– September 15, 2019
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A dear friend of mine sent me the following lamentations some months ago and wondered where s/he/it/they could publish it anonymously (hence the pronouns … I also jiggered some of the details because tenure, like the old gray mare, ain’t what she used to be).

It just dawned on me to publish it here by framing it. The piece is absolutely heartbreaking, but, I fear, all too true:

***

Don’t Publish; Curry Favor

I write to warn graduate students not to publish too much, too early. They should instead cultivate close relationships with people with the power to hire them.

In short, they should kiss butt, not kick it.

I wish somebody had given me this advice when coming up in the 1980s. My advisers told me to publish as much as possible because someday, somebody would be compelled to hire me. Well, I now have a c.v. longer in pages than years since my birth but am stuck in a dead end job in a declining undergraduate college in the US South that I’ve given up trying to escape.

In one way, I can’t complain because I know of many others in worse situations. But none have anything like my publication and teaching record. It’s not easy being a six sigma in a world that values median players.

I have often wondered what possibly goes through the minds of search committee members who decide not to even interview me. All I can figure is they are afraid that if hired I’ll “raise the bar” of administrators’ expectations. If that is indeed the case, they selfishly think of themselves instead of their students, all cliches about putting students’ interests first aside.

Ideologically-driven decisions are made too. Search committee members have told me as much privately. I use words and concepts many committee members construe as “conservative,” which of course is the kiss of death in the vast majority of searches. The irony is that my views are more radical than just about everyone else’s but faculty are too conventional in their own thought to see it.

The bigger problem is that by not valuing intellectual diversity, my home discipline rendered itself a one-trick pony. Currently, it is under attack and could very well become functionally extinct because at this point it lacks the expertise at the R1 level to reform itself. Its major professional association has essentially capitulated, telling ABDs to look for jobs in loosely-related fields that have not yet rendered themselves useless pariah.

Most ABDs and newly-minted Ph.D.s do not want to leave the field they just spent 4, 5, 6 years to master, though, so they will continue to hunt for increasingly scarce jobs as long as they can afford to do so. I just hope they do not waste their time like I did creating quality scholarship. Instead, they need to grovel and ingratiate, to learn to laud the work of Professor Bigshot, no matter how crappy it is. Kissing butt is not a waste of time, it is perfect training for learning how properly to suck up to deans and provosts, i.e., for gaining tenure and promotion.

Particularly eager job seekers in contentious fields of study might consider setting up several different anonymous Twitter accounts, one that supports School of Thought X and one that supports School of Thought Y and then sharing the appropriate Twitter handle at a crucial moment to win that interview or job. Yes, claiming to believe x and ~x at the same time is highly unethical but competitors are doing it already. Those caught can always claim that some trauma suffered in childhood made them do it. Those most deserving of appointment will anticipate getting caught and plant hints about the trauma beforehand in their tweets to enhance the credibility of their excuses.

But why stop there? Top candidates should donate money to departments where they want to work, even if it means skipping a few meals or living in a tent instead of an apartment. The best candidates will be spending all their waking hours in the library anyway, conducting research on the psychology of ingratiation if they are smart.

I’m only half in jest. When hundreds and even thousands apply for the same job, and there is no accountability to anyone for the hiring decisions made, every little bit of butt kissing counts. Universities do not accept bids, even “best bids” where the bid price and the quality of applicant are considered jointly. That means that only quality counts but when most of the applicants present objectively similar qualifications, and the most highly qualified are rejected for selfish reasons, on what rational basis can hiring decisions be made?

Universities could randomly select from a pool of qualified candidates, but they don’t. They claim to look for the best “fit.” But what does fit mean? Trust me, I learned from experience that critiquing the research of potential colleagues doesn’t work. Instead of thinking, “hey, this person is right and can help me, and by extension our students,” they just get all pissy and don’t hire you.

So don’t kick butt and end up a loser like me, learn to pucker up. It’s a lot easier than working harder and smarter, outdated notions that would only serve to increase higher education’s quality while decreasing its cost. Who wants that? No hiring committee, that is for sure!

***

My friend’s letter captures the essential reason why higher education today provides students with relatively low value, i.e., high cost for the minimal skills created: many colleges and universities reward conformity instead of productivity, and collegiality over competition.

Universities treat professorships, even sometimes endowed ones, like patronage plums to be doled out to favorites instead of like construction projects that should go to the best bidder.

Universities are not meritocratic because most of them are not owned by anybody. (For profit universities face a different set of problems that I analyze in the Third Rock from the Sun chapter of Fubarnomics.) They are either government bureaucracies (oy!) or non-profits run by trustees, who usually turn over quotidian control to administrators who generally don’t want to rock the boat when things are going well. When the going gets rough, many administrators seek a quick win and new employment at a bigger, better, or at least more solid school.

If government, for-profit, and non-profit universities all face serious incentive problems, what are we to do besides throw up our hands in despair and hope for the best? I’ve suggested, but to my knowledge no one has yet tried, organizing a university as a professional partnership, like a law firm or a business consultancy.

Professors would be invited into partnership instead of tenured and their retirement and other compensation would be based on the long run success of their schools’ students, not on union negotiations, partisan budget deals, or the success or failure of athletic teams.

Partnerships have strong incentives to hire and promote based on productivity, not favoritism, and to invest in building durable, long-term business strategies that will enable students to achieve their career goals.

Who dares to join my productive friend and those like him/her/it/them in professional partnership? Higher education has nothing to lose but its increasingly inefficient chains.

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Robert E. Wright

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Robert E. Wright is the Nef Family Chair of Political Economy at Augustana University in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He is the author of 18 books, including a new book on financial exclusion published by AIER.

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