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Faulty Towers: The Crisis in Higher Education

Non-academic options

I also enjoyed the honest look at the future of graduate students, but felt that this article overlooks one key factor, which needs to be pushed much more to the fore in these types of analysis, especially regarding humanities programs. That factor is that no graduate student should have academia presented as their only career option in any field, and be treated as inferior for wanting a non-academic career. I am entering a PhD program in art history at a major university in the fall with little intention to ever teach (although I will prepare for all of my available options). I want to curate a museum collection, and my back-up plan is to start my own consulting firm (essentially a museum temping agency) to help small museums that cannot hire permanent staff. These are also not my only non-academic options, although I have little interest in the commercial arts industry. My field has always encouraged students to look beyond academia in search of jobs, and I think its time for other humanities fields to do the same.

Shelley Burian

Seymour, CT

May 23 2012 - 6:28pm

Faulty Towers: The Crisis in Higher Education

Shaky foundations

Members of the academic community will find more than a few home truths set forth in William Deresiewicz’s recent submission to the growing debate over the “crisis” of higher education in this country. Writing from a perspective of sympathy with the faculty and graduate students who do the substantive work of our colleges and universities, Deresiewicz relates a practical breakdown within the academy itself—graduate students with little hope of future employment, replacement of tenured faculty with a vast cohort of underpaid and exploited adjuncts, erosion of faculty governance within the institutions—to its cause in the administration of colleges and universities by means of the efficiency-centred business model that shapes the rest of the American economy. We need not adopt the stance of labor politics, as Deresiewicz does throughout his article, to recognize with painful clarity his portrait of a professionalized university administration. Their ends, which include the application of corporate analyses to academic life and the extension of non-academic departments (e.g., athletics and luxuriant student services), seem worlds apart from the goals of genuine learning. This crisis within the academy is coupled with broader public crises in higher education: ever-shrinking funding, cutbacks and the concomitant pressures on students from parents and politicians to serve practical, economic and scientific aims. Around these latter problems much of the current debate is swirling, and about them much has been written. It is with this state of affairs in mind that Deresiewicz concludes with the apparently radical proposal (even exhortation) to professors that the solution to this crisis must come from them, from within the academy itself.

But what is this response to be? What might tenured professors who, as Deresiewicz points out, enjoy the strongest speech protections in society, have to say for themselves? We suppose that perhaps more important than their plea for the fair treatment of academic “labor” (a plea that, after all, would not distinguish academic laborers from anyone else in the marketplace) will be the academy’s defense of what it does, its defense of education as such; and most particularly of the liberal education that, as Dereciewicz says, helps young people figure out “who they are and who they want to be.” A positive defense of liberal education is what seems most often to be lacking in the current debates. But isn’t such a defense the only truly solid foundation for higher education? So rarely does one hear any persuasive account of the liberal arts from our colleges and universities that one imagines that, for many readers, an attempt to give such an account might currently rank as genuine “news.” In any event, the embarrassing silence emboldens us to voice the following foundational argument for liberal education as the heart of learning and leadership in a free people.

Liberal education is about liberty. This means that, in some sense, the human soul and its powers of self-knowledge, self-criticism and self-bettering must be at the center of students’ studies. In liberal arts we help young people prepare imaginatively for the great events, private and public, yet to come in their lives; we help them correct for whatever is unprepared in them for their mature responsibilities and even their own happiness as adults. The presupposition of the liberal arts is that the human soul functions more effectively—more freely—when as it is released from the prejudices, the idols and the demons that beset all human beginnings. People think, feel, and act with fewer conflicts, they engage the world both more humbly and more confidently, if they have begun to gather their instincts and insights, together with the great themes of existence, into some kind of whole. Plato called these themes the “Ideas.” He taught that the soul flourishes when it is “led out” (painfully at first) into their light; that is, when it is “educated” (from Latin educare, to be brought up or out).

A simple sign of this flourishing is the young person’s developing a range of new distinctions and perceptions. These are not put into the soul, nor can they be. They flow from the discernment it learns to exercise by itself. A new faculty has been awakened: “reason” the ancients called it, in a broader sense of the term than that recognized by our utilitarian age. It is by the liberation of this reason that a soul acquires a rich world, a world that reflects both its free individual efforts and its informed participation in universal humanity. The educated soul will come to distinguish, for example, what is great from what is merely sensational; what is subtly artistic from what is formula or cliché; what constitutes a genuine insight and contribution from a predictable application of a creed.

Today many people complain that they find life meaningless, that their cities are alienating, that citizenship is usurped by oligarchy, that even their pleasures are unsatisfying. We live in an epidemic of psychiatric dysfunctions, requiring continual applications of therapy, self-help or pharmaceuticals. Materialism, hedonism, loveless sex, i.e. sheer unhappiness, are evident and even proclaimed as a way of life (read some of David Foster Wallace’s brilliant but disturbing essays for proof of that assertion). Pascal called our diversions in bad faith “divertissements.” They are symptoms of people who have lost joyful contact with the objects that are truly worth pursuing, people who have lost touch with the real, the source from which healthy souls draw positive energy in endless supply.

Not that mere contact with great art or genius automatically makes people better human beings, although even that does make them feel temporarily purified. But the great secret of the soul (known to countless writers from Plato and Aristotle to Austen and Melville) is the power of “capitalizing” on our first, superficial contacts with genius. In the play of opposite values that characterizes all human existence—good/evil; beautiful/ugly; knowledge/opinion; activity/passivity—the positive pole of the spectrum comes to exert, with sufficient guidance and time, a preponderant attractive power upon our whole being, by a sort of second nature in us. This is a universal fact. All human life is in need of elevation, some ordering of the chaos, even if it is an escape from reality into the most artificially induced illusions. Human existence is oriented toward the beautiful. This fact about the human soul—its love of higher “illusions” (which are often symbols of yet unrealized possibilities)—is itself no illusion and is therefore of the greatest significance. Liberal education builds on this fact, by supplying the soul with the strongest, the longest tested, and the most inspiring spiritual trellises for its upward growth. This is why liberal education originally took as its task, not to submerge young people in the specialized interests of scholars or to dazzle them with novel techniques, but to introduce them first-hand to classical and contemporary wisdom about the good life: the examined life, the habits of which will support them whatever their future brings.

All this is to try to identify the inner substance of Deresiewicz’s remarks when he says that liberal education creates citizens who “think broadly and critically about themselves and the world,” and—closer to the nerve—when he says that it helps young people discover “who they are and who they want to be” (see Salvatore Scibona’s recent testimony about how his self-discovery was indebted to learning to read “book-books,” i.e. the truly original ones). For liberal arts are the path of self-knowledge, in the universal human sense, in the problematic cultural sense, and in the individual psychological sense of the term. But self-knowledge is not like knowledge of objects. It does not follow infallible procedures and yield quantifiable results; it is not a product on an industrial assembly line. It is the art of cultivating the soul’s essential powers, helping it recognize what is objectively best in it, what is worthy there of choice and respect. If liberal education of the soul ceases to exist, then we shall find ourselves re-inventing it. Or rather, trying to re-invent it; that is, badly and when it is too late.

William Deresiewicz’s allusion to the British sitcom Fawlty Towers to describe the current crisis in American higher education is unfortunately too apt. What made that B&B so dysfunctional, more than the working conditions, was the lack of true vocation and vision in the personnel from the top down.

We are tutors at St. John’s College.

John Cornell and Judith Adam

Sante Fe, NM

Jun 18 2011 - 11:16am

Faulty Towers: The Crisis in Higher Education


Here are some thoughts I have been formulating regarding the situation of universities and the deplorable career outlook for young scientists/academics:

1) Put an annual limit on the amount of total federal grant dollars that one person (principal investigator) can be given for research (this would not include small business, education and other types of grants). This would allow more grants to be funded, which would benefit younger scientists—give us a toe in the door by spreading the funding a little wider. It would also incentivize institutions to hire more scientists (especially more independent ones who can apply for funding) and also incentivize scientists to pursue private funding as well as commercialization (entrepreneurism?) of products resulting from their discoveries.

2) Expand the number and size of common core facilities for various research needs (analytical chemistry cores, sequencing cores, animal facility cores, etc.) and the number of stable career staff scientists positions (“permanent” with benefits)—but have them report not to an individual PI or faculty boss but to the department as an institutional resource (not the property of an individual PI).

3) Make the identity submitter of grant proposals and manuscripts unknown to the reviewers and decision makers as much as possible.

4) Create/fund a much wider variety of permanent/stable staff scientist career track positions at institutions geared toward PhDs—particularly for core research service facilities (which should be expanded greatly).

5) End the system of tenure for faculty, it’s a concept whose time has come and went.

6) Mandate twice-per-year surveys for trainees (students and postdocs) paid on grants to be sent directly from the agency to the trainee and directly back to the institution. These should focus on career outlooks, career services provided at the institution, human resources grievances/complaints, and especially (the bulk of the survey) should focus on the quaity of mentoring they are getting. Mentoring scores should be utilized to evaluate future grants in which a PI requests funding for trainees.

7) Mandate that all institutions eligible for federal funding allow postdocs (and possibly graduate students) to be sole principal investigators on grants which they write if they choose.

8) Forbid the hiring of scientists/researchers/faculty based on marital status. This practice is nepotism: it is deplorable, without merit, greatly reduces innovation and productivity in science and probably also violates equal opportunity laws—certainly in spirit if not in letter.

9) Remove “trainee” (student and postdoc) salaries/stipends from research grants and make them all competitive fellowships, or (but this second one has some problems) give the money to institutions to pay student stipends with so that individual professors do not do the hiring or control the trainee’s employment/salary/benefits directly.

10) Fund “innovation incubators” for postdocs (but with independent researcher titles) to work in common labspace, no offices, and using core facilities to pursue our research without a faculty boss. These researchers could do a lot with such limited resources, as long as we have independence. We could pursue our own funding and even stay in those positions if we don’t feel the need to seek higher titles—just remain productive in that job indefinitely. Those of us who want a larger lab of our own can use the position to create preliminary data and apply for grants to do it—either to “earn” more lab space at the same institution or apply for positions at other institutions.

11) Limit the number of employees that an individual faculty scientists (or “permanent” scientists in federal agencies and national labs) lab can have—limit on grad students, postdocs, and technicians. Possibly only limit trainees (grad students and postdocs). This will allow faculty scientists to actually focus more on science and less on administration of large laboratory empires. Often the lab bosses are disconnected from much of the research going on in the largest labs. This causes an awkward situation whereby the independent scientist (postdoc, etc.) who conceived and conducted the research must add the boss to a senior position on the grant or publication artificially, thus making it impossible to distinguish whose ideas they were and who did the work, further exacerbating the difficulty for the employee to get their own independent position and lab. This situation has a severely negative impact on the innovation per dollar of federal funding.

12) Removing “trainee” (student and postdoc) funding from grants and put it into competitive fellowships, giving students and postdocs more autonomy and control over their “training” (I can’t say I’ve ever personally seen a postdoc be trained by a professor).

13: Forbid institutions from having directors of centers or institutes or other high-ranking administrative posts also have labs with trainees working in them. At least I would make all administrators ineligible for federal research and training funding. I have seen students in labs “run” by center directors and such flounder too much while their “mentor” is nowhere to be found for months at a time or longer—while they go take care of those aspects of their career that “pay the bills” and for which there is accountability, whereas there is no accountability for mentorship.

14) Remove “trainee” positions (postdoc and student) from federal agencies (USDA, NIH, etc.) and National Laboratories. These institutions (and I have a letter from an official at NIH describing this) do not have training as part of their mission. Thus, since there’s no obligation for their bosses to provide training, trainees shouldn’t be there lest they subject themselves to being used as a temporary cheap pair of hands.

15) Regarding “university” athletic corporations: I propose one of two options. (1) Since anyone else who brings money into the university is charged about 50 percent of the value of that money (grants, money from inventions, etc.) for overhead, the athletic corporations (often not actually part of the university) should at least be charged the same amount of their revenue; (2) allow for complete privatization of the athletic corporations—create a professional league of private teams that sponsor schools (and even allow students to play on them if they wish). That would remove the BS facade that they are legitimately part of the university’s mission and financially connected to the university (often they are separate entities that simply have just enough of a one-sided-benefit connection to parasitize the university). This would more importantly allow the athletic corporation to bring in much more money and also allow the university to charge a lot more for branding rights and rights to say they sponsor the school. It would also incentivize the stadiums and other facilities to move away from the campuses, creating much less of a distraction for those of us who are simply not interested.


Aaron T. Dossey, PhD

Gainesville, FL

Jun 12 2011 - 2:32pm

Faulty Towers: The Crisis in Higher Education

Big-time intercollegiate athletics is a big-time money-losing proposition

Contrary to what is stated in the letter by Darin Zimmerman, the author's comments about intercollegiate athletics are right on the money. By using the University of Iowa as an example, Mr. Zimmerman is citing the exception. The fact is that Iowa is one of only seven out of the 120 Football Bowl Subdivision schools whose intercollegiate athletics programs generated enough revenue to consistently cover expenses in each of the past five years, according to the NCAA financial reports collected by USA Today. For the most recent single year for which figures are readily available (2009), only fourteen schools had intercollegiate athletics programs in the black, and the median of the net annual deficits of the other programs exceeded $11 million.

Prof. Brian Barsky

University of California, Berkeley

May 24 2011 - 8:44pm

Faulty Towers: The Crisis in Higher Education

Correcting the record for UC Berkeley

This essay asserts that “the University of California, Berkeley, the third-ranked research institution on the planet…is having trouble attracting graduate students.” This is demonstrably untrue.

Mr. Deresiewicz, and The Nation, should not shirk the obligation to substantiate such a sweeping claim. Opinion pieces may be subject to lower standards of fact-checking, but publishing egregious misrepresentation is irresponsible and damaging to the reputations of all involved.

Applications to graduate programs at UC Berkeley have increased 45 percent from 2001 to 2010 (with roughly fourteen applicants for each space available). More than half of all those admitted enroll, despite holding offers from multiple competitor schools, many of them elite private universities. Financial support to these students has not decreased; in fact, our campus’s support of graduate students has been steadily rising, bolstered by philanthropy and robust research funding.

Berkeley’s students continue to be among the most qualified and most promising of any. Our graduate students receive the most prestigious portable fellowships at rates that, in most cases, surpass those at any other university. For example, Berkeley has been the top-choice school for recipients of the prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships over the past decade.

The University of California—widely considered the best public university system in the world—is adapting to unprecedented state budget cuts. At Berkeley, this means increasing private philanthropy, streamlining administration, and directing maximal resources to our core mission of teaching, research and public service. The most outstanding students (and faculty) continue to choose Berkeley as an unmatched environment for learning and discovery. Our campus attracts a concentration of global talent that tackles the pressing questions of our day in order to offer solutions to the myriad crises our society faces.

Thank you for this opportunity to correct the record.

Andrew J. Szeri, Dean of the Graduate Division, University of California, Berkeley

Berkeley, CA

May 20 2011 - 12:20pm

Faulty Towers: The Crisis in Higher Education

Devil’s bargain

Your argument is convincingly stated and one certainly doesn’t need to be a professor to be in complete agreement with your following paragraph, since in America we still find a few things to be self-evident):

“What we have in academia, in other words, is a microcosm of the American economy as a whole: a self-enriching aristocracy, a swelling and increasingly immiserated proletariat and a shrinking middle class. The same devil’s bargain stabilizes the system: the middle, or at least the upper middle, the tenured professoriate, is allowed to retain its prerogatives—its comfortable compensation packages, its workplace autonomy and its job security—in return for acquiescing to the exploitation of the bottom by the top, and indirectly, the betrayal of the future of the entire enterprise.”

One could, however, substitute the word “academia” above with “medicine,” “government,” “business,” “law” or a host of other fields of endeavor. Perhaps, there is a reason why it took so many thousands of years for our civilization to develop a highly entrenched feudal system compared to how quickly it was torn down. Or was it torn down? Maybe we can get a future professor to connect the dots for us before it’s too late. Or maybe not.

Nicely stated, sir.

R.E. Keeperman

Stony Point, NY

May 19 2011 - 7:47am

Faulty Towers: The Crisis in Higher Education

Creating and maintaining an underclass

My wife is a tenured full professor and we can both attest to the veracity of Professor Deresiewicz’s assessment of academia. It is criminal what our society is doing to education in general and higher education particularly. Where is our political leadership on this topic? Why are Democrats caving to Republican demands for tax cuts when they should be making the case for why we must raise taxes to create a future for our society? Why doesn’t Obama lead on this? He surely knows from personal experience the value of a true higher education.

The destruction of the University of California system (where my wife got her PhD) began with Ronald Reagan, who hated the student movement on campus during the Vietnam war. Prior to Reagan’s term as governor the University had no tuition; he instituted tuition as a barrier to keep out the poor. Tuition has now become as high as at private universities.

Republicans have been universally against universal education. How can you have a low-wage underclass if you keep educating them?

This problem, however, is just one component in what has become the destruction of our democratic system. With the Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court, our representatives can now be directly elected by industry. And industry has the same objective as Reagan; a large, low-wage underclass to feed the military-industrial complex its cannon fodder and sweat-shop employees. Our time as the nation to be looked up to in the world is coming to a close.

Al Fisher

Saint Paul, MN

May 16 2011 - 10:38pm

Faulty Towers: The Crisis in Higher Education

Thank you very much

...for pinpointing the current scenario of higher education. Although it does not give me much hope, it gives me a perspective and reassurance that I am not crazy and not the only one who thinks that way.

Sushma Naithani

Corvallis, OR

May 13 2011 - 1:04am

Faulty Towers: The Crisis in Higher Education

Sports funding isn't the problem...

I found the article very interesting. I also found the comments of letter-writer Ira Lewin spot on.

I dropped out of grad school in math after one year because I got engaged (really—my GPA was 3.33 my first year). I got a “real” job in the insurance industry and spent the next six years studying and achieving my professional designation (Fellow in the Society of Actuaries) while working full time. Today I am very generously compensated (higher than what the author thinks university presidents should earn) and I don’t have to endure the insufferable, sanctimonious politics of 90 percent of academics.

The comment the author made that struck me as dead wrong was this one: “Coaching staffs and salaries have grown without limit; athletic departments are virtually separate colleges within universities now, competing (successfully) with academics.” Competing? They sure as hell aren’t competing for the same students/athletes. So perhaps the author believes they are competing for resources, but nothing could be further from the truth. Generally, a school’s football, and sometimes basketball team, pays for all the other sports, and contributes positive cash flow to the school. If one considers the impact of alumni donations, this is doubly true. Professor may like to wallow in self-pity decrying the resources athletics rob them of, but the economic truth doesn’t support this fantasy. (Ask Sasha Waters Freyer how much of the $75 million U of IA spent on their new stadium/press box came from the University’s budget. Answer, zero.)

Speaking of economics, the author didn’t mention this area of academic scholarship once in his article. For that matter, he didn’t mention the economically curious fact that college tuition inflation has grown at double-digit rates for a couple of decades now. This is not economically sustainable. The efficiency of offering courses makes this statement all the more true. And the only solution the author can offer is the need to subsidize instructor pay so as to drive out the adjunct professors who will teach for a lot less. (I know several former actuaries who became adjunct professors in business around the time of retirement. It pays about $20 an hour, for guys who were making $200 at the end of their career, because it’s fun and they don’t need the money.)

Maybe I’m too cynical, but it seems to me that the academics who run higher education have… enjoyed? having the qualification for entry into the academy resemble the qualification rituals for entry into the priesthood. This (temporary) vow of poverty makes sure only the most ideologically pure ever gain admittance to the ivory towers. For all the talk of celebrating diversity, the ideological homogeneity of the academy is appallingly strict. It is this blinkered view of the world that will be higher education’s undoing.

Darin Zimmerman

Cedar Rapids, IA

May 11 2011 - 6:54pm

Faulty Towers: The Crisis in Higher Education

Too many post-grads

I left academia (again) at the end of this academic year because I no longer believe in its primary goal of vocational training. I earned a PhD in English literature in 2002 from a private university. I was considered “brilliant“ by my dissertation director, but my knowledge was so specialized as to be useless outside of academia. I realized this dismal fact only upon graduation and knew that I would never have the emotional will to produce the intellectual drivel that English departments prize for t-t jobs. I taught at a community college full-time, left that job because of relocation, and then have been teaching part-time at a public, four-year university.

In order to begin to stabilize this listing ship, humanities departments (like English departments), in which a growing number of graduates (both MAs and PhDs) are getting merely contingent positions, need to make the hard decision to shut down their own graduate programs and end the cruel glut of graduates who either don’t get t-t jobs or who fill the ranks of non t-t jobs. Eventually, if graduate programs stop producing surplus labor to aggrandize themselves, then the system could absorb, with living wages, etc., the labor/products/graduates it has already produced.

The second step is both to return to the principles of higher education—advanced knowledge in all areas of learning—and to consider carefully the current curriculum within these areas of learning.

Pierrette Stukes, PhD

Boone, NC

May 11 2011 - 11:07am

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