Video: Naomi Schaefer Riley on Colleges in the Prestige (Not Teaching) Business

Naomi Schaefer Riley joined Inside Academia this week to discuss her new book, The Faculty Lounges: And Other Reasons Why You Won't Get the College Education You Paid For, which advocates the end of tenure and takes other controversial stances on hot topics in higher education. NAS president Peter Wood reviewed her book here.


 Key Take-Aways

  • 1:15 – Lining the bird cage: A mismatch with what you’re buying vs. what you’re getting (1 min 45 sec)
  • 3:50 – The declining reputation of the credential – will the bubble pop? (1 min 10 sec)
  • 5:00 – If nothing else, you (supposedly) learn diligence & persistence, for the low-low price of $40k-$50k. (1 min 5 sec)
  • 7:00 – Colleges are in the prestige business (derived from research), not the teaching business.(2 min)
  • 9:20 – Get rid of tenure, but how should you reward the profession of teaching? (2 min 30 sec)
  • 12:35 – Would conservative scholars be the first to go if tenure was gone? (2min 15 sec)
  • 15:30 – Would unionization help college teaching become better or make it worse? (1 min, 15 sec)

Andy’s Show Notes:

Mrs. Naomi Riley hits on a very key point that most people don’t like to think about – college “is a transaction in which most of the buyers and most of the sellers have fundamentally different understandings of the product.”  With her ‘newspaper’ analogy, in which she says consumers are using the paper to line their bird cages while the producers are trying to produce better content, a conflict arises when the producers raise the price to publish better articles but provide you thinner paper.  The analogy with college, particularly today’s mass higher ed, is that the masses are seeking mere credentialization, a ticket for a good middle-class life, not intellectual enrichment.  In describing this at the John W. Pope Center’s conference in May 2011, another panelist, Claudia Dreifus, co-author of Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids – And What We Can Do About It, lamented her own anecdotes of parents being paraded around on a tour at Columbia never inquiring about classes or academics, but instead only asking “where’s the gym or how far is the parking lot.”

On the surface the analogy is valid, but in and of itself it may understate the severity of the problem.  As we seem to adopt more of a consumerist approach to higher ed, many institutions are moving toward the “give them what they want” approach of education, despite the fact that, as Riley quotes Stanley Fish, “they (students) don’t know what they don’t know”.  Countless institutions, while inheriting ever greater numbers of students unprepared for college, have also abandoned or watered down core-curriculum, de facto relaxed writing standards, have allowed grade inflation, and have incentivized their faculty with research and publication instead of teaching.  The often described “Student-Teacher Nonaggression Pact” is quite alive and well, where increasing numbers of junior (and even tenured) faculty worry about student evaluations, while many students paying growing sums of tuition are quite content with doing the bare minimum (a marker sliding the wrong way) to get by and get the degree.  It’s no wonder many professors may not even want the burden of teaching.

Mrs. Riley notes herself that even for students seeking real education and more than a mere credential, there still exists a mismatch since their institutions focus on research.  She noted a 2005 study in the Chronicle of Higher Ed showing that for each additional hour of teaching as opposed to doing research the average professor was getting paid less.

And even within the realm of research, there is a serious problem in the humanities and social sciences.  Not only are there endless obscure arcana of little or no use, but even within traditional areas of the study of Western Civ such as Shakespeare, of which she is an avid reader, Riley questions whether we need our tax and tuition dollars going to college professors doing more trivial research for journal articles that no one reads, as opposed to spending more time in the class with students.

One of the main themes of Riley’s argument is tenure.  She identifies it as a static system of promotion for a finite quantity of publications, but it does not evaluate the dynamic profession of ongoing teaching.  It hasn’t achieved the protection of unpopular views as aspiring academics keep their heads down for 2 decades before finally getting tenured, and thereby nor has it granted the intellectual diversity it promised.  And if the elimination of tenure means that the minority of conservative or traditionalist academics may be the first to go, then so be it, as it will certainly take out more of the large body of the liberal professoriate.  The entire overhaul of education requires a new system of incentivizing professors to really teach and engage with their students (which would bring about a true intellectual pluralism); and as Claudia Dreifus put it, “put the school back in school”.  However unlike Dr. Dreifus, Riley argues that unionization of faculty would do more harm than good, as per K-12 education.

How should higher education reincentivize teaching?  Find out in our interview with Naomi Schaefer Riley on Inside Academia.

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