A Reponse to “The Nutty Professors”

My colleague Richard Senghas, an anthropologist at Sonoma State University, sent me this email in regard to the New Yorker article mentioned by Kerim last week. His take on Grafton’s “The Nutty Professors” is rather less forgiving than Kerim’s, but I think he makes some very important points that are worth considering, so I asked him if I could post it here. The text is slightly edited to remove the “emaily” parts (and he’s approved the changes).

It’s hard to find this New Yorker piece amusing when at our California State University we’re in the middle of some so-far unsuccessful contract negotiations. Given that the CSU system is the largest post-secondary system in the world, it’s hard to imagine that the timing of the New Yorker piece is entirely accidental, and it is certainly unfortunate. The expired CSU contract has already been extended by more than a year (and negotiations started more than a year before the contract expired), and still no movement. After reaching what has been formally declared as an impasse, it’s now gone to arbitration, although from early indications, we’ll end up with imposed conditions. Yesterday, the California Faculty Association passed a resolution to call for a vote on authorization for job actions, up to and including system-wide strikes.

In contrast to “The Nutty Professors” where universities are described as trying to hire “charismatic” faculty, as far as I can see the desire of the CSU is to chase away anyone wanting job security or rewards for doing anything intellectual, and in their place hire short-term, temporary help who can be let go as soon as they get good enough and aware enough and needed enough to require being paid a decent wage. The money now increasingly goes to “charismatic” corporate executives (and yes, they do carry official titles now of CEO, Chief Academic Officer, vice president of this and that) who are paid multiples of what the faculty earn.

We have thousands of hard working and under-appreciated professors in the CSU system who don’t seem to match the portrait painted in the article, but who, by being blamed as coddled stars of the sort portrayed in this piece, are being penalized unfairly. These folks are teaching 12-unit/semester loads or more, carrying a lot of other tasks, increasingly pressured to publish frequently to get tenure or promoted, and their salaries have been dropping in real terms for quite some time. Most can’t qualify to buy homes in their areas because salaries are so low, some can’t even afford to rent decent housing in their areas.

And I must say, having been on quite a few hiring committees at Sonoma State University for both tenure track and temporary faculty (and even a vice-provost search), I’ve not seen the type of hiring practices described in the article. We looked not just at resumes and CVs (what the article dismissed as “gossip”) but also at the published research written by the candidates themselves that make the short lists.

“The Nutty Professors” seems to trivialize a rather serious situation. To me, this piece isn’t amusing; it’s dangerous. It allows a critical, socially-central, unmet need — publicly accessible higher education in a democracy supposedly founded upon informed participation– to be marginalized and ignored as merely sandbox squabblings of privileged elites. It perpetuates false impressions that are then used by voters and legislators to justify counter-productive policy and budget decisions.

However, it does need to be read. Know Thine Enemy.

One thought on “A Reponse to “The Nutty Professors”

  1. Thanks for posting this. I’ve become increasingly despondant as a new professor in the CSU living in precisely those conditions described above. Even at elite research universities, it’s only a minority of professors who are treated as Stars. The New Yorker article is a gross distortion of the realities of higher education outside of those star-struck institutions. For the rest of us, especially in the CSU, we’re working 60 hour weeks to teach twice the credit load and try to keep up in our fields and publish solid research and serve on committees and participate in activities making the university worth going to, all while living in a walk-in closet and paying off student loans.

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