For good reason, the press has been full of stories about the
effects of California’s budget crisis on state educational facilities.
The cuts in state aid and the increases in tuition are sure to put a
dent in the California dream of great education for all, as well as the
American canard that anyone can go to college and rise as high as their
talent and hard work will take them.
Hands are being wrung over how the cuts will damage Berkeley’s
standing as a top global university and where the school will land in
the next set of rankings. Rankings, such as the one from U.S. News
& World Report, are now more important for universities than
polls are in college football. Last month, The New York
Times recognized the financial plight of California’s universities
and found that at UC Berkeley, “among students and faculty alike, there
is a pervasive sense that the increases and the deep budget cuts are
pushing the university into decline.” It is hard to argue with this
assessment. But a closer look is in order at what decline means.
While stresses like these produce unwelcome dislocations, often such
events also spotlight areas in which changes are overdue. The current
crisis affords such an opportunity.
Years ago, the path to academia was one in which you traded some of
your income potential and prestige for the ability to lead a life of
the mind. There are few spaces in our society in which your main focus
does not have to be selling something to someone else. For those who
are so inclined, academia was one such place, where you got
intellectual freedom and an ability to work on ideas that could make a
difference. However, this is less and less the case. Led by business
professors and followed by those in law, medicine, and certain
sciences, top faculty have become rock stars in a system that rewards
those who produce things. Professors at the top reap huge rewards and
have an army of underlings to do their business and teach their
classes. And the power of the rankings means that star professors are
constantly whined and dined by poaching university leaders.
But the current problems go deeper than this. In his forthcoming
book, The Marketplace of Ideas, Louis Menand, an English
professor and staff writer for The New Yorker, argues
that the current system of training and employing professors narrows
the “intellectual range and diversity of those entering the field,” and
produces a large “philosophical and attitudinal gap” that separates
academics from others. Paradoxically enough, he believes, this results
in “less ferment from the bottom than is healthy in a field of
intellectual inquiry. … “The most important function of the system is
not the production of knowledge,” he writes. “It is the reproduction of
Menand concedes that the current system of credentialing and
specialization “maintains quality and protects people within the field
from being interfered with by external forces.” But while, like all
monopolies, this produces great benefits for the monopolists, it is
less beneficial for the rest of us. Menand finds a double motive in
this system that is embraced by all professions. “In order to serve the
needs of others properly, professions must be accountable only to
themselves,” he writes. We know and understand this kind of bias when
it comes from lawyers or chemical producers, but does it have to be the
bedrock of the academy as well?
His work, partially presented in a recent article in Harvard
Magazine, relies heavily on a study produced by two researchers at
Cal a decade ago, including renowned Chemistry Professor Joseph Cerny,
entitled “Ph.Ds: Ten Years Later.” Surveying nearly 6,000 people in six
academic fields who had gotten Ph.Ds between 1982 and 1985, Cerny and
his co-author examined the state of the education of professors. While
the results showed that those with Ph.Ds generally considered
themselves happy, Menand came to some more troubling conclusions.
He notes the difficulties faced by those who have yet to reach the
top and documents the increase in union organizing among graduate
students. He deftly points out many of the problems of those who aspire
to academic positions today, including the ridiculously long gestation
period for tenure-track professors in many disciplines. Using data from
the Cerny survey, Menand notes that in the discipline of English,
nearly half of all doctoral students drop out before they get their
degrees. Half of the rest are unable to get a tenured faculty job.
There are other downside costs to society in the present system.
Even those who get jobs, Menand maintains, are being seriously
over-trained for their positions. There is a “huge social inefficiency”
in devoting large amounts of social resources to train people of high
intelligence for jobs that most of them will not get. Why continue the
system? Because it is institutionally efficient since “graduate
students are a cheap labor force.” In fact, Menand maintains that
universities really want the failures who don’t ever get their
dissertations, as they can teach and do not swell the ranks of the
unemployed Ph.Ds looking for work.
It is time to re-evaluate this system. And this process must be led
by those who benefit the most from it, the senior faculty. Berkeley is
and will remain a leader in many academic areas. So, senior faculty,
now is the time to take the lead here. Reform the production of
university professors. If change does not come from within your ranks,
someone else will eventually do it for you. And if that happens, look
out for the law of unintended consequences.