Why Do They Hate Us?

Brian Taylor

September 26, 2010

I am only a decade out of graduate school—and I suppose it's possible that I am a disagreeable person—but I have had more than a few unpleasant conversations with complete strangers, and even some friends, in which they have expressed their anger about professors while knowing that I am one.

• "What you teach is worthless—I mean, who needs more measurements of Walt Whitman's beard when the economy and the environment are collapsing?"

• "Being a professor is good money for, like, six hours of work per week. What do you do with all that free time?"

• "Oh, I can't talk to you, since I'm not politically correct or anything."

• "I wish I had tenure and didn't have to worry about being fired for not doing my job." 

• "Why don't you English profs just teach people how to write?"

• "I still owe more than $50,000 for my undergraduate degree, and it's never done me any good."

• "My job [pharmaceutical sales] saves lives; your so-called work is a waste of other people's time and money."

I seldom admit or discuss my primary occupation with nonacademics nowadays, if I can avoid it. It's safer to say that I'm a program administrator.

By now, most academics are inoculated against attacks from the right, the conversational relics of the culture war of a generation ago: Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind (1987), Charles Sykes's ProfScam: Professors and the Demise of Higher Education (1988), and Martin Anderson's Impostors in the Temple (1992), to name just a few. I almost feel nostalgia for that time, since the conversation was about what professors should teach. There was no doubt, as yet, whether higher education would continue in some recognizable form.

Over the last 20 years, the positions on both sides have hardened. But now the criticisms of academe are also coming from the left, and not just from the think tanks and journalists, but increasingly from within academe. Some of those works include Marc Bousquet's How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation (2008); Cary Nelson's No University Is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom (2010); and, most recently, Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our KidsAnd What We Can Do About It (2010), by Andrew Hacker and Claudia C. Dreifus; and Mark Taylor's Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities (2010).

For the past several months, The Chronicle's forums and the comment section of its articles—and the larger blogosphere—have been abuzz with discussions of a string of seemingly anti-faculty articles with titles like "Goodbye to Those Overpaid Professors and Their Cushy Jobs" (July 25) and "Do All Faculty Members Really Need Private Offices?" (July 30). The majority feeling seems to be that the present model of higher education is no longer sustainable, and that the necessary changes will focus—for good or ill—on the working lives of professors.

I can't remember a time when professors, particularly in the humanities and social sciences—already the survivors of a 40-year depression in the academic job market—had a stronger feeling of being under siege. At some institutions, there is something aggressive and visceral about the recent rounds of cutbacks and accountability measures. They go beyond mere economic justifications.

So "hate" is not too strong a word, I think, for how nonacademics feel about us. Some of the reasons should flatter us, some are the result of economic and institutional forces beyond our control, and a few should cause us to wonder whether we deserve to be the last generation of traditional academics.

Anti-intellectualism and populism. Those tendencies in American life are not new, but they have become more virulent (see parts one and two of my column "On Stupidity"). Traditionally, professors have countered the tendency toward simplistic, slogan-based thinking—and manipulation—by teaching students to evaluate sources and reach their own conclusions on the basis of evidence derived from painstaking research.

The notion that knowledge is always political, and that perspectives are always relative, has eroded the belief in expertise and earned authority. If everyone's biased, including professors, why not just "go with your gut"? It's much easier, and it empowers you against the academics whose admonitions—as we have lost influence—have become increasingly condescending, sanctimonious, and shrill.

Market-based values. Academics, as a group, are among the last people who question the market as the sole determiner of value. We continue to hold out against the idea that our students are customers who must be pleased even at the cost of their own development. I think most professors still believe, privately, that our role is to liberate students and prepare them for lives of leadership in a relatively democratic society.

A generation ago, we could still defend the belief that our courses in literature, art, history, philosophy—the liberal arts, broadly defined, and always self-critical—were enriching in ways that could not be deposited in a bank or measured by outcomes assessment. In the intervening years, that consensus has fragmented, and we are no longer able to articulate a coherent vision of why others should value what we teach. And with that, I think, we have lost any remaining justification for our autonomy.

The rising cost of higher education. The price of a college degree has risen faster than the cost of health care. Anxiety about those costs crowds out the mental space that might be given to contemplating subjects without direct, practical applications.

The cost increase is driven not by faculty salaries, primarily, but by the rapid growth of administration, massive athletics programs, and the amenities arms race—not who has the most full-time faculty members so much as who has the most successful football team and the fanciest dorm rooms. Some institutions have astronomical endowments and tax-exempt status, asking a mostly excluded population to support what looks like country-club indulgences for elites.

But it is the faculty members who are held accountable for the cost of education, even while a growing majority of them are adjuncts and graduate students who receive no benefits and earn less than the minimum wage.

The changing job market. For a long time, college has been marketed as a requirement for entry into middle-class occupations. A lot of students—surely the majority—now attend college for reasons that have little to do with education for its own sake. Even so, when higher education was a reasonably secure pathway to employment, professors were worthy of some respect: We were gatekeepers, and we could help you. But in today's economic climate, a college degree is expensive, time-consuming, coercive, and does not necessarily lead to employment.

If institutions can't respond to that situation, why shouldn't students, who are not wealthy or devoted to the life of the mind, invest their money and time in something else, like starting a business?

Ignorance about what professors do. Highly paid academic stars make it politically possible to paint faculty members as pampered elites. A few weeks ago, I heard Andrew Hacker say, in an NPR interview, that a major problem with higher education is that "you have professors drawing six-figure salaries for two hours in the classroom each week."

That's a common claim, most often made by politicians looking to slash education budgets. But academic superstars are rare. They are limited to elite research universities, where professors are not paid, primarily, for their teaching.

For all of us, time in the classroom is just the tip of the iceberg. In addition to published research (now required of faculty members at most levels of higher education), courses must be prepared, papers graded, students advised and supported, and administrative work conducted. Many tenure-track faculty members spend more time on administrative work than they do on teaching or research, because there are relatively few of us left to conduct the business of our institutions.

Professors are not a leisure class. Most of us work more than 50 hours a week, and whatever free time we have is generally spent thinking about work or answering e-mail and texts from colleagues and students. We are never off the clock.

Overproduction of scholarly research. Specialized research is inherently difficult to understand, yet we often hear demands that work outside of the sciences should be immediately accessible to the general public. There is no question that more work can be done to publicize the value of scholarship in many fields, but there is also no doubt that a lot of scholarly productivity is a result of the increasing competitiveness of the academic job system.

The pressure to publish, at every level, arguably at the expense of our students, is not something that most academics have chosen, and it has led to a collapse of the university-press system, skyrocketing publishing costs, unsustainable pressures on library budgets, and, ironically, declining engagement with our larger disciplines—a loss of a common scholarly culture—since it's a challenge simply to keep up with a few subfields.

Another result is that many courses reflect specialized research interests rather than broader topics that might be more useful to our students.

Tenure. In a period of extreme anxiety about economic security, when millions of people are losing their jobs, and their lives are unraveling, the appearance of a professor with a job for life and no accountability seems as offensive as a portly aristocrat being carried in a sedan chair through the streets of Paris during the hungry summer of 1789.

Even before the great recession, misunderstandings about tenure were the main reason for disliking professors. But, as Marc Bousquet (a Chronicle blogger) has often observed, academic tenure offers fewer protections than those enjoyed by most civil-service workers. Tenure provides no protection from penalties for not doing your job or for making public statements about issues that are outside your field of professional expertise. Moreover, it takes, on average, about 20 years for professors to attain tenure, and, in the past 40 years, the number of tenure-track positions has shrunk relative to the number of available job candidates. That hyper-competitiveness has resulted in a stultifying culture of conformity, but that is less a function of tenure than it is of the unjustified expansion of graduate programs and the shift of money away from faculty to other campus expenses.

Lack of professional solidarity. Academe has always been fragmented by internecine squabbles about scholarly minutiae. There have always been rivalries among leading scholars and among disciplines. Those divisions are an inherent part of academic culture.

But now academe is divided even more by the conditions of employment. Tenured professorships have become such a privilege, held by a small minority, for such seemingly arbitrary reasons, that anyone who holds such a position is quite naturally resented by someone who does not and probably never will. That is exacerbated by the tendency in our profession to think in terms of hierarchies—to look down on people—based on pedigree, academic rank, and institutional affiliation. We are unable to command respect for ourselves as a profession by working together across those divisions.

There are, of course, many other, less prominent reasons for the current anti-faculty climate. But perhaps it is enough to say that the reason we feel more "hated" than ever is that we deserve it. Instead of collaborating, we competed with each other. We focused on our research instead of on the needs of undergraduates. We even exploited our graduate students, using their labor to underwrite our privileges, and then we relegated most of them to marginal positions as adjuncts. We waited too long to institute reforms to our profession, and now—after 40 years of inaction—the reforms are going to be forced upon us.

Some of that may be positive: Perhapsa more equitable labor system will emerge. Maybe there will be a greater focus on undergraduate education and less emphasis on specialized research. In any case, some big changes are coming, and what will change will not be decided, for the most part, by faculty members.

Thomas H. Benton is the pen name of William Pannapacker, an associate professor of English at Hope College.