Second-Hand Second-Rate Culture War Hackery

Dave Munger on Twitter drew my attention to this blog post on college costs, and I really wish he hadn’t. The post in question is really just a recap-with-links of an editorial by John Zmirak, blaming the high cost of college on an unlikely source:

[W]hat if universities began to neglect this basic charge, and instead turned into featherbedding, unionized factories that existed to protect their overpaid workers — who were impossible to fire? What if these factories botched the items customers paid for, and spent their energy generating oddball inventions no one wanted?

That is exactly what happened in academia over the past 30 years, according to Emory University professor Mark Bauerlain, who explores the open, ugly secret that most professors are paid based not on the quality (or even quantity) of their teaching, but rather on the volume of scholarly articles and books they can produce.

I’m not sure how Zmirak conned not one but two newspapers into running this (an essentially identical story ran in San Francisco last week), because it’s nothing but warmed-over second-rate culture war hackery. The Times blogger re-tweeting this is thus engaged in second-hand second-rate culture war hackery, which is verging into “Billions of electrons were wasted in transmitting this crap over the Internet” territory.

Having spent more time than it deserves being annoyed by this crap, though, I might as well get a blog post out of it. So, here are some of the ways you can tell that Zmirak’s article is worthless:

Picking up where the quote above left off, we have:

That is exactly what happened in academia over the past 30 years, according to Emory University professor Mark Bauerlain, who explores the open, ugly secret that most professors are paid based not on the quality (or even quantity) of their teaching, but rather on the volume of scholarly articles and books they can produce.

Bauerlain’s American Enterprise Institute paper, “Professors on the Production Line, Students On Their Own,” reveals

You could really pretty much stop there, if you wanted to. The words “American Enterprise Institute study” are a gigantic red flag emblazoned with the words “Disingenuous Ideologically-Motivated Crap” (it has to be a gigantic flag to fit all that). If the American Enterprise Institute released a study titled “Rayleigh Scattering Is Your Friend: Sky Color Is Usually Blue,” I’d start trying to figure out what moneyed-interest angle this was covering.

But let’s play along with the pretense that the AEI is somehow a reputable scholarly organization, and see where it goes. The rest of the piece is full of bait-and-switch and non sequiturs masquerading as data supporting arguments:

Laboring on the age-old axiom “publish-or-perish,” thousands of professors, lecturers and graduate students are busy producing dissertations, books, essays and reviews. Over the past five decades, their collective productivity has risen from 13,000 to 72,000 publications per year. But the audience for language and literature scholarship has diminished, with unit sales for books now hovering around 300.

Those sure are numbers. It’s not clear that they mean anything, though. If the point here were something about the specialization of the academy, these would probably be relevant, but it’s not clear how low unit sales are related to the quality of undergraduate education. If you were trying to make an honest point with these numbers, you’d also need some population figures: how many faculty are there now, compared to the 1950’s? How many students are there now, compared to the 1950’s?

Moving along:

At the same time, the degree of interaction between teachers and students has declined. While 43 percent of two-year public college students and 29 percent of four-year public college students require remedial course work, costing $2 billion annually, one national survey reports that 37 percent of first-year arts/humanities students “never” discuss course readings with teachers outside of class, and 41 percent only do so “sometimes.”

Again, those sure are numbers. But without some past figures to compare to, they’re really just decoration, not data. What fraction of freshmen in the golden age of fifty years ago discussed their reading with a professor outside of class? I wouldn’t wager anything significant on this being a high number.

I’m also a little puzzled by “first-year arts/humanities students discussing readings outside of class” as a criterion for academic quality, and I say this as a faculty member at a small college, where close interaction with faculty is one of the things that we sell. Obviously, it would be lovely if every student spent time outside of class chatting up their English professor, but I don’t really think it’s practical. There are only so many hours in the day, and there are a lot of first-year students taking required classes in the arts and humanities (more on this in a minute).

Continuing on:

Indeed, prestigious professors frequently have little interaction with students at all, lecturing to hundreds at a time, consigning discussions and grading to graduate students. Meanwhile, the research these professors are turning out is increasingly obscure and often politicized. If they’re dealing with well-studied writers, they must pursue ever more oddball interpretations of the works in order to produce something original.

A few things to notice, here: First, notice how all the numbers have disappeared. We’ve left the land of pseudo-data, and moved into the zone of pure assertion, with no statistics about, say, the average size of a class, or the average number of students taught by a given faculty member.

Also, notice the vagueness of the adjectives: “Prestigious professors” do little teaching, but who counts as prestigious? The adjective suggests only a handful of faculty, but the argument that follows wants to imply that all faculty are in this category.

But let’s think about the numbers here. Picking a flagship state university not at all at random, the University of Maryland, College Park, my graduate alma mater, enrolls 26,000 undergraduates (according to Wikipedia), meaning that in any given year, about 6,000 new students enroll (26,000/4=6,500, but we’ll allow some slack for students on a more-than-four-year plan). The English department at Maryland lists 88 faculty and staff, of whom 66 are tenure-track faculty or lecturers (the rest are support staff, or emeritus faculty).

That’s 90 students per member of the English faculty. If every single English faculty member taught English 101 to 90 students a year (say, two classes of 45), they would just barely manage to keep up with the entering classes. What the sophomores, juniors, and seniors would take, I’m not sure, because that would pretty much be a full-time job for each of those faculty members, leaving little time for teaching upper-level classes in the major, let alone doing scholarly work.

Introductory classes are taught in large sections with the aid of graduate students not because faculty are feather-bedding, but because that’s the only way to make the numbers work. Unless Zmirak would like to give up the notion of requiring students to take an English lit class, or hire a whole bunch more faculty, and I don’t think he’d go for either of those, especially when his final recommendations include:

That’s why it’s essential, when making the ever more costly choices required in education, to carefully scope out each college. Call the admissions office and inquire about the student/teacher ratio and the percentage of classes taught by graduate students.

Is there a core curriculum of solid classes in Western culture, American history and great works of literature?

Somehow, I don’t think the English Lit requirement is a negotiable proposition…

(I skipped over a bunch of tendentious and data-free paragraphs consisting of well-worn culture war material. I don’t really recommend reading it– if you’ve heard even one of these arguments before, you can probably reconstruct most of what goes in there.)

So, ok, Zmirak’s argument is mostly warmed-over incoherent culture war stuff. But even a blind pig finds a stopped watch twice a day (or something)– might it still be the case that overpaid faculty are to blame for high tuition costs?

Well, let’s try to Fermi-problem our way through this. Union, where I teach, is one of those $50,000-per-year schools, so let’s see how faculty salaries stack up to other expenses.

We’ve got in the neighborhood of 200 faculty. Let’s assume an overpaid professor gets, on average, $100,000 (this is way high, but roll with it). That’s a faculty payroll of $20 million, which sounds like a lot.

Consider, though, that Union enrolls about 2,100 students. So let’s try to estimate what it costs to keep those students on campus in the style to which they are accustomed. The average American uses energy at a rate of about 11 kW (based on Wikipedia). Assuming that our students are pretty much average in their energy consumption, that’s a steady-state draw of about 23,000 watts of power to keep our students happy, or 151,767,000 kWh of energy consumption over the course of a year (24 hours/day, 365 days/year, but only 75% of that time is on campus).

It’s a little tough to assign an exact cost per kilowatt-hour, but that doesn’t really matter, here– we’re just looking for an order of magnitude. A cost of $0.10/kWh (residential electric rates, more or less) would put the academic-year utility bills at $15 million; a cost of $0.01/kWh would put the bill at $1.5 million.

In other words, the faculty salary pool is on the same order of magnitude as the utility bill for keeping 2,100 modern Americans in residence on campus as students for nine months of the year. That doesn’t include the costs of feeding them, cleaning up after them, providing them broadband Internet access, maintaining the buildings and grounds, keeping up the library and research facilities, and so on.

The claim that tuition is high because faculty are overpaid is patent nonsense. College tuition is high because running a modern American college or university is an expensive business– just providing the minimum services that students expect these days costs as much or more than the faculty get paid. The attempt to blame the cost on the faculty is just another politically-motivated smear by people who hold grudges against the academy for failing to share their ideas of Proper Culture.