Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Culture of Fear in Higher Education

By Professor Doom


Patricia Adler stunned her students in a popular course on deviance Thursday by announcing that she would be leaving her tenured position teaching sociology at the University of Colorado at Boulder…Adler said that officials told her that one of the highlights of the course -- popular year after year – had to go.

--so much for thinking tenure matters. One of the points of tenure is academic freedom, but even with tenure, admin can fire a professor for discussing something admin doesn’t want discussed, and can casually make life miserable. I’m not wild about college courses on deviancy (Adler’s specialty), but I acknowledge that my opinions are quite irrelevant regarding what goes on in other classrooms. Admin doesn’t share such respect. Of course.


     In many of my most recent posts, I’ve listed many casual, obvious, fixes to higher education. I acknowledge a huge problem in my simple fixes: they’ll never be implemented unless the current crop of administrators decides to implement them. In the “real world” there’s this belief that teachers in higher education have some sort of protection, that “due process” will keep a teacher from being unduly harassed and put upon.


“…She said that Leigh told her that there was "too much risk" in having such a lecture in the "post-Penn State environment," alluding to the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Adler said that she was given the choice of accepting a buyout now, or staying but not teaching the course, and not giving the prostitution lecture, and to be aware that she could be fired and lose her retirement benefits if anyone complained about her teaching in the future.

--if tenure doesn’t protect against something that someone, somewhere, might, theoretically complain about, what is it for? It’s also a little weird that faculty are supposed to pay the price for the massive administrative failure at Penn State (failure to cover it up, or failure to stop it?).


Even with the supposed protections of tenure, administrators can still fire and remove retirement benefits from a professor that has been working at the institution for years. Now, I understand admin are just trying to avoid lawsuits in a typical very cowardly way, but with Adler teaching the course for years without any hint of complaint or legal action, such a fear seems excessive.

Unfortunately, the imbalance of power doesn’t just stop with admin jamming their noses into content of specific courses. “Integrity” is both literally and figuratively a four-letter word with these guys.


Faculty: “I was harassed for months by the dean and vice chancellor. I filed a formal complaint. The HR department, long term friends of the administrators harassing me, looked into it and said nothing untoward was going on.

--I’m not saying the harassment really happened, but I do note the vice chancellor could just fire the HR department and get people more able to find nothing untoward was going on. Conflicts of interest like this are very common.


Faculty, even tenured faculty, are pretty firmly cowed in higher education. With my own eyes I’ve witnessed some outrageous denials of due process against my colleagues…and I’ve seen a few terminated for even daring to suggest administrators lacked even a patina of integrity. I’ve also seen colleagues intimidated into engaging in very humiliating behavior; I apologize for them.


“…It is the fear of speaking freely. Reason 75 saw the 2,000th comment posted on 100 Reasons, and all but a tiny fraction of those comments were posted anonymously.

--100 Reasons Not to Go to Graduate School is a fun read, and anyone thinking about going should check it out. Faculty posting know better than to use their real names.


I’ve seen administrators harass and punish faculty for tiny slights, retribution taking place over the course of years…faculty have no defense against it. Faculty are terrified, which is why most faculty posting online, post anonymously, even if they have tenure. Before setting up this site, I thought about using my real name, but, ultimately, thought better of it. Even though at this stage I have little to lose, I wanted to know just how long it would take before an administrator tracked me down and fired me…I figure it will still be a while, one blog on the internet is not a big deal, after all.


“…There is probably no American newspaper today that publishes more articles by writers using pseudonyms than the Chronicle of Higher of Education. Even Professor William Pannapacker, the patron saint of graduate-school realists (and a Harvard PhD), wrote his first columns warning people about graduate school using the pen name Thomas H. Benton. The author of a recent book about his experiences as a college instructor is known only as Professor X.”

--I’m hardly alone in writing under a pseudonym, although I, like Professor X, at least use an obvious one. The Chronicle is pretty respectable, and a professor’s prestige would be enhanced by writing for it…but the risk of offending out-of-control administration is such that most faculty are indeed scared out their mind of incurring it.


Even if the rules for tenure are explicit about security and protection, administrators have no difficulty getting around them, or even just ignoring them—administrators will just investigate themselves and clear themselves of wrongdoing in any event.


“…in the name of “strategic investment for the future vitality of the University,” president Julie Wollman announced that 42 teaching staff, including 18 tenured faculty, would be laid off, or “retrenched.”

--the purpose of the layoffs is to get more money to build student dorms. But who’s going to teach the students that will need those new dorms? The logical error here never seems to come up.


All tenure contracts allow for faculty to be removed for “financial exigency”, which is interpreted to mean “if admin needs the money for something else.” Such abuses are getting more common of late. Now, faculty can complain, but it can take years to resolve.


…filed a 91-page complaint with Maryland’s Office of Legislative Audit…The complaint alleges that [university president] Ms. Aldridge and her administration bought the silence of 23 university employees who had been forced out...The employees were fired for lapses in loyalty and challenging what they perceived as the administration’s attempts to water down UMUC’s academic rigor…

--now, one could say at least the faculty were paid off, but it’s well worth noting: the faculty with integrity are goners. All that are left are the sycophants that will do the bidding of administration.


Not just financial need, but a simple “lapse of loyalty” is enough justification to fire tenured faculty. How on earth can even simple fixes like “stop taking advantage of the mentally disabled for personal profit” occur with administration holding such a stranglehold over anyone with integrity?











  1. My graduate alma mater is undergoing exactly what you’ve been writing about in the course of your blog, and it is leaving me heartsick! If the current Board of Directors, BoD, has its way, not only will this superb institution suffer Death by Administration but it will then undergo the torments of hell as a for-profit institution.
    To begin, I earned my Masters of International Management (MIM) from Thunderbird, the American Graduate School of International Management, in 1986 and it was one of the most important and future-shaping events of my life. The MIM served as a highly specialized niche degree, essentially an MBA with language requirements and a healthy dose of international relations. The student body, faculty and staff were both too polyglot and polymath for the vast majority of graduate biz programs.
    For years and years Forbes listed T-Bird as the Number 1 Rated international business degree worldwide. Likewise the Wall Street Journal and the Economist perennially gave this institution extraordinary props and love.
    Now, with T-Bird mismanaged into the ground and deeply in debt, the Administration is trying to sell off the good name and physical campus (Phoenix, Arizona) to Laureate, formerly Sylvan Learning. T-Bird will then lease back its own campus and provide its name dodgy undergraduate programs, executive programs and on-line programs. The cynic in me asks, how much good name could be left to a graduate business school that has lost money in 8 of the last 12 years, but that is another story. Our alumni chapter in Singapore has openly called for T-Bird to close the doors and shut down to preserve the brand and retain the value to the degree to its currents holders rather than dilute everyone’s by carrying on into the future.
    In the process of two short years, our global alumni have come to understand much of what you have been writing about and we stand to learn everything you’ve had to say about the execrable world of for-profit education. For a concise though painful explanation of what has transpired to a former educational leader and powerhouse, please have a look at how one concerned alumnus connected the dots in the tragedy:

  2. Wow, thanks for that link...maybe I'll write a few essays on what I see there, that's pretty amazing stuff. I suspect there's been some serious looting going on there for a long time, I can't even conceive of faculty making 400k a year (top guy in my department at Tulane was closing in on 100k, I believe).

    Anyway, sorry to hear your school is to be plundered. There's no stopping it right now, since accreditation (the linchpin of the whole scam) is impotent.

  3. I thoroughly enjoy your creative and novel takes on modern education. I do differ partially in the view that on-line education has limited value. On-line course's value is largely compromised by administrators; in their desire to inflate costs, build in a lack of practical results, and waste of the student's time with volumes of trivia. If you," Professor Doom", for instance, were to supervise on-line course creation, development, and improvements; the student would very likely gain benefit practical skills and intellectual development. Going on a tangent... Another aspect of education I need to address here, since I belong to the great majority of learners that learn better by being interactive in the learning process, is..... We do not get "it" very well by sitting for hours and being "talked at". A small minority of students DO learn extremely well by sitting for hours and being "talked at"... and they are the "A" students, the "High Achievers", and the "Studious!" I'm 64 and never got math at all until I was 62 and started to learn and apply math concepts in a real world and hands on physical way. At 63 I tutored kids who couldn't get math by using the same physical interactive approach. Funny how most then "got math." Kids that said they hated math really hated math when they sat for hours and had math "talked at them." So while the small minority should continue to benefit from their gift of learning by being "talked at", the great majority of us would benefit immensely by interactive hands on real world directly applicable math education. .... Thanks for reading and being "talked at while sitting".

  4. Hey, I acknowledge that there is a small percentage of people for whom online education makes sense. The reality, unfortunately, is that most online education is bogus, either through the fraud of the course having no content, or the fraud of cheating.

    For the people it helps, putting them into debt for the rest of their lives just isn't a good deal. Since ultimately, online education is self-directed to a considerable extent, you're better off figuring it out yourself, in which case, online education should be basically free, as opposed to every bit as stupid-expensive as in-class coursework.