New 2015 Preface —  “An Update of Sorts” | Pierre van den Berghe

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Nearly half a century has passed since the publication of Academic Gamesmanship (AG), so its obsoleteness is glaring. However, long after running out of print, it enjoyed an underground life, with second-hand copies selling for many multiples of its original price of $4.95. About monthly, someone tells me he or she has recently read it with pleasure, and suggests an update. But a book is a period piece and the mood of its writing can never be recaptured.

When I wrote AG, I was 35 years old, just promoted full professor at the University of Washington (UW), with a sterling salary of $20,000. Today, as a somewhat decrepit 82-year-old, this would put me in the poorhouse and fail to match my Social Security; but then it was the third-highest salary in a department which included half a dozen professors 20 to 30 years my senior. AG, incidentally, was written almost in a single spurt of fun, over 10 consecutive, sweltering evenings in Ibadan, Nigeria, where the Rockefeller Foundation had sent me to start a graduate sociology program.

UW was then a solid state university, better than its state deserved, but not yet great. Its faculty and students were overwhelming white. Today, its students are nearly a third of Asian origin (both US-born and foreign); its president is a Latina lesbian; and several international rankings have consistently placed it among the 20 best research universities in the world. It is the third-best state university in the US, and the biggest recipient of Federal research funds. That is the privileged environment where I happily taught for 33 years, becoming Emeritus in 1998. Not a bad game, considering!

However, not all change has been for the better, nor for the benefit of academics. Let me briefly sketch five of the most notable trends in the last half century of American academia.

1. Perhaps the most glaring change facing job-seeking Ph.D. holders is a sharp deterioration in career opportunities and employment conditions. A glut of Ph.D.s in many fields produced a shift from a seller’s to a buyer’s market. When AG appeared in 1970, US academia was approaching the end of its enormous expansion, becoming the juggernaut of world higher education. Ph.D. production continued unabated, but job numbers stagnated or even contracted. Colleges and universities began to restrict tenure-track positions, and created a rapidly growing, semi-nomadic proletariat of instructors and lecturers on one-year, often part-time contracts, paid on a per-course basis. By now, this new class of itinerant Ph.D.s approaches one fourth or even one third of the faculty at many institutions, and ekes out poverty wages by laboring at one-fourth or less the income of tenure-track faculty. Before that, large state and private universities employed (and continue to employ) hordes of cheap graduate students as TAs to teach many of their lower division courses; but it was not so exploitative, in that it was an apprenticeship in teaching with a reasonably good chance of a cushy academic job after four or five years of indenture.

2. It might be thought that these tremendous savings in wages to the colleges and universities would be passed on as reduced tuition for students, but the reverse happened. As a powerless, captive constituency, students were soaked with tuition bills rising at double the rate of general inflation. The return on educational investment started to sink, especially at non-elite institutions, because the cost of education became essentially unrelated to its quality. Mediocre and poor schools charge almost as much as the Ivy League for crummy degrees, and thus face the prospect of well-deserved extinction.

Two glaring consequences of tuition inflation and degree degradation are a ballooning student debt burden with a galloping default rate, and the parasitic growth of highly dubious private institutions for profit. These “universities” offer mostly online instruction, which they produce cheaply and sell dearly to marginal students who frequently drop out with huge debts. The institutions pocket largely Federal loans to students, the taxpayers are left with the cost of defaulted loans, and the students get the royal shaft.

Overall, educational quality has tended to polarize. The top 50 or so research universities and the 100-odd quality colleges became increasingly selective of students and maintained standards, while the rest declined into mediocrity or worse. The best schools became richer and better; the rest stagnated or sank.

All this happened simultaneously with rampant grade inflation, casting much doubt on student evaluation. This was counteracted by increasing reliance on standardized tests, such as the SAT and the GRE. What principally drove grade inflation was the routinized introduction of student course evaluations for the assessment of faculty. Non-tenured faculty are especially vulnerable and, thus, generous. High grades are rewarded with good evaluations, and good evaluations help one get tenure. Everybody is happy, but the educational product is debased. Interestingly, this grade inflation happened at all levels of college quality. If anything, the Ivy League led the way in making A-minus the average grade. Their argument is that, since they are so selective to start with, all their students are A level!

3. With all the funds accrued by cheaper teaching and higher tuition (not to mention alumni donations), where did the money go? The answer is in the obscene bloating of college administration. All bureaucracies are self-inflating, in size, salaries and power, and higher education is no exception.

Colleges used to be run by a president, a provost, a handful of deans, and department heads. Together, they made up a tenth or less of the faculty, and were indeed drawn from the faculty. Now, university administration is virtually a separate career with proliferating, multi-graded offices at every level, and many specialized side branches. At some large institutions, most of the administrative staff have come only fleetingly near a classroom, or indeed never have. With their huge secretarial and auxiliary staff, they approach, or even exceed, half the size of the faculty — and a grossly overpaid half, at that.

Presidents have become corporation CEOs, with salaries approaching seven figures. Professors, meanwhile, lose what little autonomous power they had, and become employees in a vast bureaucracy. They teach, publish, attend committees, and do research, but no longer run the show. Faculty senates become echo chambers for rhetorically inclined professors, retaining only the last residual power of embarrassing the administrators.

4. Around 1975,the specter of political correctness (PC) raised its ugly head, putting a damper on critical thought, but freely allowing the rampage of the most arrant “post-modernist” nonsense and libelous insults, so long as they are uttered by persons of the right gender or ethnicity. Previously, campuses had been a forum for the untrammeled expression of ideas, however provocative, and for challenging students to think critically and independently. This was seen as one of the principal functions of the university, along with the pursuit of new knowledge, and it was protected by tenure — a faculty shield against dismissal for "wrong" ideas. Now, tenure is under frontal attack from many quarters, and entirely withheld from growing numbers of teachers.

The crusade against tenure as an unwarranted privilege is accompanied by a new concept of the role of education. Professors are supposed to impart technical skills and knowledge, but to avoid challenging students to think, and to stay clear of ideas that might shock or provoke them, especially if they are women, minorities, or homosexual. Insulting men, whites, heterosexuals, or Christians remains permissible, however.

“Ombudspersons” started policing the campus for any hints of verbal “harassment"; the use of taboo words was scrutinized in and out of context; and violators were exposed, embarrassed, made to apologize, stigmatized, punished, or even forced to resign under pressure. Colleagues much junior to me have even come to my office to complain about my sense of humor in tongue-in-cheek comments made over e-mail. Teaching in the social sciences and humanities became a minefield of verbal traps, especially in fashionable but hypersensitive fields like race, class, and sex — sorry, gender!

5. Related to the PC drive was the affirmative action (AA) and diversity crusade. Race-based AA has long been a pet peeve of mine, although I have much less of a problem with gender- or class-based AA. Far from being the progressive policy it claims to be, race-based AA is in fact conservative tokenism designed to defuse black militancy, and to detract attention from far more basic issues of class and wealth inequality in our blatant plutocracy. It favors middle-class blacks, leaves the truly disadvantaged untouched, and reinforces black class polarization. Even more damnably, it discriminates against whites and, even more strongly, Asians, in blatant violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution. Again, the Ivy League has led that crusade, and I am gratified that my Ph.D. Alma Mater, Harvard, is now being sued by Asians for practicing a hidden quota against them very similar to what it did to Jews until the mid-20th century.

For anyone thinking race-based AA is progressive, I invite him or her to review the confirmation of Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court (an entirely Republican effort), and his subsequent role therein.

Perhaps I can close this update on a personal vignette contemporary with the publication of AG. In 1971, I was returning to Seattle from Africa, having successfully taught hundreds of African students in Nairobi, Kenya, and Ibadan, Nigeria. These students were, to be sure, highly selected, but I found them fully on a par with, or better than, their American counterparts, while better motivated to excel. When I returned to UW, I found that my university had suddenly admitted hundreds of black students with literacy skills at the seventh- or eighth-grade level. I was teaching a 300-student class on Comparative Race Relations, my specialty field. My race-blind final exam, graded by TAs, revealed a bimodal distribution, with the smaller, lower mode some three standard deviations below the main mode. I gave generous Ds to the 50-odd students in the lower mode. As soon as my grades were issued, the Vice President for Minority Affairs officially called me a racist and demanded that I be sacked. For some two weeks, I was the target of abuse in both Seattle daily newspapers and on all three main television channels. My chairman, Frank Miyamoto, courageously came to my defense, as did the entire History Department, and the affair blew over. However, the harm was done. I did not teach a single class of more than 30 or 40 students after that, and restricted my race classes to graduate seminars.

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