22.12.07

RETHINKING THE UNIVERSITY. Academe's version of Eddie Sand suggests a different career ladder for professors.
Let’s say the same college decides instead to hire a 55-year-old with tons of experience and publications, and that person agrees to come in at an associate professor’s salary. If we factor in annual raises of about 4 percent (generous these days) and assume that the individual with be made a full professor in five or six years, the college will invest roughly $800,000 in salary on said individual before he or she reaches retirement age. It would take 13 years for the 30-year-old to reach the same level of investment, but remember: They’re still aboard for quite awhile and you’ve got to keep compounding bumps for raises and promotions. For less money than the costs of a full career for a new Ph.D., an institution could hire two experienced associate profs sequentially, plus have money left over for several adjuncts.
A reader has reservations.

This is getting long, but I should spend at least a moment on the "cost" argument. Weir argues that not only does hiring older faculty make educational sense, but it makes financial sense, as well-- "an institution could hire two experienced associate profs sequentially, plus have money left over for several adjuncts."

Of course, like any specious claim, this requires both some terrible modelling assumptions and some rhetorical sleight-of-hand. The terrible assumption is that you can "hire a 55-year-old with tons of experience and publications, and that person agrees to come in at an associate professor's salary." An associate professor's salary, on average, is something like $58,000 in his estimation. This whole scheme depends on somebody who is thirty years past college graduation happily accepting the same salary as a current academic in their 30's. The mind boggles.

The objection -- and it is a serious one -- noted: the Inside Higher Ed poster does identify a problem with business as usual in the academy.

Over time academics worth their salt accumulate knowledge, have become experts in their fields — and have the vitae to prove it — and know how to teach. The latter point cannot be overemphasized. According to the Department of Education, 60 percent of students graduate from a different college or university than the one in which they first enrolled. Surprisingly, cost and homesickness are not cited as reasons for transferring as often as bad teaching, lousy advising, and desire for a more prestigious education. It does not take a mathematical genius to figure out that a failed assistant professor hire can cost his or her institution tens of thousands of dollars in lost tuition fees; at elite colleges that number quickly leaps into six figures, not to mention future losses related to alumni giving.

With due respect to the many wonderful and talented novice assistant professors, one is more likely to encounter shaky teaching among rookies. Higher education, unlike nearly all other levels of education, usually requires no formal training or practice teaching as a prerequisite for instructing undergraduates. The vast majority of newly minted Ph.D.’s have little classroom experience beyond serving as a teaching assistant and in some fields — most notably the hard sciences — many graduate students working on research grants have had no direct student contact at all.

There has to be some waste in having the least experienced teachers, or the teachers with the smallest stake in the enterprise, facing the least experienced students. That is, however, exactly what happens when graduate assistants and armies of adjuncts and tenure-trackers who haven't figured out the system yet draw introductory algebra and freshman composition and principles of economics. Inexperienced teachers are less likely to be able to distinguish a clueless question from an insightful but ill-posed question. That comes with experience, and one is still developing that experience at retirement age.

That anybody with a brain is likely to be able to test out of taking algebra or composition makes the burden on the new faculty member even greater. I repeat: there is a reason the military subjects recruits to the tender mercies of career noncommissioned officers.

(One aside: I was one of those Ph.D. students who assisted on several research grants and had little teaching experience in graduate school. So I had to improvise as I went along, at Wayne State, which has a very different intellectual culture than Wisconsin. But because I spoke English like a Midwesterner I got pretty good teaching evaluations despite my inexperience. Draw your own inferences.)

The incentive structure in higher education, particularly where the department and the college take "original research" seriously, prevents the graduate assistants and the assistant professors from spending too much time on class development, and the freeway flyers often work valiantly to establish a research profile and secure a tenure track post somewhere.
Another reason why young professors are often so-so teachers is simple: They’re too busy producing the research necessary to secure tenure. Since they’re bright people they pick up — often by trial and error — the tricks of the teaching trade, but if they’re at a university or elite college, they’d better crank out papers, articles, and books or teaching evaluations are moot. And they’d better be on a handful of time-consuming campus committees to boot.
But here's where the train of thought derails.
Like too many things in higher education, we’ve structured things backwards. Young folks can sharpen their attack knives for the next remark, but if the academy ran according to logic, nearly all new hires would begin their careers at colleges that place more emphasis on teaching than research. Freed from publish-or-perish pressures, they’d be able to craft their teaching skills more quickly and in the company of seasoned mentors.
But it's precisely when a new Ph.D. has just defended a dissertation that the new Ph.D. is best equipped to publish that dissertation and work on extensions of the dissertation, as well as exploring new lines of research. Better to turn the new Ph.D.s loose with the seniors and graduate students, and expose them to the freshmen after they've mellowed a bit.

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