RIVERSIDE — Sometimes I go hiking in the middle of the week, strolling slowly up the summit of San Gorgonio Mountain, for instance, to sit down and think. This is the life afforded by the University of California, where in the normal course of things my presence is required on the campus only every now and then. Summers are free from even these restrictions. Time is nearly all my own, to do with as I please.
But what happens if hiking pleases me more than doing research and preparing courses, what happens if I merely show up for my classes and then go home again to play or sit or drink? Now that I have tenure, nothing can be done.
Professors only rise in academic rank. They cannot be sent down again, once they're tenured in. Yet the life of leisurely reflection is paid for by the public, for a purpose, and if that purpose isn't served, then there's no sense paying for it. So various suggestions are being made, for demoting full and associate professors, in some cases even to take away their tenure, to fire or retire them for incompetence or laziness. It all makes sense on paper, but it may result in cutting down the forest for the trees.
It would, of course, be better to rejuvenate those scholars dying of malaise. But failing that, it once seemed best to let the deadwood rot quietly away, rather than to take the risk of destroying everything that has taken centuries to grow. Times have changed.
In England, where leisurely reflection was perfected, Oxbridge scholars now sing the blues. Margaret Thatcher's new education scheme would abolish tenure and bring on other changes which threaten cloistered quietude.
Thatcher would do away with tenure in favor of contracts. This might dispose of deadwood, sure enough, but it would also cut down whole departments as redundancies--in philosophy, geography or classics, for example--once it appeared to bureaucrats that there were too many persons holding on to those public jobs. In this way, Oxford dons could now be fired, once their work was no longer in demand, regardless of their individual accomplishments as scholars or as teachers. This new economy would extend to research contracts, too, where grants would from now on be awarded the way advances are for books. And if the work is not produced as stipulated, the money would have to be repaid, with interest.
British teachers and professors are apoplectic over these proposals, but the scholars are proving powerless against the cost-effective boys, not to mention budget-conscious politicians. The government, Thatcher claims, cannot afford to pay for metaphysicians and literary critics--a thought that might prove popular to those in economically advantageous fields, not to mention the general public.
The dons complain that a bureaucracy cannot be trusted to make the right decisions, to weigh the value of a degree in classics against psychopharmacology. Furthermore, turning research funding into contracts would encourage short-term projects over long-term gains. English scholars also point to the brain drain of their best and brightest, who are taking up positions in the United States in droves.
Actually, America's public institutions for higher education have been thinking along Thatcher's lines for quite some time, using cost accounting as the basis for decision-making within the universities, albeit at the state and local level. Although the onslaught against tenure and redundancies has yet to make its presence widely felt, cost-benefit analysis abounds, not just from the top on down, as is the case in England, but also from the bottom up, even from those same faculty whose jobs might one day be at stake. It is not just that new positions are awarded on the basis of bodies in the classroom, so that as the bodies come and go, positions follow willy-nilly. Faculty regard each other's contributions in quantitative terms as well.
In the UC system, promotion and merit pay increases are largely controlled by faculty personnel committees. Yet faculty are often at a loss how to judge one another's work. As specialties have multiplied from the sciences on into humanities, members of the same department can often barely comprehend each other's research, much less can other academics on personnel committees. Consequently, it is all so very understandable just to count the pages, instead of reading what is written on them. And so the quantity and length of publications weigh heavily in awarding tenure and promotions, even though we all admit that too much is being written and too little being read. The same quantitative calculation works for teaching too, by adding up the scores on standardized evaluations, typically measures of a teacher's popularity, in lieu of what was learned in class.