, Keith. “The Future of the Contingent Faculty Movement.” Insider Higher Ed. November 13, 2007.


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