2.12.07

MORE ON FACULTY COMPLICITY. Welcome, visitors from Minding The Campus. Donald Downs of the University of Wisconsin extends a previous essay.
At so-called major universities, tenure-track faculty members are rewarded primarily for their research efforts, and they are often just too busy to worry about agendas pushed by various administrators and students. (To be sure, research should not be disparaged. Society needs the best research, and somebody has to produce what others teach.) Minding the campus takes time and effort, and it is seldom rewarded financially.
He goes on with a cross-reference.
Stephen Karlson of Northern Illinois University raises a further point in responding to my last essay on his blog Universities are divided between senior faculty members with tenure and faculty members without tenure (most of whom are not even on the tenure track at all). These are the people who usually teach large courses, as many senior faculty disdain reaching out to large numbers of students - another problem of citizenship. Without the protection of tenure, they are more vulnerable if they resist the pressures of staff and others who promote politically correct agendas. At Wisconsin, for example, teaching assistants - perhaps the most vulnerable of all campus citizens - are exposed to sensitivity training that even my most liberal graduate students find exceedingly insulting and bullying. They complain to one another and to associates, but are reluctant to speak too loudly. (Alas, this is an area academic freedom advocates have not dealt with at Wisconsin or elsewhere.)
Supervising professors have a responsibility to protect the time of their graduate assistants. I'm not in a position to suggest much, however, as the Northern Illinois economics department doesn't offer any of the large lecture classes with armies of graduate assistants to protect the professors' time.

The central theme of Professor Downs's essay is that the totalitarianism of Student Affairs has been made possible by a correlation of forces: a faculty self-selected to be vanguardists and a status hierarchy in which one's distance from the introductory classes increases in proportion to one's standing as a researcher. (To some extent, that's an argument that appears in Charlie Sykes's Profscam and probably existed in inchoate form prior to that book's publication.) He struggles with the correlation of forces because the totalitarians appear to be in charge at institutions where the senior faculty aren't protecting big chunks of their time for research.
Also, there is the problem of political suppression at small liberal arts schools that do not emphasize research, and which are less affected by the broader forces discussed above. No one has conducted a serious empirical study of the status of academic freedom in liberal arts colleges, so we just do not know how extensive the problem might be. But many commentators have written chilling accounts of political correctness run amok on individual campuses. If faculty indifference plays a role at such schools, this indifference is more likely to be based on fear or reluctance to offend activists than on the emphasis upon research and related pressures.
Or perhaps sharing the worldview?

Senior faculty indifference to campus citizenship leaves a vacuum into which questionable and damaging agendas by those who do care can flow. In the end, Lewis's depiction is somewhat more optimistic than [National Humanities Medalist Stephen] Balch's, for it implies that academic freedom can be retrieved by the right kind of political organization and action on campus. (Whether this can affect the curriculum, which is [Harvard's Harry] Lewis's main concern, is another matter.) If the problem is incentive-based and structural, work to change the incentives and structures. If the problem is largely ideological, however, that would be a different matter, and we might be confronting Sisyphus's mountain.

The only way to test who is right is to start building constructive networks on campus, and then see what happens.

There are also market tests. Is it any accident that the Yellow Springs campus of Antioch College is going out of business as we have known it? To repeat (regular readers have heard this many times): part of the price premium for the prestige universities (which vanishes once one nets out the financial aid) might reflect a flight from universities perceived to offer both a politicized curriculum and student life, and a weaker student body. Perhaps a critical mass of students who are able to see through the Student Affairs propaganda is something that commands a price premium. There's something for that constructive network to chew over.

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