For good reason, the press has been full of stories about the effects of California's budget crisis on state educational facilities. The cuts in state aid and the increases in tuition are sure to put a dent in the California dream of great education for all, as well as the American canard that anyone can go to college and rise as high as their talent and hard work will take them.
Hands are being wrung over how the cuts will damage Berkeley's standing as a top global university and where the school will land in the next set of rankings. Rankings, such as the one from U.S. News & World Report, are now more important for universities than polls are in college football. Last month, The New York Times recognized the financial plight of California's universities and found that at UC Berkeley, "among students and faculty alike, there is a pervasive sense that the increases and the deep budget cuts are pushing the university into decline." It is hard to argue with this assessment. But a closer look is in order at what decline means.
While stresses like these produce unwelcome dislocations, often such events also spotlight areas in which changes are overdue. The current crisis affords such an opportunity.
Years ago, the path to academia was one in which you traded some of your income potential and prestige for the ability to lead a life of the mind. There are few spaces in our society in which your main focus does not have to be selling something to someone else. For those who are so inclined, academia was one such place, where you got intellectual freedom and an ability to work on ideas that could make a difference. However, this is less and less the case. Led by business professors and followed by those in law, medicine, and certain sciences, top faculty have become rock stars in a system that rewards those who produce things. Professors at the top reap huge rewards and have an army of underlings to do their business and teach their classes. And the power of the rankings means that star professors are constantly whined and dined by poaching university leaders.
But the current problems go deeper than this. In his forthcoming book, The Marketplace of Ideas, Louis Menand, an English professor and staff writer for The New Yorker, argues that the current system of training and employing professors narrows the "intellectual range and diversity of those entering the field," and produces a large "philosophical and attitudinal gap" that separates academics from others. Paradoxically enough, he believes, this results in "less ferment from the bottom than is healthy in a field of intellectual inquiry. ... "The most important function of the system is not the production of knowledge," he writes. "It is the reproduction of the system."
Menand concedes that the current system of credentialing and specialization "maintains quality and protects people within the field from being interfered with by external forces." But while, like all monopolies, this produces great benefits for the monopolists, it is less beneficial for the rest of us. Menand finds a double motive in this system that is embraced by all professions. "In order to serve the needs of others properly, professions must be accountable only to themselves," he writes. We know and understand this kind of bias when it comes from lawyers or chemical producers, but does it have to be the bedrock of the academy as well?
His work, partially presented in a recent article in Harvard Magazine, relies heavily on a study produced by two researchers at Cal a decade ago, including renowned Chemistry Professor Joseph Cerny, entitled "Ph.Ds: Ten Years Later." Surveying nearly 6,000 people in six academic fields who had gotten Ph.Ds between 1982 and 1985, Cerny and his co-author examined the state of the education of professors. While the results showed that those with Ph.Ds generally considered themselves happy, Menand came to some more troubling conclusions.
He notes the difficulties faced by those who have yet to reach the top and documents the increase in union organizing among graduate students. He deftly points out many of the problems of those who aspire to academic positions today, including the ridiculously long gestation period for tenure-track professors in many disciplines. Using data from the Cerny survey, Menand notes that in the discipline of English, nearly half of all doctoral students drop out before they get their degrees. Half of the rest are unable to get a tenured faculty job.
There are other downside costs to society in the present system. Even those who get jobs, Menand maintains, are being seriously over-trained for their positions. There is a "huge social inefficiency" in devoting large amounts of social resources to train people of high intelligence for jobs that most of them will not get. Why continue the system? Because it is institutionally efficient since "graduate students are a cheap labor force." In fact, Menand maintains that universities really want the failures who don't ever get their dissertations, as they can teach and do not swell the ranks of the unemployed Ph.Ds looking for work.
It is time to re-evaluate this system. And this process must be led by those who benefit the most from it, the senior faculty. Berkeley is and will remain a leader in many academic areas. So, senior faculty, now is the time to take the lead here. Reform the production of university professors. If change does not come from within your ranks, someone else will eventually do it for you. And if that happens, look out for the law of unintended consequences.