Second-Hand Second-Rate Culture War Hackery

Dave Munger on Twitter drew my attention to this blog post on college costs, and I really wish he hadn't. The post in question is really just a recap-with-links of an editorial by John Zmirak, blaming the high cost of college on an unlikely source:

[W]hat if universities began to neglect this basic charge, and instead turned into featherbedding, unionized factories that existed to protect their overpaid workers -- who were impossible to fire? What if these factories botched the items customers paid for, and spent their energy generating oddball inventions no one wanted?

That is exactly what happened in academia over the past 30 years, according to Emory University professor Mark Bauerlain, who explores the open, ugly secret that most professors are paid based not on the quality (or even quantity) of their teaching, but rather on the volume of scholarly articles and books they can produce.

I'm not sure how Zmirak conned not one but two newspapers into running this (an essentially identical story ran in San Francisco last week), because it's nothing but warmed-over second-rate culture war hackery. The Times blogger re-tweeting this is thus engaged in second-hand second-rate culture war hackery, which is verging into "Billions of electrons were wasted in transmitting this crap over the Internet" territory.

Having spent more time than it deserves being annoyed by this crap, though, I might as well get a blog post out of it. So, here are some of the ways you can tell that Zmirak's article is worthless:

Picking up where the quote above left off, we have:

That is exactly what happened in academia over the past 30 years, according to Emory University professor Mark Bauerlain, who explores the open, ugly secret that most professors are paid based not on the quality (or even quantity) of their teaching, but rather on the volume of scholarly articles and books they can produce.

Bauerlain's American Enterprise Institute paper, "Professors on the Production Line, Students On Their Own," reveals

You could really pretty much stop there, if you wanted to. The words "American Enterprise Institute study" are a gigantic red flag emblazoned with the words "Disingenuous Ideologically-Motivated Crap" (it has to be a gigantic flag to fit all that). If the American Enterprise Institute released a study titled "Rayleigh Scattering Is Your Friend: Sky Color Is Usually Blue," I'd start trying to figure out what moneyed-interest angle this was covering.

But let's play along with the pretense that the AEI is somehow a reputable scholarly organization, and see where it goes. The rest of the piece is full of bait-and-switch and non sequiturs masquerading as data supporting arguments:

Laboring on the age-old axiom "publish-or-perish," thousands of professors, lecturers and graduate students are busy producing dissertations, books, essays and reviews. Over the past five decades, their collective productivity has risen from 13,000 to 72,000 publications per year. But the audience for language and literature scholarship has diminished, with unit sales for books now hovering around 300.

Those sure are numbers. It's not clear that they mean anything, though. If the point here were something about the specialization of the academy, these would probably be relevant, but it's not clear how low unit sales are related to the quality of undergraduate education. If you were trying to make an honest point with these numbers, you'd also need some population figures: how many faculty are there now, compared to the 1950's? How many students are there now, compared to the 1950's?

Moving along:

At the same time, the degree of interaction between teachers and students has declined. While 43 percent of two-year public college students and 29 percent of four-year public college students require remedial course work, costing $2 billion annually, one national survey reports that 37 percent of first-year arts/humanities students "never" discuss course readings with teachers outside of class, and 41 percent only do so "sometimes."

Again, those sure are numbers. But without some past figures to compare to, they're really just decoration, not data. What fraction of freshmen in the golden age of fifty years ago discussed their reading with a professor outside of class? I wouldn't wager anything significant on this being a high number.

I'm also a little puzzled by "first-year arts/humanities students discussing readings outside of class" as a criterion for academic quality, and I say this as a faculty member at a small college, where close interaction with faculty is one of the things that we sell. Obviously, it would be lovely if every student spent time outside of class chatting up their English professor, but I don't really think it's practical. There are only so many hours in the day, and there are a lot of first-year students taking required classes in the arts and humanities (more on this in a minute).

Continuing on:

Indeed, prestigious professors frequently have little interaction with students at all, lecturing to hundreds at a time, consigning discussions and grading to graduate students. Meanwhile, the research these professors are turning out is increasingly obscure and often politicized. If they're dealing with well-studied writers, they must pursue ever more oddball interpretations of the works in order to produce something original.

A few things to notice, here: First, notice how all the numbers have disappeared. We've left the land of pseudo-data, and moved into the zone of pure assertion, with no statistics about, say, the average size of a class, or the average number of students taught by a given faculty member.

Also, notice the vagueness of the adjectives: "Prestigious professors" do little teaching, but who counts as prestigious? The adjective suggests only a handful of faculty, but the argument that follows wants to imply that all faculty are in this category.

But let's think about the numbers here. Picking a flagship state university not at all at random, the University of Maryland, College Park, my graduate alma mater, enrolls 26,000 undergraduates (according to Wikipedia), meaning that in any given year, about 6,000 new students enroll (26,000/4=6,500, but we'll allow some slack for students on a more-than-four-year plan). The English department at Maryland lists 88 faculty and staff, of whom 66 are tenure-track faculty or lecturers (the rest are support staff, or emeritus faculty).

That's 90 students per member of the English faculty. If every single English faculty member taught English 101 to 90 students a year (say, two classes of 45), they would just barely manage to keep up with the entering classes. What the sophomores, juniors, and seniors would take, I'm not sure, because that would pretty much be a full-time job for each of those faculty members, leaving little time for teaching upper-level classes in the major, let alone doing scholarly work.

Introductory classes are taught in large sections with the aid of graduate students not because faculty are feather-bedding, but because that's the only way to make the numbers work. Unless Zmirak would like to give up the notion of requiring students to take an English lit class, or hire a whole bunch more faculty, and I don't think he'd go for either of those, especially when his final recommendations include:

That's why it's essential, when making the ever more costly choices required in education, to carefully scope out each college. Call the admissions office and inquire about the student/teacher ratio and the percentage of classes taught by graduate students.

Is there a core curriculum of solid classes in Western culture, American history and great works of literature?

Somehow, I don't think the English Lit requirement is a negotiable proposition...

(I skipped over a bunch of tendentious and data-free paragraphs consisting of well-worn culture war material. I don't really recommend reading it-- if you've heard even one of these arguments before, you can probably reconstruct most of what goes in there.)

So, ok, Zmirak's argument is mostly warmed-over incoherent culture war stuff. But even a blind pig finds a stopped watch twice a day (or something)-- might it still be the case that overpaid faculty are to blame for high tuition costs?

Well, let's try to Fermi-problem our way through this. Union, where I teach, is one of those $50,000-per-year schools, so let's see how faculty salaries stack up to other expenses.

We've got in the neighborhood of 200 faculty. Let's assume an overpaid professor gets, on average, $100,000 (this is way high, but roll with it). That's a faculty payroll of $20 million, which sounds like a lot.

Consider, though, that Union enrolls about 2,100 students. So let's try to estimate what it costs to keep those students on campus in the style to which they are accustomed. The average American uses energy at a rate of about 11 kW (based on Wikipedia). Assuming that our students are pretty much average in their energy consumption, that's a steady-state draw of about 23,000 watts of power to keep our students happy, or 151,767,000 kWh of energy consumption over the course of a year (24 hours/day, 365 days/year, but only 75% of that time is on campus).

It's a little tough to assign an exact cost per kilowatt-hour, but that doesn't really matter, here-- we're just looking for an order of magnitude. A cost of $0.10/kWh (residential electric rates, more or less) would put the academic-year utility bills at $15 million; a cost of $0.01/kWh would put the bill at $1.5 million.

In other words, the faculty salary pool is on the same order of magnitude as the utility bill for keeping 2,100 modern Americans in residence on campus as students for nine months of the year. That doesn't include the costs of feeding them, cleaning up after them, providing them broadband Internet access, maintaining the buildings and grounds, keeping up the library and research facilities, and so on.

The claim that tuition is high because faculty are overpaid is patent nonsense. College tuition is high because running a modern American college or university is an expensive business-- just providing the minimum services that students expect these days costs as much or more than the faculty get paid. The attempt to blame the cost on the faculty is just another politically-motivated smear by people who hold grudges against the academy for failing to share their ideas of Proper Culture.


More like this

The hidden argument is that faculty should be more "efficient", you see according to AEI type of analysis, the outrage would be the "lazy faculty" only teaching two classes.
For a standard 3-per-week, that is only 6 hours of class time.

Clearly this is inefficient and just coddles the faculty, who should be at the coalface - so triple the teaching load.
Six classes is still only 18 hours, less than half the work week, right?
Right there you cut class size by a factor of three, or decrease labour costs. Clearly this would make for a much more efficient university...

Please note that I am most emphatically NOT endorsing this argument, I am merely pointing out what their underlying rationale is leading up to.

Nice response, Chad, and I agree wholeheartedly. I decided to look up some real numbers myself and found the Swarthmore annual report (PDF link: ). It says that faculty salaries account for about 25 percent of the total cost of educating a student. If all we had to pay was faculty salaries (and assuming alumni donations and other income sources continued to pay their proportional part of the bill) tuition would in fact be quite reasonable, just $12.5 K/year.

So I agree, putting the "blame" on "overpaid faculty' is quite disingenuous.

Michael Berube's takedown of Bauerlein's 'professors don't do no work' shtick is the definitive source here. The closing paragraphs are magnificently mean-spirited.

So why is all of this scutwork and office-upkeep dreck invisible to someone like Mark Bauerlein, who actually has an academic job?

I think I have an idea. Once youâve declaredâ emphatically and repeatedlyâ that you think your scholarly field consists largely of tommyrot and bollocks, and that you think your colleagues are largely a bunch of whiners and freeloaders, itâs very possible that your professional workload is going to decrease significantly. Very few academic presses and journals are going to ask you for your professional opinion on whether a manuscript is complete bollocks or merely sixty percent tommyrot; very few graduate students are going to approach you and ask you to direct their dissertations on how Itâs All a Load of Nonsense Anyway; very few colleagues are going to ask you to serve a couple of years on the new interdisciplinary Bollocks and Tommyrot Studies committee. Itâs possible that youâll get kind of embittered about all this, but thereâs an important upside.

If youâre teaching at an elite research university, youâll soon find that you have many hours of free time every week, and you may not know what to do with yourself. If youâre of a certain cast of mind, you may well decide to use your leisure time to write about the blessedly light workloads of your colleagues who are doing the service-and-refereeing scutwork you no longer consider to be worth the time and effort.

It may seem like an exercise in bad faith, but itâs really nice no-work if you can get it. And you can get it if you try.

Clearly this is inefficient and just coddles the faculty, who should be at the coalface - so triple the teaching load.
Six classes is still only 18 hours, less than half the work week, right?

Yes, this makes perfect sense!   This leaves the professors far less time to produce their "politicized" (i.e., liberal) research.   Even better: by overloading the professors, they would have to rely much more on mass-produced curriculum and materials, insteading of having the time to prepare their own (presumably biased) lecture materials and curriculum.
Oh, and don't forget that this would mean textbooks written by the same people and process that gives us such wonderful primary/secondary school science textbooks, because professors would no longer have time to make them!

Something magical must have happened between 50 year ago and 40 years ago, because things sure haven't changed much between when I was an undergraduate and when my kids were, nor in the few years since they were undergraduates and this week when my youngest started teaching.

As for whether students have contact with faculty outside of class: that was then, and is now, dominated by whether the students themselves are trying to make University a continuation of high school or are acting like adults and getting actively involved. I realize that some schools make more effort to encourage the former behaviours and some more the latter, but it still comes down to horses and water.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 28 Aug 2009 #permalink

How many degrees (social promotion! Everybody gets a B) awarded in psychology, political science, social advocacy, literature, economics, Black and Brown studies, art, human ecology, philosophy, pre-law... kinesiology (jock studies) sum to a technological civilization? Waitress Nation.

The Hyena of the Senate Ted Kennedy was never shy about raiding others' wallets to help the Officially Sad. The productive sector violently shifted to the consumptive sector. Cash for Clunkers! Would career salesmen possess social conscience, advising buyers toward modestly priced cars with fewer luxury add-ons, trashing their commissions? Detroit suckles buyers seduced into impoverishment, again. Minnows were fed to sharks to kickstart the debt cycle - but near nothing remains to be so stolen. Universities are the same sale pitch for the same products, with a 17-22 year old demographic.

I read Zmirak's whole essay without ever figuring out what his argument was for why tuition is so high. It looked like a bunch of completely unrelated ranting about lazy faculty.

It didn't cross my mind that Zmirak thinks tuition is high because faculty salaries are high. Indeed, re-reading the article, I still don't see where he makes such an argument. It's just a really awful essay, with no obvious connection to the question he started out with.

As for your Fermi problem, personally I'd guess that student energy use is lower than the national average since so many of them are crammed into relatively high-density dorms. Less space per student to heat/air condition (especially compared to homeowners), centralized dining and laundry facilities, etc. But that's not going to change an order-of-magnitude estimate.

By Ambitwistor (not verified) on 28 Aug 2009 #permalink

I think it's worth pointing out that a lot of people with sympathy for AEI's positions would also agree that most students currently in college (but not their own offspring, of course) would be better off with vocational education*, and that trying to offer elite education to the masses is not a workable endeavor and is the real source of rot in the system. They'd be happy to go from blaming liberal professors for not serving the deserving students, to blaming the undeserving students for ruining the system and not being suited to the high intellectual caliber of the people they're exposed to.

*From a salary perspective there may be some merit to that argument for many students (but probably nowhere near a majority), but (1) this is something that individuals have to work out for themselves and (2) AEI would only embrace that argument when it's convenient, rather than when it's actually in the interests of the students.

it's not a mystery how this dreck got into "a san francisco paper." the SF examiner used to be a reputable newspaper. its name was sold, and it is now a free tabloid. they are desperate for content.

Rather than estimating electric bills, you could just look at the tax return, which shows 48.6mill for comp (inclusive of benefits & pension) and 3mill for occupancy expense (which typically includes utilities)

Rather than estimating electric bills, you could just look at the tax return, which shows 48.6mill for comp (inclusive of benefits & pension)

That also includes a lot of non-faculty salaries and benefits-- all of the support staff and administrators are in there, too. I have access to better numbers than I used, but it's not my place to disclose them, so I went with order-of-magnitude estimates.

Also, while Chad may have good numbers for his school, it's the order of magnitude estimates that will be most useful for considering a "typical" school nationwide, since his school may be unusually high or low on some particular item.

"I have access to better numbers than I used, but it's not my place to disclose them"

Why not? Union sends its compensation and totals to the AAUP each year, who then make it public. Or is Union's electric bill some sort of state secret?

A few points.

One, the AEI paper didn't go into college costs or faculty salaries. It went into the explosion of research productivity in literature and language fields, and what it means for faculty labor and student engagement.

Two, it analyzed the impact of rising research productivity mandates on faculty time and incentives.

It's easy to throw guilt-by-association charges at scholarly papers, but if you see any errors of evidence and argument in the AEI paper, please note them.

By Mark Bauerlein (not verified) on 28 Aug 2009 #permalink

Since making the comment above, I have received an email from Mark Bauerlein setting out some of the extracurricular duties that he carries out, and convincing me that the personal snark was unwarranted.

Just in case anyone is curious, according to the census, the number of full college students has gone up by a factor of over five between 1960 and today. The population has gone up by a factor of around 1.7, so comparatively, three times as many students are enrolled in college as there were back in 1960. The biggest part of the jump was, of course, the baby boom.

I've looked at a few other statistics, and the number of professors has generally tracked the number of students. Professor's salaries have not risen dramatically faster than anyone else's, at least not when adjusted for the level of education. The cost of college, in contrast, has risen much faster. (I remember an old tuition riot. Our slogan $2900, too damned much.)

Most of the articles I have read point to a number of factors for the soaring cost of higher education. To start with, there is a lot more support staff. Colleges need a lot more administrators than they used to. If nothing else, there is a much bigger IT staff and a lot more people focussed on getting students the money they need. There has also been a change in housing. Many more students live on campus. Cheap off campus housing is not as common as it once was. Many more students have single rooms, often as part of suites, so they require more square footage.

Personally, I don't think efficiency is the point of college education. It's primary value is keeping people out of the workplace and competing for jobs. As for research, its economic value depends on the field. Readers of this blog might take this as a swipe at the humanities, but someone has to train sophists to work at AEI.

I'm going to suggest something different is at work -- don't forget, the majority of conservative thinktanks exist because their ideas have been rejected by academia, but they still want to keep them in circulation because they promote their ideologies. This isn't about reform -- this is about trying to dead-agent universities out of spite. At the end of the day they don't care about faculty:student ratios or anything like that -- they just want people to stop taking university research seriously because it doesn't jibe with the Right's agenda.

In the modern world, we need to raise the middle. That is, we need to make the 50th percentile smarter. And we need to teach those same people how to work together to solve problems bigger than they could solve on their own. Our education system does not do that. At all.

Our education system is based on the premise that you are attending college strictly to obtain personal benefits, and so you should be paying the maximum the free market can obtain from you to get the education that will benefit you, and you alone. If you are seeking to be a doctor, you will be making a great deal of money when you graduate, and therefore you should pay dearly to become a doctor, and so you will have to charge a great deal of money to make your education pay off. Viola! We have a self-destructive positive feedback loop in place.

I hear people complain that kids today would rather become a web designer than an engineer, and that is supposed to say something bad about the kids. Web designer is less investment to payoff by a long shot for most people.

I wanted to become a doctor when I was 40, but realized I didn't have $250,000 laying around to pursue that fantasy. Especially given that I wouldn't be out of college until I was in my 50's and would die paying off student loans. You can all just die instead. I don't have time to pay for the "privilege" to become a doctor for you.

That brings me back to the "work together" to solve our common problems bit. I saw a great interview with Ricardo Semler a while back on the web where he compared modern company's personnel policies with Galipoli.
I paraphrase:
We're all in this together, but if you don't go into that valley and get mowed down by machine gun fire, we'll have to mow you down right here. Praise be to Democracy!

Are we really "all in this together," or not? If not, why should any of us obey any law if we think we have a reasonable chance of not being caught and punished?

The problem goes deeper than professors. The problem is a societal one. Americans dislike knowledge. We hate people who are educated because they "think they are always right." People who have educations are "know-it-alls." And if you do know anything, even without the paper, you are suspect.

I agree with Hofstadter (Anti-Intellectualism in American Life) on this one. Americans went feral in the rapid expansion across the country in the 1800's. We have only just begun to re-domesticate ourselves. The difficulty we face is compounded because those with the knowledge to do something (academics) are insulated from the pain of the problem, and those with the power to do something (politicians) are in power because of the problem.

So what can the rest of us do? I really have no practical idea.

Most smart people who had the necessary automatic responses to get them into academia have been insulated from the worst of what society has to dish out to those who "think about sh*t." They haven't spent much time picking crops, or working as dishwashers because they had no other options. They haven't lived in the streets, or spent time on welfare. They have no idea about what most people are thinking.

And it isn't pretty. We are a nation of idiots. We are working for "Good Intentions Paving, Inc." and we have been put to work on a new road to an old place in a new era.

What can those of us who "think about sh*t" do to turn this freighter around in this bathtub?

-- Sean

How did the AEI folks who paid this "lazy academic" fail to notice that they were helping supply one more example of a Least Publishable Unit that would help ensure that he gets promoted and can justify doing more "research" and spending less time with students?

They were had.

The biggest piece of nonsense you missed was his attempt to blame colleges for the high rate of remedial placement. That is like blaming the military because new recruits are overweight today. We should never apologize for maintaining standards by identifying and fixing those problems rather than passing them on. FYI, remediation first appeared when Harvard found some of the prep school grads it admitted did not know Greek and Latin well enough to work at a college level, and expanded when the GI Bill allowed men from almost any background to go to college.

But I really loved seeing what we refer to as the "nessie" and "cessie" data on student engagement used as if they were anything more than the unverified self-reports by students of their behavior and experiences on campus. Trusting those studies is based on the assumption that the plural of anecdote is data.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 01 Sep 2009 #permalink

By the way, I should have led by mentioning the non-trivial detail that the majority of college students attend a 2yc like my CC, where we teach a lot of small classes (typical first year english is capped at around 30) rather than publishing a lot of crap papers like that Prof at Emory does.

A tiny minority pay $53,000 a year to go to college, but even a prof at Sarah Lawrence does not reap what the students sow for each credit hour of class any more than I do -- a point you made about where the money goes.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 01 Sep 2009 #permalink