Higher education used to be an environment in which scholars would work long hours on problems that interested only about six other people, because that's what they wanted to do, because that's what they got respect for doing, and because there wasn't a lot of administrative scut-work cutting into thinking time.

I say used to be deliberately, because I've seen the administrative abuses and usurpations metastasize over the past thirty years, and have been passively fighting back by ignoring them whenever possible for the past ten.

The good news is, the push-back is beginning.  Let's start with "In Search of Lost Time," by Philip Nel in Inside Higher Education.  I borrowed one of his closing lines for the title of the post.

Professor Nel notes first that it's habit to work hard.  There's nothing that concentrates the mind quite like an unfinished research project, and if it's a project properly chosen and properly specified, the time spent on that task is rewarding time.  The problem arises, though, when the academy begins to punish cooperative colleagues for being cooperative.  "When we’re just starting out, we learn to say 'yes' to everything." The novice has to learn to say no to committee assignments and interdisciplinary task forces.  A proper department will protect probationary faculty from such morale-sucks, although those become ways in which the tenured faculty are subject to hold-up.  And, in the absence of much merit money, let alone keeping up with the cost of living, the hold-ups proliferate, as do the requests for favors that might be currency in trading on one's reputation.

The truly instructive stuff begins as the boundaries between work and non-work blur.  Thus Professor Nel notes the perversion of "work at what you love" as borrowed by business, and as bastardized by the legions of deanlets and deanlings.  Although professors, particularly the most highly regarded scholars at the most highly regarded departments, do put in long hours, they're not putting those long hours into checking student electronic mails or filling in Survey Monkey inquiries or keeping their Digital Measures files current.  But the pointy-haired bosses of Corporate America behave as if employees should be grateful for the opportunity to do all that scut-work at all hours.  And too much of higher education seems to be mutating in the same way.  And it's killing thinking.
Peter Higgs, the British physicist who gave his name to the Higgs boson, believes no university would employ him in today's academic system because he would not be considered "productive" enough.

The emeritus professor at Edinburgh University, who says he has never sent an email, browsed the internet or even made a mobile phone call, published fewer than 10 papers after his groundbreaking work, which identified the mechanism by which subatomic material acquires mass, was published in 1964.

He doubts a similar breakthrough could be achieved in today's academic culture, because of the expectations on academics to collaborate and keep churning out papers. He said: "It's difficult to imagine how I would ever have enough peace and quiet in the present sort of climate to do what I did in 1964."
Put another way, without a team of collaborators each of whom would want a piece of the grant action or to be present in the lab when the switch was thrown, he'd be shunned as not collegial.
Higgs said he became "an embarrassment to the department when they did research assessment exercises". A message would go around the department saying: "Please give a list of your recent publications." Higgs said: "I would send back a statement: 'None.' "

By the time he retired in 1996, he was uncomfortable with the new academic culture. "After I retired it was quite a long time before I went back to my department. I thought I was well out of it. It wasn't my way of doing things any more. Today I wouldn't get an academic job. It's as simple as that. I don't think I would be regarded as productive enough."
But annual reports are de rigueur in business, and Everybody Knows that you have to run the academy like a business. Or at least maintain the premise that output ought to be measurable and produced in a short time.  I'm told Andrew Wiles had some trouble with his funding in part because it took a very large margin to write the proof that elliptic curves are modular, thus Diophantine equations of order greater than two have no nondegenerate solutions in integers. (He couldn't provide too much detail in his reports to funding agencies for fear someone else would do a Lobachevsky based on the reports.)

The continuing retrenchments undertaken in the interest of "productivity" are fortunately making continuing academics angry.  At Colorado State in Pueblo, where the administration seeks the dubious distinction of Most Effectively Holding Up Tenured Faculty, embattled historian Jonathan Rees has been doing yeoman service documenting the resistance.
Want to know how bad things have gotten at CSU-Pueblo? The scientists here are at the forefront of the faculty’s fight to save the university from whatever the administration has in store for us. I think a lot of this has to do with the unilateral imposition of a 4-4 load. While I teach both undergraduate and graduate research methods courses, a lot of our science professors actually do their research with their students. Doing this, as I understand from what I’ve been told lately, is an absolutely vital part of what it means to be an advanced chemistry or biology major.* It’s as if our administration has told the scientists here to either work twice as hard or stop doing an absolutely vital part of their teaching duties entirely. I certainly understand why neither option is particularly appealing.
He quotes an open letter to the current president that a chemist circulated to the entire university, detailing the delusions of current provost Carl Wright.
Dr. Wright has forgotten or does not understand the mindset of a teacher. Perhaps he believes that we all came to teaching, like he did, as an escape from some tedious job. Perhaps he believes that we, as did he, found that teaching gave us a lot of “free time”. This could not be further from the truth for most members of this Faculty. Most of us came to teaching because of our passion for our discipline and for advancing our discipline among the younger generations through teaching and research. We are passionate about our teaching and our research and, as noted above, put in far more than Dr. Wright’s “three-days-a-week”. In fact, most of us knew in advance that we would be committing far more than “40 hours” to our work and we willingly and eagerly accepted the position.
At one time, it was an equitable trade. No longer, as a disgruntled physicist informs readers of the local newspaper.
I must confess that I suffered under the misconception that teaching required only a few hours. I spent the majority of my career as an engineer in the aerospace business. I was excited to come to academia and believed that my new teaching career would be almost like semi-retirement.

Little did I know what realities lay ahead. I was quickly awakened to the fact that teaching in front of classes is only a tiny part of being a professor. Here are just a few of the other things I learned that I must do.

Unlike many universities, we do not have teaching assistants at CSU-Pueblo and must do all of our own grading of homework and exams in classes sometimes as large as 85 students. I must prepare exams and homework assignments. I spend a huge amount of time preparing for classes. This entails writing notes to be used and then making them available to students.

There is a lot of bookkeeping when it comes to recording and correcting student grades for all assignments and classes.

I serve on and prepare for many committees that meet regularly that better the university and student welfare. I was a faculty senator for four years. I answer many emails sent by students and other faculty members. At the request of students, I have written many letters of recommendation for admission to medical, pharmaceutical and graduate schools.

Every year, we must submit to the College of Science and Mathematics a long, detailed report for our annual performance reviews.
He's left out the parts where the detailed reporting has been turned into Internet scripts, meaning the professors have to log additional time on-line providing all the additional information that will be collated in some way and subsequently misplaced, where the various purveyors of crying towels in the therapeutic bureaucracy will be after him for progress reports on the Distressed Material, and where the life management deficiencies of today's students consume much of the office hour time or manifest themselves as emergencies at exam time.  Let Professor Rees summarize.
Perhaps you still have no sympathy for us “spoiled” professorial types, but let’s talk about a basic rule of industrial relations, shall we? If you work anyone too hard for low pay, they will no longer sing and dance for you on cue. Now will they perform nearly as well at their jobs as they might have done otherwise. Perhaps the floors of your McDonald’s will not be so clean. Perhaps the cashiers will have a harder time greeting customers with a smile. Perhaps the quality of the food will suffer too. If you simply tell your forlorn workers to do more with less, this might actually make this situation worse.
In higher education, at least, shrinking enrollments are an opportunity.  If there are faculty sufficient to serve twelve thousand students, don't attempt to enroll twenty thousand.  Or, when some administrative request comes in, instead of summarizing your day as Admin 1, Writing 0, withdraw your sanction.


Dr. Tufte said...

Time for a little public grousing ...

I was once put on probation by my dean for insufficient research.

This was because, following the letter of the policy, I did not have 2 pubs in the last 5 years.

Never mind that it was only 4 years since the requirement had been raised from 1 in 5.

Never mind that I'd had 4 in the last 7.

Never mind that I had 1 in the last 5, plus some resubmits in process.

The lumpiness of publication dates counted for nothing against as administrative requirement targeted at dead weight.

At the time I had the most citations of anyone on the entire campus. Most of those were for papers published in the rank I still held at the time I was put on probation. And not just one big hit, but rather a string of solid papers with heavy cites year after year.

As a a journal editor, if someone submitted a paper that treated the data that way, I'd give it a summary rejection, and include a long letter to the author about how excessive massaging of the data to get desired results is unethical.

But, as a faculty member reporting to administrators, there isn't even a policy under which a complaint of that sort could be filed, much less fairly heard.

Go figure.

Stephen Karlson said...

Time to circulate your c.v? Or perhaps to pursue your hobbies more actively?