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Alma Mater, Bursa Pater

The purpose of the University is simple.  It is to further the careers of academicians.

For administrators, this means graduating as many people in lucrative fields as possible, so they can donate generously to the endowment as alumni.  This is mutually beneficial, since a large endowment enhances the reputation of the university, and, by reflection, that of its graduates, all the while assuring princely salaries for top administrators.

To achieve a similar impact in less lucrative fields, for example, in the humanities, requires significantly larger numbers of graduates, since each one will be able to contribute significantly less to the endowment.  This, in turn, is reflected in the salaries of the faculty.  By far, the largest salaries are generally paid to faculty in the professional schools: Medicine, law, and even that johnny-come-lately, business.  Funds for educational programs in the various schools are distributed in similar proportions.  Literature, history, and other such poorly remunerated fields suffer accordingly; a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy, since these graduates are more likely to find work in the university system which trained them, where they will get paid relatively little.  This is especially true in these times, when such faculty are increasingly part time, at truly pathetic salaries with no benefits.

For faculty, career advancement requires an entirely different set of principles.  The motive here is to ensure a slow, but steady supply of young colleagues who will not upend years of pronouncements by established faculty.  This is accomplished in two ways.

The first is to act as gate keepers.  Faculty hiring committees sift through applications for open positions, discarding obviously unqualified candidates, then sparring over how to rank the rest.  This usually breaks down along adherence to schools of thought within the discipline; factions, in other words.  Structuralists will want other structuralists, post-modernists will want more of their kind, and so on.  Almost no one will favor applicants whose work calls into question any of the prevailing factions in the department.  There is some honor among academics, after all.  In this way, serene advancement through a career is ensured without problematic disagreement, except along acceptable factional lines.  The process is disturbingly similar to the way acolytes move up through religious ranks.

The second way is similar; it works through the peer review system for publication of papers.  For professors, advancement occurs through just one avenue: publication in peer reviewed journals.  I don’t think I need to go into detail on the difficulties of publishing a serious objection to accepted dogma, when that publication depends on favorable reviews by the very people who have built their reputations on that dogma.

It’s worth noting the increasing trend to circumvent this entire process by hiring only “adjunct” faculty, a process wryly called “adjunctivitis.”  Adjuncts are hired as part time employees, or as contractors, thereby absolving the institution of any requirements for minimum compensation, especially with regard to health insurance, retirement , and so on.  They are usually hired en masse to teach the large lower-level courses established faculty find so tiring.  This is obviously beneficial for administrators, as it frees up much more money for their own bloated salaries, but many short-sighted faculty also fall into line as well.  Adjunct faculty are no threat to the established faculty, because, in spite of technically being part-time, they are forced to teach so many courses to make ends meet, that they have no time left for the kind of research that leads to publication and career enhancement.  I say short-sighted, because this will inevitably lead to further erosion of prestige for university faculty in general, affecting the upper echelons as well as the lowest.  Of course, some, at the end of their relatively lucrative careers and ready for retirement, hardly care.

The wily reader will have noticed that at no point was the welfare of students, or the contribution to knowledge brought up.  Let me just remind you that we have spent the last few decades selling higher education exclusively as the gateway to lucrative jobs.  The inescapable conclusion is that it is the paper, not the process, which has any true value.

Surprise!  Welcome to our brave new world.

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