Transforming Education.

Retiring University of Illinois Professor Thanks Taxpayers for “Cushy Life”

Professor David Rubinstein last week penned a scathing indictment of modern academia. The portrait painted: an unaccountable system that “squeez[es] taxpayers,” where the golden carrot of tenure too often creates twisted incentives.

From Rubinstein’s Weekly Standard article:

The grandest prize of all is, of course, tenure. The tenured live in a different world than ordinary mortals, a world in which fears of unemployment are banished, futures can be confidently planned, and retirement is secure.

Some use the word “tenured” as a pejorative, but I disagree. I’ve taught for over twenty years, first at a traditional research university and later at a radically different graduate school, and at both places I’ve had the good fortune to meet some incredible teachers.

What separates the great teachers from the poor ones aren’t labels like “tenured” and “non-tenured” or “researcher” and “non-researcher,” but whether the faculty member had a deep respect for his or her students. In fact, I have even more respect for a tenured researcher who loves teaching students—that person has likely made great personal sacrifices in the name of students. (To be fair, in his article Rubinstein, too, vigorously endorses these types of teachers.)

Having said this, I do think the effect of tenure—whether originally justified or not—and the lure of research prestige have had a corrosive effect on the soul of the university. Being a great teacher of students just isn’t as highly valued as it should be, and while this is a closely guarded secret from alumni, donors, and parents, it’s increasingly acknowledged inside the academy, especially by those teachers and researchers who do most of the teaching.

Just take the bitter and personal response that Rubinstein drew from two former supervisors, for instance. (And read Rubinstein’s riposte here).

Do faculty work hard enough? That’s really not a helpful question. The better question is: Is the traditional university system doing a great job serving students, or is it instead spending too much of its time and budget serving the tenured faculty?

If the answer is the latter, then let’s not blame the players, but a broken compensation system that does a poor job of rewarding the best teachers.

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