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28.09.2011

Higher education: Academic questions




Journal name:

Nature

Volume:

477,

Pages:

158–159

Date published:

(08 September 2011)

DOI:

doi:10.1038/477158a


Published online







Two provocative books skirt around why universities should get back to teaching, finds David Helfand.










The Lost Soul of Higher Education: Corporatization, the Assault on Academic Freedom, and the End of the American University


Ellen Schrecker New Press: 2010. 304 pp. $27.95


ISBN: 9781595584007


Buy this book: US UK Japan




The university of today is a fractious collection of interest groups in which customers (formerly known as students) demand high grades for their money, while researchers with large frequent-flyer accounts (formerly known as faculty) seek to minimize their teaching 'loads'. Meanwhile, property developers, who were once called academic administrators, relentlessly push for institutional expansion.


Or so a raft of books on the imminent collapse of higher education in North America would have you believe. As with most caricatures, this one contains elements of truth. I am sufficiently concerned about the state of the academy that I have taken leave from Columbia University in New York to lead a new college in Canada — Quest University — developed from scratch to place teaching and learning back at the centre. But the above portrait is oversimplified and exaggerated. Two books, Naomi Schaefer Riley's The Faculty Lounges and Ellen Schrecker's The Lost Soul of Higher Education, add to the debate — and the exaggeration.




P. TITMUSS/ALAMY



The tenure system protects professors but can be a block to academic freedom for untenured staff.





An oft-repeated story highlights the authors' differing attitudes towards academia. When Dwight Eisenhower became president of Columbia University, two years before he became US president, he began his first faculty address with “Employees of the University...”. Columbia physicist I. I. Rabi interrupted: “Excuse me, sir, but we are the University.”


These authors split along similar lines: Riley decries the power that tenured professors wield across the university system, whereas Schrecker bemoans the loss of academic freedom and faculty governance brought about by the rise of corporatization. Both cannot be right; neither is.


Schrecker is a former editor of Academe, the magazine of the American Association of University Professors, the century-old, self-appointed guardian of the US tenure system. She presents a history of academic-freedom cases, both well known and obscure. Writing from a liberal standpoint, she argues that the “barrage” of conservative criticism now aimed at universities is not so much about curricula or concerns about taxpayer-supported radicals, but is a consequence of the progressive social mission of colleges. As the last haven for serious dissent and a vehicle for social mobility, she writes, the US university has become “a surrogate for everything that its critics dislike about American society”.








The Faculty Lounges: And Other Reasons Why You Won't Get The College Education You Paid For


Naomi Schaefer Riley Ivan R. Dee: 2011. 216 pp. $22.95


ISBN: 9781566638869


Buy this book: US UK Japan





“The growth in part-time faculty is bad for students.”



Filling the critics' brief is The Faculty Lounges, largely an attack on the US professoriate. Riley, a former Wall Street Journal editor, questions whether modern political scientists should be counted on to improve US government, compared, say, to the authors of the Federalist Papers that promoted the US Constitution. One might answer yes, as politics has changed in two centuries. In her eyes, the answer is a clear no. Yet in my view she offers no serious analysis, instead packing the book with quotes from conservative organizations such as the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, whose website announces: “The barbarians are not at the gates; they are inside the walls.” I have rarely been so irritated by a book with whose premise I broadly agree.


ftp://server.ihim.uran.ru/localfiles/477158a.pdf






 



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