Recommended Reading
What Ever Happened to the Faculty? Drift and Decision in Higher Education

Burgan views higher education through faculty lens.

By John Staddon


June 29, 2007

What Ever Happened to the Faculty? Drift and Decision in Higher Education, by Mary Burgan. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.

Editor's Note: John Staddon is the James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and a professor of biology and neurobiology at Duke University. He does research on adaptive behavior, evolution, and learning; computational neuroscience; and the policy implications of psychobiology.

Mary Burgan is a onetime professor of English and a longtime academic administrator, both within the university (department chairman at Indiana University) and without (General Secre-tary of the Association of American University Professors [AAUP], from which she retired in 2004 after ten years). Her best-known research production is a book, a “pathography,” on writer Katherine Mansfield and illness.

Burgan views higher education through the lens of a faculty member and as an official of the leading faculty association. In sum, she thinks that the faculty in American universities are too passive and exert too small a voice in university governance. She argues her point, somewhat digressively, in nine chapters, covering a wide variety of higher education topics. In this review-essay, I first summarize the book and then give my own comments on some of the topics Burgan discusses.

First, the book (by chapter): The first chapter, “Bricks and Mortar,” touches on a number of top-ics: college architecture (Gothic style is okay), the difference between rich (the business school) and poor (arts and sciences), administrators’ apparent need for “bragging rights” about facilities, lack of participation in academic ceremonies, those quotes and political posters some faculty stick on their office doors she calls them “sly political ironies” (I guess she means anti-Bush car-toons) – and of course the occasional intellectual message.

Chapter 2, “The Myth of the Bloviating Professor: Sages and Guides,” recommends the late Wil-liam G. Perry and Carol Gilligan, Harvard faculty both, as guides to understanding college teach-ing. Perry was a “stage” theorist; Gilligan is a feminist developmental psychologist, criticized from the left for regarding girls and boys as different (there’s a shocker!) and from the right for weak research technique.

Burgan takes a few gentle pot-shots at the lowing herds of educational theorists grazing the aca-demic plains -- people who say things like “We won’t meet the needs for more and better higher education until professors become designers of learning experiences and not teachers” (“design-ers of learning experiences”?!). She deplores the flight from teaching, about which I will have more to say below. She cites favorably Steven Pinker, another Harvard psychologist, noted pub-lic intellectual and critic of the fad of “constructivist” education.

Chapter 3, “Getting the ‘Liberal’ Out of Education,” discusses curriculum, the “black hole” of academe into which many are drawn but from which few return. Burgan retails a rumor that Harvard president Larry Summers’ controversial firing of Dean William C. Kirby was promoted by the “slow pace of curricular reform” under Kirby. But in the research university, curricular reform is always slow – and usually trivial in extent; so if the rumor is true, Kirby was treated unjustly. In fact, the curricular consensus is basically to give up. Burgan quotes the Carnegie Commission report of 1972 (yes, that’s more than 30 years ago): “We prefer, in fact, to drop the nomenclature of general education and liberal education . . . .We prefer the concept of a ‘broad learning experience.’”

Burgan, along with the vast majority of humanities faculty at major universities, doesn’t like William Bennett or Lynne Cheney and their critiques – she describes their pleas for what used to be called liberal education as “moralization of curricular reform,” as if the current fashion for anti-colonial, feminist, and racially “diverse” topics had no moral dimension. On the other hand, Cheney’s approving quotation of Matthew Arnold’s dictum that criticism should be disinterested (no, students, that’s not the same as “uninterested”!), and education should be “simply to know the best that has been known and thought in the world,” reflects views that may be recovering their strength.

But the lure of relativism is strong. The idea that there may be a “hierarchy of texts or principles that embody unchanging foundations for truth and action” fills Burgan with alarm. Yet, on the other hand, she finds the “self-interested bargaining among disciplines in search of enrollments a worrisome principle…” and doesn’t know how to combat this process, which is indeed a major shaper of college curricula.

Chapter 4 is about distance learning – online institutions marketing a web-based “product” – the University of Phoenix and the like. The movement, she contends, is a deflated balloon now ca-tering to a niche audience.

Chapter 5, “A More Perfect Union,” is devoted to university governance, which is actually the core of the book. “…its potential has not been realized” says Burgan. I suggest why below.

Chapter 6 “Superstars and rookies of the year” is about competition, athletic and academic. She has an odd view of economics, citing approvingly Frank and Cook’s (the latter a Duke professor) The winner-take-all society: Why the few at the top get so much more than the rest of us (politics of envy, anyone?) in support of the idea that universities are governed by an economics “unlike the classic one studied by most economists [that rewards] ‘absolute’ performance.” Problem: since when did anyone buy a car or a house – or a roll of toilet paper – based on ‘abso-lute’ quality? We always buy the best we can afford, and so do universities. What she objects to here, of course, is that buying the best is elitist and leads, as Frank and Cook point out, to “con-centration of our most talented college students in a small set of elite institutions.” Well, yes, and what is wrong with that – just so long as anyone can compete?

Chapter 7, “The Case of the Firecracker Boys” (a title taken from Dan O’Neill’s book of the same name), is about science and its supposed politicization. Burgan’s background has not pre-pared her to understand the complexities of academic science. She is surprised to discover the importance of “overhead” charges (also termed “indirect costs”) and shows some signs of “sci-ence envy”: “I can recall a dawning recognition that the life of even a moderately productive sci-entist had many hidden benefits.” Well, science is not as cushy as she imagines, as I point out below.

Chapter 8, “The Disposable Faculty,” talks about the relentless increase in non-tenure-track teaching faculty – “professors of the practice,” “lecturers,” and the like. This is a real problem and I discuss below the reasons for it, reasons not mentioned by Burgan. She touches on the re-cent “Academic Bill of Rights” movement (but without mentioning its author, David Horowitz, who along with a few other conservatives is a designated “un-person” for the academic estab-lishment). Her description of the academic bill of rights as a “shrewd invocation of AAUP’s founding principles” betrays her unwillingness to give conservative critics credit even for sincer-ity. In this respect her views are an accurate reflection of her colleagues,’ whose sorry anti-Western-civilization attitudes were well described by John McWhorter in his “Americans with-out Americanness” article in the April 2007 National Review.

The last chapter, “Staging a Comeback,” is a catalog of some of AAUP’s recent successes in academic-freedom and administrative-malfeasance cases, mostly at second- or third-tier schools.

So what are the real forces driving elite universities these days? Here are some suggestions:

Multiversity and Multiple Universities

Professor Burgan writes as if all universities and colleges in the U.S. are much the same, have similar problems, and need to be governed in much the same way. They are not and can not. There are light-years of difference between elite research universities like Harvard, Duke, MIT and UNC-CH, and urban part-time-ed institutions like Adelphi and the University of Illinois at Chicago, as well as the numerous small and often sectarian colleges like Wofford, Sweet Briar, and Hollins. The “HBCUs” (historically black colleges and universities) represent another category with its own unique characteristics.

The main difference between “elite” and “others” is the amount of undergraduate teaching re-quired of faculty. The main selling point of the smaller colleges is their small classes, which means a high teaching load: four courses or more a semester. That’s twelve or more contact hours per week, plus time devoted to grading, supervision, advising, and course preparation. Not much time left for research, then.


Scientific research is about as far from the leisurely contemplative life – bushy-haired would-be-Einstein in chalk-stained tweeds scribbling formulas – as is possible to imagine. Science, even “small science,” is a business and a highly competitive one. When I entered science (psychobiol-ogy) several decades ago, atom-smashers apart, you didn’t need an external grant to do research. Most universities had small research funds that were adequate for most people. A few daring souls filled out the minimal forms needed to apply to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and, with a good probability, got funded. (NIH is now the major research-fund source in most universities. It is not mentioned by Professor. Burgan, who is pretty clueless about the real im-pact of research on elite universities.) A research grant then was a bonus, not a necessity.

Now one, or preferably two, external grants are essential for any faculty member at a major re-search university. In the biomedical area (which includes biology, psychology, and a large chunk of social science), he (or she) will be competing with scientists in medical centers who do little teaching or none. Thus, the course load of tenured faculty in research universities is rarely more than two courses per semester – less if the researcher is able to “buy out” of a course or two, which he had better do if he wants to compete with workers in medical centers who do nothing but research.

And the competition is fierce. Until very recently, NIH funding increased every year, often by substantial amounts. But the number of applicants, and the cost of research, have both increased even faster. So a modest proposal that three or four decades ago stood a 50 percent chance of funding – and where success would mean a nice windfall – has been replaced by a massive document in search of funds that are essential – with a hit rate of only 10 or 15 percent. The re-sult, of course, is that researchers now put together as many as eight or ten of these monsters every year.

Not much time for teaching, then (or creative research either, one might add).

And let’s not forget the overhead – the extra funds added to an NIH award that go straight to the university administration. Twenty or thirty years ago, overhead added perhaps 20 percent to the grant total; now overhead rates average 50 to 80 percent. Medical centers and (to a slightly lesser extent) research universities depend on these funds. They power much of the new building that universities have engaged in over the past decade and pay a high percentage of the salaries of research staff. They are, in a word, vital.

This massive dependence on external, largely governmental, funds has many effects on the struc-ture, governance and development of universities, and on the opinions and interests of faculty. Not all of these effects are benign.

It’s worth asking why the cost of research has increased so much in past decades. One reason is the development of new, expensive technologies. These increases are probably un-avoidable, but they are almost matched by cost reductions made possible by ever-cheaper com-puting and other technology. Costs have risen mainly because of a metastasizing regulatory bur-den: more elaborate time-accounting procedures, institutional review boards, animal-care-and-use committees and ethics committees and the training, housing and reporting requirements they generate – all administered by a ratcheting, interlocking bureaucracy inside and outside the uni-versity that is almost impossible to disassemble or even disentangle.

And let’s not forget the bureaucracy created by the grant-writing process itself – a swelling mob of gatekeepers, grant-writing experts and even people who assist with scientific-literature searches. The latter two functions used to be the province of the researcher; now full-time spe-cialists are available. All this is funded out of ever-increasing overhead charges. Online submis-sion and “paperwork reduction” plans are always afoot in an attempt to “simplify” some of this – a pause in the ratchet that just means more work for toilers who have barely mastered the exist-ing system.


The effect of the pressures exerted by research and its need for funds on undergraduate teaching has been substantial. The levers university administrators can pull to redress the balance are very limited because the forces at work are largely external. Science is competitive; nothing can change that. Without an external grant, research comes to a halt; without free time, research can-not be done nor proposals written. Teaching takes a hit as faculty adapt to these pressures.

Much nonsense is written about the synergy of teaching and research. Dr. Youngblood can be a great teacher and a great researcher. Well, yes, from an intellectual point of view there is much synergy between teaching and research. Good researchers are often good teachers. (But not al-ways: I remember when I first began teaching I thought the idea was to use the class to clarify my own research ideas. It worked for me, but the effect on my students may easily be imag-ined….)

But there is huge conflict for time. If Youngblood spends his time reading about teaching topics and seeking new ways to engage his students, his research will suffer – and he will not get ten-ure. And (let’s face it) teaching is usually easier than research, so its seductive effects on publi-cation output may be quite damaging. If the level of competition is set by people in research in-stitutes and medical centers, who do no teaching, the pressure to reduce teaching loads in re-search universities is very hard to resist.

Can some balance be restored? As long as universities need research funding to feed their swel-ling budgets, and as long as their reputations are based on the research eminence of their faculty, it’s hard to see how they can do much more than they are doing, which is to emit a cloud of hor-tatory blather about the absence of conflict between teaching and research, while simultaneously hiring growing numbers of what Burgan calls “contingent faculty.” These are the graduate stu-dents, faculty spouses or unemployed Ph.Ds who do more and more of the undergraduate teach-ing, especially of large introductory courses. These folk are untenured, living on limited-term contracts, and paid a great deal less per course than tenure-track faculty. A good deal for the university, not too bad for the students (these faculty devote most of their time to teaching, after all), but something of a raw deal for the contingents and a disturbing erosion of the heart of the university. Burgan’s solution seems to be to unionize the contingents, which may help them, but simply stabilizes an intrinsically undesirable two-tiered-faculty situation whose causes are ig-nore.

And why are these temporary faculty willing to do it? There is an oversupply of academic talent. The number of applicants for a junior tenure-track job at a major university typically exceeds one hundred. Many of the 99 rejects wind up as contingent faculty. It’s hard to be sure why so many bright young people are willing to take a career path with such a small probability of ultimate success. My guess is that it’s because graduate school is in effect free (almost all graduate stu-dents are fully supported by research grants, many grad students in the humanities are paid as “contingent faculty” themselves), the work is fun, and the alternatives less attractive.


These pressures have had a terrible effect on the undergraduate curriculum, especially in the hu-manities and softer social sciences. Happily, the effect on the hard sciences has so far been mod-est.

Scientific research entails specialization. Molecular biologists know little of systematics or evo-lutionary biology, for example. Faculty want to teach their specialty, or close to it: first, because it’s easier, and second because it helps their research. Thus the pool of faculty able and willing to teach general, introductory courses gets smaller and smaller every year as the number of special-ties increases with the growth of science.

But science, especially the hard sciences like physics and chemistry, does embody a natural cor-rective: it is cumulative. To understand calculus you must first understand algebra; to understand dynamics, you must understand calculus; and so on. There is thus a natural structure to the hard-science curriculum that prevents science education from fragmenting into a bunch of unrelated specialties. And the requirements for entry to science-related professional schools – medicine, dentistry, vet school, etc. – also enforce standards on the undergraduate science curriculum. The chief danger here is that fields that are not obviously essential to others may be left by the way-side. Something of this sort has happened to whole-organism biology as molecular specialties have grown.

But all is not well in the humanities, as Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind (1987) and its several successors pointed out years ago. First there is science envy (see above). Faculty in the sciences tend to make more money than their humanities counterparts – quite a bit more if you include the possibility of the summer supplements allowed by research grants. And they teach less, because of research pressures, as I have explained. (Scientists also face tougher competition, but that factor has failed to impress the humanists.) The result has been increased aping of the research model in the humanities. As in science, novelty is expected; grants, albeit on a much more modest scale, are sought, as is release time from teaching. And relevance and utility – some direct contribution to the public weal beyond mere instruction in great works – are also now deemed if not essential at least highly desirable. (These attributes are assumed to be intrinsic to science because there is little pressure for a similar contribution by sci-entists.)

The quest for novelty has had some very bad effects, since it is hard to say much that is really new about great literature. Even fields that are factually based, such as history (considered a hu-manity by some, a social science by others) offer novelty only at the expense of neglect of the classics. Not much new to be said about Washington and Jefferson; they make poor subjects for Ph.D research these days. But how about female slave narratives of the 18th century? More nov-elty, less competition there perhaps? The pressure for novelty together with the difficulty of say-ing something really new and significant about well-studied topics has had a centrifugal effect, driving humanities research towards peripheral subjects and odd-ball pseudo-science theories (feminism, postmodernism, deconstruction, subaltern narratives and so forth).

As the research goes, so goes the teaching. The humanities lack the hierarchical structure that restrains incoherence in the science curriculum. Without consensus on some kind of core, such as Western civilization, there is little to impede the fragmentation induced by the twin drives for novelty and social relevance. Soon the humanities curriculum becomes a case study in the pe-ripheral and political – feminist this, deconstruction and “theory” that, social justice the other.

Faculty Governance

The role of faculty in guiding and governing the university is the primary topic of Burgan’s book. But her discussion, though replete with anecdote and informed by her own experience as AAUP president, is limited by her failure to distinguish among different kinds of university.

The faculty at elite universities like Harvard, for example, have great power, as recent events have shown. Cornel West, a black scholar distinguished as to his professorship but not by his ac-tual intellectual productions, was able to humble Harvard president Lawrence Summers when Summers urged him to move beyond rap CDs, TV appearances, and grade inflation to more seri-ous scholarly work. Summers does not have a reputation for tact, but his rebuke to West was pri-vate. Nevertheless, West knew both his own market value and the force of the race card. He made Summers’ comments public, got the campus in an uproar, and accepted a handsome offer from Princeton. Summers, just trying to do his job, was humiliated.

Much the same thing happened to Summers when he made comments at a 2005 conference at Harvard on women in science. Summers was invited to be “provocative”; he prefaced his re-marks by saying by that he was not speaking in an official capacity. Perhaps the most provoca-tive things he said were, first on the matter of male-female intellectual differences:
It does appear that on many, many different human attributes – height, weight, propensity for criminality, overall IQ, mathematical ability, scientific ability – there is relatively clear evidence that whatever the difference in means, which can be debated, there is a dif-ference in the standard deviation, and variability of a male and a female population. And that is true with respect to attributes that are and are not plausibly, culturally determined.”
And then, concerning work-life balance:
So my sense is the unfortunate that the combination of the high-powered job hy-pothesis and the differing variances probably explains a fair amount of this problem.”
In short, science is highly competitive, there are more men than women at the high-end of math and science ability, and more women than men who want to split their time between job and family. These facts, Summers suggested, may account for the predominance of men in top sci-ence positions. Not sexist, racist – or rocket science – one might think.

Nevertheless, despite Summers’ disclaimer, in the context of the Cornel West history and similar confrontations with a few other faculty, these tentative, scientifically defensible remarks, raised a firestorm that forced Summers to resign a few months later. No lack of faculty governance at Harvard, then. .

Things are different at small second and third-tier schools. The market value of faculty is less, so moving to a comparable or better place is hard. Better keep your head down! Moreover, at mid-dle-level schools, most faculty, especially in the sciences, are more concerned with their position in their professional hierarchy than their role in the university. So they have little interest in or time for serving on committees and faculty senates that might moderate administrative power. Again it is the faculty’s responsiveness to forces outside the university that limits their role within it.

* * *

What should be done about these problems – the dominance of research, control by external funding, fragmentation and studied trivialization of the humanities, and a few other problems I haven’t mentioned – is a topic for another time. But as the causes are largely external to the academy, so too must be the cures. Burgan’s book skims over these issues. Though full of inter-esting anecdote and personal experience, it is flawed by her failure to consider separately differ-ent kinds of college and university, her limited understanding of the politics of U. S. science, and her unwillingness to pay serious attention to critical voices.


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