Trustees | Costs

Publish or perish—but why?

DENVER POST   |  August 22, 2010 by Vincent Carroll

“Since upward of 500,000 assistant, associate, and full time professors are now eligible for sabbaticals, do we really need that many new books and articles?”

That’s the sort of sentence that needs to be written by a respected liberal academic or no one—least of all in higher education—would take it seriously. The author would simply be dubbed an ignorant outsider who doesn’t appreciate the sacred march of knowledge.

But Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, the authors of the question, are respected academics with liberal credentials. He is professor emeritus at Queens College (and author of the acclaimed 1992 book “Two Nations, Black and White, Separate, Hostile and Unequal”) while she is adjunct associate professor at Columbia University. And in their new book, “Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids and What We Can Do About It,” they say a number of things that need repeating as fall semester begins and tuition in Colorado and elsewhere continues to rise faster than inflation.

Their point is not that those books and articles are junk (although some qualify), but that they come at a price paid by parents, students and often taxpayers.

Yet how often do you hear faculty productivity mentioned during the hand-wringing over escalating tuition and, in Colorado especially, declining state support?

Nor are sabbaticals the only productivity issue. As Michael Poliakoff, a former vice president at the University of Colorado, points out in a recent report from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, “In many universities, faculty teach four classes a year . . . would an increase of one class per year—which would generate a 25 percent increase in productivity—be an onerous burden? Could the assignment of teaching loads be prioritized to faculty who are less productive in research?”

Poliakoff is not talking about schools like Metro State, where teaching loads are considerably higher, but elite colleges as well as research universities such as CU, where teaching loads are indeed surprisingly light.

In response to Poliakoff’s report, the chairman of the CU-Boulder faculty assembly told the Boulder Daily Camera that “comprehensive universities such as CU have a much broader mission” than classroom teaching. “Faculty spend a great deal of time mentoring students in their labs, studios or in the field. Students often report these as the most rewarding activities they have engaged in, yet they often don’t show up in simple counts of ‘teaching load.'”

Very true. No one is suggesting that mentoring isn’t important or that research often isn’t a boon to society. That’s why it makes perfect sense, for example, that the natural sciences and engineering at Boulder enjoy somewhat lighter teaching loads than the social sciences and arts and humanities. But maybe it’s time to ask, when state budgets around the country face long-term structural pressure and taxpayers will be asked (in some cases with reason) to pump more revenue into their universities, whether current teaching loads should be sacrosanct for everyone.

Given the cost, does it even make sense for a university to expect research across all disciplines and from all faculty?

It’s not as if the reappraisal, say, of great writers would be neglected if most English professors had to teach one additional class a year. And as Hacker and Dreifus point out, “If professors are burning to write books, they have long summers and three day weekends,” too.

And the occasional sabbatical.


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