I wasn’t surprised to see my niece’s graduate school or my son’s undergraduate college on recent lists of most expensive U.S. campuses. A single year at both cost nearly as much as my first condo in Atlanta. However, I’ve been surprised how little students sometimes get for all that money.
At my son’s private college, popular and required classes fill so quickly that there are practically rugby scrums to elbow your way into them. He spends his first week of the semester racing to filled classes to see if a student has failed to show and the professor will grant him a seat.
My niece loves most of her academic classes at grad school, but found that some living legends of her department are only there because of reputation rather than teaching skills and put in minimal effort or appearances.
“Ultimately, the faculty are really what makes a school,” says Naomi Schaefer Riley, author of “The Faculty Lounges and Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Paid For.”
“They have the most long-term effect on campus atmosphere and student’s educational experience,” she says. “Students on campuses come and go, but faculty are there forever in many cases.”
In her book, Riley deconstructs the cause of such faculty longevity, taking on one of the most cherished perks of high education, tenure.
She asks whether the awarding of jobs for life, often as a result of a professor’s research and publication in rarefied journals, leads to some faculty staying too long at schools and doing too little of what ought to matter most — teaching.
Tenure, she contends, is dragging colleges away from their original and most important mission, and stifling the young, innovative professors, in addition to cheating students of the education they deserve.
She said she wanted readers to understand “why the 80-year-old professor who doesn’t return phone calls or e-mails is in a classroom at all and why all the junior professors trying to be the best teacher are instead encouraged by the terms of tenure to spend their time doing something other than teaching.”
Riley advocates replacing lifetime tenure with multi-year renewable contracts.
A former Wall Street Journal editor and the daughter of academics, Riley maintains that parents and students often overlook questions associated with faculty and tenure.
“When they visit schools, they are going to need to ask questions that ‘U.S. News & World Report’ doesn’t ask for their rankings,” she said.
(She also wishes families wouldn’t visit campuses in the summer. “That is pretty much just a waste of time,” said Riley, in a telephone interview this week.)
While students often ask about social life or dining hall food, it’s far more critical that they learn how accessible professors are, whether the university rewards teaching and what goes on in classes, said Riley.
Too often, high school seniors attend a 13-student constitutional law seminar while visiting a campus when they should be observing the 600-person Intro to Political Science class, she said. That constitutional law seminar may be four years away for incoming freshmen. The big lecture hall classes are in their immediate future.
Students assume that for $45,000 a year, “the college will give them the best education that they can. In principle I agree, but in reality it is not the case. You cannot be passive about this,” said Riley.
One of trends she explores in her book is the increasing reliance on adjunct professors to teach college classes. Contingent faculty without tenure, adjuncts are no longer limited to community colleges; non-tenure-track faculty have increased 36 percent since 1990.
While some adjuncts are professionals in their fields, many are academics unable to secure a full-time post, in part, argues Riley, because tenure keeps professors in jobs for life, even when they’re past their prime.
Confined to this netherworld where they travel from campus to campus, adjuncts sometimes only get a week’s notice that they’ll be teaching a class, said Riley.
Adjuncts may not have spaceto hold office hours, and have to dash after class to a campus across town, causing them to be less engaged with students than tenure-track faculty who don’t have to scramble to knit together a livelihood or worry about their next post.
(I have to note there are exceptions. My daughter — a University of Georgia graduate about to finish a master’s at Georgetown — says the most talented professor she ever had was Edward Burmila, a UGA “temporary assistant professor” which is a non-tenure track position, according to the university.)
Riley’s main advice to students is to demand more of professors and treat them as resources. “Make sure professors don’t hide in their offices. Too often, students don’t want to bother professors. Go bother them,” she said. “You are paying for this education. You don’t get a second chance at this.”
–from Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog