Gridlock: Research, Teaching, Curriculum, and the Faculty in the Modern University

John E.R. Staddon

Mary Burgan is a onetime professor of English and longtime academic administrator, both within the university (as department chairman) and without (as general secretary of the Association of American University Professors [AAUP], from which she retired in 2004 after ten years). Her best-known research production is a book, a “pathography,” on Katherine Mansfield and illness.

Burgan thinks that the faculty in American universities are too passive and exert too small a voice in university governance. She argues her point, somewhat digressively, in nine chapters, covering the physical structure of the university, the nature of the professoriate, the curriculum, distance (online) education, university governance, academic competition, academic science, academic freedom, temporary faculty, and recommendations for improvement.

The first chapter, “Bricks and Mortar,” touches on a number of topics: college architecture (gothic style is OK), difference between rich (the business school) and poor (arts and sciences), administrators’ apparent need for “bragging rights” about facilities, lack of participation in academic ceremonies, faculty signage (“sly political ironies”—I guess she means those anti-Bush cartoons) the occasional intellectual message.

Chapter 2, “The Myth of the Bloviating Professor: Sages and Guides,” recommends the late William G. Perry and Carol Gilligan, Harvard faculty both, as guides to understanding college teaching. Perry was a “stage” theorist. Gilligan is a feminist developmental psychologist, criticized by the Left for regarding girls and boys as different1 (there’s a shocker!) and by the Right for weak research technique.2

Burgan takes a few gentle potshots at the lowing herds of educational theorists grazing the academic plains—people who can say without embarrassment things like, “We won’t meet the needs for more and better higher education until professors become designers of learning experiences and not teachers” (designers of learning experiences?!). She deplores the flight from teaching, about which I will say more. Steven Pinker, another Harvard psychologist, noted public intellectual, and critic of the fad for “constructivist” education, is cited favorably.

Chapter 3 “Getting the ‘Liberal’ Out of Education,” discusses curriculum, the “black hole” of academe into which many are drawn but few return. Burgan retails a rumor that Harvard president Larry Summers’ controversial firing of Dean William C. Kirby was promoted by the “slow pace of curricular reform” under Kirby. But in the research university, curricular reform is always slow—and usually trivial in extent. So, if the rumor is true, Kirby was treated unjustly. In fact, the curricular consensus is basically to give up. Burgan quotes the Carnegie Commission report of 1972 (yes, that’s more than thirty years ago): “We prefer, in fact, to drop the nomenclature of general education and liberal education….We prefer the concept of a ‘broad learning experience.’”

Burgan, along with the vast majority of humanities faculty at major universities, doesn’t like William Bennett or Lynne Cheney and their critiques—she describes their pleas for what used to be called liberal education as “moralization of curricular reform” as if the current fashion for anti-colonial, feminist, and racially diverse topics had no moral dimension. On the other hand, Cheney’s approving quotation of Mathew Arnold’s dictum that criticism should be disinterested (no, students, that’s not the same as “uninterested”!), and education should be “simply to know the best that has been known and thought in the world,” reflects views that may be recovering their strength. But the lure of relativism is strong. The idea that there may be a “hierarchy of texts or principles that embody unchanging foundations for truth and action” fills Burgan with alarm. But she finds the “self-interested bargaining among disciplines in search of enrollments a worrisome principle” and doesn’t know how to combat this process, which is indeed a major shaper of college curricula.

Chapter 4 focuses on distance learning, online institutions like the University of Phoenix that market a web-based “product.” The movement is a deflated balloon now catering to a niche audience. Chapter 5, “A More Perfect Union” is devoted to university governance, the core of the book. “[I]ts potential has not been realized,” says Burgan. I suggest why below.

Chapter 6, “Superstars and Rookies of the Year” is about competition, athletic and academic. She has an odd view of economics, citing approvingly Frank and Cook’s The Winner-Take-All Society: Why the Few at the Top Get So Much More Than the Rest of Us (politics of envy, anyone?) in support of the idea that universities are governed by an economics “unlike the classic one studied by most economists [that rewards] ‘absolute’ performance.” Problem: since when did anyone buy a car or a house or a roll of toilet paper based on “absolute” quality? We always buy the best we can afford, and so do universities. What she objects to here, of course, is that buying the best is elitist and leads, as Frank and Cook point out, to “concentration of our most talented college students in a small set of elite institutions.” Well, yes, and what is wrong with that—so long as anyone can compete? If you want equality, let slip the dogs of legacy and affirmative action so that ability and motivation become truly irrelevant. Then talent really will be evenly distributed.

Chapter 7, “The Case of the Firecracker Boys” (taken from Dan O’Neill’s book by the same title) is about science and its supposed politicization. Burgan’s background has not prepared her to understand the complexities of academic science. She is surprised to discover the importance of “overhead” charges and shows some signs of “science envy”: “I can recall a dawning recognition that the life of even a moderately productive scientist had many hidden benefits.” Well, science ain’t so cushy, as I point out below.

Chapter 8 “The Disposable Faculty,” talks about the relentless increase in non-tenure-track teaching faculty—“professors of the practice,” “lecturers,” and the like. Recent (November 2007) statistics, gathered by the AAUP, show that these folk now actually outnumber tenure-track faculty. This is a real problem and I discuss below the reasons for it. Burgan touches on the recent “Academic Bill of Rights” movement (without mentioning author David Horowitz). Her description of it as a “shrewd invocation of AAUP’s founding principles” betrays her unwillingness to give conservative critics credit even for sincerity. In this respect her views are an accurate reflection of her colleagues’.

The last chapter, “Staging a Comeback” catalogs some of the AAUP’s recent successes in academic freedom and administrative malfeasance cases, mostly at second- or third-tier schools.

Multiversity and Multiple Universities

Professor Burgan writes as if all American universities and colleges are much the same, have similar problems, and need to be governed in much the same way. Of course, they are not and cannot. There are light-years of difference between elite research universities like Harvard, Duke, MIT, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on the one hand,3 and urban part-time education institutions like Adelphi and the University of Illinois at Chicago on the other, as well as the numerous small and often sectarian colleges like Wofford, Sweet Briar, and Hollins.4 Historically black colleges and universities form another category with its own unique characteristics.

The main difference between “elite” and “others” is the amount of undergraduate teaching required of faculty. The main selling point of the smaller colleges is their small classes, which means a high teaching load: four courses or more a semester. That’s twelve or more contact hours per week, plus time spent on grading, supervision, advising, and course preparation. Not much time left for research, then.

Research

Scientific research ain’t beanbag these days, either. It is about as far from the leisurely contemplative life—bushy-haired would-be Einstein in chalk-stained tweeds scribbling formulas—as is possible to imagine. Science, even “small science” is a business and a highly competitive one (check out Jim “DNA” Watson’s recent tell-all book Avoid Boring People for some examples). Atom-smashers apart, when I entered the field several decades ago you didn’t need an external grant to do research. Most universities had small research funds that were adequate for most people. A few daring souls filled out the minimal number of forms needed to apply to the National Institutes of Health (NIH)—now the major research-fund source for most universities—and, with good probability, got funded.5 A research grant then was a bonus, not a necessity.

NIH is not mentioned by Prof. Burgan, who is pretty clueless about the real impact of research on elite universities.

Now one, or preferably several, external grants are essential for any faculty member at a major research university. And in the biomedical area (which includes biology, psychology, and a large chunk of social science) he (or, in many areas more usually “she”) will be competing with scientists in medical centers who do little or no teaching. Thus, the course load of tenured faculty in research universities is rarely more than two courses per semester—fewer if the researcher is able to “buy out” of a course or two, which he had better do if he wants to compete with workers in medical centers who do nothing but research.

And the competition is fierce. Until very recently, NIH funding increased every year, often by substantial amounts. But the number of applicants, and the cost of research, have both increased even faster. A modest proposal that three or four decades ago stood a 50 percent chance of funding—and where success would mean a nice windfall—has been replaced by a massive document in search of funds that are essential, with a hit rate of only 10 to 15 percent. The result, of course, is that researchers now put together as many as eight or ten of these monsters every year.

Not much time for teaching, then—or creative research either…

And let’s not forget the overhead—the extra funds added to an NIH award that go straight to the university administration. Twenty or thirty years ago, overhead added perhaps 20 percent to the grant total. Now overhead rates average 50 to 80 percent. Medical centers and (to a slightly lesser extent) research universities, depend on these funds. They power much of the new building that universities have engaged in over the past decade and pay a high percentage of the salaries of research staff. They are, in a word, vital.

It’s worth asking why the cost of research has increased so much in past decades. One reason is the development of new, expensive technologies. These increases are probably unavoidable. But costs have risen even more because of a metastasizing regulatory burden: more elaborate time-accounting procedures; institutional review boards; animal care and use committees and ethics committees and the training, housing, and reporting requirements they generate—all administered by a ratcheting, interlocking bureaucracy inside and outside the university that is almost impossible to disassemble or even disentangle.

And let’s not forget the bureaucracy created by the grant-writing process itself—a swelling flock of gatekeepers, grant-writing experts, and even people who assist with scientific literature searches. The latter two functions used to be the province of the researcher; now fulltime specialists are available. All this is funded out of ever-increasing overhead charges. Online submission and “paperwork reduction” plans are always afoot in an attempt to “simplify” some of this—a pause in the ratchet that usually means more work for toilers who have just mastered the existing system.

Teaching

The effect of these pressures on undergraduate teaching has been substantial. And the levers university administrators can pull to redress the balance are very limited because the forces at work are largely external. Science is competitive; nothing can change that. Without an external grant, research comes to a halt; without free time, research cannot be done nor proposals written. Teaching takes a hit as faculty adapt to these pressures.

Much nonsense is written about the synergy of teaching and research. Dr. Youngblood can be a great teacher and a great researcher. Well, yes, from an intellectual point of view there is little opposition and much synergy between teaching and research. Good researchers are often good teachers. (But not always: I remember when I first began teaching I thought the idea was to use the class to clarify my own research ideas. It worked for me, but the effect on my students may easily be imagined…) But there is huge conflict for time. If Youngblood spends his time reading about teaching topics and seeking new ways to engage his students his research will suffer—and he will not get tenure. Let’s face it, teaching is usually easier than research, so its seductive effects on publication output may be quite damaging. If the level of competition is set by people in research institutes and medical centers, who do not teach, the pressure to reduce teaching load in research universities is very hard to resist.

So, how should some balance be restored? As long as universities need research funding to feed their swelling budgets, and as long as their reputations are based on the research eminence of their faculty, it’s hard to see how they can do much more than they are doing, which is to emit a cloud of hortatory blather about the absence of conflict between teaching and research while simultaneously hiring growing numbers of what Burgan calls “contingent faculty”—graduate students, faculty spouses, and unemployed Ph.D.’s—who do more and more of the undergraduate teaching, especially of large introductory courses. These folks are untenured, living on limited-term contracts, and paid a great deal less per course than tenure-track faculty. A good deal for the university, not too bad for the students (these faculty devote most of their time to teaching, after all), but something of a raw deal for the contingents, and a disturbing erosion of the core of the university.

And why are these temporary faculty willing to do it? Why is there such an oversupply of academic talent? There is an oversupply. The number of applicants for a junior tenure-track job at a major university typically exceeds one hundred. Many of the ninety-nine rejects wind up contingent faculty. It’s hard to be sure why so many bright young people are willing to take a career path with such a small probability of ultimate success. My guess is that it’s because graduate school is in effect free (almost all graduate students are fully supported—those research grants again and many grad students in the humanities are themselves “contingent faculty”), the work is fun, and the alternatives are less attractive.

Curriculum

These pressures have had a terrible effect on the undergraduate curriculum, especially in the humanities and softer social sciences. Happily, the effect on the hard sciences has been modest.

Scientific research entails specialization. Molecular biologists know little of systematics or evolutionary biology, for example. Faculty want to teach their specialty, or close to it: first, because it’s easier, and second because it helps their research (see above). Thus, the pool of faculty able and willing to teach general, introductory courses gets smaller and smaller every year as the number of specialties increases with the growth of science. But science, especially the hard sciences like physics and chemistry, does embody a natural corrective: it is cumulative. To understand calculus you must first understand algebra; to understand dynamics, you must understand calculus, and so on. There is a natural structure to the hard-science curriculum that prevents science education from fragmenting into a bunch of unrelated specialties. The chief danger here is that fields that are not obviously essential to others may be left by the wayside. Something of this sort has happened to whole-organism biology as molecular specialties have grown.

But all is not well in the humanities, as Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind (1987) and its several successors pointed out years ago. First there is science envy (see above). Faculty in the sciences tend to make more money than their humanities counterpart—quite a bit more if you include the possibility of the summer supplements allowed by research grants. And they teach less, for reasons I have explained. (Scientists also face tougher competition, but that factor has failed to impress critics in the humanities.) The result has been increased aping of the research model in the humanities. As in science, novelty is expected; grants (albeit on a much more modest scale) are sought, as is release time from teaching. And relevance and utility (presumably intrinsic to science)—some direct contribution to the public weal beyond mere instruction in great works—is also now deemed if not essential at least highly desirable.

The quest for novelty has had some very bad effects, since it is hard to say much that is really new about great literature. Even fields that are factually based, like history (considered a humanity by some, a social science by others), offer novelty only at the expense of neglect of the classics. Not much new to be said about Washington and Jefferson; they make poor subjects for publishable research these days. But how about female slave narratives of the eighteenth century? More novelty, less competition perhaps?

As the research goes, so goes the teaching. The humanities lack the hierarchical structure that restrains fragmentation and incoherence in the science curriculum. Without consensus on some kind of core, such as the oh-so-twentieth century! Western Civ, there is little to impede the centrifugal tendencies of the twin drives for novelty and social relevance. Soon the humanities curriculum becomes a case study in the peripheral and political—feminist this, deconstruction and “theory” that, social justice the other.

Faculty Governance

The role of faculty in guiding and governing the university is the primary topic of Prof. Burgan’s book. But again, her discussion, though replete with anecdote and informed by her own experience as AAUP general secretary, is limited by her failure to distinguish among different kinds of university.

The faculty at Harvard, for example, have great power, as recent events have shown. Cornel West, a black scholar distinguished in his professorship but not (as many have noted)6 by his actual intellectual productions, was able to humble Harvard president Lawrence Summers when Summers urged him to move beyond rap CDs, TV appearances, and grade inflation to more serious scholarly work. Summers does not have a reputation for tact, but his rebuke to West was private. Nevertheless, West knew both his own market value and the force of the race card. He made Summers’ comments public, got the campus in an uproar, and accepted a handsome offer from Princeton. Summers, just trying to do his job, was humiliated.

Much the same thing happened to Summers when he made the following comments at a 2005 conference at Harvard on women in science. Summers was invited to be “provocative”; he prefaced his comments by saying by that he was not speaking in an official capacity. Perhaps the most provocative thing he said was: “It does appear that on many, many different human attributes—height, weight, propensity for criminality, overall IQ, mathematical ability, scientific ability—there is relatively clear evidence that whatever the difference in means, which can be debated, there is a difference in the standard deviation, and variability of a male and a female population. And that is true with respect to attributes that are and are not plausibly, culturally determined.”

He also said: “So my sense is the unfortunate truth…is that the combination of the high-powered job hypothesis and the differing variances probably explains a fair amount of this problem.”7 In short, science is highly competitive (see above), there are more men than women at the high-end of math and science ability, and more women than men who want to split their time between job and family. These facts, Summers suggested, may account for the predominance of men in top science positions. Not sexist, racist—or rocket science—one might think. Nevertheless, despite Summers’ disclaimer, in the context of the Cornel West history and similar confrontations with a few other faculty, these tentative, scientifically defensible remarks, raised a firestorm that forced Summers to resign a few months later. No lack of faculty governance at Harvard, then.8

Things are different at small second- and third-tier schools. The market value of faculty is less, so moving to a comparable or better place is hard. Better keep your head down! Moreover, at mid-level schools, most faculty, especially in the sciences, are more concerned with their position in their professional hierarchy than their role in the university. So they have little interest in or time for serving on committees and faculty senates that might moderate administrative power. Again, it is the faculty’s responsiveness to forces outside the university that limits their role within it.

What should be done about all this is a topic for another time. But as the causes are largely external to the academy, so too must be the cures. Prof. Burgan’s book skims over these issues. Though full of interesting anecdotes and personal experience, it is flawed by her failure to consider separately different kinds of colleges and universities and her limited understanding of the politics of American science.

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