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Academic hangover 

Scan the "Biographical Sketch" on Stuart Rojstaczer's Web page and you'll find that this Duke University professor of hydrology is "currently at work on a book on disaster prediction." Read his recent book, Gone for Good: Tales of University Life after the Golden Age, and you may think he's already written it.

The book is meant as a response to a question from a friend of his wife's, who had just sent her first child to college and wanted to know what she was getting for her money. "I just wrote a check for $30,000," she told Rojstaczer. "What exactly is it that goes on there?" In his preface, Rojstaczer notes that he originally considered penning a humorous look at the life of a college professor, something light and satirical entitled How to Get Tenure. But serious issues kept popping up, demanding his attention. The result is that a book that might have included a board game called "Publish or Perish" and a multiple-choice quiz that measured a person's "tenurability," evolved into a steely-eyed examination of the modern university system during a time of wrenching change.

The Golden Age of the title refers to a 40-year period of rapid university growth that ended with glasnost. According to Rojstaczer, Cold War-based government funding of research in the sciences, coupled with a flood of new students financed by government loans, spurred a frenzied round of building and expansion on American campuses, as university faculty, administrative staffs and research programs ballooned. Prior to World War II, the American university was, in the author's words, "a centuries-old quaint and charming haven for scholarship and education." After the war, it developed into "a supercharged intellectual powerhouse heavily dependent upon federal grants for its economic health."

By the time hammers could be heard chipping away at the Berlin Wall, however, they were beginning to fall silent on American campuses. As the unprecedented government funding for university research slowed, American universities found themselves facing--in the words of academia--"a new paradigm." This painful process of adjusting to limited resources has recently become a public--and often ugly--one.

Gone for Good is one tenured professor's personal journey through the university system during this period, as he earns his Ph.D., finds a research and teaching job at a major university, and navigates around most of the obstacles set in his path on the way to achieving tenure. Rojstaczer, the reader soon realizes, is a skilled player and pragmatist who has gotten most of what he wants from his stint in academia, at the same time that he has managed to be outspoken and maintain some principles.

While not exactly an engaging prose stylist, Rojstaczer's background in the sciences gives him a unique perspective in an arena--criticism of academia--that has heretofore been dominated by humanists, social scientists and grandstanding politicians. He's the perfect guide to the changing face of the American university: a man who betrays no anxieties about his ability to adapt, and whose criticisms therefore avoid the hysteria of many of those coming out of the humanities. Rojstaczer hints that the perspective of scientists working in academia may be more relevant than that of others because, he claims, most university growth, including the swelling of liberal arts programs, has been an outgrowth of the increased funding of scientific research.

Rojstaczer began his career in a government lab before being hired away by Duke University, which wanted him primarily for his facility with research. (Hydrology, his specialty, is the study of rivers and groundwater.) Although he knew he would be required to teach students, his skills as a teacher were a secondary consideration at the time of his hiring. More important was his ability to write grant proposals and his potential to bring in money. Rojstaczer promptly disabuses readers of the notion that "the sole 'real' job of a professor is to teach or prepare to teach." Most people don't realize what professors do when they're not teaching, he says, and they don't realize that he spends the equivalent of a full-time job doing research-related work. Students and parents may complain about the ratio of research to teaching, but "in a modern research university, the financial demands are high. ... By necessity, my teaching job, the one the parent is paying for, is part-time."

Research in the sciences and engineering is important to teachers for two reasons, Rojstaczer maintains. Teachers in these fields work partly "on commission": While 75 percent of his income is guaranteed by the university, another 25 percent must come from grants. Rojstaczer illustrates the second reason by posing a question as analogy. If you wanted to learn how to build a boat, he asks, who would you rather learn from: someone who has read about building boats; someone who built a boat 20 years ago; or someone who has built many boats and is still building them? Spending 40 hours a week doing research, he implies, has made him a "master boat builder." But the end of the Golden Age has also forced Rojstaczer to re-evaluate his role as a professor.

His views, once in lock step with the mainstream of his profession, have suddenly diverged markedly. He no longer places a higher value on research than on teaching and, while still frustrated by undergraduates' lack of motivation, he no longer places all the blame on the students. "When I look at what has been fondly referred to as the Golden Age," he writes, "I don't view it fondly anymore, but as a rather crazy time when the university's mission became too specialized for its own good."

The university system during the Golden Age, as described by Rojstaczer, was a glutton fatted on a too-rich diet. By 1990, he notes, federal research grants accounted for 30 to 60 percent of revenue received for academic programs at major universities. He questions whether research efforts needed to be this big: At some point, more federal money for research produces diminishing returns to society, and the point of diminishing returns was reached long before the demise of the Golden Age. Efforts to sustain this diet have created abominations such as grade inflation, lazy students, corrupt athletic programs, a preoccupation with fundraising, and Machiavellian competition for research grants and graduate students. It's a paradox, Rojstaczer says, that the current system seems to make so many people happy at the same time that students aren't getting nearly as rigorous an education as they should.

Teachers are so burdened with the need to do research and obtain outside funding that they are somewhat relieved at being forced to dumb down courses to keep students from fleeing their classes. This makes less work for them, and leaves more time for research and grant writing. The majority of students, who are in school not to learn but to increase their viability in the job market, are more than happy to receive unearned grades, and they continue to apply pressure to teachers to inflate them by providing positive evaluations only to those who do so.

"In essence, there is an unspoken contract between the professor and the student," Rojstaczer writes. "The professor agrees to provide an easy class in order to be left alone. The student 'benefits' in having more time for social activities." Administrators are supportive of faculty who neglect teaching in favor of writing grant proposals that, when successful, bring in funds to cover university overhead. Rojstaczer compares the modern university to the Wizard of Oz, a "pompous, ordinary man" who, "through almost transparent artifice," easily satisfies the requests of Dorothy and her friends--including the scarecrow, who receives "a document ... to certify his intelligence." While we haven't yet reached the point where students need only show up for class in order to get an A, Rojstaczer asks whether there is any foreseeable end to a vicious cycle with which so many people seem content.

One byproduct of ignoring the real problems of the universities has been that it has allowed students and faculty to become absorbed in battles that have delivered a black eye to the public image of universities. Nonissues such as political correctness have been allowed to overshadow debate on the purpose of the modern university. The political right and left are more concerned with the ideological content of courses than they are with academic rigor, Rojstaczer notes. In addition, all the parties who benefit from the university system have acted as enablers for one another. College graduates continue to be accepted to professional schools in large numbers, corporations hire new graduates in engineering and science without complaint, and those hiring students in other sectors care only that students be personable and have a diploma. "So another reason we've reduced workloads is that neither parents, politicians nor corporations seem to care whether we do or not," Rojstaczer writes. "As long as we provide students with a diploma and as long as we don't spend too much time indoctrinating students with radical political philosophy, they seem to be quite happy with the education ... that we provide."

So if everyone's happy, then what's the big deal? Obviously, the enabler-enablee relationship is an unhealthy one, and one that is riddled with compromises. University presidents, Rojstaczer writes, were once leaders who commented on political, moral and ethical issues. Now they are largely figureheads who raise money and can't risk offending a potential patron by speaking to the issues of the day. They also spend so much time fundraising that they're disengaged from university problems. Government funding from research has in turn been supplanted, in part by corporate sponsorship, creating the potential for conflicts of interest. A study of 70 research articles on a new class of heart-disease drugs, for instance, showed that 96 percent of the scientists who wrote positive articles had financial links to companies that manufactured the drugs; only 37 percent of the authors of negative articles had such links.

Financial pressure has also encouraged universities to use more untenured and lower-paid faculty, much as corporations use "permanent temps" to avoid the associated cost of benefits. Standards for tenure have increased as competition has risen. This in turn discourages ambitious teachers from developing full lives: As an undergraduate student at Stanford, Rojstaczer was surprised at the high number of professors under 40 who had never married or had been divorced. This sort of pressure suppresses the percentage of the faculty made up by women, who, in Rojstaczer's opinion, have a more balanced notion of what life should entail. He laments the fact that this means university faculties will remain predominately male until something changes. Not surprisingly, this sort of competition has engendered a "severe erosion of collegiality and trust" among faculty and administrative staff.

There is no need for further university growth, Rojstaczer concludes. Instead, the modern research university must fix the problems associated with the leftover bloat of the Golden Age. This will entail a shift of focus away from research and toward undergraduate education. Standards must rise across the board to discourage competitive grade inflation. Universities must become more focused. These are not new ideas, exactly, but what is new is the author's willingness to embrace these changes, not as a disinterested observer, but as one who will be directly affected by the changes he proposes. A leaner, more focused university, he suggests, could mean the end of his job. He accepts this possibility equably.

There is even the tantalizing hint in this book of a greater polemic that the author ultimately chooses to finesse: Does everyone deserve a college education? Is it wise to encourage those who will benefit little from exposure to a university to pursue a college degree? If a degree were available to everyone, would this necessarily be a good thing, or would standards, already in decline, fall further to meet the masses? The majority of students, Rojstaczer admits, lack intellectual curiosity and (rightly) view a degree as a ticket to financial aid and social success. How would students who currently view their time in college as an opportunity to socialize and attend sporting events adjust to a university geared to their inner lives rather than their social lives? If books like this one go unheeded, we might never know. EndBlock

More by Mark W. Hornburg

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