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More Wisdom From the Left? (This Time on Tenure)

Here’s an exaggerated account of the slide of our professors into the proletariat given by The Nation, our leading journal on the left.  Let me repeat what I’ve said before:  Good exaggerations contain a lot of truth.  AND we conservatives often ally with leftists in a limited and selective way in our criticisms of what are sometimes called “the excesses of capitalism.” 

One way among many we conservatives differ from leftists:  We regard, say, Marx’s Communist Manifesto as an over-the-top and fairly misleading exaggeration of the bourgeois tendency to commodify everything people think and do.  And we certainly don’t think the dominant contemporary tendency is to reduce the great mass of people–the proletariat–to the utter misery of being nothing more than  cogs in a machine earning nothing more than subsistence wages.  We conservatives remember what leftists often forget:  Marx even knew he was exaggerating;  he was trying to arouse the hate that would foment revolution. 

But we conservatives also know, from writers such as Tocqueville, that modern democracy does have the middle-class tendency to erode all “values” that don’t serve productivity (or technology).  As Marx says, our bourgeois tendency really is to take the “halos” off beautiful and noble ways of life and evaluate them according to their cash value.  So it’s in our time that women–in the name of their freedom and dignity–have become (and, a Marxist would say,  are more or less stuck with becoming) “wage slaves” just like men.  And it’s in our time that professorial “autonomy”–based on the view that the truth and all that are intrinsically worthwhile–is eroding in the direction of measurable productivity. There’s no denying that fewer and few er students are majoring in “the liberal arts,” and that the overwhelming majority of them are choosing technical, marketable majors.

Let me offer you one particularly intriguing (because far from completely true or completely false) taste from our leftist (Marxist) author:

What we have seen instead over the past forty years, in addition to the raising of a reserve army of contingent labor, is a kind of administrative elephantiasis, an explosion in the number of people working at colleges and universities who aren’t faculty, full-time or part-time, of any kind. From 1976 to 2001, the number of nonfaculty professionals ballooned nearly 240 percent, growing more than three times as fast as the faculty. Coaching staffs and salaries have grown without limit; athletic departments are virtually separate colleges within universities now, competing (successfully) with academics. The size of presidential salaries—more than $1 million in several dozen cases—has become notorious. Nor is it only the presidents; the next six most highly paid administrative officers at Yale averaged over $430,000 in 2007. As Gaye Tuchman explains in Wannabe U (2009), a case study in the sorrows of academic corporatization, deans, provosts and presidents are no longer professors who cycle through administrative duties and then return to teaching and research. Instead, they have become a separate stratum of managerial careerists, jumping from job to job and organization to organization like any other executive: isolated from the faculty and its values, loyal to an ethos of short-term expansion, and trading in the business blather of measurability, revenue streams, mission statements and the like. They do not have the long-term health of their institutions at heart. They want to pump up the stock price (i.e., U.S. News and World Report ranking) and move on to the next fat post.

So there are two big points here about the reduction of the professors to members of proletariat.  First, more and more college teaching is being done by “contingents,” by temporary faculty members being paid by the course.  They are, in fact, being hired to generate credit hours (which have a price) and nothng more.  In a sense, they contribute no “mental labor” at all to the running of the university, and so, given the oversupply of available bodies in their line of work, they are, in a way, being overpaid at subsistence.  And in fact they often get less than subsistence.  Second, the running of universities is being done less by professors and more by bloated and highly paid cadres of bourgeois administrators.  These “managerial careerists” are animated by “the business blather of measurability, revenue steams” and the nonacademic amenities that they believe are the key to attracting students (paying customers). 

So professors often say that the reason college costs so much these days is the bloated administration.  And administrators tend to say it’s the underworked, overpaid, and endlessly vain tenured professors.  There’s doubtless some truth in both directions.  But we conservative and leftist professors–serving our class interest–should defend tenure.  In the best cases, our class interest is in the college or university that refuses to reduce education to productivity and keeps the halos, so to speak, on truth and beauty and all that. 

I will discuss the leftist author’s argument for tenure in the next post, because this one is already too long. But let me close by reminding you that the above is an exaggeration:  There are plenty of colleges and universities where these bourgeois tendencies aren’t particularly strong.  And at those places the majority of credit hours tend to be generated by tenured professors.


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