Rot at Potemkin U.

Max Borders Editor, The Freeman
Font Size:

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill recently had to discipline a professor after The Charlotte Observer reported that the professor didn’t teach a summer school course he was paid $12,000 to teach. The 19 students who enrolled in the course were to learn about North Carolina’s legacy of racism and slavery. According to The Observer:

[Professor] Nyang’oro did not hold classes or require any exams. His one-page syllabus said that because of the “compact nature” of the summer schedule, the students would spend that time largely on their own to find one or two black leaders in North Carolina to be the subject of a research paper due at the end of the session.

After the paper reported on the incident, UNC conducted an investigation. Among the findings: Nyang’oro may have pulled this stunt as many as 45 times over a four-year period from 2007 to 2011. Why didn’t the university figure this out before a newspaper reported on it?

The UNC incident may seem isolated, but if we started pulling the lid off U.S. higher ed, we’d find more of this sort of rot. For example, buried in the same piece we learn that the money Nyang’oro was paid for teaching summer school courses was in addition to his annual salary, which reached $171,000 last year before falling to $159,000 (not including benefits) after he stepped down as chairman of UNC’s African Studies Department.

$159,000. Let that sink in for a moment.

Our overpaid professoriate

Apart from the professor’s fraudulent switcheroo, why are taxpayers being asked to pay all these academics’ six-figure salaries? Tar Heels are not alone. Our overpaid professoriate is a national problem — a massive, entrenched interest group.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that the average U.S. associate professor earns $114,100. Full professors earn $197,800 (2011-12). Note that full professors often have tenure, which means they are nearly impossible to fire. Tenured professors normally also work less and publish less than untenured professors. It’s the kind of seniority-based system you’d only find in the oldest old-boy network.

How much do they teach? The Pope Center for Higher Education Policy found North Carolina faculty aren’t overworked in the seminar hall: “We discovered that teaching loads are a lot less than the figure cited by UNC. Our high measure yielded 2.68 classes per professor per semester system-wide, while our low measure yielded only 2.03 classes per semester.”

Why are university faculty earning so much and working so little? Universities will argue they have to attract and retain the brightest faculty to stay competitive. And it is true that under normal labor market conditions some faculty might be able to command such high salaries. But most university pay schedules are exorbitant and unsustainable. If state governments are looking for places to cut, there are worse places than within the ivory tower.

A parasitic system

If you’re courageous enough to point out any of this, you’ll be attacked. Jeff Sandefer, a former professor and a critic of the University of Texas system, was quoted in The Austin American-Statesman:

“Most of the rewards in the profession go to writing narrowly focused academic research articles that few read, the vast majority of which would never, and I want to stress never, be supported by the market,” he said, “And the whole corrupt enterprise survives parasitically only by siphoning vast amounts of tuition and cross subsidization unbeknownst to parents, students and taxpayers.”

I’ve not heard a better assessment of the status quo in higher ed.

Yet Sandefer set off a firestorm in Texas when he proposed modest reforms to the state system. He suggested, for example, that research budgets be more transparent and faculty be made more accountable. He also recommended that faculty be required to teach more and better. Is this so much to ask of people getting nearly $200,000 per year?

The University of Texas’s immune system kicked in once the institutional parasites saw that Governor Rick Perry had begun taking Sandefer’s recommendations seriously. It’s not clear that much has changed, though. Academia is a cross between a guild and a cartel. It has built-in forces that shield it from any reasonable reform — including an army of intellectuals trained to shriek at even modest suggestions of change. Indeed, when it comes to reforming this bloated behemoth, educators are ironically conservative.

The firing of Naomi Schaefer Riley

To get an idea of just how bad things are among the intellectual priest class, The Chronicle of Higher Education recently fired Naomi Schaefer Riley — a writer and commentator. The readership — a veritable academic lynch mob — didn’t like Riley’s criticizing of some of what passes for scholarship in the academy today. In this case it was the sacred cow of “black studies.” Riley writes:

If ever there were a case for eliminating the discipline, the Chronicle sidebar explaining some of the dissertations being offered by the best and the brightest of black-studies graduate students has made it. What a collection of left-wing victimization claptrap. The best that can be said of these topics is that they’re so irrelevant no one will ever look at them.

Of course there was more, which you can read here. Suffice it to say Riley’s critique tracks closely with Sandefer’s when taken in broad strokes. Both question the value of many higher education products — which are paid for overwhelmingly by people with no say in the matter. Both, as it happens, have been pilloried for speaking truth to power.

The point is not so much whether Riley’s assessment of that kind of scholarship is right. It is rather that such scholarship exists thanks to a system that rewards either obscurantism or indoctrination — neither of which the average taxpayer would readily support. (But then again, academic elites don’t think very highly of voters’ opinions — despite all the yammering about democracy and social justice.)

The professoriate will protect its guild of goodies with all the fierceness of fire ants atop a hive. Much of what academia produces is sheer waste — and that includes woefully underprepared graduating classes with loads of debt. Anyone courageous enough to go after the bloated research budgets or cartel salaries will find a legion of eggheads that is as well-organized and well-funded as the teamsters.

Academia as subsidized cartel

Academia is one big, over-subsidized cartel. Here are five ways this cartel stays propped up:

  • Federal and state (taxpayer) subsidies to both public and private institutions allow those institutions to escape market discipline. A lack of transparency allows these schools to hide from political accountability as well.
  • Subsidized student loans mean that students can defer the costs of education into the indefinite future. These socially acceptable educational credit cards have no limit. Party now, pay later. The cartel makes out like a bandit.
  • Alumni are dazzled by sports teams and school spirit. They don’t look at the rot but look instead at the bread and circuses. Alumni throw money at university boondoggles out of some misguided sense of allegiance, rather than any sound cost-benefit analysis.
  • A system of accreditation raises barriers to entry for educational competitors. He who confers the degrees has the cartel power. (Without a degree you won’t be attractive in the job market.) The power to award a degree is restricted, which is naturally anti-competitive.
  • Most Americans labor under the notion that a degree is the best way to signal competence. Until we shed the notion that a college degree makes people fit for the labor market, we will continue to prop up the higher-ed cartel with our 529 plans and student loans.

The supplicants in this guild-cartel aren’t about to admit they benefit from it to such a questionable degree. Because none of what they do is subjected to the discipline of the market, they can simply anoint themselves as being important enough, smart enough and valuable enough to receive all they do.

The end of the academy?

But the jig may soon be up. A perfect storm of student loan debt defaults, low-cost competition online and innovations that could help people signal competence without a degree may help bring the academy down — or at least back down to earth.

Max Borders is author of “Superwealth: Why we should stop worrying about the gap between rich and poor” (coming in fall 2012). He is a 2011-12 Robert Novak fellow.