From the President: Why Is US Higher Education in Decline?

By Rudy Fichtenbaum

A recent Harvard Business Review blog post by James Wetherbe, “It’s Time for Tenure to Lose Tenure,” is one of many recent attacks on tenure. The general theme of the article is that tenure raises costs at colleges and universities. But before beginning this line of argument, Wetherbe states that US higher education is in decline, implying that the decline must be related to tenure. In particular, he argues that US universities have lost ground in science and engineering. The evidence of this decline? US professors are publishing a smaller percentage of science and engineering articles and are receiving a smaller percentage of article citations.

A quick search in the science citations database on the topic of relativity produced 24,302 results. The article with the most citations was “Two-Dimensional Gas of Massless Dirac Fermions in Gaphene,” by K. Novoselov, A. Geim, and S. Morozov. It has been cited 5,811 times in eight years. Down the list at number ten, with 752 citations, was another article, “The Basics of General Relativity Theory,” published in 1916 by A. Einstein. You do not need a PhD in physics to figure out which of the two articles is more important, citations notwithstanding.

That US-based scholars are publishing a smaller percentage of the articles in science and engineering is not evidence of decline. Using that logic, one might conclude that when Bill Gates walks out of a bar, because the average level of wealth of the remaining patrons declines dramatically, poverty has increased. Likewise, there is certainly no link between tenure and the alleged decline in US science and engineering scholarship. Perhaps the supposed decline can be explained by something as simple as growth in science and engineering scholarship in the various emerging nations around the world!

So what is wrong with tenure? Wetherbe’s first argument is that tenure locks in big costs. As evidence he cites an estimate by a professor of religion that colleges tie up between $10 and $12 million in endowment funds to support a single tenured professor over his or her career. However, if we examine an “unremarkable commuter school in Ohio” with approximately 382 tenured faculty members and use the lower of the two cited estimates, we would conclude that this institution would need an endowment of $3.8 billion just to support its tenured faculty. Having been a professor at this institution for more than thirty-three years, I can assure you that we have managed to muddle through with less than $300 million in investments between the university and its foundation.

Wetherbe cites a 2010 study by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP) that states, “With a tenure system, colleges are not able to reduce the number of medieval history professors in order to increase the number of information technology and business professors.” Now there is a surefire way to save money: get rid of a senior medieval history professor making $87,000 a year and hire an assistant professor of information technology starting at $112,500.

In another recent argument, Richard Vedder, the director of the CCAP, states that “tenured faculty have acquired low teaching loads to pursue trivial research published in journals no one reads, forcing administrators to hire cheap adjuncts who often do a fine job teaching at much lower cost.” So tenured faculty have forced administrators to reduce their teaching loads and hire more adjuncts. Really!

The claim that teaching loads for tenured faculty have decreased is based on a study published by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni and Education Sector, Selling Students Short: Declining Teaching Loads at Colleges and Universities. This study was covered extensively in the higher education press when it was released. However, the study was later retracted because it was “based on incorrect information . . . and the trend cannot be interpreted as reported.” Alas, when the retraction was covered at all, it was back-page news.

The reason for rising costs is administrative bloat. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal on this topic stated, “The number of employees hired by colleges and universities to manage or administer people, programs and regulations increased 50% faster than the number of instructors between 2001 and 2011.” What is driving costs is the metastasizing army of highly paid administrators and the deputies and assistants they inevitably require, led by university presidents who are now paid as though they were CEOs running businesses.

The sad truth is that US higher education is in decline. But this decline has nothing do with tenure. Instead, it is rooted in the corporatization of higher education and systematic disinvestment that are transforming higher education into a private good.